“Black Panther” Review

Black Panther.jpg

Early on in Black Panther the title character’s resident tech genius and sassy younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) justifies improving his gear by saying “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” This attitude seems to be the prevailing view behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately, as the blockbuster studio continues to demonstrate willingness to fit new voices and styles into their well-established franchise. For the eighteenth film in the series, director Ryan Coogler has brought together a primarily black cast and infused the fictional country of Wakanda with aspects of different African cultures to infuse Black Panther with a different energy while still retaining the action, special effects, and humour of its predecessors.

After making his debut in Captain America: Civil War Chadwick Boseman returns as Prince T’Challa, inheriting the title of King after the death of his father. T’Challa spent much of Civil War on a revenge-quest so his first solo outing gave Coogler and fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole an interesting opportunity to flesh his character out and expand his personality, but he still ends up feeling a bit flat. It’s nothing to do with Boseman’s performance, who brings ample amounts of charisma and power to the role, and more to do with how he keeps getting upstaged by his more interesting co-stars. Letitia Wright steals all the dialogue scenes as his teen-prodigy gadgeteer, bringing boundless enthusiasm to every creation she makes like a mix between James Bond’s Q and a YouTube star. Meanwhile the focus of the action scenes is quickly stolen by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the leader of T’Challa’s personal bodyguards and a fighter every bit as capable as the Black Panther himself without the need for the mystical herb that gives him super strength and agility. It’s noteworthy that both of these characters are women, as Black Panther is chock full of strong, intelligent, and badass women of colour without feeling the need to draw attention to it. It’s a welcome example of how times are changing, and we’re getting some fantastic characters out of it. Poor Martin Freeman ends up looking particularly out of place for much of the film as the Everett K. Ross, the required outsider who can have Wakandan customs explained to himself (and by extension the audience), but will surely help bring the characters of Black Panther into the superhero free-for-all that will be the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars.

Excepting Ross’s role and a few scenes with Age of Ultron’s Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkins), Black Panther manages to keep its story fairly self-contained against the broader Marvel Universe. The villain, Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, keeps his vendetta primarily to Wakanda and T’Challa himself, even if the conflict does naturally increase to something world threatening to justify an appropriately explosive final battle. Killmonger stands out against other Marvel villains for having a motive beyond simple “Take over/Destroy the World”, instead wanting to hold Wakanda accountable for its wealth and technological advances while other African countries languish in poverty and black people around the world are mistreated. In a rarity for superhero films I actually found myself agreeing with the villain at times, and I commend Black Panther for not being afraid to tackle uncomfortable questions and allowing both sides of the argument to make valid points. Obviously they still have to keep Killmonger clearly in the antagonist role to foster T’Challa’s growth and justify a final fight between the two, but thanks to Jordan’s committed performance and the writing of his character there is a genuine sense of pathos around him that hasn’t been seen in many other Marvel villains.

Ryan Coogler, fresh off the brilliant Rocky reinvention Creed, keeps Black Panther filled to the brim with both style and African influences. Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack mixes tribal drums, hip-hop hooks, and the typical superhero fanfare, which along with Kendrick Lamar’s original songs had me enjoying the music so much I’d forget to pay attention to what was happening on screen. While the fight sequences may lack the same visceral punch the boxing matches in Creed had, cinematographer Rachel Morrison has the camera flowing around the characters in slow motion as they gracefully perform extravagant stunts like running up buildings and whirling through car wrecks. These stylistic touches serve to distinguish Black Panther from other Marvel pictures on the surface, but at its core it does still fit within the Marvel mould. I’d love to play all of the MCU films at the same time and see how many of them simultaneously hit certain emotional beats. Yes, it’s basic story structure, but Marvel has been following the classic three-act structure so religiously that you could basically set your watch by when the film hits its darkest moment. For all the Black Panther does different it’s clear there are some things Marvel is unwilling to change, especially the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and post-credits teasers.

Black Panther isn’t the first superhero movie to have a black lead, not even the first based on a character from Marvel comics (I haven’t forgotten you, Blade), but it’s undoubtedly a milestone in mainstream cinema to have a film that celebrates black culture so openly. It also demonstrates why these things are worth celebrating, as when you get different voices like Coogler or Thor: Ragnarok’s Taikia Waititi to handle blockbuster films you get different types of blockbusters. It may have taken Marvel a while to figure that out, but if they’re able to keep their films feeling this fresh after 10 years then it’s a lesson well learned.

4 stars.

“Molly’s Game” Review

MOLLYS-GAME-poster-horozontal.jpg

Aaron Sorkin has a remarkable knack for making complex topics seem accessible to audiences; whether it’s the politics of The West Wing, the coding language of The Social Network, or now the high-stakes poker of Molly’s Game. From the opening scene the viewer is bombarded with numbers, statistics, and facts rapidly delivered via Molly’s narration as she breaks down the freak accident that ruined her chance to ski at the winter Olympics, but all done so in a way that makes it both bitterly funny and easy to understand. As is often the case with Sorkin’s screenplays the amount of information being delivered at once can be overwhelming, but the story behind the arrest and investigation into Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) and her underground poker games involves so many overlapping details and characters that it takes a writer like Sorkin to do it justice.

Molly’s Game follows a similar structure to Sorkin’s prior screenplay for The Social Network, alternating between Molly’s meetings with her lawyer Charles Jaffey (Idris Elba) as he attempts to understand her true motives, and flashbacks detailing the evolution of the poker games she runs. These games move from LA to New York and include movie stars, athletes, bankers, and members of the Russian Mob amongst their players. Over all of it looms Molly, maintaining control and earning thousands of dollars worth of tips each night as she keeps her games popular and (mostly) legal. Chastain is present within nearly every scene of the picture, and those that she’s not in contain her narration, and she flawlessly pulls off everything Sorkin throws at her. Her performance varies between charming, determined, vulnerable, confident, and sardonic, on top of reading out Sorkin’s notoriously difficult dialogue as she explains topics as varied as the rules of poker, legal jargon, skiing, and the backstories of many of her players. She’s matched by Elba, who’s struggled to lock down a good role lately with flops like Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us but is yet again able to display his natural charisma and sense of cool professional intelligence. The scenes between them best showcase the typically quippy back-and-forth banter Sorkin is famous for, even if at times Elba seems to be struggling to make it sound as natural as Chastain does.

This is Sorkin’s first foray into directing, and while he’s clearly studied from the master directors he’s worked with before (including David Fincher and Danny Boyle) I got the sense that he’s definitely more comfortable with the dialogue sequences. Moments that relied more on action tended to be weaker, with Molly joyously skating on an ice rink towards the end feeling like something out of a Disney channel original rather than the dark and complex drama/thriller I’d been watching. The whole film starts to feel a touch too sentimental in the third act, with both Elba’s character and Molly’s estranged father (Kevin Costner) having moments where they spout her virtues and praises. I don’t know anything about the real Molly Bloom beyond what is presented in Molly’s Game, but while The Social Network may have exaggerated Mark Zuckerberg’s worst qualities this film presents an unfalteringly positive depiction of its protagonist. That’s not to say Chastain doesn’t make her believable, but when every other character is as despicable as the sort that Bloom deals with in her games I found myself siding with Jaffey when recommends selling them out to the police to protect herself. Her ultimate explanation as to why she doesn’t is so thin that Sorkin immediately has to follow it up with a joke in the hopes that we don’t question it any further.

I wouldn’t have expected a film about poker and event management to be as exciting as this is, but Molly’s Game does pull it off. On-screen diagrams and Chastain’s narration ensures that those of us who know nothing about the game can still follow along, and even if I did get occasionally lost in the more specific details I was kept constantly engaged by both Chastain’s powerhouse performance and the quality of Sorkin’s dialogue. I’ll be interested to see what dry topic Sorkin is able to weave a screenplay out of next, as at this rate he’d be able to make something entertaining out of a terms and conditions agreement.

4 stars.

“All the Money in the World” Review

All the Money in the World.jpg

Where should I even begin on All the Money in the World? This film should have been a fairly simple real-life thriller based around the kidnapping of John Paul Getty the Third in 1973, and his billionaire grandfather’s refusal to pay the ransom. Things got more complicated after Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault allegations, resulting in director Ridley Scott removing Spacey from the role of J.P. Getty and replacing him with Christopher Plummer through a series of reshoots and digital edits. This move bought All the Money considerable media attention and positive press, which quickly turned sour when it was revealed Mark Wahlberg was payed substantially more for the reshoots than co-star Michelle Williams. Chances are that you already know this, dear reader, and indeed it’s hard to watch this film without considering its complicated backstory. It was definitely a remarkable decision from Scott, but does it make for a better film? Or should it be considered on its own merits?

I’m going to say yes, replacing Spacey with Plummer does make the film better. Plummer is a wonderful actor, and in the current climate seeing Spacey play such an irredeemable person would have been too uncomfortable and distracting an experience. Despite all the behind-the-scenes drama Plummer truly does make the role his own, appearing almost genial even as he holds onto his money and power at the expense of his family’s own safety. There is little, if any, moral complexity to a character such as Getty – Scott even desaturates the visuals of many of his scenes so much they border on black-and-white. Considerably more colour, and humanity, is displayed whenever the focus is on Gail Harris, mother to the kidnapped John. Williams brings substantial strength to the role of Gail, who at one point expresses indignation that the press expects photos of her crying over her son, and hides her character’s terror behind a composed and stern expression. Fletcher Chase, negotiator and former CIA operative, bridges the two moral grounds as he deals with both Gail and Getty, but as a character most of his positive talents are informed rather than displayed. It doesn’t help that Wahlberg, who admittedly gives one of his better recent performances, isn’t quite at the same level of actors like Williams or Plummer so is frequently outclassed in their scenes.

One of Ridley Scott’s greatest strengths as a director is crafting atmospheric tension, and All the Money in the World allows him to demonstrate this in a more restrained fashion than last year’s Alien: Covenant or 2015’s The Martian. The impressive thing is how Scott is able to match the stakes between overtly dangerous situations, such as John Paul Getty’s (Charlie Plummer, no relation) fraught interactions with kidnapper Cinquanta (Romain Duris), and subtly sinister moments like Getty looming over the alimony dispute between Gail and his son. John’s famous disfigurement at the hands of his captors is almost casual in execution, with Cinquanta whispering comforting words to the frightened boy as the camera gets up close to all the grisly details like a twisted medical drama. Meanwhile, one of Getty’s monologues about his own power is accompanied by a subtly rising soundscape of insects buzzing, making him seem more monstrous and inhuman than the kidnappers. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between these two groups, even if Gail and Fletcher start to feel like a less interesting pairing stuck in the middle for most of the film.

All the Money in the World is a well made, if unspectacular, picture that would have been almost destined to be lost within Scott’s formidable filmography were it not for the more interesting behind-the-scenes issues. As it stands, the removal of Spacey from the final product does serve to immortalise it – both due to the assured performance of Plummer and the powerful message Scott’s actions send to other filmmakers.

4 stars.

 

“Darkest Hour” Review

darkest-hour-poster

Genuine question: How many films about World War 2 can possibly be made? It feels as though the war has been covered from every angle and perspective imaginable, yet around December/January each year there seems to be a new picture about the conflict and the struggles endured by those who lived through it. Admittedly, having director Joe Wright team up with actor Gary Oldman elevates Darkest Hour to a higher quality than most WW2 dramas, but I found it difficult to shake the feeling that I’d seen much of it before. It doesn’t help that the evacuation of Dunkirk plays a major role in the climax of Wright’s film, which only served to make me think about Nolan’s Dunkirk instead of the images on screen. This exemplifies the problem I have with historical dramas and World War 2 biopics: No matter how well made and performed they seem while watching them, when they’re finished they all just seem like one part of a much larger tale.

Fortunately Wright and Oldman manage to make the story of Darkest Hour feel somewhat fresh through the strength of the expressionistic direction and a commanding performance. Oldman loses himself in the role of Winston Churchill throughout the first month of his role as Prime Minister in a warts-and-all depiction that emphasises his brashness, insecurities, arrogance, and eloquence. Many of Churchill’s iconic speeches are recreated in full, but it’s astonishing how Oldman doesn’t just sound like he’s imitating the originals. Instead he delivers each speech with such emotional conviction that it’s as if we’re hearing them for the first time. It works to strip away the iconic status of a historical figure like Churchill, and enable us to consider him as a man. Wright emphasises Churchill’s sense of isolation over any other quality, with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography regularly positioning him boxed into small frames of the screen and surrounded by a black void. Combined with a soundscape that magnifies the impact of each plodding step, the shadowy and ominous look of the Halls of Parliament, and Dario Marianelli’s militaristic soundtrack, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the world on Winston’s shoulders. With the German invasion of Europe getting closer to swallowing Britain each passing day, Churchill’s decisions often mean life or death for British soldiers – and Wright doesn’t shy away from depicting how they impact both the men on the field and the man himself.

Kristen Scott Thomas brings light into the bleakest moments of the picture as Clementine Churchill, who’s unafraid to challenge her husband while recognising what he’s working towards. Thomas does such a fine job of bringing out the tenderness in Oldman’s performance while demonstrating Clementine’s own strength that it’s frustrating how Anthony McCarten’s screenplay prioritises the role of Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s new secretary, as the one to humanise him. It’s not a flaw in Lily James’ performance, who brings her usual amount of charisma to the lower-class ingénue, but the scenes between Thomas and Oldman demonstrate such a compelling shared history and understanding between the two characters that the relatively new relationship between Layton and Churchill is less investing as a result. A much more interesting partnership is the one that develops between Churchill and King George VI, magnificently portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn manages to present George as a man relatively powerless in his new position as King without feeling as though he’s in the shadow of Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning role from 2011’s The King’s Speech, displaying great dignity even while apprehensive of Churchill’s actions.

Yet ultimately the comparisons to other films couldn’t help hanging over Darkest Hour for me, as the events and characters on display have been presented countless times before. Darkest Hour stands on its own merits as a superbly acted and stylishly directed recapturing of one of the most uncertain moments in British history, but the inherent issue with a story so famous is there’s never any uncertainty as to what will happen next. It’s hard to be surprised by something we see recreated year after year.

4 stars.

“The Post” Review

ThePost_1.jpg

It’s arguable as to whether or not Steven Spielberg is the best living director, but he is indisputably the most successful. It’s hard to imagine a director who’s had a greater influence on film history, popular culture, or the very structure of Hollywood, excepting perhaps Walt Disney. While not all of Spielberg’s films are perfect, he has always had a remarkable knack for making nearly any topic entertaining and cinematic – a skill he demonstrates yet again with The Post, as a dry, wordy, and complicated real life story about journalists in the 1970s is turned into a tense and exceptionally relevant summer release.

The Post is centred around the publication of the Pentagon Papers, confidential documents concerning the role of the US Government in the Vietnam War, and the conflict between the media and the Presidency that emerged as a result. Spielberg’s favourite leading man Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, who is determined to continue reporting on the papers even after the New York Times has been served a court injunction preventing them from further publication. Bradlee’s determination puts him in opposition with Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), who has inherited ownership of the Post from her husband after his suicide, and is hesitant to allow the story due to the damage it could do to both the value of the paper and her own relationships with members of Nixon’s administration. It’s incredible to think that Streep had never worked with Spielberg or Hanks to this degree before, as the three A-listers seem like such a natural combination and are all on top-form here. Refreshingly, the two leads seem to invert the roles they most commonly play. The famously affable Hanks brings a brashness and bull-headed determination as Bradlee, and Steep brings a nervous vulnerability to the out-of-her-depth Graham that’s a far cry from her more forceful depictions of figures like Margaret Thatcher or Miranda Priestly (even if she is too versatile an actress to ever truly be typecast). As would be expected with such a prestigious film the entire supporting cast is filled with famous faces, from Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Sarah Paulson, and for those of us who are too young to remember this moment in American history it can be overwhelming to keep up with all the characters and names at first. Once the main story picks up, though, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay keeps things fairly focused to the main editorial staff, simplifying the story to just a few central figures who have to decide whether or not to publish.

Spielberg has never been a subtle director, and there’s no question that this is a film firmly on the side of journalistic freedom. Characters repeat their belief that the press exists to challenge the government so often that the only way Spielberg’s intended message could have been clearer is if Bradlee slipped up and referred to ‘Nixon’ as ‘Trump’ in a scene. Yet just because a message is obvious doesn’t mean it’s ineffective, as The Post demonstrates how relevant the lessons from decades ago still are today. At times The Post feels like a spiritual successor to 1976’s All the President’s Men, with the former ending right where the latter takes off, but while one film was made only two years after Nixon’s resignation the other is released one year into the Presidency of a man with his own reasons to combat the media. It exemplifies how tuned in Spielberg is to the zeitgeist, and how the entire purpose of making historical pictures is to encourage the audience to question whether or not anything has actually changed.

The Post tells an important story, and Spielberg knows it. There are a few too many grand speeches, even if they are excellently delivered from the faultless cast, and John William’s grandiose soundtrack threatens to overpower the performances at times. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński has the camera rushing through the frantic offices of the Washington Post and up close to the printers, so we feel the impact of each word being pressed onto the paper and see how much work it took to get them there. It borders on being too much, but when the history on display in The Post feels so familiar to current events it’s hard to not see the need for a film like this.

4 stars.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Review

star-wars-the-last-jedi-news.jpg

It’s hard to review a Star Wars film. It’s a series that means so much to so many people, myself included, that it’s difficult to separate the impact of the series as a whole from each new individual film. Fortunately director Rian Johnson and the team at Lucasarts are all too aware of that influence, and The Last Jedi is as much a film about legacy as it is about something new. This theme is largely represented by returning stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, with their iconic characters Jedi Master Luke Skywalker and General Leia Organa elevated to legendary status by their actions in the original Star Wars trilogy and beyond. Returning Force Awakens protagonists Finn, Rey, and Poe Dameron similarly struggle to deal with the expectations now placed on them as the battle between the Resistance and the First Order gets more serious, and new characters such as Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico bear the pressure of proving themselves amongst the established heroes. Johnson does a remarkable job at balancing the old, the current, and the new, creating a Star Wars film that seems to signify the original trilogy passing its legacy on to the next chapter.

One of the most common criticisms of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was that it felt too similar structurally to A New Hope, and a similar complaint could be given to The Last Jedi at times. Iconic scenes such as Luke’s training with Master Yoda, the Battle of Hoth, and Luke’s final meeting with Emperor Palpatine are deliberately mirrored, but every time I thought I knew where the film was going Johnson throws in unexpected twists and subverts expectations to demonstrate how much the Star Wars series still has to offer. Johnson’s script is funny in often surprising ways, particularly in scenes with a delightfully deadpan Mark Hamill, but not afraid to challenge established conventions of the Star Wars universe. The division between the Light Side and the Dark Side isn’t as clear in The Last Jedi, with Skywalker turning away from the teachings of the Jedi Order and the villainous Kylo Ren more emotionally conflicted than ever. Considerable emphasis is placed on the connection between Ren and Rey, and moments between Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley bring a heart and moral complexity rarely seen in blockbuster films lately. Kylo Ren is quickly turning into one of the best characters in the Star Wars saga, with his alliances and motivations never quite clear and Driver’s performance bringing every conflicted emotion to the forefront.

As is to be expected from a Star Wars film there are elements that are bound to be contentious. Two separate moments, one involving Leia Organa and another involving Luke Skywalker, overstate the characters’ abilities and powers so much that it felt to me like Johnson was playing off their reputations among the fans rather than honouring what they could believably do in the established universe. The special effects vary in quality – while for the most part the movie is a visual treat, CGI characters such as Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke stick out like sore thumbs when compared to the beautifully designed sets and top-quality practical effects. Yet two of the climactic battles, one aboard a damaged spaceship and the other on a planet of red salt, provoke such stunning images that certain frames resemble works of art.

Ultimately this is a Star Wars film that delivers what one could want from the series, be it the final heart wrenching performance of Carrie Fisher or John Williams’ typically excellent score, while demonstrating potential for where the series still has to go. By the end of The Last Jedi the pieces are well and truly set for a spectacular conclusion of the new trilogy still to come, one that promises to offer something new and unexpected in a series over 40 years old.

Guess I’ll just have to see this one another two or three more times while we wait.

4 stars.

“Wonder” Review

Wonder-2017

Break out the tissues, because director Stephen Chbosky’s (Perks of Being a Wallflower) new film is determined to tug on the heartstrings as much as possible. Wonder is the film adaptation of the 2012 book of the same name about a young boy, August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a severe facial deformity. After being home-schooled by his mother most of his early years, Auggie is now starting fifth grade at a normal school and will have to deal with the reactions from students and staff as he tries to fit in.

There’s a lot of emotional content jammed into a two-hour runtime with this film, and Wonder pulls out just about every trick in the book to get the tears flowing. Room star Jacob Tremblay manages the astonishing task of delivering a sensitive and powerfully expressive performance underneath make-up designer Arjen Tuiten’s full facial prosthetics, difficult enough for adult actors let alone an eleven year old. Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts deliver the best performances I’ve seen from either in years as Auggie’s parents, with Roberts heartbreakingly vulnerable and Wilson much funnier as a regular embarrassing Dad than any of his recent comedic protagonists. I got the sense that the supporting cast of child actors couldn’t always sell the sentiment of their scenes but this inexperience was strangely endearing, as they always feel like real kids behaving naturally. Meanwhile Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs are welcome sources of wise words and support as the school’s principal and teacher.

Rather than just being Auggie’s story, the screenplay also gives side characters such as Auggie’s sister or fellow classmates their own moments of narration and perspective. It’s a nice little twist to what could have been a fairly one-sided story of the ‘inspirationally disadvantaged’ little boy, and supports the film’s overall message of looking at situations from another’s point of view. With such a clear family-friendly moral and an abundance of sentimental moments, Wonder borders on being an overly saccharine at times but is kept from being nauseating by Chbosky’s fun and imaginative direction. Unexpected Star Wars cameos and emotional conversations told within the game Minecraft capture a childhood sense of play and, yes, wonder in moments that could have felt like overdone emotional beats. Don Burgess cinematography is simple but lends a storybook feel to even the most emotional scenes, bringing in much needed brightness and warmth.

I did feel that Wonder was somewhat determined to get one last tear out of its audience towards the end, with about four different endings as things wrap up nicely for each character, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get one from me.

4 stars.