Thoughts On: Black Panther

I am super late to the party on this, but as Black Panther is still dominating the Box Office on both sides of the Atlantic, I figured I would share some quick thoughts here.

Much like my experience with Wonder Woman, I’m not that interested in the wider Marvel universe and I think with the exception of a random 20 or 30 minutes here and there I haven’t seen any of the current run of films (I have watched previous Spider Man incarnations though). However, Black Panther gained my interest because Lupita Nyong’o is one of my favourites, and I’m always keen to prove certain portions of the internet wrong when they claim that no one will watch a minority-dominated film.

If you also had no idea about Black Panther, the general story is as follows. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes king of Wakanda after the death of his father. To the outside world, Wakanda is believed to be an incredibly deprived sub-Saharan African country. However, in reality, it is an extremely modern high-tech society and T’Challa faces concerns immediately from Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who believes they should do more to help the outside world. This becomes all the more pressing when an outside returns to Wakanda, posing a threat to everything that T’Challa is trying to maintain.

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One of the first things to say about the film that it just looks stunning. From the futuristic Wakanda, to the land of the ancestors, the scenery, designed by Jay Hart, is just stunning. This is enhanced by excellent costume design from Ruth Carter, which combine traditional dress with futuristic elements suitable for a film placed in the Marvel universe.

However, obviously what has made Black Panther such a smash is its story. Ryan Coogler is the film’s writer and director, and he has created a story that in some ways stays very true to superhero tropes and in some ways moves far away from this. Coogler directs action sequences that are brilliant; from uncomfortably close contact 1-on-1 fights for the position of King, to a sprawling final battle sequence featuring the varied tribes, you feel incredibly close to the action (my non-action film watching housemate was very shaken by it).

In other ways, though, Coogler really moves away from typical hero films. Women are really placed front and centre in his screenplay. Nakia is T’Challa’s love interest, but she’s also a committed humanitarian. The country’s lead troops are all female, and are led by the brilliant Okoye (Danai Gurira) who is just a bad-ass,  and represents the complicated place of the army behind the throne even when the throne no longer represents what you believe in. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is T’Challa’s younger sister and also casually the smartest person in the country, whose work is behind the transport systems, healthcare systems, defence systems. It was such a breath of fresh air to see women kicking butt and being smart; especially being women of colour.

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Coogler also excellently challenges what a villain is in a superhero film. Usually, villains have had some kind of experience with the protagonist that makes them hate them and therefore all of humanity (e.g. estranged brothers, thwarted lover, overlooked friend). In this case, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) does have an experience as a child which turns him against the ruling family of Wakanda. However, he sees Wakanda’s protectionist, internal focus as letting down black people across the world, and believes that they should play a role in overthrowing oppressors. This complexity of a villain is really interesting, and makes the ending actually pretty sad (I cried).

The interesting script dynamics are really helped by the solid performances from the entire cast. As T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman is a really quietly strong presence at the centre of the film. His physical contrast with Jordan really emphasises the difference between T’Challa and Killmonger’s beliefs, and Boseman felt very royal. I also loved Letitia Wright as Shuri, she was funny and smart and just a really warm presence in the film. Other good performances came from Andy Serkis who appeared to be loving chewing the scenery as South African arms-dealer and real bad guy Klaue; and Winston Duke as M’Baku, the leader of a tribe in Wakanda who reject the ruling Wakandans who starts as a bit of a scary presence and turns out to be some great comic relief.

Black Panther is a great, fun watch as well as being a great, different and diverse addition to the superhero film cannon. I’d recommend checking it out if it’s still in the cinema near you.

Amy
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Thoughts On: The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water is this year’s best picture winner and so I was keen to see what all the hype was about. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water is the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a cleaner in a secret research laboratory during the Cold War. One day a very special asset arrives at the lab, along with new security man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and Elisa finds herself bonding with this amphibian man (Doug Jones), with whom she appears to have a special connection.

When I think about films that seem primed to win Oscars, The Shape of Water is not really one that I would expect to win. It is aesthetically beautiful, with Dan Lausten’s cinematography really lifting the scenes. It is also a film that is fairly weird, this is a film with a love story between a woman and a merman at its heart after all. That being said, it is also a film about outsiders. Elisa is a mute who only communicates through sign language, who lives next door to Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is gay and whose only friend at work is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black woman. They come up against the wrath of the all-American Strickland, an exemplar of everything that is wrong with seeing the world in a very narrow way. At a time where the other is instantly distrusted, The Shape of Water is a dark, fairy-tale-esque exploration of the possible extreme results from this.

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The Cold War setting plays on the edges of this film, with Michael Stuhlbarg playing a Russian spy, who ultimately becomes too attached to the science behind the merman as opposed to its possible use as an asset for the Soviet project. I’m a bit obsessed with the Cold War so this was only a good thing for me, and I felt that it was well-integrated into the main plot. I also liked the fact that the Russians actually spoke Russian, rather than English with a bizarre accent.

Sally Hawkins is the stand-out performance in this film. As her character cannot speak, Hawkins has to portray all of her characters feelings through her face and body language and she is just perfect at doing that. She is shy and passionate and cheeky all at once. As her opposite, Michael Shannon is just awfully good as Richard Strickland, who is the perfect bad guy in this gothic fairy tale. My other favourite performance has to be that of Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbour Giles. His desperation to find acceptance, his love of old Hollywood musicals and of Elisa herself is just beautifully portrayed, and I’m glad to see that he received award nominations this year. I do just wish that Spencer had had more to do than play Elisa’s kind of sassy black friend.

Amy
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Thoughts On: Lady Bird

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Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s second project as writer and director, and has received huge critical acclaim, and is also possibly one of my new favourite films.

It follows Lady Bird or Christine (Saoirse Ronan) who is in her last year at high school. She’s attempting to balance deciding what to do next, her high school friendships and first loves; along with her tumultuous relationship with her Mum (Laurie Metcalf).

It’s a film that just feels really real. Gerwig places the film in the early 2000s, and it just feels very rooted in that time, and the cinematography (by Sam Levy) often feels like a bit of a love letter to Sacramento despite Lady Bird’s vehement hatred of the area and her desire to escape to university on the East Coast.

Lady Bird makes all the choices that you make when you’re a teenager desperate to fit in. She gets involved in school drama to catch the eye of Danny (Lucas Hedges), abandons her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) to chase the friendship of popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush) and antagonises her Mum at every opportunity. There were moments in this film that just reminded me so much of my teenage years it almost hurt, Lady Bird’s overriding desire to get far away from her home town felt very familiar, and her recognition of how much she secretly loves it once she’s away felt like the same experience that I had when I moved to university. I also loved that all the teenagers in this film actually looked like teenagers; there is no glossy hairstyles and clearly ten years too old for their role casting here. Somehow seeing non-perfect looking teens on screen (with acne and everything), made Lady Bird feel all the more real. I also really liked how, like the ladies on SRSLY point out, all the characters in Lady Bird, no matter how little their screen time, clearly had complex lives that were going on off camera.

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This complexity is really helped by the excellent, natural performances which come from the cast. Saoirse Ronan is just a complete star; she’s one of my favourite actresses and she just makes Lady Bird feel completely real. She could be a character that could easily be made slightly ridiculous, and Ronan just gives her such warmth. As her Mum, with whom she has a very complicated relationship, Laurie Metcalf is just very good. Her character has relatively little screen time, but she is great at capturing the ‘warm and cold’ aspect that Lady Bird’s Mum has. All the moments of mother-daughter time they have; such as shopping from a prom dress or listening to tapes of John Steinbeck, felt really familiar and their performances were central to making this so.

In the supporting cast, Tracy Letts does a good job of playing the ‘good cop’ to Metcalf, sensitively capturing the feeling of someone facing joblessness later in life. As Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, Beanie Feldstein really captures the deeper inner life of her character as she moons over the maths teacher and deals with her slightly more fractured home life. Man of the moment Timothee Chalamet does a great job as Kyle (or Every Ex-Boyfriend I’ve Ever Had) the eye-rollingly pretentious guy that Lady Bird falls for.

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I would 100% recommend Lady Bird if you want a film that will fill with nostalgia whilst also making you laugh and cry all in 90 minutes. I’m definitely going to go back and watch Frances Ha, Gerwig’s previous work.

Amy
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Thoughts On: The Post

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Few films scream Oscar-bait quite like The Post; it stars two Hollywood legends (Meryl Streep & Tom Hanks), is directed by Stephen Spielberg and focuses on a key piece of American history, the Vietnam War. So whilst it is surprising that it ‘only’ gained two nominations (Best Picture and Best Actress for Streep), it is still well worth a watch.

The Post throws us behind-the-scenes at the Washington Post in the 1970s. The new publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), has to face down a rebellious board who question her every decision (largely due to the fact that she’s a woman). Meanwhile, the paper’s editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is desperate for it to take a harder stance against the presidency. When a whistleblower leaks papers that suggest a decades-spanning cover-up regarding the Vietnam War, the paper is thrown into an even more perilous position; do they publish the papers and risk the wrath of the Nixon administration, or ignore them in favour of assuring their financial backers and friends in Washington?

This is a film that is squarely in favour of the freedom of the press, and Bradlee frequently has lines that talk about preserving the first amendment. In our current political climate, it feels ever more important that journalists and the press are seen as, to paraphrase the judge’s ruling in this film, serving the governed not the government. The film is a real love letter to old-fashioned journalism, with shots of paper gathering and type-writing galore (perhaps a tad too many, as the film does occasionally feel its 2 hours). The writers (Liz Hannah & Josh Singer) don’t shy away from shining a light on the paper’s cosy relationship with politicians of both parties, and the way that journalists  (especially at this time period) have to make a choice between friendly dinner parties and printing relevant news.

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Of course, with Streep and Hanks at the film’s heart it was pretty guaranteed to be a good one. I was nervous about Streep at first, as she seemed to be doing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady 2.0, but she managed to get across Kay’s determination to do things right; whilst being in a position she never expected to be, surrounded by people who don’t believe she deserves to be there (she takes over the paper upon her husband’s death; who was given leadership by her father). Moments like the ones where she brings all her paperwork to a meeting when the men haven’t, or like when people straight up ignore her presence despite her being the boss were both painful to watch, and well acted by Streep. Hanks is obviously always an endearing screen presence, and it is impossible not to warm to Bradlee as a character, despite his often doggish tactics. There are other good performances from Bradley Whitford (aka Josh Lyman) as chief board bad guy Arthur Parsons and Tracy Letts as Kay’s right-hand man Fritz Beebe.

Spielberg’s direction is for the most part fine; I like how embedded you were in the newsroom, how the chatter would overlap and the inter-weaving of the Watergate tapes. There were, however, moments where I felt like his direction (and John Williams) score were a little heavy-handed. Spielberg clearly wanted to tell Kay’s story as an empowering one and scenes where she was blocked out of character’s walking and talking after meetings; or the divide between the men and women at dinner parties were well-handled. However, occasionally this was a bit forced, namely where Kay leaves the court proceedings and is conveniently surrounded by women whilst stirring music plays. I did feel that in someone else’s hands the film could have been a bit snappier; but then may have been unlikely to attract the calibre of cast that it did.

Whilst it is an obvious Oscar-bait film, The Post is worth a watch, not least to remind you of the hard work journalists do to keep us all informed.

Amy
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THE POST

Thoughts On: Molly’s Game

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The minute I saw that Aaron Sorkin had a new film coming out I was beyond excited to see it; Sorkin is the writer behind The West Wing which I love and The Social Network which I…also love.

Molly’s Game is the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). Encouraged by her father (Kevin Costner) to become a champion skier, a freak accident sees her re-examine what her life will look like. She finds herself working for douchey Dean (Jeremy Strong) who introduces her to the world of celebrity poker, a world she ends up pursuing a very successful career in; only to have it come crashing down with an FBI investigation. The film flicks between her past, and her present, where she is attempting to convince lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) of her innocence.

As you would expect if you’re familiar with Sorkin’s work, the dialogue in this is very snappy and smart. It’s also often funny which is a pleasant surprise in a film that has potential to be a bit dry. This obsession with words does occasionally bleed into the direction, which does have a lot of narration. Sorkin does also seem to borrow from Fincher’s work on The Social Network, particularly on snappy montages around the poker table.

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The film requires a compelling and central performance, and Chastain is fantastic as Molly. She is excellent at showing Molly’s cool ambition, whilst always retaining a connection to the audience. She also just looks stunning, which I feel bad for mentioning, but I did spend a lot of the film wishing I looked like her. Elba is also great as her reluctant defence lawyer; and there are other good supporting performances from Michael Cera as Player X, a horrendously douchey actor; Bill Camp as Harlan Eustice, a poker player who falls foul of the game and Brian d’Arcy James as Brad, a terrible player.

I really enjoyed this film and I would highly recommend checking it out. I came out feeling very ‘girl boss’, making it a great film to see on the first day of 2018.

Amy
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A Year in Review: 2017

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2017 was a bit of a whirlwind year. Looking back at it, I remember the early months and then everything post August seems to have been one massive blur.

It’s also been a year that has contained many ups and downs. I’ve had some fab holidays, eaten at some really nice places and had the best time with the friends that I’ve made. But there’s also been some pretty rubbish moments; both due to the ongoing garbage fire that has been the news, and some bad times at work, which have meant that I was quite glad to see the back of this year. However, I did want to look over the highlights of last year, to get me in the zone for taking 2018 by the horns.

A Year in London
In August I marked surviving my first year living in London. I had my worries about living here, mostly focused around how expensive rent is, whether I would find nice housemates and whether the pace would cause me to burn-out spectacularly. 

Fortunately, whilst it is a horrendously expensive place to live and warps your perceptions of the cost of everything (£500,000 for a 1-bed flat? Reasonable!), I have loved being here. I really landed on my feet finding housemates who have become actual, proper friends who have pushed me to say yes to more things than I would ever have before.

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Living here also means you have access to numerous places for food, and this year has been an absolute treat when it comes to eating out (highlights include Gaucho, The Oxo Tower Brasserie, Dalloway Terrace for afternoon tea and The Modern Pantry). I’ve also been lucky enough to see loads of brilliant theatre, and I managed to get tickets to see Arcade Fire at a tiny boxing venue and a great nice watching one of my favourite bands. 

Whilst I can understand that the cost of living here, and the perma-overdraft life can definitely take its toll, the idea of leaving feels pretty unbearable. 

A Trip to Paris
As I mentioned, this year featured two pretty great holidays. The first was a crazily spontaneous trip to Paris for my 24th birthday. Lounging on the sofa with my housemates, I mentioned that I’d never been to Disney or Paris. Somehow within about 45 minutes we had Eurostar tickets, hotel and Disney passes booked. 

Paris is a city I’ve had a bit of an obsession with since I was a teenager studying French at school; it just seemed the height of glamour; and watching numerous films and TV shows that featured it over the years didn’t do anything to dent that perception. 

So, despite the rain and the slightly dodgy food in the Eiffel Tower restaurant, I was beyond thrilled to see this city with my own eyes. Ticking off the Champs Elyees, the Louvre, the aforementioned Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, I had a fantastic 24th. I then thoroughly enjoyed embracing my inner child at Disney. You can read more about the trip here.

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A Trip to Las Vegas
I’m not going to go into too much details about this as I literally just wrote a post about it, but my trip to Las Vegas was a pretty late highlight of my year. Getting to travel ‘abroad abroad’ for the first time with friends and travelling to the US was pretty great. It also meant I could check off seeing the Grand Canyon from my bucket list.

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Having Great Friends
When the going gets tough, having good people to turn to is really important, and this has really showed over the past 12 months. From the above amazing holidays with my lovely housemates; somehow attending a ball in Oxford with my work friends; picnics in Battersea with my school friends; catch-ups with my former work friends that literally lead me to lose my own voice. I feel very lucky to have them.

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Work Work Work
Whilst work has been a little all over the place this year, and I’m currently a bit :internal screaming: about my future, there are definitely moments that I’m really proud of. Writing a document that has a real impact on shaping the future of my organisation; delivering a programme of music festivals over the summer; and finally discovering my backbone. I’m hoping 2018 will see some positive changes in this area.

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Top Books I Read in 2017:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, an incredible debut novel which explores the history of slavery and colonialism, beginning with two sisters Effia & Esi; one who is sold into slavery, and one who marries a slave-owner.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a brilliant part-memoir/part passionate argument for a remodelling of the US justice system is a very important book.
How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, I fell head-over-heels for Ellis’ memoir of a life in reading and attempting to find herself in novels.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, Green’s latest work is unlikely to convert anyone who isn’t already a fan, but I loved this painfully honest look at mental illness
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a young adult novel will tackles issues that I’d never read about in fiction, The Hate U Give follows Starr as she grapples with the unlawful shooting of her friend by a police officer.
Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blistering memoir of Coates experience of race-relations in the US
Special mentions also need to go to A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss and Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Top Films I Saw in 2017:
La La Land,
I unashamedly loved this film. Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling are wonderful as the central couple, the music is great and whenever I watch it I get an old-school musical high.
Hidden Figuresa film that I think deserved more attention. Following three African-American women in particular who were integral to the space mission at NASA.
DunkirkI have never been more on edge when watching a film than I was watching this. Fantastic ensemble of performances, incredible score and generally great film-making
Baby DriverAnother film that I feel kind of bad about loving (especially due to recent revelations about Kevin Spacey), but I do. Ansel Elgort is great as the reluctant getaway driver, and the sound design and score is great.
Girls Trip, the best ‘chick flick’ I saw this year. A group of friends has become estranged, and when one is invited to New Orleans to be part of the Essence conference she sees it as the perfect opportunity to get everyone together again.
Paddington 2, just a super adorable, feel-good film.

Top Things I Saw on Stage in 2017:
Hamlet @ Almeida Theatre,
a really beautiful production, led by a truly amazing performance by Andrew Scott
Angels in America @ National Theatre, a real event of theatre which I felt really honoured to see. A fantastic piece of theatrical history and its content remains important.
Jesus Christ Superstar @ Open Air Theatre,
JCS is one of my favourite scores and getting to see it performed (twice) in the magical surroundings of Regent’s Park and featuring an excellent performance by Tyrone Huntley made this something very special.
Network @ National Theatre,
one of the most unique stage productions I’ve ever seen, with a fantastic, timely plot.
Follies @ National Theatre, 
it was great to see a score that I’ve heard so many things about performed live. With stunning costumes and a painfully real plot, Follies was a very special night at the theatre

Amy
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Thoughts On: Pitch Perfect 3

As a trilogy Pitch Perfect is unlikely to rival The Godfather as being particularly impactful on the history of cinema, but it is a lot of fun. This final installment sees the former Barden Bellas struggling to adapt to post-college life, and jumping at the chance to perform for US troops abroad whilst also competing to open for DJ Khaled at the final tour date. In case you’re wondering, no, the plot doesn’t make any more sense than that.

Fortunately, we’re reunited with characters that we’ve grown to love over the past seven years (plus Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily, who is included because conveniently one of the original Bellas is revealed to be pregnant), and its their relationships which make Pitch Perfect 3 so fun. Becca (Anna Kendrick) and Amy (Rebel Wilson)’s unlikely friendship is still a lot of fun, as is Chloe’s (Brittany Snow) adorable commitment to the group.

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It did feel a bit like writers Kay Cannon & Mike White were desperate to get as much Rebel Wilson screen-time as possible, which does mean we get a strange sub-plot featuring her Dad who is involved in organised crime, apparently. Whilst John Lithgow seems to be having the best time chewing the scenery as Fergus, this does little to add to the plot of the overall film. I enjoy Rebel Wilson as much as the next person, but it seemed like it was included purely to have a ‘lol, as if a fat girl can have an action scene’ twenty minutes, as opposed to anything else.

The writing fares better when it comes to the romance sub-plots, with Becca getting her head-turned by DJ Khaled’s inexplicably British exec Theo (Guy Burnet), who have fun on screen chemistry; and Chloe falling for army member Chicago (yes really, Matt Lanter).

The real star of Pitch Perfect has always been the songs, and this third installment does really deliver on that. The standout is the finale rendition of ‘Freedom 90’, which I have listened to multiple times since; but ‘Cake by the Ocean’ and ‘Cheap Thrills’ are great too. Plus the ‘riff off’ featuring the other groups they’re competing against (including, weirdly, Ruby Rose) was excellent too.

Pitch Perfect 3 isn’t going to be lighting up award sheets any time soon, but it is a good time, and it’s nice to see the team calling time on it before it loses its charm.

Amy
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Film Title: Pitch Perfect 3