Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Black Panther

When Thor: Ragnarok released a few months ago, the world exclaimed a massive sigh of relief, as it seemed as if the Marvel Comic Book Universe (MCU) was finally entering an upward trend. Not only was Ragnarok a welcome departure from the go-to Marvel movie tone and plot structure, but it was exciting, clever and felt fresh.

Although the success of Ragnarok was exciting, it did, however, paint a massive target on the back of the MCU movie that would follow it - would Black Panther falter along with so many MCU films before it, or rather, continue Ragnarok’s promising upward trend for MCU? The quick and easy answer is that Black Panther not only exceeds its noticeably hyped-up expectations but boldly confronted a very real, very sensitive central theme in a surprisingly considerate and creative manner.

Except for a very short cameo in one of the Captain America films, the Black Panther story arc remained completely untouched and unexplored before Black Panther’s release. Although this meant that the film couldn’t rely on the legacy or credibility of previous direct prequels, it did allow director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) to not be bogged down by the responsibility of linking and connecting his plot with the rest of the now highly convoluted Marvel Universe. And this really does show in the final finished product – the plot is fast-paced and never becomes unnecessarily intricate. Best of all, there are no characters that feel like mere unashamed product placements for other films, a crime many recent MCU films are guilty of.

Black Panther's costume design is one of the standout aspects of the film.
The impact of being able to utilise unexplored MCU material also positively influences the degree to which Black Panther’s cast can imbue the film with an intriguing sense of originality. For the most part, there are no cookie cutter character archetypes here, which makes getting to know the cast through the course of the film a true joy. Ironically enough (and perhaps this was intentional as a form of clever social commentary), but the only characters that do come over as slightly stereotypical are the non-black lead roles. It’s actually quite hard to single out one specific actor, but it’s worth highlighting Chadwick Boseman’s role as the main protagonist, Winston Duke, Angela Basset and Daniel Kaluuya. The cast does such an amazing job in highlighting the validity of their various agendas that the lines between good and evil become murky very quickly. There is also a commendable degree of character development on display here, with certain characters showcasing more personal growth during the course of this one single film than some Marvel characters do over the course of a whole lineage of Marvel movies.  

"...his respect and appreciation for African culture is clearly visible, resulting in a film that truly embodies the principles of Afrofuturism."

Coogler has also done a great job to not abuse the highly African inspired setting and cultural inspiration of his source material – his respect and appreciation for African culture is clearly visible, resulting in a film that truly embodies the principles of Afrofuturism. Some amazing CGI effects and painstakingly detailed costume work helps create a vision of an African-led future that is completely dazzling. Wakanda is the perfect marriage of new world technology and African tradition – audiences are sure to enjoy the journey of discovering this fictional land’s many wonders and surprises.

Another one of the film’s many successes are the highly thrilling and imaginative action sequences. Once again, Coogler uses the combination of African tribal traditions and futuristic technology to the film’s advantage, resulting in fight scenes that will leave your jaw on the floor. There’s also enough variety in terms of the types of confrontations that take place to fill up 2 whole Marvel movies. I saw this film in 4DX and believe me when I say that experiencing the film’s mesmerising action sequences in this format is totally mind-blowing.

But what stands out probably most about Black Panther is its highly ambitious and ballsy overall theme (which I’m not going to give away here). It’s not that Marvel movies haven’t ever before included any direct social or political commentary, but more that a Marvel movie has never addressed such a sensitive societal topic in such a direct way. Kudos goes to Coogler for addressing this highly relevant central theme in a way that showcases the complexities thereof, without allowing it to impede on the overall pace and plot of the film.

Armoured rhinos? Yes! Yes! Yes! 
Black Panther is one of those rare action films that nimbly side steps each and every genre trope and stereotype that currently plagues the genre. Add to this the fact that it’s a highly polished, well rounded and surprisingly poignant film and it shouldn’t be hard to comprehend why Black Panther confidently towers over almost every other MCU film that has come before it. Ryan Coogler and his team have set a new standard for superhero films and I actually feel sorry for the Marvel (or DC) movie that has to follow this genre-disrupting cinematic masterpiece.

Highlight: Let’s just say that the climactic final battle resulted in multiple and continuous ‘nerdgasms’ for me.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Shape of Water

If you’re lucky, you’ll come across a handful of films over your lifetime that redefine the way you look at movies in general. Yes, in some cases, this could be a bad thing – take 2003’s infamous Gigli as an example – a film that proved that there were new depths to the lows that a film can reach. In the case of cinematic visionary Guillermo del Toro’s latest masterpiece, Shape of Water, the ability to surprise and astonish an audience is however a really, really good thing.

Without giving anything away that you can’t already deduce from a trailer (warning, minor plot spoiler referenced throughout this review), Shape of Water tells the extremely odd, but oddly charming tale of love between a woman and an underwater humanoid-like beast. Yes, you read right: Shape of Water is a dark romantic comedy about forbidden love and its sometimes humorous, awkward and even dreadful implications.

At the surface, you can easily mistake Shape of Water for a rather whimsical and quintessentially French-inspired film with deliberate sprinkles of quaintness scattered throughout. But every time the audience is tempted to get lulled into the film’s sweetly sentimental lullaby (supported by an amazing score), del Toro provides a paradoxically melancholic staccato. Sometimes, these expertly crafted little moments of contrast are small and barely noticeable, but in other instances, they manifest as noticeably dark and even discerning plot devices. This constant shift between ‘cute’ and ‘not so cute’ teases the audience intellectually throughout the film and it’s clear that del Toro took a lot of care in delicately decorating his cinematic tapestry.

"But every time the audience is tempted to get lulled into the film’s sweetly sentimental lullaby, del Toro provides a paradoxically melancholic staccato..."

As with all great films, the director’s great ambitions are supported by a stellar cast, with Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine, Happy-go-lucky) leading the helm as the film’s highly intriguing protagonist. The greatest compliment I can give Hawkins is that it’s hard to imagine anyone else fulfilling this role – it really feels like the role was meant to played by Hawkins and anyone else would have done it a disservice. There’s an unbashful sincerity to Hawkin’s portrayal of the mute Eliza Esposito that is nothing short but mesmerising.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic and it would be insulting not to mention Michael Shannon’s (Nocturnal Animals) role as Strickland, one of the most infuriatingly fascinating antagonists you’ll come across. Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins fill out the rest of the key supporting roles in expert fashion, resulting in an acting tour de force that will likely stay with you for weeks after you’ve watched the film.

The broader cast does an amazing job in fleshing out the film’s secondary themes and motives, some of which are as intriguing as the main love story that it all revolves around. And even though some of the film’s traditional character archetypes and sub-plots feel awkwardly outdated for a 2018 film (e.g. the suppression of women in the workplace, sexual discrimination), it soon becomes clear that del Toro intended for this to be the case. Del Toro is perhaps trying to remind his modern day audience (that have been desensitised to these matters) that they are still very relevant issues in today’s modern society.

Enjoying lunch and a song with a new friend.
It would also be a shame not to mention the film’s stunning visual style. When you consider that del Toro was the man responsible for the visually assaulting Pan’s Labyrinth, then it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Shape of Water is yet another visual feast for the eyes. This time around, Del Toro juxtaposes his knack for visceral visual horror with a world that feels like something taken straight out of the pages of a Disney fairy tale. This results in a hauntingly beautiful cinematic painting that is hard to compare with anything that has come before it.

To simply sum up Shape of Water as a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for modern adult audiences, is in my opinion, underestimating its brilliance. There is a layered complexity to this enthrallingly strange film that makes it transcend anything that it might resemble on a surface level. What makes the film a true masterpiece is that it can appeal to different audiences at the same, without alienating the rest: whether you are looking for a sentimental, but slightly quirky romantic drama; or rather, a highly artistic and dark cinematic excursion, Shape of Water will take you on a journey you are unlikely to forget. 

Highlight: Any scene with Hawkins in it – take your pick.