Film Review: Black Panther

Often the weight of expectation can seriously damage your enjoyment of a movie, and having watched the excitement and adoration for this film grow online when I finally got to see it this week it had a lot to live up to.

To it’s credit it is a solid movie, entertaining throughout and a worthy addition to the MCU. However, for me it seems like a second tier entry in the series and not quite as good as some of the hype had said.

The film deals with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning to his homeland of Wakanda to assume the throne following the death of his father (see Captain America: Civil War). He must deal with his own doubts about whether he is ready to rule.

He also pursues Ulysseus Klaue (Andy Serkis) an arms dealer who has stolen Wakanda’s most valuable resource, Vibranium, the metal which powers their advanced technology. Klaue also has a new ally in Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), a vicious and ruthless individual with a murky past and secret connections to the Wakandan royal family.

Can T’Challa adapt to his new role as king and maintain justice? Can Wakanda keep it’s advances secret and safe from the rest of the world?

The good for this movie is that it continues the entertaining, fun and action filled tone that the Marvel universe is built on. It also creates a whole new setting in Wakanda, a high tech utopia. To the credit of the filmmakers they have crafted a fictional society that feels real, with it’s own traditions, factions and history.

Some aspects of this are wonderfully done like the Dora Milaje, an all female elite guard who are shown as a brilliantly badass fighting force. Or the way each of Wakanda’s five tribes is different.

However, there was one aspect of Wakanda that struck a bum note with me. It seems massively selfish of the country to horde the technology it has, and while concerns over their weaponry are understandable, their withholding of medical advancements is hard to defend. This forms part of the plot of the film but at times the “Wakanda is best” rhetoric from some characters felt a little bit full of itself.

Similarly a point about how Wakanda had been spared oppression unlike much of Africa didn’t ring true. Yes, it had kept out foreign invaders, but T’Challa’s ancestors had taken over the five tribes because of the powers given to them by Vibranium.

These minor points aside the movie works well, although for once this is a comic book film that could have benefited from more villains, perhaps a henchman for Killmonger. It would have provided a second more viable threat for the finale.

That being said the finale is pretty good anyway, and the fight scenes throughout are very well done, particularly the larger scale battles. There’s also a belter of a car chase.

I enjoyed this movie and had great fun. I’ve long liked the character of T’Challa and Boseman does good work here, even if the love subplot was a little underwhelming. And there are some good new characters introduced, particularly M’Baku (Winston Duke) leader of one of Wakanda’s tribes and a swaggering, colourful character who exists on the fringe of Wakandan society. Similarly I also really liked Okoye, the Dora Milaje leader played by The Walking Dead star Danai Gurira, who can kickass but hints at a softer, more humorous side.

A solid adventure and ticks a lot of boxes, but I think I went in expecting too much.

Verdict; 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Frozen Heat by Richard Castle

Having recently finished and rewatched Castle I was eager to throw myself back into the tie-in novels and this, the fourth instalment, didn’t disappoint.

Nikki Heat investigates when a body is found crammed into a suitcase and stashed in a freezer truck. But the case becomes painfully personal when she recognises the case as having belonged to her mother, stolen the night of her murder.

Digging into the case she discovers more connections to her mother and her death, and soon begins to delve into a murky world of secrets and conspiracy. Learning new things about her mother, Heat must confront the secrets she kept and is left questioning her morality.

Aided by wisecracking journalist Jameson Rook, Heat hunts for justice but must also deal with the walls she has built up emotionally. Are these more hurtful than helpful?

Again, I think that this book provides more for viewers of the show as there are little injokes and references to it (they even work in a Firefly reference). Similarly, the characters are thinly veiled versions of the show’s, meaning long-term fans will have a clearer image of the characters.

However, I believe that even for newcomers to the world would enjoy what is a fun, if formulaic, thriller. This is the kind of airport novel which entertains and grips you enough but won’t change your life.

Verdict: An involving and entertaining thriller which ticks a lot of boxes and is a fun, gripping way to pass the time. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: The Beautiful Dream by Ralf Haley

I found myself identifying a lot with Ralf Haley. Like him I was a kid who loved football and who dreamed of being a professional. And like him, I was nowhere near good enough.

It’s a dream billions of kids have across the world, with only a relatively small number of them achieving it. I knew I was crap even as a kid, and realised that my few skills – okay in the air, hoofed clearances and hacking tackles, weren’t going to be enough. And so, my dream faded away aside from bus stop daydreams where I envision myself leading Swansea to Champions League glory.

Haley, however, reignites his dream and despite hating exercise and not having played a proper match in years decides to give it one last go. He just wants to get paid to play once. One euro, one minute, it doesn’t matter. He’ll still be able to say “I was a professional footballer”.

Haley sends requests for trials all over the world. He joins the gym, which he hates and tries to play more football. He also starts saving money from the job he hates to fund his trip to various countries.

He chooses smaller, less successful footballing nations and sets out with his brother in tow. Malta, Andorra, Latvia and Lithuania are among his destinations as he tries to get a game.

It’s a frankly crazy idea but one that is admirable in it’s ambition, naivety and optimism. Haley wants it badly, and throws himself into his trials.

The problem is that while the quest is noble, it feels half baked and left me wanting more. Haley gives himself a few months to train and save cash, leaving him a relatively small budget. I found myself wondering why he didn’t save for longer which would have helped him go to more places and got his fitness to a higher level too.

This not only would have made the book more interesting and given Haley more countries to write about, but would have helped his chances, as his low key build up leaves his mission looking pretty likely.

The writing is good, if nothing special and could do with a bit more of a polish. And the tone shifts quite a lot, with lots of moaning slightly souring the optimism of his journey. Haley is likeable enough and fairly humorous, but the banter between him and his brother grated on me, completely failing to win me over. It’s like an inside joke, with me being the outsider who views it as stupid.

That being said it was a decent read and Haley’s conclusion is strong. And I had to admire him for just going for it, despite the odds.

Verdict: Flawed but fun, Haley’s dreams surpass his abilities as a writer. A decent attempt at the dream but at times a frustrating one as you wish he had done more. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: In the Arms of Family by Chris Philbrook

Part six of Philbrook’s Adrian’s Undead Diary series picks up after the previous instalment’s revelation that one of Adrian’s allies had been under the sway of evil forces. Here we see our hero and his allies dealing with this and also fresh challenges.

There are new, shady types about in town and some of their allies are brought down by a man on the inside. Now those survivors are living with Adran but he knows one is not to be trusted. But which one.

By witholding the identity of this traitor Philbrook ratchets up the tension and leaves the reader unsure and uneasy at the prospect of their next move. Similarly, aside from vague allusions, the new group of enemy survivors are kept hidden. It leaves Adrian worried about what to do next and leaves the reader on the hook.

Elsewhere Philbrook does very well in slowly, steadily building the good vs evil story in the background and bringing the players together. It’s great writing and provides a deeper meaning for the zombies.

As ever Adrian’s diary is at times crude and vulgar, but it works for the character and makes it feel more real. And despite writing from this perspective for much of the book Philbrook is fleshing out some of the supporting cast nicely.

This book doesn’t have as many interludes as before which is a shame as each one so far has served to expand the world Philbrook is building and introduce fresh characters and events. They also provide more tension for the reader than the diary entry format does.

And as with every book so far it left me craving more.

Verdict: Another solid entry in the series which adds more threats and deepens the storyline. Well written and utterly gripping. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: What Does This Button Do? By Bruce Dickinson

Iron Maiden frontman and Bruce Dickinson, would be an interesting bloke based purely on his rock god status. But this book reveals a man for whom music is just one of many interests.

These include flying, machines, history and fencing. All of these side interests add depth to a man who could just have stuck to the music side of his life. Throughout this book Dickinson comes across as a smart bloke, but one without too much ego. When there is boasting it’s undercut with humour and balanced out when he owns his failures.

Despite this the book disappoints, mainly because of how thin it is. You get the impression there are plenty of stories left untold, and he confesses to being selective. In fact, the personal side aside from band break ups and learning to fly is completely missing. There are no romances or relationships, and his family don’t feature after he heads to university in the 70s.

It’s these gaps that leave the reader, or this reader at least, feeling a little short changed. Dickinson’s no frills writing is likeable and charming, and makes good company to be in, but frequently it feels too guarded or too shallow. More went on than is told.

That’s not that it’s without emotion, particularly a sequence where Bruce visits wartorn Sarajevo or his cancer fight. Both are handled well, without too much wallowing.

It’s a decent read, but leaves you wanting more and knowing that Dickinson could have given so much book.

Therefore it’s a decent read, but sadly underwhelming.

Verdict: Dickinson is funny, clever and good company. There are some good tales and insight, but it feels as though the walls are up and a lot is missing. Entertaining enough but by no means definitive. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Film Review: The Greatest Showman

Okay, right off the bat I need to be clear; I know this is a highly fictionalized version of PT Barnum’s life and that it whitewashes more controversial and problematic parts of the tale. However, this is a review of the film, not a comparison with facts. Therefore I stress my enjoyment of the movie is not an endorsment of the real life Barnum.

So, yeah, I enjoyed this film. I went in slightly apprehensive as for some reason I thought it was a Baz Luhrman movie, but it’s actually directed by Michael Gracey who has Luhrman’s abilities with choreography and big sequences, without his more overblown excesses.

Hugh Jackman excels as Barnum, a poor boy desperate to succeed and win the posh girl he loves. He makes Barnum a likeable character, a showy individual who blags his way through life.

He sets up a museum of curiosities in New York and quickly assembles a cast of unique individuals.

The film paints the freak show in an empowering light, with Barnum giving the performers a family and a home and treating them fairly. It’s a leap from the real story and it feels a little bit of a cop out, but the performers do well. Keala Settle playing the Bearded Lady is the focal point for this, a woman blessed with a great singing voice who gains confidence through her role in Barnum’s show.

The problems arise when Barnum becomes obsessed with respectability and showing up his dismissive inlaws. The chip on his shoulder is understandable, and it adds conflict. Caught up in his first highbrow success, the singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) he places himself in a financial danger and drives a wedge between himself and those close to him.

He ignores the show, treats the performers as though he is ashamed of them and his marriage to Charity, fantastically played by Michelle Williams, is shaken.

Williams is solid throughout, in a quieter, more fragile role who attempts to curb Barnum’s excesses and get him to appreciate his life, to let go of his deep rooted grievances and merely enjoy the happy life he has built. She serves as the balance to him and her singing is on point, it’s not a showy role compared to others but it is a solid performance.

Jackman carries the weight brilliantly, his Barnum a charming individual with relatable, understandable flaws. Even as he becomes selfish and foolish he keeps audiences onside and pulls back from utter scoundrel territory.

It helps that Jackman is phenomenal in the song and dance numbers, especially a strong opening number and several big duets with Williams.

The songs are fantastic throughout and the direction creates many outstanding set pieces. The strongest are Settle’s defiant “This Is Me” and a heartfelt duet between Zac Efron and Zendaya, “Rewrite the Stars” is lush, romantic and beautiful filmmaking.

The Efron and Zendaya subplot which sees his upper class man join as Barnum’s apprentice and fall for the trapeze artist is well played, if slightly rushed. It feels as though one or two scenes more might have fleshed out the romance more, but both performers do their jobs well.

It’s especially good to see Efron back to exuding his early charm and talents, having been in a few dumb comedies. He may be second fiddle to Jackman, but he showcases charisma which proves he could and should be one of the leading men of his generation.

In fact, the cast is universally good and the effect is a fantastic musical which charmed me. Big, daring and striking this mixes old school musicals with modern tech and effects.

The subject matter, despite the efforts to clean it up and give it an empowering spin, can’t eliminate the exploitation entirely and the appearance of circus animals was for me a jolt out of my disbelief. But taken as a musical and a work of fiction it succeeded in impressing and entertaining me.

Fun and well made, but probably won’t bear up to much scrutiny or factual analysis.

Verdict: An enjoyable and beautifully crafted musical, if one checks reality at the door and just goes with it. Jackman and Efron are standouts in a cast who are all on form. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Film Review: Coco

Ladies and gentlemen, we have an early challenger for my film of the year.

Disney and Pixar knock this one out of the park creating a beautiful, gorgeous world to tell a charming and affecting story of family, music and remembrance.

Set in Mexico and based around the Day of the Dead festivities this is probably Pixar’s best movie since Inside Out and one which takes a place with the very best the studio has produced.

The Rivera family have effectively banned music after an ancestor left to become a singer, never returning and meaning his wife had to work, creating a successful shoe making business. However, young boy Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is loves music and has adopted local musical legend Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) as his hero.

He wants to take part in a talent show but is forbidden by his grandmother, who insists he spends Day of the Dead with his family. As they set out the pictures of dead ancestors and relatives, the photo of his great-great-grandmother is dropped. The broken frame reveals that the photo has been folded. Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, the runaway musician, who’s face has been torn from the picture is revealed to be holding Ernesto’s famous guitar.

Miguel takes this as a sign, and argues that he his honouring his family’s traditions, but his grandmother smashes his guitar. Angry, Miguel storms out, announcing he doesn’t want to be part of the family. Desperate to find a guitar to compete he breaks into De La Cruz’s crypt and steals the car.

It is at this point the movie really kicks in, with the already charming and likeable film embracing the supernatural and introducing the ghostly ancestors who have come across to the land of the living to visit their family. The art here is great with the ghostly figures styled after sugar skulls and their skeletal figures retaining unique characteristics for each person.

Miguel can see them because having been cursed for stealing from the dead. He must break the curse by sunrise, by obtaining the blessing of a family member, however, his great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) only offers a blessing with the condition that he never plays music. The rest of the family refuse to go against the matriarch and so Miguel decides to find De La Cruz.

Miguel travels through the city of the dead, a vibrant, strange world with his only guide Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) a scruffy, trickster who tries to trick his way across to the living. But nobody has put up a photo of him so he can not cross. He claims to know Ernesto and agrees to help Miguel on the condition that he takes his photo so he can cross once more and see his daughter one last time before she forgets him.

When the dead are forgotten they vanish forever, and Hector’s daughter is the only one who remembers him.

Can Miguel break the curse? Will his hero Ernesto help him? And will Hector get to see his daughter again?

This film is simply gloruous. The artwork is beautiful and the colourful, sprawling city of the dead and it’s residents are extremely well done.

The characters are fantastic too, with Miguel a charming, likeable hero. He has humour and courage, and it’s through his eyes we experience the wonderful world he enters.

Similarly, the swaggering De La Cruz and scruffy Hector are both engaging and interesting characters and their story unfolds nicely. One of the revelations is easy to see coming, but there are a few twists in the tale.

As Miguel tries to break the curse he comes to understand the importancr of family and how much they mean to him. It also serves as a powerful reminder of respecting our past and appreciating how it shapes us.

The film has raw emotional power, not just in the melancholic nature of the city of the dead but in the handling of Miguel’s great-grandmother, Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), who is losing her memory and in confused moments still waiting for her father to return.

Sod it, I have to give a spoiler here, but to be fair, most grown up viewers will guess it during the movie.

Hector is Coco’s father, and he did know Ernesto, in fact he wrote many of his songs. Ernesto’s bombastic signature tune “Remember Me” is actually based on a quieter, more low key song Hector wrote and sang to his daughter.

The scene where Miguel returns home and sings this to her, reviving the long dormant memory is one of the most moving scenes I’ve seen in a long time, and reduced WoM and me to tears.

The moving scene, which captures all of the film’s themes is wonderful and caps the movie beautifully.

Loaded with charm, gorgeous to look at and profoundly moving, this one will be hard to beat in 2018.

Verdict: An utter delight. Some plot developments are easy to see coming, but it doesn’t rob the film of it’s ability to move you. A fun, emotional and beautiful film. 9.5.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: Like Love by Ed McBain

I returned to the 87th Precinct once more and was rewarded with an involving read loaded with red herrings and twists.

Steve Carella attempts to talk down a woman on a ledge. He fails and she jumps to her death. Across town a salesman rings a faulty doorbell which triggers a gas explosion. Inside the flat are two dead lovers, lying in bed seemingly after a suicide pact.

Carella and Cotton Hawes investigate, and despite no concrete evidence something seems hinky. With a nagging doubt they look into the case. There are a couple of suspects, a cuckolded husband and a mother who would collect a healthy insurance policy, but nothing sticks. It looks like a suicide, but there’s still something in the back of the cops’ heads, something off about the whole thing.

McBain’s skill here is to layer in a few subplots as well as sprinkling minor clues into the narrative. Things you almost miss but at the end hang together well. There’s also a false trail and a few events which muddy the waters, although one red herring does lead to the epiphany that closes the case.

The writing is tough and fast paced, as is usual for McBain and there’s also the same flashes of humour and small, nuanced character work that fleshes out even the supporting players.

All in all this is a smart, captivating read.

Verdict: A solid entry in the series and an interesting case. McBain’s writing flows wonderfully and he structures the investigation cleverly. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: Help by Simon Amstell

This book comes with a selection of glowing quotes on the back. Adam Buxton, Russell Brand, Matt Lucas and Martin Freeman are all quoted heaping praise on Amstell’s writing. I couldn’t understand it, as I didn’t feel this bowled at the end. My response was a lot more “Meh”.

Here’s the thing, I like Simon Amstell. I’ve been a fan since his days on Popworld and this book includes excerpts of his stand up, which are quite funny. The writing too is amusing and, in places, earnestly open, with Amstell talking about his fears, insecurities and anxiety.

But the book feels throwaway. Amstell touches on these issues, but in a way I found shallow, never going deeper. Similarly, while there are a few decent stories there are massive gaps in his life story and it feels rushed.

I enjoyed reading it, but would struggle to muster enthusiasm in recommending it to you, reader. It’s not awful, and I smiled to myself a few times. But my main feeling was of disappointment.

A decent read, but nothing special.

Verdict: Amstell is funny and open, but the book feels lightweight and superficial. Passes the time, but I doubt it will stay with me. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: Wrath by Chris Philbrook

After a few nonfiction books I figured it was about time to travel to the land of make believe. And so I returned to Philbrook’s Adrian’s Undead Diary series.

The fifth instalment follows the same structure, with the story told through the journal entries of Adrian, a foul mouthed, ex-soldier who leads a small group of survivors against the undead. These are broken up by sections which follow supporting characters and sketch in more details of the post apocalyptic world.

The series, thanks to Adrian’s funny, profane narration has been a winner from the jump, but Philbrook has slowly added more meat to the story. Supernatural elements have been added and the setting up of a good vs evil game afoot is handled well, and explains certain characters’ actions.

There’s plenty of twists and action, and one revealation about a long standing character is a gut punch, but written well.

A series which grows in terms of depth and scope, this continues to be a very entertaining read.

Verdict: The story continues to develop and Philbrook keeps the reader hooked. Left me keen for part 6. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.