Archive for February, 2018

Black Panther

Posted: February 27, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya and Letitia Wright.

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“What do you mean, Batman has bigger ears?”

To the outside world the African nation of Wakanda is a poverty stricken, third world country, but this is a deception, in reality Wakanda is a super advanced society based on the possession and application of vibranium, a rare extra-terrestrial metal (Captain America’s shield is made from it). Vibranium is also the substance used to make the suit of Black Panther. For centuries the king of Wakanda has drunk a special potion of give him super strength so he can become Black Panther.

In the aftermath of the death of King T’Chaka (as seen in Captain America: Civil War) his son T’Challa (Boseman) assumes the throne of Wakanda, and the mantle of Black Panther. His position is precarious however. Almost immediately he faces a challenge for the throne, and shortly afterwards he leaves Wakanda in pursuit of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a black-market arms dealer who’s come into possession of some vibranium. Klaue is also responsible for the death of the father of W’Kabi (the ever brilliant Oscar nominated British actor Kaluuya) an ally of T’Chaka. W’Kabi wants Klaue dead, but Klaue has allies too, including a mysterious man named Killmonger (Jordan), who has ties to Wakanda that will shake the nation to its core.

T’Challa has many other allies, from his former lover, and Wakanda secret agent, Nakia (Nyong’o), special forces general Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Gurira) his baby sister Shuri (Wright) who’s also the brains behind Wakanda’s advanced technology, and CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Freeman). But when regime change comes to Wakanda even these formidable allies might not be enough, and T’Challa’s stint as Black Panther may end up being rather short.

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Black Panther isn’t a character I’m familiar with, but I liked what I saw of him when he debuted in Civil War. It soon became clear that a standalone Black Panther film would follow, and just a few months before we get uber crossover Infinity War, and a few months after the hugely enjoyable Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther arrives heralded by a tsunami of positive reviews.

See this is where sometimes film reviewing get’s boring, because I’m not sure what I can say about Black Panther that hasn’t already been said—though that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try!

Those reviews weren’t damning Black Panther with faint praise, because this is a very well put together, very enjoyable blockbuster, with an exceptional cast and a smart script that has a lot to say about a whole host of things, and best of all it’s a Marvel blockbuster that manages to do something very different, to the point where it almost doesn’t feel like a Marvel blockbuster at all, certainly it’s streets ahead of something like Dr Strange, or even Ant Man (as enjoyable as those films were, especially Ant Man) and whilst it might not be as knock down enjoyable as Ragnarok, it’s certainly a deeper film, and I think it may well be in the top five of Marvel’s output for me.

In many respects it’s amazing it got made. For many years now the perception in Hollywood has been that black led blockbusters won’t make money (and you can see their point, what with losers like Will Smith and Denzel Washington out there…). Black Panther puts that notion thankfully out of its misery, turns out a black led, black written, black directed film can make as much money as any other blockbuster—see also Wonder Woman for doing the same for female led/female directed blockbusters. Only time will tell whether Black Panther is the sea change people think it will be, but whatever happens it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Coogler shows a deft directorial touch, there’s a fair bit of exposition/world building going on here, and in lesser hands this could have been dull. Black Panther is most assuredly not a dull film. It runs two and a quarter hours, but for me it raced past (until the credits waiting for the obligatory end credit scenes—there are two and you do need to stay right to the end for one of them). It feels like a leaner film than it actually is, and Coogler directs his action scenes and more contemplative scenes with equal aplomb.

Really I only have two quibbles with the film. I’ll get to the second later, but the first is Black Panther himself. Seems odd to say it given he’s the titular character, but in many ways T’Challa is one of the least interesting characters. Boseman is good, it’s just that not only is his saddled with being the upright, noble warrior, he’s also surrounded by a whole heap of brilliant actors, each of whom it seems, decided they were going to steal the movie! Don’t get me wrong, the film falls apart without him, but this does mean Boseman has to be the solid defensive midfielder whose presence allows everyone else to have a ball.

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Don’t worry ladies, it’ll be your turn to kick arse soon enough!

So where to begin with that extended cast? For me the best character was Danai Gurira’s Okoye. She’s strong, fierce and has a nice line in humour, and not for one second does she fail to convince as a warrior who could kick your butt. Coogler’s also not afraid to give her flaws, specifically her patriotism, yet she still comes out as a rounded, empathetic character. As T’Challa’s sister Wright is wonderful; smart, brave and with a mischievous streak that made her a joy to watch, and I hope we see a lot more of these two characters in future films.

As Nakia Nyong’o isn’t quite as convincing, but mainly this is down to a slight lack of chemistry with Boseman.

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“You try being a good guy with a name like Killmonger!”

Michael B Jordan plays Erik “Killmonger” Stevens and he proves an excellent foe for T’Challa, physically imposing with great screen presence and, best of all, a character you can relate to, even if you don’t necessarily agree with. When it comes to blockbusters Killmonger is a more nuanced villain than you might usually find.

Finally Martin Freeman does a good job with a character who could have easily been merely comic relief (as I believe the character is in the comics)

There really are too many great performances to mention, but suffice to say each and every one has his or her moment to shine. The talent on show in this film is incredible, it’s just a shame some of them won’t be coming back for a sequel.lupita-nyong-o-black-panther-ht-mem-180111_4x3_992

In terms of plot Coogler’s created a smart tale that plays on multiple levels. You can read it as a straightforward superhero film, but there’s deeper stuff at work here, from a deconstruction of colonialism to a critique of isolationism and the notion that only Africa can solve Africa’s problems. It’s a film that will reward repeat viewings, heck just the other say someone pointed out the symbolism of the fact that the final fight takes place in an underground railway!

Wakanda itself is wonderfully realised, as is its people, drawn from five separate tribes, each of whom has a distinct style all their own. The film is awash with colour and has a great soundtrack.

I said I had another issue with it, didn’t I? That issue is the cgi, which I thought looked a trifle ropey at times, but given the choice I’ll take great characters and slightly substandard cgi over photorealistic effects and carboard characters any day.

This is a smart, well-paced and well directed action adventure film that features great performances from a superb cast. It’s a film with something to say, and a film that champions not only persons of colour, but specifically women of colour, putting them front and centre where they prove they belong.

Wakanda Forever!

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“No I can’t introduce you to Benedict Cumberbatch!”

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House of Suns

Posted: February 19, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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41YN0MhPJWL.jpgBy Alastair Reynolds.

It’s more than six million years in the future and humanity has spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy. There are myriad human and post-human civilisations, although no major civilisation seems to last for long, as the lack of faster than light travel makes it hard to maintain any empire spanning multiple star systems.

One of the few permanent features within the galaxy are the “Lines”. Each line was born from a single individual, six-million years before, who cloned themselves a thousand times, copying their personality into their clones, both male and female, before sending these facets, known as Shatterlings, out into the universe. Genetically enhanced to have incredibly long lifespans, and making use of stasis and abeyance technology, the Shatterlings routinely travel alone, congregating every 200,000 years to exchange stories.

One such line is the Gentian Line, also known as the House of Flowers, composed of the clones of a woman named Abigail Gentian, and two of the shatterlings are Purslane, a female, and Campion, a male. In violation of Line rules, Purslane and Campion have become lovers. Already fifty years late for the latest reunion, their arrival at the festivities is delayed further when they encounter a malevolent space bourn entity, rescuing a being named Hesperus in the process. Hesperus is one of the Machine People, an advanced race of sentient robots.

With Hesperus as their guest, Purslane and Campion resign themselves to a late arrival at the reunion, and probable censure by the rest of the line for their relationship, but a major turn of events will leave the House of Flowers torn apart. As they struggle to determine who has targeted their Line, Purslane and Campion will discover secrets they had forgotten, and potentially embark upon a journey of such epic proportions that it will make their 200,000 year circuits of the galaxy seem like a walk to the local shops.

 

One thing you can say about Reynolds. He thinks big, concocting huge, sprawling epics that embrace not just a few days, or weeks, or months, but millions upon millions of years. This particular tale of Deep Time is a densely packed universe that feels utterly real, despite being utterly divorced from today. The world building at work in House of Suns is just phenomenal, from the notion of the Shatterlings and their endless routine of circuits and reunions, to the enigmatic machine people and the other societies who inhabit the Milky Way. And then there’s the technology, covering everything from space travel to the differing forms of suspended animation, time dilation, stardams, and an exceptionally grisly form of interrogation.

This is a grand sweeping space opera at its grandest and most sweeping, and though the story is long and packed full of detail, Reynolds’ prose and sheer planning make it a hugely enjoyable ride. The story takes several twists and turns, and whilst the ending does feel a little like we’ve seen it before, there’s huge enjoyment to be found in getting there.

Purslane and Campion are perhaps not fleshed out as much as they should be. Campion is the more reckless of the two, but at times this is the only thing that seems to differentiate the two of them, and particularly when they share scenes it can be tricky to decipher which one is speaking because they don’t seem distinct enough, but once separated, and with them taking alternate first-person chapters, this becomes easier.

Similarly, the flashbacks to Abigail’s childhood, and eventual decision to shatter herself, is a little jarring at times, although there is a deeper thread at work.

Any flaws are minor however, overall this was an excellent read, at times exciting, at times thoughtful, at times headache inducing (in a good way!) it just seems a shame that Reynolds hasn’t yet felt the need to return to this universe, after creating it in such great detail, it almost seems a shame to limit it to one novel, however good.

Highly recommended, just don’t expect a quick read!

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Posted: February 15, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jake Kasdan. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Karen Gillan and Kevin Hart.

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A gentle Sunday afternoon orienteering was about to get a whole lot more exciting!

When four high school students are placed in detention and tasked with clearing out the school cellar, they discover a strange old-fashioned games console. It’s twenty years since the magical board game Jumanji wreaked havoc. The world has moved on, but so has Jumanji, sensing that people no longer play board games its redesigned itself as a computer game.

The four students grab a controller and choose a cheesy character to play in the game. Before you can say “Jumanji!” they’re sucked into the game and find themselves in another world, and that’s not the only change, because they’ve each become their own avatar. So nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin is now a musclebound explorer named Dr Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) whilst Spencer’s former best friend, a jock nicknamed ‘Fridge’ is now a weedy zoologist nicknamed ‘Mouse’ (Hart). Cynical loner Martha has become a scantily clad kung-fu expert named Ruby Roundhouse, and most shockingly of all, selfie obsessed Bethany is now an overweight cartographer named Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black)

The only way to escape the game is to return a fabulous jewel to it’s resting place in the eye of a statue, but whilst the group have heaps of special skills to call upon they’re facing an army of bad guys. They each have three lives to help them along, but once they expend them death might just get a lot more permanent!

When four high school students are placed in detention and tasked with clearing out the school cellar, they discover a strange old-fashioned games console. It’s twenty years since the magical board game Jumanji wreaked havoc. The world has moved on, but so has Jumanji, sensing that people no longer play board games its redesigned itself as a computer game.

The four students grab a controller and choose a cheesy character to play in the game. Before you can say “Jumanji!” they’re sucked into the game and find themselves in another world, and that’s not the only change, because they’ve each become their own avatar. So nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin is now a musclebound explorer named Dr Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) whilst Spencer’s former best friend, a jock nicknamed ‘Fridge’ is now a weedy zoologist nicknamed ‘Mouse’ (Hart). Cynical loner Martha has become a scantily clad kung-fu expert named Ruby Roundhouse, and most shockingly of all, selfie obsessed Bethany is now an overweight cartographer named Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black)

The only way to escape the game is to return a fabulous jewel to it’s resting place in the eye of a statue, but whilst the group have heaps of special skills to call upon they’re facing an army of bad guys. They each have three lives to help them along, but once they expend them death might just get a lot more permanant!

 

Though it came out in December, the fact that Jumanji was still in cinemas way into February finally gave me to time to catch up with it. With a great cast and an amusing trailer I’d been tempted, but something held me back. Having finally gone to see the film all I can say is, I was a fool! If I’d gone to seen this in December I might have got a second viewing in!

‘cos Jumanji is very enjoyable, in fact it’s ridiculously enjoyable. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it won’t win any Oscars, and it’s not really deep and meaningful (though there’s some nice morals hiding in there) but sometimes it’s just enough for a film to entertain, and Jumanji entertained me a whole lot.

It’s been a while since I saw Jumanji, but aside from a few call-backs you don’t need to have seen the 1995 Robin Williams’ vehicle to enjoy this one, and the premise is a straightforward fantasy quest. It pretty much takes the route you expect it to. What makes the film so fun is the script, the performances and its sheer energy. I was never bored, I laughed a whole lot, and I may have even inched my bottom towards the edge of my seat on occasion.

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“Hey, where’d my hair go?”

Dwayne Johnson is a man with enough natural charisma to power a city. His imposing physique is allied with great comic timing, and a dash of old school Hollywood charm; the fact that he has no qualms about taking the mickey out of himself is just icing on the cake. Is he the greatest actor in the world? Not remotely. Does it matter? See previous answer. He has a lot of fun playing the nerd who’s afraid of everything, and his special skill of being able to ‘smoulder’ to order is used to great comic effect.

Jack Black’s had a varied career. For every High Fidelity or School of Rock there’s a King Kong or The Holiday, but given the right material he’s a hoot, and boy does he get the right material here. Tasked with playing a self-obsessed teenage girl he throws himself into the part with vigour. It would have been so easy to overplay this, to camp it up into caricature, but for the most part he keeps it just the right side of too much, and along with Gillan he has the funniest scene in the film as Shelley has to teach Ruby Roundhouse how to flirt, and both actors completely nail it.

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Gratuitous Karen Gillan picture.

Karen Gillan’s come a long way since Amy Pond, and as a big fan it’s no surprise that I loved her in this. Yes she’s dressed a little too revealingly (words I never thought I’d say), but thankfully her character has enough agency that you just go with the flow. She’s brave and kicks ass with the best of them, and just when you think the film’s going to go down the route of her learning to be womanly…well…you’ll see. Plus, as stressed above her skit with Black is pretty much worth the price of admission alone.

Rounding out the team Kevin Hart is amusing as the high school jock trapped in the body of a nerd. He has great chemistry with Johnson and you can see why they’ve made several films together. He too has good comic timing, but thankfully gets his share of heroic moments, in fact each of the ensemble gets their chance to shine.

Bobby Cannavale’s villain is a little lacking, but in the main it’s because he isn’t given much to get his teeth into, and given he’s a virtual character I guess that makes sense, but Nick Jonas rounds out the in-game characters nicely with an intriguing role. Outside of the game I give props to the four actors tasked with playing the teen (and in fact real) versions of our heroes. It’s testament to their performances that despite limited screen time I’d have happily seen more of them.

Well acted and directed, with laughs and thrills aplenty, you can argue Jumanji is a trifle lightweight, but when a film is this entertaining that hardly seems to matter. I’m not sure how they can wangle a sequel, but I really hope they do.

Jumanji!

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Hopefully these guys are back in any sequel too!