Film Review: ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’

J.A. Bayona picks up where Colin Trevorrow left off in the sequel to 2015 hit, Jurassic World… 

Jurassic World - Fallen Kingdom

Get ready to run: Chris Pratt faces danger in ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’, from Universal Pictures.

 

Spoiler-free review 

Starring:  Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Ted Levine, Toby Jones, James Cromwell, Jeff Goldblum

Directed by:  J.A. Bayona / Written by:  Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly / 128 minutes

What’s it about?

Owen Grady and Claire Dearing join an expedition to rescue the dinosaur residents of Isla Nublar when the island’s volcano threatens its destruction…

In review

Life once again finds a way in the sequel to Colin Trevorrow’s smash relaunch of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World.  With J.A. Bayona – director of The Impossible and A Monster Calls – at the helm this time out, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom isn’t nearly as good as the first Jurassic World (which in all fairness did set the bar exceptionally high) although it still delivers plenty of gripping dino-fuelled action and mayhem to keep the majority entertained.

It’s been three years since the disaster that befell Jurassic World and the park’s genetically engineered dinosaurs have been left to roam free and live out their own existence without any interference from humanity.  This of course all changes once Isla Nublar’s once inactive volcano begins to erupt, threatening to destroy the island and leading to a rescue mission of sorts as philanthropist Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), an old colleague of John Hammond, devises a plan to capture as many species as possible and transport them to a new home.  As is always the case though, there are sinister forces that have other plans for the creatures.  The scenario is perhaps a little familiar and does lead to some predictable plot beats but there are still a few surprises thrown into the mix that keeps it all from becoming too stale.

Leading the cast once more is Chris Pratt’s dino-wrangler (more accurately, animal behaviourist) Owen Grady and Bryce Dallas Howard as Jurassic World’s former park manager, Claire Dearing.  Both are as solid as they were previously and continue to have great chemistry and are joined by Daniella Pineda as dino-veterinarian Zia and comical technology whiz Franklin, played by Justice Smith.  Rounding out the supporting cast is Isabella Sermon as Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie and a trio of slightly cartoonish villains played by Rafe Spall, Toby Jones and Ken Wheatley.

James Cromwell is a tad underutilised as Lockwood but certainly serves a purpose and a small cameo from Jeff Goldblum is welcome yet seems a missed opportunity to include Dr. Ian Malcolm in a more active and more significant capacity (he was the best thing about Independence Day: Resurgence after all) – maybe in the already announced third instalment then?

However, it’s arguably one of the film’s non-human characters that steals the show – the velociraptor called ‘Blue’ who makes a heroic return and who audiences had already become attached to in the previous film.  The character of Blue is deepened further with an exploration of the bond between the raptor and Owen that’s actually quite believable and endearing.

One aspect of Fallen Kingdom’s narrative that works particularly well is that it treats it’s dinosaurs as living, breathing animals and not just bloodthirsty monsters, granted there is an element of that and how else could the threat of the ‘Indoraptor’ – the film’s central ‘nasty’ created using the DNA of Jurassic World’s Indominous Rex – be made effective, but it’s also refreshing that we end up rooting for ‘characters’ such as Blue and Tyrannosaur ‘Rexy’ (Jurassic Park’s original T.Rex who was also a triumphant addition to Jurassic World) as much as main stars Pratt and Dallas Howard and actually caring about the plight of these creatures who are being callously exploited in the pursuit of wealth.

Fallen Kingdom boasts some exciting action (although surprisingly, far less time is actually spent on Isla Nublar than the trailers might suggest) and J.A. Bayona handles it all with skill and whilst there’s naturally a lot of CGI on display there’s still a decent amount of practical effects being utilised.  There are numerous laughs (some moments funnier than others) and a great deal of fun to be had but Fallen Kingdom is a touch darker than the first Jurassic World and the terror has been pushed up a notch, delivering some genuine heart-pounding scares and sweaty-palm tension – the film’s atmospheric opening sequences (which easily ranks as one of the franchise’s finest moments) and pulse-pounding final act being the biggest highlights.

When it comes down to it Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom isn’t a sequel that exceeds the greatness of what’s come before, but it’s definitely more a case of The Lost World than Jurassic Park III and neatly sets the scene for part three.

The bottom line:  Not quite as successful as Colin Trevorrow’s beast, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is still an entertaining addition to the Jurassic Park saga that has some great moments despite an overall lack of originality.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is in U.K. cinemas now and opens in the U.S. and worldwide from 22nd June.

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Film Review: ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

Ron Howard and Alden Ehrenreich punch it as they chart a young Han Solo’s journey to the Kessel Run… 

Solo

Alden Ehrenreich leads the cast of Lucasfilm’s ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’  (image used for illustrative purposes only and remains the property of the copyright owner).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettnay

Directed by:  Ron Howard / Written by:  Lawrence Kasdan & Jonathan Kasdan / 134 minutes

What’s it about?

Dreaming of becoming the greatest pilot in the galaxy, Han Solo embarks on an adventure where he meets his future co-pilot Chewbacca and is pitted against Lando Calrissian as he seeks to obtain his prized ship, the Millennium Falcon for use in a daring intergalactic heist…

In review

Following all of the behind the scenes drama surrounding the exit of original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and extensive reshoots implemented by Lucasfilm with the hiring of Ron Howard, it’s fair to say expectations were somewhat soured for this latest standalone Star Wars story chronicling the early adventures of a young Han Solo.  A film that many a Star Wars fan would argue they never even wanted in the first place, Solo rises from the ashes of those initial issues of its troubled production and via the talents of director Howard, a surprisingly witty and charming lead and scintillating visuals proves to be an enjoyable addition to the Star Wars cinematic canon.

Opening on the crime ridden streets of the planet Corellia, Solo introduces us to a younger version of the iconic scoundrel some years before his fateful encounter with Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope (aka 1977’s original Star Wars) as he attempts to escape to a better life with girlfriend Qi’ra (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke).  Events taking a bad turn, Solo soon finds himself disillusioned and without cause as he fights for the tyrannical Galactic Empire – but the future hero of the Rebel Alliance gets another chance as he joins the devious Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his ragtag group of outlaws (amongst them Westworld’s Thandie Newton as Beckett’s wife, Val) on a raid to steal a valuable fuel source and deliver it to the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate.

With Harrison Ford so universally adored as one of the most beloved Star Wars characters – one who is a cinematic icon, regardless – fears of anyone else stepping into the role would not be unfounded.  Rest assured that Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) is a worthy successor and a great fit for the part, charismatically conveying the swaggering mannerisms and cocky attitude (ably assisted by the writing from veteran Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan) without coming off as a mere imitation of Ford’s take on the loveable rogue, more of an embodiment than an impersonation and much like Chris Pine in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is afforded some latitude to add his own mark without betraying the essence of such a memorable character.  Emilia Clarke is fine enough as Qi’ra (but certainly no Carrie Fisher) but Ehrenreich is at his best when playing off against new pals Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (The Martian’s Donald Glover similarly channelling original actor Billy Dee Williams whilst equally making the part his own).  The ever reliable Woody Harrelson makes an impression as Beckett and shares some great moments with Ehrenreich but it’s a part that’s maybe not as fully realised as it could’ve been.  Paul Bettany (Avengers: Infinty War) is another high point in the role of Crimson Dawn’s leader Dryden Voss, which the actor tackles with some glorious scenery chewing might.

Jon Favreau (director of Marvel hits Iron Man and Iron Man 2, also appointed to oversee the forthcoming live action Star Wars television series) adds to the fun as the voice of Beckett’s pilot, CGI character Rio but it’s the motion capture performance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando’s faithful droid companion L3-37 that stands out, although admittedly filling the void left by Alan Tudyk’s K2-SO in Rogue One, Waller-Bridge is similarly wonderful as L3 and delivers some genuine laughs…and even a little bit of heart.

Overall, the plot manages to maintain momentum and delivers an almost continuous string of excitement in a fun and visually striking adventure.  Where Solo does falter however is in some of its predictability borne out of the demands of being an origin story, whilst it can (together with the numerous nods to the history of the franchise) often enrich the experience for Star Wars fans, the potential scope of the narrative is restrained a little by the need to check off certain items as well as a couple of surprisingly unsurprising twists.  There’s also not a huge deal of development to the character of Han Solo beyond what we already know but that’s arguably down to the placing of the film in the Star Wars timeline.

Those flaws notwithstanding, Solo is never less than a highly entertaining space adventure and is bolstered by quality production values and epic visuals that only enhance its action sequences, which includes a gripping mountain top train heist but the highlight undoubtedly being the infamous Kessel run as Han and Chewie take control of the Millennium Falcon for the first time – John Powell’s score effectively evoking a sense of nostalgia as he employs those classic John Williams themes that are so intrinsically connected to the Star Wars mythos.

Solo is by no means the greatest Star Wars film but it’s a pleasingly solid and fun ride that may even serve as a palette cleanser for those who were not so enamoured by Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi.

The bottom line:  Han shoots first in Lucasfilm’s enjoyable Solo: A Star Wars Story which features a likeable lead performance and some tremendously executed action sequences.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now.

Flashback: ‘Iron Man’

Ten years ago, a certain cinematic universe was born…

 

Iron Man 2008

In the beginning: Robert Downey Jr and Jeff Bridges head-up the cast of Marvel Studios’ ‘Iron Man’.

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg

Directed by:  Jon Favreau / Written by:  Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway / 2008

What’s it about?

After escaping captivity and near-death in Afghanistan, weapons manufacturer Tony Stark builds a hi-tech armoured suit and embarks on a mission to thwart evil…

Retrospective

A surprise hit back in 2008, Iron Man was not only the first theatrical release for Marvel Studios but the Big Bang of the multi-billion dollar grossing Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A decade later, it’s hard to imagine that a feature film adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser known (the rights to the likes of Spider-Man and X-Men held by Sony and 20th Century Fox, respectively) characters was considered a huge gamble and had the fate of a potential film franchise weighing heavily on its shoulders.

Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures (Disney’s purchase of Marvel would take place in 2009), Iron Man would take the Howard Hughes inspired character created by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber together with artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby (first appearing in Tales of Suspense #39, published in 1963), place him in the 21st Century and meld the core elements of billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark with the performance of lead star Robert Downey Jr.

An inspired casting choice, the once troubled Downey Jr was able to channel his demons into the role of Tony Stark – a character who had plenty of personal struggles in the comics – and turn in a performance that balances wisecracking quips with some hearty introspection.  Downey Jr is certainly a strong point and although this interpretation of Tony Stark differs somewhat to the more broody version comic book readers would be used to up to that point (writers such as Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis leaning him more towards the lighter, playful big screen version in subsequent runs), it’s a take that fits with what Marvel were seemingly going for with Iron Man – a colourful, fun action film with nuances of maturity, tucking in themes of redemption as the film’s protagonist seeks a more heroic and morally justifiable path.  When we first meet Stark, CEO of weapons manufacturer Stark Industries, he’s not the most likeable of people – a carefree and careless egotist who likes to drink, gamble and womanise in equal measure.  Yet, over the course of the film we grow to care for Stark as he reflects on errors of the past and embarks on his journey to becoming ‘Iron Man’.

 

Iron Man 2008 (2)

Robert Downey Jr: inspired casting for ‘Iron Man’.

The plot of Iron Man is fairly straightforward and functions well as an origin story and although it lacks the sophistication and artistry of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins it’s entertaining and gets the job done.  Updating the Vietnam-era setting of Iron Man’s comic book debut to that of post 9/11 Afghanistan, Tony Stark is gravely injured by one of his own weapons and captured by militants where his life is saved by fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who fits an electromagnet to Stark’s chest, preventing deadly shards of shrapnel from piercing his heart.  Put to work on constructing a missile, Stark instead builds an armoured suit, powered by a refined version of the electromagnet and escapes.  Having witnessed the horrors of war and how his weapons could be used for untold evil, Stark returns home with a change of heart, announcing the end of munitions manufacturing at Stark Industries, to the reticence of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).  Frozen out by the rest of the board, Stark develops a new iteration of the armoured suit and sets out to destroy the cache of stolen weapons being utilised by the very terrorist group who held him captive.  Meanwhile, Stane has other plans for the future of Stark Industries and will stop at nothing to realise them.

Downey Jr is ably supported by Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Pepper’ Potts, Tony Stark’s trusted, often frustrated, assistant who non-the-less is always at her boss’s side.  Paltrow is solid in the part, gifted with some plucky lines and it’s only bolstered by the easy chemistry between herself and Robert Downey Jr.  Adding further to the star-power is Academy Award nominee Terence Howard, who makes his only appearance as Tony’s friend and military liaison to Stark Industries, Lt. Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes.  Grumbles over pay negotiations for the sequel would lead to Howard being replaced by Don Cheadle, who continues in the role to today.

As the big bad, Jeff Bridges brings gravitas to the role of Obadiah Stane elevating it above something that could’ve easily come off as too pantomime in less capable hands, resulting in one of the more memorable Marvel film villains.  Stane’s increasing mania as he builds an exo-suit of his own is fun to watch, leading to an explosive finale as Stark dons the Iron Man armour to face off against Stane and his formidable ‘Iron Monger’ suit.

Iron Man 2008 (3)

Tony Stark takes flight in the Mark III Iron Man armour…

Director Jon Favreau (who also appears as Tony Stark’s driver, ‘Happy’ Hogan) keeps things energetic and exciting, delivering slick spectacle without sacrificing the smaller and more intimate character moments.  The film’s design is commendable, the highlight of which is the Iron Man armour itself.  Based on the designs of comic book artist Adi Granov and created using a mixture of CGI and practical elements – implemented by the legendary Stan Winston Studios – it’s a faithful translation of the red and gold future Avenger from the four colour pages to the silver screen.

Iron Man remains a highly enjoyable watch, whilst Tony Stark’s Avengers outings are generally stronger and the character, along with Robert Downey Jr’s continued success in the part, has grown and matured.  The film’s positive reception cemented the plans of Marvel Studios for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the wider superhero world teased by the inclusion of Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson and a post-credits appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as the organisation’s director, Nick Fury) and instilled Marvel with the confidence to adapt other lower-tier comic book properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange all of which would be well received by audiences and critics alike.

Geek fact!  An Iron Man feature film had lingered in development since the 1990s, with superstar Tom Cruise at one point mooted as a possible candidate for the lead role.

All images contained herein belong: Marvel Studios and used for illustrative purposes only.

 

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Marvel Studios unleash an entire universe on audiences in the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War…

Spoiler-free review

 

Infinity War

The Avengers unite with the Guardians of the Galaxy to take on Thanos in Marvel Studios release ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (image belongs: Disney/Marvel Studios, used for illustrative purposes only).

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin

Directed by:  Anthony Russo and Joe Russo / Written by:  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 149 minutes

What’s it about?

Earth’s mightiest heroes – with the aid of some new cosmic friends – unite to prevent the galactic titan, Thanos from harnessing the devastating abilities of the all-powerful Infinity Stones…

In review

Perhaps the most anticipated cinematic event since the return of Star Wars, Avengers: Infinity War begins the culmination of ten years of the highly successful, box office conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The biggest, most ambitious Marvel film to date (until next year’s as yet untitled Avengers 4 that is), Avengers: Infinity War is a rousing rollercoaster ride packed with emotion, action and laughs in a dazzling, heartfelt and often spectacular comic book blockbuster.

Having already helmed two of the strongest MCU entries, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, directors Anthony and Joe Russo once again prove, with ease, that they are adept at balancing epic scale and a large cast of characters ensuring that high stakes are maintained without sacrificing focus on the people.  The narrative is relatively simple and splitting it into three ‘sections’ (with separate strands of the story taking place around the world and in space) prevents the expansive set of players from becoming muddled into one gigantic crowd which would only disservice the individual heroes audiences the world over have grown to love.  It’s a bit of a genius stroke that helps to break the film down neatly and isolate smaller groups of characters – the only downside being the inevitable disappointment that certain Marvel heroes don’t get to team up this time.  There is also a sense that, whilst everyone is given their moment to shine, some are perhaps not given as much prominence as might be expected.  To say this film is big (both in terms of its visuals and its cast) is an understatement and it’s commendable that, in the grand scheme of things the Russo brothers have managed to hold together all the disparate elements of Infinity War as well as they have.

Tonally, Infinity War follows a slightly darker path which is to be expected given the stakes that naturally come with the end of all things but like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War there’s still a good dose of levity where it’s needed and a lot of fun to be had, whether it be the verbal sparring between Iron Man and Doctor Strange, Spider-Man’s over-eagerness or Thor’s interactions with the Guardians of the Galaxy, together with numerous instances of fist pumping heroics – whilst it may seem all hope is lot at times, there’s often an undercurrent of hope running beneath the surface.

Whilst this is an Avengers film and we get to see all our old – and new – favourites with key moments for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Black Panther (and many more, including the Guardians of the Galaxy – Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and a stroppy teenage Groot), Infinity War is very much the story of its central villain, Thanos.  First teased in the post-credits sting for Avengers Assemble, Thanos, thanks to the efforts of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and the motion capture performance of Josh Brolin (realised with some good CGI) is a powerful antagonist for sure and one with a lot of depth – there’s strong emphasis on character and a real sense of what his motivations are.  They say the best villains never see themselves as being truly evil and although Thanos is responsible for atrocious acts, Infinity War takes the opportunity to explore what makes the mad titan tick.

Infinity War isn’t total perfection though, at this point in the MCU there’s a certain – perhaps unavoidable – element of predictability that springs from a tried and tested formula and the pacing of its earlier acts can feel a little erratic and inconsistent.  Also, whilst much of the humour is well placed (and actually funny) there’s still the odd moment of forced slapstick that doesn’t quite hit the mark but it’s much more effective than some of Marvel’s other releases and never lapses into the outright absurdity of Thor: Ragnarok.  Some of the action can also be a little too frantic in its execution, although the Russo’s seem to have dialled back a little on some of the more overzealous ‘shaky-cam’ usage seen in their Captain America outings.

So, is Infinty War the best comic book film ever?  No, it’s certainly not The Dark Knight but nor does it try to be anything other than what it is.  Is it the best Marvel film?  Time will tell, but for now there’s no hesitation in declaring it as one of the greatest.

The bottom line:  Avengers: Infinity War was always a seemingly impossible task but directors Anthony and Joe Russo have pulled together an epic, exciting and at times moving comic book adventure that’s sure to be yet another hit for Marvel Studios.

Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Black Panther’

Director Ryan Coogler transports audiences to the world of Wakanda in the most culturally important Marvel Studios release… 

Spoiler-free review

 

Black Panther

A king rises: Chadwick Boseman dons the identity of Wakanda’s protector in Marvel Studios release ‘Black Panther’.

Starring:  Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis

Directed by:  Ryan Coogler / Written by:  Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole / 134 minutes

What’s it about?

Following the death of his father, T’Challa returns to Wakanda to be crowned king and continue to serve as the secretive nation’s legendary protector – the Black Panther, but soon faces a threat to his beloved society that could have dire consequences for the rest of the world…

In review

A triumph for representation and cultural celebration, Black Panther is the highly anticipated Marvel Studios release focusing on the titular Marvel Comics character who debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 published back in 1966.

After a memorable introduction in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman reprises the role of T’Challa – heir to the throne of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a place of true marvel and beauty that thrives on its proud traditions, spirituality and incredible technological advancements derived from their source of ‘vibranium’ – the strongest metal ever known to mankind, its potential for exploitation by the wrong people forcing the society to remain largely hidden and isolated from the rest of the world.  Boseman tackles his role with a quiet strength, deftly conveying key qualities of nobility and leadership with dignity and grace, embodying the spirit of the character created Stan Lee and Jack Kirby over fifty years ago.  What’s appealing about T’Challa and the Black Panther comics in general is the fact that he’s not just a “superhero” but also a leader and a diplomat and thankfully this film grabs firmly on to those elements, melding them with a story that mixes Bond-esque espionage and intrigue with a deeper focus on all too relevant social issues (and doesn’t shy away from them without being overly preachy) together with the action and spectacle that’s part and parcel of any comic book blockbuster.

Creed director Ryan Coogler (who also co-writes) presents a visually captivating film, whether it be the gleaming, computer generated towers of the Wakandan city or the magnificent, sumptuous African vistas that, with the command of an appreciably sized budget delivers it all on an epic scale.  Black Panther does at times find itself falling victim to the more rigid and predictable elements of the well-worn formula of a Marvel Studios production and its slightly overblown CGI soaked finale, though exciting enough, feels a little at odds with the deeper, more cerebral aspects of the film.  Luckily Black Panther takes itself more seriously than other recent Marvel efforts, that’s not to say it doesn’t take time to have fun with itself but at least the humour here is largely more restrained and natural than, bar one or two moments, forced and unnecessary.  It’s arguable that Black Panther would’ve benefitted from some tighter and more consistent pacing but it remains entertaining on the whole.

For certain, the main strengths of Black Panther lay in its superb casting (coupled with well-drawn characters) and Ryan Coogler has assembled an impressive set of players.  Boseman is of course the commendable lead but is equally matched by those surrounding him, Letitia Wright is wonderfully energetic as T’Challa’s genius, playful sister Shuri, Danai Gurira is powerful and assured as General Okoye, leader of the Wakandan Royal Guard and Star Wars actress Lupita Nyong’o brings warmth and humanity to the role of Nakia.  There are smaller roles for Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett that may have warranted more attention but their parts are still relatively significant.  Also returning from Civil War is Martin Freeman, continuing in the role of CIA Agent Everett Ross and being the only real tie to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Standing out overall though is Coogler’s leading man from Creed, Michael B. Jordan as central antagonist – in cahoots with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (the always excellent Andy Serkis, last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron) – Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, an exiled terror-maker who proves to be one of the stronger, more dimensional Marvel villains thanks to some decent writing and a weighty, venomous performance from Jordan he’s a character we don’t want to side with but there are credible reasons we could sympathise with him.

So, despite some formulaic elements, through its casting, direction and overall design, Black Panther still has its own flavour and some unique qualities, opening up another corner of the MCU and setting the stage for its future as we move towards the release of Avengers: Infinity War.

The bottom line:  Aside from the occasional stumble, Black Panther is a beautifully designed, well-cast and enjoyable blockbuster with some depth and is another worthy addition to Marvel’s big screen pantheon.

Black Panther is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Disney whisks viewers off on another journey to a galaxy far, far away…

Spoiler-free review

 

SW Last Jedi

The ‘Star Wars’ saga continues with Rian Johnson’s visually astonishing ‘The Last Jedi’.

Starring:  Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis

Directed and written by:  Rian Johnson / 152 minutes

What’s it about?

As the Resistance fights for survival against the First Order, Rey seeks to learn the ways of the Force and draw Luke Skywalker out of exile in the hope of restoring peace to the galaxy…

In review

Following the colossal success of The Force Awakens and Rogue One, Disney unleash their latest cinematic Star Wars adventure with the ominously titled The Last Jedi, episode VIII of the main saga which focuses on the story and legacy of the Force-strong Skywalker family.  Helmed by Looper director Rian Johnson, the title of this latest chapter may imply that all is hopeless with nothing but darkness beyond, yet despite some desperate stakes and high drama there’s still an overriding sense of optimism and a good dose of fun and humour (albeit some of the latter at times feeling out of place) along with the requisite spectacle that’s an essential element of any Star Wars outing.

It’s not a perfect film though and The Last Jedi doesn’t always fulfil its ambitions, there are certainly some wisely employed creative risks and surprising twists but the plot becomes burdened by one sub plot too many and a pace that drags momentum from time to time.  There’s also some commercialism at play, where it seems clear that Disney have one eye on potential merchandising revenue.  That being said, The Last Jedi is at least as good as The Force Awakens, even outshining it some instances though ultimately, it doesn’t achieve the same lauded status of ‘masterpiece’ awarded to classic instalments A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  Still, The Last Jedi, on the whole, is undeniably a good Star Wars film.

Picking up where The Force Awakens left off, General Leia’s Resistance faces annihilation by the First Order as Leia and her forces are relentlessly pursued by General Hux (a slightly cheesy but enjoyable Domhnall Gleeson) who seeks to eagerly prove himself to the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Leia’s only hope is that Rey can convince Luke Skywalker to cease his self-imposed exile and help end the First Order’s tyranny once and for all.

There is a jumble of sub plots along the way as the story shifts between Rey’s time with Luke and her exploration of the Force, the plight of the dwindling Resistance fleet, Kylo Renn’s continued slide into darkness and Finn’s (now recovered from the injuries he sustained in The Force Awakens) secret mission to a Casino planet.  It all hangs together in the end but it does result in some uneven pacing.  Thankfully, viewers are rewarded with an exciting, emotionally charged and epic final act that can be considered amongst the greatest Star Wars moments ever.

Where The Last Jedi can sometimes stumble in keeping its narrative concise and properly focused, it excels in its characterisation, actor performances and visual appeal.  Firstly, Mark Hamill is superb in a surprisingly more tortured, less hopeful take on Luke Skywalker, here a grizzled, brooding recluse who sees himself as much more of a failure than the legend he is purported to be.  Hamill is given some of the best material to work with and it leads to one of the finest performances of his career.  Likewise, the late Carrie Fisher is captivating in her final screen role with a turn that’s poignant and enlightening and together with Hamill provide The Last Jedi with a strong, satisfying and nostalgic emotional core.  The newer generation of characters are once again a delight, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are the clear standouts but there’s, pleasingly, an increased function for Oscar Isaac’s fearless Poe Dameron who, beyond more daring feats in the cockpit of an X-Wing, gets to butt heads with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo.  John Boyega, again, brings a neat balance of fun and seriousness to Finn and although his adventure to Canto Bight is one of the weaker and more unnecessary plot elements it facilitates the introduction of Kellie Mary Tran’s Rose and Benecio Del Toro’s shady convict ‘DJ’.  Andy Serkis turns in another fine motion capture performance as Snoke and is a decent enough villain but it doesn’t feel as though the character quite lives up to the bleak threat that seemed promised in his brief appearance from The Force Awakens.

Director Rian Johnson (who also writes) is a masterful storyteller, delivering some astonishing visuals.  The expected space battles, ground assaults and lightsabre duels are all there and executed with attention and skill but it’s in the quieter, more emotional character focused moments, tied together with some rather trippy Force-infused sequences, that give The Last Jedi its own unique voice and originality – there are things in this film that have never been seen in a Star Wars film before and The Last Jedi is all the better for it.

Anticipation for The Last Jedi has been feverishly high and it’s unlikely to please everyone but as it stands, it’s a strong entry in the Star Wars franchise that’s not without flaws but is a highly enjoyable if not instantly classic SF Fantasy adventure.

The bottom line:  The Last Jedi has its flaws but is without a doubt a good Star Wars film and a highly enjoyable blockbuster that is a worthy addition to the series.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Justice League’

It’s all in or bust as DC’s league of heroes unite in Warner Bros’ Pictures latest comic book blockbuster… 

Spoiler-free review

Justice League

DC’s premier super team unite in the Warner Bros’ Pictures release ‘Justice League’.

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarin Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons

Directed by: Zack Snyder / Written by: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon / 121 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of Superman’s death, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of Wonder Woman to assemble a team of powered individuals in order to protect the Earth from a looming cosmic threat…

In review

It’s no secret that Warner Bros’ DC Comics film universe has had it tough so far.  2013’s Man of Steel was fairly well reviewed but divided audiences, its sequel 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was even more divisive and Suicide Squad…again, more so.  The tide seemed to turn with the critical and financial smash of Wonder Woman this summer, meaning the pressure was well and truly on for Warner Bros/DC with team-up event Justice League, a popcorn superhero action flick that is enjoyable and entertaining even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Directed by Zack Snyder, who helmed Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Justice League is held together by its central heroes, with likeable performances from their respective actors and great chemistry that makes it worth a look.

There are flaws to Justice League that prevent it from being as great as it could’ve been.  Firstly, the film’s narrative is a little messy and disjointed (a criticism that Batman v Superman was able to remedy with its superior extended cut), becoming more problematic as it rushes through various plot points that could have warranted more focus – it seems clear that the studios’ insistence on a relatively slim running time has resulted in a good chunk of material being excised.  Another weak link is Steppenwolf, an adequate but generic CGI villain (voiced and performance-captured by Ciaran Hinds) who, albeit, provides a reasonable enough threat, pales in comparison to some of the stronger comic book film villains.  He’s by no means terrible, just not all that interesting or memorable.  There’s also some disappointingly shoddy VFX work that can on occasion be distracting, especially in the film’s busy and action packed final act.

However, it’s with its main characters that Justice League is elevated.  Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot make strong returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman respectively, both providing solid leadership to the rest of the team.  After fleeting glimpses in BvS, we’re fully introduced to Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/the Flash, Jason Mamoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg.  All three are great, with Miller’s nerdy, excitable and hilarious take on the Flash a particular highlight.  Mamoa is a pleasing surprise with a fun, swashbuckling twist to the iconic heir to the throne of Atlantis and Fisher brings fitting strokes of tortured humanity to the brooding Cyborg.  As for the return of the Man of Steel himself it’s a triumphant one, the rebirth of Clark Kent/Superman forming an integral part of the story and Henry Cavill slips back into the cape and boots with ease, his selfless, heroic sacrifice in BvS and a second chance at life leading to a Superman with a renewed purpose and a more hopeful perspective.

The tone of Justice League is certainly lighter and more accessible than Batman v Superman, with a fair amount of humour sprinkled throughout and it’s generally well-placed and doesn’t undermine the film’s more dramatic moments.  It’s well known that due to personal tragedy, Zack Snyder handed over post-production duties to Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Age of Ultron writer/director Joss Whedon, with Whedon (who shares screenwriting credits with Chris Terrio) scripting some additional material and handling reshoots.  This could’ve easily been to the film’s detriment but gladly, the end result actually feels quite consistent.  Visually, Justice League is most definitely a Zack Snyder film, it’s themes of heroism enhanced by Joss Whedon’s knack for snappy character dialogue.  The screenplay may lack the deeper, more introspective themes and idiosyncratic touches of BvS but it gets the job done.

Although Justice League isn’t perfect its positive aspects make it enjoyable and fun in all the right places, particularly for fans of these iconic characters.  It isn’t on the same level as Marvel’s Avengers but it sets the DC film universe on the right path for the many further cinematic adventures ahead.

The bottom line:  Flawed but ultimately enjoyable, Justice League assembles some of DC’s finest heroes and establishes the road ahead for future outings.

Justice League is in cinemas now.