Black Panther Review: Bold, Fresh, Thoughtful, And Somehow Still Marvel

Black Panther Review: Bold, Fresh, Thoughtful, And Somehow Still Marvel

Black Panther is a movie that Marvel needed to make. It’s one that they wanted to make. It’s one that we all saw coming and has been hyped to the peak of Disney’s marketing powers. However, it’s also a film that could have so easily gone wrong. After all, this is a black superhero given all the Marvel blockbuster trimmings and while there has been an outcry for diversity in this specific arena of the movie world, it’s also something that easily could have been exploitative. After all, much like Blade, Black Panther was pulled out of the background of the Marvel comic book universe in the 70s when Blackspoitation cinema was all the rage, and while the book generally strived to treat the superhero and his world respectfully, it would have been easy for the feature film version to drop the ball and feel like a crass commercialization. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Kevin Feige was smart enough to put Ryan Coogler in charge and he delivered one of the best Marvel movies to date.

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Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

At this stage of the game, part of what’s so refreshing about Black Panther is how it’s able to feel like a complete film unto itself without much Marvel crossover distraction. The studio got that out of the way by introducing the character in Civil War. He’s established with Cap, Iron Man, and the gang. Now he gets his own story. After a brief history lesson on the Black Panther legacy and the relationship between Wakanda and vibranium (sigh…I’ll always hate writing that word), Coogler plunges viewers into a vividly designed and carefully conceived world. The kingdom over which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) reigns is a hidden oasis of advanced technology and powerful warriors. The partner tribes are humbler (but at least led by brilliant character actors like Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and they still engage in ancient rituals and ceremonies that feel both respectful and delightfully fantastical in a very comic book way. It’s clear that a lot of time went into building and designing this world. It’s such a vibrant place that feels lived in with rich history yet is also the sort of place where ridiculous comic book technology and beat em’ ups can pop up in without sullying the integrity.

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Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, and Lupita Nyong’o in Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

The larger than life and stylized characters also carry culturally symbolic weight. Coogler went out of his way to present powerful women of colour within the society like Danai Gurira’s intimidatingly badass warrior or Letitia Wright’s brilliant tech guru who is somewhere between Black Panther’s Q and partner in strategy (not to mention Lupita Nyong’o and Angela Bassett, each with their own important piece in the movie’s puzzle). There’s a clear and noble attempt on the part of co-writer/director Ryan Coopler to take the opportunity of making a Marvel blockbuster destined to pull in the eyes of audiences worldwide and use it as an opportunity to increase the representation in such pictures. It works and somehow does so without derailing or distracting from what is ultimately a glorious bit of superhero entertainment. Coogler just treats that entertainment as a vehicle to explore some issues bubbling up in the culture right now.

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Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

Obviously , Chadwick Boseman makes for a potent and powerful hero at the centre. He is, after all, one of the best actors of his generation. He plays T’Challa as a noble leader who struggles to uphold the legacy put upon him with grace, and plays Black Panther as the stone cold warrior king and superhero that’s made the character resonate for decades. He nails it and will certainly be in this role for quite some time. Thank god, because the hero could have easily been overshadowed by Michael B. Jordan in the hands of a lessor actor. Jordan is Ryan Coogler’s regular star and it initially felt odd that he would be downgraded to a side villain role after the duo’s smash success with Creed. It’s more complicated than that though. Not too much should be revealed except to say that he’s easily the best villain to stomp through the MCU since Loki. He’s also the first with a motivation that resonates. One that will speak to much of the audience and with a master plan that might even resonate were it not so psychotic (and ya know…dependent on heightened comic book realities). Jordan doesn’t steal the movie away because everyone is so damn good, but his character will be much discussed and the fact that Coogler was able to use the role to make Black Panther a statement as much as a superhero romp? Well, bravo. No one has quite done that in the MCU before.

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Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

The filmmaker does also keep his blockbuster on brand with the MCU while creating his own distinctly personal vision. Andy Serkis’ hysterically nutty arms dealer and Martin Freeman’s bumbling CIA agent return from previous Marvel adventures and actually suit this story, if anything their previous roles seem to exist only to limit the amount of set up required before Black Panther gets cooking. Of course, Marvel movies also need action and set pieces to go with their world-building and characterization. There’s plenty of that here and Ryan Coogler proves more than adapt at handling the boom-boom, punch-punch. There’s a stunner of a set piece in South Korea shot through the fluid long takes that the director favours that’s a pure adrenaline rush. That scene my favourite, but all the action beats deliver the goods, if only because Coogler and co. take the time to actually make viewers care about the people and stakes before things start blowing up. A simple distinction, but a pretty damn important one.

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Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman, and Janeshia Adams-Ginyard in Black Panther (2018) – image for this review courtesy of Disney.

Oh sure, there are things to nitpick away at in Black Panther. It’s a little too long and sometimes over-burdened by the sheer volume of characters. There are certain MCU conventions that sit awkwardly with Coogler’s vision (especially the need for quips when there need not always be quips). But honestly, nitpicks are all that’s possible with this picture. Black Panther was not a character that was ever going to be easy for Marvel to adapt for the big screen, but somehow everything went so right that the movie just might be the finest representation of the character in any medium to date. Black Panther isn’t just another cog in the Marvel machine, it’s one of their strongest characters with a world that begs to be revisited. Hopefully after whatever massive destruction and changes that occur in the universe following Infinity War (and whatever nuttiness comes in the still untitled Avengers 4), Ryan Coogler and co. will be allowed back into Wakanda to play again. Now that the heavy lifting is over and this world is so beautifully established, it’s hard not to feel a sense of giddy excitement about where they could possibly go next. Now that’s a sequel worth making.


Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

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The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies (Movie) Review

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies (Movie) Review

 

It all comes down to this. After nearly six hours of set up, The Hobbit has finally been allowed to climax. By now, it’s safe to say that viewers already know what to expect from the concluding chapter of Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy. The biggest flaw of the series to date has always been the ill-conceived decision to split a story into three movies that’s too slight to sustain that running time. There’s no fixing that for the third movie. That flaw is baked into the series and unavoidable. However, the film is pure payoff to everything that’s come before, both the good and the bad. The excitement lacking from the first movie is front and center in this third entry. It might be a little exhausting, but it is certainly an impressive accomplishment. The Battle Of The Five Armies is likely the strongest and most entertaining of all the Hobbit films. Even if you’ve been disappointed with the series to this point, it’s safe to say that this one will be more satisfying. This isn’t a Star Wars prequel situation where the series went so far and so spectacularly off the rails from the start that there was no saving it. Nope, The Hobbit trilogy has always been deeply flawed, yet successful in its aim of bringing Tolkien’s genre-defining fantasy universe to the screen in the most spectacular and expensive ways possible. They’ve all been worth watching even if they didn’t quite match the majesty of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and this one is no exception. If Jackson’s second crack at Middle Earth has never been quite as successful as his first, that’s likely because you can only break ground in blockbuster filming once. In other words, once you’ve been there, it’s hard to go back again.

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The Desolation Of Smaug ended on one big fire-breathing dragon cliffhanger, so this sucker picks up with the peddle to the metal. There’s no need to set things up. A dragon is flying towards a city with plans for incineration. Now, we get to sit back and watch the fire hit the fan. After a thrilling dragon-beating opening, the movie slows down once more for long speeches setting up a titular battle (with five armies, natch). Once the dwarves that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has followed for two movies have finally found their legendary riches, greed immediately consumes them in a particularly Tolkien way. Specifically, Richard Armitage’s Thorin becomes possessed by greed and refuses to share beyond all reason. As word spreads throughout Middle Earth that Smaug has been slain and the great treasure sits unprotected, factions start to arrive to lay claim to the riches. Elves appear (led by the always bland Orlando Bloom and some equally bland others), as do humans (led by Luke Evans’ dragon slayers whose people now have nothing following Smaug’s attack), dwarves (led by Billy Connolly in a spectacular bit of stunt casting), and of course some goblins n’ orcs. There will be a battle. There is a battle. It lasts over an hour. Then things wrap up and the movies weaves towards a conclusion that ties directly into the opening of The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring. The circle is complete.

The film is undeniably thrilling and satisfying in a way that a concluding chapter to a trilogy ought to be. Ian McKellan and Richard Armitage are able to conclude the arcs they started two moves ago and do so to varying degrees of success (see their names to figure out who does the better job). Everyone else concludes their tiny arcs with little heft, while sadly Bilbo ends up shoved aside for much of the running time, despite Martin Freeman offering easily the finest performance of the trilogy. The plots that didn’t work also conclude and stop the movie dead in its tracks, especially Evangeline Lilly’s interspecies love story with a dwarf that ends on a line so cheesy that it should be booed. New additions to the cast don’t get much time to register in the rush to the finish line, but seeing Billy Connolly appear in full dwarf make-up calling goblins “buggers” is an undeniable joy. Everything comes together with a minimal number of story-padding digressions. The one major glaring addition that feels out of place at least involves both Cate Blanchett’s elf queen and Christopher Lee’s White Wizard, so it’s hard to complain too much. The film is even the shortest of the entire franchise at a merciful 2.5 hours, so it feels like a proper movie and less like endless Tolkien fan service. There are grand, sweeping battles to inspire “aws,” magic enhanced fights to inspire “ooos,” and some final confrontation fights to provide closure. Yep, there’s a great deal to enjoy, not the least of which is the work of a brilliant filmmaker given near limitless resources.

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Peter Jackson is one hell of a director of special effects and spectacle and this movie is a chance for him to play with all of his favorite toys. As a work of pure spectacle and imagination, there’s no denying the incredible achievements on display. It’s a gorgeous movie to behold and the hour-long battle at the center sustains enough excitement to avoid tedium. However, there’s also no denying that we’ve been here before. When Jackson delivered his original Rings trilogy, he genuinely revolutionized fantasy filmmaking. Audiences had seen nothing like it and were enthralled. As impressive as the climatic sequences are, they feel expected now (perhaps even a little complacent). It’s nice that Jackson was able to return to Middle Earth and complete the Tolkien cycle with these Hobbit movies, but it’s far more exciting to know that he’s finally finished with this chapter of his career. Jackson used to be an exciting, unpredictable, risk-taking voice in genre filmmaking with titles like Bad Taste, Dead Alive, Heavenly Creatures, and The Frighteners. The Lord Of The Rings was a fantastic cap off to his growth as a filmmaker. King Kong was wheel-spinning. The Hobbit movies were regression. Now he needs to move on and I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

When The Lord Of The Rings trilogy ended, it was an emotional moment. The movies felt like a genuine cultural event and it was sad to see something so special conclude (so much so that Jackson couldn’t stop ending his own movie). When the credits roll on the final Hobbit movie, it feels more like a relief. That’s not to say that this trilogy was a mistake or a disaster. It just wasn’t a masterpiece. It started at its lowest point with a film that wasted an hour on a dinner and thankfully over the next two increasingly improved movies the trilogy has ended well. These movies aren’t masterpieces like their predecessors, but at least they play as a pleasant appendix for those who aren’t willing to leave Middle Earth after the first twelve hours. Had Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro been allowed to make The Hobbit as one or even two films as initially planned, we might have gotten a franchise extension to be proud of. That didn’t happen, but at least we didn’t get a disgrace. These movies were fun and effective, probably what was expected of the LOTR trilogy before it transcended all expectations. Perhaps the big mistake was the viewers expecting more. The Hobbit was always the cute preface to the full Lord Of The Rings meal. Eating an appetizer second is never good idea, but that doesn’t make it bad on its own. I’m certain the whole series will play better when consumed in the right order and without the burden of expectations that were always impossible to fulfill.

Lego: The Hobbit (3ds) Review

Lego: The Hobbit (3ds) Review

Well, it’s been a few months, so the time has come for another Lego game. This time the gang at Traveller’s Tales have returned to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien/Peter Jackson. One of the company’s last Lego epics from the previous generation was Lego Lord Of The Rings, which condensed the entire trilogy into a single Lego-themed adventure, following the plot as closely as possible while also tossing in some of the dialogue from the movies during cut scenes. Lego: The Hobbit does the exact same thing with Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit trilogy… well, almost. Weirdly the game covers only the first two films that have been released before ending in a big ol’ cliffhanger. It’s an odd choice given that waiting six months would have allowed Traveller’s Tales to deliver the whole trilogy in one shebang. But, I guess that was done out of classic greed (hey, just like the movies!) or maybe Traveller’s Tales were commissioned to make two games back when there were only supposed to be two movies. Regardless, we’re stuck with a game that ends awkwardly and won’t be finished until some downloadable content is released just in time to cross-promote the final Hobbit film. Thankfully, until that frustrating finale, this is a pretty gosh darn great Lego game and one that takes full advantage of the added horsepower of the new system.

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There’s really no need to go into summarizing the plot. If you’ve seen the first two movies, you know what you’re getting. If you’ve only read the book, imagine stopping right when that big ol’ dragon flies out for some mass destruction and then slamming the book shut as if you didn’t care what happens next. Traveller’s Tales follow Jackson’ plot pretty closely with only a few minor deletions. Condensing two movies into one was a wise decision as anyone who has seen the movies knows that they’ve been frustratingly stretched out and don’t contain nearly enough action set pieces. Still, things can be a little rough in the early going as the developers struggle to turn dialogue and exposition scenes into playable levels. Believe it or not, the endless dwarf dinner from the start of The Hobbit is a level. Granted, it’s a tutorial level that introduces you to all of the dwarves’ powers as they arrive one-by-one, but still it’s kind of ridiculous that a dinner scene is a level. It feels like a joke and given Traveller’s Tales’ typically irreverent take on their source material, it probably is. Still… weird.

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As the game marches on, the fun increases immeasurably. All of the big set pieces from the first two Hobbit movies are there (including the bobbing-barrel chase and of course the battle with Smaug) and have been turned into delightful Lego levels. What immediately stands out is the added scale of the adventure thanks to the fancypants new consoles. Battle scenes can have hundreds of extras in the background and that’s pretty stunning. Likewise, the final battle with Smaug has a sense of scale to the levels and backgrounds that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Lego game. Most impressive of all is the free-roaming Middle Earth. This actually feels like a massive landscape and can take quite a while to walk from Hobbiton to Smaug’s layer if you choose to do it in one run (it’s not exciting, but is pretty as an accidental parody of the walking-based Tolkien “adventures”). Traveller’s Tales has created a remarkable world filled with gorgeous vistas, mountains, and ruins that are all too easy to get lost in. The story will take about seven hours to finish, but that only lives you with a 22% completion, requiring at least a dozen more hours dedicated to exploring the gorgeous world while hunting down collectibles and playing the wealth of bonus missions. In fact, this just might be the biggest Lego game to date, and it’s almost a shame that the developers didn’t wait to adapt Lord Of The Rings on the new system since that story/journey is larger and would suit this treatment better.

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All of the usual Lego game attributes are here. You’ll collect studs, you can have a buddy join in for multiplayer at any time (though sadly the split screen dynamic has not gotten any less visually confusing), and it’s a game designed for completists to rack up endless hours on long after the story mode has been finished. The only things really holding the game back are the level repetition that plagues all Lego games, the fact that the climatic levels have been saved for DLC, and a couple of awkward glitches in the design (in particular, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between when you’re doing a melee attack or firing your staff as a wizard, which makes the Gandalf levels far more frustrating than they should be. Plus the AI is unconscionably stupid at all times). Lego: The Hobbit also suffers in comparison to the extraordinary Lego: Marvel Super Heroes simply because the vast Hobbit cast doesn’t have as much variance in its characters’ powers. Still, taken on its own merits, there’s no denying that Lego: The Hobbit is a heck of a lot of fun and beautifully put together. It’s definitely a massive improvement on the sadly rushed Lego: The Movie-The Game and will likely qualify as one of the Traveller’s Tale’s finest achievements once the DLC is available. At this point, you probably know what to expect from a Lego game, so this won’t win over any new players. However, if you’ve already been seduced by the cult of Lego games you are guaranteed to have a good time with this one. Hell, it’s probably even a more entertaining adaptation of The Hobbit than the indulgent movies have been so far. So that’s something.

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (Movie) Review

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (Movie) Review

Last year the geek community swooned in anticipation of Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth. The very Hobbit-like director’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy had been the millennial Star Wars trilogy that both George Lucas’ prequels and The Matrix series promised and failed to deliver; a new fantasy epic that pushed the boundaries of what was technically possible in filmmaking without losing sight of the compelling characters and story that set up the sexy FX shots. Then An Unexpected Journey came out and all of the fansboy fears came true. The film was overlong, needlessly stretched out to facilitate an epic trilogy structure. It relied far too heavily on digital effects and the much-mooted new frame rate proved to be a headache-inducing, eye-poisoning disaster. It wasn’t a bad movie, just a deeply disappointing one. Now it’s a year later the second chapter The Desolation Of Smaug has finally arrived. Thankfully, the sequel rights many of the wrongs perpetrated last time even if the flick still fails to live up to the impossible standards set by the masterful Lord Of The Rings trilogy. This new series should have been a single movie and could have been great one. That didn’t happen and will never change. However, at least some stuff actually happens in the sequel and it proves to be an entertaining fantasy adventure romp without a proper climax. I suppose that’ll do for now.

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The plot picks up instantly after the “really, it’s over?” finale of An Unexpected Journey. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and a collection of Time Bandits-lite dwarves are continuing their endless quest to that mountain with a dragon and this time they actually get there (spoiler! Unless you’ve read the book of course). The film stays pretty close to the narrative Tolkien weaved many moons ago, with a few new additions that thankfully don’t just feel like padded running time in this chapter. A visit to the Woodland Elves realm introduces the first original character that Jackson and his screenwriters have introduced to the Middle Earth landscape. Her name is Tauriel, she’s a bad-ass warrior elf played by Lost’s Evangeline Lilly who Orlando Bloom’s returning Legolas (who was not in the book) pines for, but she actually falls for Adrian Turner’s pretty boy dwarf. The subplot reeks of Twilight-style soap opera, but thankfully works thanks to strong writing and stronger acting from Lilly. Elsewhere, Bard The Bowman (Luke Evans) is transformed from a plot device into a noble warrior feuding with Stephen Fry’s amusingly corrupt Lake-town dictator. Thankfully, both additions to the story actually add intrigue and action to a sagging middle act and then all roads lead to a dragon. Yes, Smaug finally appears, and between the gorgeous Guillermo Del Toro-inspired design and soothingly evil Benedict Cumberbatch voice performance, the big guy with fire breath doesn’t disappoint. It all ends in a cliffhanger, but at least this time you’ll leave the theater excited to see what happens next rather than disappointed that the film stops short of the punchline.

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Watching The Desolation Of Smaug, it’s clear both that Jackson was sensitive to all the complaints launched at the last chapter and that he also had a plan all along. There’s no endless meal sequence this time around. The first 25-35 minutes drag a bit, but after that the director ensures there’s at least one massive action sequences every few minutes. The story is ramping up as well, so it’s not like its forced spectacle either. But at the same time every extended plot and new character builds to an additional action scene and that’s not a coincidence. Beyond injecting a little estrogen into the all-male tale, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is actually an intriguingly conflicted character who gets a chance to cut loose in the best action scene of the series so far (she’s also dressed like Link in a few scenes, which should fuel some fanboy fantasies). That barrel-bobbing chase feels like a sequence from a Hobbit spin off videogame and Jackson’s digitally-liberated cameras swoop all over the action like a cinematic rollercoaster. The actors are also consistently wonderful. The dwarves may still feel like stock comedy players, but that’s as much a fault of Tolkien as the filmmakers. However, Martin Freeman continues to work his light comedy magic as the burgeoning hero Bilbo, Ian McKellen gladly returns to his iconic portrayal of Gandalf, and even Orlando Bloom’s limited skills are suited perfectly to the emotionless Legolas. Then of course there’s the dragon.

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The last 40 minutes of the film are dedicated almost exclusively to Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug and it doesn’t disappoint. The Weta wizards crafted a stunning CGI representation of the character. He has mass and scale beyond most digital creations and the unique design of the creature feels like a leftover contribution from original Hobbit director Guillermo Del Toro in the best possible sense. Cumberbatch’s slithery vocals give the character the refined sense of evil he needs and the whole sequence is such a magical mix of characterization, effects, and action that the entire Hobbit series finally hits his stride once the character hits the screen. The biggest problem with An Unexpected Journey was that it was all labored set up and now that the films are starting to pay off in chapter two, those problems are starting to vanish. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect film or an equal to the LOTR trilogy. The flick is still too long and suffers from the typical second-part-of-a-trilogy issue of existing without a proper beginning or ending. However, the goods news is that the flick is entertaining and even magical this time and is well worth the price of admission. Seeing the series finally hit its stride, it’s more clear than ever that it should have been a single movie. The last flick would have been a perfectly acceptable first act and this movie could have easily been sheared at least in half as well. Had Jackson been able to make a single Hobbit flick, it could have been an equal to The Lord Of The Rings. Sadly, we’re always going to be stuck with this bloated trilogy, but at least it’s finally starting to come together into something entertaining, if not instantly iconic. The Desolation Of Smaug is a thrilling fantasy epic worthy of the Tolkien brand and with a massive battle and dragon city-smoldering yet to come, it’s safe to say part three will be just as good if not better. The worst of this series is over people. It’s all fantasy fun from here on out and actually worth sacrificing three hours of your Christmas vacation to experience.