Archive for February 16, 2018

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

PHEW! I like it when highly anticipated movies work as intended, justifying the several million words of many people that just couldn’t wait. The latest entry in the Marvel MCU just landed with either the unstoppable brute force of, say, Hurricane Andrew, or the more subtle irresistibility of a well-constructed whisper and rumor campaign. Pick your metaphor, we now live in a post-Black Panther world and now that it paid off, it didn’t come soon enough. I’m ready, at least, to move onto the next Internet buzz bomb arriving in…Five…Four…Three…

Black Panther tells the story of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that lucked out with a nearly endless mountain of Unobtainium…uh, vibranium (the metal of Captain America’s shield) that created a utopia of at least one place in Africa that didn’t get colonized or suffer the terrible indignity of slavery. The movie, like many depicting the hopefully universal trope of The Good King, makes the metaphorical point from John Boorman’s Excalibur that – “The Land and the King are one.” In this case, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends the throne after the tragic UN bombing depicted in Captain America: Civil War and grows into his crown and throne with the assistance of the metaphor of the Black Panther that protects the people.

At core, if you come out of the theater thinking that you’ve seen this story about two cousins with an equal claim to the throne but with diametrically opposed viewpoints before…you have. Think Lion King lightly salted with the thematically similar Hamlet filtered through the visuals of Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets and you’re nearly there if you actually need the reductionist Player Pitch.

T’Challa represents The Good King that knows not to overplay Wakanda’s hand, while doing what he can covertly as the Black Panther. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) is T’Challa’s long lost cousin from America who hasn’t been raised with the sense of security of living in a safe nation (obviously not America in this case) that insists on “get off your fortified mountain and do something!” The two men square off in the ritual combat for the throne that acts as crucible for T’Challa to grow past the complete isolationism of the past, while rejecting the need to become the very thing that ruined the rest of Africa and the diaspora.

At this point in this review, I have so many glowingly positive things to say about every aspect of this movie…where do I start? Somewhere in the connective tissue between director, Ryan Coogler’s, work behind the camera and his considerable work on the script, we are treated to a story that doesn’t drag, flag or fail to hold the viewer’s interest. We’re with the Panther, hope it works out in the end.

The production also helped this impression of massively impressive storytelling by finding literally every affordable African or African-American actor worth looking at. More importantly, the cast fits the roles they took instead of giving off the feel of stunt casting because Hollywood almost always selects for Big Name instead of Right Actor. That this doesn’t apply here says someone somewhere in some bleak casting office cubicle deserves a promotion (a window, at least?).

Speaking of casting, there are two white actors who, taken together, stand in for the duality inherent in how white westerners are perceived in the rest of the world. We have the great motion capture actor, Andy Serkis, as Ulysses Klaue, a South African arms dealer infamous for being the only outsider to enter Wakanda and walk out alive with vibranium. Martin Freeman plays Everett K. Ross, a CIA case officer and former Air Force pilot.

I realize that I’m reaching here, but if I had to find something that went lumpy and pear shaped in this movie the juxtaposition of these two foreigners would be it. The Ross character didn’t equal the bravura performance going into Klaue. Mister Serkis and the movie as a whole let us feel the character as all kinds of batshit crazy, completely impressed with his reflection in the interrogation room mirror. Or the feel that this guy would kill everyone in Wakanda and then calmly finish their dinners for them.

By contrast, the Ross character came off as underwritten as both a case officer and former jet jock. At least, the aspect of Ross’s ongoing friendship with T’Challa came off suggesting it wasn’t the actor but the writing. Mister Freeman has two big moments, explaining that Erik Killmonger specializes in destabilizing governments that piss off the United States and it falls to him to remotely pilot the Panther Jet to shoot down several Wakandan ships about to leave the country to start the global revolution. Both moments landed a little flat.

The explanation scene led me to specifically wish that Mister Coogler and other writers had watched the final scene between Cliff Robertson and Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor where despite a justified revulsion for the tactics of most scared nations and their black ops entities seeking to stave off scarcity we come to understand the why. Just a little more unapologetic dialogue from the point of view of a patriot trying to guide his country through the bloody mess in many global back alleys and who knows?

The remote piloting dogfight failed at the level of visual design and shot construction that we really might unfairly blame the writing in the early script drafts. Yes, a bad guy ship tracked the drone signal back to the remote pilot chair but I still felt the bellyflop. Basically, this is me saying that the dogfight took place on one horizontal plane and thus brought with it the dramatic interest of a videogame where the player has the immortality cheat code. My suggestion would be to take this furball into the vertical intentionally stealing from The Battle of Britain and a couple dogfights from Pearl Harbor (just about the only thing I liked about that monstrosity).

Minor quibbles about minor characters aside, you’ll get caught looking at the CGI eye candy of what Wakanda looks like behind the illusion of a small and seemingly poor but proud African nation. Mag-lev trains. A virtual remote control console easily reconfigured for any type of vehicle including the Black Panther jet. And a boatload of the blue, vibranium’s natural ore state before refinement into something akin to stainless steel. Yes, the look isn’t exactly like what we got in Valerian, just the closest analog.

All in all, Black Panther is yet another amazing example of uniformly great filmmaking from the Disney-Marvel shop. Oh, and please Dear God stay through the credits!

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© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

As I started this post, I had yet to see Black Panther (review to follow). I pulled out a pen from my overstuffed pockets (prepared to write, always) partly to kill the couple hours having come early to make sure I had my seat. I washed in hope for a good movie and stewed in my usual cynicism about the hype surrounding this one. Hype that bears comment.

Largely because we live in the kind of world where Black Panther seems such a new thing, despite the first steps by Hattie McDaniel, Sydney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington and several other giants with broad shoulders that perhaps didn’t get their statues when they’d earned them, the hyperbole defines inevitable for the next six generations. Okay, I generally support the why of this particular class of blovius, but less so at the level of having my Facebook feed increasingly clogged over the past six months with posts wallowing in this overripe stew whether for or against.

When it’s my friends expressing joy that a few things might go their way, I read or skim and move on. I don’t trash the things that friends feel they need and I can work with almost any honestly stated position. But, trust me, nothing makes me click through to hear Sargon of Akkad’s addition to the stew. Life’s too short for most of the clutter on social media. I suppose I should be specific about what I don’t like here; I run screaming for the hills anytime I hear people tagging a book, play, movie or opera as important.

Before I go further, please don’t confuse my disdain for the adjective’s use in commentary as being somehow in favor of a world without art or discussion. I’ve seen and read Fahrenheit 451 as well as watched the thematically similar Babylon 5: Crusade episode “The Needs of Earth.” Once men, women, children and domesticated animals evacuate, I really want to believe I’m going back in for irreplaceable things whether personal like photo albums or the verified last copy of almost anything. As always, ask me this question again when there’s a fire.

I have had discussions with people who made the point that society can lose a few so called important things because it is the responsibility of the current generation of artists to keep working and create the works that fill the void. The person making this argument didn’t believe people would ever get to the point of Ray Bradbury’s story where burn everything defined the day. Hence why I’m not going back in for just an ordinary library of CDs, regular books and digital files backed up in the cloud.

But, I still really hate important describing works in commentary and how we have literally rat-fucked the understanding of Shakespeare over the previous 300 years is the best example. Approximately 100 years after the Bard’s passing, elites who were already segregated into balcony seats from the peanut gallery Groundlings in the SRO on the floor near the stage started up with the importance of the plays. The Groundlings pretty much waved their hands and went off to create other entertainment that may or may not be taught in schools. It was the Groundlings who made Shakespeare the richest screenwriter of his day and created the reputation that has followed for the next 400 years…never forget that.

We’ve had nearly 300 years of importance rooted in admittedly peerlessly beautiful iambic pentameter and many gifts to the body of metaphor in Modern English. It shows up in how we teach the plays and sonnets in school, sometimes made worse by bad teaching. Every single student in Dead Poets Society groaned and grumbled upon the announcement of the Shakespeare unit until Robin Williams did an impression of John Wayne doing the Scottish Play. And these thoughts that importance delivered externally from the school administration will kill true appreciation doesn’t even factor in the related issue of the three centuries of naturally occurring linguistic drift where it’s easier to find a Spanish-English dictionary than it is to find a Then English-Now English dictionary.

In the 11th Grade, my English teacher nearly killed Hamlet for me. A woman with odd proclivities in her personal belief system, we chewed through the play with a steady diet of what it means (or rather what it meant to her), which I contend goes hand in hand with declaring something important. I ground my teeth through the whole unit (actually the whole class, but a post for another day on another blog). I want to find what the play means to me without cognitive interference. Luckily, like with my appreciation for the Bible, I found reasons to keep reading and ignore the noise from a badly taught class, or worse, Sunday school (yet another post for another blog).

In the face of such heavy handed assumptions that we must revere this stuff to the tune of lighting it like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction because the curriculum says so because the principal and PTA says so, I completely understand those of us that hew more towards the modern day Groundling mindset of “is it good?” My friend and I both fire up contemplating the Bard and we took his then girlfriend, a classic example of someone who avoided the plays in school, to the Scottish Play. What happened next, the lady exiting the play swearing that Shakespeare sucked is on us.

I remember my comment at the time as – “Look, the Scottish Play is the thickest and densest play in the whole canon and if we’d thought it out we’d have taken you to something easier first as a set of training wheels.”

She remembers that I also said it more pithily – “Basically, we smeared you in chum and kicked you off the boat, sorry.” I’ll steal that for the mostly true movie about me. Anyway, the story had a happy ending when other plays proved more accessible to her after the fact.

Importance got me in the door of the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. And I get to say that the combination of not really wanting to throw elbows at tourists crowding the room, that the painting is a 3’x 2’ poster and a much more interesting Titian of Saint Sebastian hanging on the right wall and the trip wasn’t wasted. The Smiling Lady has more impact peering up from that dusty coffee table book none of us open.

Bringing this back around to Black Panther, I walked into the movie trusting that the Disney story machine will come extremely close to paying off the hype. But, this comes at the tail end of six months of having to skip nearly every social media post reveling in the apparent importance of the movie and an equal amount from the other side pulling the similarly corrosive yes, but (I did mention Sargon of Akkad above) bullshit that is also rooted in being declared important. All I need to know for my own personal meaning, my preferred synonym, is that Black Panther represents a new to me hero that I had yet to discover that will find things to speak to me. If successful, I will find things to learn from this movie and smile more when friends present their personal meaning in ways that I understand.