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Black Panther

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Released: 13th February 2018

Directed By: Ryan Coogler

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o

Reviewed By: Van Connor

It may have taken its time getting here, but the seemingly endless wait for an Afro-centric superhero movie hasn’t taken its toll on Black Panther. Creed director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the now eighteen movie-long Marvel Cinematic Universe shows up ready to play. And play it does – with breathless confidence – into pure comic book escapism that never fails to cast an eye outward toward genuine racial discussions and a message of unity that stands up as one of the more upbeat offerings in its genre’s entire history. If Wonder Woman created waves for the treatment of women in our culture, then make no mistake, Black Panther’s a cinematic tsunami as regards the triumphant chest-bump its characters offer mainstream African-American culture. And it’s even got time to shine more than a few spotlights on the women in the crowd, to boot.

Largely playing with a sci-fi live-action mould of The Lion King, Black Panther sees T’Challa – newly ascendant to the role of king, following his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War – return to accept his crown and lead his people. Amidst discussion of where the future of his advanced isolationist kingdom lies in the scope of a wider and ever more desperate world, the new king is also tasked with defending the Wakandan people in the form of warrior hero, the Black Panther, a role he must learn to harness with the arrival of a pair of enemies with designs on Wakanda itself.

Having dazzled his way through madcap James Brown biopic Get On Up and brought a design air of Roundtree-esque cool to Thurgood Marshall last year, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that Chadwick Boseman could bring the goods when it comes to T’Challa – particularly following a startlingly meaty part in Civil War a couple of years back now. Given the full breadth of his Afro-futuristic playground in which to cut loose then, Boseman makes it clear from the onset that this is his show, and it’s one he’s going to own you with for at least the next two and a quarter hours. At complete ease with the nuance and intricacy of his subject, Boseman’s hero is one of measurement and introspection, boasting a depth of character unseen in literally any MCU movie to date.

As the lingering memory of Heath Ledger reminds us, however, it’s all for nought without a great villain; and it’s here that Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay turns out its greatest creation in the form of Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Jordan knows well how to swing for the fences in Coogler’s yard, and here – aided by some concise writing that’s absolutely unafraid to dig into the other known use of its own title – he’s given enough space to build a genuinely terrifying performance.

Black Panther’s not just all about the boys though, and it’s impressive that Coogler would take as much focus as he does away from the Y-chromosome to give his three central female figures the space in which to shine. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira is an instant Marvel classic – arguably the closest any of the movies have come to rivalling TV-offshoot Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Melinda May in the loveable badass stakes – while Lupita Nyong’o gets easily the best love interest part any actress has ever landed in the MCU, bringing warmth, sincerity, and outright physical chops to a role she unquestionably makes her own. Letitia Wright’s the breakout star of Black Panther, however – with genius princess Shuri doubtless set to become a fan favourite, to say nothing of wanting to see the acerbically poised acid-tongued teen potentially square off against the comparatively dimwitted Tony Stark some day.

The entire cast – without stopping to dwell on the likes of Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, or the brilliantly scene-stealing Winston Duke – are given a grand old time here, with Rachel Morrison’s gorgeous cinematography giving Hannah Beachler’s stunning production design and Ruth Carter’s astonishing costumes the perfectly realised vision of Wakanda in which to thrive. Coogler knows the strength of his film lies in its cultural identity, and along with bringing that identity to texturally wondrous life, he never shies away from providing real world context to it all either. His true genius, however, is in infusing that context so intrinsically into the bones of his story so uncompromisingly.

Though Black Panther quickly asserts itself as the most out-and-out cinematic work of the comic book movie genre since Nolan (at least twice), it’s not without minor grumbles, naturally – the great ones rarely are, if we’re honest – and its a number of thinly drawn story elements (Gurira and Kaluuya, for instance, are mentioned fleetingly as being lovers in what appears to be an excised sub-plot) and some pretty weightless CGI action sequences that aren’t helped by rather misjudged lighting. Such strikes in the con column however pale in comparison to the eyebrow-raising number of ticks in the pro one, with Black Panther a shoo-in to become a widespread fan-favourite in the mould best compared to the first Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s another call for cementing of Chadwick Boseman as an outright star, and delivers one of the definitive comic book movie experiences of our time all whilst carrying what could so easily have been the burden of its own cultural significance with all the swagger and grace of its eponymous king. Ryan Coogler’s going to become a genuine auteur down the line – he’s dangled the possibility over us a couple times before and now he’s making us believe – taking his own stabs at everything from old Phantom serials to the action patois of F. Gary Gray and even throwing a cheeky wink to Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq as he goes. More than just that, he’s an aspiring auteur with an absolute dream team in collaborators such as cinematographer Morrison and composer Ludwig Göransson. The synergy and dialogue between everyone behind the camera creates a genuine harmony within Black Panther, and with the story, spectacle and acting talent Black Panther has to offer, it won’t just be the characters depicted within who are proclaiming “Wakanda forever” once those credits roll. This is a movie with real claws, and it will not mess around getting those claws into you.

Movie Reviews

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Ol Parker

Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.

Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.

Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).

Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.

Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.

Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.

It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.

Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…

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Featured Review

Hotel Artemis ★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Drew Pearce

Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.

On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.

On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.

On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.

Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.

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Movie Reviews

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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