Thelma and Louise (1991)

Written by: Callie Khourie Directed by: Ridley Scot

  Thelma_&_Louiseposter                It’s a sign of my still amateurish relationship to film, that until taking it out of the library the other day I had barely heard of Thelma and Louise. Perhaps I had, but had simply confused it in my head with the numerous other “duo things” I hadn’t seen: Cheech and Chong, Starsky and Hutch, etc. I trust that these works are not very apt comparisons to the film I just saw, but part of me wonders if that’s not a problem. Thelma and Louise is a serious, political movie, yet its character perhaps comes from the fact that it is in fact disguised as something else.

Thelma and Louise is a buddy movie, a roadtrip movie. This setup implies comedy, as did the film’s trailer. I would not say it’s not a comic film: it has its share of light, and comedically shocking lines. But to call the film a comedy, even a black comedy, would miss that it’s a story not focused around its jokes, but around its core theme.

Without giving too much away, Thelma and Louise is a story about gendered violence and how women who fall victim to it are not believed in their accounts of what happened. This is a problem Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) decide to deal with by escaping into the power and hedonistic thrill of an outlaw lifestyle. The film’s “comedic” story is thus not unlike that of Life is Beautiful: it can be appreciated as comedy, but only if one acknowledges that that comedy is an act of rebellion.

The film’s feminism is made obvious by its political premise: one that is explicitly, though not unnaturally, stated in the script. When a movie passes the Bechdel test, however, there will likely be more feminism to it than meets the eye. When we meet Louise and Thelma they fill somewhat familiar roles: Louise the grizzled veteran who knows what she’s talking about, Thelma the naïve sidekick. The film, however, is called Thelma and Louise not Louise and Thelma. This is perhaps because it is Thelma who suffers and transforms more in the period of time depicted on camera; and her transformation eventually allows her to upstage Louise. Thelma thus breaks what one might expect from a character in a buddy comedy: she can be naïve, but this is not her defining feature: in the right situation, she can be the strong, daring and articulate character. The film thus takes a transformative and not a mere reformist approach to the “ditz stereotype,” allowing Thelma to break free from its chains, while not denying her the chance to also show off her naïve side.

To elaborate on the Bechedelian point, the film’s unique feminist status can be seen in how its depicts men. Yes, one man stands out as an antagonist, but there are other problematic men along the way, including cops, who are like enemy robots, in their inability to look beyond the law and empathize with Thelma and Louise’ situation. An other male still is rendered fodder for one of the film’s road comedy scenes. Just as the film is feminist in its depictions of various male dangers, it also finds feminism in its strategic depiction of (sort of) good men (Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Brad Pitt). These characters enter the script providing color and additional layers of emotional complexity in the plot. Their greatest significance, however, is their inability to help the protagonists. Thelma and Louise only have each other, or at least, they come to see it that way.

Thelma and Louise find liberation, but that liberation relies on illusion and carpe diem (again, not unlike Life is Beautiful). This is a powerful image, one beautifully nailed in the film’s classic final scene. Perhaps you’ll spend some moments disappointed about the low ratio of gags to screen time in a film that you may expect to be a buddy comedy in Thelma and Louise, but ultimately it’s the kind of work where its thematic cohesiveness leaves one thoroughly satisfied.

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Incredibles 2

Written and Directed by: Brad Bird

The_Incredibles_2      In a pre-show interview montage shown before screenings of Incredibles 2, writer-director Brad Bird is asked what has happened to his characters since their last film appearance. A smiling Bird assures us, very little, as Incredibles 2 starts ten seconds after the original film ended. Bird’s comment sums up my impression of his sequel: on the one hand its very much in the spirit of the original film, on the other hand it perhaps doesn’t do quite enough to cements its legacy as a standalone work.

Whenever a (non- Toy Story) Pixar sequel comes out, viewers will inevitably rumble about whether it is a truly inspired and justified idea or whether it is a mere money grab. With Incredibles 2 there’s a third explanation that lies between these two poles: it’s a superhero movie. We live in a day and age where Marvel (and other companies who make films about Marvel characters) are having great success producing story after story introducing different heroes and, to a lesser extent, different villains.

The Incredibles (2004) is not a superhero movie in the sense that Iron Man is. It was not created to be part of a complex, ever lasting universe and action-figure industry. Rather, like other Pixar films, it is an attempt to tell a story using a type of character (super heroes, as opposed to toys, bugs, monsters, etc) as a springboard. The impression I got from watching Incredibles 2, however, is that Brad Bird must have gotten into the fact he was now the creator of a superhero universe. Having ended the last film with the introduction of a new supervillain, The Underminer (John Ratzenberger), Bird felt he had another movie, or to put it more aptly, another metaphorical comic book issue, to put out.

The development of the Incredibles as a multi-film superhero universe has some good elements to it. The Underminer makes for a good villain in the Batman/Spiderman tradition. Furthermore, perhaps taking a page from The Avengers’ book, Bird used this movie to bring heroes besides the Incredibles and Frozen out of hiding. These characters are well designed, and the one we get to know a bit, Void, (Sophia Bush) has powers that perfectly straddle the line between being useful and being hopelessly cartoonish.

The downside of the Incredibles becoming a superhero franchise, however, is that the film relies heavily on its internal logic. What do I mean by this? Well, Pixar films are generally defined by being about a unique subset of characters, and their plots are creatively extracted from that source material. The Toy Story Series worked, because each film was based on the foundational question. “What themes should and could a story about toys deal with?” This led to a series of further questions that defined and distinguished the three films: What is it like to have your favourite toy status challenged?/What does it mean not to be real?; How do you deal with abandonment?/ Is immortality in a museum worth it?; and Can your human love you forever?/Is life with preschoolers bearable? Incredibles worked similarly, asking questions about what it means to have powers and to be admired for it. The difference between Incredibles 2 and Incredibles, however, is smaller than that between Toy Story and Toy Story 2. This is because Incredibles 2 was not rooted in the foundational question: “What would it mean to make a movie about superheroes?”. Instead, its foundational question was: “What would it mean to make another movie about the Incredibles?”.

Furthermore, the villain of Incredibles (I won’t be specific in case you haven’t seen it yet) has an origin story rooted, again, in the question of “What kind of characters could exist in a superhero movie?.” While this logic applies somewhat to the villain- origin story in Incredibles 2, the latter villainous motive feels a tad more forced: it is a motive that can’t be (or at least wasn’t) expressed as smoothly and succinctly as the motive in Incredibles. Further more, while the revelation of the villain in Incredibles is a clever, witty reveal, the equivalent moment in Incredibles 2 can be sensed from a mile away (the only surprise for me was the number of villains not their identity).

Another notable element of Incredibles 2 is its gender politics. The film casts Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as opposed to her husband Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) in the central action roll. Mr. Incredible meanwhile is left to care for superhero kids Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack (Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner and Eli Fucile). Elastigirl is given the opportunity to go on missions after a billionaire hero-fan Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) decides, she as the less reckless of the two, would be the best option for rehabilitating the reputation of heroes. For a moment this idea seems to develop into a deeper theme. At one moment Elastigirl and Winston’s sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) share a conversation, in which Evelyn bemoans that her brother has been more successful than her, despite his reliance on her invention skills (a joint critique of patriarchy and capitalism). This theme, however, is ultimately left underdeveloped. The Incredibles has an intentionally ambiguous gender politics: on the one hand it depicts a traditional nuclear family, while on the other, hand making clear that Elastigirl had an assertive, Rosie Riveter side to her. Incredibles 2 rocks the boat a bit more, but ultimately stays loyal to this formula. Perhaps this was the wise move given that the series’ premise is that a family can thrive as a Fantastic 4-like-super-team despite its mild dysfunctions.

Incredibles 2 is dynamic and full of funny moments. It also manages to be better than most superhero movies in that it is not too reliant on action. When it is action rich, the action is humorous, or at least creative. Perhaps this Pixar sequel does not enrich its universe with characters comparable to Jessie, Lotso Huggin Bear or even Emperor Zurg, but even as Incredibles 2 doesn’t sore to new heights, it doesn’t disappoint either—dah-lings.

First Reformed (2017)

Written and Directed by: Paul Schrader

   First_Reformed         Sombre, historic, (potentially) creepy: these are all adjectives conjured in the opening scenes of First Reformed, starting with a still image of a Dutch-colonial church in modern Albany. Of course it’s hard to know exactly what ideas to associate with this setting. Does one think of the conservatism of small-town, white Christian America, or the progressivism of Northeasterners whose religious traditions trace back to those of English dissident-Christians fleeing persecution?

This tension provides an underlying foundation for First Reformed, the story of a the historic church’s minister, Toller (Ethan Hawke). Right away we are made to understand he is devout. Given the distinct political positions “Hollywood” and “Christianity” occupy in American society, this shapes our assumptions further. Soon thereafter, however, we discover Toller can in fact move between philosophical traditions, existing somewhere on the liberation theology spectrum. The contrast between this information and our initial assumptions (that he’s part of mainstream “Christian America”) goes on to feed the film’s plot.

I say all of this because the experience of watching First Reformed is one of seeing dichotomies played with. In addition to challenging the assumptions of many viewers about the relationship between “Christian” and “liberal/secular” America, First Reformed also juxtaposes: the past and the present/ future (most notably in a scene where a humourless hymnal choir sings a Neil Young song); the relationship between self-help and selflessness; the political and the apolitical; the folksy chapel and the megachurch (led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles)) and even popular understandings of Christianity in contrast to popular understanding of Islam.

Most important to this film, however, is its exploration of the dichotomy between the clergy and the layman. Toller’s life is gradually, but drastically altered after an encounter with Mary, a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband wants her to abort. At the outset of this plot we still expect Toller’s character to be a stereotypical American Christian: staunchly pro-life. His exact politics on abortion are never made clear, however, he does respond to the situation with sageness and authoritativeness.

The sageness never goes away. The authoritativeness doesn’t either, at least not in Toller’s eyes. The audience, by contrast, is gradually brought to see Toller’s vulnerabilities. The odd result of this is that as the film draws to its close, viewers are almost made to feel that they are watching an indie-drama about a young, hip millennial trying to get their life together, not the story of a 46 year-old Christian authority.

First Reformed is not a plotless movie. It develops its character, leading him to make a dramatic decision as the film approaches its climax. That said, because it is so focused on the idiosyncrasies of its protagonist, it nonetheless manages to resemble low-intensity films in the process. This rich, blend of cinematic-character, coupled with the film’s environmentalist politics, makes viewing it a very striking experience.

There are times when First Reformed goes beyond being an interesting piece of art. The film’s first environmentalist scene is near apocalyptic in its rhetoric (a feeling heightened by the story’s Christian foundations). It was a scene that gave me pause. Perhaps it was striking and different enough to indeed have political weight, or perhaps it would disturb viewers to the point of them wanting to pretend that climate change doesn’t exist. Either way, this intense feeling is toned down a little, as the film comes to be more about Toller’s persona.

First Reformed is a political movie that wants to provide answers, but is too pre-occupied with exploring contradictions to ultimately produce those answers (so the film is a contradiction itself). Disturbing, whimsical and directly ideological, it has the potential to be the kind of gospel that resonates in and beyond the pulpit.

Drugstore Cowboy (1988)

Directed by: Gus Van Sant Written by: Vant Sant and Daniel Yost

Drugstore_Cowboy        One of my favourite quotations is Marx’s line that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. In fact I’m sure I’ve opened an article that exact way before. I nonetheless feel inspired to cite it again, simply because I feel it has unique applicability in the case of Drugstore Cowboy.

One of the songs in the film is reggae tune “The Israelites” which includes the line “Look me shirts them a tear up, my trousers are gone/I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.” That song drew my attention to the similarities between Drugstore Cowboy and the 1967 film.

Drugstore Cowboy is the story of pill thief and heroin addict Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon), who operates alongside his girlfriend Diane (Kelly Lynch). This is where the Bonnie and Clyde parallels begin. Bonnie and Clyde are not in a romantic partnership. Bob and Dianne are. However, by the time of Drugstore Cowboy, Bob, much like Clyde, shows he is too caught up in his world of crime to be at all interested in sexual advances. Drugstore Cowboy also invokes the older film in featuring a single scene with cautionary warnings from Bob’s mother (the equivalent scene in the older film feature’s Bonnie’s mother).

When one hears the tragedy and farce quote, one expect history to repeat itself less tragically than the first time around: with more innate silliness. That is not the case with Bonnie and Clyde and Drugstore Cowboy. The older film is a mix of genres: it’s a western, a tragedy and a comedy. Drugstore Cowboy, reinvents this formula. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, it is not a film with multiple tones: it has a constant dark edge to it. The farce of Drugstore Cowboy therefore is that it makes a mockery of the idea of a crime-drama-with-comedic-elements by showing there is regularly absurdity in the world of crime (for example, Bob’s superstition about leaving hats on beds), but that somehow even this humour is deadly serious.

Nowhere is the tonal contrast between Drugstore Cowboy and Bonnie and Clyde more apparent, however, than in the character of Nadine (Heather Graham). In Bonnie and Clyde the robbing couple’s gang is complimented by Clyde’s brother, a comparably generic character, and his wife Blanche, a parson’s daughter who is the gang’s innocent, reluctant tag-along. Nadine is the girlfriend of Bob’s underdeveloped gang member Rick, and though no parsons daughter, is very young and has no history of drug usage. Nadine’s innocence, however is less pronounced than Blanche’s, and more importantly, it’s a characteristic she rebels against. Thus again, through its seriousness, Drugstore Cowboy makes a mockery of Bonnie and Clyde’s imagining of the crime world: how, it asks, can an innocent gang member truly maintain themselves in a world that’s far from innocent.

None of this is to say that Drugstore Cowboy is the anti-Bonnie and Clyde. Both are dark films with humorous elements, and both seek to humanize those who have fallen onto the other side of the law. Nonetheless, there’s certainly something to Drugstore Cowboy’s 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Genre-mixing is often a character trait of great films, but its often something that throws viewers off. As I noted in my review of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s script was subject to somewhat undeserved flack due to the fact that many reviewers didn’t consider its multi-genre, complex tone when interpreting its message. Drugstore Cowboy is a different kind of a multi-genre film. Films like Bonnie and Clyde and TBOEM are like the color black: a mixture of all colors expressed together at once. Drugstore Cowboy, by contrast, is white: it is also all the colors, but in their natural unified state.

 

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Written and Directed by: Wes Anderson

IsleOfDogsFirstLook       A 12-year old boy (Koyu Rankin) with superficial resemblance to Le Petit Prince crash lands on an island of trash. He meets a team of stray dogs classically named King (Bob Babalan), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), Rex (Edward Norton) and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Four of the dogs eagerly assist the teary-eyed boy on a quest to find his own dog, Spots (Liev Schrieber). Chief, by contrast, is reserved, but we can foresee that he has a soft exterior. What I have just described probably sounds like a children’s movie.

Except, early in this “children’s movie” a dog’s ear is ripped off, and we see it in its bloody glory (violence against dogs is a recurring motif of Wes Anderson’s: needless to say there’s a beautiful, dark irony to referencing the subject in this film). We also learn that the dogs on his trash island are exiles, deported by dictatorial, strong-willed Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), victims of (albeit cartoonish) harsh, populist bigotry. Finally, we are given strong reason to believe that the boy, Atari’s, dog Spots is no longer alive. Suddenly, this film no longer sounds like a children’s movie.

This is an issue Wes Anderson acknowledged at a Q&A, saying it was a question he and his team grappled with in the plot development process: they considered that their film would be quite disturbing for children. Anderson and the audience, however, questioned the dichotomy of thinking of films as being for children or adults, noting the role of anime in Japan. While an audience member pointed out that in America animation is either Frozen or South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, anime films appeal to a spectrum of audiences, and even (eg Spirited Away) straddle the children’s-adult line in uncomfortable ways akin to Isle of Dogs.

While anime was perhaps an influence on Isle of Dogs (Anderson cited his interested in Japanese filmmakers like Miyazaki as the reason for his setting Isle of Dogs in Japan), there is something distinct about Anderson’s approach to not-for-kids animation. As a filmmaker coming from the American context, and as someone whose last animated feature was a Roald Dahl adaptation, Anderson’s decision to make his film not exactly kid-friendly has a (somewhat) shocking affect. Anderson is aware of this tonal quality of his work, and thus doesn’t miss an opportunity to be playfully shocking. A recurring motif in the film is dogs getting into fights. These scraps are covered up by cartoon dust clouds. On the one hand Anderson is depicting his cute doggie characters as fighting, thus disrupting the illusion of his movie being for kids. On the flip side, he covers up the fights with a Looney Tunes style visual-aid, disrupting his adult-darkness.

Isle of Dogs can thus be said to have a distinct aesthetic: a little bit cute, and a little bit scrappy, much like its stray protagonists. This aesthetic juxtaposes nicely with Anderson’s established practice of depicting quirkily colourful, yet meticulously organized backgrounds. One of the film’s iconic scenes features the dogs examining a bag of “food,” which is in fact a maggot covered collection of scraps. The food items are meticulously lined up in the bag, and are named one-by-one, complete with adjectives, by one of the dogs. This makes them beautiful, even as, from multiple sensual perspectives they are thoroughly unappealing to human and dog-stomachs alike.

Plot wise, Isle of Dogs is a bit simple, which is not necessarily a bad thing given the film’s pseudo-children’s-movie styling. While it opens beautifully with reference to a heroic young warrior standing up to ancestors of Mayor Kobayashi who wanted to wipe out Japan’s dogs, this legend is never revisited over the course of the script. Mayor Kobayashi’s own anti-dog policies are portrayed “as corruption,” rather than part of a deranged, multi-generational ideology. The uneven depiction of the mayor may have several explanations. Perhaps, like The Shape of Water, Isle of Dogs wants to reference oppressive politics, without muddling its script in the details ideology. Perhaps Anderson wanted to make vague anti-Trump illusions (Kobayashi is not only an anti-dog bigot, but his political opposition comes from “The Science Party” (perhaps reference to Trump and his party’s persistent climate change denial)), while still making his film enjoyable to audiences of all political persuasions.

One might also assume that since Anderson is an aesthetic-driven filmmaker, he saw Kobayashi not so much as a depiction of real world politicians, but as a politician-doll in the elaborate dollhouse of his movie. This third argument makes sense when one considers some of the more effective parts of Kobayashi’s portrayal. For example. there is one scene where the members of Kobayashi’s administration are introduced one by one, as he meticulously explains his devious anti-dog plot. This scene is comedic rather than sinister as it comes across as a gleeful imagining of what cartoon, corrupt politicians could look like, rather than a realistic depiction of an evil scheme. Another example of Kobayashi being a mere “dollhouse villain” comes when a dynamic speech of his is interrupted by an electric sign announcing that it is time for the opposition party to  offer a rebuttal. While the opposition (Science Party) is clearly not given a meaningful chance to challenge Kobayashi’s rule, that is given this tokenistic avenue to interrupt Kobayashi is a credit to Anderson’s imagination of the absurd nuances that could exist in a futuristic, oppressive polity.

In all, Isle of Dogs is a visually masterful effort, particularly as it makes use of its multiple genres of animation. Like its predecessor, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it can also be seen as a successful combination of established Andersonian visual techniques with broadly-appealing comedy. It is dark and playful and as such should capture the imaginations of a broad range of viewers from those who appreciate the unmistakably Andersonian tone of Nutmeg the reluctant-show-dog (Scarlett Johansson), to those who simply appreciate a good Yoko Ono cameo.

 

Note: Isle of Dogs was recently subject to some scrutiny in regards to the question of cultural appropriation. I will be following up with some views on that topic in a separate piece.

 

Black Panther (2018)

Directed by Ryan Coogler: Written by: Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

Black_Panther_film_posterThe one subset of action movies I’ve reliably enjoyed over the years has been Star Wars films. There’s probably more than one reason for this. Part of it may just be how much it’s drilled in to our heads that we’re supposed to love Star Wars. That may explain in part why I was able to enjoy the later fight scenes in Black Panther that bear some aesthetic resemblance to the final battle in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menaces.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that Star Wars, unlike most superhero media, tries to make its characters appealing beyond their tendency to fight. While this trait is most apparent in R2, C3-PO and Yoda, it extends to the franchise’s humans too.

Black Panther doesn’t really have droid equivalents. All of its characters are intelligent, fully capable fighters. The partial exceptions to this logic are Everett Ross; (Martin Freeman) a CIA agents, whose loveable loser affect is simply an illusion of his being overwhelmed by Wakandan society; and Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther (aka T’Challa)’s little sister whose competence comes across as comically exaggerated (she’s a 16 year-old who seemingly singlehandedly invents every high-tech gadget in Wakanda). Nevertheless, Black Panther shares Star Wars’ ability to make you care about its characters beyond their ability to pull a punch.

The result for both films is that even non-action fans can be made to love their action scenes. Why? Because viewers can really appreciate the tension: revelling in a conflict between strong-willed characters while wanting neither to die. This is the feeling I get when watching Rey fight Kylo Ren, and the feeling I get when watching T’Challa face Killmonger.

So for those with no idea, what is this Star Wars of Marvel movies all about? It’s the story of T’Challah (Chadwick Boseman) as he ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African country. The film follows loosely from events in Captain America: Civil War, giving its beginning a bit of a chaotic feel. Rest assured, however, one need not remember the original film (or have any appreciation of the many facets of the Marvel universe) to enjoy Black Panther. Wakanda is believed by the outside world to exist in dire poverty, but that’s because it is highly secretive about its voluminous access to an all-purpose metal known as vibranium, which in fact makes Wakanda a global technology leader.

Wakanda, however, also maintains a form of government that many of might view as dated. It is ruled by what appears to be a hereditary, male-centric monarchy. The line of royal descent can be interrupted, but only if the heir to the throne/monarch is challenged to participate in combat on a waterfall’s edge. The first depiction of one of these fights is as visually stunning as it is terrifying.

The film’s plot is ultimately driven by fights over vibranium access. T’Challah, along with his lead guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Wakandan spy/his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leave Wakanda in pursuit of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a South African arms dealer who has irked a desire for vengeance from Wakandan guard/rhino trainer W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). The pursuit of Klaue, however, brings Wakanda face to face with Killmonger. The latter villain is more dangerous than Klaue both because of his raw strength and because he actually has convictions (for what it’s worth, Serkis describes Klaue as being motivated by a desire to expose Wakandan hypocrisy, however this is a level of nuance that doesn’t really make it into the story).

Black Panther is in some ways a political movie, a narrative that has broken into the world of social media. Some have argued that its problem is that its heroes, the Wakandan rulers, collaborate with the CIA, unlike Killmonger who as an anti-colonialist is the true hero. This critique in its simplest form is exaggerated. Firstly, the CIA character largely comes across as a feeble tool. Only his fleeting appearance at a UN meeting at the end of the film can be said to legitimize his political work (one could also argue the film creates a problematic good-white, bad-white dichotomy between South African Klaue and American Ross, but that’s a stretch). Secondly, the film makes it pretty plain that one is supposed to sympathize with Killmonger, and even more so with his ideals, regardless of the fact that he fills the antagonist niche. Marvel has already given us a likeable villain in Loki.  Killmonger can easily be understood as a reapplication of this concept, albeit in a more serious context. Thirdly, the film is not as political as some descriptions make it out to be. Both Killmonger and T’Challah have inherited their politics via a game of broken telephone with older generations. Therefore, their ideologies are not fully coherent, meaning their political battles aren’t so much clashes of ideas, but heartbreaking wars between two idealistic human psyches.

In so far as Black Panther is political, however, it raises some interesting issues. One way to describe its political clash is as being between identitarian leftists (Wakanda) who fight for their ability to express their distinct way of being as a people, and universalist leftists (Killmonger, to an extent), who see liberation as coming through global collaboration against colonialism. The film also evokes a similar idea to Ta-Nehaisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power (I refer to the title/broad idea of the book, I haven’t actually read it). Coates’ book speaks to the idea that even having a black president couldn’t end racism in America. Coogler’s film takes that idea to the next level by positing that even in a world with a black superpower, global black oppression may not be brought to an end.

Finally, there’s another political question that may not be appropriate to ask, since Coogler and Cole may simply not even have considered it in creating the film. Every Wakandan we see knows the royal family personally. This begs the question of whether Wakanda is in fact a wealthy country, or whether it is yet another case a third world state with a very comfortable, and perhaps blissfully ignorant, ruling class. While I believe Black Panther is supposed to be viewed with the assumption that T’Challah and his comrades are well-meaning in their approach to governance and social-justice, it is certainly possible that Wakanda’s idealistic shortcomings are the result of it being a feudalist and/or capitalist society.

Black Panther has a lot going for it including a diverse visual pallet, gripping tension, and a good range of characters (I’ve neglected to mention appearances by Angela Basset, Sterling K. Brown and Forest Whitaker). Perhaps most importantly, the film features not just one, but two compelling villains (a quality lacking in films such as Thor: Ragnorak). While Killmonger particularly stands out, Klaue is no place filler either: there is something unique to his giggly-murderousness. If you are a Marvel fan, I think its safe to say that Black Panther lives up to the hype. If you’re not, this Marvel-meets-Star-War-meets-Afro-futurism-oeuvre may pleasantly surprise you.

Bambi (1942)

Directed by (supervising): David Hand+many others

Written by: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, etc.

Walt_Disney's_Bambi_posterDespite its being a children’s classic, I only saw Bambi for the first time the other day. I knew the basics going in: it was about a deer, and that something tragic, certainly by kids’ movie standards, befalls him. Bambi is a simple film, and therefore the above description does it some justice. Nonetheless, it should be further noted that Bambi has a tone that makes it comparable to few other children’s films. It feels primitive, but not in a bad way.

Had I not done my research, I might have supposed that Bambi was the first ever Disney animated feature-film (it’s not, Snow WhitePinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo all predate it). Through the eyes of its young protagonist, Bambi uncovers the wonders of the woods, and these moments of wondrous discovery have a meta-quality to them. It is as if the animators are not just saying “look Bambi has found water,” but “look at how beautifully we can animate water.”

It is undeniable that Bambi is a film about its aesthetic. The turning of the seasons is another of its important plot points, and a source of the film’s beauty. This is especially noticeable as fall comes around and the animation is simplified to represent the chaos of a hunt. Bambi’s being an aesthetic-focused film is also seen in the way it uses music. Unlike its predecessors, Bambi’s characters don’t sing, instead (as seen in later films like Peter Pan), songs are performed by an invisible chorus. Such a song is used, for instance, to show the pleasant side of raindrops “drip, drip, drip go the April showers.”

But Bambi’s not being a musical simultaneously points to the film’s other provocative trait. Again, many will watch Bambi knowing a major, tragic, spoiler (one out of principal, perhaps absurdly, I won’t spell out). This tragedy has to be understood in context, however. A good point of comparison here would be Finding Nemo. The latter film includes realistic looking fish, living within a realistic looking environment, but within that environment it anthropomorphizes them as much as it reasonably can: a fish can read, and there are sharks that want to be vegetarian. Most importantly, however, its protagonist, Marlin, is neurotic. Marlin is not like other fish: a trauma leads him to become uniquely overprotective of his son. Bambi, like Marlin, suffers a trauma, and yet this trauma is not shown to impact Bambi’s psychology. The eeriness of what happens to Bambi therefore, is not simply that it happens to him, but that it is stripped of emotional weight: we are supposed to understand it as part of the life of a deer, and then forget about it. So why do characters as distinct as Snow White, Claude Frollo and Thomas O’Malley sing, but Bambi doesn’t? Because, unlike those and most other Disney characters, Bambi lives without an individualized sense of purpose and struggle.

The oddness of seeing Bambi in contrast to the numerous animated films about animals that have been produced since is that it does not have room for “deer who are not like other deer.” Bambi’s dramas are not the result of his own personality traits, but the inevitable outcome of his being a deer growing up in a world of predators and prey. While I honestly have no idea how I would have reacted to the film had I seen it as a child, in some ways I found it kind of disturbing. The name Bambi has become synonymous with a degree of personality: we think of the expression “Bambi eyes,” and thus associate with the name with gentleness, innocence, flirtatiousness, etc. Maybe there is no one way to be “a Bambi,” but “Bambi” is certainly a way of being. The original Bambi, disappoints or at least defies our expectations in this regard, however. His “Bambiness” is merely a function of his young childhood, and as he grows up he leaves his “Bambiness” behind and becomes indistinguishable from his father (who is himself somewhat of a blank canvass).

There are a number of ways to think about Bambi. One could think of it as being about the woodland-aesthetic, and its decision to star a de-individualized protagonist stems from that. Alternatively, one could posit the opposite theory: the creators decided a deer couldn’t be individualized, and as such Bambi became an aesthetic rather than a plot driven film. Thirdly, perhaps Bambi’s deindividualization is not just the result of a lack of anthropomorphization, but reflective of an old fashioned understanding of masculinity: boys are boys, then they man up and become men; protective, but emotionally distant men.

In short, there is something sets apart the experience of watching Bambi from watching other Disney Classics: it is not so much a story as it is the tracing of a life cycle of a deer. That said, readers who have not seen the work should not mistake my analysis for saying Bambi is an experimental oddity. It more or less has a linear plot, and, like many classic Disney works, it is brightened up via dynamic supporting characters: Thumper, a chipper bunny, Flower, a grateful-for-any-affection skunk, and the gentle curmudgeon Friend Owl. For those whose Disney education is Frozen and Moana, Bambi may feel somewhat unrecognizable, but it can still give children and film fans alike something to appreciate