Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther 1; Hamlet 2
It Takes a Wakandan Village

First off, let me express my prejudices; I am becoming increasingly disenchanted with super-hero movies. I find them to be a bit one-note and superficial and I really (really) am tired of the "revenge scenario" that seems to dominate super-hero movies, especially when it's the hero who seeks revenge. I'd rather my heroes be heroic. Is that too much to ask—to fit the job-title? And I'd rather that their aspirations be un-ironically for the good. Too often these superhero movies have toughened up their heroes, dressing them in leather and dimming the lights to make them "credible" in a live environment. Credibility isn't a bad thing, it's just that it has a tendency to muddy up the motivations of do-gooder's. I mean, if you want to do good, don't mope about it, or don't be so cavalier that you tend to come off like a jerk. I like humble heroes. I like them spreading the wealth. I like them having a good purpose and a good soul.

I love Black Panther. Oh, it has its issues—some dodgy CGI (don't they all...really?), very confusing early action sequences—you see director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) gain confidence and communicate arena-geography very quickly on a steep learning curve—a derivative story-line (but derivative in an interesting way), the usual things that make me hesitant going to "another" super-hero movie.
But, this one has a good heart. That may be because its story is a bit of a fairy-tale about a distant mystical land and the stuff of kings. There is a child-like wonder to it, its kingdom of Wakanda (located in Nigeria) has a fleshed-out, fully-formed quality to it that you don't get no matter how many times we've seen Asgard in the Thor movies, and the major characters all have a purpose and a clearly defined function that makes you care for each and every one of them. Nobody's an empty plot-device, nobody is marking time, this is a community on film all to the service of the story and (mostly) to the service of the newly-crowned King, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who is taking the mantle for his slain father.*
Wakanda has been blessed (? cursed?) with a huge store of the Marvellian super-metal vibranium—deposited aeons ago by meteorite—and has kept it secret for its own gain, establishing itself as a technological power while keeping the knowledge of it "off the grid." To the world, Wakanda is a peaceful land of textiles and subsistence farming, while beneath an obscuring force-field, the five tribes of Wakanda maintain an alliance of wealth and power which is ruled by succession mitigated by the challenge of ritual combat, their leader taking on not only the mantle of King, but also that of The Black Panther, protector of Wakanda, who is given extraordinary powers by imbibing the broth of a native herb suffused with vibranium.
Except for the vibranium story (which is given a nice "Tell me a story" beginning with a reverberating end question), this is all pretty much communicated by plot and visual story-telling, which, frankly, is just plain wonderful film-making. We, the audience, learn as we go, even as our eyes are popping with incredible art-design and costuming, making the learning part and parcel of the whole experience. Coogler and his artisans have done such an effective job that one wonders if, when the inevitable sequels come out, that uniqueness will fade as it has with other Marvel films, and for a similar leap in imagination, Star Wars, but it's a bit premature to be worrying about that. One should be grateful for what's there that such a worry even exists.
The story proper begins in 1992 in an Oakland project. While the neighborhood kids are out playing B-ball with a basket made of a broken milk-crate, two men are approached by the guards of the King of Wakanda, T'chaka (Atwanda Kani—the son of the actor who plays the older, late King, John Kani). He greets one as his brother, N'jobu (Sterling K. Brown), but it is not a joyous reunion; N'jobu has been sent to America as a Wakandan spy—the nation's only way of keeping tabs on the outside world without betraying its advanced status. It seem N'jobu has been dealing with an international arms smuggler, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis—and not just a CGI Andy Serkis—who's been hovering around the last couple Marvel team movies) to get weapons for giving the villain much prized vibranium. This, the King says, cannot be allowed. There is a family quarrel about this and N'jobu ends up dead for his duplicity. Hidden by a cloak of clouds and night, the Wakandans take off back to Africa, leaving the basketball players to look up in wonder.
That is the past. In present day, T'chaka's son, T'challa, is on his way back to his kingdom to claim the throne, ferried by his personal guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) of the Border Tribe and head of the elite Dora Milaje forces. But first, they must pick up T'challa's former love Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) of the River Tribe, who is working undercover as a Wakandan spy, freeing kidnapped Wakandan women from a slaver group. All safe and sound, they enter the camouflaging force-field hiding the technologically advanced city from the eyes of the world and are greeted by T'Challa's mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his techno-whiz-kid-sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the tribe's spiritual leader. Amid much pomp, T'Challa is installed as King, but not before he is challenged for the position by M'Baku (Winston Duke) of the Jabari Mountain Tribe in a fight for supremacy against a de-powered Black Panther. In a fight to the death, T'Challa convinces the proud M'Baku to yield because "your people need you!"
Already, Black Panther has set itself apart from other "superhero flicks:" it's hero is a combatant, but he must continually prove his place as champion—he has a birth-right, sure, but he has to earn his stature, and he can lose it if he falls short—that sets him apart from the heroes-by-accident and privilege of most of the genre. And that "your people need you" cry has a charitable diplomatic streak that you don't find, either, amongst the "all of nothing" spandex-set. He also has a vast support-system surrounding him, guiding him in his actions, whether supportive or adversarial, to find a path that is most beneficial to all sides. This tests the new Wakandan leader to become the King that he might not otherwise be if left to his own devices.
T'Challa goes to "the spirit realm" to talk to panthers with "Kubrick" eyes.
He'll need it. His greatest challenge in this particular chapter will come from an incident in the past that will ultimately alter the course of the nation of Wakanda in the form of Killmonger** (Michael B. Jordan), who has sided with that Klaue guy to steal vibranium. Here's another thing I like about Black Panther—they do make room for the standard "revenge-story" trope that I find so tiresome in super-hero motivation. However, it is Killmonger who is in the "you shall be avenged" business, following Hamlet, The Lion King and Inigo Montoya to seek revenge for the slaying of his father to the obsessive point of caring about nothing else. That "bit" feels far much more comfortable as a villain motivation than for a hero and as bad a dude as Killmonger is, the film still manages to evoke some sympathy for the guy and his circumstances—an empathy that provides one of the best "grace" notes of the film and sets the movie far above the usual fare by making its "super-hero" actual hero.
After so many years of these films, have film-makers actually started to get it right? There are very few really good super-hero films that are good as merely films, but I can count on one hand how many espouse some sort of selfless heroism—the first Christopher Reeve Superman, Captain America: The First Avenger, Wonder Woman...and this.*** And I will be so bold to say that of every superhero movie I've seen, this and that first one are the only ones I'd recommend for kids. It's the spirit of the thing. And their eyes will pop at the sight of it all. It's good imagination-stirring stuff.
Now, the challenge comes. The second films of the Marvel Studio series all take a large step downward in quality (with the exception of Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Black Panther is on such sure footing, one hopes that the second isn't a mis-step. Director Coogler is saying he'll be back for another and that gives me the most hope that it will be just as edifying—even if the visuals will not be as surprising—as this effort. Very worth seeing.
"I did not yield. And, as you can see, I am not dead.
The challenge continues."

* As seen in Captain America: Civil War —"Jaunty" Jim

**  I know, I know "Killmonger" (shudder), but, trust me, it could have been worse—in the comics, M'Baku is known as "Man-Ape."

*** Okay, I know YOUR favorite may not be there, but I'm talking about completely heroic movies that go right out and un-ironically espouse and show heroism and not make some crack about it. So, yeah, Dark Knight, sure, Winter Soldier and Civil War, okay, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers...then....

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: The Wings of Eagles

The Story: Director cameos are no longer a rare occurrence. Now, you practically have to pay directors not to show up in their own movies. Hitchcock, of course, made an "in-joke" of it after he inserted himself in a scene in an early movie that needed a couple more extras, and, subsequently, did it for every film after, no matter how elaborately he had to do it (but to his credit, he usually put them towards the beginning of the picture to get it "out of the way").  

Of course, some directors you couldn't keep away from appearing before the camera—Orson Welles, for one—and most actor-directors, once they acquire the power to take "the chair" behind the camera, usually have to commit to appearing in the film as well, in order to get the chance to direct. John Huston, gets the award for hubris, though, for his work in The Bible: In the Beginning (which he directed), where he played The Narrator, Noah...and God. Type-casting.

John Ford, never had aspirations to be an actor, although he appeared in some silent films (his brother Francis was the actor in the family). But, when he made The Wings of Eagles, the life-story of the man who wrote They Were Expendable for Ford (Wead received screen-credit for one other Ford film, Airmail), the story came for Wead's introduction to Hollywood, and the director chose to model the director Wead first works with on himself (the first scripts Wead worked on were for directors George W. Hill and Frank Capra), calling him "John Dodge" (Ford? Dodge? Get it?). And it's all there—the cantankerousness, the drinking, the ubiquitous handkerchief and pipe, the dark glasses that hide the bad eye, the Western decor (messy), the four Oscars, the contrariness.

The arc of the scene is fun, and subtle in the way most people don't recognize Ford as being subtle. The set-up and through-line of the joke is that Wayne is paralyzed, and when these "Hollywood types" first see him, they are surprised, solicitous, stopping in mid-"Hollyspeak kiss-off boilerplate" to consider the man and his predicament: Miss Johnson swings open the gate for him (which Wayne gruffly thanks her for, not making a big deal of it); Dodge is stopped in mid-rant by the sight of Wead in the door-way, thinks twice about using his cane-flask for an afternoon libation ("the joke" isn't particularly funny in present company); he tries to offer a hand when Wead starts to struggle off the couch (which is rather crankily refused). Then, when the formalities are over, the agreement made, they abandon him, leaving him to his own resources, wondering what just happened, and to make his own way. Nice. And it's a statement, and it's funny, and it's character-based, and it's all done with pictures. Pure Ford.

And Frank Wead. This is not a "typical" Wayne performance. It has all the trappings of "Oscar-bait"—a debilitation, in this case, paralysis, which Wayne carries off nicely, as Wead got around with braces and canes propping up his dead legs. Think of this: in one scene, Wayne has to pull off an emotional break-up with his wife, with him lying prone on his stomach, his face hidden. Thing is, he's got such screen-presence, he still manages to pull it off, with no other gifts but his voice (and the considerable help of Maureen O'Hara, one of the few actors Wayne couldn't overshadow). Here, they dress him up in too-big, loose clothes to make him look frailer, and towards the end, he even appears—for the only time on-screen—without his toupee. It was a different Wayne role, but one that had the ring of truth to it, printed  legendary (of course) to become the Ford style.

The Set-Up: Former Navy pilot Frank "Spig" Wead (John Wayne) has had his flying career ended by a fall down a flight of stairs in his home, that has left him paralyzed below the waist. Encouraged by his buddies, he has still managed to make himself walk with the use of two canes and braces on his legs. It is in this way that he manages to walk into the offices of movie director John Dodge (Ward Bond), who has made Wead an offer to help the Navy get funding, by writing scripts about the Navy for the movies.


COMMANDER FRANK 'SPIG' WEAD: I’m  Cmdr. Wead.  I think I’m…
MISS JACKSON: I’m sorry, but Mr. Dodge…
MISS JACKSON: I believe, he’s expecting you, Cmdr. Wead.
 WEAD: Thank you.
MISS JACKSON: Cmdr. Wead is here.
DODGE: -blast it, “Stonewall,” I told you I was in conference!  
DODGE: I’m not supposed to be disturbed under any circum…
DODGE: (recovering) Come on in.
DODGE: Come in, come in.  It’s good to see ya.
Dodge goes to shake his hand, but claps him on the shoulder, instead.
WEAD: Fine.
DODGE: Come here.  Sit down.  Make yourself comfortable.
DODGE: Gotta watch that couch.  It’s got a hidden spring in it someplace that surprises you sometimes.
Dodge grabs his cane.  Looks at Wead.  
He thinks twice about it, but brings it over, anyway, hoping to not offend.  Wead grunts his way onto the couch.
Wead looks at the odd pictures on the wall,* and notices Dodge’s cane, as the director sits down next to him.
DODGE: Watch that door.
Dodge fumbles under the cushion and produces two shot-glasses to Wead’s amazement.
DODGE: Here…
WEAD: Familiar?
DODGE: Ah, Commander.  I find that about this time of the afternoon, a little drink’s very good for ya.
DODGE: Good for the old pump, ya know?
WEAD: Yeah? I used to make excuses when I drank in the afternoon, too.
WEAD: Funny thing is…a man always makes the loudest excuses to himself.
DODGE: Yeah.  It’s a fact.

Dodge dismisses the philosophy and hides the cane under the couch.
DODGE: It sure is a fact.   Alright, Commander...
They clink glasses.

DODGE: There ya are.
They drink.
WEAD: ..."Commander" of a portable typewriter.
DODGE: They can be a lot harder to handle than a battleship.
WEAD: I found that out.
DODGE: Hm.  Well, I know you haven’t had much experience, writing.  And none at all in pictures.
DODGE: But, I’ve heard aboutcha.  It all sounded like you were just the man I wanted to write a story about the Navy.
DODGE: I don’t want a story…just about ships and planes, I want a story about the officers and..
WEAD: Yeah. And the men that run them.
DODGE: That’s exactly it.
DODGE: For example, do you know any Chief Petty Officers?
WEAD: Do I!  Hand me that cane!
DODGE: Sure.
WEAD: No, I’m  kidding…
DODGE: Well, I..I want this story from a pen dipped in salt-water, not dry martinis, you know what I mean?
WEAD: Yeah. “Damn the martinis.  Full speed ahead.”
DODGE: Wouldcha like to take a crack at it?
WEAD: That’s why I’m here.
DODGE: Well, That’s good.  C’mon, let’s go.  Can I give you a hand…
WEAD: No! I’m alright.
DODGE: Oh! I’m sorry. Sorry.
DODGE: I didn’t know this man was injured.  Whyn’t you tell me?  Clean out that office across the way.  See that he gets everything he wants.
DODGE: Commander.  What do they call ya?  “Spig,” isn’t it?
WEAD: That’s right.
DODGE: Mind if I call ya “Spig?”
WEAD: Not at all.
DODGE: This is Miss Jackson. 
DODGE: “Stonewall” Jackson, meet Cmdr. Wead.
MISS JACKSON: Hello, Commander.
WEAD: Hello, Miss Jackson. 
WEAD: Mind if I call you “Stonewall?”
MISS JACKSON: Not at all.
DODGE: “Stonewall” has been with me for 22 years.  She’s my barometer.  
DODGE: If she likes a script, I throw it away. Wouldn’t know what to do without her.  Now, go to work.

Dodge starts to go back to his office, but stops for one last thing. 
DODGE: Oh! You didn’t ask about your salary.
WEAD: Well, I figure you’ll pay me what I’m worth.
WEAD: What you have to worry about is if I’m worth what you pay me.
DODGE: It’s a deal.
WEAD: Well, wait a minute…is that all?
DODGE: Well, whattaya need, pencil and paper?
WEAD: Well, what do I write about?
DODGE: People.  Navy people.
Dodge shuts the office door behind him. "Stonewall" goes to prepare his office and Wead is left to contemplate what just happened.
Not sure, he starts off in the direction of the office.

Pictures by Paul Vogel and John Ford

The Wings of Eagles is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

The real Frank Wead, and the fake (and real) John Ford
* IMDB's trivia for The Wings of Eagles says that the drawing that keeps showing up around every corner (and hangs on the last shot) is an early head-shot of John Wayne. It's not; Wayne never used that much make-up on his eyebrows. But that's, for sure, Harry Carey, in the photograph on the left. No, but they do make a joke of Wayne sitting on the couch and glancing up at a Norman Rockwell sketch of himself from The Long Voyage Home hanging on the wall of Dodge's office.