Go See it! Black Panther

Black_Panther

Should wealthy and advanced countries share their resources with the world? Are there any advantages to isolationism? What responsibility does Africa have to the black diaspora? What responsibilities does the black diaspora have to Africa? Do world superpowers have to be the world’s police too? Should one’s loyalties be to leaders or to their positions?

These are the ideas wrestled with in Black Panther, which besides being a political drama is also the story of a king who wears a bulletproof catsuit and was in the movie where the Avengers fought each other in an airport parking lot.

Yes, Black Panther has been poised to stand apart from the other Marvel movies, and not just because this is the studio’s first superhero movie (its 18th movie overall) made with a black lead. The film is directed by auteur Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and has an almost all-black cast, with stars like Oscar-winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker, as well as Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, and this year’s Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya. Black Panther comes from a rich comic book history beginning in the Civil Rights Era, and many people are counting on it to be a new trailblazing film, in the vein of last year’s Wonder Woman. It aims high in its entertainment, and its ideas.

So is it as good as all the hype?

Short answer: Yes.

This is a visually stunning movie. The acting is excellent. The attention to detail, particularly in the costumes, is amazing. The film is big and mythic in proportions, but has intimate moments dedicated to character building. The worldbuilding for T’Challa’s country of Wakanda is comparable to Middle Earth.

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), aka King T’Challa, is the first Marvel hero I would actually trust to lead. The majority of Marvel heroes, from Tony Stark to Star Lord, are varying levels of man-children, but T’Challa is a real leader and role model, full of stoic strength and dignity. He surrounds himself with equally good people, and what makes him such a great leader is that he listens to those around him. I said in my Thor Ragnarok review that all the Marvel heroes were starting to meld together, but T’Challa and his supporting characters all stand as unique and three-dimensional.

I only have two mild critiques. First, is that T’Challa himself doesn’t have a character arc. He begins as a great man and continues to be a great king. He doubts himself briefly, but that disappears. Most of the conflict in the film isn’t because anyone is doubting he would be a good leader. His real arc, going from being blinded by vengeance to showing mercy, was in Civil War, which wasn’t even his movie.

Instead, Black Panther is much more about Wakanda then it is about T’Challa, so Wakanda goes through a character arc, and he just represents it. That makes it sometimes feel like Black Panther is the sequel to half of an origin story we’ve never seen.

But that isn’t really a critique considering how important Wakanda is, and how compelling of a character this setting makes itself out to be. I can’t really do justice to the fictional country here, but I’ve learned a lot by reading what it means to others (I highly recommend this article to learn more about what Black Panther and Wakanda represent for many people: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/black-panther-s-glorious-depiction-wakanda-envisions-africa-black-dreams-ncna849016).

The second critique is that the film does not feel like a Marvel movie. That works well in this case, but there are moments within the film where it seemingly remembers it is a Marvel movie, and then does a Marvel-y thing that feels out of place. I would almost prefer if it hadn’t been associated with Marvel at all, and did not feel like it had to have any action sequences or jokes or any outside references.

However, those moments are few and few between, and don’t distract from the integrity of the film. And in case you’re wondering if this film is just a political history lesson, don’t worry. It’s an extremely entertaining film. It will also just happen to make you think! And isn’t that the best of both worlds?

But ultimately, this film wouldn’t have been made if it weren’t a Marvel movie. Not just because Black Panther is a Marvel comics property, but because Marvel and Disney are the only studios that are either able or willing to take this risk. Maybe they didn’t need to make ten movies starring a white guy named Chris before doing this film, but we’re here now. That’s why I get frustrated when prestigious directors bad mouth superhero films. With all due respect, they are by and large not making the films main audiences- and particularly audiences of color- want and need to see.

Black Panther isn’t just an example of the potential of blockbuster and big-studio successes, but also an example of why superhero movies are important. This is a genre, a space, like ancient mythology, that has the ability to be paired with any other genre to create new and original stories. Logan, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and The Dark Knight are all based in comic books, but all tell different stories, create different worlds, and say different things. As long as filmmakers keep pushing for new ways to tell these stories, the superhero boom isn’t going away, and until everybody gets to see themselves as a hero on screen, I don’t think it should.

I don’t know the full effect Black Panther will have on audiences, or comic book readers who have been waiting to see Wakanda in big screen glory. But I do know that it is a great film, and everyone should see it.

-Madeleine D

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Unrest, Unfair, Unconvincing: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

3 billboards

Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story about angry, grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). Her daughter Angela was murdered, and the police have seemingly dropped the case. The officers on the case are Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby is a well-meaning cop, dying of cancer, and Dixon is a dumb, racist, temperamental, corrupt cop. Mildred rents out three billboards that send a loud and clear message:

-Raped while dying

-And still no arrests?

-How come, Chief Willoughby?

This film has been getting critical acclaim and is leading the awards season, so I would like to raise three billboards of my own:

-7 Oscar Nominations.

-Best Screenplay and Picture?

-How come, Academy?

The biggest criticism of Three Billboards has been its treatment of race. Several people throughout the film explain that Dixon is racist and has a history of torturing the people of color in Ebbing. He uses the n-word, makes threats, and this is all used to establish him as a terrible man. Our (good?) police chief, Willoughby, explains not-so-helpfully why he keeps him on the force- “”You get rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the f-gs.”

Once Dixon needs to be redeemed through, his racism, which he never shows remorse for or makes efforts to change, is completely forgotten about. It’s treated, as Insider’s Jacob Shamsian notes, as “a character quirk.”

I don’t doubt that there are cops who feel this way, and it’s not that a movie that is supposedly about redemption and empathy and human complexity can’t redeem a despicable person. That’s what I believe we have to do in real life. But the redemptive arc for Dixon is shallow, unfulfilled, and he never seems remorseful. Discussing institutional racism in your movie is an admirable thing to do if you’re going to treat it with weight and actually have thoughts about it. But British director McDonagh is much more interested in throwing sensitive topics around as coloring to his black-and-white sketch of what he believes is middle-America, and it’s utterly unconvincing and disgustingly manipulative.

Another example- Mildred’s black friend, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested by Dixon to spite Mildred, and she isn’t released until the end of the film, and this is… cool with everyone? Not talked about? That’s not a commentary on racism, that’s terrible writing and using black characters for the advancement of white ones.

In my screenwriting class, my teacher tells us to make sure every scene has conflict, but that doesn’t mean “every scene has to have a screaming match.” Three Billboards is very much ready to have a screaming match, or an explosion, torture, domestic abuse, burning someone alive, or horrific beating in every scene. Almost every single scene escalates to 100, leaving no room to breathe or think. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson do a fine job with their roles, but all of the things they are asked to do are so actor-y, so unnatural, and so over-the-top that I honestly don’t think they should have been nominated at all. I never had to read Frances McDormand’s face to figure out what she was feeling, she was either saying it or destroying something.

I recently watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It’s a masterpiece, and it also deals with the escalation of anger. It and Three Billboards are very different films, but what Do the Right Thing does that Three Billboards doesn’t do is spend the majority of the film building characters and setting up the tension, before making the violence climax and thus actually hurt. Watching the riot in that film feels like a gut punch. Three Billboards is constantly pummeling me, so nothing feels like anything after a while.

I never felt like any of the characters were real. I could not imagine any of the characters in situations beyond the ones they were in. I suppose that this could be interpreted as a hyper-reality, like the film is becoming what grief and anger feels like. But it’s not presented that way. This is portrayed as a story where someone really does all of these things.

It’s a film being billed as a movie for our divided times. But as I see it, it’s a harmful one. It tells you your anger is justified. And true, a lot of anger is, and Mildred’s certainly is. But there are no repercussions for the actions she or Dixon takes because of their anger. They suffer indirectly- Mildred is still miserable and Dixon gets burned because of Mildred’s attack on the police station, but they are never punished for their actions. They never see repercussions. They are the only ones that affect each other, even though their villainous acts affect everyone else.

Anger isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with it, and all the characters in the film act in an evil way with it, and those actions are excused. Telling people they can be angry and do whatever they want with that anger is a dangerous message. Three Billboards isn’t just a movie about mean people. It’s a mean movie, one that wants to say a lot of important things but doesn’t have the heart to actually finish the job.

-Madeleine D

Meeting Laura Linney

Laura Linney

On Friday, February 2nd, I had the opportunity and privilege to help moderate a panel for a student discussion with actress Laura Linney, who was in Tulsa to speak at the Performing Arts Center for Tulsa Town Hall. Laura Linney has done it all- theater, film, and television. She’s been nominated for three Academy Awards, four Tonys, and she has won four Primetime Emmys, two Golden Globes, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She studied at Julliard and began her film career in the early 1990s. Her most recent work is her role on Netflix’s Ozark, opposite Jason Bateman. She is currently filming season two of that show.

When she first entered the room before the panel began, she greeted each of us moderators individually, took a selfie with my class, and talked to my teacher. She was engaging and thoughtful. When my fellow moderator and classmate Charlotte asked her at the end of the panel, “Would you be my adopted mom?” Ms. Linney said yes.

Laura Linney selfie

During the panel she was asked questions about being a woman in Hollywood, the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement, how she’s kept a long and steady career, the differences between working in theater, film, and television, and what attracts her to different roles.

She spoke honestly about the difficulties of Hollywood, and advised all the young women in the room to bond together, as working together makes you stronger. She explained her criteria for picking roles- good writing, a director she could learn from, and a story she felt was necessary to tell. She told us about working with Clint Eastwood three times and things she had learned from him about letting scenes act themselves out. She spoke about the different demands of different mediums, and how she balances being an introvert with her work.

Laura Linney panel

Moderating the panel. Left to right: C.S., Me, O.H., Laura Linney

 

After the student panel, we got to see her give her Town Hall speech to a full crowd in the main PAC auditorium. Her speech was about how to infuse creativity into every part of your life. My favorite thing she discussed was the need for an “Art Doctor,” someone who could prescribe to you a piece of art for every emotion or dilemma you may have. Feeling blue? Listen to this. Need some philosophical ponderings? Read this. Happy? Rejoice by watching this.

I would say, after needing some artistic inspiration, speaking to Laura Linney was just what the doctor ordered.

-Madeleine D

Laura Linney & me

 

Memo From a Hollywood Producer

A Satirical Follow Up To A Screenwriter’s Guide to Female Characters

hollywood

Dear Fellow Producers,

In our post Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, #TimesUp world, women are starting to speak up about the harassment and abuse they face, apparently on a semi-regular basis. They say they’ve been talking about it for a while, but everyone knows something isn’t real until it is acknowledged by a man and given a catchy hashtag.

It looks like this thing is not coming to an end any time soon, so now it’s time to move forward, similar to how we did before, but with minor changes so SJWs won’t be angry at us.

As a well-established Hollywood producer, I have had the opportunity to greenlight many projects. My main criteria for choosing what to greenlight are basically these:

  1. Will it make money?
    1. With this, consider: what is the ethnicity of the main characters? Gender breakdown? Sexual orientation? How many stereotypes will not be broken in this film? Does it have Dwayne Johnson in it?
  2. Is it as low risk as possible?
  3. Does it fit my specific worldview and bubble, while also having the ability to be marketed as “exciting” and “progressive” based on the extremely low standards we have?

Going back to #1a, consider the new dilemma with this whole female empowerment thing. Women now want to be in movies, and not only do they want to be in movies, they want to be a part of movies, in a big way. Big is very hard to define. They want “complex roles” and “equal pay” and to “not be assaulted on set.” Those are clearly not clear expectations.

So I have discovered a solution, and it is this: don’t have women in your movie.

But wait! You may say. I have a woman in my life. I have a woman- wife, a woman-daughter, a woman-mother. I may even have a woman-friend. Last time I checked, women make up, like, at least 30% of the population.

I understand that, dear associates. But think about it this way. If that said woman-person saw your movie, and wasn’t pleased with how women were portrayed in it, then they’ll nag you about it. Wouldn’t it just be better to make a movie without women? That way, nothing bad could possibly happen, and everyone wins.

Suggestions for what movies to make so you don’t have to include women in them:

  1. Historical dramas. We here in Hollywood have never been shy about ignoring, white-washing, warping, and outright lying about history. It’s not like women have done much in history anyways. So just make movies that take place in a vague, historical period. If you do want female characters, they can be wives, maids, waitresses, nameless peasants, or whatever, because that’s all women were in most of history. Obviously everyone will understand and accept that. It’s tragic, but true.
  2. Superhero movies. Women are just not inherently heroic. Have you ever seen a mother protecting her child or defending her thoughts?  No? I thought not. Also- they don’t have an inward thirst for justice. The normal superhero story, of going from a marginalized, unheard, tread-upon person to an empowered figure is only a male story. How is #MeToo going to object to that?
  3. Political dramas. There are no women in politics, and if there are, they lose the electoral college after winning the popular vote.
  4. Horror. Either you have no women, or you kill them off in the first few scenes. Then, to keep people from critiquing it, you have a character say in a super meta-way, “oh man, the black guy and the girl always get killed first!” That way, no one will be mad because you are so totally hilarious and making a political point.

I call these movies with primarily or exclusively male casts ‘malevies.’ They represent an important tradition in Hollywood that is our duty to carry on.

Another important thing to consider is that if there are no women in your movie, there isn’t any possibility for pay disparity! Win-win!

As men who were birthed by women, we are all very clearly concerned about the finer points of this feminist movement. We are doing our best to listen to these women, or at least, listen to other men, who in turn heard a news report that reported what another news report said what a woman said, and make the necessary changes.

But it also must be acknowledged that this is a scary time for us. Because of all of these accusations, it is clear we cannot even say “hello” to a woman without her claiming it as assault. We can’t lock the door to our hotel room with the underage intern assistant inside anymore. We can’t even work without our pants off anymore. When will this craziness end? Who knows, but we must move forward.

Throughout all of this, we also have a responsibility as businessmen to keep the status quo strictly as it is. So remember, you can’t be sexist if you don’t acknowledge that women exist in the first place.

Go forth, and make great malevies!

I Would Probably Invest in a Ponzi Scheme If Jack Black Sang To Me: The Polka King

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Netflix’s new movie The Polka King is a biopic of the real life Polka King of Pennsylvania, Jan Lewan. In 2004 he was arrested for running a Ponzi scheme to finance his various polka enterprises. The film is based off the documentary The Man Who Would be Polka King and notes the real Jan Lewan wrote about his life while in jail.

I knew this movie was about this scheme before I went in. The trailers and film summary tell you the movie is going to be about the scheme. Yet it wasn’t until halfway through the film I realized, with a start, Hold on, Lewan is scheming people out of their money!

Why did it take me so long to realize the film was portraying Lewan’s Ponzi scheme, when I knew that was what the film was about? How was I so surprised by what I knew before I pushed play?

What I saw while watching was a kind, hard-working family man who was just so… so genuine. Sure, part of it was that he was played by Jack Black, but his dreams and unabashed hope for America and love for his family and unyielding work ethic made me forget that what he was doing was technically illegal. People were giving him the money willingly! He was giving people generous interest on their money (at least for a while). What’s so wrong with that?

So in a way, Jan Lewan, and The Polka King, schemed me. I was duped in a film about people being duped. So what you should take away from this is that if Lewan asked me to invest with him, I probably would. I would be a tremendous sucker. Please don’t call me up for (my little bit of babysitting) money. But that also means, at least to this particular viewer, that the film not only pulled me in and made me sympathetic for the criminal protagonist, but also made me into one of the characters. It put me in the place of the investor who fell for his charm and earnestness.  

Now the film doesn’t get high marks exactly for how they make Lewan likeable. Patriotism, love for family, hard working, lovable goofiness, and an accent is the easiest and most black and white way to make a protagonist likeable. But the film does get high marks for using this as a way to make the morality of the situation grey. How can such a good man get punished so harshly? Should he even be imprisoned- did he really understand what he was doing? But he did, and now I’m angry that I’m defending him.

Ultimately, the film is able to stay pretty unbiased towards the material. It presents Lewan as a well-intentioned man who did wrong, which is how he was described in real life. The audience is the one that is left frustrated on how to respond.

Jack Black grounds the film with his Lewan being a wily, whimsical man with dreams and a dark ambition. He does most of the heavy lifting as his supporting cast get to ramble free with their own kooky stories. Jenny Slate and Jason Schwartzman are fun to watch, but are really there just to give stakes to the greater story. Their individual side plots do not have any thematic resonance on their own. Most of their contributions are true though, and the entire film is fairly accurate, which just goes to show how finding the right story is all you need for a compelling real-life movie. This movie is the true The Greatest Showman.

However, it’s the job of a film, a piece of art, to take a real-life story and find the thematic, universal message within it, and the failure of The Polka King to tie everything together and make each thread of the movie count, not just let it be filler distraction, makes it a weaker film.

This is director Maya Forbes’ second feature film, her directorial debut being 2015’s incredible Infinitely Polar Bear, a tender semi-autobiographical story about her own childhood. The Polka King is a less precise film, maybe because it is more of a comedy and doesn’t have Forbe’s own life and personal stakes in it. With a little more care, every scene and storyline in Polka King could have hit home perfectly. With a little more thought, the film could have relied less on Jack Black to pull the storylines of the other characters into his own.

That being said, The Polka King is a satisfying, whimsical real-life fable and cautionary tale that tells a story too crazy to be true. Just be warned- you might find yourself sympathizing with someone who would try to take all your money. Bleeding hearts (and get-rich-quick suckers) be warned.

-Madeleine D

Madeleine’s Official Top Seventeen List™

Coinciding with the release of the 2018 Oscar nominations, I thought I would weigh in with my favorite 17 movies of 2017. With my top films of the year, I chose them based on three things:

  1. How much I enjoyed them and/or how much they stuck with me.
  2. How “good” of a film they were, in terms of their craft.
  3. Cultural significance and relevance.

2018 oscars

17. Beauty and the Beast

16. Dunkirk

15. Lego Batman

14. Spider-Man: Homecoming

13. To the Bone

12. Wonder Woman

11. All the Money in the World

10. Battle of the Sexes

9. It

8. Okja

7. Get Out

6. The Big Sick

5. Lady Bird

4. Logan

3. War for the Planet of the Apes

2. Baby Driver

1. The Unknown Girl

the unknown girl

I have not yet seen Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri, Molly’s Game, The Florida Project, Phantom Thread, or I, Tonya.

My favorite scenes of the year:

“We’re all to blame” – Wonder Woman

Mall Chase Scene- Baby Driver

“Gaston” Musical Number- Beauty and the Beast

Kumail’s Comedy Show with Beth and Roy- The Big Sick

“The Sunken Place” – Get Out

Worst Film of the Year: The Emoji Movie

-Madeleine D

Drama In Front Of and Behind the Camera: All the Money in the World

all-the-money-in-the-world

“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” George Carlin

J. Paul Getty was not just the richest man who walked the earth in 1973, he was one of the richest man who had ever walked it. He found oil in Saudi Arabia and was an infamous penny pincher. He achieved the success we all dream of in one way or another.

But Getty, no matter how smart or savvy or wary he was, lacked the humanity we all hope we have. On July 10th of 1973, Getty’s grandson, Paul Getty Jr., was kidnapped in Rome by Italian gangsters. They asked for $17 million as ransom. Getty refused, and in the end, only paid $2 million, because that was what he could get as a tax credit.

It makes you wonder, was it the money that turned Getty Sr. into stone? Or was it in him all along? Or do you have to stay asleep to some things to keep the American dream? To believe it’s worth it?

With Getty Sr.  as an immovable force, it’s up to Getty Jr.’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to fight for her son’s life, and Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to help negotiate Getty Jr.’s release. As they suffer loss after loss, with Getty Jr. slipping from their grip, they’ll wake up to some realities of their own.

To me, All the Money in the World  is as intense as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. While Dunkirk relies on the cold hand of time, All the Money in the World relies on the anticipation that something is going to happen, I was just not sure what. This might be because I didn’t know anything about the Getty story going in. I’m sure it will be different for everyone, but for me, watching a boy my age being kidnapped, tortured, with my own mother sitting beside me, watching the mother on screen do everything in her power, well, it got to me. I even nearly threw up during one scene (you’ll know it when you see it), and I had my eyes closed. The film leaves every scene with a cliffhanger, keeping the audience as frustrated as the characters, pulling us along and then making us lose hope over and over again, until the final scene where we can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s the kind of engrossing experience that only film can provide.

Christopher Plummer has been getting all the publicity for replacing Kevin Spacey mere weeks before the film’s release date, but this truly is an ensemble film. Plummer, though, does deserve all the credit he is getting. He makes nuance out of a role that would have just been stitched together with thematic lines. His and director Ridley Scott’s professionalism and talent are the real takeaway from the reshoots.

Michelle Williams gives a nomination-worthy performance as Abigail Getty Harris. She infuses grit and determination into the character, and she rejects every normal “hysterical mother” trope given to her, holding the screen in a fierce grip that puts her among the best female performances of the year.

Mark Wahlberg makes no impression here. I suppose his character is necessary, but… you know. Meh Wahlberg. Not a performance that, I dare say, is worth eight times more than Michelle Williams’. (http://www.vulture.com/2018/01/michelle-williams-paid-8-times-less-than-mark-wahlberg-for-all-the-money-in-the-world.html).

On the other side of the story, Romain Duris as Cinquanta, aka, “the nice kidnapper,” is incredibly charismatic and gives a tender performance. He and Charlie Plummer have the chemistry it takes to make the scenes of Paul’s imprisonment more compelling than they are written to be, and it’s a shame he is being overlooked in coverage of the film.

I like to say that a movie needs to justify its existence. Why is it a film I should spend money and time on? Particularly for live-action dramas.For example, I didn’t think last year’s Loving or this year’s Darkest Hour elevated their respective material to a cinematic level. Both of those films were high quality, but I didn’t gain something from watching them I couldn’t have gained from reading a Wikipedia article about their subjects.

All the Money in the World gives the audience multiple reasons for why it is a movie. The film is thrilling, and the adrenaline from watching it is not something you’ll get from a detached experience of reading it. And the film, no matter how bluntly, tries to say something about wealth, and create themes out of the historical events. Most of the time, it succeeds. And it’s an exciting ride nevertheless. It kept me engaged and left me with things to think about.

Ironically enough, a film that explores the selfishness and corruption of Paul Getty Sr., and his refusal to awaken to his family’s needs, has been a film that through behind-the-scenes drama has been a part of Hollywood’s own awakening to its corruption. Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault allegations were punished, and the revelations about the pay disparity between Williams and Wahlberg have pushed home the persistent gender pay gap. Let’s just hope Hollywood, unlike Getty, doesn’t try to fix things cheaply.

-Madeleine D