Black Panther

Black Panther (2018). Directed by Ryan Coogler.

I’ve had a very mixed weekend. I was considering going to the movies yesterday but my painful back, hip and knees would’ve made sitting still uncomfortable. My body is telling me the seasons are starting to change, and that really is depressing – I haven’t finished my love affair with this summer yet. But with some careful management (stretching, hot packs and yoga), I managed to get some quality gardening time in, and planted a heap of vegetable seedlings. Also yesterday, there was a state election here in Tasmania, and from my point of view (and anyone working in the arts sector) the results were less than encouraging.

So, I was in the perfect mood for some blockbuster action to take my mind off things, and (with a makeshift back bolster) went to the local Village Cinema to see the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Black Panther didn’t disappoint! It has an excellent premise, a top-notch cast and some fine action moments. The film begins with a really beautiful animation that backgrounds the history of Wakanda, the fictional African nation that is the only place on earth to find the equally fictional vibranium (the metal used to construct Captain America’s shield) and this gives new viewers enough backstory to get them through the film. The story picks up from the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016) where Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home after the death of his father to become king of Wakanda.

Ulysses Klaue (played with manic relish by Andy Serkis) makes a return, as does CIA agent Emmett Ross (Martin Freeman) – but the rest of the main cast are black and many of the strongest characters are female. It’s also pertinent to point out that all the female characters are appropriately dressed for their roles, don’t try and fight in high heels, don’t require saving and have some of the best dialogue. In fact, at one point a character does complain about having to wear a wig to a casino, which (for me) really drives the point home.

The action scenes are for the most part, the high quality I expect from the MCU, but there’s a couple of ropey moments that don’t quite work. A car chase in Seoul (part of which features in the trailer) is a real standout and will certainly bear repeat viewing when the DVD comes out. Narratively, it’s a little baggy and threatened to get bogged down in the second act but the final act is very good and (unlike so many films in this genre) I don’t think the last big fight scene outstays its welcome. I’ll be seeking out other films by Ryan Coogler now for sure!

For me, three things really made this film work. Firstly, at one point I genuinely forgot I was watching a Marvel film, I was fully invested in the characters and story in the moment, without all the add-on Marvel baggage. Secondly, the two young boys in the row behind, their gasps and obvious delight reminded me how important pure action entertainment is.

But above all, I really liked that this film raised questions of how to deal with refugees, sharing knowledge, resources and how (for a film that’s based on a comic book), they strove to resolve those questions. It brought to mind the often quoted phrase “when you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence”.

Long live the king!

Visages Villages – Faces Places

Faces Places (originally released as Visages Villages) (2017) Directed by JR and Agnes Varda.

I saw this French language documentary a few weeks ago at the end of its run at the State Cinema in Hobart and I cannot get it out of my mind.

Agnes Varda is well known to me as the sole female director of the French New Wave but I confess I hadn’t heard of JR, Varda’s young co-director. Apparently JR is a French photographer and muralist and I must say, very engaging in front of the camera.

The documentary was shot over 18 months, with the two of them travelling around France in JR’s wonderful photo booth van, which also printed large format photographs. Their core idea was to create ephemeral black and white photographic art works that would eventually be worn away by the elements, depicting people of the area. These took the form of oversized images pasted on the exteriors of buildings, bridges, factories and even shipping containers.

I loved this film at many levels. A good deal of it was shot in rural France and there was a beauty beyond the idyllic pastoral scenery that Varda and JR managed to elicit from the people they spoke to. I confess I shed tears too when Jeanine, the last occupant of the condemned miners cottages, saw her two storey image on the outside of her home.

Perhaps the most poignant scenes for me were with Varda talking frankly with JR about growing old, losing her sight (the cornerstone of her art), and the friends and loved ones who have died. I felt these scenes are the spine of the film and despite the sombre feel, Varda has a sense of humour and clear zest for life that at times matches the much younger JR. There is also sadness, particularly when Varda talks about her husband who died some years ago and (without giving too much away) the manner in which she is treated by someone later in the film.

All in all, this is a quiet yet spectacular and very moving documentary, which addresses questions about ageing, being completely in the moment and engaging fully in a life well lived. It’s stayed with me for weeks and although it’s only early days, I think come December it’ll be in my best films of  2018. I recommend it to anyone who has a beating heart.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi 2017. Directed by Rian Johnson.

I can rarely be bothered to go to big releases in their opening week but I made an exception with this, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise.

I should say from the outset that while I like the original movies, I’m film studies scholar – not in the simpering fan-girl brigade. In fact, I’ve always felt a degree of frustration because I could always see how good these films should be but never seemed to hit the mark.

Having said that, I thought The Force Awakens (2015) was infinitely better than any of the prequels and reignited my interest in the series. But this was completely eclipsed by the stand alone and beautifully self-contained Rogue One (2016), which (despite a baggy first act) is a fabulous sci-fi war movie.

But Thursday I saw something really good, much better than I anticipated, and I reacted accordingly.

The Last Jedi explored complex themes – in a far more nuanced way than I expected – about family, friendship, connection and the nature of difference and subversion. Given the global political climate this past 12 months, it was an excellent commentary, and a reminder that nothing is ever just black or white.

The young cast are really very good, with Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver outstanding, providing emotional depth to their characters. They are ably supported by John Boyega, Oscar Isaacs and Kelly Marie Tran. Despite being a wee bit sentimental about seeing Carrie Fisher in her final role (yes, I did well up!) the thing that reduced me to tears was seeing the wonderful Laura Dern showing all the kids how it should be done – and a scene that immediately reminded me of her father Bruce Dern and Silent Running (1972), one of my favourite films.

If this is what Star Wars is going to be from now on, I’ll have some more thanks!

* This is an expanded version of a review that was included in Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review on BBC 5 Live (15/12/17) – and yes, I was thrilled to hear Simon Mayo read it out! *


Atomic Blonde – Day 21 NaBloPoMo 2017

Atomic Blonde 2017. Directed by David Leitch.

I only watched this for the first time a few days ago – it had quite a short run at my local cinemas – and I was expecting something of a spy-romp, in the vein of Modesty Blaise (1966). It was a surprisingly taut and very stylish spy thriller but I found the narrative (based on a graphic novel “The Coldest City”) a little on the light side.

The cast are universally excellent, from Charlize Theron leading the pack as the MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, James McAvoy at his sleazy best as the Berlin MI6 agent, and Sofia Boutella as the French agent, Delphine. They are ably supported by three of my favourite actors – John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones. And look out for baby-faced Bill Skarsgard who recently starred as Pennywise in It (2017).

There’s a couple of editing choices in the action scenes that I questioned but generally, this is where the movie shone. Unfortunately, the script is pretty flimsy and if it weren’t for Theron’s incredible and insightful performance as the world-weary spy, this probably would’ve collapsed in on itself and totally bombed. It’s yet another case of a really fine cast of actors having little to work with.

Having said that, this is a perfectly serviceable first feature from David Leitch, a well-known stuntman and stunt coordinator (he’s been Brad Pitt’s stunt double in something like five of his films). Leitch has worked a lot with the Wachowskis and was an uncredited director on the surprise hit, John Wick (2014). I look forward to seeing how his directing career progresses – apparently his next film will be the Deadpool sequel.

Nevertheless, Atomic Blonde is another perfectly fine popcorn movie and (despite narrative issues) a solid start for David Leitch.

The Woman in Black – Day 20 NaBloPoMo 2017

The Woman in Black 2012. Directed by James Watkins.

This is quite an interesting film in several respects. Firstly, it was based on the wonderful novella of the same name by English writer, Susan Hill. Despite its Edwardian setting and reading like a period Gothic horror, it was originally published in 1983.

Secondly, it was part of the re-emergence of Hammer Film Productions, that most famous British horror studio. In the 60’s and 70’s Hammer was the spiritual home for so many people like me, who grew up watching Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Thirdly, it was the first bona fide adult screen role that Daniel Radcliffe took on post Harry Potter. And despite the fact (to me at least) he looks almost impossibly young, he really brings a lot of heart to the role of Arthur Kipps and undeniable star power to the whole film. And he pretty much carries the movie. I particularly enjoyed his scenes with Ciaran Hinds, and by the end, found myself genuinely caring about poor Arthur.

Despite being a fairly standard tale in many respects, this is a genuinely fine old-school horror film, with good measures of tension, scares and pathos. It also caused quite a stir in the UK when the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) decided to rate it a 12A instead of a more appropriate 15. The producers offered to cut a few scenes in order to get the lower rating – and capitalise on Radcliffe’s huge box office appeal to young audiences.

Nevertheless, this is still a good and very entertaining film. I think it’s worth a watch, if only for Radcliffe taking his first steps to shake off the shadow of the boy wizard.

I Saw the Light – Day 14 NaBloPoMo 2017

I Saw the Light (2015) Directed by Marc Abraham.

This is a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for quite some time – yes, it’s been in my pile of shame for too long! – and I’m really sorry I left it so long to give it this a first viewing.

Hank Williams had a tragically brief life but meteoric career and penned songs that remain classics of the country and western genre. He also inspired artists such as Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan and can be seen as something of a stepping stone in popular music from the 40’s across to the post-war boom in record sales and interest in celebrity.

As much as I enjoy Tom Hiddleston’s diverse body of work, I seriously wondered if he could pull off portraying Williams but he really delivers the goods – who knew he could sing as well! He is matched by Elizabeth Olsen (also on leave from MCU duties) as his first wife Audrey, and the chemistry between them on screen is great. It is shot with great care and obvious love for the material, (kudos to DoP, Dante Spinotti) which gives the whole film an appropriately melancholic air. This was a passion project for director Marc Abraham, who started working on this as far back as 2009 and it is lovingly crafted in a very traditional bio-pic manner.

However, I can see why this was a box office flop. Almost the entire film is taken up with Williams’ relationships and his ongoing battles with alcoholism and painkiller addiction. While that’s undoubtedly the story behind his death at 29, I would have loved to have seen a closer, critical examination of his music and songwriting.

A beautiful looking film, with a stellar performance by Hiddleston – good but not great.

Star Trek: Discovery – Day 13 NaBloPoMo 2017

Star Trek: Discovery (2017-) CBS Television Studios. Created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman.

As many of you are probably aware, I’m very much a movie person rather than television but in recent weeks I’ve become completely hooked on Star Trek: Discovery.

I’ve always loved science fiction and I’m old enough to remember the original when it first aired. Up until now, I’ve always thought of the Star Trek universe as reasonably vanilla but Discovery is a completely different beast. Characters are quite real, conflicted, have agendas outside of Starfleet, suffer very human maladies, like PTSD, and (despite all the standard space opera shenanigans) it has splashes of wry humour.

The cast are all excellent but Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp and Jason Isaacs are absolute standouts and the scripts have been very solid.

I’ve just watched the first half of season one, apparently it will be resuming in January and it has been signed up for a second season. I can’t wait!

Let me know what you think and I’ll see you tomorrow 🙂

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