Black Panther – Film Review

Think of Black Panther and one thing comes to mind. As the first black superhero movie, much of the noise surrounding its release has focused on the landmark statement of intent it makes for inclusivity in Hollywood. Quite rightly, too, given that, for all its recent forays into far away galaxies, quantum realms and astral planes, the MCU has remained tightly bound to its white male superstars. Yet perhaps Black Panther’s greatest achievement is that, once you’ve settled down with your popcorn and gallon-sized cup of cola, you’ll forget all about the game-changing importance of its mere existence. Instead, you’ll simply be blown away by a searingly intelligent, exhilaratingly well-crafted piece of filmmaking.

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After a potted Wakandan history lesson, which cleverly establishes the secretive, technologically advanced nation while laying the seeds for an engaging mix of geopolitical thriller and complex family drama, we arrive in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War. With his father murdered in a bomb-attack, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to be officially crowned Wakanda’s king and super-powered protector Black Panther. His rule is immediately beset by challenges, however, as rivals line up to take his crown and political tensions quietly simmer between his most trusted advisors. When his kingdom comes under threat from canon-armed weapons smuggler (a gleefully unhinged Andy Serkis) and a rogue US black-ops solider, Black Panther is forced into action to protect his throne and Ulysses Klaue stop the world from discovering Wakanda’s secrets.

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What is immediately striking is writer-director Ryan Coogler’s (Creed) emphasis on eschewing reductive African stereotypes, particularly in the vivid, jaw-droppingly detailed realisation of Wakanda itself. A lively, Afro-futurist utopia, the hidden nation is a thriving metropolis, boasting advanced medicine and superior weaponry thanks to an abundance of vibranium laying beneath its lands. Coogler grounds these fantastical elements by throwing in plenty of African cultural influences, with separate languages, shirtless ritual combat and brightly-attired tribal leaders, serving to compliment a richly complex landscape that feels wholly unique, and yet entirely believable.

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Such an intricate cultural backdrop allows Coogler to touch on several weighty political issues. While Wakanda has remained hidden for decades in order to protect its resources, many of its tribal leaders disagree over whether this remains the best course of action as the outer world dives deeper into turmoil. Is the country safer on its own or as part of a global community? Does it have a moral obligation to share its wealth with poorer nations? Coogler poses many difficult questions in the kind of powerfully thought-provoking drama not seen since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

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While its themes run deep, Black Panther offers plenty of ferociously paced, dizzyingly exhilarating action sequences to keep its Marvel rivals on their toes. From a chaotically inventive brawl in a South Korean casino, to a wildly intense car chase through neon-lit city streets, to a heart-poundingly brutal fight atop a cascading waterfall between T’Challa and Michael B Jordan’s highly-skilled Killmonger, the movie offers plenty of whizz-bang for its buck.

That latter sequence is so gut-wrenchingly tense at least in part due to the powerful, commanding presence of Jordan’s Killmonger – one of Marvel’s best villains in a long while. Although viciously monomaniacal in his intentions, there’s an understandable, deeply emotional rationale to his desire to use Wakanda’s technology to arm the world’s oppressed minorities. Jordan sells Killmonger’s unflinching commitment to his cause with a bitter, savage swagger that neatly contrasts Boseman’s poised assuredness.

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As good as they are, though, there’s a number of charismatic supporting players who threaten to steal the show from underneath them. Daniel Kaluuya is quietly composed as W’Kabi, the leader of Wakanda’s Border Tribe, while Danai Gurira is confidently aggressive as Okoye, head of the all-female special forces team that protects T’Challa. Meanwhile, Letitia Wright enlivens every scene as T’Challa’s cheekily intelligent, tech-savvy little sister Shuri, who builds and develops all of Wakanda’s tech. What makes them all so compelling is that every one of them posseses an emotionally engaging throughline – W’Kabi is frustrated at his king’s failure to catch his parents’ killer, while Okoye finds herself torn between her heart and her sense of duty – and Coogler ensures everyone gets their moment to shine.

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Yes, there are flaws. Some of the early action sequences are clumsily edited and the climatic battle suffers from Marvel’s usual overload of CGI gadgetry and giant creatures. But at a time when MCU movies have becoming increasingly cookie-cutter in style and tone, Black Panther dares to be different. It delivers glorious visuals, insane action sequences and an absorbing, complex story filled with rich, fully-rounded characters that elevates the superhero genre to extraordinary new heights. It’s mightily impressive.

Runtime: 134 mins (approx.)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Danai Gurira, Latitia Wright

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Film Review

“This is not going to go the way you think,” Luke Skywalker warns Rey on the rain-swept island of Ahch-To. As it turns out, that line isn’t just a tantalising soundbite for the trailers, but a full-blown mission statement for Rian Johnson’s Star Wars sequel.

Following The Force Awakens, a movie that delighted with plenty of fan service but all too often felt like a blow-by-blow remake of A New Hope, The Last Jedi pushes the saga into a deeper, darker and richer territory than ever before. Make no mistake: The Last Jedi delivers answers to many of the Big Questions on fans lips; but they come wrapped in a satisfying narrative filled with hidden twists, unpredictable character arcs and gut-wrenching beats that will hit you like a bolt out of the blue.

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If Johnson does pinch one thing out of The Empire Strikes Back playbook, though, it’s his decision to split the core cast for much of the movie. Gung-ho fly-boy Poe Dameron leads a revolt against cautious military chief Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dean), the Reisistance’s defacto leader after General Leia is incapacitated. Finn (John Boyega) teams-up with wide-eyed maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to infiltrate a First Order ship. And on the dark side, Supreme Leader Snoke pits Kylo Ren and General Hux against each other in a bid for his favour. Meanwhile, back on Ahch-To, Rey seeks out awol Jedi Master Luke in the hope of luring him back into the fight.

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Handing every major player their own mission means everybody has got more to do this time out. Oscar Isaacs, Domhnall Gleeson and Andy Serkis, in particular, register far stronger here – even if their characters are still frustratingly one-note – while Carrie Fisher’s scenes take on an added poignancy after her untimely death last year.

Of course, the biggest beneficiary of this greater character focus is a certain beardy bloke last seen standing on a picturesque cliff edge in the North Sea. Needless to say, Mark Hamill is handed a meatier part this time out and doesn’t disappoint, layering Luke with greater depth and nuance than ever before to perfectly capture how a hopeful farm boy could become such an embittered and regretful figure.

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That being said, The Last Jedi belongs to the new generation and the rich, complex bond between Daisy Ridely’s scavenger and Adam Driver’s reckless apprentice. Both excel once again as the connection that binds them develops in powerful, thought-provoking ways and the scenes of them engaging in a battle of wills are the movie’s most shocking and engrossing.

For all his grandly conceived character arc and plot twists, though, Johnson isn’t adverse to letting his giddy, geeky side show. The Last Jedi delivers everything you could hope for from a Star Wars movie – daring dogfights, ferocious lightsaber duels, exotic creatures and plenty of offbeat comedy. Even a poignant reunion between two pivotal characters opens with a gag about hairstyles.

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Yet Johnson is also unafraid to throw new elements into the saga’s established visual palette. The rickety rust-bucket set designs remain just as charming, but they’re infused with operatic tracking shots, scenes where real-world sounds have been ripped out leaving only John Williams’ evocative score, and a finger-snapping sequence so trippy you’ll think you’ve stumbled into a completely different movie.

It doesn’t all work. The film is overlong and feels overstretched in the middle section, while a detour to the Cantina-aping Canto Bight is entirely superfluous to the plot – but when it hits its stride, The Last Jedi is a bold, ballsy, inventively challenging movie that defies expectations and culminates in a jaw-dropping finale that effectively leaves J. J. Abrams with a clean state from which to create the final episode of this new trilogy. Over to you, J. J.

Runtime: 152 mins (approx.)
Director/Screenwriter: Rian Johnson
Stars: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher

War for the Planet of the Apes – Film Review

Bigger means better has long been Hollywood’s default setting. Larger budgets allow for expanded casts, more exotic locations and mightier explosions to blow up bigger landmarks into even tinnier pieces – all in the name of ensuring people buy more tickets again. That’s why Avengers: Infinity War, the upcoming 19th film in the MCU, is set to feature every Marvel hero known to man – along with a few we’ve never heard of before. How else will audiences be entertained if we don’t constantly bombard them with a constant supply of budget-bulging cataclysmic action sequences?

War for the Planet of the Apes is the antithesis to this preconception. Having already delivered a prequel that wasn’t a complete disaster and a sequel that was deeper and more compelling than the original, the third instalment of the rebooted series again subverts expectations by eschewing the ballistics-heavy battles promised in its title. Instead, it offers a intimate and sombre tale of a highly intelligent ape grappling with his darker instincts. And it’s all the more powerful for it.

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That being said, the movie kicks off with an almighty skirmish as a camo-striped strike force drop into the apes’ woodland hideout and engage in a grim and gritty gunfight among the trees. The soldiers are searching for Caesar, the highly evolved chimpanzee who led his kind to freedom from the humans, who has been so long withdrawn from view that he has taken on an almost mythical status among the human troops. But when the arboreal assault results in unimaginable losses for Caesar, he’s forced to come out of hiding to embark on a revenge-fuelled mission to kill Woody Harrleson’s sadistic Colonel, and end the war once and for all.

This perilous journey ‘upriver’ in search of a psychotic military leader will undoubtedly prompt comparisons with Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory masterpiece Apocalypse Now – indeed, one piece of graffiti scrawled onto the walls of Alpha Omega’s military compound makes the obligatory Ape-pocalypse Now gag. Yet, as Caesar, along with his three closest advisors, Maurice, Luca and Rocket, and a mute young girl they rescue along the way, rides out onto the breathtaking California vistas, War more closely brings to mind epic westerns of the 1950s. Even the likes of Ben-Hur and the Ten Commandments get referenced, Caesar’s quest taking on Biblical proportions as he confronts his demons and becomes tasked with freeing his kind and leading them to a promised land across the desert.

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As the conflicted Caesar, Andy Serkis is a formidable presence, bringing a Shakespearian sense of grandeur to the simian leader. It’s not just the ape-like physicality that he nails, though. So much of Caesar’s troubles are internalised: having spent much of Dawn failing to convince Koba to let go of his hatred towards humans, he now finds himself consumed by rage for the Colonel and has to battle with his baser bloodlust. That Serkis is able to convey these complex emotions by making subtle tweaks to his furrowed brow is truly remarkable. The digital technology has taken another dramatic leap forward – the verisimilitude in the texture of the apes’ damp, matted fur is astounding – yet it would all be for nought were it not for the delicate craftsmanship of the film’s performers.

With so much of the focus on his personal circumstances, it’s somewhat inevitable that the broader divide between apes and humans is not quite as nuanced as we saw in Dawn. Still, many of the humans characters are given enough layers to make them compelling. None more so that Woody Harrelson’s swivel-eyed warmonger, the Colonel. Though initial seen as a cruel, Kurtz-a-like crackpot who’s beyond redemption, he’s granted additional depth by an unexpected plot pivot that lends a reason to his vicious acts. Suddenly, we realise he’s not too different to his anthropoid antagonist – he just a little further along the road to ruin.

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It’s not all bleak introspection and grim determination, though – War offers up a surprising level of comic relief. This mostly comes via Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, a hermitic chimp who escaped from a zoo after the outbreak of Simian Flu and somehow manages to charm his way into Caesar’s troop. There’s a Dobby-esque warmth to be found in his hapless enthusiasm to help his new friends, and his heartwarming journey from loneliness to valued member of the tribe is a rare fuzzy moment that helps to lighten proceedings when they threaten to become too entrapped in darkness.

Of course, War is not completely without action and when the epic final showdown between the warring species inevitably comes to pass, it’s an exhilaratingly well executed cacophony of fur and fireballs that would make Michael Bay blanche. Yet it remains an entertaining sideshow to Caesar’s more sombre, though no less gripping, attempts to seek redemption. It’s a bold, original, and incredibly powerful conclusion that finally allows Serkis to showcase his so often overlooked talents and also brings this groundbreaking trilogy to a memorable, wholly satisfying close. Turns out, bigger isn’t always better after all.

Runtime: 140 mins (approx.)

Director: Matt Reeves

Screenwriters: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves

Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn