Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having taken over as ruler of Wakanda, King T’Challa – aka the Black Panther – faces a challenger from his family’s past…

Black Panther is a marvellous showcase for Afrofuturism, an aesthetic that combines African-influenced art with technological motifs. Many scenes dazzle with costumes, sets, make-up and CG-created backdrops that show off this bold, beautiful, colourful look, and it gives the film a tone and mood different from any other movie of its type. As a new-to-Hollywood explosion of design it’s comparable to Blade Runner’s use of futuristic film noirism in 1982. You can feel the fresh air blowing through the genre, and this is indicative of the whole movie.

After 17 consecutive films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe built around white, male lead characters, here – pointedly, unashamedly, gloriously – is a story about black characters, featuring a mostly black cast and made by a black director. It certainly paid off financially: at the time of writing, Black Panther is the highest-grossing solo superhero film ever, the highest-grossing film made by a black director, and the ninth highest-grossing film of all time. Thankfully, it’s an enjoyable watch too.

The story begins a week after events seen in Captain America: Civil War (2016). After the death of his father in that movie, the new king of secluded African country Wakanda is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a dignified, unflappable man who clearly cares for his nation and takes his responsibilities seriously. He’s officially crowned after an elaborate and ritualistic ceremony, which is a scene that risks dragging the movie into po-faced territory. Thankfully, there’s some comic relief from T’Challa’s cheeky sister, Shuri (a sparkling Letitia Wright), who as the story progresses acts as Q to his James Bond. The king also has an entertainingly grumpy bodyguard called Okoye (played by Danai Gurira, who has badass form after her stint in The Walking Dead), while Hollywood old hands Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett crop up in small roles.

But all is not copacetic is the world of Wakanda. Just like the Amazonian paradise seen in Wonder Woman – that other recent superhero film that broke free of the white-male paradigm – Wakanda is a highly developed society that has chosen isolationism. It hides away from the rest of the world, actively putting forth the myth that it’s a backwards country of farmers when it’s actually wealthier and more technologically advanced than anywhere else on the planet. It’s an odd situation in which to place your hero. Superman, Batman, the X-Men, Iron Man and the rest all risk their lives to help innocent strangers. T’Challa, however, is the ruler of a pull-the-ladder-up society. We don’t see him help a single person other than himself and his allies until the film’s closing moments. (It’s best not to ponder how many atrocities Wakanda has stood by and ignored over the years – just in Africa alone.)

But there’s a dissenting voice to this conservatism. T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), spends her time helping women in other countries and advocates sharing Wakanda’s wealth and resources with the world. This gets the king thinking, but his aide W’Kabi (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) is concerned. ‘You let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them and then Wakanda is like everywhere else,’ he says. Charming.

Meanwhile, the plot kicks off… At the Museum of Great Britain, two men overpower security and steal an ancient weapon from a display case. Surely the UK was chosen by the writers deliberately because of its colonial past, while the use of a museum is a neat comment on the West’s appropriation of African heritage and culture; we even learn that the weapon has been naively mislabelled. It’s a fun, slick sequence and it introduces the movie’s villain in style. Erik Stevens (Michael B Jordan) is an American with Special Forces experience. Within moments of showing up, he’s joined Loki, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Yondu and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Adrian Toomes as one of the most effective bad guys in the Marvel series. There’s danger and attitude in Jordan’s performance. There’s fun too: as well as nabbing the axe, Stevens also steals a flamboyant mask from the museum just because he ‘feels’ it. Working alongside him is Ulysses Klaue (an entertaining Andy Serkis, returning from 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron). In another loaded reference to white oppression, Klaue has an Afrikaans accent.

When T’Challa learns that old nemesis Klaue has some Vibranium – an exclusively Wakandian mineral – and plans to sell it in South Korea, the king wants him caught and brought to justice for past crimes. We then get a sequence in Seoul that’s often reminiscent of a similar scene in the Bond film Skyfall – our heroes stalk a golden-lit casino, quipping to each other over earpieces, before the fighting begins. At this point we’re also reintroduced to CIA agent Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman), who T’Challa encountered earlier in the series and is now after Klaue for his own reasons. (When Ross and Klaue meet, it means a reunion of Hobbit actors. As somewhere far cleverer than me once joked on Twitter, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis are this film’s Tolkien white guys.)

After a fun car chase, with Shuri remotely operating a vehicle from back in her lab and T’Challa suiting up as his Black Panther alter ego, Stevens nabs Klaue from under the noses of new allies T’Challa and Ross. Stevens then kills his former ally and delivers his corpse to Wakanda. We learn that – although raised in America – Erik is actually N’Jadaka, the king’s cousin, so he has a claim to the throne. And he’s a far more radical personality than T’Challa. He’s seen the hardship suffered throughout the world by people ‘who look like us’ and wants to use Wakanda’s resources to help them fight back. Swaggering into a meeting of the king’s retinue, he demands a challenge of combat. T’Challa feels he has no option but to fight; Stevens wins, seemingly kills our hero, and takes over running the country.

There’s then, sadly, a rather leaden period of the film as it tries to pretend that T’Challa is dead. (Does that cliché *ever* work in a film?) Meanwhile, Stevens starts to enact his aggressive policies, much to the chagrin of the other Wakandians. It’s a bit like those episodes of The West Wing where CJ, Josh and the others react badly as John Goodman takes over as President. No one’s happy, but they don’t feel as if they have a choice. (Perhaps a fistfight in a lagoon is not the best way of choosing a nation’s executive officer, guys.)

Eventually, after it’s revealed that T’Challa is alive (yay!), he and his friends mount a huge assault on the capital and we head into one of those loooong superhero-movie climaxes of fighting, jumping, crashing, fighting, flying, quipping, fighting and lots of CGI-ing. But you forgive the film the indulgence. Firstly because Black Panther has been – for the most part – an engaging and enjoyable action flick. But secondly because it’s patently an important movie. Hollywood has been maddeningly slow to recognise the need for diversity, and superhero films have not been immune to that. Black Panther is a proud, confident step in the right direction.

And as it nears its end, it becomes apparent that the stylish design work is not the only echo of Blade Runner. There aren’t many films where the bad guy steals the scene as he realises he’s about to die, but it happens in Black Panther. After T’Challa and Erik have fought for the future of Wakanda, the latter is mortally wounded. The king says he can get help. ‘Why?’ says Stevens, tears in his eyes. ‘So you can just lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.’

Eight gamblers in the casino out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Ultraworld (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew of the Liberator encounter an artificial planet with a macabre secret…

Series C, episode 10. Written by: Trevor Hoyle. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 10 March 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (35) has spotted something close to the Liberator and is concerned, especially after Zen reports that that it’s giving off no quantifiable readings. Visually it looks like an enormous conker shell in space, and Avon soon assumes it’s an alien-built artificial planet. When Cally then goes missing and radios for help from the planet, Avon is unsure whether they should follow, saying it’s too dangerous. But Tarrant and Dayna convince him to mount a rescue: all three teleport over and learn that the planet – Ultraworld – is one huge, self-aware computer staffed by blue-skinned, bald, officious men called Ultras. Later, Avon is taken prisoner by the Ultras and they attempt to cut-and-paste his brainwaves into the central computer system. Eek!
* Cally (33) warns Avon that getting too close to the planet will bring trouble, then when alone she reacts oddly to some kind of psychic sensation she picks up from it. She suffers from an unexplained mental trauma and ends up on Ultraworld, where the Ultras put her in a sleep cell (for her own good, they claim). So that means that Cally is absent for a bulk of the episode for a second week running.
* Tarrant (10) wants to rescue Cally as soon as they realise she’s missing. When he, Dayna and Avon meet the Ultras, they initially seem trustworthy and sincere and say they’re collecting data for a vast, digital archive of information (imagine!). But cynical Tarrant is unconvinced. He does some snooping and discovers memories stored on cassette-like devices, while the people whose brains have been harvested are left as zombies. It then gets even worse: the Ultras are currently downloading Cally’s consciousness! Double eek!
* Zen (30).
* Vila (36) stays on the ship during the crisis and amuses himself by teaching Orac jokes and riddles. He then realises that his colleagues are in trouble with a capital Troub.
* Dayna (10) goes on the run with Tarrant when they realise Ultraworld is far from a benign place. They escape down the planet’s industrial innards, find de-brained victims of the Ultras (including Cally! And Avon!), then come across a large brain at the centre of the planet which is feeding on the husks. Eventually, Dayna and Tarrant manage to win the day, escape, and reload Cally and Avon’s consciousnesses back into their bodies. (There’s the requisite gag from Tarrant as he sheepishly hopes he got them the right way round.) Phew!
* Orac (20) takes Vila’s jokes literally at first (like the fussy little twat he is), but then he starts to appreciate the puns and wordplay.

Best bit: While being held prisoner by the Ultras, Dayna matter-of-factly brokers a deal with them. They have a gap in their knowledge: the human bonding ritual. So Dayna suggests she and Tarrant have sex in order for them to study the procedure. In exchange, the Ultras will let them go. ‘Kiss me,’ she orders Tarrant. Brazen and confident, it suits Dayna’s character well – as does the twist that comes a few moments later: it was just a ruse to engineer an escape.

Note: this beautifully lit shot filmed in tunnels under Camden almost stole the Best Bit category away.

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Worst bit: When Dayna and Tarrant find the victims who have had their brains wiped, Dayna asks what will now happen to the mindless bodies. ‘Perhaps they’re food,’ says Tarrant. ‘Food? Food for what?’ she asks. ‘For thought,’ suggests Tarrant, suggesting (accurately) that the organic matter is fed to the gigantic brain that runs Ultraworld. WHY WASN’T THIS EPISODE CALLED ‘FOOD FOR THOUGHT’?!

Review: It’s clichéd, for sure – especially the bland Ultras, who could have lumbered in from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager – but the episode has a certain zip to it that keeps the interest. Pulpy but fun.

Seven solecisms and grammatical discrepancies out of 10

Next episode: Moloch

The Birds (1963)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A small town is terrorised when the local bird population begins attacking people…

The Birds is one of those films with a big reputation. Too big, perhaps. Like Psycho – the film Hitchcock made immediately prior to this one – it’s a horror movie that’s built on its scares. And admittedly the sequences of avian assaults are relentless and violent and terrifying. But sadly, once the trick’s been played, there’s not a huge amount left to admire. It’s a film whose bark is more deadly than its bite. Or should that be, whose squawk is more deadly than its flight?

A vital component to this kind of story is a slow build-up to the terror so we have a chance to get to know the characters before the carnage begins, and this one starts with a meet-cute in a pet shop. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) flirts with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and is so intrigued by the confident lawyer that she finds out where he’s spending the weekend and drives there to surprise him. She soon meets his family – a haughty mother played by Jessica Tandy, a tweenage daughter played by Alien’s Veronica Cartwright – and his neighbours. But it’s a slight story with precious little interest and it’s soon forgotten about when the strangeness begins.

Why the local birds begin persecuting and attacking people is never explained. They simply target our characters and the other residents of sleepy town Bodega Bay, California. As the incidents pile up, including an impressively staged explosion at a petrol station and scenes where people have their eyes plucked out, the film starts to seem familiar – at least to a modern viewer. Swap the birds for the undead and you’d have a zombie movie.

That genre wasn’t really defined until a few years later, when George A Romero directed the seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). But here’s Alfred Hitchcock in 1963 preempting so many of its ideas and themes. The characters in The Birds are pushed to the limit by an impersonal, illogical threat that they don’t understand and they can’t reason with. It wants to hurt them, pure and simple. Also, with people fleeing, in hiding or killed, Bodega Bay soon starts to feel like a post-apocalyptic frontier town. Residents board up their houses, preparing for the next onslaught, while the authorities are noticeably absent. (There is a cop character, but he does little more than belittle the threat posed by the birds.)

But the best zombie films work because – like in any kind of successful thriller – you care about the characters. Melanie and Mitch, however, never quite punch through. They’re uninteresting people played by actors giving uninteresting performances.

Six men walking his dogs out of 10