Tag Archives | Walt Disney Studios

Movie Review: Black Panther

Too many characters, too long, too much plot but, at its root, lacking a meaningful theme. This is what I think about Marvel’s exhausting new comics movie for Disney, Black Panther, which pounces, confuses and contradicts.

Five tribes converge in an African kingdom where a substance called vibranium once crash-landed, leaving the tribal nation rich in this superpowerful resource, which must be mined and developed to perform wonders. This place is called Wakanda and Wakandans hoard the stuff, which they mine, keep and profit from for themselves, concealing it from the world, despite its healing abilities. Some might say ‘but it’s only a comics movie’ and dismiss any other thought. As for me, I did wonder, and you might, too, about what Wakanda’s closely guarded windfall could do for people with cancer, for instance.

This is the main problem with the politically tinged Black Panther, which mixes nationalism, genetics and collectivism to address, question and challenge ideas without dealing with them. Being a Marvel movie, many merely want to know if Black Panther has fights, fun, humor, cleverness and action, all the marks of Disney’s Marvel Studios brand. So, yes, it has those to varying, uneven and inconsistent degrees. Humor is flip and scattered. Fun comes in spurts. Fights are too fast, cleverness isn’t clever enough and action is solid. Visuals are, as usual, computer-generated.

Co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), the Fruitvale Station director (using a Bay Area angle here, too), Black Panther doesn’t settle on a theme. It ends up in a squishy mix of notions summed up by the arbitrary term social justice. It might have been called ‘Social Justice Warrior’, though this would run afoul of those who claim that title. Black Panther, with no overt relation to the 1960s black supremacist movement, opens with its first social justice mission to ‘bring back our girls’, the phrase associated with a campaign to reclaim girls kidnapped and raped by Islamic terrorists in Africa and forced to become veiled Moslems. The campaign omitted those facts and so does the movie, instead using the initial mission to introduce its leading lady and gentleman, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and Chadwick Boseman as her ex-boyfriend, Wakanda’s leading monarch. Knowing what the audience knows could happen to the girls, this packs stakes, severity and context into the plot. Boseman, Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, and Nyong’o, Patsy the raped slave in 12 Years a Slave, rise above the script.

They’re not in Black Panther enough. Yet they carry the movie while sharing it with too many characters. Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, Boyz N the Hood) plays the king’s mother, Andy Serkis (War, Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes) plays a wild-eyed villain who comes off like a drunken Englishman, Forest Whitaker (Phenomenon, Rogue One, The Crying Game) plays a kind of referee, Letitia Wright (Cake) plays a sassy royal sister with amazing tech skills and Winston Duke (Dwight on Modern Family) plays a rival tribal leader. Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us, Marshall) has an important role. Danai Gurira steals every scene as a warrior. Michael B. Jordan (NBC’s Parenthood), who played the title character in Coogler’s Creed, plays the arch-villain. There are several other characters, too, including a tribal farm leader played by Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya. They are each overwhelmed.

With horseback riding across the countryside and a sweeping score that briefly replaces the predominant drumbeat, the audience enters the great kingdom introduced in Captain America: Civil War. Wakanda comes with clipped, cliched narration as the story begins. A king is designated, then challenged (also cliched) during a waterfalls conference with leaders and warriors from the five tribes. All of this royal shuffle arcs into a plot to smuggle the powerful substance, which leads to the perils of poverty, presumed errors in judgment and what went down during that tie-in to the Bay Area. Wakandans speak English with foreign accents yet they also speak in a foreign language with subtitles and it’s never clear why. There are bands of all-female or all-male warriors — with all this same sex togetherness, I looked for gays in the military with none in plain sight — and the only enlistment shared by both sexes is subservience to nation, blood and the rule of the monarch.

For all the palace intrigue, it is natural to want to know who’s behind Wakanda’s smuggling amid painted faces and masks, decorative gear and furnishings and body and facial mutilation. Also, why are ritualistic displays practiced in a country so modern, enlightened and technologically advanced? An answer partly comes with the closest Wakanda has to a national slogan: Praise the ancestors! Even when sponsoring gladiator-style fighting to determine the nation’s ruler — this is intended as admirable? — familialism is as rampant as in Buckingham Palace … or Trump White House.

Black Panther tries too hard to have its genres, plot points and philosophies every which way.

Boseman’s ripped king gets tricked out with James Bond gadgets, Euro-electronica ala Bourne Identity accompanies an elaborate car chase, and a trip to South Korea (does every action movie have to have an Asian connection? Is South America off limits?) goes awry. Fast-cutting fights are disorienting. Drumbeats pummel the audience. Subplots turn over and over. This onslaught slips into sameness and gets stale. The plot spins and spins, lulling the audience into a bit of a slumber. In Marvel’s universe of wise-cracking white men gussied up in industrial gear and snapping lines to one another, a movie about a mythical African nation and its aristocratic superhero ought to achieve a distinctive quality or uniqueness, no? Does no one in Wakanda listen to jazz? The men go around shirtless, why not the women? Is no one in Wakanda gay? Not a single Wakandan apparently watches television, goes swimming or grooves to Lou Rawls, Sade or Johnny Mathis. Does every Wakandan have to be a 24/7 ‘badass’?

A late second wind gets Black Panther’s game on. When Michael B. Jordan’s angry urban black man finally kicks in, Boseman’s king finally gets some screen time and begins to doubt the ancestry worship, though never down too deep. Blood as defining one’s identity never gets challenged. Instead, it is mixed with mysticism. Black Panther, like last year’s Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok and most Marvel movies, is agnostic about ideas. Question your country is a platitude which competes with the question of foreign entanglements but it’s all housed in lightness, wizardry and fanfare. The delicacy of Black Panther‘s social justice warriorism clashes with its sporadic sense of fun, suctioning the conflict of any sense of good versus evil. This might be the point, that all are redeemable, but the reign of duty to tribe, blood and nation never squares with the social worker drumbeat or the street take on ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’

Thoughtfully halting after uttering the word duty, which she nearly brings herself to doubt, Lupita Nyong’o’s character rests on acting “for what I love.” Nakia’s is an affirmation of a real King’s noble line about being judged by the content of one’s character. One senses in Black Panther‘s restless pacing and prowling that it’s stalling to keep from being stalked, hunted and downed by the social justice bunch.

Movie Review: Coco

Disney/Pixar’s Coco is a flawed but colorful and entertaining movie. The title’s a misnomer. The songs are fine, if forgettable. The conflict’s resolved without morality and the theme that one should put others first or, at best, shoehorn one’s goals for the sake of others is atrocious. Coco has too many characters. It’s also too long (like most of Pixar’s movies). Certain plot points are confusing. But Pixar’s animators have outdone themselves with a mythical depiction of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

With multiple writers and an apparently all-Latino vocal cast, except apparently for a token non-Latino left over from Pixar’s early days, Coco takes its Day of the Dead theme seriously with an elaborate afterlife world exclusively for Hispanics (or Mexicans or Chicanos), leaving room for interpretation that the dead hang out in a festive afterlife before what’s deemed “final death”, which I suppose could encompass a notion of Heaven. As it is, Coco‘s not all caught up in Purgatory exactly but the afterlife rules are convoluted and I did hear children at the screening asking questions that went unanswered. At one point, I thought a character was dead that later came back alive. I still haven’t figured that one out.

But this is a movie which begins with wax dripping off candles being lighted for the souls of the dead to return to existence, so superstition comes with the territory. After a clever storybook exposition fans out one family’s possibly cursed legacy, centering upon a conflict between art and commerce or music and manufacturing, the basic plot takes shape. At Coco‘s core is an extremely creative, intelligent and diligent boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez).

Miguel’s shoemaker family’s marred by an abandonment of a descendant who ditched la familia for his work, passion and art; a career in music, which the matriarchal family in turn bans from all generations for all of eternity. If this seems harsh, it is, and one of the problems with Coco is its refusal to reckon with the tyranny of a family run by a monster of a grandmother (Abuelita), a horrifying woman who physically assaults strangers and abuses her family with such cruelty that you question how she procreated in the first place. (If, under today’s onslaught of accusations against men, you wonder why men go bad, think about this character and how she pulverizes those around her).

A mangy dog comes along to ease Miguel’s bleak, deprived life (Abuelita hates dogs, too) and there’s plenty of laughter as Miguel works around the oppression with a terrific secret hiding place, where he’s erected a shrine to his deceased musical hero (Benjamin Bratt, Miss Congeniality, Modern Family), whom he admires courtesy of a VCR and videocassette. Despite the maternal order not to play music, Miguel goes one better: he makes his own guitar to play in festival competition. He even dares to pronounce what he’s made perfecto.

The miserable faces of Miguel’s unhappy dead relatives in pictures — photographs are key to Coco — do not lie. Before you can genuflect (and Coco rightly connects religion to hatred of the good with the sign of the cross), an evil woman crushes Miguel’s dreams, causing him to flee with the street dog, borrow, not steal, and slip into the pre-afterlife/post-life state of being not quite dead. Miguel meets dead relatives, and others, of course, and both questions and learns what it means to be dead or alive.

What this has to do with music and family, the main (and false) dichotomy in Coco, becomes clear. The night of the living dead Miguel encounters includes clever if disturbing real-life equivalents such as the Department of Family Reunions, tracing family footsteps with shoes and, of course, a goofy guide named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal, Letters to Juliet). Audiences can judge whether Coco stereotypes Latino culture — Coco credits no less than 24 “cultural advisors”, all with Hispanic surnames, and entire Mexican families, cathedrals and agencies — and it’s loaded with sacrifice, martyrdom and death. The afterlife place is like an idealized Mexico City (it could easily be Havana) with retro style homes, arenas and mass transit.

“You don’t have to forgive but don’t forget,” someone says in Coco, written and directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3). This is a good line which both suggests a kind of righting of Miguel’s family’s twisted logic and lost legacy and hints at a moral reckoning to come (which wrongfully never comes). Coco sanctions the view that family comes first. This is Coco‘s unequivocal theme and the movie explicitly endorses the idea that the individual must submit to the family. Even on the film’s terms, this estimate is both unearned and unfortunate. But in its voices, animation — especially in faces both young and old — and Michael Giacchino‘s melodic, guitar-driven score (if not the movie’s mediocre songs) — many though not all of Coco‘s points and pictures fit like pieces of a puzzle.

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

With several credited writers, campy Cate Blanchett (Carol, Truth, Cinderella) in smeared black eyeshadow, full gothic gear and Maleficent-like antlers to match, butch lesbian warriors, scads of Marvel Comics characters and tie-ins, cameos and one gigantic Phallic symbol — even Jesus Christ and Moses if you know where to look — Thor: Ragnarok runs more than a bit amok. Pardon the kitchen sink analogy, but this Disney movie, directed by Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), is almost a full-blown camp comedy, with action and a high body count.

With Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Snow White and the Huntsman) returning in the title role, Thor: Ragnarok starts flaming early on, with flying embers coming over the opening credits to Thor’s heavy metal musical theme. The Norse god of thunder narrates his own situation. Ragnarok is quickly explained (think the Rapture) and the movie’s off on its wild runs. Light, silly and depleted of the original Thor movie‘s mythology and sense of honor, in comes brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, I Saw the Light, Kong: Skull Island) and their dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and a first-born child, Hela, played by Blanchett as a veiny goddess of death with black hair, black eyeliner and black bodysuit like she stepped out of an X-Men movie.

“This you must face alone”, Odin tells his son Thor about the new dilemma of the long-lost sister’s return to their mythical world. With shades of Terminator, Mad Max and Willy Wonka films, complete with a glitzier version of Thunderdome, the action comes in spurts while the comedy keeps the lines coming in crisp flamboyance. Blanchett’s Hela sashays around swinging her hips and dripping her lines such as: “You don’t know who I am?”

But Thor: Ragnarok, with Hemsworth gamely and amazingly staying in character the whole time, has more glitz and schmaltz in store with another planet’s grandmaster in gold lamé played by Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) in a gray-haired pompadour with blue fingernail polish and face paint. Idris Elba (Star Trek Beyond, Zootopia, The Jungle Book) returns in the same role. Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon, Bones in Star Trek Beyond), Tessa Thompson (Selma, Creed) and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk, Spotlight) are fine and look for an appearance by the director and, of course, Marvel and Thor creator Stan Lee. It’s all in good fun and games and the film feels and looks like a gaming play, complete with heavy use of automatic weapons and artificial scenes.

For instance, Hulk changes proportion. Hela is inexplicably regenerative while Thor is not. Others will probably notice an array of tricks, Avengers series nods and gimmicks, though it borders on exhausting and I opted to see Thor: Ragnarok in a two dimensional screening, not in 3D. Eye strain and fatigue may creep in but thematically interesting resistance, extermination and something called “obedience disks” gives the ensemble-driven, meandering plot a second wind. At root, Thor: Ragnarok is a comedy with action, not the other way around, though it is too long and I could have done without the Hulk and his subplot. Hemsworth’s Thor gets the best quip when he puts Bruce Banner in a bind to go somewhere else and says: “Use one of your Ph.Ds”. Fans of the original will want more of Thor’s mythology.

The Bambi Articles

Three of my articles about Walt Disney’s 1942 classic, Bambi, are now archived on the site. The movie, which was based on a novel and adapted from a 900-word screenplay, made during a world war and lost the studio money for years, has a fascinating history with relevant lessons for today’s moviemakers and moviegoers alike.

My film review is based on my first viewing of the animated motion picture, which I saw for the first time when the movie debuted on DVD 12 years ago and was surprised to find I thoroughly enjoyed. I wrote about Bambi for a movie site in which I was a partner (which was sold to a database subsidiary of Amazon that no longer offers in-depth articles). Read my review of Bambi, which includes details of Disney’s 2005 Platinum edition DVD, here.

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This was one of my first themed online series. My starting point for Bambi was an essential history of Walt Disney’s wartime follow-up to Dumbo and Snow White, which includes basic facts, such as box office stats and budget, and tracks the movie’s origins, background and legacy. The editorial experiment worked, too, I’m happy to say (not all of them did) as pre-social media readers read, shared and printed the articles in high numbers, especially considering that they came to the site for statistics. I created the Bambi series to entice them to stay, read and browse other site pages. The history of Bambi and the other two articles formed the editorial model for my thematic approaches to covering film, particularly classic film, which extended to our in-depth coverage of Star Wars, classic Disney and Sony’s Spider-Man pictures, as well as films about Islamic terrorism, Alexander the Great and the Alamo. Bambi got things started. Read the Bambi history here.

As editor and writer of the movie site, and wanting to add a third article for a trilogy of rotating pieces heralding the arrival of the film on DVD, I also sought interviews with some Hollywood artists whose work I’d admired whom I had reason to think might be interested in, and possibly influenced by, Walt Disney’s Bambi. Among these were a Back to the Future screenwriter, the creator of Hollywood’s most popular animal-themed franchise since Lassie and an animator who had attended the highly regarded, Disney-made Cal Arts academy in the Santa Clarita Valley. During extensive interviews with each, their comments and insights went far beyond the usual and predictable compliments for influential movies. Read the article about artists praising Disney’s Bambi—incuding their thoughts on its most controversial scenes—here.

Twelve years after these articles were first published about the movie which basically made me an instant classic Disney fan, the Burbank, California, studio is planning to release what they call a Signature Collection Blu-Ray/DVD combination set. So, Bambi goes on sale next week (May 23) on iTunes, Amazon and all that (support the site and buy the new collection here). Bambi remains one of my favorite Disney pictures and, if you read the articles, I think it’s easy to see why. In the future, I’d like to give all the great movies, works of art and singular histories the fuller examination they deserve.


Related

Movie and DVD Review: Bambi (2005)

History of Bambi (2005)

Hollywood Remembers Bambi (2005)

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Movie Review: Rogue One

The Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, induces fatigue. Though based on a major plot point in the original Star Wars film in 1977—and prominently featured in the marketing campaign—the studio asks for no spoilers and I promise this review is intended to inform and enhance, not distort and detract from, one’s cinematic experience.

That said, I wish I had known more about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in advance. Coming so soon after last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a better movie which takes place after Return of the Jedi, Rogue One starts in a haze of sameness that the uninitiated or occasional series viewer may find disorienting and confusing.

It’s not merely that both pictures sport a British-accented brunette in the female lead. There is also a scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) on strike from developing the Death Star who’s a farmer with a wife and kid on the farm like Luke Skywalker’s uncle in the 1977 movie. Other scenes are strikingly derivative, too, to the point that Rogue One feels like a stew of Star Wars movies you’ve seen before. It’s always on the verge of tying into some previously known plot point.

Aligning everything Star Wars comes at a cost. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this while seeing the current crop of series films (1977-2015) in theaters, but, whenever something remotely familiar in the Star Wars universe (no matter how obscure) appears on screen, certain audience fanatics audibly react, taking me out of the movie and making me stop and think about what connection, if any, what I may have seen (or missed) has to the story and series. It’s mentally exhausting. There’s a lot of that here, and I’m not supposed to say what. A movie should stand alone and Rogue One does, in some respects, but audience response from series fans may get in the way.

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“Trust the Force” is Rogue One‘s meaning, which is neither more complicated nor more logical than that. Tracking Erso’s daughter (a bland character ably played by Felicity Jones), the tale of mild intrigue revolves around the rebellion’s efforts to halt construction of the evil Empire’s Death Star. As a girl, Erso’s daughter Jyn witnesses an act of heroism and it’s implied that she gets some sort of training (and there’s a kyber crystal) but, more than Rey in The Force Awakens, she inexplicably becomes an adult who’s suddenly imbued with technological, weapons and combat superiority and a curious blend of cynicism and idealism. Lacking sufficient development, Jyn’s journey runs rather flat.

This is not to say that all is dull. Indeed, parents best bear in mind that the Death Star as a means of mass death is fundamental and Walt Disney Pictures’ Lucasfilm doesn’t go soft in this regard. Rogue One reminds everyone that the series created by George Lucas is extremely dark and death-driven. The body count climbs pretty high.

With balmy beaches, jungles, rainy weather, Imperial walkers and destroyers, all kinds of new and familiar aliens, returning cast members, computer generated surprises and new characters, such as a blind monk who may have a same-sex partner (it’s a bit vague) and a drone dubbed K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk (42) that’s both less prissy and more jaded than C-3PO, Rogue One has a lot to look at and listen to. Among the new ride-alongs with hard-charging Jyn are a cagey rebel named Cassian played by Diego Luna (the most developed, consistent and interesting character). A pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) seems half-stoned for most of the movie. But even an urban scene evoking Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner channels the series’ proclivity for hooded, cloaked and caped creatures.

All the rebels are divided over an “extremist” (Forest Whitaker, Arrival, Phenomenon, Black Nativity) who proves crucial to the cause, though he’s not in Rogue One for long. Writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) do their best and cram heaps of plot, character and action, especially in the battle-heavy third act, to dramatize the rebellion converging to win the star wars.

“The Force wills it,” someone says in a climactic battle, and Rogue One may be the most explicitly religious of the Star Wars movies, turning the Force into a catchy new chant. An infidel converts to mysticism. So Rogue One is more about having faith than it is about going rogue. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla remake) downplays compelling and ethically and politically-charged points—questioning unchecked government surveillance of communications, what constitutes peace and security and why self-sacrifice is the series’ highest virtue—in favor of the generic idea that buying time for the good to prevail requires faith, sacrifice and mass death, with hope and dry humor sweetening what’s at root a dark and bitter deal.