Black Panther

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. Ryan Coogler

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, and Sterling K. Brown.

 

Black Panther is based on a comic released in 1966, and it’s about time it got its big screen adaptation. In a world where #oscarssowhite was only trending a couple of years ago, representation is a huge issue. Black Panther isn’t the first black superhero to grace our screens, but it is the first black, solo superhero movie in the MCU. I was excited going in, Ryan Coogler is a director with a unique voice, which he isn’t scared to use. He managed to bring his socially conscious film making from Fruitvale Station to Creed, and I was interested to see what he did with an even bigger scope. He also assembled a fantastic cast, and crew, and with Kendrick Lamar on song duties, a rapper whose socially conscious songs seem to gel perfectly with Cooglers M.O., I went hoping for a Marvel movie which offered something more.

 

Black Panther carries on from where we left T’Challa at the end of Captain America: Civil War. After the death of his Father, King T’Chaka, Prince T’Challa heads home to Wakanda. Wakanda is perceived by the rest of the world as a third world African Country, but in fact it’s the most scientifically advanced country in the world. T’Challa is home to take on the mantle of King, and Black Panther. Black Panther is the super strong protector of Wakanda, a role passed on from King to King. Soon, T’Challa sets out to correct one of his Fathers biggest failures, capturing Ulysses Klaue, a thief who stole Wakanda’s precious supply of Vibranium, killing Wakandians whilst doing it. It doesn’t go smoothly though, and T’Challa finds himself facing competition for the throne.

 

Black Panther is a breath of fresh air in the MCU. After going through a phase of releasing homogeneous, if fun, super hero movies (I’m looking at you Doctor Strange), they have started to add some different colours to their palate. Thor: Ragnarok was hilarious, but I felt it suffered within the MCU because of its irreverence. Black Panther though is a film that takes the super-hero genre seriously, and offers an origin story that looks and feels completely fresh. It’s nice to see one of these movies not set in New York, and the Coogler leans heavily into the African influence with fantastic results. The use of colour in this film is incredible, the set design is fantastic, and the score is thunderously good. The brilliant world building of Wakanda means that even though there are ties to the MCU, Black Panther really does stand on its own four feet.

 

The conversation around Black Panther is always going to concern reprentation. It’s one of the great joys of this movie, watching so many talented black actors excelling in roles which have been for so long reserved for white actors. Coogler goes one step further and fills his film with lots of powerful black women. In fact Boseman’s Panther generally comes in second to all he women around him. His sister, played by Latitia Wright is more intelligent. His general, Danai Gurira, is better tactically and perhaps a better fighter, and his ex, Lupita Nyong’o, is arguably morally superior. Coogler does well to create this fictitious African country, but he crucially doesn’t forget the American part of the African-American experience. This comes in the form of a Michale B. Jordan’s villain Killmonger. A boy who grew up in Oakland without a father, Jordan is superb, and completely believable with his righteous anger. Coogler uses his rivalry with T’Challa to impart his social messages, but never in a way that is preachy, both their ideologies are flawed. These are lofty sentiments for a movie of this size, and at times you can’t believe Marvel and Disney let Coogler say these things, but the film is all the better for it.

 

For the most part, Coogler has knocked this movie out of the park. With a firm grip on tone, he swings from family drama to bond-esque spy movie without missing a beat. The action scenes are for the most part fantastic, Coogler bringing his single take, Creed style to the film. The climax does feel slightly under cooked, a savanna fight scene involving some armoured rhinos feeling a little bit like second hand Lord Of The Rings. The film is littered with great performances. Boseman and Jordan are the stand outs, but special mention has to go to Letitia Wright, who is a great deal of fun, and Andy Serkis who seems to thoroughly enjoy not being in a mo-cap suit. Martin Freeman is perhaps the only under-used actor, there for some good jokes, but ultimately feels like a character Coogler doesn’t really care about. Special mention must go to the score and original songs by Lamar. Ensuring that not only does this film look like no other Hollywood blockbuster, it doesn’t sound like one either. I loved the contrast of the organic African drums used in Wakanda, and the processed drum machine used to represent Killmonger.

 

Black Panther is perhaps the best stand alone MCU movie yet. It’s smart, funny, and full of thrilling action sequences. It’s also a movie rooted in family with a whole ton of heart. Coogler doesn’t shy away from using his movie to comment on the African-American experience. His villain is nuanced and complicated. His hero is thoughtful and wary. Coogler offers a depiction of the things that divide us, but has ultimately made a movie that we can all get behind.

8/10

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. Wes Ball

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Dexter Darden, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, and Aidan Gillen.

 

Maze Runner has always seemed like the overlooked franchise in the recent spate of Young Adult movies. It doesn’t hit the high watermark set by Hunger Games, but is leaps and bounds better than the Divergent series. The first film was a nice sci-if mystery, with elements of Lord Of The Flies. The second film lost its way a bit. It broadened the world, but perhaps over reached with too many characters vying for screen time. It also morphed into a zombie horror, which was too intense for its target audience. Wes Ball seemed to take the criticisms on board though, and The Death Cure is a half-successful course correction.

 

The Death Cure finds Thomas as the leader of the rag-tag team who escaped the maze in the first instalment. After discovering that the world has been ravaged by a virus, and the maze was a test to produce anti-bodies from those immune to the virus, which seems to be secreted when they feel fear, Thomas and friends set out to get their friend Minho back from the company WCKD. They trace him back to the last city standing, which hides behind a massive circular wall. They’ll need to break in using the help of former group member turned WCKD employee Teresa, who is desperately trying to find a cure.

 

The Death Cure is a huge improvement on The Scorch Trials. It’s clear from the opening sequence, a fantastic train heist, that this is a different beast of a movie. The sequence is taught and lean, not stopping to catch you up on the action. It’s a superb set piece with some great practical stunts, which throw you immediately back into Thomas’ world. When the plot does kick, it’s a simplified one. Find Minho, and rescue him. Ball even keeps it down to mainly the original members, shredding the extra baggage of The Scorch Trials bloated cast. This works incredibly well, leaving you with the people you care about, and Ball stages some great set pieces around them. The opening sequence is one of them, and there’s a terrificly tense tunnel sequence which takes its cues from Stephen King’s The Stand. Ball tones down the horror elements, to a degree that suits this movie much better. In fact, it’s within the references and homages that you see where Ball’s sight is set. There’s bits of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and Mad Max. It’s a lofty aspiration that Ball doesn’t quite rise to.

 

The big problem with the film is that it’s about 40 minutes too long. The middle drags, and you can feel the film being pulled down by the weight of its role of wrapping up the trilogy in a satisfying way. The extra story elements bloat out the last act, and you can’t help but miss the simplicity of what came before it. It’s not a film with the emotional heft of the Hunger Games, nor does it bare any real life parallels in which to make any lasting statements. The performances are fine, if Aidan Gillen’s villain is more caricature than character. The world looks lived in, and real. If the focus had been kept on just producing a fun action movie, which it was for the firs two acts, then it would have worked a lot better.

 

In all, The Death Cure starts well, but doesn’t stick the landing, and out stays it’s welcome. What starts out as fun soon becomes dull. It’s a noble failure though, as Wes Ball corrects a lot of the mistakes of The Scorch Trials, and knows how to stage a great action set piece, and fills his film with likeable, if bland, characters. It’s an entertaining, but forgettable thrill ride.

 

6/10

 

 

Winchester

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. The Spierig Brothers

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, and Sarah Snook.

I was looking forward to seeing Winchester. I’ve been interested in the story of the Winchester house ever since learning about its influence on The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. I had also taken an interest in The Spierig Brothers after seeing Predestination and Daybreakers, both intelligent sci-fi movies which seemed to announce interesting new voices to the genre. They had returned last year with Jigsaw which was serviceable, but going into Winchester I was hoping for a smart, good looking horror, which bought something new to the genre. Eh…

Winchester tells the story of Dr. Eric Price, played by Jason Clarke, who is asked by The Winchester Repeating Fire Arms Company, to psychologically evaluate the company’s majority shareholder Sarah Winchester. The widow of the man who invented and sold the Winchester rifle, she is wracked with guilt over all the death the rifle has caused. Her mansion is a sprawling house of non-stop construction. Dozens of rooms that make no logical sense together, stairs that lead nowhere, cupboards which are secret doors. This is the most eccentric house ever. Sarah Winchester believes she is building the rooms that the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester Rifle need in order to move on. Dr. Price must decide whether she is mentally fit to run the company still, whilst battling demons of his own.

This film is a let down from start to finish. Pitched as a Victorian gothic ghost story, it’s full of familiar images, and well worn set pieces, which don’t offer audiences anything new, and don’t really amount to anything either. The film jumps from set piece to set piece, held together by the thinnest of plot threads. Yeah, there are some decent jump scares, just enough to fill a good trailer, but the film lacks any sense of escalation. The jumps at the start are exactly the same as the jumps at the end. It’s a monotonous film which keeps playing the same note until it outstays its welcome. It’s not a long film, only 1 hour 39 minutes, but I couldn’t have watched another 10.

The film feels like a wasted opportunity. It introduces some good ideas, but throws them away too soon. What is Sarah Winchester’s mental state? Let’s not really explore that. Are Jason Clarke’s encounters hallucinations bought on by his drug addiction? Who cares? Instead you get an hour of Helen Mirren walking around the house in a black veil, a creepy looking kid, and tons of shots of people slowly walking towards the next telegraphed jump scare. The biggest waste is the use of the house. The Spierig Brothers set all their scenes in about 7 different rooms, and shoot them in such an incredibly traditional manner, that as an audience member you are never once disorientated. The film never once wrong foots you, and in a house famed for doors that open to brick walls, and stairs that lead to nowhere, it feels like that’s the least it should be doing.

There are a ton of stories related to the Winchester House, and The Spierig Brothers have decided to tell the most by the numbers version of it. When the film isn’t being unintentionally funny, it’s just downright boring. It’s a huge disappointment from the talent involved. They also use a didgeridoo in the score. Who puts a didgeridoo in a horror film set in America?

2/10

The Cloverfield Paradox

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. Julius Onah

Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Chris O’Dowd, Ziyi Zhang, Elizabeth Debicki, Roger Davies, Aksel Hennie.

There’s a lot of conversation to be had around The Cloverfield Paradox. In terms of following previous Cloverfield methods in distribution it fits right in. Cloverfield started life as just a poster, before adding its title closer to the release date. 10 Cloverfield Lane was a surprise sequel which was filmed secretly and announced only a couple of months before release. So it seems with the third movie they’ve achieve their ultimate goal, a Super Bowl spot which announced the film dropping on Netflix immediately after the game. The element of suprise is an interesting marketing campaign. There’s also a discussion about the worrying trend of studios dumping movies they’re worried about onto Netflix. I’d have been disappointed if 10 Cloverfield Lane had been released straight to Netflix as I’d have been deprived a really great cinema experience. These are all interesting discussions, but what about the actual film?

The Cloverfield Paradox is set in a world of diminishing energy resources. In an attempt to stop the world breaking out into war, a crew of astronauts and scientists are sent into space with a particle accelerator. The idea being that if they can get it to work they will be able to create a renewable energy source which will bring enough energy to everyone, but they have to do it in space as it is too dangerous to experiment with on earth. Our main protagonist is Hamilton, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a communications officer who is using the mission as an opportunity to heal/find some redemption for the accidental death of her children, whilst leaving her partner Michael, played by Roger Davies, on earth. When the crew finally have a successful collision, something goes wrong, and that’s when the weird stuff starts to happen.

Imagine you are at a bar ordering a drink, you decide to make you’re own cocktail, so you take an ingredient from all your favourite drinks in the menu, shake them up, and serve. You take one sip, and spit it out. It tastes awful. That’s The Cloverfield Paradox. Combining elements of Alien, Solaris, Event Horizon, Moon, Gravity, Interstellar, and even Armageddon, it creates a mix which is so far below the sum of its parts, you can’t believe how bad it is. Clichéd is one word for it, paint by numbers is another. It takes what would have been a really interesting idea, and just throws tropes at it. It’s adequately enough directed and acted, but the screenplay is awful. One dimensional characters just going through the motions. People complained that the scientist in Prometheus were dumb. They look like Nobel Prize winners next to this group. At one point the communications officer tells the group that they aren’t receiving any signals, and they can’t contact home base on earth. The next thing she does is run into her own room to try and contact her partner. Why would she even think this would work? Why is she distressed when it doesn’t? She’s the one in charge of this. It’s a dumb movie. Things go weird for seemingly no reason. Yes, some of it can be explained, but a lot of the set pieces make no logical sense at all. Even the plot line of we turned the particle accelerator on to get us in this mess, let’s turn it on again to get us out, is just stupidity on a massive scale. You’re supposed to be scientists.

The other big problem with this film is in the way in which it ties into the Cloverfield universe. 10 Cloverfield Lane, was a really good suspense thriller, which contained little nods to the Cloverfield universe, and then tied it in smartly with the first movie at the end. This positioned the Cloverfield universe as more of an anthology series, different varieties of genre movies, which may or may not be set in the same universe. The Cloverfield Paradox looks and feels like the main cast didn’t even know they were making a Cloverfield movie. Most of the connections come from Michael, who is left on earth, and these scenes feel so disconnected from the rest of the movie, and ultimately serve no goal. It’s a disjointed film, which even at its short running time is poorly paced.

I’m all for a Cloverfield shared universe, even if it’s just a smart way to market good movies which might otherwise get missed. I just don’t think this is the way to go. The connections feel forced and heavy handed. The focus shifts from telling a good story to joining up the dots. It robs the movie of any real pay off. It’s a shame because the film contains elements of films I really love, this mix though is really boring.

3/10

Coco

2018, Uncategorized

Dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach.

Pixar are pretty much unmatched in the field of animation. Their back catalogue is filled with certified classics. In recent years there have been complaints that the studio has suffered a dip in quality, with the amount of sequels being singled out as the problem, but even when Pixar are below their usual high standards, they are still head and shoulders above their peers. For every Monsters University there is a Toy Story 3, and for every Good Dinosaur there is a Inside Out. Going into Coco, you can only hope that this measures up against those gems.

Coco is the story of Miguel, a Mexican boy who feels that he is cursed as his family has banned music, and he loves music. When they thwart his plans to play a talent show during the Day Of The Dead, he attempts to steal his deceased hero’s guitar. He believes his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, is his great great grandad, the man who left his wife and baby, and set off the families hatred of music. The Day Of The Dead is a festival in which the deceased can pass back into the land of the living, but when Miguel steals the guitar he enters into the Land Of The Dead. He will be trapped there permanently unless he gets the blessing of his dead relatives, but they won’t give it to him unless he refuses to play music ever again. This leads Miguel to enlist the help of Hector, a man who is being forgotten by his last relative which will lead to his second death, to get him to Ernesto so he can get a blessing and still play music.

Coco is a gorgeous movie. The world building, the use of green, purple and orange hues creating a vibrant colour palette, and the look of the characters. It’s astonishing that 18 years on from Toy Story, animation has progressed this much. It’s jaw-dropping what Pixar have managed to achieve in this movie. Other animation houses don’t even come close. There are times when you question if what you are seeing is completely computer generated or not, it is that photo-realistic. There is so much fun to be had in exploring the Land Of The Dead as well. The way the world is built is fantastic, it’s intriguing, innovative, and intricate.

Music is an integral part of the film. There was remit for this to go so wrong. The mariachi Disney fan fare at the beginning is as close as this film gets to pastiche, and the rest of the musical sequences are so heartfelt, honest, and true, the songs become the emotional back bone of the movie, and this is an emotional movie. The same can be said about the way the Mexican culture is used, the obvious affection shining through in every frame.

Pixar have dealt with death before, but here it is a central theme, along with legacy, family, and the old chestnut of being yourself. If you’re not crying by the end of the movie you’re a colder person than me. Unkrich and Molina also have fun in subverting some of your expectations. Ernesto’s message of seizing your moment, which Miguel puts so much stock in, turning sinister by the end, adding another dimension to a film that could have been very by the numbers. The set-up, whilst complicated, leads to a very simple plot, but this is a kids movie, and yes, Pixar have used this outline before, but who cares when it looks as good as this, and still resonates hard on every level.

Coco is another classic in the Pixar library. A film about family, and the memories you leave behind. This take its place next to Inside Out, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and the Toy Story Trilogy as some of the finest modern day animations. It will thrill the kids and delight the parents. Sitting through the trailers for other animated movies that are being aimed at young audiences, and it’s almost laughable how far ahead Pixar are. They treat all their audience members with respect and intelligence, and fill their movies with genuine love and affection. Looking at the OSCAR nominations for Best Animated Picture, and seeing Coco sitting next to The Boss Baby really highlights how far behind everyone else is.

9/10

Den Of Thieves

2017, Uncategorized

Dir. Christian Gudegast

Starring: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.

What can you expect from a heist movie starring Gerard Butler and 50 Cent? To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. I took my seat to watch Den Of Thieves without seeing the trailer, and not knowing the plot synopsis. Like most modern day heist thrillers, this film takes a lot of its cues from Michael Mann’s Heat, and whilst first time director Christian Gudegast (he has previous experience as the screenwriter of films including London Has Fallen) doesn’t hit those heady heights, his debut behind the camera isn’t wholly unsuccessful.

The film plays as battle of wits and skill between a gang of thieves, and a gang of cops. The emphasis here being that the cops are as morally bankrupt as the thieves. The thieves include get away driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), right hand man Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and are led by mastermind Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber). They are planning one last job which will have them set for life, stealing from the federal reserve. On the other side are Los Angeles’ Major Crimes Unit, a rag tag group of cops led by a grizzled Gerard Butler as Nick O’Brien.

This is as cliched as it gets, but that’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had here. The action is visceral and intense. The direction is great when focusing on the heist aspect of the film. It’s tense, taught and well paced. The last act of the film is an incredibly well made action thriller. It’s clear that Gudegast knows how to handle the action, and this film will act as a great calling card for him. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is great as well, previously standing out in Straight Outta Compton, he steals the show again here. His Donnie coming out as the only likeable character. If the whole movie had been the first ten minutes and the last 40 minutes it would be a perfectly serviceable thriller.

It’s when the movie isn’t focusing on the heist that it starts to lose its footing. It shares some of the DNA as Heat. It’s a heist movie set in LA, focusing on the battle between a criminal mastermind and a cop out to get them. That’s where the similarities stop though. Heat was about two consummate professionals trying to outwit each other. Here the cops are defiantly not professionals. Turning up to crime scenes drunk. Torturing suspects. It’s made clear that the cops are just as horrible as the thieves, which is a problem because when the showdown comes I don’t know who to route for. Heat also had Al Pacino as the cop, and let’s be fair, Gerard Butler is no Al Pacino. He does give it a shot, but it just doesn’t work.

It’s clear that Gudegast is a better director than he is a writer. It’s the scenes in between the action that really let it down. There are on or two good moments. A tense encounter at a shooting range being one of them, but the main dialogue heavy scenes are so clunky. The male posturing is so over blown I thought at first they were playing it for laughs, but no, this film is completely straight faced. Butler is given a family to try and raise the stakes, but he’s such an asshole you don’t believe he actually cares about them. The rest of the two crews are given no back stories, no family ties, hell I don’t think half of them are given names. It all adds up to a finale in which I honestly felt that if all he characters were to be killed, I wouldn’t care about any of them. Which raises the question, what is the point of all this?

As action spectacle, Den Of Thieves is completely serviceable. In the moments it does works it’s really good, but these moments are undercut by such awful, non-sensical filler. Christian Gudegast has shown that he has the chops to direct tense and tight action sequences, but needs a better script. Leave your brain at the door when seeing this one.

5/10

The Shape Of Water

2017, Uncategorized

Dir. Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg.

Guillermo Del Toro is one of the greatest directors working today. His Spanish language movies being some of the best made in the 21st century. His English language output has, so far, been mainly studio blockbuster fare, with films such as Blade 2, Hellboy 1 and 2, and Pacific Rim. These were all great, and had plenty of heart, but felt like Del Toro paying his studio dues. His last film Crimson Peak felt like a return, and now with The Shape Of Water, Del Toro is finally starting to challenge his Spanish language output. A film truly worthy of the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Shape Of Water follows Sally Hawkins’ Eliza. A mute cleaner at a government facility in the 60’s. Her usual daily routine is interrupted with the arrival of the facilities latest asset. A creature of the black lagoon style amphibian man. Brought in by head of security Richard Strickland (played menacingly by Michael Shannon). What follows is a love story as Eliza learns more about the amphibian, and they start to connect. When Eliza discovers that the creature is to be killed, and dissected, she hatches a plan to break the creature out, enlisting the help of neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Russian spy Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Del Toro’s film is one of the most gorgeously shot movies of the year. It’s a true love letter to cinema. Every frame stunningly lit, inviting the audience in until it becomes all absorbing. This is a heightened version of the 60’s, creating the feel of a fairytale for adults. It’s a film about fantasy, it’s characters are outsiders who find comfort in each other, and their escapism. You have to question wether or not the film isn’t happening in Eliza’s head. The dream like quality of the movie, and Richard Jenkins’ narration adding to the bedtime story nature of the film. Eliza and Giles’ obsession with old movies, and how these influence their lives. Eliza starts by mimicking a dance routine, until she’s the star of her own fully blown Hollywood production. It’s not hard to imagine Del Toro as a boy, an outsider finding solace in films, dreaming up this story whilst watching Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s in the rare moments that the real world starts to break in, that we can really question this reality. TV news broadcasts showing police brutality quickly shut off, racist and homophobic characters, the threat of the Cold War, it’s the real world which makes the outsiders retreat further into their fantasies.

Del Toro populates his film with so many interesting characters, making you want to know more about them. Take the man at bus stop holding a cake with one slice missing. It’s the only time you see him, but you know there’s a story behind him. The actors who portray these characters are equally as impressive. Sally Hawkins finally getting the roles and recognition she deserves, and she is breathtakingly good, filling her Eliza with a naive innocence, and a raw sexuality. Octavia Spencer makes good work with the screen time she’s given. Doug Jone turns a scary looking creature into something you care for, which is no mean feat. Richard Jenkins is fantastic, and Michael Shannon is Michael Shannon. His villain a man who has bought into the fantasy of what a man should be in the 60’s, representing all the toxic masculinity that comes with it.

Music, and how music is used in film is also incredibly important to The Shape Of Water, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is beautiful, haunting, and mesmerising. Eliza lives above a theatre called the Orpheum. This means house of Orpheus. Orpheus being a character of Greek myth who uses music to charm. Eliza and the creature first connect over their shared love of music. Orpheus was eventually killed by those who couldn’t hear his music. Which is incredibly apt for a film about the people who live on the margins and feel like they are invisible.

There’s no shortage of things I loved about this film. It’s funny, moving, tense, and heart breaking. It’s a love letter to the power that cinema has. It shares a lot in common with Pan’s Labyrinth, in particular a main character who is referred to as a princess, and then descends into a fantasy world. It’s Guillermo Del Toro’s best English language film, and in his filmography only comes second to Pan’s Labyrinth, which really is saying something.

10/10