Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Shape Of Water

(MA15+) ★★★★½

Director: Guillermo del Toro.

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy.

"This is great and all, but my shoe is sinking."

Guillermo del Toro loves monsters.

In an interview with Ain't It Cool he talked about his favourites - Frankenstein's monster, the Alien, the Creature from The Black Lagoon, Godzilla, and the Thing - and it's easy to see how the monster movies he loved as a kid have populated his career. Some kind of creature, ghoul or ghost populates each of his films, from his debut Cronos, through his comic book adaptations (Blade II, the Hellboy films), in his greatest film (Pan's Labyrinth) and his worst ones (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak).

In The Shape Of Water, he poses the question "what if the monster got the girl?". It's a strange question, with weird answers, but it's one del Toro asks with beauty, delicacy and intelligence.

Set during the Cold War and the Space Race, it centres on Hawkins' Eliza, a mute woman who works as a cleaner alongside her best friend Zelda (Spencer) at a US government facility.

There she encounters The Asset (Jones), an amphibious humanoid captured by the US military in the Amazon. The government, personified by villainous G-man Strickland (Shannon) and curious scientist Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg), want to see if The Asset's physiology can help in America's quest to put a man in space. That will probably require cutting the monster open.

But Eliza has other ideas - she has fallen in love with this Amazonian creature and wants to save him.

The Shape Of Water is a strange film, although when you think about it, it's no weirder than Beauty & The Beast and that's a much-loved fairy tale. Perhaps the only flaw in The Shape Of Water is too many characters are too quick to accept the really odd things that happen. It's jarring, yet somewhat necessary.

After all, this is a fable about acceptance and equality. By setting it in the '60s, and by using a couple of simple key moments, del Toro phrases his story in the context of the civil rights movement. It's subtly done, and nicely done. On top of that is Jenkins' Giles - Eliza's friend who is struggling with all the things that came with being a single older gay man in that era. These things all flow into the film's themes of love, loneliness and humanity.

As with Pan's Labyrinth - del Toro's magnum opus - the film combines its stunning production design with its far-out story to make a modern (though set 50 years ago) fairy tale. But don't be fooled by the niceties, the beautiful music, and the central love story. Like many of del Toro's films, this is violent and often dark, and uses the horrible aspects of human nature to showcase the good ones.

The compelling story and lush visuals would fail with the wrong people in front of the camera, but del Toro has a perfect cast. Hawkins is incredible, making a very believable character out of some fantastical material. She's well supported by the often-under-rated Jenkins, the comic relief of Spencer and the excellent Stuhlbarg.

Almost stealing the show is Shannon, who is so good at menacing. He doesn't disappoint here - Strickland is utterly repulsive and hissable while still being a fascinatingly well-rounded character. Special mention also to Jones, the unsung muse of del Toro who again does a great job layered in prosthetics. It's fair to say the film would not be as affecting if they'd made the creature a CG creation, so full points to Jones and the design team.

(On a side note, I can't help but wonder if del Toro ever envisioned this as a Hellboy spin-off starring the similarly fish-like Abe Sapien (also played by Jones). Despite the similarity in the characters, that would have robbed this film of its naivety and lumbered it with unnecessary baggage. It's great that this stands alone as a parable for modern and past times.)

Pan's Labyrinth is better, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Get Out may have been more worthy winners at this year's Oscars, but there is no denying the power, beauty and craft that have gone into The Shape Of Water. It is a strangely fascinating tale, and one deserving of making del Toro the third Mexican in five years to win the best director Oscar.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Tomb Raider (2018)

(M) ★★

Director: Roar Uthaug.

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas.

"I swear this tank top was teal when I woke up this morning."
The curse of the video game movie continues.

Another great white hope has fallen out of the gate, stumbling its way through a clumsy plot to once again prove that apparently - for whatever reason - computer games can't be turned into films. This is despite the fact we'd already seen how not to make a Tomb Raider film. Twice. You'd think lessons were learnt there. Evidence suggests the contrary.

This Tomb Raider is not as bad as that other supposed saviour of the genre, Assassin's Creed, which featured ever-increasing piles of dumb, but it's also no better than Warcraft, which failed valiantly in its quest to rid the curse. And it's marginally better than the two Tomb Raider films in which Angelina Jolie pulled on the teal tank top of Lara Croft, but that's damning it with faint praise.

Donning the singlet in this reboot is Alicia Vikander. Her Croft is young, feisty and still upset about the death of her father (West) seven years earlier. She has resisted inheriting the wealth he bequeathed her, and instead scrapes by as a bicycle courier.

But the call to adventure that claimed her father is now beckoning her to a mysterious Japanese island where a number of very bad men are searching for the body of a supposedly cursed queen who could bring about the end of the world.

The biggest plus here is Vikander. She's great in the lead role, nailing the accent and throwing herself into the action scenes. She also imbues Croft with the right amount of bravery and fear as she dives headlong into the unknown. This is Croft with her training wheels still on, which is one of the few interesting aspects of the film.

It's a shame Vikander doesn't have a better movie in which to raid tombs. The film's script wobbles from average to bad. It starts out okay as it sets up who Croft is, but any time is has to dive into where her father went or what he was doing, it struggles to do so without boring info-dumping or pointless flashbacks.

Once it gets to its destination, the film doesn't fair much better. Goggins is so close to being a good villain but is too aloof to be really menacing, and the plot bounces from set-piece to set-piece like, well, a computer game with boring or inane cut scenes in between.

And therein lies a lot of the problem. In trying to capture what was great about the game - the puzzle-solving and the tomb raiding - the movie ends up feeling like a bad version of a game in which you can't participate. The puzzles may have been cool on a console, but are silly and over-the-top on film, and pretty quickly it devolves into a poor rip-off of Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, except the bizarre puzzles in that film had a point - they flowed into that movie's themes of faith and belief. And Tomb Raider has no such depth - it's merely a string of so-so action pieces, with the best being an escape from a crashed plane atop a waterfall and the worst involving a falling floor and coloured keys.

To be fair, every lost-tomb-archaeologist adventure owes a debt to Indy's travails, and Croft's creators were no doubt influenced by the whipcracking hero. But Tomb Raider struggles to find any new ground (particularly in terms of the father-offspring dynamic) that wasn't covered better in Last Crusade. Despite Vikander and West's best efforts, they can't elevate their relationship to something worth caring about, leaving a heart-shaped hole in proceedings.

The script also lacks humour, no characters are developed outside of the Crofts, and when you get down to it, the actual tomb raiding is nothing special either.

It would be a shame for Vikander's stint as Croft to be limited to this film, because she deserves a shot at playing the role in a better movie. But if this is the best anyone can offer third time around, then Lara Croft should probably stick to the consoles.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

REWIND REVIEW: Wake In Fright (1971)

(M) ★★★★★

Director: Ted Kotcheff.

Cast: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle, Al Thomas, John Meillon.

"Are you gonna finish that?"
It seems oxymoronic, but having a Canadian direct Wake In Fright is a huge part of what makes it one of the greatest Australian films of all time.

There is no romanticism in the film, and nothing to suggest the people in it or the country represented are misunderstood or in possession of admirable qualities. No, this holds a very dark mirror up to Australian society, and it may have been difficult for an Aussie director to look back without flinching.

The Canadian in question was Ted Kotcheff, whose subsequent filmography would include the debut outing of John Rambo First Blood (a film that also probably benefitted from having an outsider director) and, believe it or not, Weekend At Bernie's. His work prior to Wake In Fright included some live TV plays in the UK (including one where an actor really died mid-play) and three British films - a largely forgotten sequel to Oscar-winner Room At The Top, a civil rights drama called Two Gentlemen Sharing, and the James Mason-starring dramedy Tiara Tahiti.

None of these indicated Kotcheff was the right man for the job of directing a visceral outback-set nightmare about the worst sides of Australian bush culture and its toxic masculinity. But then, Kotcheff himself wasn't sure he was the right man either.

"Being a Canadian I was a bit trepidatious about directing a movie about a country I knew nothing about," Kotcheff told Indiewire in 2012.

"But then I found that the outback wasn’t that different from the Canadian north. It was the same vast empty spaces that paradoxically were not liberating but were claustrophobic and imprisoning. And they also had the same hyper-masculine societies. In fact, I used to describe Canada as Australia on the rocks."

The big difference between those two locations is, of course, the climate. But Kotcheff was fully aware of how to work that to his advantage. Here, by way of example, is Wake In Fright's opening shot:

"I wanted to recreate what I felt and saw – the heat, the sweat, the dust, the flies," Kotcheff told Luke Buckmaster in The Guardian in 2017.

"I said to the set designer and the costume designer, ‘I don’t want to see any cool colours. I don’t want to see blue or green. Ever. On anything. All I want is red, yellow, orange, burgundy and brown. All the hot colours. On costumes, sets, everything.’ I wanted people to watch the film and be unconsciously sweating."

The ploy worked. Wake In Fright takes you into the outback and dumps you there with nothing to drink but beer. The oppressive heat seeps out of the visuals and the flies bombard you with no relief. And if you're a drinker, you will feel the on-screen hangovers deep in your soul.

The poor bastard struggling in this nightmarish hellscape (it was filmed in and around Broken Hill in case you were wondering) is young teacher John Grant (Bond). Stuck in an outback school due to the onerous bond system of the time, Grant flees his post in the summer holidays, desperate to be reunited with his girlfriend in Sydney. He daydreams of her frolicking in the surf - the only relief from the heat in the entire film.

En route to Sydney he stops for the night in Bundanyabba, where an unfortunate turn of events leaves him penniless and stranded. Relying on the hospitality of the 'Yabba locals, Grant is drawn into a violent world of primal beer-soaked masculinity that he seems unable - and perhaps unwilling - to escape. Just as Grant can't get away from the heat or the beers being thrust in his direction, he finds it impossible to prevent his own downward spiral in a swirl of booze, sex and blood.

"Citylink rules!"
Speaking of blood, one scene in Wake In Fright deserves special mention in this exceptionally directed Aussie masterpiece. It's a sequence in which a drunken Grant joins some 'Yabba yobbos on a roo-shooting expedition, and in a pre-CGI age, there was only one way to do the scene in anything close to an authentic manner - film a real-life roo-shooting expedition.

Kotcheff and a minimal crew joined 16 professional roo shooters on a pre-organised cull. The hunters were collecting the pelts and the meat, and the film crew were merely along for the ride. As Kotcheff later put it, in technically correct terms, no kangaroos died for Wake In Fright - those animals were going to die anyway and he just happened to be there to film it. Regardless, it's a horrendous scene.

"It was just horrific," agreed Kotcheff, who was a vegan at the time.

"They shot the roos, skinned them, cut their heads off. I was up there beside the camera, on the back of the truck, next to a big light. Suddenly I heard a thump beside me. My British producer had fainted. He was so horrified he just collapsed.

"I did not use 75 per cent of what I filmed that night as it was too bloody and horrifying," he later added. He and his production team staged a power outage to make the bloodshed end.

"I've got a bad feeling about this."
Regardless of what ended up on the cutting room floor, the resulting sequence makes for "one of the most horrific scenes in any movie ever", according to

"Actual bullets are hitting actual animals, and we watch them die completely pointless deaths," writes Nolan Moore.

"Cinematically speaking, it’s a punch-in-the-gut scene that proves humans are brutal, ugly monsters."

It's a make-or-break section of the film for many audience members (there was one walkout in the screening I attended, and many averted eyes) but it's part of Wake In Fright's visceral power. This is one of the last rings of hell for Grant, and he descends into it with a mixture of glee, disgust, self-loathing and relief.

While much of the credit for Wake In Fright's disturbing brilliance goes to Kotcheff and cinematographer Brian West, kudos must go to their willing cast. In the lead role, looking like Peter O'Toole circa Lawrence Of Arabia, Bond gives the best big screen performance of his short career (he died aged 55). He imbues Grant with the right mix of snobbery and naivety at the start, yet makes his downfall utterly believable.

"Actually I ordered the tofu salad."
Pleasence, a man who famously never turned down a role, is the scene-stealer though. Given top billing because he'd previously battled Bond, he plays Doc, who is both the town doctor and the town drunk (the latter descriptor goes largely unnoticed, such is the nature of the 'Yabba's relationship with booze). Pleasence's Aussie accent is predominantly good, and he gives the role a great amount of nuance. Kay, who was dating Kotcheff at the time, is also noteworthy in the only "major" female role in the film.

On a side note, if Wake In Fright hadn't been mythologised, lost, rediscovered, and an actual bona fide classic, it could have ended up as an Australian cinema trivia question for containing the final performance of Aussie acting legend Chips Rafferty (who insisted on sinking real pints of beer in every take - roughly 30 pints a day) and the debut performance of Aussie acting legend Jack Thompson.

Plenty of other articles have been written about how Wake In Fright was lost and found, and you can find that story in the hyperlinks or the video below. It's a fascinating tale, but the thing that makes it most interesting is how its rediscovery saw the film return from its time away as a feted hero of Australian cinema - the complete opposite of its reputation on debut.

The film's unflattering take on the Aussie male saw it bomb in its homeland on release. It went to Cannes in '71 alongside Walkabout, and little did Australia know but the French film festival was witnessing the birth of the Australian New Wave. It screened for over half a year in France, but back home it was ignored by audiences. It tanked in the US as well where it was released under the ambiguous title Outback.

But some people - important people - took notice. Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi, and Peter Weir - directors who helped usher in the new era of Aussie cinema which Wake In Fright and Walkabout inadvertently kicked off - were paying attention. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, The Devil's Playground, and The Cars That Ate Paris all followed soon after.

But also paying attention, particularly in that Cannes screening in 1971, was Martin Scorsese. Scorsese reportedly whooped with excitement throughout the film. A rookie director himself at the time, Scorsese never forgot the raw power of Wake In Fright. It not only influenced him, but he was able to return the favour and help bring the once-lost masterpiece back into the light (as discussed in the video below).

Wake In Fright is one of the greatest Australian films of all time because it was brave enough to do something no Aussie film had done before (and only a few have done since). It was able to get beneath this country's skin and stare into a dark heart that was hidden beneath the ochre dust and boozy bonhomie. It found a masculine menace everyone knew was there but no one dared mention.

A producer later told Kotcheff "that film’s got a tremendous wallop - no Australian could have made that film". They were right.

Further reading: 
Check out this incredible three part long-read on the film written by Peter Galvin for SBS. It's far better than my review, but I wasn't going to tell you that at the start now was I?

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Red Sparrow

(MA15+) ★

Director: Francis Lawrence.

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Douglas Hodge.

Don't you hate it when someone comes to a party wearing the same thing as you?

Remember movies in the '80s, with their unnecessary sex scenes, overly brutal violence, and Russian bad guys?

Red Sparrow is a throwback to that era, albeit with a modern sensibility and a less gratuitous approach to its harder-edged moments, which are all there for a reason. And that reason is to tell a gripping spy story that will have you shifting uncomfortably in your seat. Consider that as much a recommendation as it is a warning.

Red Sparrow is the story of Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), a Russian ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury and is coerced into becoming a specialised secret agent at the behest of her powerful uncle (Schoenaerts). She is quickly trained as a "sparrow" - a kind of master manipulator/femme fatale - and set against CIA agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) to uncover his contact inside the Russian government. But what is she really up to?

The film works because of the strength of its story, which is delivered in an unflashy but captivating manner. Despite its two-hour-and-twenty-minute run time, it maintains a steady pace and never outstays its welcome, which is largely due to the way its narrative unfolds, dealing out its mysteries and answers with great care. By the time you reach the second act's end, you may know where it's heading but you'll still be in the dark about how it's going to get there.

It also helps that Lawrence is magnetic and believable in the lead role. A lesser actress would have sunk this role and, in turn, the film by ramping up the melodrama or by making Dominika too soft or too hard. Red Sparrow's success is dependent on how much you buy into Dominika's evolution, and how much you are willing to barrack for her, which takes an excellent mix of vulnerability and power that Lawrence nails, much like she did in The Hunger Games. Edgerton is also good in what is not your typical spy role, and the scenes with he and Lawrence are a highlight (even the matter-of-fact sex scenes).

But the thing that makes this film oddly memorable is also the thing that makes it such an uncomfortable watch. The sex, the nudity, the torture, the violence - they all stick in the mind because of the unflinching nature of their delivery. While you'll be pondering the twists and turns of the plot after the credits have rolled, you'll also be left with some uneraseable images.

As a spy film, Red Sparrow is refreshing for its lack of gadgets and shoot-outs, and for offering some adult material. This is a world away from your Missions Impossible, your Bonds and Bournes, and your Kingsmen. In that sense, this is much more like a Tinker, Tailor in that it's a psychological espionage thriller as opposed to an explosion-fest peppered with car chases.

This is another interesting choice from Lawrence, who obviously deeply trusts her similarly named director (he did the final three Hunger Games). Red Sparrow is effective and interesting, and though it may leave some feeling cold, there's no denying the visceral nature of its material and the unfussed way it delivers its gripping spy story.

Monday, 26 February 2018


(PG) ★½

Director: Stephen Amis.

Cast: Shane Jacobson, Magda Szubanski, Nicholas Hammond, Julia Zemiro, Manu Feildel, Frederik Simpson, Lara Robinson.

"I'm off to find the screenwriters."
Not many Australian films make it to our screens each year, and even fewer get funding from Screen Australia.

So on the one hand, it feels unpatriotic to slag off an Aussie movie, but on the other hand it's galling that this is the top of crap Screen Australia chooses to fund. There are dozens and dozens of great unproduced scripts out there, and yet this is the type of tripe that makes it into our cinemas on a wide release? Seriously?

Regardless of its country of origin, The BBQ is a shit film. Its screenplay is so horribly boring and inane that it renders the entire film dull and almost irredeemable.

The plot, such as it is, sees alleged Captain Cook descendent Dazza (Jacobson) entered into a barbecue competition against his will despite having recently poisoned half of his neighbourhood with some bad prawns. The competition causes friction with his wife Diane (Zemiro) and sees him go up against cocky French chef Andre Mont Blanc (Feildel) - the nemesis of Dazza's cooking instructor (Szubanski).

Let's get some niceties out of the way. Jacobson gives his all and is his usual likeable self, while Szubanski has fun chewing the scenery. Similarly, Hammond understands the high-level farce this is aiming to be and nails it, and Zemiro has a crack despite getting a poorly written character.

And that's it. The rest of the film is abysmal and it all comes down to an absolutely woeful script. Aside from the fact it's rarely amusing, it's not compelling in the slightest. Dazza is an unwilling protagonist, so the film struggles to find a reason for him (and thus the audience) to care about the situation he is in. To make things worse, The BBQ inexplicably raises the stakes (mmm... barbecue steaks) by manufacturing animosity between Dazza and Diane that is disproportionate to the situation, which does nothing but make Diane immensely unlikeable.

A subplot involving his son Jayden (Simpson) trying to uncover the truth about his family's Captain Cook connection is superfluous, but even worse, it's utterly boring. As is a diversion to visit a wagyu beef farmer, which takes up almost the entire second act.

On top of this, the film's "villain", played to the best of his ability by affable celeb chef Fieldel, is only the villain because we're told he is. We never see him do anything remotely villainous beyond being a bit arrogant (possibly to hide Fieldel acting deficiencies). When the film finally realises it needs him to be a proper bad guy, it's too late, we don't care, and they can't even commit to it anyway. There's no proof of his villainy, nor is there a great comeuppance. Maybe he wasn't the bad guy all along. Who knows? Who cares?

And then there's the fact large sections of the film feel like an ad, which is because the movie was partially bankrolled by IGA, Barbecues Galore and Heat Beads. What that amount of funding buys can be seen on the screen, quire regularly. Product placement is common these days - check out a Bond film made in the past two decades - but this pushes its placements beyond common decency.

And let's take a look at the casual racism going on here, which feels oh-so-Australian in its delivery. Every foreign character is a caricature revelling in stereotypical ideas - there's a Japanese guy chopping wood with his hands, an Indian guy obsessed with turmeric, the Frenchman is an arrogant chef, the Englishman is snooty and upper class, the American is basically a cowboy, and the Scotswoman is a crazy violent drunk. None of these characters feel like real people - they're plot devices whose nationalities are played for laughs.

But the biggest crime is that The BBQ is boring. It's also unfunny, so on top of not caring about proceedings, you're not laughing either. So many good, talented people were involved in this film, which makes its failings all the more insulting.

Worst film of 2018 so far, and the worst Australian film for a while.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

GIG REVIEW: Ben Folds, Melbourne Zoo, February 17, 2018

Ben Folds
Melbourne Zoo
February 17, 2018

The longer the career, the harder it is to compile a setlist. More albums, more songs, more choices.

Musicians deal with this in a variety of ways. Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam regularly play mammoth sets in order to cram in as much as possible, occasionally even dropping whole albums into the playlist. On Weezer's 2013 Australian tour, they ran their setlists in reverse chronological order, climaxing with The Blue Album in full (except for that night when they played an entirely different setlist complete with Pinkerton in its entirety). And some artists endeavour to give you everything, like Paul Kelly's A-Z concerts, or that time The Living End played every single one of their records in full over consecutive nights.

(And then there are less crowd-pleasing acts such as The Smashing Pumpkins, who played new-album-heavy sets on their 1998 and 2012 Australian tours, giving fans only a handful of hits on the side. Here's hoping they make amends on their upcoming "reunion" tour.)

And then there's Ben Folds, who hit upon an innovative way to craft his setlist for his previous US and current Australian tours - paper planes.

It works like this - Folds plays a 10-song set of his choosing, then takes a 15-minute break. At the end of the interlude, there's a countdown, and fans are encouraged to through their requests on stage via paper aeroplane, which goes down something like this:

Folds then wanders around the stage, picks up a plane at random, and plays the song written on that plane (unless it's something he's already played or it's someone else's song).

The first set ends up being devoid of his signature songs, with Folds perhaps figuring those will get aeronautically selected by the audience. The biggest hits in the front end are the incredible Landed and his Regina Spektor duet You Don't Know Me (with the crowd standing in for Spektor), and the rest of Part One is peppered with three songs from his most recent album, fan favourite album cuts (such as Zak & Sara and Steven's Last Night In Town) and near-forgotten singles (Bastard, There's Always Someone Cooler Than You).

"Sing you bastards!"
This first set has been tweaked from night to night (the previous night at the Zoo saw him bust out Annie Waits, Still Fighting It, Uncle Walter and Not The Same). But it's the second set where the intrigue really lies. For Saturday night's show at the Zoo, Folds plucked hit after hit from the ankle-deep stage around him. Here are our aeroplanes (good job, Melbourne):

PhilosophyRockin' the SuburbsJackson CanneryThe LuckiestKateUndergroundAll U Can EatBrickOne Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn FacesArmy

You couldn't ask for more, although diehards won't be able to stop themselves sneaking a peak at other setlists on the tour to see what might have been.

Beyond what was played, Folds was a gracious host and a respectful visitor. He offered a quick musical lesson on harmonies, prefaced All U Can Eat by saying it was a compilation of things his dad had said, and raced through the last couple of songs in an effort to not keep the animals awake. Because, after all, this gig was at a freakin' zoo.

This guy was loving it.
You may find yourself yearning for the bass of Robert Sledge and the drums of Darren Jessee (and their harmonies) in places but the big takeaways from the show are the power of the songs in the hands of just Folds, and the prowess of those hands. As a pianist, Folds is virtuosic - a fact that sometimes gets lost amid his skills as a songwriter and vocalist.

In many ways, this gig was a novelty, thanks to its setting and Folds' airborne request procedure. And while Folds has his quirks - including a proclivity for profanity, which was amusing in the family-friendly setting - he is a seriously good songwriter. Indeed he's one of the best of the past thirty years. No matter what it said on those paper planes, it was almost always going to be gold.

Full setlist here.

PS. Dear Melbourne Zoo, get more food trucks next time. A 40-minute wait for food isn't cool.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Black Panther

(M) ★★★★

Director: Ryan Coogler.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Sterling K. Brown.

"Call it Fant-four-stic one more time, I dare ya."
Marvel continues to take its cinematic universe to new places physically, thematically, and even spiritually in its latest outing Black Panther.

Much has been made of the importance of having a predominantly black cast and crew bringing to life the first black superhero in mainstream American comics, and how huge it is for people of colour around the world to see such a thing in a major blockbuster spectacle. But this would count for nought if the movie wasn't any good.

Thankfully, Black Panther is great. It boasts a sense of grandeur as it tells a sprawling Shakespearean tale that traverses the political, the racial, the ideological, the familial and the fantastical.

Prior MCU watching is not a prerequisite here, but for fans this picks up in the wake of Captain America: Civil War, with Prince T'Challa (Boseman) preparing to take the throne of mythical African nation Wakanda following the death of his father T'Chaka.

As T'Challa grapples with ruling his people and keeping his country hidden from the outside world, new and old enemies emerge - the unhinged Ulysses Klaue (Serkis) and the mysterious Killmonger (Jordan), both with deep connections to Wakanda.

Of all the thematic ideas explored across the MCU films, Black Panther boasts some of the most interesting. Wakanda's national modus operandi is very much "Wakanda first" - as part of the it's elaborate hi-tech secrecy that quite literally hides it from the outside world, they accept no refugees, offer no foreign aid, and are reluctant to engage on a global stage. These ideals are all the more intriguing because of Wakanda's incredible wealth, both financially and technologically.

The film's philosophical crossroad comes in the form of a character who has seen the injustices wielded against black people in the US, and wonders why the power of Wakanda couldn't be used to level the playing field in the face of racism - an ideology closer to the Black Panther Party of the civil rights movement than the Marvel superhero of the same name. This sentiment digs even deeper when a dying character invokes the slave trade with their final words in one of the most poignant moments the MCU has seen.

It's fascinating fodder for a CG-heavy blockbuster from the biggest mega-franchise the world has ever seen. To Coogler's (and Marvel's) credit, the film doesn't pay lip service to its racial themes - it owns them and is all the better for it.

And while the extra levels of well executed intelligent ideas elevates this above, say, Justice League, there is also the requisite amounts of action and CG carnage. One particularly lengthy take involving a fight in a casino is mindblowing, while a car chase through the South Korean city of Busan is another highlight. However, the inevitable final showdown between T'Challa and Killmonger is a bit too heavy on the CGI, as are some sequences where green screens stand in for the wilds of Africa.

The cast is another reason to see this. Jordan's Killmonger is one of the best villains we've seen in the MCU because he's one of the most interesting - you could almost barrack for him or at least empathise with him. Serkis' Klaue is more cartoonish, but adds a manic level of fun to every scene he's in, which helps break up some of the seriousness. The script also adds enough grins and winks to lighten the sombre tone enough, while Wright's Shuri provides welcome comic relief.

Nyong'o and Gurira are also highlights and make the most of well written roles with real strength to them. Freeman feels out of place but it works, Whitaker adds gravitas, and Kaluuya's W'Kabi is another interesting character well portrayed.

But it's Boseman and Jordan's show, and when they go head to head the film sizzles. Their relationship holds up the second half of the film. The first half coasts along with a James Bond vibe, but once Killmonger gets to Wakanda, it becomes a superhero version of Heat, with two equally matched, equally driven, and almost equally sympathetic characters lighting up the screen. Boseman has a regal swagger, while Jordan is more street, yet they are not terribly dissimilar.

It's a shame some CG-heavy sequences don't look great because it's one of the few downers in this. There are also a few too many pushy moments in the score, although it's worth noting that when the score works, it's some of the best music we've seen in an MCU movie.

The production design is also great. The techno-Africa look is cool, rivalling the work of the Sakaar scenes in Thor: Ragnarok.

All up, Black Panther is a thoughtful yet exciting superhero journey into deepest Africa that does the character and his people proud.