Black Panther (2018)

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We’re into the second half of MCU’s Phase Three and what a way to enter it. The King of Wakanda doesn’t just step onto the big screen but pounces. This is a film rife with character and importantly; culture.

After ‘Civil War’ saw the death of T’Chaka, his son returns to his hugely advanced home of Wakanda, where he takes the path to become the new king and rightful Black Panther. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has the support of most around him but returning baddie Klaue (Andy Serkis) and some stolen vibranium doesn’t help. Moreover his crimes introduce T’Challa to Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a soldier hell-bent on taking over Wakanda.

Marvel and its cinematic world have done spectacularly well thus far in creating hype and fun escapism, but admittedly they quite often miss the mark with their characters and villains, gladly both work very well in this movie. The community of Wakandans feel real and a lot of the forefront officials are fleshed out with enough dialogue and/or screen-time to ensure that it isn’t solely the titular hero that nabs the focus. In regards to the villain; this film gives us two big ones, the first is the resurgence of OTT but deliciously snarly Klaue, the second is Stevens who works brilliantly because, as an audience member you can feel for him and buy into his cause, at least when he’s not taking these notions too far.

Ryan Coogler; in what is just his third film, directs a powerful film that feels right within the comic book world but also throws in such interesting dynamics of globe shattering consequences, self beliefs and the bigger picture of black people and personal struggles which of course is undeniably vital within this day and age and state of the world. There’s a gleeful fun within tie-ins and action sequences but better than this, director Coogler with Joe Robert Cole, as a fellow writer manage to gift this feature a drive and political motivated subtext.

Seeing it on the glorious IMAX screen of course makes the entire film a thing of beauty and massive spectacle but I just know that it would still have the same impact however it is seen. There is an unmistakable rich quality to the production value; the colours, fabrics and fashions, the settings, the music all come together and culminate with a force of life and soul. It’s a film that had my skin buzzing with excitement and the eye is taken by almost every scene and frame.

There’s a slight DC and yes, Marvel weakness of the CGI overload these films can so often swerve towards, which is what worries me about the sprawl of generated figures and Thanos in the ‘Infinity War’ trailer. No more can this be seen in a battle on some grassy fields and some CG rhinos that appear, which slightly lost me from the film, but that’s pretty much the only negative I had.

Boseman is an amazing hero and plays the demanding role of king and leader with gravitas. There’s great emotion behind his eyes that shows he can also see the problems with his place and people, which makes a superhero, human. Lupita Nyong’o plays the ex of T’Challa but she isn’t as one dimensional as that. The actor packs a punch and effortless spy magnitude to her role. Letitia Wright is Shuri; Black Panther’s sister. She scatters the movie with great humour and tech know-how that makes her like a more capable Q persona. Jordan almost rivals Boseman and Wright by stealing the majority of the show with a charismatic and deeply engaging turn as the hopeful throne taker. He too ensures to not just be panto villainy and adds remarkable layers to his character. I would be writing for a long time more if I commented on all the other terrific actors in this film, who all unite with a crackling sense of energy and seriousness that helps make this more than just a comic book movie.

Long live the King…and Coogler, let us hope he returns because he has masterfully given the MCU a breath of fresh air and stunning culture.

8.5/10

 

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

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The saga returns and the 2nd of the new Star Wars trilogy whams into the cinema with director Rian Johnson ensuring he gives fans a lot to be pleased about whilst gifting the starry sci-fi blockbuster some neat stylish additions of his own.

Continuing on from Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) island meet up with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), she hopes to learn the ways of the Jedi. Meanwhile Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is desperately trying to evacuate the Rebel base as the First Order try and diminish hope from the galaxy and wipe out the chance of Luke’s return. As they keep trying to escape, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is at odds with his place in all this, not helped by visions that unwillingly connect him to someone else.

Rian Johnson ensures the Star Wars aficionados can enjoy seeing certain characters, screen wipes and the charm of space opera good versus bad as the ever central theme. Hope and the notion of crushing that ideal is what drives the franchise and this is no exception but gladly the director after J.J. Abrams hands this outing some stylistic moments; ones that almost step out of the comfortable SW bubble, that I thoroughly enjoyed. These choices keep the film fresh and help it look exciting but more brooding than ‘The Force Awakens’. A sequence with endlessly mirroring a character, the salted planet of red surface and crystal critters and an extremely amazing breathtaking snappy edit of a soundless explosion are some examples of the visual splendour Johnson and his huge crew have created, which keep the galaxy alive with big screen wonder.

There are some points, mostly that lay within the story, that can feel utterly safe and predictable. Obviously I’m not wanting to spoil anything in this review so I’ll keep hush on the negatives I had but sufficed to say there are space filled deus ex machinas abounds and little character events that I expected straight away which sort of took me out of the immersive thrill. Also, some writing choices they give the action and/or characters felt cheap or not wholly unnecessary and without spoilers I really felt no need for a kiss that comes at one time.

Luke’s island hideout is rife with creatures and one species is the well advertised and product placed Porgs that clearly strike for the kids and the cute factor. Granted they can be quite fun but the clear merchandise cash in that they are and their constant gaping mouth wide eyed shtick becomes less amusing and ever tiring. Aside from a couple of story gripes and these puffin-esque beasties this movie has a good amount of twists and turns that keep the narrative interesting, a mission on a casino centred Canto Bight is rich with wealth, class differences and a couple of fun cameos. Another positive is John Williams returning with a score that’s safe but swells and simmers with the fan buzz of familiar sounds to satisfy all. I also love that a lot of the creatures you see are handled with animatronics which look much better and charming than the sheen of CGI.

Mark Hamill gets his teeth into much more screen time and it’s nice to see Luke Skywalker back, though he’s getting to play well with the bitter side of things. Hamill delivers enough emotion into his journey of who he is now and why he’s left the Jedi Master qualities behind with a tinge of will he/won’t he be a bad egg. Both Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher lift the film with an explainable grace that probably stems from the nostalgia of their presence amongst the whirlwind of desperate escape tactics. Fisher herself still carries Leia as a beacon of hope and strength, she’s good and efficient and Fisher performs this effortlessly filling the General shoes with ease. Adam Driver gets to slowly break away from his angsty teen fits and dramatics and the conflict in his path is nicely evident in the performance. Daisy Ridley manages to keep up the brave and strong qualities of Rey, a hero through and through but one where Ridley nicely plays with the pressure of balancing her place in the Force and the pull of the dark side. Domhnall Gleeson amps up the villainous panto switch with sneers aplenty. Supreme Leader Snoke gets more screen time and has more depth and a constant creepy shadowy presence thanks to the mo-cap work from Andy Serkis.

It’s definitely a long film and this is a long review to almost reflect that. It’s the longest one yet but luckily it never feels a slog; it may not zip on by but it’s a well handled and well paced space adventure that feels like a grand step up from Episode 7 and one that has humour and stakes around every corner.

8/10

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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Better late than never, I finally got myself around to seeing this spectacular addition to the Star Wars franchise. The feel of the movie is nostalgic and that classic wonder runs throughout even with the injection of new faces and special effects.

As the scrolling yellow text states, this seventh Star Wars feature sees the First Order risen from the Empire. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is on a mission to find the map leading to Skywalker’s location. He doesn’t count on Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) teaming up and discovering both the Resistance and the Force.

Scale wise this movie is immense, from the aerial dog-fights between TIE fighters and X-Wings to the planets visited along the way. All of this really sucks you into a new and exciting world still in that memorable Star Wars galaxy. It’s this glory of old that makes this film so good, the look of the new bases and villains speak out as classic Death Star/Vader imagery, the introduction of the Force by a tiny creature is akin to master Yoda and the humble yet potential filled beginnings of Rey draw up hopeful connections to Luke Skywalker. This film does brilliantly right what all three prequels did wrong, it shoots back to the feel good simplistic story telling of good versus evil and doesn’t rely heavily on CGI. Of course it’s there but it aids the scenes and it boosts the vision of the spectacle.

The special effects are quality, gone are the days of obvious green screen and in come detailed and lush worlds, fantastic immersive motion capture performances and explosions that serve purpose and not a Michael Bay wet dream. The little things like the sound and lights of the lightsaber spark nerd delight as the Luke blue bolt shines up, the new tweaks also excite even if the red hilt of Kylo Ren’s weapon could be self damaging. I guess for me the only CGI that gnawed at my head was the overbearing hologram of Snoke which felt perhaps too overbearing, more like a LOTR character than anything else.

J.J Abrams pulls back on lens flares and crafts a near perfect entertaining blockbuster. The way the characters interact and the stories meld are directed efficently leading us to further buy into the continuing saga. It’s his direction that adds a new quality, an almost shakier dark tone that helps a lot, of course the screen wipes and smooth panning shots over deserts raise a smile but the hand-held camera on Stormtroopers or the pacy back and forth cutting during battles makes everything more dramatic and energetic. He has managed to retrieve the joy of Star Wars and lets hope the new directors for 8 and 9 can continue that feeling.

John Williams rightly gets a nod for Original Score at the Oscars because his control and music making is always reliable for bringing in the hair raising emotion. The moment you hear the classic score you feel right at home. The brooding factor is there also as we meet new villains Kylo Ren and General Hux. Sound design too needs a mention as robotic bleeps from old favourite R2-D2 react with what will be the stand out point for most in rolling dude BB-8.

I didn’t expect the movie to make me laugh as much as it did. Obviously it isn’t a comedy but there a lot of moments that truly make you chuckle out loud. There’s an endearing push towards the lighter moments that work in making this a bold and exciting family film. A lot of the laughs emenate from Boyega’s turn as Finn who is a riverting addition and the writing for his character is believable and comedic. The moment a pair of Stormtroopers turn and walk away from a raging Kylo Ren is also classic Star Wars humour which made a lot of the audience audibly cackle.

Daisy Ridley has been plucked from virtual obscurity and thank goodness because she’s a breath of fresh air as this driven scavenger with a talent for something bigger. She’s powerful, not a damsel in distress, stunning and interesting in seeing what’ll happen next. John Boyega is fantastic, like a lad born out of an evil past he brings the funny as I wrote but also develops into a more frustrated and vulnerable character which is acted well. Adam Driver is fantastically despicable as Kylo Ren and luckily he does get the chance to remove the mask so we see into his fleeting troubled eyes before the true villainy sets in. Oscar Isaac is a great watch as he shuttles into the opening and proves his worth as untampered Resistance fighter. Harrison Ford may do a lot of bad things but coming back as Han Solo is not one of those, it feels as if he never left even if he is older. The wry and arrogant manner is back but there’s fear in the mix too. Carrie Fisher makes her comeback too and does well as a general and leader but a worried mother also. Mark Hamill is the actor I was most looking forward to as he shies away from the limelight now but his late reveal is very much the wait in what can come. It’s a sizzling ensemble cast of actors either live action or in mo-cap they all work together in creating a delightful starry universe.

It’s more than worth a watch because it shows how CGI and 3D can be done right and that the Star Wars saga is nowhere near dead. Disney but more importantly Abrams and his unknown actors have revamped this franchise with the satisfaction of retaining what we all adore about the first three.

8/10

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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This is a phenomenal film, there is so much greatness in the way of story, music, visuals and performances. I liked 2011’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, but this surpasses it in leaping bounds and provides a near flawless amount of smarts, heart and dramatic tension. It punches to the core, it’s violent, it’s touching and it’s one stunning work of art in motion.

This sequel picks up with a brief outline of the spread of the Simian flu (ALZ-113 to be precise) and leaves us facing a desolated San Francisco where Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads a massive group of apes in their new forest home. On the other side of these woods is a small camp of humans led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) trying to survive with decreasing power who stumble onto the ape’s territory and bring about a bubbling sense of dread and danger as each side gets closer to fighting one another. I literally won’t go into any more detail about plot info or other occurrences so as not to spoil a clever and well paced tale.

Let me start with the biggest and most astounding quality of this movie which is in the special effects. I’m not normally fond of films that use a lot of or rely on large amounts of CGI but ‘Dawn of the Apes’ as I shall now call it, uses it so well. The majority of this film falls into Caesar’s camp as his story unfolds, so of course there’s a lot more effects driven drama this time around but wow, it’s so damn impressive. From the opening stampede hunt alone you get the sense of this grand scale effects laden world and it captures the imagination and pulls you right into the environment as if you’re there. The work undertaken by the team who made the effects as perfect as they is groundbreaking. I could go on for ages about the visuals of this film but I don’t wish to bore you. It’s just incredible to believe that these apes are real even though you know they’re not. The slightest details of wet fur matting to wrinkled fingertips immerse you into the brilliant texture and efforts of the team that bring Caesar and his generation to life.

The story is tense and ticks away so nicely that you never feel a lull even when things slow down to let characters or moments breathe. It’s an intelligent plot concerning the troubling turnabout of dominance in both apes and humans and what disaster this can bring to both races. The focus being more on the monkeys this time is a great treat and Caesar’s plight is a thing to behold, even without a lot of dialogue you empathise with him and as his followers begin losing trust in the humans he knows more about you strongly feel for him. The dark touches are a brave yet frankly necessary move for a story such as this, with the threat of mankind being quenched by some oppressive few furry swingers. I may even go to use the word daring in some terms of this 12A movie to include some harsh bleak moments to push the narrative along. It really grabs you from the outset and doesn’t ever let go.

Some of the camerawork is top notch stuff, there’s a lot of sweeping wide angled shots that let you take in a bigger portion of the action, which also makes you admire the CGI work as you see apes in the entire frame doing their thing. The tracking beautiful cinematography inside an empty building and up and through a jagged tower filled with scaffolding showcases some wondrous camera efficiency that plays on the worrying threat of seeing these vengeful apes begin their ascension to take over. A glorious little static moment behind one of the more unfriendly apes as he sits atop a tank is fantastic, the warzone like city moving around and out of shot as we feel stuck to the battle vehicle is a cool little glisten to the cherry on top of the cake I thought.

Human characters in this are a little weak and most don’t really appear apart from showing that we are lovely creatures after all and that they shouldn’t deserve the bad things happening to them. The gritty interesting depth can be found in the apes and it’s not only Caesar who has a story to get told, Maurice the orangutan is back and you get to love him even more, the scarred Koba is back giving more to the story and Caesar’s family are explored as we see his son Blue Eyes, his wife Cornelia and their cute little baby. I like that more of this film revolves around how the apes react to the world around them and how they treat the human influence. There was at least 3 or 4 times that I got misty eyed thanks to events happening in the circle of apes, some sad and some just so touching and sweet with humans bonding with monkeys that you see the resemblance and get all goose bumpy!

Andy Serkis is a talent and his utter brilliance in motion capture is a treasure, a pure golden treasure and the other acts involved in letting the apes shine are sublime. The performance capture art of this film makes it what it is and thanks to this I am really looking forward to Serkis’ future projects and motion capture school; The Imaginarium Studios. This is a film where you could honestly hope for Serkis to be up for an award in acting because he’s just as good or in fact better than the rest of the cast when playing Caesar.

There’s only a few moments where it starts treading into glory blockbusting action and one or two ideas that can be predicted in advance but aside from this and the fact I didn’t like the subtitles being yellow (see I’m stretching here to think of anything negative) it’s a film that must be seen and isn’t the usual summertime blockbuster silly movie to idly sit by watching. There’s brains and brawn to witness and both get explored in fantastically equal measure.

Entertaining, thrilling, heartfelt, tense and gorgeous to look at. ‘Dawn of the Apes’ is a remarkable film stuffed with welcomed beneficial special effects. Hail Caesar.

8.5/10