Black Panther Review

Marvel Studios has been on somewhat of a hot streak as of late. In 2017, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnorak all grossed over $800 million at the box office. Thor and Spider-man both had over 90% fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, with Guardians being over 80% fresh. Despite the critical and commercial success, Marvel has been associated with using a derivative formula.  Complex narratives and serious drama are not a topic of conversation. Cinemagoers usually expect a fun, joke-filled, low-stakes comedy-action film with competent direction and acting. It is rare for a Marvel film to break this mold. Thankfully Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, is a breathtakingly dramatic, wonderfully acted and directed, and thematically rich film that stands out among the 18 MCU movies. It is a film that dares to take itself seriously where other Marvel films have embraced the camp.

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Where Black Panther truly succeeds is in its ability to be self-contained. There are very few references to the larger Marvel universe, and the film begins by delving right into the Black Panther lore. The opening fifteen minutes are immersive, the beautiful culture and landscape of Wakanda feel established and lived-in. It’s obvious that the architects behind the movie put a lot of effort into crafting an authentic representation of African culture in a technological landscape. The vibrant scenery reflects the vibrant characters. Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther is as captivating as ever. He builds upon the taste of his performance that was given in Captain America: Civil War. Alongside T’Challa are several other great side characters played by great actors. A few standouts include T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, T’Challa’s ex and a Wakandan spy, Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, and the general of the elite Wakandan bodyguard known as the Dora Milaje, Okoye, played by Danai Gurira. The full cast of Wakandan’s includes esteemed actors such as Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Daniel Kaluya. Winston Duke is particularly stellar as M’Baku, the powerful leader of the Jabari people, and Martin Freeman returns to the role of Everett Ross to provide some levity.

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Left to Right: Zuri (Forest Whitaker), Wakabi (Daniel Kaluya), Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challah/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright)

Black-Panther-Trailer-Breakdown-4The music is another excellent aspect of the film. It features a unique composition of cinematic score and contemporary soundtrack. Ludwig Göransson’s African rhythms and Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop beats blend into the film’s sequences and don’t intrude upon the important moments. The film knows when to use the contemporary soundtrack and when to use the cinematic score. The costume design features bright complementary colors and rich patterns without having off-putting or outlandish designs.

Black_Panther_Wakanda_TravelCoogler’s style of direction leaves little to the imagination, as breathtaking shots of sweeping landscapes and cityscapes are prominently displayed throughout the film. The overhead shots and upward tilts highlight the true scope of Wakanda’s advanced world. Where the consistency stops is during the action scenes. The first action sequence takes place at night and features jerky camera movements and bright machine gun flashes that detract from the fighting. The second action sequence features intense cuts and effective tracking shots. The rest of the action in the film is either bright and well-choreographed or dimly lit and jumpy. Black Panther also lacks the same physical prowess and swiftness that he had in Civil War. It doesn’t help that the special effects, at some times, can be very distracting and even lackluster. A few of the digital backgrounds are not fully rendered and can look fake. The CGI in some of the action scenes make the characters’ movements seem uncanny and clearly computerized. Some of the visually stunning camerawork can be hampered by the poor background effects. However, it is possible that Marvel Studios could be saving their budget for the extravagant bonanza that is Avengers: Infinity War. Aside from the unsatisfactory CGI, the visual and auditory elements of Black Panther are fantastic. Coogler has developed a fully fleshed-out world that has its own distinctive aesthetic.

As for the narrative, the subtle but socially relevant commentary and the Shakespearean levels of family drama and tragedy elevate the film above the average superhero movie. There is humor, but it is natural and not overused. The story is serious, and intent on making an actual statement. The true heart of the conflict is in the ethical dilemmas facing T’Challa. As an advanced nation with vastly superior resources, Wakanda has the capacity to dramatically affect the world. It can provide aid to other countries, bring in refugees, and do it all better than any other country ever could. The tradition that previous Black Panthers have followed is to hide Wakanda from the rest of the world, preserving its culture and sheltering its people. The choice that T’Challa has is to either take initiative and help the world or prioritize his own people above others. If T’Challa reveals Wakanda, it could result in the endangerment of his people and the potential loss of cultural identity. If T’Challa stands firm with tradition, then the world will continue to struggle and vulnerable populations would remain vulnerable. The film does provide an answer, and it relates to the message of globalization and the need for humanity to stand together as one group of people rather than a series of divided tribes. T’Challa has to make the hard choices and adapt as a leader. He acknowledges the sins of the past and makes new developments that even go against tradition. Every film has its derivative moments though, and Black Panther is no different. It occasionally follows a few story beats from other superhero films, and the superhero clichés relating to the hero’s journey are akin to what you would see in The Dark Knight Rises or an episode of Arrow.

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Michael B. Jordan as Eric Killmonger

The best part of the film by far, is its villains, specifically Michael B. Jordan as Eric Killmonger. While Ulysses Klaue is deliciously maniacal as a villain and actor Andy Serkis steals every scene he is in, he is not a major motivator of the plot. Eric Killmonger, on the other hand, is central to the plot and his entire story parallels T’Challa’s. Moreover, much of the story is about what happened to Killmonger and why he is the way he is. Killmonger is identifiable and garners a lot of sympathy. He is a monster born out of his environment and his own family tragedy. The circumstances of Killmonger’s upbringing qualify his views. His motives can actually be seen as reasonable; his viewpoint even makes sense. Only through his ruthless methods can he be identified as the villain, and again, his actions are only a result of the hand he’s been dealt. Killmonger was an outcast, not born in the privileged wealth of Wakanda. Because of this, he doesn’t identify with Wakanda, but instead with the marginalized black communities of the world that exists outside of Wakanda. He sees the world as a chaotic nightmare that Wakanda has turned its back on, and only by taking aggressive action can Wakanda right the wrongs of ignoring the rest of the marginalized communities in the world. Michael B. Jordan brings an intensity and gravitas to the role that rivals some of the best comic book villain performances ever. He can play the sympathetic victim and then turn on a dime to become an intimidating and coldblooded monster with a pure intent to kill in his eyes. Killmonger has a commanding presence on screen, and his brilliance as a villain is also accentuated by how effective he is in causing problems and outmaneuvering the heroes. He’s a great villain because he thinks he is the hero of the story.

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Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Shuri (Letitia Wright)
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Left: Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, leading the Dora Milaje

While the overall plot structure isn’t radically different from other superhero movies, Black Panther takes a few unexpected turns in how it manages to resolve its story. It isn’t over-reliant on the hero. It isn’t just on T’Challa to save Wakanda, it’s on his friends too. Okoye, Nakia, Shuri, and others are all superheroes in their own way as they fight together against the enemy. They are all the warriors of Wakanda, dedicated to protecting their king and country. Chadwick Boseman shines, but it is an ensemble film with an ensemble cast. Everyone brings their all to their roles.

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Ultimately, Black Panther is a film about culture. It questions whether cultural identity should be preserved and protected to the point of hostility, or whether peoples all over the world should unite under a banner of shared experience and humanity. The dynamic realm of Wakanda represents the ever-changing landscape of a globalizing world. Black Panther is important, not only because it features diversity and representation on new levels that haven’t been seen in major blockbuster films, but also because it’s a very good film with socially relevant themes. It has a focus; it tries to evoke thought from the audience. It builds and takes its time with the story, it features some of the best performances in any superhero films, and it does this all while being a part of a shared cinematic universe that’s about talking raccoons and Norse gods fighting against a giant purple alien with a power glove. It is a refreshing change of pace for a franchise that is becoming derivative in recent memory.

4.5/5 

Miniblog: The Cloverfield Paradox Spoiler Review

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Before I go into the review, I want to say that I didn’t see the ad for The Cloverfield Paradox during the Super Bowl.  I watched the trailer afterward on YouTube and only then saw the big marketing ploy: it was airing that very night on Netflix. The last Cloverfield movie, Ten Cloverfield Lane, was advertised maybe a month or a few weeks before its theatrical release. The Cloverfield movies have had unique marketing campaigns that draw attention to the strange concepts and seemingly different genres of each film. In this case, the marketing campaign succeeded again. I was totally surprised when I saw the release date and immediately wanted to watch it. It was Sunday night though and I had class in the morning, so I watched it Monday and…
The Cloverfield Paradox is an otherwise straightforward isolated space thriller with interesting elements of mystery and visual appeal, however, in regards to its story, characters, and the answers to questions it sets up, it simply falls flat.
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Let’s start with the fact that we don’t get any interaction or development for the majority of the crew members. The only identifying feature is that they come from different nations. Given the incredibly talented cast including Daniel Bruhl and David Oyelowo, it’s unfortunate that a film with such good performances provided such little detail to its characters. The only character with a backstory is the protagonist, Ava Hamilton, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I know that in typical space thrillers the crew ends up dying anyway, but at least one moment of comradery between them establishes that what is happening to them is tragic. In Alien the crew is laughing and joking around right before the alien rips out of Kane’s chest. In this movie, the crew members are at each other’s throats in the very first interaction they have on-screen.

 

Once the story gets going and the crew fires a particle accelerator, it’s obvious when we see a flash from the earth that the will be transferred to a different dimension. This leads me to my second point about the film, it’s incredibly predictable. The fact that they were transported to an alternate Earth was predictable, the fact that the gyro compass was inside the Russian character was predictable, the fact that Elizabeth Debicki’s character (the one from the alternate Earth) had sinister intentions was predictable, and the fact the Cloverfield monster had ended up on their Earth as a result of the firing was predictable. Elements of the film come out of nowhere, the plot point of the main character’s children burning down in a fire because of her decisions is expositioned out towards the end of the film for dramatic effect. The entire sub plot with the main character’s husband where he finds a little girl is entirely pointless and boring. The sci-fi elements, once they get going, are interesting enough. There are exploding bodies full of worms, sentient hands, and gruesome mutilations. However, none of these incidents are ever explained, they are simply chalked up to “quantum entanglement”, the two worlds are messing with each other because they are close. That doesn’t explain how an arm can just gain sentience and start writing instructions, or someone could collapse and die then explode worms. Once the movie ends with the giant Cloverfield monster attacking the ship, there is no context to the situation. Is it the same Cloverfield monster from New York but grown up? Is this the same world as Ten Cloverfield Lane with the alien mothership? None of this is explained, and the ending just feels tacked on for thrills.

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As a film, it has narrative problems and its characters are thin. As a space thriller it has enjoyable moments and pretty good visual effects. It contains some sci-fi movie clichés like the dumb scientists, in this case the comic relief character is so enamored by an incident of magnetic interference that he stares at it and lets the metal material he was using behind him swallow him up. Elements of the film are very derivative of other sci-fi films like Alien, Life, and Event Horizon (although really all of these films derive from Alien).

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It is definitely the weakest of the Cloverfield movies but I enjoyed watching it. Maybe I’m just desperate for semi-decent science fiction films by major studios, a topic that will be explored in an upcoming blog.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Spoiler Heavy!!!!) A Lesson in Moral Complexity

 

 

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Mildred Hayes, played by Francis McDormand, standing with the billboards

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Martin McDonagh’s latest home run film. It follows up the masterpiece that is In Bruges by deftly blending dark comedy and dark drama. Featuring one of the most outstanding ensemble casts in recent memory, Three Billboards educates the viewer on how hate can affect one’s life.

The story follows Mildred Hayes, a mother who is dead-set on finding the men who raped and killed her daughter, Angela Hayes. To rile up attention for the case, which has gone on for seven months, Mildred rents three billboards on an unfrequented road and prints the messages: “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”, “And Still No Arrests?”, and “Raped While Dying”. The billboards serve as powerful iconography, especially since they’re really all the information we have about what happened to Mildred’s daughter. We never see the violent act of her death actually happen, and her presence is rarely felt throughout the film. McDonagh conveys the horrific nature of the crime through the ominous presence of the billboards. The camera pans out of order to show the first billboard “Raped While Dying” last in order to create a bigger shock value amongst the audience. Though the boards aren’t very high or very large, they are first seen through low angle shots which gives them a monumental perspective. The backgrounds of the boards are bright red with black text, which are not only eye-catching but also splash the film early with the color of blood. And so, the limited information combined with a showcase of how determined she is to find her daughter’s killer creates an immediate understanding and sympathy for Mildred. Despite all of the harsh or misguided actions she carries out in the film, there is always an element of forgiveness at play for the audience in knowing her pain and suffering. In fact, pain and suffering are factors associated with many of the characters in the film.

 

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Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby has a conversation with Mildred

 

The billboards draw negative attention toward Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, who is a respected officer within the community. Willoughby happens to also be dying of cancer. His relationship with Mildred isn’t antagonistic, and the viewer is made aware that he hasn’t been intentionally neglecting the case, however, Mildred is unflinching in her decision to keep the billboards. In a conversation with Willoughby, Mildred claims that all the men in the country should be put in a database and investigated whenever they’ve committed a crime. It’s clearly preposterous, yet you understand that Mildred wants to see more action from the police department. Her position stands unaltered even with Willoughby’s condition in consideration. To add another piece to the puzzle, Willoughby’s fellow officer, Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, is an apparent racist and all-around douchebag. He consistently tries to find ways to pressure Mildred into taking down the billboards. The first half of the film serves as an effective look at conflict where both sides have sympathy. There is sympathy for Mildred, played wonderfully by Francis McDormand, as she stands her ground on her daughter’s case. There is also sympathy for Chief Willoughby, who is conscious that his time with his wife and kids is dwindling. Woody Harrelson captures the pain, compassion, and love that embodies Chief Willoughby. In fact, as he appears to be the only one of the three central characters living without hate, his role transitions from an active character to more of an arbiter of wisdom. In a shocking twist, Chief Willoughby shoots himself in the head after spending one last day with his wife and children. In a letter, he explains that he would rather avoid his family having to see him slowly suffer and wither away in a hospital bed. His suicide is advocated by him as an act of bravery, and it shifts the film’s focus towards the redemption arc of Sam Rockwell’s character.

 

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Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, confronts Mildred

 

Upon Willoughby’s death, Dixon initially reacts by senselessly beating Red Welby-who rented Mildred the billboards-and throwing him out of a window. When Dixon gets fired for his actions by the new chief, his character seems to be headed towards a downward spiral of potential villainy. When the billboards are burned down, he seems to be a likely suspect. However, when Mildred retaliates by burning down the police station with, Dixon unbeknownst to her, still inside, it creates a symbolic moment where Dixon reads a letter from Willoughby while oblivious of the fires burning behind him. Willoughby’s letter urges him to let go of his anger and the pain in his past and instead work towards becoming a good police officer. When Dixon plunges through the flames with Angela Hayes’s case file, it’s as if the singes and burns on his body become a literal embodiment of his bad self, which he will always carry with him. In one of the best moments of the film, Dixon ends up in the same hospital room as Red Welby, the same guy he threw out of a window. He apologizes, and in a poignant scene, the initially upset Welby pours a glass of orange juice for Dixon, providing him with a token of forgiveness. From then on, Dixon tracks down a suspected rapist, gets beaten within an inch of his life in order to get the suspect’s DNA, and notifies Mildred that the suspect may be “the guy”.  When word comes in that the suspect, though a rapist, is not the same man as Angela’s killer, Mildred assures Dixon that the hope that he had given her was more than she had had in a month. She concludes that it was better to have that feeling of hope-however fleeting it is-than have nothing. The efforts that Dixon had made to find her daughter’s killer were the kind of efforts that she wanted out of the police. In the film’s resolution, when Dixon and Mildred decide to go after the confirmed racist, they debate whether it is worth it to take his life and ultimately agree to decide on the way to confront him.

 

The film ends ambiguously as to whether Dixon and Mildred decide to kill the rapist. In the end, it’s not about justice, or vengeance, or even finding the killer. It’s not even a story about learning to let go of hate and embrace love.  It’s learning to live with hate, learning to temper it and not let it consume you. Mildred will always carry hate in her heart, what happened to her daughter will always stay with her and keep the coals burning in the furnace of her heart. She’s unhinged, aggressive, and a danger to everyone around her. Dixon is still that racist asshole, just a more focused asshole, with a clear perspective on his goals of being a detective. Feelings of racism don’t just magically go away. Neither of them are heroes, neither of them are villains. They simply have more clarity in their goals, they are aware of their hatred, aware that they will always carry it with them. They’ve developed moral codes. Keep in mind, moral codes don’t necessarily mean righteous codes, they mean codes that a character follows and doesn’t break, good or bad. Their codes are also still developing much like everyone’s are, as they haven’t decided whether to take the life of the scapegoat racist. Even characters like Willoughby aren’t necessarily martyrs, since the act of suicide is generally considered a coward’s way out rather than the brave act that Willoughby feels it is.

 

The morals of each character are identified by the actions they undertake in the film: Willoughby’s suicide, Mildred’s arson, Dixon’s “redemption” (All Oscar-worthy performances by the way). Each character no matter how small has a moment of sympathy or relatability. Red Welby, played by Caleb Landry Jones has his moment when he hands Dixon the orange juice, and Peter Dinklage has a small surprise role as James, a car salesman attracted to Mildred. When Mildred botches the dinner with James, he goes into a rant of how he knows his position as a dwarf and how he’ll never be a “huge catch”, yet his stature and demeanor still outshine Mildred’s rage and foul temperament. Three Billboards, like In Bruges, is a character study. It doesn’t focus on finding mysteries or on Mildred finding inner peace. Three Billboards is about the effect of an unforgettable tragedy, and one mother’s response to that tragedy, on the lives of our characters. The story teaches that people are not perfect, and no matter how righteous the cause or effort, everyone has a point of darkness in their heart, or a different perspective that goes against the generally expected code of society. Even after being burnt down, the billboards are put up again. They stand just as the hatred in Mildred’s heart still stands.

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Director Martin McDonagh

 

When asked by Variety about the character of Dixon, McDonagh claims, “At the end he’s still the asshole he was at the start of the film, but hopefully by the end of it he’s seen that he needs to change. But the film isn’t about simple heroes and villains, and in no way does he become a hero in it. Part of the whole idea of the story is, ‘Who are the heroes and who are the villains and is anyone really that heroic?’ I wanted to explore the idea of a strong woman going against the police in the South, and I think the racial angle is one of the weapons she would throw at them. But the idea that there’s hope in a story like this, even with characters as despicable as Sam’s, I thought that was an interesting thing to explore.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kong: Skull Island-What Makes A Better Movie, Visual Elements or Literary Elements?

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I just saw Kong: Skull Island, a very entertaining and interesting movie. The action scenes are on point. The visual style is attention-grabbing and the cinematography is splendid. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does an admirable job of recreating the 70’s Vietnam Era aesthetic, and he exceeds in his ability to depict human characters in sweeping long shots that indicate their vulnerability. However, where the visual elements of the film soar, the literary elements fall flat. The characters are almost nonexistent, the narrative is kind of all over the place and the dialogue is just TERRIBLE in some scenes. Now, keep in mind, this is a monster movie. We came to see King Kong fight a bunch of dinosaurs and attack some soldiers, so why should the film’s success be measured by a good story and characters? Furthermore, is a film with superior visuals, sound, and direction a better film; or is a film with superior writing, story, and characters better?

To go back to Kong, the story is straightforward, a team of scientists and soldiers go to Skull Island, damage the ecosystem, get attacked by Kong, and have to survive a rough landscape of monsters and dinosaurs. The characters are either one dimensional like Samuel L Jackson (a hardened veteran), Tom Hiddleston(a generic badass), and Brie Larson(a photographer…that’s basically all there is to her character); or the characters are plot points used to move along the story like John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, and Cory Hawkins. By the way, I’m using the actors’ names because of course, I don’t remember any of the names of the characters. I’m even good with names so it’s not like I wasn’t trying (I know literally every character’s name in Game of Thrones just try me).  In fact, what happens with these characters is something that I wrote about recently where the actors are so good they make you think the characters are better than they are. When John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson are talking to each other, the dialogue isn’t good, there’s little insight into their characters, yet it still sounds intense. That’s because the actors are intense, and they can make terrible dialogue like “I am the cavalry” sound somewhat plausible. If you just look at the cast for the film: Brie Larson recently won an Oscar, John Goodman should win an Oscar, and Samuel L Jackson is…well, Samuel L Jackson. These are all amazing actors, and the only reason I wasn’t falling asleep watching these characters is because of who they were played by.

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But again, we don’t need the characters to be Shakespearean good, it’s a monster movie, so why be overly critical? Well, just because a film’s purpose is to scare people with monsters, it doesn’t mean it’s a good movie even if it succeeds in its purpose. I’d like to compare this film to the 2005 Peter Jackson directed King Kong movie. In my opinion, Jackson made a better film, with a better story. You actually cared about Kong as the film did its best to establish a true connection between Kong and the female lead. However, to the film’s detriment, the third act isn’t as good as the rest of the movie and it often becomes too slow and sappy. The action is good, but the film tends to drag and is overly long. With Kong: Skull Island, the action is unrelenting. It seems like every few minutes there’s a new scary creature leaping out at its victims. The story is barebones but the pace is intense and focuses on the visual creativity and scope of the creatures rather than the struggles of the characters. Kong is an unstoppable, overpowered death machine and it’s awesome. Rather than get bogged down in the third act, we get treated to an awesome action scene between Kong and a giant dinosaur-lizard thing. With the Peter Jackson Kong movie, you have a thoughtful, more character driven film that wants to shed light on the gentle nature of the giant ape. With the new movie, you have a pretty straightforward monster movie with epic action scenes.

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So what does make a better film? Is it the visual elements, or the literary elements (story and screenwriting, etc.)? I think it varies from person to person. If you’re like me, and you can’t appreciate a film as much if it doesn’t have a strong narrative and well-written relatable characters, then you probably swing more towards literary elements defining films. If you’re more interested in the art and the crafting of a scene, the cinematography, the visual effects, the music, the production design (I love all these elements too, don’t get me wrong), but you might then define a film through that lens rather than overanalyzing the story and narrative. This would also apply to Kong: Skull Island, which I wouldn’t even consider a bad film. I would consider Kong an ok film from a story point-of-view and a very enjoyable one from a visual point of view. The purpose of many films is to entertain, and if that is the case, then Kong: Skull Island passes with flying colors. If you as an audience member are looking for something more in a monster movie, I would suggest looking elsewhere; but for all you monster movie lovers, Kong: Skull Island is another good addition to the pantheon of monster films, and I can’t wait for this version of Kong to fight Godzilla.

MiniBlog: Good Character or Good Actor?

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One of the interesting aspects of film that I’ve noticed recently is that although good writing and good acting are two very different things, it is possible for good acting to overshadow good writing. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie and think to myself, were the characters good or was the acting just good enough to make the characters seem good? There are a few examples of this happening, the most recent being Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnorak. In the movie, Blanchett plays the main villain Hela, Thor’s evil older sister. Though Hela has been regarded as one of the more deliciously evil Marvel villains, when you really think about the development of the character, Hela falls flat as a compelling villain. Very little is established about the importance of her familial relationship to Thor, yes she does bring up the subject every now and then, but at the end of the day, she’s just another bad guy for Thor to defeat. There’s no bargaining, no internal conflict, Thor isn’t affected in any way by their relationship as siblings. She’s also given very little background and is simply depicted as the evil sister that likes war and wants to conquer things. What makes the role compelling in any way is Blanchett’s performance. She portrays Hela as a war monger that delights in the death and destruction that she leaves in her wake. If her character isn’t well developed, it is at least a joy to watch, and that may lead people to believe that it makes her a good villain. If the actor on the screen portraying the character is compelling, it doesn’t automatically make the character compelling though it may seem that way.

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Some other examples lie in many Christopher Nolan movies. Nolan, being a very big picture, narrative-driven, overarching story and plot kind of filmmaker, doesn’t spend too much time developing his characters. The story around the main characters often propels them towards much more interesting character moments. In films like Interstellar and Inception, the characters themselves are often simplistic and understated. In fact, both Interstellar and Inception deal with a single dad trying to pull off a near-impossible mission and get back to their kids. What makes us connect with Nolan’s characters are the actors that he hires to play them. In Inception, Cobb may not be as interesting a character if it weren’t for powerhouse actor Leonardo DiCaprio playing him. The philosophical lines and speeches spouted by the characters wouldn’t be as appealing if it weren’t Gary Oldman or Morgan Freeman executing them with pure eloquence. Now, not to say that Nolan or his screenwriters write bad dialogue or characters, they simply do not develop them as strongly as say Martin Scorsese’s The Departed or Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. Take a look at these films again and really consider the depth of these characters. What do you know about them? What can you say about them in the end? I think you’ll find that the importance of the performance plays a big part in how we perceive characters, and in some cases, an underwritten character can be highlighted and improved by a great actor.

 

The Disaster Artist Review (Spoilers!): An Unconventional Inspiration

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The Disaster Artist, directed by James Franco is a funny, dramatic, and oddly inspiring film about the legend behind the greatest worst movie of all time. It manages to strike a balance between an objective retelling of one individual’s crazy life while also managing to be relatable. Based on the making of the 2003 film, The Room, The Disaster Artist follows Greg Sestero, a young actor, as he meets the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau, played brilliantly by James Franco himself, is a cornucopia of mystery. Though he claims to be from New Orleans, he is very clearly of European descent; though he appears to be in his 20’s during the making of the film, he is clearly at least in his 40’s; and to top it all off, he has a “bottomless pit” of cash which was used to fund The Room ($6 million estimated) though no one knows how he got it.

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The film begins with Greg, played by Dave Franco, meeting Tommy at a comedy class where the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Greg asks to “do a scene” with Tommy, leading to a particularly memorable diner scene where Greg shares his fear of getting laughed at by audiences. Tommy bursts Greg’s bubble by having the two of them shout lines from a play in front of the customers in the diner. It’s a hilarious moment that also highlights the necessity to be bold and forthright. Tommy even tells Greg, “Don’t worry about these people! There only you and there only me! “.

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Eventually, Greg moves to Los Angeles with Tommy and they both start their acting careers, which unfortunately doesn’t go well for them. Tommy has a particularly hard time when he confronts a Hollywood producer played by Judd Apatow. The genius of Franco’s performance is that Tommy is portrayed as both sympathetic and unhinged. He acts brazenly and loud in front of the producer, however, you still feel for him when he is insulted and told he will never be successful. When Greg and Tommy decide to make their own movie, it comes off as a statement of resolve and perseverance. Despite what everyone tells Tommy, his determination to express his weird creative persona to the world overpowers the Hollywood system that is rejecting him, and he wouldn’t have been able to do it had he not had Greg along to motivate him. As an audience member, you truly understand the shift in Tommy’s life as he goes from isolated weirdo to aspiring artist with Greg at his side. It should strike a chord with any ambitious artists when Tommy is writing the script for The Room. Despite the fact that you know the end result will be terrible, you can see the determination and hope as he partakes in the creative process.

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Once the filming of The Room begins, the film adjusts to a more objective, behind the scenes, point-of-view second act. It’s clear that Tommy truly doesn’t know what he is doing as he makes ridiculous and costly decisions like shooting the movie in both digital and film, installing his own director’s bathroom on the set, and even recreating a fake alleyway set right next to an actual alleyway in order to have “real Hollywood movie”. Not only is he shown as irresponsible, he is also neurotic and downright vicious at times. He films the cast members secretly and tells the actress playing the female lead role of Lisa that her body is “disgusting”. There are fights with the cast, people passing out from heat exhaustion because Tommy doesn’t pay for A/C, and Greg being forced to pass on career building roles. Eventually, Tommy fires everyone and hires a low budget crew which leads to a falling out between Tommy and Greg. This entire second act reveals a different side of Tommy as the sociopathic, ill-mannered director. You still understand that he is ignorant of the true nature of his actions. You know that he has good intentions yet you are horrified at his behavior. Though this should conflict with the film’s overall message of following your dreams no matter what, it somehow works as a necessary observation on the struggles of trying to execute your vision to perfection, which is yet another part of the creative process.

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The film’s final act culminates in the premiere of The Room at Los Angeles’s Laemmle Theatre. Greg reluctantly agrees to go with Tommy and they arrive in a white limo, greeted by the film’s cast and crew. The reenacted scenes of The Room are uncanny, even though they have been recreated by the new actors, a few scenes feel as if they’ve come straight from the DVD of the original. It’s also heartbreaking to see Tommy realize that everyone is laughing at the film rather than praising it as the dramatic masterpiece that he sees. We get another poignant moment when he leaves the theatre and is convinced by Greg that despite the fact that people didn’t see what he saw in the film, there is no doubt that they have found enjoyment in it and that Tommy has accomplished his goal of making his own movie. The epilogue of the movie describes the continued partnership of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero and the perpetual success of The Room since its inception.

 

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HOLLYWOOD, CA – NOVEMBER 12: Tommy Wiseau attends the screening of “The Disaster Artist” at AFI FEST 2017 Presented By Audi at TCL Chinese Theatre on November 12, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

One of the main reasons The Disaster Artist works so well as a biographical comedy is the simplicity of its message. Everyone has probably heard the motivational phrases: always following your dreams, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. The way The Disaster Artist stands out from the rest of the pack is by showing you a real-life example of how these lessons allowed a socially maladjusted person like Tommy Wiseau to become a world-renowned icon. It’s an unconventional story, but you can see how Wiseau was fearless in his pursuit of his goal. The absurdity of Tommy and Greg’s success ignites a spark of hope in all who view this film as a reminder that no matter how bad or how good your own creative ideas are, if you are willing to go the distance and put yourself out there, there is always a chance that your vision will catch on and offer something unique to the world even if the world doesn’t see your vision the same way you do.

 

 

Star Wars: The Power of Nostalgia

I’m going to describe a movie to you, and I want you to guess which movie I’m talking about.

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a small group of freedom fighters is desperately trying to run away from a tyrannical galactic regime. One of the insurgents is able to stow away vital information containing some kind of schematic inside a droid. The droid escapes and the insurgent is captured and tortured by a helmet-wearing dark overlord. The droid somehow ends up on a desert planet and encounters an opportunistic youth. The youth and the droid meet a self-interested rogue, an older mentor figure with knowledge of the force, and Chewbacca. Together, they all escape the desert planet on the Millennium Falcon and confront a giant planet-destroying superweapon/enemy base. There, the evil lord confronts the old mentor and kills him without much struggle, the giant base is blown up by X-wings, and the young protagonist is truly connected to the force for the first time.

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So was I describing the original Star Wars: A New Hope? Or Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Before you answer that, I want to give a little background:

Since the return of the Star Wars movies with the new trilogy, both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have made record-breaking debuts, each grossing over $200 million in their opening domestic weekends. They’ve also had much critical success with both films being over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. With a sudden resurgence in Star Wars, a new generation of kids are growing up with the legends of Jedi and Sith, and old fans are once again embracing their fandom. Star Wars, is officially a success on all levels again after the divisive prequels. So how is it that Disney has managed to satisfy both hardcore old fans and new ones? The answer is…nostalgia. Nostalgia is an interesting little element of pop culture that has seeped its way into the film industry and is now a studio’s most powerful tool for making big bucks. The two highest grossing films in the past five years have been Jurassic World, and The Force Awakens, both sequels made long after their previous films. Jurassic World, harkening back to the 1993 Jurassic Park, features a bunch of dinosaurs running wild after failing to be contained in a theme park, the exact same premise as the original. The Force Awakens is about a rebel alliance which, with the help of a young Jedi, desperately fights against a powerful empire led by a mask-wearing Sith Lord, the same general premise as the original Star Wars trilogy. If you take into account other resurgent franchises in Hollywood such as Mad Max, Predator, Alien, Terminator, live-action Disney remakes of animated classics, you’ll see that audiences are craving their nostalgic franchises and studios are happy to oblige. So it is understandable why the Star Wars franchise is repeating itself.

Now I’m not saying that The Force Awakens is a carbon copy of the original Star Wars movie, nor am I saying that it is a bad film. I actually enjoy The Force Awakens, it’s an entertaining and well-directed flick. However, The Force Awakens is a narratively unoriginal film with some original aspects scattered through it. The shining trait of uniqueness is the characters of Rey, Poe, Fin, and especially Kylo Ren. These characters are diverse and dynamic. Even though Rey can be a bit uninteresting and Fin is often played too much as comic relief, they feel fresh and new to the Star Wars story. Kylo Ren is particularly compelling as a conflicted villain that is constantly getting things wrong, constantly one step behind the superior heroes.

But even after watching The Last Jedi, which I also liked, it still felt like the exact same story. No matter how much they change up the characters or even the plot itself, they are still limited within the confines of the basic outline for the original trilogy. You can even tie the elements of the new trilogy to their old trilogy counterparts. The Rebels are now the Resistance, the Empire is now the First Order, the Death Star is now Star Killer Base, Boba Fett is now Captain Phasma, the Battle of Hoth is now that weird sequence on the mining planet with the ATAT walkers in the Last Jedi. There is no going back on these similarities, the narrative is fundamentally familiar. Disney has decided to take the Star Wars franchise in a recognizable direction instead of taking it to bold new places. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for fans looking to enjoy the same old Star Wars that they used to know, it’s also not bad for new fans who can get into the new trilogy without having to find faults in the similarities. However, as a fan of originality and creativity in film, it is a missed opportunity. What could have been a brand new story that explores different elements of George Lucas’s vast universe is now basically something you’ve seen before. The prequels, for all their faults, presented fans with a new timeline in the Star Wars universe. They brought the Clone Wars and the Jedi Order and exciting new worlds like Mustafar, Geonosis, Felucia, and Utapa. George Lucas’s prequel universe was unique and creative, breaching a realm of science fiction that hadn’t been seen before despite the fact that the movies, for the most part, had terrible dialogue and characters.

The new films are competently made and directed but aside from the appeal of the main characters, excellent visuals, eye-popping action, and a masterful film score by John Williams, it’s the same story. Because of this, Star Wars is now being cinematically defined to this narrative, the story of the outnumbered rebels holding on to hope and believing in the force (by the way it makes little sense to me that a defeated empire is somehow able to piece itself back together in 30 years, reassert its dominance, and become even more powerful than before, while at the same time the victorious rebels would be incompetent enough to be reduced to a handful of scattered forces). Many believe that this narrative is what Star Wars should be defined as. The comforting caress of nostalgia still gives them that same exciting Star Wars feeling when they watch the new movies, and that is perfectly fine. But for me, it is frustrating to see the same ideas repeated. It may be satisfying enough for everyone else, but I will always lament over what could have been if the franchise had decided to continue the story rather than restructure and rebrand the story.