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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ready Player One: Revisited

Just a quick one, this time. OK, maybe not...


I had the pleasure to see Ready Player One again with visiting friends from Cape Town in IMAX 3D this past weekend and the difference between my first and second reactions to the film is really quite profound. Certainly profound enough that this may just be the first re-review in all my years doing this blog.

A few of my issues do remain with the film but it's a much better and much more enjoyable experience than I first gave it credit for. It's true, for example, that the (admittedly super impressive) video-game-inspired CGI is something of an alienating factor and it does at time feel like watching someone else play a video game but I do think that Spielberg actually does give even these sequences some weight by having them transposed against the dangers of what's going on in the real world of the film. This is especially well done later on in the film but it's true in all but the introductory sequences - which are still, it has to be said, just a bit too exposition-heavy.

I also think that, though the rest of the "Top Five" are barely sketched caricatures (the soulful Asian, the precocious kid and the wise-cracking (apparently) lesbian, black girl) Wade and Samantha do have more clearly defined character motivations and character arcs. Nothing deep or unique, you understand, but enough that they come across as actual kids, rather than plot devices. And, really, the characters in this movie are so much fun, that it's hard to really begrudge their being somewhat underwritten.

The main difference this time around, though, was the visuals. While the screening I saw at the 3D Il Grande theatre at Monte Casino looked absolutely terrible with the seeming million and one characters on screen at any given time looked like just a mush of CG ugliness, rather than distinct characters, and the whole thing was darkened by the usual 3D darkening effect on regular 3D, the film just looked terrific on IMAX 3D.

I would still have preferred to see it in 2D as I still find 3D generally distracting, not least of all because of those stupid glasses, but it's clear that not only does the film generally look better in IMAX 3D than at regular 3D cinemas, there was clearly something wrong with the 3D at that initial screening. The difference in visuals shouldn't be this profound. What was once a mush, now actually looked like thousands upon thousands of fully rendered and identifiable in that blink or you miss it kind of way. The screen is still a bit cluttered at times but this is offset by the abundance of really fun easter eggs for geeks and nerds of all ages to pick up on and, as one, I had an absolute blast with this aspect of the film. But, really, I know everyone loves Batman but they couldn't have featured some other DC heroes more prominently? Not even Superman? Ah, it's nice to be able to see enough to nitpick like this...

One final thing before I give the film it's much deserved higher grade: in my original review, I noted that the score was by John Williams but, as it turns out, unlike 99% of Speilberg films, Ready Player one was in fact not scored by the great John Williams! The still-pretty-great Alan Silvestri stepped in here with a score that isn't a million miles away from Williams' work but also brings to mind his own brilliant scores for the likes of Forest Gump and, oh yes, Back to the Future - including a direct reference to the latter in one of the film's most memorable moments!

So, yeah, I was wrong...

           

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hampstead

Blah, blah, blah. Who really cares about Hampstead when we have a cracking horror movie by Jim from the Office. I will get to that soon, though. Also, I have a few words to say about a film that I may have gotten just a bit wrong.

And no, it's not the Last Jedi!

Anyway...

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Emily Walters is a recently widowed American living in the United Kingdom who has been left adrift both by her husband's death and certain revelations about his past but while she fails to connect with her small social group of upper-middle class women or the men they try to set her up with, she starts to fall for her “neighbour”, Donald Horner, a dishevelled homeless man who has been squatting for years in a small shack on Hampstead Heath and who now has to fight for his right to remain there when Emily's friends want to use the land for a new, high-priced development.

What we thought

Proof that not even the greatest actors can save a boring script and an uninvolving story, Hampstead utterly wastes its two leads, Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson – to say nothing of its supporting cast of talented British “character actors” - on a fluffy romcom that is neither remotely funny nor particularly romantic. It's the sort of understated British film aimed quite clearly at an older market looking for something as genteel as it is quaint but that's still no excuse for Hampstead to be as unexciting, uninteresting and anaemic as it is.

Keaton is rather good here as she tones down the quirkiness that she usually brings to these sorts of films; opting instead for a world-weary and melancholic performance that reminds us of just how great she can be. Gleeson, on the other hand, is as much a pleasure to watch as ever, but his role as a gruff but warm-hearted loner is the sort of thing that he can sleepwalk through by now – and, indeed, he does pretty much exactly that here.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ready Player One

Just a slight disclaimer. I'm very tough on the 3D of this film but a fellow film reviewer pointed out that the 3D was out of focus. I didn't notice because I normally find 3D films pretty unbearable but it's entirely possible that the film's 3D prints, in general, aren't quite as bad as I originally thought they were. I still think 2D would be the way to go, preferably IMAX 2D, but - 

Nah, forget it. Just see it in 2D. This whole 3D thing has more than worn out its welcome.

This review is also up now on Channel 24


 What it's about

The year is 2045 and as the real world gets progressively worse, most of the world's population spends time in a vast virtual world known as the Oasis. With the death of the Oasis' creator, James Halliday, however, his virtual world becomes more than just a means of escape as he leaves control of the Oasis, along with his personal half-a-trillion dollar fortune, to the first person to solve a series of challenges that he left behind in different parts of the Oasis. Wade Watts, a young orphan who lives in a dilapidated trailer-apartment with his aunt in the over-populated Columbus, Ohio, is the first to crack Halliday's first challenge but when a massive mega-corporation, IOI, gets wind of his progress, he will need all his wits and resources, as well as the help of his five virtual-world friends, to finish the challenges before IOI take them all out in the real world and claims the prize for themselves.

What we thought

For all the acclaim that Steven Spielberg gets for his “serious” films (Schindler's List, Lincoln), it is ultimately his peerless work with blockbusters and genre pictures that have most earned him his status as one of the very best living filmmakers. From Jaws to the BFG; Raiders of the Lost Ark to Minority Report, no one makes big-budget, (usually) fantastical films quite like Spielberg – though, many, of course, have tried. It's a pity, then, that his latest Huge Hollywood Blockbuster is the very definition of a mixed bag; one that, quite shockingly, almost gets away from him.

The film, which is based on the massively popular novel by Ernest Cline (who co-writes the screenplay with veteran – though hugely inconsistent -screenwriter, Zak Penn) is a very uneasy mix of characters that are both immediately likeable but are very broadly drawn (the cast is uniformly on point, though); a plot that is overly simple while also being refreshingly straightforward; a message that is both muddled and emotionally effective and an overall aesthetic that is both ugly in its overstuffed, CGI-mush (made ten times worse by the colour loss of 3D) and beautiful in its pure visual imagination.

It's a film that is clearly a love letter to pop culture of all stripes, varieties and eras; from '80s pop music (add to that John Williams' score and you have a film with a seriously killer soundtrack) to cult science fiction to vintage video game consoles. It undoubtedly says something, then, that by far the most effective sequence in the film takes place in a classic horror film, where the CGI is scaled back to a breathable level and the film's classic adventure-film spirit is at its most direct.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Gringo

Sometimes even messes can be fun. 

And I'm sure that's not the first time I said that.

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

When Harold Soyinka, a Nigerian immigrant to America, learns that he's about to be summarily fired from the job he worked tirelessly at and that his wife is about to leave him for another man, he decides to fake his own kidnapping in Mexico to fleece his duplicitous boss out his employee insurance. As is ever the case, though, a simple plan gets very complex very quickly and the usually upright and uptight Harold soon finds himself way in over his head.

What we thought

Gringo taps into a long tradition of crime caper comedies that is mostly about a normal schlub getting tied up in impossibly convoluted plots with shady, though often colourful, mobsters, hitmen, police, drug-dealers and eccentric locals, all coming to head in a way that brings all the plot threads together, sometimes in a jangled mess and sometimes very neatly. It's a genre that probably reached its peak with Coen Brothers' sublime the Big Lebowski and, though Gringo is nowhere near that level, and suffers from many of the drawbacks of the genre at its worst, it's still solidly fun.

I mean, it is a total unholy mess with literally more characters (Amanda Seyfried is great and all but why's she in this again?) than it knows what to do with, a plot that is laughably overly convoluted and some serious pacing problems but it just about gets away with it anyway. Director Nash Edgerton (brother of Joel, who stars as Harold's smarmy boss) treads the line carefully between grungy and stylish and the script by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone is not without wit but it's the a-list cast that really sells it.

These sorts of films generally live and die on the quality of their characters and their actors far more than on the effectiveness of their plotting – I loved the Big Lebowski long before I actually understood what happened in it – and this is certainly no exception. On paper, actually, we don't really have the most amazing cast of characters. From a man-eating woman who would do anything to get to the top of the ladder to smartass Mexican motel owners who take advantage of their gringo customers, this is nothing we haven't seen before and aren't already more than a little tired of.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Yeah, I feel bad for not liking this more than I did but what can you do...

This review is also on Channel 24

What it's about

Based on his own memoir and set in 1970s Liverpool, Film Stars in Liverpool tells the story of Peter Turner, an up and coming young Liverpudlian actor, whose fortuitous meeting with aging black-and-white-cinema legend, Gloria Grahame, quickly turns into a whirlwind romance with the older woman. Years later, Grahame once again connects with her former young lover in his home town after calling for him after suffering a major health crisis while headlining a small stage production there.

What we thought

There's something incredibly British about how Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool tells its Hollywood story in a way that is not at all different from your average working class, “kitchen sink” British drama. It's very small, very intimate, a bit grimy and, for me at least, a little uncomfortable.

It's also, it has to be said, largely a missed opportunity. I had never heard of Gloria Grahame before seeing the film but even the slightest bit of research reveals a truly interesting Hollywood icon whose story is absolutely worth telling. The problem is that either Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool focuses on one of the least interesting aspects of her story or it simply fails to capitalize on it by focusing too much on its May-December romance at the expense of the lady herself.

And, while no doubt a mix of my own predilections and the general societal acceptance of older men dating younger women over the reverse plays a significant part in this, I just failed to buy the central romance. Jamie Bell and Annette Bening are undeniably excellent actors and they work off each other well on screen but they never felt like a couple to me. Again, though, I'm perfectly willing to admit to this may just be nothing more than personal bias on my part.

Paul, Apostle of Christ

Three reviews this week! Why not start off with a "faith" film...

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

It has been a few decades since the life of Jesus Christ and as Rome suffers under the capricious boot of Emperor Nero and its small Christian community is outlawed from practising its faith, Jesus' most influential apostle, Paul, sits in prison waiting for his execution for alleged crimes against Rome. As the Christians of Rome confront their own destiny and are forced to choose between staying, fleeing or fighting, Paul recalls his own life and his own turn from one of the greatest persecutors of Christians to a devout follower of Christ, to his disciple, Luke.

What we thought

Ah, here we are again: me, a nice(ish) Jewish boy reviewing a Christian “faith” film for this secular website. Unlike most “faith” films, however, I don't come entirely to just burn this thing to the ground.

Unsurprisingly, like any work of art since, oh, Beethoven that is more about expressing religious faith than about making a piece of real art for its own sake (or even entertainment for its own sake), Paul, Apostle of Christ is unimaginative, safe and with almost no appeal to anyone outside of its very specific target audience of devout Christians. Noah, this isn't. On the other hand, unlike the vast, vast majority of these “faith” films, it's really not bad for what it is.

There is some of your usual preachiness of their being no Salvation but through belief in Christ and all of it is so unabashedly earnest that it's hard not to laugh – especially when its general aesthetic is so very similar to Life of Brian (we only needed a cry of “thwow his to the floor, Centuwion!” to complete the illusion). And, yes, once again, the Jews don't exactly come off all that well even if a) we're reduced to just a few priests and b) since we don't really believe in conversion out of Judaism, we still consider Paul (or Saul, as he was once known) one of ours. I know that a number of Jewish leaders were... less than ideal during the Second Temple period (though we had some ace sages at the time) but c'mon...

Monday, March 12, 2018

Death Wish (2018)

No, really, why?

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

A loose remake of the 1974 film of the same name; Dr. Paul Kersey is a successful surgeon with an apparently perfect family but when his wife and daughter are brutally attacked in a house robbery gone bad and the police are unable to help, he takes justice into his own hands and starts a one-man war on crime in the violent streets of Chicago.

What we thought

It's impossible to look at Death Wish without addressing the wider context into which it has been released – particularly in the United States of America. After a seemingly unending string of mass shootings in America, the recent school shooting in Florida that left 17 students and teachers dead has spurred a major movement, led by the country's youth, against America's infatuation with guns, with the National Rifle Association, with the politicians who are owned by the NRA and even against the Second Amendment itself. The people have spoken and the NRA's stranglehold on the country finally seems to be slipping as calls for far less idiotic gun control measures to be put in place and for deadly assault rifles to once again be purely the purview of the US military, may not be falling on deaf ears.

This is the climate in the USA into which Death Wish has inserted itself and it could hardly be less welcome. The original Death Wish, aside for being a frankly quite terrible film, was a highly morally and politically problematic proposition even in the early '70s as its call for vigilante justice and glorification of gun-violence left a bad taste in the mouths of even the most faintly liberal audience member. It's interesting, incidentally, that in the same year that Death Wish was released, Marvel Comics debuted the Punisher as a villain in an issue of the Amazing Spider-man; a character who would in time acquire more and more layers as he became, at his best, a symbol for examining the effects of the very kind of vigilante justice espoused by Death Wish.

There is absolutely none of that complexity in what we might as well call Die Hard With a Death Wish – even with the film constantly featuring talking heads on various media platforms debating the merits or lack thereof of Kersey's actions. In fact, though those talking heads, as well as a tone-deaf sequence in a gun shop, are clearly there to tackle the gun-control issue that has been, if not raging, then at least bubbling under the surface of US civilization for years now, they are placed in a movie that clearly fetishizes guns and loves the idea of turning the modern USA into the Wild West.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Red Sparrow

Almost definitely not the film you've been advertised... and it's all the better for it.

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

After an accident brings her dancing career to a sudden end, Dominika Egorova is left with no money, no prospects and a mother to support. When her uncle, a powerful man in the Russian government, comes to her with an offer, she reluctantly accepts but what should have been a simple one-shot mission goes horribly wrong and she soon finds herself recruited to the infamous “Sparrow School”, which trains young people to use their sexuality against the State's enemies.

What we thought

If there was any doubt that the Cold War is back, Red Sparrow is the film to convince you that the the Russians are once again the ultimate villains of freedom and the liberal ideals on which most of the West rests. Obviously, this isn't about communism any more and, unlike most classic Cold War movies, this is less about all Russians being Evil but about the sins of the Russian government against not only the West but about what it does to its own people. Still, it's been a while since Russia has been so explicitly the Big Bad in a contemporary spy thriller and, despite a lack of any mentions of Vladimir Putin by name, it's impossible to see this film as anything but a reflection of the current state of Russian/ Western affairs as told through what is basically a twist on an old fashioned Cold War spy thriller.

Jennifer Lawrence follows up her powerhouse performance in Darren Aronofsky's highly divisive mother! with a performance here that is as far away from the brittle “housewife” of that film as it is from her loveable real-life persona. Her Dominika is a mix of steely resolve with barely contained anger and vulnerability and Lawrence is, aside for a truly terrible Russian accent, as excellent as ever. Without being able to rely on her usual down-to-earth likeability and boisterous sense of humour, she relies entirely on her considerable screen presence and underrated ability to capture her character's more subtle complexities – and the results are nothing less than stellar.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Oscar Roundup: Part 1 (?)

I'm hoping to have at least a few quickie reviews for all the Oscar movies out before the Awards themselves on 3 March but, for a start, here's a look at three major contenders, all hitting South African cinemas this week. 

I should say that two of these are my easy favourites of this year's best picture contenders. I don't think it will take too long to figure out which.


Call Me By Your Name. Easily one of the most lauded films of the past year - though, to be honest, a very long shot for winning best picture at the Academy Awards - Call Me By Your Name is a leisurely paced, achingly honest and beautifully put together adaptation of an acclaimed novel. I hate to be the voice of dissent, then, because though the film is all these things and probably more, I didn't like it very much.

It's impossible to deny how beautifully shot it is, how committed its performances are or just how much heart and soul clearly went in to telling this simple story of an adolescent boy who falls in love with his father's handsome assistant but, for me at least, it suffered from two fatal flaws; one following on from the other.

First, I just found the characters - in particular, the main couple - to be a lot of work to spend time with. Certainly not because they're gay or, more specifically, bisexual but because they're the sort of people I would fly to another country just to avoid bumping into. While Elio - played very convincingly by meteoric rising star, Timothee Chalamet - is the sort of thoroughly unpleasant teenager who wears their "privilege" (God, I hate that word but it is fitting here) in the most obnoxious manner possible, Armie Hammer's Oliver is a total bore.

This, inevitably, leads straight into the second problem: for a film this thoroughly character-driven, spending over two hours watching people you really don't want to spend any time with doing not very much at all is rather, shall we say, trying. For all that I admired so much about the film and its undeniably noble intentions, I mostly found it, by turns, very boring and very irritating.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

All the Money In the World

A miracle of super-quick filmmaking.

Is it any good, though?

This review is also up on Channel 24.

What it's about

The (somewhat fictionalized) true story of the kidnapping of Paul Getty, the young grandson of oil tycoon and then “richest man in the world”, Jean Paul Getty. What starts off as a simple ransom situation quickly escalates as the notoriously stingy billionaire steadfastly refuses to pay a cent for the life and release of his own flesh and blood.

What we thought

All the Money in the World is, no doubt, forever going to be remembered mostly for how director Ridley Scott replaced disgraced actor, Kevin Spacey, with the similarly brilliant but rather less scandalous, Christopher Plummer, just weeks before the film was due for release. And, make no mistake, it truly is one hell of an accomplishment. The film has already been shot and was well into post-production when Kevin Spacey was accused of a series of rapes and sexual assault and Sir Ridley made the tough decision to totally recast his major part without delaying the release of the film.

Crucially, between consummate professionals like Ridley Scott and Christopher Plummer – not to mention the film's editor, Claire Simpson – the film wasn't just finished but any and all changes have been seamlessly integrated into the film. If you didn't know any better, you would never, ever suspect that Christopher Plummer was anything but the guy who was always chosen to play the challenging part of Jean Paul Getty.

As for the film itself, it's a rock-solid mix of drama and thriller that may never reach the dizzying highs of Scott's very best work but is a reminder of how skilled he is as a craftsman when paired with a halfway decent script. Boasting little of the stylishness of Matchstick Men, the moody power of Blade Runner or the ground-breaking horror of Alien, All the Money in the World is Ridley Scott working with the sort of straightforward, unfussy storytelling of someone like Clint Eastwood and doing a very fine job with it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Black Panther

This is going to be a slightly different review as I'm actually going to get a bit into both the massive pre-hype that the film received and, perhaps more crucially, the audience I saw the film with - both of which did (adversely) affect my appreciation of the film. Fortunately, though I still have my issues with it, a bit of time has given me a far better perspective on the film and what it was trying to do.

SPOILER WARNING: Please note that though I will do my best to avoid spoiling any actual plot details, I will be going into the themes of the film quite a bit and because these themes are often tied into the characters and plot of the film, you may well be able to infer just a bit more than you want to know about the film. As such, if you want to know as little as possible about the movie going in, it might be best to read the actual review section of this feature-length essay/ ramble after you have seen it.

The Preamble

To get this out of the way first, Black Panther is almost unquestionably the most hyped Marvel movie this side of the first Avengers. Why this is, though, is still at least something of a mystery. For a start, for all that people have talked about this being the first Marvel movie to be headlined by a black superhero, this rather ignores the great black superheroes that we have already had in Marvel's movies, both from Marvel Studios and their rivals/ collaborators Fox and Sony: War Machine, the Falcon, Storm, Johnny Storm (though I'm sure everyone would rather forget everything about Fant4astic) and, yes, Black Panther himself. It's true that these characters were either supporting roles or part of an ensemble but you certainly can't say that about Blade: the black vampire-superhero that literally started off this wave of comic book movies some twenty years ago and finally put marvel on the cinematic map!

And yet, I don't want to be a total ass about this. Yes, a lot of this did come across as your typical hectoring by so-called SJWs and the ultra-PC-brigade (and I say this as a rather left-of-centre liberal: I think these movements are well-intentioned; they're just annoying and wrong-headedly fanatical) but no doubt a large part of this is simply about this generation of black Marvel fans rejoicing in their being represented by a truly kick-ass and incredibly heroic black - nay African! - superhero in his own major Marvel movie. Nothing wrong with that. It's certainly no more fair to hold that against them than the gleeful reception that Wonder Woman received by female audiences of all ages - though, from where I'm standing, I still think Wonder Woman was the bigger deal.

Personally, I thought the trailers for the film looked no more than fine and, though I very much enjoyed Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, I wasn't really dying to see him in his own film.

My slight aversion to the film's pre-release hype, though, became something closer to genuinely feeling alienated by it thanks to the audience with which I saw the film at the pre-release screening last week.

Let me try and explain...       

I'm a "white" South African - are we counting Jews as "white" this week, I honestly can't keep up? - and I saw the film in a press screening with the usual group of maybe ten regular film critics and another thirty, possibly fifty, "guests" who were presumably invited by the PR people at Disney South Africa. Unlike the critics, the majority of these guests were black South Africans - something that became increasingly significant as the film wore on and the difference in reactions to the film proved to be quite... enlightening.

It being a dark cinema, it was obviously impossible to tell exactly who was reacting to what but, as near as I can tell, while Black Panther was just another perfectly solid Marvel movie to most of us "whiteys", the ecstatic reception the film received by the black men and women in the audience was something else entirely. Aside for my usual snobbery of preferring quieter audiences, thank you very much, hearing more than half the audience break into rapturous applause a number of times throughout the film was almost more interesting than the movie itself.

South African audiences tend to not be too vocal in their reactions to films, by and large, so this was something of a novelty straight off the bat but it was also extremely interesting to note which moments elicited the biggest reactions. Much of it was clearly a reaction to the film presenting an immensely empowering vision of the "black experience", which, as I said, I certainly appreciate but there were a few odd moments that pulled me straight out of the film and left me feeling not just alienated by some of my fellow South Africans but suddenly innately aware of just how large the gap remains between races - certainly here in South Africa but no doubt in the world at large too.

Take, for example, the thunderous applause that met the "joke" of a random white guy being called "colonizer" by a certain African woman in the middle of the film. While the line itself was an off-hand remark made by someone who lived her life almost entirely separate from white people and, indeed, much of the rest of the world, the reaction to it was, frankly, kind of disturbing. Is it just me or is applauding wildly for such an off-hand comment, not all that different from my doing the same to some random German dude in the 21st century being called a Nazi? It turned a perfectly decent character moment into something that struck me as severely tone-deaf and, of course, pretty damn limp as far as jokes go.

Still, one certainly cannot police people's reactions and it was an honest reaction by people who are certainly allowed to feel what they feel. Moments like these, though, did unquestionably affect my viewing of the film and, ironically, landed up representing the very opposite of what the film was actually trying to say.

And that, finally, brings me to my review of the film itself - which, as I said, is far more positive now that I've had a chance to think on it a bit (which is itself a huge plus for a Marvel film!) and have put some distance between myself and that sometimes rather uncomfortable screening.

The Story

Picking up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa is now the king of the African country, Wakanda, a paradise of peaceful co-existence and technological miracles all based on the incredible metal Vibranium, that has been hidden from the outside world for centuries. As T'Challa tries to navigate his new role as the king of a country that is edging ever closer to needing to reveal itself to the rest of the world, an outside threat looms in the form of Erik Killmonger, an apparent small-time American criminal with far, far bigger plans than anyone could ever possibly have expected.

The Review

What is perhaps the most surprising discrepancy between the pre-release hype of Black Panther and the film itself is that most of the hype seemed to be primarily based on the fact that this is a major superhero movie written, directed and starring black people, a number of which are honest to goodness Africans, but what's actually remarkable about the film itself is that it uses its "blackness" to elevate a fairly straightforward superhero flick into something a bit more intriguing. It's a black superhero movie, in other words, rather than a superhero movie that happens to feature black people and that's a huge difference.

The character of the Black Panther was created in the mid-sixties, like nearly all of Marvel's characters at the time, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. This is a bigger deal than it sounds and directly impacts what works so well about his first, solo cinematic outing. Lee and Kirby were a pair of Jewish comic book creators who created the character as a reaction to and during the Civil Rights movement that was raging at the time. They had already written and then rewritten the rules of superhero comics in their seminal Fantastic Four run but the appearance of this superhero who wasn't just black but was an African king in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966) was a huge deal even by their standards.

Here was a pair of white, Jewish Americans who brought an unprecedented black voice to American comics; combining the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the superhero genre with the struggles that black Americans were then going through to achieve equal rights with their white countrymen. It was a voice created from both an outsider perspective and by people who could certainly empathize with the Civil Rights movement. Lee and Kirby may not have been black but they were Jews who had lived through the Second World War and who worked in an industry whose very existence was a creation of necessity by young Jews in the early 20th century who were kept out of "proper" jobs by the anti-Semitism that was so pervasive in America at the time. Hell, Kirby didn't just draw Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face on the cover of his comic but actively fought Nazis as a soldier when America entered the war.

Since then, Black Panther has been written by a number of black creators (including the likes of Reginald Hudlin, Christopher Priest and, currently, Ta-Nehisi Coates) who, obviously, were far better at capturing T'Challa's "voice" but everything that is interesting about the character was already there in the original creation. And, though it may be well over fifty years since the character first appeared in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, that is certainly true of Ryan Coogler's film too.

Black Panther, the film, recreates the way that Lee and Kirby took the young-nerdy-Jewish-kid wish-fulfillment of the superhero and recontextualized it in the wake of the Civil War movement and flips it by taking the major salient points of the black experience in the 21st century and recontextualizes it in the wake of the apparently neverending popularity of the superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This is a film that is very much from the black perspective but it is tinged with the universal values that have always been at the core of superhero comics (and now films): idealism, empowerment, hope and a very real sense of, as Bernie Sanders puts it, "we're all in this together." It's a film that directly confronts much of what still angers so many of African-descent - colonialism, income inequality, you name it - but takes what is ultimately an incredibly victimized point of view and puts an empowered spin on it.

While Wakanda itself is basically black wish-fulfillment taken to its most positive conclusion, the main conflict in the film is between T'Challa's view of black empowerment and that of Killmonger. While Killmonger represents a hateful, vengeful take on black empowerment whose response to centuries of black oppression is more violence, more racism, more oppression, T'Challa's sees the only way to empower his people is by transcending the past and working with the descendants of his enemies to making a better world for all. It's not for nothing that T'Challa is, in many respects, Nelson Mandela recast as a superhero - something that feels all the more literal during a speech he delivers during one of the film's two post-credit scenes - where Chadwick Boseman (who, it must be said, is pretty wonderful in the role) directly evokes both the message and speech patterns of the man South Africans call Madiba.

It is precisely this sort of thematic depth that elevates Black Panther above some of the more middling Marvel movies. Nowhere is this more clear than with Killmonger, played with relish by frequent Ryan Coogler collaborator and former Human Torch, Michael B Jordan. There's no getting past it: on a surface level, Killmonger continues the MCU's tradition of populating their films with unimpressive villains and, on a purely visceral level, he may just be the most annoying Marvel villain ever. I for one, could not be more sick and tired of the "angry black man with daddy issues" stereotype and Killmonger is the apotheosis of this annoying character type. And yet, in the context of the film's overriding themes, he is the perfect villain.   

This isn't to say that the film is nothing but its themes. Coogler ups his game and transitions brilliantly from his more grounded work in the past to the more sweeping, epic scope of Black Panther. It's a beautifully designed, perfectly shot film that on a purely visual level is up there with the trippy psychedelia of Doctor Strange in terms of the best looking Marvel movies. It's mostly black cast is pretty great (though, in fairness, none are as fun as Andy Serkis as the film's most outright enjoyable baddie) and the characters are generally well-defined. The action scenes are also generally well done, if somewhat forgettable, and it's certainly to the film's credit that the final battle is a slight twist on the usual world-ending threat.

And yet, putting aside the film's thematic riches, I personally enjoyed it a lot less than most of Marvel Studios' output from the past few years. On a surface level, it just doesn't have the quirkiness, the sense of humour and snappiness of my favourite Marvel movies. Also, it's interesting that despite the fact that it has a somewhat different plot to most Marvel movies it still felt weirdly overly familiar and the pacing and general story structure struck me as being more than a little off.   

These are in many ways quibbles, though, and are probably more about what I want from this sort of film than any major flaws that the film itself has. It's certainly not perfect but it's a film that is, in many ways, actually far more worthwhile than its insane hype suggests (even if it doesn't quite live up to it in some other ways) and delivers a powerful and empowering message that people of all races, ethnicities, and creeds would do well to heed.

         

Friday, February 9, 2018

Fifty Shades Freed

Well, at least they didn't split this final book into two movies!

This review is also up on Channel 24

What it's about

Anastasia and Christian are now married but their new life as blissful newly weds is complicated when Anna's former boss returns to claim his pound of flesh from the couple he believes to be responsible for destroying his life.

What we thought

The Fifty Shades of Grey series of novels started life as erotic, slightly kinky Twilight fan-fiction and despite becoming a huge literary sensation in its own right once it changed a few names and dumped the whole sparkly vampires thing (even E.L. James has limits, apparently), no one in their right mind would claim it to be anything other a light bit of smutty romance whose only real achievement was making the reading of such a thing socially acceptable; at least for a little while.

Adapting it to the screen, however, was always going to be something of an uphill battle as there was no way in hell that an R-rated Hollywood movie would ever be able to show even a tenth of what was ultimately the books' main selling point: its (fairly light) BDSM sex scenes. It's to the credit of the first film's director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, that it was about as good as an adaptation of such a novel could ever hope to be. It was total garbage, of course, but with the help of Dakota Johnson's slyly sexy Anastasia Steele it was at least total garbage that had a sense of what it was and, at its occasional best, smartly leaned into its unabashedly trashy, softcore porn aesthetic.

The second film – Fifty Shades Darker, for those understandably not bothering to keep track at home – was a whole other story. Wrestling control back from Taylor-Johnson/ Marcel who were constantly trying to make the novel's notoriously ghastly dialogue slightly less embarrassing to say out loud, E.L. James brought things back into line with (heaven help us) her own vision by having her own hubby, Niall Leonard, write the screenplay. Quite how she managed to rope in a highly respected, if somewhat journeyman-like director like James Foley, though, is anyone's guess.