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.

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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.

Film Review: ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Thor does Planet Hulk…

Spoiler-free review

 

Thor 3

For Asgard: Chris Hemsworth leads the quest to save his home in Marvel Studios release ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.

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

Directed by: Taikia Waititi / Written by: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost / 130 minutes

What’s it about?

As Asgard is attacked by Hela, the Goddess of Death, Thor finds himself stranded on a hostile alien planet where he is reunited with a familiar face and a hope to save his civilization from destruction…

In review

After sitting out last year’s team up in Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s God of Thunder returns to the screen for a third solo outing where he is reunited with a “friend…from work” – the raging Incredible Hulk for an offbeat cosmic comic book adventure that’s a lot of fun, if overly daft and a little too self-indulgent.

Thor: Ragnarok largely eschews the more Shakespearean tone of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World, director Taikia Waititi taking things in a somewhat goofier and lighter direction.  This is both a blessing and a curse, because at times Ragnarok feels like a James Gunn cover version, rarely straying too far from zany frivolity – often at the expense of drama and character.  A good dose of levity isn’t unwelcome, and there are genuinely funny moments, but what works so well for Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t always hit the mark here and for a film that concerns the fall of Thor’s home – the mighty and magical realm of Asgard, the preference for those instances undermines some of the dramatic potential of Ragnarok.

Like those aforementioned directors, Waititi presents the viewer with a colourful, visually majestic film with grand scale and exciting blockbuster action.  If the film is occasionally let down by its slapstick tendencies and Guardians-esque imitations, there’s no faulting the craftsmanship and slick direction.

Chris Hemsworth makes an assured return as Thor and clearly relishes this particular take, confidently leading the rest of the cast.  What Ragnarok achieves more successfully than previous outings is giving us a Thor that truly feels like a God of Thunder and there are a few standout moments where director Waititi ensures that this strikes the viewer with awe.

Tom Hiddleston is once again on top form as he effortlessly hits the ground running as the devious Loki, further exploring his fractured brotherly dynamic with Hemsworth’s Thor.  There are also notable returns for Anthony Hopkins (Odin) and Idris Elba (Heimdall) as well as a guest role for the always excellent Karl Urban as Skurge (Asgard’s new keeper of the Rainbrow Bridge) and Westworld’s Tessa Thompson proves to be a highlight as former Asgardian warrior turned drunken bounty hunter, Valkyrie.

As for the bringer of Asgard’s doom, Cate Blanchett oozes and thrills as Hela (Marvel Studios’ first female villain) in a performance that deftly melds a dark, maniacal edge with sizzling sassiness.  Along with Hiddleston’s Loki she is one of the more memorable and better served antagonists of the MCU thus far.

Arguably though, the real star of the show is Mark Ruffalo – whether via performance capture as the Hulk (continuing advances in technology allowing every nuance to penetrate the computer generated exterior) or Bruce Banner, he infuses the role with a richness and charm that seizes the attention of the audience with a portrayal that’s equally heartfelt and funny.

Ragnarok is ostensibly a Thor film, however the ‘Ragnarok’ aspect of the narrative tends to take a back seat to its incorporation of fan-favourite Marvel Comics epic “Planet Hulk” – with much of the running time devoted to Thor’s exile on the planet Sakaar where he finds (and is at first pitted against in the gladiatorial arena by the Grandmaster, played wonderfully and exuberantly by the inimitable Jeff Goldblum) his ever angry green comrade.  Whilst this might devalue the central threat and the character arc possibilities for Hemsworth’s Thor, the inclusion of the Hulk is a welcome one – given the unlikelihood of a future solo outing of his own – and it’s pleasing to see some evolution for the character, this version more garrulous and playful than what has come before.

Whilst it would’ve been interesting to see a stronger and more focused exploration of Asgard’s fall and all that entails, there’s no arguing that Ragnarok is at its best whenever Thor and Hulk or Thor and Banner (and by extension, Valkyrie) are sharing the screen, all the more appealing given the sparky chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo.

Despite some of its missteps, Thor: Ragnarok is a highly enjoyable romp – wearing it’s influences with glee, it’s kitsch infusion of 80’s metal, Flash Gordon, Masters of the Universe and cult sword and sorcery making it all the more pleasing on the whole.  It may not be the best Marvel Studios effort nor is it necessarily the strongest ‘Thor’ centric-story but it’s a good time non-the-less.

The bottom line:  A fun, if at times overly silly comic book adventure, Thor: Ragnarok is a reliably entertaining offering from Marvel Studios.

Thor: Ragnarok is in cinemas across the UK now and opens worldwide from 3rd November.

Film Review: ‘Blade Runner 2049’

Director Denis Villeneuve returns to the bleak future envisioned in Ridley Scott’s seminal masterpiece…

Spoiler-free review 

Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford star in ‘Blade Runner 2049’, from Warner Bros. Pictures.

Starring:  Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Ana de Armis, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve / Written by: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green / 163 minutes

What’s it about?

‘Blade Runner’ Agent K’s investigation of a long-hidden secret leads him to former Agent Rick Deckard who hasn’t been seen in thirty years…

In review

It’s always tricky to follow up a classic, perhaps even more risky when the gap between films stretches across the decades.  Thirty-five years after the release of Ridley Scott’s celebrated science fiction detective noir, Blade Runner (based on the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) comes the forever mooted sequel from Arrival and Sicario director Denis Villeneuve – Blade Runner 2049.  Whilst it doesn’t surpass Scott’s original, Villeneuve’s film deftly captures the look and feel of Blade Runner without merely imitating it, the filmmaker adding his own elements that serve as a progression, or continuation, of the ideas envisioned by Scott back in 1982.  This is one of the most visually striking pieces of cinema to grace the screen in recent years, the expansive, sprawling future Los Angeles cityscapes, seedy side-streets and sand drenched wastelands presented on a hugely epic scale that begs to be viewed on the largest of cinema screens.

Taking place some thirty years after the events of the original Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 introduces us to Agent K (Ryan Gosling) who is in the same line of work as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard – a ‘Blade Runner’, assigned by the LAPD to hunt down and ‘retire’ (i.e. execute) renegade androids known as ‘Replicants’.  World-weary and asking questions of his place in the world of a rundown, hopeless future, K’s latest mission finds him drawn into a deep and dark mystery that poses a great threat to mankind.  To say much more would spoil the goods but the story ultimately leads to a meeting of the new and older generation of Blade Runners as K seeks out the elusive Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Ryan Gosling takes the centre stage in a nuanced and introspective performance that makes K feel like an uncanny yet natural successor to Deckard whilst making his own mark on the beaten-up and worn-down archetype of this dystopic detective story.  Heavily laden by the demands of his profession and his LAPD chief (Wonder Woman and House of Cards star Robin Wright), he’s consoled by his only companion, Joi (beautifully played by Ana de Armis) who is the only light in an otherwise bleak existence.  As for Harrison Ford, it takes a bit of time to get to him but it’s assuredly worth the wait and as much as he did in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ford slips comfortably back into another iconic role but certainly doesn’t rest on his laurels.  The meeting of K and Deckard is an anticipated moment and handled greatly.

There’s also Jared Leto (Suicide Squad’s Joker) who puts in a strong and carefully measured performance as blind corporate titan Niander Wallace, master of the newest generation of Replicants and the aspiring villain of the piece, his right-hand woman – an enforcer named ‘Luv’ (Sylvia Hoeks) – in place to deal with any potential threats from those who might try to interfere in Wallace’s goals in perfecting the “more human than human” design of his ’works’.

The running time of Blade Runner 2049 can be a little challenging given it’s protracted pace, but it does allow the viewer to become fully absorbed into the moody atmospherics and simply appreciate and be awed by those mesmerising and astonishing, Oscar worthy visuals by cinematographer Roger Deakins.  The screenplay from Hampton Fancher and Michael Green is suitably mysterious and fairly straight forward in the grand scheme of things but poses plenty of questions of existence and identity in a similar manner to the original Blade Runner and the dialogue is lean and purposeful.  At its core, Blade Runner 2049 is more of a thought-provoking, visually arresting piece of art-house cinema afforded the budget and scale of a $100+ million blockbuster than out-and-out popcorn action spectacle.  Where its action beats are called upon, Denis Villeneuve executes them with reserve and grace that, coupled with all of the film’s other elements make for a sequel should please both fans of Blade Runner and those who appreciate intelligently implemented cinema.

The bottom line:  Arresting, mysterious and delicately executed, Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy sequel to a revered science fiction classic.

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017)

An empty shell or a captivating experience? 

Spoiler-free review 

Starring:  Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Danusa Samal

Directed by: Rupert Sanders / Written by: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler & Ehren Kruger / 107 minutes

What’s it about?

In a future where technology has advanced to incredible heights, a cyber security operative known as ‘Major’ – a cyborg marrying a human brain with an artificial body – investigates a wave of hackings by a mysterious terrorist named Kuze…

In review

Based on Shirow Masamune’s iconic manga “The Ghost in the Shell” and owing far more to director Mamoru Oshii’s classic 1995 anime, the live action version of Ghost in the Shell received a lukewarm reception, amidst controversies of ‘whitewashing’, upon its theatrical release earlier this year.  Now that the dust has settled, is Ghost in the Shell a worthy adaptation of the popular Japanese property?

Firstly, there’s no doubt that Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning, the vast, futuristic cityscapes juxtaposed against the grimy, seedy backstreets creating an immersive ‘cyberpunk’ Blade Runner-esque environment, complemented by the film’s deftly executed action sequences and production design that are extremely faithful to the original source material and the subsequent anime.  Therein lies part of the problem though, Ghost in the Shell is constructed with so much reverence to, most specifically Oshii’s anime (through which most will no doubt be familiar with the franchise) that it fails to emerge from the shadows and form an identity of its own.  It certainly doesn’t help that the script is a little drab and predictable with long stretches of almost purposeless ponderousness that at points can make you feel every minute of the – compared to most modern blockbusters – relatively slight running time.  It tries hard to evoke the mesmerising qualities, mystery and atmospherics of the beloved anime but just doesn’t have the same effect and the recreation of several iconic scenes, whilst laudable (and the opening birthing or ‘shelling’ sequence is certainly beautifully realised) are too numerous and will likely leave fans wanting to turn to the anime instead.

It’s well known that Ghost in the Shell’s reception was blighted by criticisms of whitewashing in its casting, which is a little unfair as a more multicultural troupe of actors is evident.  As ‘Major’ (fans will note the lack of ‘the’), Scarlett Johansson is a reasonably effective, if uninspired choice for the lead role, her slightly robotic movements and mechanical delivery injected with just the right amount of subtle humanity to carry it all off.  She’s mostly supported by Pilou Asbaek’s Batou but also shares a decent amount of screen time with ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano as the cantankerous chief, Aramaki and gets to flesh out some character in her exchanges with Dr. Ouelet, played by Juliette Binoche.  To be perfectly honest, partly due to the lightweight script, the cast as a whole rarely rise above being functional and subservient to the striking visuals, sure the character of ‘Major’ (that lack of ‘the’ sounding clumsy and awkward) is intentionally detached and cipher-like but those familiar with Oshii’s adaptation (and indeed the amazing Stand Alone Complex series) will be disappointed at how small an impact Asbaek’s Batou makes and that the rest of the characters are so unmemorable in comparison to their animated versions – whether that be voiced by their original Japanese cast or the English dub performers.

When it comes down to it, Ghost in the Shell does have its moments – mainly during its action sequences, but even then it still comes off as being a little too generic and maybe even a little pretentious and far too derivative and reverential for its own good.

The bottom line:  A disappointing adaptation of the much loved manga, Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell fails to match the brilliance of the 1995 anime and to become a compelling endeavour of its own, it may be worth a look if only out of curiosity and for an appreciation of some commendable visuals.

Ghost in the Shell is available to own and to rent via home video and on demand formats now.

GitS 2017

Scarlett Johansson bursts into action in ‘Ghost in the Shell’.

Film Review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis prove that apes together are still strong…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Michael Adamthwaite, Amiah Miller

Directed by:  Matt Reeves / Written by:  Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves / 142 minutes

What’s it about?

Under attack by a ruthless colonel and his army, Ape leader Caesar embarks on a journey to bring an end to the bloodshed once and for all…

In review

20th Century Fox’s rebooted Planet of the Apes series (which began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt) continues confidently with its latest chapter, War for the Planet of the Apes.  Quickly proving as captivating as 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s quite simply what every summer blockbuster should be – visually astonishing, smart and emotionally engaging with a strong emphasis on character and story.

Picking up two years after the close of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, war with humankind has driven Ape leader Caesar into hiding as he attempts to protect and ensure the future of his fellow apes against the brutal attacks of a rogue army platoon lead by the unsavoury Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a particularly devastating battle pitting the two leaders against one another as Caesar sets out in pursuit of his enemy in a journey that will see him once again forced to fight for the freedom of his people.

There are further leaps in CGI here that further blurs the line between the real and artificial yet it’s the efforts of the performance-capture artists and returning Dawn director/co-writer (with Mark Bomback) Matt Reeves that really sells it, allowing the audience to become invested and care about the simian society and their struggle for survival.  As Caesar, Andy Serkis brings the experience of his craft fully to bear that, coupled with ground-breaking technology and Reeve’s intricate direction, delivers a powerful and emotive performance that drives the heart and soul of War for the Planet of the Apes.

Serkis is brilliantly supported by returning performance-capture co-stars Terry Notary (as Rocket), Karin Konoval (as Maurice) and Michael Adamthwaite (as Luca) but it’s the addition of new simian character ‘Bad Ape’ that’s a true highlight with Steve Zahn bringing a sympathetic edge to the kooky comic relief that’s a real joy to watch.  There’s also a wonderful dose of heart provided by Amiah Miller, who plays a young mute human girl befriended by Maurice and who Caesar reluctantly allows to join his quest against McCullough.  Along with Bad Ape, she becomes integral to the group and another great addition to the line-up of strong, well-written characters.  As the main antagonist, Woody Harrelson is a real coup bringing a steely eyed quality and cruel malevolence to the role of the Colonel, a character not without his own personal tragedy that helps to paint an unhinged but complex man of war.

As with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves (who has been tasked to take on The Batman) demonstrates an incredible talent for world-building, effortlessly marrying epic landscapes with thrilling action sequences and quieter character-centric moments that draws the viewer into a world that feels far more real than the average franchise blockbuster.  It’s all bolstered by a screenplay that’s layered and constructed with intelligence, accentuating the war film elements with shades of Apocalypse Now and The Great Escape and replete with callbacks to the original Apes series that will further please fans of the classic science-fiction saga.

The bottom line:  A stirring and visually impressive blockbuster with brains, War for the Planet of the Apes is another fine entry in the series.

War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas now.

War for POTA

Weathering the storm: Caesar (Andy Serkis) continues the fight for survival in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’, from 20th Century Fox.