The production history of Mute, a new sci-fi thriller now debuting on Netflix, dates almost as far back as director Duncan Jones’ film career does. Mentioned around the time of his outstanding first feature Moon, Jones would instead deliver the terrific Source Code as a follow-up, and then spend years working on the Warcraft movie. Though there were some flashes of visual invention, Warcraft was ultimately left looking like a big-budget misstep on Jones’s CV upon its summer 2016 release, but events seemed to be headed in a positive direction when he quickly bounced back into finally getting Mute made the following year. Now, after a minor blip that saw it bypass theatres, we can all see if this is a pleasing return to form (and the world of Moon) for Duncan Jones? Alas no, it most definitely is not. Continue reading
17 movies in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I find myself in a position when I’ll still happily go and see every one of their movies opening weekend, but at the same time I struggle to get especially excited about them at all. They’re like the cinematic equivalent of eating a snickers bar or something. It was delicious the first time you tried one as a kid, and now you’ll enjoy one, but you’ll know exactly what it will be, and will likely have forgotten about it a few months later. Let’s be honest here, these movies are all really quite similar, and now what I’m mainly asking for when I see a new one is ‘what will this one do differently?’ It that respect, Black Panther, Marvel’s 18th and latest, has a good deal going for it.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the character onscreen of course, with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) making a notable appearance in 2016’s Civil War, however while that film went in assuming all viewers had a strong grasp of who and where everyone in the MCU was at that point, Black Panther more or less stands alone, with little connecting it to the series’ other films. The death of T’Challa’s father, King T’Chanka is shown again to remind anyone who didn’t catch/forgot about Civil War, and Martin Freeman’s CIA agent, and Andy Serkis’s villainous arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (who briefly showed up in a shoehorned cameo in Avengers: Age of Ultron) play significant parts, but prior knowledge of either is totally unnecessary. All in all it’s a smart move, having another Avenger randomly show up can be fun if handled well (Thor: Ragnarok) but can also just come across as gratuitous (Ant-Man). Plus it helps in making what’s admittedly a landmark movie for Black cinema more immediately accessible to audiences who might not have been interested in the MCU’s entire output thus far.
This approach does also put Black Panther in a bit of an odd place, it presents itself more-or-less as an origin story for T’Challa taking up the mantel of the Black Panther, and yet we’ve already seen him in action as that. Was he already acting as such before becoming King? If that’s made clear in the film I must have missed it, but it’s not of great importance.
Anyhow, to my original point, what really helps to give Black Panther its own identity is its primary setting – the fictional African country of Wakanda, the history of which is introduced in a spectacular animated opening montage. It’s a technologically advanced nation, thanks to the presence of a substance called vibranium (a word which gets said a few too many times), but has remained isolated from the rest of the world by posing as a poor, farming country to keep its resources and people safe from potential colonisers. The visual realisation of Wakanda is really impressive, from the tribal costuming to the technology, which often appears based on powder-like formations. Similarly, it manages to not have the place look entirely CGI created (some aerial footage was actually filmed in African locations), with the Wakandan cityscapes complementing the African backdrops. All in all it adds up to a futuristic vision that’s unlike anything really seen in a blockbuster movie before.
Our first big sequence in Wakanda occurs during T’Challa’s ritualistic coronation ceremony, where he must face off a challenger (Winston Duke) in a surprisingly violent combat sequence, which again seems to emphasise that this is a far cry from your typical superhero origin story. One minor gripe I have to point out though, is it’s not entirely clear just exactly what the powers of the Black Panther are (they are administered and removed via ingestion of a herb). Are they just generic strength/speed etc, and how much is the suit? Again it’s not overly important but Civil War failed to communicate this as well.
Director Ryan Coogler was one of Marvel’s more interesting hires when announced, going from eye-catching indie drama Fruitvale Station to outstanding Rocky sequel Creed, to this in just a few short years. The earlier parts of the film (particularly a cold-open set in his native Oakland) suggest that he hasn’t has his voice diluted by the Marvel machine too much, but in a later central sequence he reveals a surprisingly different influence – James Bond. The film’s McGuffin is a stolen Wakandan artefact that Klaue intends to sell in Busan, South Korea. This leads to a scene of T’Challa and his accomplices infiltrating the sale which takes place in a large, underground casino, the setting of which, along with the subsequent fight scene and car chase has an obvious Bond inspiration. Coogler utilises an ambitious false single take for the impressive multi-storey fight scene which he just about pulls off, but the car chase, despite clearly being shot on location, is hampered by an over-reliance on clunky CGI.
The other blatant Bond-esque sequence occurs back in Wakanda where T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) runs a tech lab developing various applications for vibranium, including the Black Panther suit itself. She is basically playing Q to his Bond. The dynamic between the two siblings is comes across as quite genuine and Wright delives a delightfully enthusiastic performance injecting some much-needed lightness into what is otherwise Marvel’s most humourless film.
Despite this, T’Challa himself is not especially portrayed as a Bond-type character. Boseman’s stoic performance reflects his character’s primary concerns in the first half over how best to rule Wakanda for the benefit of his people, and on top of this, in his most Bond-like sequences he always has two trusted female accomplices, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Both are fantastic in their roles and portrayed as more than capable of holding their own, indeed Nyong’o is introduced recuing a group of girls from being trafficked (that could be its own movie right there). They’re both pleasingly given significant amounts of screen time too, keeping everything going when T’Challa disappears from the film for a large section in its latter half (a potential misstep that thankfully isn’t). They do both have half-baked romantic interests (Okoye with T’Challa’s best friend, and Nakia being his Ex) but it’s not much of an issue.
As good as these multiple kickass female heroes are however, none of them are the film’s standout character, and other huge difference from the standard Marvel template. That would be Coogler’s regular collaborator Michael B. Jordan as the film’s primary antagonist. Loki aside, rubbish and forgettable villains have long been a problem for the MCU. They’ve made some mild improvements but here they might have reached Batman level – having a villain more interesting than your hero. Though he’s introduced in a rather heavy-handed manner, Jordan soon reveals far more intriguing depths to his character’s background and motivations that really make both you, and the surrounding characters contemplate whether he might actually be right. It’s difficult to discuss exactly without going into spoilers – and there are already many thinkpieces out there that explore him better than I could, but I will say that he’s not trying to just take over the world or anything. Jordan really cements his status as one of our most promising young actors here as well (not to mention getting some redemption after the disastrous Fant4stic), he’s so good that he’s not especially compromised even when he’s referred by the unfortunate moniker ‘Killmonger’. His ideas are also of vital importance to T’Challa’s overall arc too, which has much greater weight than simply defeating the bad guy.
Unfortunately though, all this intrigue ultimately leads to a sadly underwhelming third act for the movie. We’re given an unremarkable big outdoor battle sequence that appears to take place mainly due to studio demands. It’s the result of a decision on the part of T’Challa’s former friend W’Kabi (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya), which doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense in the moment, and left me feeling like there might have been a deleted scene that expanded on this. It goes further downhill for the big final battle, which is in principle something we’ve seen in multiple Marvel origin movies before, and in practice a lifeless CGI slugfest with never feels like there are actual characters or tangible objects involved. Considering the energy Coogler bought to Creed’s fight scenes it’s doubly disappointing how little he achieves here, in some ways this is the polar opposite of what he did in Creed. You can’t help thinking that maybe this would be better if it weren’t required to have action scenes and it could be changed up for a more dialogue based exchange.
Overall though, Black Panther is a film mostly worthy of it’s landmark status (and sure to be gigantic box office success). It boasts a US-set wraparound structure that ends it on a satisfactory note after the lesser third act, even if one if the post-credits scenes is fairly vital to the main storyline rather than being a teaser. I’m kind of tired of always ending up thinking about how this would place in a Marvel movie ranking but inevitably find myself doing so, so probably the mid-lower half of the top ten after one viewing. It does though, bode somewhat well for the future of the MCU – diversity, exploring different locations, more mainly standalone stories, better supporting characters and more directorial vision. More like this please, I say knowing Infinity War comes out in 3 months.
In January of last year I wrote a piece entitled ‘Being Optimistic about Big Franchise Movies in 2017’, the gist of which was that despite 2016 being a mostly awful year for big Hollywood blockbusters, I still thought that 2017 looked on track to be one of the better years. Looking back, I think I was mostly correct in this, nearly all of the big franchise movies I was looking forward to turned out to be great, it was one of the better summer seasons in years, and even ones I initially thought should never be made like Blade Runner 2049. This year, I do not share that sentiment, with there only being one big franchise movie I’m genuinely excited about (Shane Black’s The Predator), but who knows? There’s little point in being completely negative about movies that haven’t been released yet, but as I’m not all that enthusiastic about these titles either, I’ve decided to try and highlight looking forward to these films with a bit of caution, and have formatted this as a question-based clickbaity listicle for some unknown reason. These are all movies that I sincerely hope will be good, but can’t say I have a lot of confidence in.
01. Can Spielberg salvage something good from Ready Player One?
It seems somewhat perverse to not only not be excited by the prospect of a new Spielberg sci-fi movie, but to be actively concerned that I’m going to despise it, and yet here we are, that’s how bad the book Ready Player One is. These days I tend to give up on books about 100 pages in if I’m really not enjoying them but Ready Player One was possibly the first time I found myself essentially hate-reading what boils down to a constant stream of obvious eighties pop culture references wrapped around a Dan Brown imitation that manages to consistently talk down to the audience it’s supposedly aimed at. I can’t for the life of me see why Spielberg wanted to adapt this rubbish but he has, and maybe he’s found some take on the material that could radically improve it, but the trailer unfortunately looks like more of a direct adaptation.
02. Will the Halloween franchise be unconventionally reborn?
When you watch the entire Halloween series through, as I did a couple of years ago, one odd aspect of the franchise you’ll notice is that of the ten currently existing movies, half are reboots of some kind or other (4 and 7 being soft reboots, 9 being a hard reboot, and 3 being otherwise totally unrelated to the series, plus there’s a case to be made for the 6th one too which was then rendered non-canon be the subsequent sequels). In short, it’s a series that has no concern for continuity in the slightest and it would now appear that it’s going the ‘legacy-quel’ route for it’s 11th instalment, which will apparently be a direct sequel to the original (possibly also the second?) taking place 40 years afterwards. That’s not so surprising, what is, is who’s involved. The film, which is apparently just titled Halloween (the 3rd film in the series to do so) and will see the return of original star Jamie Lee Curtis (so ungracefully offed in part 8) and will be directed by David Gordon Green. Green is a filmmaker who’s unlikely career has seen him go from acclaimed young director of rural dramas to peddler of increasingly poor studio comedies and back again, then to his recent state of fact-based dramas (his Boston Marathon bombing movie Stronger was released just months ago). I’m always interested to see established directors try their hand at horror, and even more curiously, this film is co-written by Danny McBride, and reportedly has John Carpenter’s blessing. However it turns out, I’m certainly far more interested than I thought I’d be at whatever the next Halloween remake might have otherwise been.
03. Will Hollywood finally make a good videogame adaptation?
Assassin’s Creed came out right at the beginning of last year, and it was supposed to be the one to break the trend. All the ingredients were there for a videogame adaptation to finally be a great movie and yet, it ended up being one of the worst movies of the year and seemingly re-established the notion that you just can’t make a good movie out of a videogame. The are two more contenders to potentially change the game this year though. First up is Tomb Raider, which seems a little pointless at first glance. They’ve already tried and failed twice to make a good Tomb Raider movie and yet, the series, which obviously has cinematic influences in the first place, is still ripe with potential. As such it’s actually the kind of remake/reboot we should be getting more of – properties that could have led to good movies but failed to – moreover it seems to be based on the recent (also rebooted) game series which is *fantastic* – new Lara Croft Alicia Vikander’s costume is almost identical to the new games’ look. The other film vying to top the exceptionally low bar for best videogame adaptation yet is Rampage, is which The Rock will face giant monsters in a movie based on what is essentially a plotless eighties arcade game. I’ve considerably lower expectations for this but you never know I suppose.
04. Will they do the same with a Manga/Anime adaptation?
James Cameron has been talking about making a movie based on Battle Angel Alita for well over a decade now, and his pursuing of other projects and eventual decision to make 4 Avatar sequels has led to him ultimately handing over the directorial reigns to Robert Rodriguez, a director I used to admire who’s in serious need of a comeback. Reaction to the trailer almost exclusively focused on mocking the digital anime eyes star Rosa Salazar sports in the movie but they honestly don’t bother me as she’s literally playing a cyborg. It could be a complete disaster but it would be foolish to ever bet against James Cameron at this point.
05. Will changing the production formula still keep up the consistency of the Mission: Impossible series?
The Mission: Impossible series has remained an anomaly among major franchises for decades now, releasing a new movie every 5 or so years, each by a totally different director. Despite this (and a small dip with the second instalment) it’s maintained a more-or-less consistent level of quality and is one of the most reliable series going. As such, despite the 5th instalment (2015’s Rogue Nation) being excellent, I was a little bit disappointed that they’ve changed up their formula, having writer/director Christopher McQuarrie stay on board and produce a new movie with a relatively quick turnaround. Still, there’s little reason to expect that Mission: Impossible – Fallout, won’t deliver.
06. Can Sicario launch an unlikely franchise?
Sicario was one of the best films of 2015, but it hardly seemed poised to start a series. On top of that, neither director Denis Villeneuve nor star Emily Blunt are returning for sequel Sicario 2: Soldado, which instead comes from Italian director Stefano Sollima. On the plus side, writer Taylor Sheridan, along with Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin are all returning so who knows? Maybe it’ll end up being a worthy follow-up?
07. Can JA Bayona reinvigorate the Jurassic Park franchise?
If you’d told me in 2010 that the director of The Orphanage was going to be making a new Jurassic Park sequel I’d have thought he was an inspired choice. And yet, I didn’t remotely care for either of his follow-ups (The Impossible and A Monster Calls), and I’m not sure where this series has to go after the so-so Jurassic World. Of course I’m hoping it’s good, but no Jurassic Park sequel yet has even come close to the greatness of the original.
08. Can a Pixar sequel win me over again?
Another thought I never expected to have to was to be weary of new Pixar movies. I used to love their output but nowadays they seem to alternate between disappointingly mediocre sequels/prequels (Monsters University, Finding Dory, Cars 3), and originals that seem to still gain great acclaim despite doing very little for me (Inside out, Coco). The film of theirs that always seemed most deserving of a follow-up though was The Incredibles, and while I definitely still want to see the upcoming Incredibles 2, I’m now wondering if it’s even a good idea at all. Pixar haven’t made a movie I’ve loved since Toy Story 3 eight years ago.
Onto the new year then! Always one of my favourite pieces to write each year is my ‘most anticipated movies’ list, it’s great to highlight films to look forward to and then of course, to later compare it to my eventual top 10 list. I think last year I had just three film appear in both lists, but one was the number one on each and I don’t thank any of them turned out to be big disappointments, so maybe I’m getting a bit better at this? Anyhow, one problem with making such a list at the beginning of the year is that inevitably some films will get delayed and not meet their expected original release date. As such, I must begin this piece by mentioning Duncan Jones’ Mute (above pic) and Alex Garland’s Annihilation, two promising sci-fi movies from up-and-coming directors that both made my list last year but failed to see release. Now they’re both expected to arrive on Netflix sometime early this year and I’m still eagerly anticipating both. I’m also not counting here any of the awards-type movies that are coming out over the next few months internationally but are already out in the US, or, what is probably the film I’m most excited to see right now honestly; Paddington 2 (due out here first week of February!) Just missing out here was Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, onto the list proper;
As I mentioned in my brief update post, due to personal matters I didn’t end up seeing anywhere near as many films this year as I have in previous years. As such, this top ten will probably lean a little harder on the big, mainstream blockbusters of the year than it has previously, though that’s also partly due to there being a far superior selection of them this year. As usual, I must begin with a few caveats; I’m choosing not to count last year’s big Oscar-contender movies that weren’t released worldwide until 2017 as there seems to be little point to it (though I feel the need to make a small exception). So there will be no Moonlight, no Manchester by the Sea, no Jackie, no Toni Erdmann and so on. They’ve had their due.
Similarly, the trend that seems to increase with every year I’ve been doing this is that so, so many of the critical darlings populating professional ‘best of the year’ lists simply have not been released outside of the US it would seem. It always happens. Without fail. I glanced at a post on Indiewire before writing this which compiled ‘The 50 Best Movies of 2017, According to Over 200 Film Critics’ – of those 50, almost half are completely unavailable to me. Here’s a sampling; Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Florida Project, The Shape of Water, The Post, I, Tonya, The Disaster Artist, and most importantly; Paddington 2. You get the idea. Some of these films are out in February for me, others not until April. On occasion I feel like these best-of lists are just taunting me, reeling off a load of supposedly brilliant films that you would only have been able to see if you were a professional US film critic. It sucks but, what can you do? Let’s look at what I actually was able to see.
I’m sorry to say that, other than my recent Justice League review I haven’t posted anything on this once-regular blog since June, by far the longest break I’ve taken. I don’t like to get into personal matters on here so I’ll keep it short and say that I was victim to a rather unfortunate series of events earlier this year that completely derailed my life as it was. Despite then having far more free time on my hands, I found myself completely unmotivated to write about and even watch movies as frequently as I used to. However I’m now close to getting everything back on track and things are looking up, so I thought it was high time I got back into the blogging game. Continue reading
(Hey so I haven’t written on here in months, I’ll post an explanation a bit later but here’s my first review in some time)
There’s a school of thought that suggests that when reviewing a film, one shouldn’t need to reference anything about the production or background and just analyse what’s there on the screen. I get that, and while I don’t abide by it myself, even if I did there would have to be some exceptions; Warner Bros/DC Comic’s long-awaited Justice league, is such an exception. Continue reading