Black Panther – Review

The road towards a fully integrated Cinematic Universe hasn’t been an easy one for Marvel.  First of all, they began an ambitious plan to bring all their characters together on screen without even their biggest guns at their disposal; those being Spider-Man and the X-Men (at least not right away).  To put the weight of their plan onto the shoulders of the likes of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America was a risky move to take, but it paid off spectacularly.  Now the face of Marvel comics centers around the team known as the Avengers, and it’s a body of characters that is growing bigger with every new turn and also more diverse.  The great thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has brought attention to characters from the comics that otherwise wouldn’t have been given the spotlight otherwise.  It has brought interest into the deep and varied Marvel catalog from people who for the most part are unfamiliar with the original comics, just because of how integrated they are to the continuing Marvel narrative.  And this has helped to make once obscure characters like The Vision, Hawkeye, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange become household names on their own.  Somehow, Marvel has tapped into something remarkable here and it has helped their brand achieve astronomical success, ensuring that no matter what character they bring to the screen, they will still yield the same results.  Carefully planning to make this all work is also necessary, and Marvel has chosen it’s progression of projects wisely.  As we approach the end of Phase 3 in the MCU, the studio seems now more confident than ever with granting the spotlight to characters who have long been overlooked before, and with a character like Black Panther finally making it to the big screen, the spotlight carries even more importance than before.

Black Panther is poised to be not just another blockbuster added to Marvel’s collection, but also a groundbreaking film in it’s own right.  Here we have a super hero film that features an African superhero, a predominantly black cast, is written and directed by an African American, and is set almost entirely within the African continent.  No other big studio movie has ever given this much of a focus to an Afrocentric perspective and that alone is groundbreaking.  It of course is not the first movie to center around a black super hero (1998’s Blade) nor is it the first super hero movie to be made by a black director (2005’s Fantastic Four, directed by Tim Story).  Black Panther does however place more focus than any super hero movie before on it’s central character’s cultural significance, both as a symbol and as a role model.  Director Ryan Coogler, who has seen a meteoric rise in Hollywood following his success with Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), has made a concerted effort with his adaptation here to tie Black Panther’s story together with his place not just in comic book history but within all of black history itself.  This has led to some more ill-informed critics out there to criticize this movie before it’s release, saying that it is merely propaganda for a “black power” movement.  Before I get into the movie, I really need to point out how bogus a critique this is.  When Marvel legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther in the 1960’s, they didn’t do so to push some kind of “black” agenda; they created him because he an interesting character with a fascinating story.  The same appeal of the character is what drove Disney and Marvel to green-light a movie adaptation as well.  Really the only ones pushing any kind of agenda are the blowhards trying to capitalize on a popular movie to further their own toxic opinions.  Black Panther is a difference making movie to be sure, but does that translate into an excellent movie in general, or one that is not worthy of the frenzy around it?

The movie follows soon after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), where Black Panther made his debut into the MCU.  Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) descends from a long line of monarchs who rule the isolated African nation of Wakanda, and is also bestowed the powers of the Black Panther, which gives him superhuman strength and agility, further enhanced by his super high-tech armor.  After the death of his father T’Chaka (John Cani) from Civil War, T’Challa returns to Wakanda, which is a super advanced technological society that hides it’s true nature from the rest of the world.  There he is crowned the new king through an ancient ritual, conducted by the high priest Zuri (Forest Whitaker), which grants him the full mantle of the Black Panther powers.  He is also granted new advanced armor by his gadget making sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Upon becoming king, he undertakes his first duty by bringing to justice a longtime enemy of his kingdom, the outlaw smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who has been stealing the nation’s most valuable resource, Vibranium, for decades.  Teamed up with his government’s most valuable spy, and a former girlfriend, named Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his most trusted general Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira) they track Klaue down to a casino in South Korea where he is about to make a black market sale.  The buyer it turns out is an old acquaintance of T’Challa from the Civil War events, CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who is seeking to deal with Klaue his own way.  They capture their target, but argue over what to do with him, and Klaue is broken free by his accomplices.  However, one of those accomplices, a mercenary named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has his own agenda and betrays Klaue as a way of getting passage into Wakanda.  Once there, he proclaims his own royal ancestry, being the son of T’Challa’s murdered uncle N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), giving him a claim to the throne himself.  With the balance of Wakanda’s future in their hands, T’Challa and Erik battle out for the right of kingship and their victories could end up making Wakanda either an isolated but peaceful nation, or an imperialist world power.

It is quite striking when watching the movie to see just much more political it is than the average Marvel film.  That’s not to say that it is agenda driven, like so many critics have proclaimed, but it doesn’t tip toe around many hard-hitting issues like so many other films of this genre usually do.  The movie refreshingly takes into perspective real world issues, like racial inequality and the evils of imperialism and manages to work them into the grander Marvel Cinematic Universe without ever feeling out of place.  I applaud Marvel for allowing such topics to be risen within their narrative, because in many ways it helps to bring a greater importance to Black Panther’s role as a part of this universe and also help to give a much bigger spotlight to these issues than they otherwise would have had.  The movie also manages to avoid being preachy as well, delivering it’s messages in a way that services the story rather than distracts from them.  Director Ryan Coogler knows what genre he is working within, and he still delivers all the expected thrills you would expect from a Marvel film in addition to never ignoring the larger points.  The effectiveness of how well he touches upon the politics within this movie, both with the internal dynamics of Wakandan society and with those of the real world, is where Coogler’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker come out here.  Black Panther is probably the most richly plotted movie in the MCU, because of the fact that so many of the characters’ motivations have real world implications.  This is especially seen in the dynamic between T’Challa, a noble spirit who has lived his whole life in a bubble, and Erik Killmonger, who has seen nothing but prejudice and hardship his whole life.  It not only makes for an intriguing debate, but a captivating story-line as well.  It’s not the first time that politics have found it’s way into a Super Hero movie, and especially not the first with the MCU, as the Captain America movies have already demonstrated.  But, with Black Panther, the politics feel more integrated than ever into the narrative because here we see that the larger issues not only are a matter of a difference in opinion, but are also tied directly into the identity of ever character within the story.

One of the things that especially makes the movie worthwhile is the characters.  This is perhaps one of the greatest ensembles ever assembled for a super hero film ever; on par with the likes of The Avengers (2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  Nearly every character is given plenty to do and some are outright scene-stealers as a result.  What especially special about this is the fact that most of the cast are of either African nationality or of African descent.  Despite their places of origin, some African-American like Chadwick Boseman or Danai Guira, or African-British like Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya, or native African like Lupita Nyong’o, they all do an excellent job of portraying the identity of being part of the rich Wakandan heritage, and making the fictional African nation feel so alive with personality.  I love all the different perspectives that they bring to the story as well, and how they bounce off of each other.  Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia and Danai Gurira’s Okoye offer an interesting contrast in views that help to inform T’Challa’s inner struggle, as the former makes the case for a more open society while the other argues for tradition which has kept them safe.  In particular, I probably enjoyed the character of Okoye the most because of how much her stoic personality contrasted with everyone else, making her a very fun character to watch.  Letitia Wright’s Shuri will probably be a fan favorite because of her often hilarious upbeat attitude, which sometimes leads her to making some off-the-wall mischief.  It’s also neat to see Andy Serkis perform for once without of motion capture animation, and he is clearly relishing it with his scenery chewing performance.  He even gets to share a scene with his Hobbit co-star Martin Freeman, which led to some people jokingly referring to the pair as the “Tolkein white guys” of this movie.  The finest performance though goes to Michael B. Jordan who creates one of the most fascinating Marvel villains ever with Killmonger.  More than any film before, we understand the motivations behind his evil intentions, and it underlines the themes of identity even more within the narrative.  Jordan also does an incredible job of balancing the pathos behind the character with the intimidation that he projects, making him a far more rounded character in general.

If the movie does have a weakness though, I sadly have to say it’s the character of T’Challa himself.  This isn’t to say that the character is all together bad, or that Chadwick Boseman gives a bad performance.  Far from it.  It’s just that the narrative spends so much time giving attention to other aspects of the story, including it’s message and all the supporting character’s plot lines, that it leaves little room left for character development for it’s central hero.  There seems to be big chunks of this movie where T’Challa seems either forgotten or inconsequential to what is going on in the plot, and that sadly causes the movie to lag every time it returns attention back to the character.  In a way, T’Challa is the one victim within his own movie because of it’s placement within the Marvel universe.  Had the movie stood on it’s own, things might have been different for the character, but the reason why he remain so uninteresting within the narrative of this film is because he has already gone through his growth as a character in another movie.  T’Challa had a far more substantive character arc in the events of Captain America: Civil War, where he grew from a person driven by vengeance to eventually becoming someone motivated by mercy.  It’s a character progression that defines the person he is and fits very well into the story of his nation as well.  Unfortunately, because that story line has already been mined somewhere else, it leaves nothing left for the movie with him at the center.  Instead, T’Challa more or less stays the same throughout the narrative, changing very little and only moving towards a conclusion that he was already heading in the first place.  At one point in the movie, T’Challa even disappears for a good chunk of time, making it apparent that even Ryan Coogler found little use for him for a period of time.  Still, Chadwick Boseman’s performance is as solid as ever, carrying over the same charisma he displayed for the character in Civil War.  The positive thing is that he now gets to headline his own movie, and his talents as an actor are used well here, making this a movie that will propel him even further into stardom, which is well deserved.

What I do have to say about the film, apart from the characters and the well delivered political subtext, is just how much it triumphs at world building.  Wakanda is an important location within the Marvel comics mythos, and after a couple teases in prior Marvel films, we finally get to see it in all it’s glory.  A lot of praise must go to the imaginative design team behind this film, because they created a truly awe-inspiring place with Wakanda.  As established within the film, Wakanda has been a community that grew out of ancient African culture but was propelled by it’s access to the valuable resource of Vibranium metal (the same material that Captain America’s shield is made out of).  Because of the valuable properties of their metal, Wakandans hid their true nature from the rest of the world in the hopes that it would prevent bloodshed from arising over possession of the resource.  As a result, their culture grew into a super-advanced society while still maintaining it’s traditional African identity.  What results is this beautifully Africanized metropolis that seems out of this world while at the same time earthbound.  I love the way that the movie mixes supernatural elements like electromagnetic hover crafts and laser projected shields and combines them with traditional African iconography.  These include brilliant ideas like Okoye’s super spear which can take out a moving vehicle, or the majesty of T’Challa’s palace which is modeled after West African mud huts but on the scale of a Dubai skyscraper.  And also, armor-plated rhinos; need I say more.  The costumes alone, done by Ruth E. Carter are eye-catchingly beautiful.  Ryan Coogler and his team brilliantly capture the identity of the Wakandan nation and make it as breathtaking as any world we’ve encountered in the Marvel universe so far.  Doing so is crucial, as Wakanda apparently has a major role to play in the Marvel Universe going forward.  In that regard, the movie has done it’s job brilliantly, because I am ever so eager to see more of Wakanda after this film.

With regards to it’s place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther certainly stands as a triumph.  I’ll have to think a little longer about where I would place it in my own personal ranking, but it certainly belongs in the upper half, even despite some of it’s shortcomings.  I feel that it kind of unfortunately suffers some road blocks because of how little development it leaves for it’s main character, but it’s nothing that robs too much of the entertainment value for the movie as a whole.  It’s still a very fun movie to watch with all the typical Marvel style action you’ve come to expect.  And like most other Marvel movies, it’s the characters that carry the most weight for the film.  Here we have a whole host of new personalities that’ll add extra flavor to the Marvel cinematic canon, and it makes me extra excited to see where all of them will show up in future Marvel projects.  The movie also has the added benefit of being a super hero movie that’s told from the perspective of the culture that it represents.  It’s true that a super hero movie needn’t have to be exclusively manufactured nor marketed towards a select segment of the population, but for Black Panther, I feel that it was essential that it had to be told from a distinctively black point of view.  I applaud Disney and Marvel for recognizing this and for seeking out someone like Ryan Coogler to do the job.  Coogler was the ideal choice to bring Black Panther’s story to the big screen, because he has the right sensibilities to inject his own point of view into the story-line, while still maintaining the sense that he’s creating a movie intended to be a part of the super hero genre and a part of a larger cinematic universe.  That’s why the movie works as a cultural touchstone for the black community as well as an exciting warm-up for this summer’s Infinity War.  With all that, it may stand as Marvel’s most breakthrough and culturally relevant film to date, which alone is quite an achievement.   And more than anything else, it’s just a rousing fun watch for anyone, regardless of race and culture, and that’s all anyone can want.  All hail the king, and Wakanda forever!

Rating: 8.25/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – The Lego Movie vs. The Emoji Movie

One thing that you’ll notice about the way that the movie industry works is that whenever one brand new idea manages to translate into success, a dozen more just like it will follow in it’s wake.  I’ve written about copycat films before here, but another thing that I’ve noticed about the continuous cycle of like minded films that the industry pushes out regularly is that the quality of each film takes a steep decline almost immediately depending on how big the trend is.  Usually one big success manages to open the doors for a long in development project that finally has it’s moment to shine, but after a while, it becomes apparent that the industry runs out of fresh properties and ends up scrapping the barrel.  And just like that, the craze ends up dying before it’s time should really be up.  We’ve seen that happen a lot in recent decades where trends have risen and fallen with great frequency.  The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series beget a whole slew of new fantasy franchises, some good (The Chronicles of Narnia) but mostly bad (remember Eragon; of course you don’t).  The dystopian YA craze saw a short life span with the success of The Hunger Games  (2012), and it was over pretty much even before the final film in the Games series was released.  Right now, the shared cinematic universe craze is seeing a downward slide, with Ghostbusters, Universal’s monster filled “Dark Universe” and the DCEU all failing to capture even an ounce of what Marvel Studios has built for themselves.  What the ends of these crazes usually have in common is that they all end by sinking to the rock bottom level with the worst movie that can possibly be made to capitalize on another’s success.  That’s certainly the case with the two movies that I am spotlighting in this article; the beloved Lego Movie (2014) and the very maligned Emoji Movie (2017).

For as long as I have been writing this Tinseltown Throwdown series of articles, this one will mark the biggest disparity ever between the actual movies.  There is clearly a victor here and I will say that it is not The Emoji Movie.  To show you just how big of a gap exists between these two movies in my opinion, Lego appeared on my best of the year list for 2014, while Emoji topped the worst films of last.  There couldn’t be any wider a distance between these movies, and yet they are in many ways linked together.  The Emoji Movie’s existence is due to the success of The Lego Movie, as like with a lot of other copycat movies, one studio tries to mimic the other without understanding how they got to that point in the first place.  In particular, Sony (the studio behind Emoji) believed wrongly that product recognition was the key to making The Lego Movie popular, so they latched onto one other pop cultural trend that has widespread recognition and exploited that.  To be honest, something could have been done with the cultural phenomenon of emoji texts if the filmmakers had any sense of story-telling.  They could have made a social comment on the way that texting is creating a shift in human interaction, and a story about Emoji’s could have evoked a deeper meaning of how communication has been broken down into simplistic symbols rather than complex expressions.  But no, the movie doesn’t do that; instead it follows a formula that is almost cut and paste from the Lego Movie but without the subtlety or human connection.  Essentially, both movies are inter-textual celebrations of their selective products, but while one manages to connect with a soul at it’s center, the other is just a shallow and vain attempt to capitalize on our familiarity with what it’s selling.

“Everything is awesome.”

It can be argued that both Lego Movie and Emoji Movie both derive from a long line of inter-textaul movies, which is a class of film where much of the comedy and drama is derived with the combination of different elements from various types of media.  You see this most often in spoof movies, with Mel Brooks and the team of Zucker-Abrams often making fun of many different specific targets like movies, songs, genre cliches, etc.  There have been other movies that have also gone the extra lengths to include many different intellectual properties as a part of their story, even when they are from competing companies.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) took the unprecedented step of having characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny on screen together for the first and maybe only time.  A similar cross platform attempt was made in Wreck-It Ralph (2012), this time with video game characters instead, and while it is brief, the one scene where the title character is in a self-help group with Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, and General Bison was a dream come true for many fans of those games.  Steven Spielberg is even mining our sense of nostalgia with his upcoming Ready Player One (2018).  But, to make inter-textual reference work, it must be in the service of a relatable story.  The Lego Movie managed to do this by making it’s world feel cohesive as a whole, where all these different inter-textual elements co-exist and much of the humor and story is mined from their interactivity.  Emoji Movie makes the big mistake of establishing the fact that the characters are aware of their existence and function as part of a phone’s mechanics, and it diminishes their interaction with their own world to just being a showcase for different apps.  It becomes clear very early on that all that the Emoji  Movie is interested in is selling the viewer on the glorious capabilities that a smart phone has, and it zaps away any power that a narrative may have throughout the film.

“My feelings are huge. Maybe I’m meant to have more than just one emotion! I have so much more.”

Where The Emoji Movie fails the most is in justifying what it means in the end.  Essentially, it falls into the standard “be yourself” narrative, where our main character, Gene the “Meh” emoji (voiced by T. J. Miller), learns to accept that being different from everyone else is not so bad.  By itself, this isn’t a bad narrative to go with, but the movie lacks the focus to actually drive that meaning home.  In fact, at times it contradicts the notion of individuality, as much of the chaos left behind in this story is a direct result of Gene not fulfilling the function that he was created for.  As the movie establishes, Gene is one of many citizens of an emoji community, all of whom are personifications of commonly found emoji’s on your standard phone keyboard.  Their daily role is to stand within their select cubicles and be scanned whenever they are selected by their user as part of a text message.  Gene’s inability to control his emotions make it impossible for him to be a functional part of the emoji board, so a more sensible direction for the story to go would be for Gene to venture out into the world and learn where his peculiarity may be more at home.  But instead, the movie has Gene force the status quo of society to make it so that he can be an emoji that has multiple expressions, which the movie seems to view as a triumph.  Isn’t it a little unfair that Gene gets to have a special exception to the rule, which takes attention away from the other emoji’s that have no other expression.  In the end, it’s a story that just serves a surface level hero’s journey, without making their hero worthy of any of it.  By contrast, The Lego Movie dissects the hero’s journey narrative, by having it’s hero be thrust into a series of events he has no control over and having to tackle the mistaken notion that he’s “special”, when in reality, everyone has that ability to be special within them.  In the world of Lego, you could say that everyone is awesome, as long as they show it.  Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) grows up to be special, while we are supposed to accept that Gene is special and worth supporting.  One earns our sympathy, while the other seems forced fed to us.

The brilliance behind The Lego Movie is not just in how funny it can make all the pop culture references work, but in how it manages to tie everything together under one underlying theme; the power of creativity.  In the world of Legos, the highest honor one can have in life is to be a “master builder”.  As the movie establishes, Master Builders can create anything out of the building blocks they find around them and become almost superhero like as a result.  In fact, a few master builders actually are superheros, like Batman (one of the film’s most hilarious characters). But Emmet stands out because he follows the instructions rather than creating freely, and this drives a wedge between him and the master builders, who begin to wonder if he really is worthy to carry the load of wielding the legendary “piece of Resistance” (which as we learn is the cap to a tube of krazy glue). This clash of free reign expression and following the rules manifests itself throughout the movie and culminates in the film’s most brilliant scene, as we discover that Emmet and his entire world are really just a construct of a child’s imagination, who’s playing around with his Dad’s intricately assembled sets.  The father, played by Will Farrell, treats the Legos with a seriousness that has no room for creative expression, and as we learn, his idea of what the Legos are worth is far different than his son’s.  But, the discovery of what his son has built in his playtime opens the father’s eyes to a different understanding, and it establishes what is at the heart of the story; that value of Lego toys is not in the product itself, but in the experience of creating with them, something that bonds different generations together, including a father and son who now have a common love for something fun.   The Emoji Movie never makes the case that it’s saying anything more than “aren’t phone apps cool.”  The user at the center of the story, a teenage boy named Alex, never once has a connection with the characters that exist within his phone.  For the most part, they prove to be an annoyance to him more than anything.  It contrasts deeply with how Emmet is connected to the parallel story-line between the boy and his father, because Emmet was selected out of all the toys around him because of the boy’s personal connection with his perceived good-naturedness.  The stakes exist, because the boy has imagined a special purpose for Emmet because of how it relates to his own relationship with his father.  Emoji Movie never once make us care for the future of it’s characters and that’s where it really falls short.

“I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey.”

But, apart from their narrative differences, there is one other thing that drives down the quality of The Emoji Movie, and that’s it’s lack of identity.  Upon watching the movie, you can just tell that this was a movie crafted without passion.  Every story point is calculated by the demands of a studio that seems to have formulated what a movie like this actually needs.  Like I stated before, it’s a movie that wouldn’t exist had The Lego Movie not come before it, and that becomes evident in the way that it just wholesale copies that film in many different ways.  Pop Culture references are abound, as is the many different licences that the movie flaunts as a part of their world.  But, what Lego Movie manages to do better is to make those different references function as a part of it’s world, and also not be afraid to mock them from time to time as well.  Batman doesn’t just make an cameo appearance, he’s one of the central members of the team, and his personality is so exaggerated that he almost becomes a unique personality in his own right, separate from all his previous incarnations.  What does The Emoji Movie do?  It just has the Poop Emoji show up every now and then just so they can throw in a poop joke to make the little kids laugh (made all the more painful that they dragged an esteemed actor like Patrick Stewart into the role).  And even more shameless pull from The Lego Movie comes in the form of how it portrays it’s female lead.  Both movies have heroines that have a rebellious side to them, but one has more layers to her personality than the other.  As seen in Lego Movie, the character of Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) puts on a punkish exterior to hide insecurities underneath, and part of her arc in the story is to eventually soften herself to the point where she’s not afraid to share another side of herself to others.  The similar character of Jailbreak in Emoji Movie (voiced by Anna Faris) takes a similar character design, with black hair and clothing, but has none of the depth to match the personality.  She’s dressed that way, because she no longer wants to be a princess emoji, and that’s it.  It’s a very surface level form of personality and makes her feel so uninteresting by comparison.  The same can be said about the rest of Emoji Movie, as it becomes clear that there was no attempt to find any depth in the story.  The Lego Movie’s creators, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, clearly opened up their toy box with the intent to have some fun with it, and the fact that they found deeper meaning in it all was just icing on the cake.  Emoji Movie is just there to be a product.

Which gets us to probably the most infuriating aspect of The Emoji Movie, which is the shameless way that it shills for other products.  Essentially, the movie’s story-line has it’s characters moving from one phone app to another, never once endearing us to their journey and instead just uses the different changes of scenery as a mini commercial for each selective app.  This should be evident right from the moment that the characters stumble into a “Candy Crush” game, and it just gets to be infuriatingly self indulgent once they enter a “Just Dance” sequence.  There is no commentary given to any of the different places they visit; all it essentially says to the audience is “Hey let’s check out YouTube, or let’s find our way to Dropbox, or isn’t it lovely here in Instagram.”  The script for this film might as well have read “place your ad here” over and over again.  And a movie like this needn’t be a feature length commercial, as The Lego Movie has demonstrated.  Lego had to prove a lot of naysayers wrong when it first went into development, as on the surface it too would have appeared to have been nothing but a feature length commercial for a singular product.  But, with it’s heart in the right place, and direction from Lord & Miller that actually utilized the potential of such a premise, The Lego Movie managed to make us forget about the commercialism behind it and instead allowed us to enjoy it as a film in it’s own right.  It became first and foremost a movie, and the fact that it was tied to a product was irrelevant.  The Emoji Movie sadly doesn’t understand that and it instead tries to mask it’s narrative shortcomings with unending reminders of it’s commercial origins.  With that, it can’t hide it’s soulless identity as just a tool for consumerism, delivering the idea that the more vibrant a collection of apps and emojis, the livelier the world will be.  The Lego Movie’s  miraculously manages to honor the appeal of Lego toys, without ever forcing a consumerist intent on it’s audience.  Lego’s popularity speaks for itself, and the movie never tries to assume otherwise, nor force it down our throats.

“Nobody leaves the phone. Delete them.”

The Lego Movie managed to perform a magic trick of escaping the perceived commercialism of it’s premise, and surprise all of us with it’s potent and surprisingly heartfelt story.  The Emoji Movie just ended up being exactly what you thought it would be, and in some ways even worse.  For one thing, the only quality thing about The Emoji Movie is the animation used to bring it to life, which makes it doubly insulting that it’s used on something so crass and soulless.  Emoji is built upon a studio mandate which lacks all vision and is created just to spotlight the different brands that paid to be seen within this movie.  The fact that it is marketed towards kids is even more insulting, because it teaches them no worthwhile lessons, and instead drives younger people to be more attached to their phones.  The idea that the climax of the movie hinges on the teenage boy communicating through the ideal emoji on his phone, instead of you know going up to a person and talking to them in person, is a clear sign of the wrong kinds of values we should be promoting in our culture right now.  The Lego Movie is commercial too, but it does a great job of making us forget that and just enjoying the story it wants to tell.  It’s characters are also more appealing and have worthwhile arcs to their stories.  But, where Lego truly shines is in the fact that it touched upon universal meaning in it’s message.  The story is essentially about people coming together through shared interest, and the fact that it’s through Lego toys is beside the point.  There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a father and son grow closer together as they play with their Legos, and teach each other the value of creativity and unity through that experience.  That’s where Lego Movie found it’s heart, and what Emoji Movie clearly did not understand.  In the long run, Emoji Movie represents the pitfalls of trying to capitalize on a craze, because the choices of how to sell a movie eventually begin to overwhelm the choices in the making of a movie, and Emoji had no intent on ever being it’s own unique thing.  As Lego Movie states, “Everything is Awesome,” but Emoji Movie is far less so.

“You don’t have to be the bad guy.  You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.  And you are capable of amazing things.  Because you are the Special.  And so am I.  And so is everyone.”

What if There Is No Tomorrow? – Groundhog Day and Bringing Big Concepts into Comedy

For most of the nation, the date of February 2 means very little and is like pretty much any other day.  But, it is designated as Groundhog Day on our calendars because of a centuries old tradition based around a superstition started by the Pennsylvania Dutch in colonial times.  According to tradition, every year on the second of February, groundhogs will rise from their hibernation and exit their nests, and upon entering the sunlight, if they spot their own shadow, it will mean that there will be six more weeks of winter.  It’s an old fashioned tale with no real bearing on how weather really works, and yet it’s a tradition significant enough to be marked on the calendar.  The rural communities of Pennsylvania where the legend originated still make a big deal out of the tradition, with the famous Punxsutawney Phil festival being the country’s most notable celebration of the holiday.  But for many years, only rural America took this tradition with any real weight.  It’s only been within the last 25 years that Groundhog Day that the holiday has garnered national and even international interest, and this isn’t because of a revival of the traditions itself, but because of a movie.  In 1993, the team of comedy legends Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis released a little movie appropriately called Groundhog Day, which delivered a rather unique story about a man who repeats the same day over and over again and is the only one aware of what’s happening to him.  And that day just so happens to be Groundhog Day, with the Punxsatwaney festival as a backdrop.  On the surface, the movie is not all that unusual a project for wither Murray or Ramis to undertake.  It makes brilliant use of Bill Murray’s dry sense of humor and Harold Ramis’ direction keeps everything low key and restrained.  And yet, when you watch the movie, you can’t help but marvel at how much the theme and ideas behind the story stay with you.  Comedies are often made to give us amusement, but Groundhog Day miraculously made us both laugh and think, and even contemplate things we never expected to think about after seeing a comedy like how the universe works and what role we have to play within it.

Groundhog Day isn’t the first story to ever have tackled the idea of repeating the same day over again in an endless loop.  The concept actually dates back to 1892 with the short story “Christmas Every Day” by American novelist William Dean Howells.  In that story, a selfish young person is forced to relive the holiday of Christmas in a constant repeat, until he realizes the folly of indulging in the shallow festivities and learns the true meaning of how to honor the holiday.  The story is indeed sourced as an inspiration by Groundhog Day  screenwriter Danny Rubin, who developed the original treatment of the film.  Working in collaboration with Ramis, Rubin took the story concept further by incorporating the idea of a person being stuck in a day he absolutely loathes, until it begins to soften his attitude over time.  For Groundhog Day, the story is one about not about breaking out of the cycle of a single day, but about breaking free of the cycle of one’s life.  Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is introduced to us as a self-centered narcissist who doesn’t give a care to anything in the world other than his own ambition.  He is stuck in his own self-created hole of isolation, where he only is able to get by in life on the merits of his talents as a TV weatherman.  He is only able to pretend to be a man of the people, but in reality, he shuns all those around him, reducing him to one function in life because he has no one else to rely on.  Essentially, he is a metaphorical groundhog, if you will.  And what the story does is to force Phil out of his hole and see what his life is and could be.  Unlike the “Christmas Every Day” story line, the movie is not about growing a renewed appreciation for the holiday itself; Punxsatwaney Phil and the festival are irrelevant in the end.  It’s about a renewed appreciation of life, and understanding that small little happy moments are what make things worth it in the end.  And what makes the movie Groundhog Day so memorable is the fact that they address these ideas in such a thoughtful and hilarious way.

Groundhog Day in many ways owes a lot of it’s style of story-telling to the films of Frank Capra.  Capra in many ways wrote the book on how to bring socially conscious stories into comedy.  Movies like It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) showed that a movie not only could be laugh out loud funny, but also could make you think as well.  Most often, they would reveal lessons in class differences or the roles men and women play in society, but more than any other, Capra would delve into the idea of individual finding their own worth in the world.  In his movies, he defined the American every-man; the person who could shape their own destiny only after they are confronted with and come to terms with their shortcomings in life.  Most of Capra’s films tended to skew closer to reality, but he could also find meaning in his movies through supernatural elements as well.  It’s a Wonderful Life  in particular feels very akin to Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist is shown a different direction in his life only after being confronted with the realization of how life would be different if they did absolutely nothing.  The big difference of course between what Capra created and what Murray, Rubin and Ramis imagined is the personality of the American every-man at it’s center.  George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is a good man with low self esteem who just needs to have his faith in life renewed.  Phil Connors is a product of a more cynical time, where he sees value in himself and nothing else, and the change for him is to make him see how happiness is not in self worth but in being a value to others.  Basically George Bailey and Phil Connors come to the same conclusion in their respective stories, but from completely different starting points.  The Capra-esque approach helps to cement the story in a very personable way, especially with regards to understanding the person that Phil is and what he’s going to become.  But, the movie also follows the crucial formula of making the audience think about the implications of the story long after they have seen it and helping them understand the lessons within.

For me myself, I am always astonished by how well the movie is constructed.  It is without a doubt one of the finest screenplays ever constructed; never once faulting in the cinematic possibilities offered up by it’s premise.  Harold Ramis’ direction in particular is extraordinary in how subtly in lays out the mechanics of the story.  Every little story bit needs to work multiple times without ever seeming repetitive, which calls for a lot of continuity checking and keeping the actors within the correct mindset throughout the shoot.  And much like a Capra film, we don’t just get to know more about our main character, but really the entire community as well, and it’s all done with the idea that they are all meeting Phil Connors for the first time.  All the different variations that Ramis puts on the same repeating bits throughout the film are so clever and actually build up a natural progression within the story.  And that includes very recognizable common threads, like the clock radio that always begins the day with Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” or Phil stepping into a puddle after running into contact with the obnoxious Ned Ryerson.   I especially like the editing he does with some scenes, where Murray’s Phil realizes he’s made an error and then it cuts to the the same moment on another version of the day where he corrects his mistake, which just makes you realize that Phil has had to repeat all the same steps exactly just to reach this same moment.  It’s a couple seconds for us, but almost an eternity for him.  It’s hilarious, but also kind of mind-boggling at the same.  And that is essentially the genius behind this movie.  It takes the concept, uses it in funny ways, but also causes us to realize the real world implications of it all, and how severe it must actually be.   The movie takes us on a journey into a man’s existential crisis and it is both silly and scary at the same time, making us wonder what we ourselves would do in a similar situation.

But Groundhog Day stands out in a different way than just well it uses it’s gimmick.  It is also the rare intellectual comedy, and I don’t mean that it’s a comedy that plays towards a classier, more well-educated crowd, but one that instead asks all of it’s audiences to contemplate it’s grander concepts.  When Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin were first drafting the script, they thought that a sea of condemnation was going to come their way from both the faith based and scientific communities, believing that their story was going to be nit picked apart for either being too bold or not clever enough.  To their surprise, an outpouring of praise from all corners came their way, and they soon realized that their silly little movie hit everyone on a very human level.  Since it’s premiere, Groundhog Day has since become a high water mark for what can be called the “high concept” comedy.  To be high concept, a movie has to deliver on bold premises that push the limits of what is commonly expected within the genre and this is especially hard to find in the often simplistic realm of comedy.  Comedies usually just touch upon the life’s little quirks, and don’t bring in anything more complex than that such as the mechanics of time and space being warped.  Some films have tried to reach for a grander level of meaning with their comedy, like contemplating the role of God in one’s life like they did in Bruce Almighty (2003), or literally living life in another’s shoes with Being John Malkovich (1999) or even seeing a man cope with his own self-imposed loneliness as he befriends a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016).  All these movies share in common with Groundhog Day is the ability to hit some deep philosophical points while at the same time never loosing the ability to have fun with it as well.  There are movies that managed to fail to capture the same kind of effect, like Adam Sandler’s Click (2006), which squandered an intriguing premise by indulging too much in the cruder potentials of the gimmick, making the tonal shifts as it tries to hit it’s deeper points feel way too clunky.

I’ll admit from experience; bringing high concept to comedy is difficult, and often results in a story that is either tone deaf or just very convoluted.  When I was going through film school, my requirement for graduating was to complete a feature length screenplay as my thesis.  Being pretty novice, my inclination at the time was to write something that I felt appealed to my own tastes.  Because Groundhog Day was one of my favorite movies (and still is), I decided to craft a screenplay in the same vein.  In particular, I drew inspiration from the core mechanic of the story, being the repeating time element.  The difference in my script was that my character had control over his ability to repeat time, but the scenes I wrote where my main character repeats moments multiple times before he gets them right were I have to say directly inspired by the similar moments in Groundhog Day.  Suffice to say, the finished thesis script, while good enough to help me earn my degree, is no where within the same league as Groundhog.  I have nothing but the most profound respect for that screenplay, and my experience with trying to capture some of the same feeling within my own writing just shows me how much further I must go to even reach that kind of level.  And I’m not the only one that is in awe of the incredible story mechanic that the movie uses.  In recent years, we’ve seen the same element used in other genres, like in sci-fi with Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and also horror with Happy Death Day (2017).  While it can be said that all of these stories derive themselves from the original Howells short story (including the Japanese manga that Edge of Tomorrow is based on), their cinematic language is certainly heavily influenced by the foundation left by Groundhog Day.  Each and every one seems to relish the idea of their characters growing smarter as they are going through an endless cycle of the same day, incrementally improving one calculated step at a time.  To this day, all these stories are inevitably compared with Groundhog, and sometimes can be unfairly judged against it.  That shouldn’t have to be the case, as some movies offer interesting variations on the gimmick, but it just goes to show how much of an impact the movie had by being the first.

One lesson to learn from Groundhog Day from a film-making stand point is that for a movie with a unusual concept to work, it has to function first and foremost like a story.  The great thing is that Groundhog Day never tries to be presumptuous with it’s audience.  It entrusts them to follow along as it lets the craziness unfold.  In particular, it makes the very smart choice of never needing to explain itself.  Phil Connors goes through this incredible experience, and we are never explained as to exactly why and how it happens.  It’s left up to the viewer to make up their minds as to why this unusual event is happening, and decide whether it really matters in the end.  I’m sure that people have speculated that it’s an act of God, or that Phil is part of some twisted experiment, or that he has unintentionally fallen into a time anomaly.  Whatever the case, the movie rightly focuses not on what is happening in the story, but instead on how it affects Phil.  It’s a personal journey, and I think that is why audiences respond so well to it.  We are just as in the dark as Phil is with what is going on, and that allows us to absorb the personal turmoil that he faces more fully.  A less subtle approach would have had Phil digging for clues and pulling back the curtain to see who’s pulling the strings, which would have spoiled all the magic of his story.  We instead see a personal transformation take place, and that in turn inspires us the viewer to reexamine our own life.  What would we do if there was no tomorrow; would we lash out at the cruel trick being pulled on us, or would we strive to make those same 24 hours worthwhile every time.  In the end, Phil comes to learn that striving for the perfect day is not a pursuit of self-interest, but instead a pursuit of giving one’s self.  By movie’s end, Phil has reached a point where he knows every detail of the town of Punxatawney, down to the exact second, and he uses that knowledge to not play around but instead to be there at the right moment to help everyone else’s needs.  And after he has managed to touch everyone’s lives around him, he is then released from his prison.  It’s that feeling of watching the cleansing of one’s soul that makes the movie as special as it is.

Groundhog Day is a masterpiece in quite the most unexpected way.  What started as just a silly premise used as a starring vehicle for Bill Murray is now regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made.  Not only that, it has set a new high bar for comedies seeking to deliver on higher concepts, as well as inspired a whole class of like-minded stories that try to utilize the same time warping gimmick.  I’m sure that Murray, Rubin and Ramis were all taken by surprise by how well this movie resonated when was first released and for years after.  The studio (Columbia) especially didn’t see the potential right away, and mistakenly released the film in mid February to coincide for the holiday that is it’s namesake, instead of releasing as originally intended in the Fall of 1992, so that it could qualify for the Oscars that year.  Bill Murray would have been a shoe-in for a Best Actor nomination that year, but sadly the unfavorable release date caused the movie to be lost in the early winter deadlands, making it all but forgotten by the next Oscars.  Thankfully, the movie has achieved classic status over the last 25 years, and now marks the milestone regarded as the masterpiece that it truly is.  For me, it represents story-telling at it’s finest, utilizing an unusual story mechanic to it’s fullest and finding the right amount of comedy within it’s premise.  It’s as close of a call back to classic, Capra-esque human comedies that we’ve seen in our more cynical time, and still feels as fresh today as ever.  Too few comedies actually use the medium of cinema to it’s fullest extant; giving us stories that need the magic of film-making to come to life.  With it’s clever use of editing and simple staging, Groundhog Day is a movie that continues to reveal new details and layers for the viewer to delightfully uncover with every viewing.  I still hold it in high regard, both as a cinematic experience, and as an example of superb, well thought out screenwriting, and now 25 years later it even has made me appreciate this little February tradition.  Only a comedy could find so much meaning and depth in the celebration of such a silly holiday for a groundhog.