Black Panther

Genre: Action

Director: Ryan Coogler

Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole, based on the Marvel comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Running Length: 134 minutes

Synopsis: Marvel Studios’ Black Panther follows T’Challa (Boseman) who, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king. But when a powerful old enemy reappears, T’Challa’s mettle as king – and Black Panther – is tested when he is drawn into a formidable conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young king must rally his allies and release the full power of Black Panther to defeat his foes and secure the safety of his people and their way of life.

Review: Just when you thought there’s no possible way to further push the envelope within the Marvel Cinematic Universe after 17 movies, Black Panther is here to prove us all wrong once again. Much like how Wonder Woman managed to break the mould for female superhero movies, Black Panther stands out amidst what has mostly been a white Caucasian superhero universe by featuring an almost all-black ensemble cast, and largely basing the film in Africa (albeit the fictional country of Wakanda). Although the chief villain still has a personal agenda, he also has a politically-driven goal that gives a bit more depth to the villain than usual. If only the conclusion wasn’t so rote, we would have had a superhero movie that fired on all cylinders and be the one to beat for the 2018 roster.

While Black Panther does have enhanced abilities, his arsenal of technology and weapons is what makes the superhero complete, and in this aspect the film almost feels like an installment in the Bond franchise. All the standard superhero action set pieces still apply, and everything one would expect from such a movie – gunfights, car chases, ritual battles (ok this one not so expected) – is present and accounted for. However, it’s a little disappointing to see the great action devolve into a comparatively uninteresting spandex suit versus spandex suit fisticuff in the final reel that’s easily the least involving action sequence in the whole movie, which takes away a bit of the power of the denouement.

Not only does Black Panther feature an almost all-black cast, it’s a very talented cast particularly for the women. If you thought Wonder Woman would be the sole superhero movie that celebrated feminine empowerment, wait till you see what goes on here with the uniformly excellent female cast. Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan (a Coogler veteran, appearing in all of his movies thus far) are both charismatic young men with a great physicality, though their spotlight is repeatedly stolen by the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and even Letitia Wright.

Black Panther also features fantastic costume design and art direction – while it’s not the first colorful Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok are equally, if not more colorful), this is the first film where the usage of colors and motifs feel like they bear a greater cultural significance without coming across as pandering. The costumes harken back to African history and tribal culture, yet bear some marks of technological advancements – a truly impressive hybrid, and combined with the other stylistic flourishes like hairstyles, jewellery and tattoos, a feast for the eyes. It’s hard to think of any recent movie as visually dazzling as this one.

One thing that truly sets Black Panther apart from its brethren is its political subtext – I can safely say no superhero action movie thus far have delved into the issues that Black Panther touches on, be it the legacy of colonialism, the argument for and against both pacifist activism and militant action, and the conflict between familial ties and leadership of a country. The screenplay by Coogler and Cole is smart and well-written, elevating the film to a level that few MCU movies manage to attain. This is truly one of the best standalone origin films in the MCU, and given the quality of films thus far in the Marvel canon, is high but deserved praise.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Star Wars – The Last Jedi

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Rian Johnson

Screenplay: Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupit Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro          

Running Length: 152 minutes

Synopsis: Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order.

Review: Now that we’re at the halfway mark of the six planned Star Wars movies, it’s time to put together a report card for the franchise, and take stock of both the new movie and the overarching Star Wars cinematic universe. It’s a mix of good and bad news – while it’s certain that The Last Jedi would be a winner at the box office, it also comes across as the most inconsequential film so far, surprisingly so especially considering that it follows last year’s Rogue One, a story that literally had a scorched earth denouement to ensure its characters would not “taint” the canonical Episodic installments. Although it aims high for its emotional impact, The Last Jedi ultimately comes across as being a bit hollow, despite the luxury of having the longest running time of any Star Wars movie so far.

While The Force Awakens understandably had to slavishly stick to the original trilogy’s canon, it was also the reason why the film felt like it didn’t manage to meet its full potential. Unfortunately, The Last Jedi continues this trend and feels like a reboot of The Empire Strikes Back, and while it will continue to please fans of the franchise, I am not sure that three movies in, audiences would be as forgiving of the flaws found in The Last Jedi. The three key plot threads are haphazardly woven together, and there’s so much padding in the middle of the film that I for one wished the film was cut down to a more manageable length, where digressions need not seem to go on interminably (particularly egregious is the entire sojourn onto the casino planet Canto Bight) before focus resumes on what truly matters.

All is almost forgiven in the final third of the film, where the plot thread involving Kylo Ren, Rey and Luke Skywalker comes to a head, and everything that makes Star Wars great is present and accounted for – rousing space battles, an amazing lightsaber confrontation, startling character revelations and plot twists – and enhanced further by truly breathtaking visuals and an excellent performance from Adam Driver (Daisy Ridley seems to be coasting on her far stronger turn in The Force Awakens). If only it didn’t take so long to get there.

Star Wars is so firmly ingrained in our culture that it is impossible to not feel the thrill when the opening title card crawls into the horizon, accompanied by John Williams’ iconic cinematic score. It is very hard to squander away the goodwill accumulated over 40 years (as evidenced by Episodes I to III), and The Last Jedi is still largely a triumph, ranking in the upper echelons of the Star Wars cinematic universe. Rian Johnson has crafted a technically excellent film in the franchise, but again it seems the collective financial expectations put on such an important film has made it impossible for him to stray too far from the tried and tested. While there is a chance that Episode IX would be able to take the story down a path less travelled, it does seem increasingly unlikely. The sequels now feel more like reboots of the original trilogy, and though that’s really not a bad thing, one wonders now if what George Lucas said is true – the reason why he didn’t move forward with Episodes VII to IX himself was because there were no stories left to tell.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Justice League

Genre: Action

Director: Zack Snyder

Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Monoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds

Running Length:  120 minutes

Synopsis: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), to face an even greater enemy. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes – Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) – it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.

Review: Where to start…? Justice League commits mistakes on so many levels that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it starts to unravel – is it the choice of a bland, generic supervillain? Or the whiplash-inducing changes of pace, probably due to the replacement of Zack Snyder (who quit the show due to a family tragedy) with Joss Whedon, who allegedly reshot 15% – 20% of the movie? Or that the narrative is confused and lacks any coherent focus? Or the decidedly subpar CG visuals (made worse by a very insipid 3D presentation – please stick to 2D for this one)? While it remains a serviceable action film and should make pretty good bank at the box office, the writing is on the wall: the DC Extended Universe is in deep trouble if this movie represents the real trend, and Wonder Woman but a mere anomalous bright spot in what looks like an increasingly untenable franchise.

One of the biggest problems faced by the DCEU is that of tardiness – there’s no denying that Warner Brothers is playing a desperate game of catch-up, being only five movies deep into the DC cinematic mythos, while their Marvel counterpart is far ahead with 17 films already done and dusted. The fact that Justice League is coming before most of the characters’ standalone films (if they even materialize) is a sign of this, and the Justice League film itself suffers narratively because of this. With the need to set up the backstories of multiple superheroes in this ensemble film, the first hour of Justice League moves at a snail’s pace, punctuated only by the occasional murkily choreographed fight sequence that does not feel like central to the plot (see: the battles at Themyscira and Atlantis). Overall, the storytelling in Justice League is a huge, ungainly mess, because it needed to do so many things that nothing really worked.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the buildup of getting the team in place ends up being inconsequential, as the unmemorable Steppenwolf (in a rare feat, Ciarán Hinds’ performance is expensively motion captured and yet looks like a cheap render from a B-movie) is portrayed as being so powerful that it requires a literal deus ex machina to overcome, rendering much of the team-building process moot. That the deus ex machina segment actually is one of the high points of the movie is one of the many little ironies that pervade Justice League. Fortunately, the cast all put in passable performances and exhibit sufficient chemistry with each other, barring Affleck whose turn as an aging Batman is rather insipid and generic.

While it was clear that the pitch-black treatment that Snyder applied to the DC Extended Universe was a wrong move, the reparative actions taken to steer Justice League in the other direction fails to fully convince. It’s clear that Whedon is the one that injected the comedic moments into the film, and while these are fun to watch in silo, it simply does not jibe with the rest of the film. The result is a tonally fragmented film that requires a lot of patience to wade through, and feels like an eternity despite being just two hours long.

Now that Justice League is finally a done deal and likely to be a critic-proof box office hit, Warner Brothers can hopefully finally take some time to let the DCEU develop and steer entirely clear of the shadow Snyder had unfortunately managed to cast on the entire franchise. If the Aquaman movie in 2018 is more akin to Wonder Woman, then at the very least we have some hope that the DCEU will eventually shape up to be a worthy contender to the MCU. That Justice League 2 is still in development without any announced cast, crew or release date is actually good news.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Thor: Ragnarok

Genre: Action

Director: Taika Waititi

Screenplay: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch

Running Length:  130 minutes

Synopsis: In Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is imprisoned on the other side of the universe without his mighty hammer and finds himself in a race against time to get back to Asgard to stop Ragnarok – the destruction of his homeworld and the end of Asgardian civilization – at the hands of an all-powerful new threat, the ruthless Hela (Cate Blanchett). But first he must survive a deadly gladiatorial contest that pits him against his former ally and fellow Avenger – the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)!

Review: Throw your preconceived notions of what a Thor movie is like out of the window. Thor: Ragnarok subverts not just the Thor franchise but essentially almost the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in one fell swoop, manages to dethrone BOTH Guardians of the Galaxy movies to become the singularly funniest, most offbeat movie in the MCU’s (current) 17-film canon. This is no mean feat, and being the first truly mainstream directorial effort from Kiwi director Taika Waititi, this is an even more impressive achievement.

While Chris Hemsworth is firmly in the top echelon of Hollywood heartthrobs, he’s also an actor with excellent comic timing. There have been glimpses of this in previous excursions of Thor (in his own films and in the ensemble films) but only with Waititi’s equally quirky directorial sensibilities does this come to the forefront. And boy, does it get milked for all it’s worth – never mind the fact that Waititi kept some of the best one-liners for himself (he voices a blue Thing-like alien called Korg) – at times it almost feels like the audience has been invited to a comedy club night out headlined by a Norse God. Thor: Ragnarok is quite easily one of the most entertaining movies released thus far in 2017.

The rest of the cast are also very open to hamming it up, none more so than Cate Blanchett’s scenery-chewing turn as Thor and Loki’s vengeful sister Hela, but followed very closely by Jeff Goldblum’s homage to Liberace as the Grand Master ruling over Sakaar. Newcomer Tessa Thompson also impresses as Valkyrie, a sassy female bounty hunter that is haunted by her past. There are also a number of cameo appearances and side plots that do nothing much in terms of advancing the main narrative, which kind of begs the question of whether the film would have felt better in terms of pacing and length if it didn’t cross the two-hour mark (yes, you have to sit through the entire end credits like every other Marvel movie if you don’t want to miss any of the codas).

Fans of the action sequences and CGI-fests omnipresent in the superhero movie genre are not going to walk away disappointed, but it’s apparent that while well-choreographed, these action scenes in Thor: Ragnarok are not Waititi’s strongest suit, and much of it feels rather rote (except when played for laughs). However, the depth of the MCU ensures that even when not at their finest, there is enough precedent setup that the film can coast by with ease. It does devolve into a rather perfunctory final act, but when the lead-up is so strong, it’s hard to begrudge the film’s need to still check off some boxes for the MCU and lead into Thor’s next outing in 2018’s Avengers sequel. While it will be quite some time (if at all) before Thor gets another standalone movie, Marvel has another bona-fide hit on their hands, and the soon-to-follow Justice League movie would likely face an uphill challenge in its efforts to dethrone it as the superhero movie of the year.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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IT

Genre: Horror

Director: Andres Muschietti

Screenplay: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott

Running Length:  135 minutes

Synopsis: Seven young outcasts in Derry, Maine, are about to face their worst nightmare — an ancient, shape-shifting evil that emerges from the sewer every 27 years to prey on the town’s children. Banding together over the course of one horrifying summer, the friends must overcome their own personal fears to battle the murderous, bloodthirsty clown known as Pennywise.

Review: While this is not the first screen adaptation of Stephen King’s much lauded novel IT (full disclosure: one of my favourite King novels), the original TV miniseries was frankly a poor showing, with nothing going for it except for Tim Curry’s unforgettable, iconic performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. In its first proper big screen outing, Muschietti’s IT manages to deliver a reasonably engrossing and somewhat scary experience, though it runs a little too long and is a bit too repetitive to rank amongst the best Stephen King screen adaptations.

While Bill Skarsgard has big shoes (hur hur) to fill as Pennywise and he does a decent job, what truly makes the film watchable is the eminently endearing young cast. This is no Stand By Me, but there are echoes of Stranger Things (including a cast overlap), and the total exclusion of the flashback, two-timeline narrative that drove the novel (this adaptation of IT is being split into two parts, with ostensibly the second movie featuring the grown up “28 years later” portion) means the teens get all the screen time. This is a good thing, and IT’s ensemble cast is probably one of the best assembled in recent years, even more so than Stranger Things. While they all do well playing scared teens, the cast really shines in the moments where Muschietti allows the kids to be kids, bringing a much-needed human touch and heart to the film.

Unfortunately, Muschietti and his screenwriters also decided that each teen needed to have their own run-in with It, and the law of diminishing returns kicks in after the third or fourth encounter. The film would certainly have done even better if it had focused more on the friendships forged by the Losers Club rather than the increasingly impotent attempts of Pennywise (at least Freddy Krueger had the chance to kill off some of the main cast members). While there are very well set-up scare sequences in the film, there’s also a sense of déjà vu by the time the running time crosses the halfway mark. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the ensuing decades between the original novel and TV series, and It being such an indelible part of pop culture that everything new feels old.

One major departure from the novel and TV series is a change in period – rather than being set in the 50s and the 80s, this first half of IT takes place in the 80s. It’s a change that makes sense since a good majority of adult viewers would have also grown up in the 80s, but the script does lean a little too far into the period to elicit laughs (seems like someone in the production is a big fan of NKOTB). Given a slightly tighter edit – a good half hour could probably have been lopped off without hurting the film – this version of IT would easily have been one of the best Stephen King movie adaptations, but even in its current form, it is an enjoyable, good-looking movie that stands on its own, even if the sequel doesn’t come to fruition.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Dark Tower

Genre: Sci-Fi

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel, based on the novels by Stephen King

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Katheryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, Claudia Kim

Running Length: 95 minutes

Synopsis: The last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O’Dim, also known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.

Review: Full disclosure: although I am quite an avid reader of Stephen King’s novels, I was somehow never able to complete The Dark Tower series, his 8 volume, 4,000+ page magnum opus, never having progressed beyond the second novel. It was clear from the get-go, however, that The Dark Tower movie adaptation could not possibly be a faithful reproduction of the series, especially with a scant running time of 95 minutes. And indeed, The Dark Tower is more a movie based on the idea behind the novels, and ends up feeling quite a bit more generic than what the fully realized world of the Dark Tower novels could have delivered in a film.

It was clear that the movie would be at best a superficial peek into the Dark Tower universe given its surprisingly short running time, but the lack of exposition makes it hard for audiences to develop any sense of context, especially anyone who has no exposure to the novels prior to watching the movie. The film flits from scene to scene without a sense of gravity, so even key sequences with character demises feel strangely lightweight, and it is near impossible for the audience to be vested in even the story arcs of the main characters, much less anyone else in the periphery.

One of the most inexplicable creative decisions is to shift the main focus of the film from the Gunslinger (an excellent portrayal by Idris Elba to boot) to the young Tom Taylor’s Jake, whose performance does not impress. This causes the film to feel even more generic and like a mediocre YA novel adaptation, which does the film no favours. Matthew McConaughey obviously had a fine time hamming it up as the villain, but this is certainly not one of his more memorable roles in recent years.

The Dark Tower also looks decidedly low-rent, with barely passable special effects and muddled cinematography that suggests most of the film’s budget went towards paying the salaries of Elba and McConaughey. While being released in the tail end of the summer blockbuster season, the film feels anything but. It’s not a bad movie by most measures, but feels more at home on the small screen – in fact, one wonders how improved the adaptation could have been if it was greenlit as a TV series rather than a one-off feature presentation.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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War for the Planet of the Apes

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Matt Reeves

Screenplay: Matt Reeves, Mark Bomback, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller, Judy Greer, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devyn Dalton

Running Length:  140 minutes

Synopsis: In War for the Planet of the Apes, the third chapter of the critically acclaimed blockbuster franchise, Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel.  After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.  As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

Review: Who could have anticipated that the best summer blockbuster this year would belong to the simians, rather than the superheroes that have come along thus far? But here we are, three movies deep into the second Planet of the Apes reboot, and it’s easy to give War for the Planet of the Apes the crown because it’s so starkly different from everything that has come before it this year. Trumping even the excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also directed by Reeves), the only thing working against the movie is its serious tone – not every moviegoer would like to be preached to by Reeves on his soapbox, especially midway through the Summer blockbuster season – but audiences who do make the decision to give War a try would likely find themselves well rewarded.

Ostensibly the last prequel film in this reboot trilogy (though there’s now a fourth movie planned), the events in War would logically lead up to what transpires in the original Planet of the Apes, and there are throwbacks (throwforwards?) to the characters found in the 1968 movie. While there’s no necessity to have seen the original movies, War does presume that the audience is familiar with what has been covered so far in the 2011 and 2014 films – any moviegoer that watches this film “cold” would likely find themselves quite lost indeed, so consider this fair warning.

While the film is not without flaws, War for the Planet of the Apes is quite simply, a very well-made movie. CGI is usually peripheral to the plot of a movie, but in this case, without the bleeding-edge CGI, there very simply would not have been a movie at all. The franchise has progressed to not just rendering one hyper-realistic chimpanzee, to a literal army of various simians. Andy Serkis is at the top of the motion capture acting game, and his performance of Caesar quite simply transcends any description – it’s still shocking to see the depth and nuances of emotion that can flicker across Caesar’s face as a fully rendered character.

War is also a movie that doesn’t shy away from a complex plot, and while it may get a bit preachy at times, kudos must be given to any summer blockbuster that is willing to take the risk of alienating a group of audience members who do not expect to be mentally taxed. That’s not to say War isn’t entertaining – not only is there plenty of well-choreographed, riveting action to be found, there’s even a character that seems to be inserted purely for comic relief purposes.

Matt Reeves has proven his capabilities in the two Apes movies he has directed, and War in particular feels almost like a loving homage to some of the best war movies (think Apocalypse Now, The Great Escape and The Bridge Over River Kwai), except with apes. It’s a beautifully lensed film, though each scene is so meticulously constructed there’s almost an artificiality at times. While it’s a rather heavy-going movie, there’s no denying that each Planet of the Apes movie has managed to outdo its predecessor, and it’s easy to see War for the Planet of the Apes ending up on many Top 10 lists come the end of 2017.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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