Theatre review – Champions of Magic

Champions of Magic

Grand Opera House, York

“Five world-class illusionists. Sold out shows across the globe. Five star rave reviews and a run in London’s West End.”

Well, I’ll give the Champions of Magic marketing team this: they know how to hype a show.

I really want it to work as I settle into the Grand Opera House, York. I love sleight of hand, sorcery and giggles as much as the next person.

And there’s plenty of those thanks to Young and Strange, the duo whose ’sawing a woman in half’ gags are pretty impressive, as is their banter. It’s matey fun where you don’t take things too seriously.

I can’t help but be reminded of Magicians, the Mitchell and Webb comedy movie from years ago that did a successful vanishing act despite being okay.

There’s a young Mexican illusionist whose levitating girl routine is effective, and he throws an escapology spot in there which elicits a whoop from me, despite a few dead moments that need more showbiz glamour.

There’s also a sassy American lady whose routines involving cards and rubber bands are fun, but as I’m sat in the gods and most of her act takes place downstairs and out of sight, I have to watch the routine on camera. A necessary evil maybe, but magic on video is not why you pay your money.

The whole thing is fun but a little awkward. A master of ceremonies is desperately needed to introduce the acts and segue between them. Instead they just sort of merge together.

Best of the bunch is a guy who has the mannerisms of David Tennant, the patter of Joe Lycett and looks like Declan Donnelly. His routines are often hilarious, well staged and he’s hugely likeable. He also knows what you’re thinking, and chances are you won’t mind a bit.

At times I feel like I’m on a cruise ship, watching a show that ticks the boxes and exploits well-worn magic gags, but needs something extra, like a race car desperate for a turbo charger.

So yes, it’s great fun, I laughed a lot and though it felt like I saw a tenth of the action on video, it proved great entertainment for a Friday night.

Would I rush back to see it again? Probably not. Maybe a bloke in a box apparently being perforated with sticks is awesome for those who’ve never seen this sort of thing before.

It is good family entertainment, and kids should love it. I’ve never forgotten the escapologist I saw as a youngster, so I’m guessing some of the young ’uns in the audience will be gobsmacked by what they’ve seen

And full marks to them all for effort.

It might not all work, and may not be the mind-blowing spectacular the adverts promise, but it is a fun night out even if at times it feels like a dry run for a bigger show.

To wrap things up, I’ll leave you with this old classic: Think of a number. Add 101. Subtract 51. Now add seven. Finally, take away the number you first thought of. The answer is 57, right?

And if you don’t know how that’s done, chances are you’ll love the show.

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Film review – Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs

Starring (The voices of) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray

Directed by Wes Anderson

Certificate PG

Wes Anderson’s latest offering is so gloriously arty, I half expect someone to serve me a £5 bowl of cereal and give my beard a hipster trim during the screening.

I can only imagine what the handful of kids present made of it. It’s not marketed as a children’s film, but, you know – ’Dogs and animation’. It goes with the stereotype that lazy film schedulers use to attract an audience.

What it actually is is a movie for grown ups who love original cinema, and boasts so much detail, I’m pretty exhausted by the finale.

The plot: all canine pets of Megasaki City are exiled to a huge rubbish dump called Trash Island. Atari, a 12-year-old lad, flies there alone in search of his bodyguard-dog, Spots. With the assistance of a pack of mongrel friends, he undertakes an extraordinary journey.

And that’s about it plotwise, but this is more than that. A glorious mix of stop motion and anime with a great Alexandre Desplat score. All thumping drums and portent.

With Anderson’s usual rep company of vocal artists, including Bill Murray (naturally), Edward Norton and new addition Bryan Cranston, the movie unfolds with various flashbacks, typically witty deadpan one-liners and a wealth of obligatory nods to Hokusai’s The Wave and other iconic Japanese art.

At times it feels like an animated coffee table book, bursting with detail and rich artwork.

As someone who’s been hooked on Anderson’s work since Rushmore almost 20 years ago, it’s an inspiration to see him and his army of creatives pushing the realms of animation and traditional storytelling to breaking point.

And oh those dogs. Every shape and type, including the sort of mechanical hounds last seen in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

At 101 minutes, it’s at least 10 minutes too long. Comedies, even as deadpan as this, should be 90 minutes or less, but it hardly matters. There’s so much wit, charm and self assured storytelling here, that it’s worth several viewings.

I look forward it seeing it again, because the adventures of Chief, Rex, Atari, King and Duke get under your skin, and Greta Gerwig’s exchange student Tracy Walker is equally compelling.

Like Anderson’s previous animated offering involving Mr Fox, this is just as fantastic.

8/10

Film review – Ready Player One

Ready Player One

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Simon Pegg

Certificate 12A

It’s a couple of years since I read Ernest Cline’s best selling novel Ready Player One, a glorious homage to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It boasts a similar set up: young impoverished protagonist gets a shot at owning a magical corporation, not via a golden ticket but three keys hidden in a digital wonderland called the Oasis.

Following the death of creator James Halliday, the hunt is on to find said keys to his kingdom. Of course the quest is not easy, and as orphan ghetto-dweller Wade Watts, a mysterious young woman and assorted mates take on the quest, they attempt to outsmart corporate bad guy Nolan Sorrento, who uses slave labour to find the keys.

The book was bursting with pop culture references, many of which were films directed or produced by Steven Spielberg. So who better than the geek master himself to helm the lavish conversion?

The fact I share the same birthday as Watts; was weaned on the films of Spielberg and Atari 2600 games, and heard countless Rush albums booming through my brother’s bedroom wall at a formative age means for the first half of the film adaptation I feel like it was made just for me.

Remarkably portions of the movie were shot in Birmingham, just round the corner from where I went to college, and like Wreck-It Ralph, there’s a feeling of wallowing in the countless knowing references.

Thankfully it’s been long enough since I read the book that I’m not too precious about what’s been left in and what’s been removed. So yes, this is an adaptation of the book, but it’s also very much its own beast, a little like The Hobbit movies which used the novel as a springboard into something bigger and more elaborate.

I can see how Spielberg managed to go off and direct The Post while he was waiting for the endless special effects and CGI to be completed by an army of visual effects artists. There’s so much dazzling eye candy on display, I’ll be going through certain scenes frame by frame to spot all of the references.

There’s the pulse rifle from Aliens; Han Solo’s belt and holster with a Thundercats buckle; the incantation from Excalibur, and scenes from The Shining are splendid.

As an uber geek, I get that fuzzy feeling of spotting stuff others are bound to miss, but though it doesn’t all work, it comes so close to hitting the bull’s eye, it’s hard too quibble with the shortcomings.

As it’s a Warner Bros movie, obviously most of the references are from their back catalogue, but there are also some great references to Star Trek and other none-WB properties.

Tye Sheridan does a good job as the hero while Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn is a fine villain. Good support comes from Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance as the thinly veiled Jobs and Wozniak types.

However, it’s Oldham’s own Olivia Cooke who steals the movie, with a near-perfect American accent, as both the real world heroine Samantha and her avatar alter ego ’Art3mis’, she has that star quality that ensures every scene she’s in levels up.

(And as she proved during Press interviews, she’s even more entertaining as herself).

Obviously there are sub plots which barely get a mention or feel glossed over. That’s often the way with movie conversions; epic spectacle usually takes precedence over character development, but it is remarkable how close Spielberg comes to matching some of the source material, such as the zero-G dance routine I recall from the book.

Sadly the Iron Giant, which was an anti-war droid in the classic cartoon, is now anything but, even if he is a weapon in a virtual battle.

And while key book nods to Blade Runner and Rush are either ’overlooked’ (unintentional The Shining pun), or just referenced as posters and tee shirts, it doesn’t affect things too much.

I’ll happily watch the whole thing again and judge it on its own merits instead of comparing it to the book.

RPO is a tribute to the thousands of artists who helped Cline and Spielberg’s vision come to life, and it’s hard not to be dazzled by that gobsmacking race in which the Back to the Future De Lorean and Kaneda’s bike from Akira race at breakneck speeds against a wealth of obstacles and competitors.

At 71, Steven Spielberg still delivers the sort of dazzling escapism most directors half his age can only dream of.

Do your eyes a favour and see it on a huge screen with great sound. It’s worth every penny.

8/10

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Film review- The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman

Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron

Certificate PG

Director Michael Gracey

I’m rather late to Hugh Jackman’s latest big screen offering. It’s a party that launched at Christmas to lukewarm reviews from some critics, and yet proved that many cinema-goers don’t care a jot about what they think. Despite one high profile reviewer claiming there were “no memorable songs”, I wonder if he saw the same film.

In mid-March I finally take the plunge, more curious as to why this musical biopic of legendary showman PT Barnum has kept punters coming back for more.

Yes, it’s slick, formulaic and some of the effects are a little cheesy, but that doesn’t stop me from becoming immersed in the story.

A few years earlier I’d sat through the much talked about stage show Barnum, and despite being captivated by Brian Conley’s tightrope walk, I was pretty bored with the rest of it. Aside from There is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute, and Come Follow the Band, I’d struggle to think of another memorable tune in the whole show.

No such problems with The Greatest Showman. From that opening track, The Greatest Show, to Come Alive, the much played This Is Me and delightful Rewrite the Stars, I’m bowled over.

Hugh Jackman reminds me why he is one of the most talented thespians working in movies today. Yes, he honed his craft in West End hits such as Oklahoma!, but it’s still hard to believe this is the same man who wowed me in last year’s Logan.

Zac Efron is also on great form, which is reassuring considering his annoying turn in the Baywatch movie. However, when Rebecca Ferguson turns up, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning.

I have become a little obsessed with the woman who stole Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation from under Tom Cruise’s nose, and kept me gripped throughout sci-fi chiller Life.

I don’t expect much from her in this, and although she mimes to the phenomenal tune Never Enough, my gob is well and truly smacked; it’s hard to see the join between her acting and Loren Allred’s vocals.

When Hugh and company round things off with From Now On, I’m ready to see it all again.

The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon ensures the whole thing ticks over with the speed of a locomotive at top speed, while Seamus McGarvey’s photography is terrific.

Considering this is his first feature, visual effects veteran Michael Gracey does a good job in the director’s chair.

While he could have done with more cash than his $84million budget allowed, I doubt he’ll have too much trouble getting a green light for his next picture. TGS has grossed almost $400million in 87 days, and the fact singalong version has kept packing audiences in mean Jackman’s position as one of the most lucrative actors in the business is secure.

Obviously it won’t be for all tastes, and with the DVD and Blu-ray due for release in May, some might want to wait. I’d recommend seeing it on a huge screen before that day as it’s the very thing cinema was invented for: a communal, feelgood experience which makes you forget your troubles for 105 minutes.

The greatest show indeed.

8/10

Film Review – Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts

Directed by Francis Lawrence

Certificate 15

What happens when a Russian ballet dancer with a sick mother suffers a career-ending injury?

She becomes a spy of course, thanks to her uncle, Ivan, who works in Russian intelligence.

That’s the career path chosen by Dominika Egorova, the ever watchable Jennifer Lawrence. For the first hour, her path from pirouettes to spy school and then out in the field is mostly intriguing.

Her ordeals suffered at spy school are pretty degrading as she learns the art of seduction under the tutelage of Charlotte Rampling’s emotionless expert.

She’s tasked with seducing American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton); he’s tasked with gleaning information from her.

Following that promising first hour, I sit through another 100 minutes of torture porn; Jennifer and Joel facing eye-watering pain, and internecine shenanigans.

Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty booms over the speakers at one point. Aptly I fight to stay awake through the second act, and long before the finale, I’ve already considered walking out. Some cinema goers do; there are two of us left by the time the lights come up.

Red Sparrow is overly complicated, and wants to have the class of great John Le Carre, but it’s no Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It also feels like Atomic Blonde with all the fun removed.

Jennifer Lawrence is as mesmerising as ever, and retains her dignity even when the story demands her character has none.

It’s a pretty miserable experience with the score ramped up to deafening levels in the hope it adds class to a joyless thriller.

A split second before Ciaran Hinds appears on screen I guess he’ll turn up at some point because he plays good Russians in better films like The Sum of All Fears. And there he is, which is scant consolation as the film drags on.

Jeremy Irons shows up as another Russian VIP, and I’m also taken out of the moment with a bit part from Holby City’s Hugh Quarshie.

I’m no espionage expert, but I do know there is a gaping hole in the premise of sending a famous ballerina undercover as a spy. Any intelligence service worth their salt will run facial recognition software over a suspect’s photo on the off-chance she’s in their database.

Red Sparrow is an excruciating experience for the most part. No matter how slick or sexy the trailer is, it’s not reason enough to waste 140 minutes of your life.

Barge poles required.

4/10

Film review – Annihilation (2018)

Film review

Annihilation (2018)

Certificate 15

Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac

Directed by Alex Garland

There was a time when waiting for a movie was a thing. The anticipation of a big budget slick offering was like the smell of a great meal before it arrives at your table.

Then the game changed. Out of thin air the cinematic feast dropped on your table, but despite nice packaging, the flavour was occasionally off.

Netflix has been backing some high profile, disappointing offerings lately, but finally they have a winner.

So after the woeful Will Smith vehicle Bright, humdrum Duncan Jones sci-fi oddity Mute and lacklustre The Cloverfield Paradox, we have another high gloss confection from the streaming service.

And it’s extraordinary.

I’ve been a fan of film maker Alex Garland since he started making waves with The Beach. His under-rated, flawed sci-fi epic Sunshine was the most unforgettable cinematic experience of 2007, and Dredd undid most of the damage caused by Sly Stallone’s 1995 misfire comic book conversion, Judge Dredd.

All of which preamble brings us to his latest offering, the trippy Natalie Portman vehicle Annihilation.

As I’m hard wired to lap up any sci-fi saga, good or bad, the thought of a new offering from the maker of Ex-Machina was a tantalising prospect.

What starts out as a dreamy tale of loss and mourning, soon takes a left-hand turn.

Natalie Portman is the ex-soldier turned biologist whose missing partner (Oscar Isaac) turns up out of the blue.

However, he’s sick, so one thing leads to another and she winds up on an all-female mission into the Shimmer, an energy field that’s expanding in Florida.

In order to save her fella, the only person to emerge from the anomaly, she embarks on a possible suicide mission.

What unfolds is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, (the film) Southern Comfort, Arrival, The Fountain, and unsurprisingly Sunshine.

There’s also a mix of Avatar and Jurassic Park, with elements of Space: 1999. Oh, and bits of Contact too. And yet while it might remind you of dozens of other movies and shows, Annihilation is also like nothing you’ve seen.

The third act is one of the trippiest things I’ve witnessed since the incredible Under the Skin. And while some might reach for the off button during a scene with a swimming pool and a knife, stick with it.

Garland might tread into the queasy territory of Event Horizon with a recorded slice of past terror, but this is as much Alice in Wonderland as it is a horror movie.

The final shot is a little inevitable, but the journey is extraordinary. Portman and fellow Thor veteran Tessa Thompson may never have shared screentime in that Marvel universe, but in this otherworldly one they shine without standing in the shadow of the hammer-wielding hero.

In a decade’s time, folks will still mention Annihilation in the same breath as classic intellectual sci-fi offerings like Solaris and 2001.

The fact the closing credits are eclipsed by the unfurling graphics is testament to how daring Garland’s project is. He doesn’t even tell you who’s in it.

Do yourself a favour. Turn the lights and your phone off, wait ’til around 10pm, press play and prepare to have your mind blown.

8/10

An interview with Jack Ryder, co-director of Take That musical The Band

An interview with Jack Ryder, co-director of Take That musical The Band

Jack Ryder rose to fame as Jamie Mitchell in EastEnders before becoming an acclaimed director with projects such as The Girls. I had a chat with Jack about new musical The Band, working at Hull New Theatre and Yorkshire, and plans for the future.

Q. Often with theatre productions it’s an uphill battle trying to sell the show, but sales-wise, The Band has gone through the roof hasn’t it?

A. Yes, we are very lucky, let’s just say that (laughs). Yeah, it is a bit of machine; the whole kind of Take That machine is a huge thing, and that’s a bolster for the show, but even things like the advertising, the logo, the band, the poster… It is a brand in itself. It’s become a massive thing and we are incredibly fortunate.

Q. What’s been the show’s biggest challenge?

A. I’ve worked in theatre for quite a few years in terms of the directing capacity. I directed shows like Calendar Girls and The Full Monty, but I’ve never really developed a musical before. I’d worked on The Girls with (writer) Tim Firth and have a very strong relationship with him.

The most challenging thing with this show wasn’t just in terms of developing it. It was what the creative team became, which was this kind of mix; this theatrical side, which was myself, Tim Firth, producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, aligned with this team with (co-director) Kim Gavin, (designer) Jon Bausor and (lighting designer) Patrick Woodroffe, who although have worked in theatrical circles, have also done shows like the Olympics, the Rolling Stones and the Take That concerts, so bringing these two teams together in a collaborative way was quite challenging. But in a way it was so exciting because there were lots of different creative views in the room. And although it was a challenge to begin with, it actually brought so much to the show and has made it what it is.

Q. How is it working at Hull New Theatre compared to any other theatre? Is it a case of going in and doing a recce; making sure the guys can project to the back row, that sort of thing?

A. Yeah, you do that in every venue all over the country because obviously different theatres have different dimensions. They’re all different sizes and different capacities, and different audiences as well. What might land in Manchester and get a big laugh every night will be tumbleweed in Canterbury. It’s quite a bizarre thing, and what that does is it keeps everyone completely on their toes. Somewhere like Hull and Leeds Grand, we take each theatre as it comes. We find the northern audiences are always very welcoming. And always very vocal in terms of comedy, so it’s always a pleasure to come to Yorkshire and places like Hull, because you really feel a vocal response from the audience, much more than you would in a southern ’house’. So it’s always a lovely welcome for us.

Q. Tim Firth is an accomplished writer. It must be half the battle when you’ve got such a great script and a book.

A. Yeah, he’s a genius. And his work ethic is wonderful to be around. I’ve worked with Tim for many years on other shows, and we get on very well. I’ve learnt so much from him. He’s always tweaking, he’s always changing. What I love about Tim, he’s always so open to suggestions. He always listens to the cast and anyone else who is in the room. And he also always comes up with what he believes is the way to go. He’s not a single-minded writer. He is very open and very collaborative and quite a humble human being. And that’s always very healthy to have around and be in the room with. So it’s never been anything but a joy.

Q. If you’ll excuse the obvious pun, you are a Jack of all trades. Which do you prefer: acting, directing or both?

A. Both really. You always learn from both. The acting serves the directing. The directing serves me as an actor. It’s a funny business that we’re in. You never know what’s round the corner.

If someone had said to me five years ago ’The first musical I’ll be directing is Take That musical The Band’, I would never in a million years have believed that. It’s funny how these things come along. You gotta keep an open mind and keep being creative. And keep being open to projects, and creating great stories, pleasing audiences and entertaining people. And we’re doing that, certainly with this show.

Q. Why have Take That succeeded so well when so many other bands have fallen by the wayside?

A. Well there’s a few reasons why. I remember when I was a teenager. There were members of the girls’ school that used to get on the bus, and they’d be at the back with Smash Hits magazine with all the posters. And I remember Take That. I never listened to them as a teenager. I really remember them being so prominent in our culture and in the charts.

The girls were crazy about them, and they were a huge, huge deal.

Then obviously the boys split apart and laid low for many years and did their own thing. They’ve come back with this kind of maturity, and a real humbleness in the sense of having a second opportunity. Their music has matured; their writing’s matured, and their performing has matured, and they give people great shows: their stadium shows that Kim (Gavin) has directed, like Circus. They really do entertain audiences. And we all know that Gary and all of them can write a really catchy tune as well. People generally like them as people. They are normal guys and they’re humble in terms of what they do. Everyone appreciates that.

Q. It’s only a matter of time until we get a big screen biopic of Take That. Would you be interested in directing if the chance arose?

A. Of course. Yeah that would be incredible. I’m sure something like that will come along. This show has been such a joy working with them, and they were always around, which was lovely for the cast. And obviously for myself to ask them questions. And get references and knowledge about them as people and them as a group. So I would always jump for joy working with the boys.

Q. What’s in the pipeline after this? Any films perhaps?

A. No, no films. I’m doing lots of bits and pieces. Obviously directing The Band is taking up a lot of my time right now; making sure that show is in good shape, and all the venues it goes to that we are doing the right job, and the show’s tight. There’s my acting career and there’s lots of things in the fire.

I also write as well so… there’s lots of creative juices flowing. At the moment I’m just concentrating on The Band and writing generally.

Q. And you’ve written a novel?

A. Yes I’ve written my first novel, which is under the eyes of certain people as we speak, and I’m writing my second now.

The experience of working with Tim Firth and working in the theatre world and developing shows like Calendar Girls and working on The Full Monty, talking a lot about story… I’m talking a lot about characters and character development. So it’s been a bit of a side passion of mine to develop my own stories.

I’ve written and directed shorts in the past. When I put my head to the computer and started writing a novel, it went so much deeper for me that it became kind of infectious, so that’s something I enjoy and I’m continuing.

Film review – The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

Starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Certificate 15

Baltimore, 1962, and a mute cleaner at a high-security government laboratory embarks on a relationship like no other in Guillermo Del Toro’s BAFTA-winning masterpiece The Shape of Water.

Sally Hawkins, giving one of the best performances of her career, is Elisa Esposito, the mesmerising heroine who lives above a cinema, is friends with a neighbouring artist (Richard Jenkins), and lives a lonely existence. While he has designs on the cafe worker nearby, she’s an achingly solitary figure who cleans up at the lab a bus ride away.

This is a world of classic Bakelite gadgets and Cadillacs, the sort of nostalgic design you’d expect from a visual maestro like Del Toro. (He’s a film maker who could shoot a movie about the phone book and I’d happily hand over my cash).

Following the fascinating misfire that was Crimson Peak, he’s hit the bull’s eye with this heart-rending tale which feels like a mash-up of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Amelie, Delicatessen, Frankenstein, Hellboy and ET. And yet despite its influences, it’s also like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

Witnessed after the mega bucks Black Panther, where I didn’t believe in any of the characters, each of Del Toro’s protagonists here feels like they live and breathe, whether it’s air or water.

The casting is spot on, probably because the role was written for Hawkins, and Michael Shannon personifies the tough government stooge so well I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is a perfect accompaniment to the unfolding drama that washes over me, and though I try and remind myself it’s only a movie, the fate of the amphibian man at the heart of the drama is as compelling as ET’s in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic.

I’m on edge throughout as I just want a happy ending. While i’ll obviously not spoil a thing, I’ll happily see this again to soak up the wondrous imagery, nail-biting action and beautiful romance.

Having been hooked on Guillermo’s work since he started making waves in world cinema in the late 1990s, it’s a relief to say he’s finally made his masterpiece.

Don’t wait for the home release. Rush out and see it at a decent art house cinema, and not a certain multiplex where they turn the lights on the split second the credits roll.

Easily one of the best films of this or any other year.

Gracias Guillermo.

9/10

Movie review – Black Panther

Movie review

Black Panther

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Martin Freeman

Certificate 12A

Unlike Marvel favourites Spider-Man, Captain America, Hulk, Doctor Strange and Thor, Black Panther was never given a dry run as a TV movie.

Launched in the 1960s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation barely got a look in as an animated hero either. Which seems odd as he has such a rich back story and interesting characters.

However, now Marvel has a decade’s worth of blockbusters under their belt, it’s clear they’re willing to take a few ’risks’, such as an African American superhero.

Of course this should have all happened decades ago, and at one point it looked like it would with Wesley Snipes, but he opted for a lesser Marvel character – Blade.

No, Black Panther’s road to the big screen has been a long, rocky one.

And at the helm is director Ryan Coogler, whose critical success with Rocky sequel Creed proved he could breathe life into one of Marvel’s most ambitious movies.

As a fan of the comics, thanks to black and white British reprints from the early eighties, I was keen to see if the movie worked, but the trailer left me cold. Generic shots involving flying vehicles and expensive futuristic cityscapes all felt rather derivative.

Then the reviews arrived, and critics claimed it was an epic like no other.

So I settle in for what is admittedly a visually stunning adventure, but while millions of dollars were obviously spent on the effects and stunning costumes, about a tenner was spent on the script. It’s a yawnsome array of humdrum one-liners, clumsy exposition and forgettable monologues.

There are some standout lines, most notably from excellent villain Killmonger during the obligatory showdown. It’s one of those movies where the villains are far more interesting than the heroes. Michael B Jordan is more rounded than Chadwick Boseman’s bland, noble hero T’Challa. He sounds like a young Nelson Mandela throughout, but the banter with his sister Shuri falls flat.

On the subject of which, Shuri, the gadgets mistress – a Q to Boseman’s Bond if you like – is one of the most memorable characters in the movie. Letitia Wright, last seen in the excellent Black Mirror, is a fun, engaging breath of fresh air, and along with a scenery-chewing Andy Serkis and ever reliable Martin Freeman, helps lift the film to another level.

It’s not a bad movie, though some ropey CG rhinos, confusing action scenes with the gravity-defying hero, and an improbable laboratory which looks like a tourist attraction at Epcot does jar a little. And the ritual fight scenes feel like a musical waiting for a rousing song that never comes.

And don’t get me started on those masks and suits that appear out of thin air. The Batmobile’s instant CG shields bugged me in 1992’s Batman Returns, and this looks even more improbable.

Yes it’s a fantasy but the best comic book conversions, like Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, have a believable gravitas. This just feels like anything can be summoned from thin air.

Solid support comes from Get Out’s BAFTA-winning Daniel Kaluuya, while Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker and Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira help give the saga some heft.

Given the mammoth box office returns after week one, safe to say a sequel is in the works, but before that, our hero and a few sidekicks return for the enormous Avengers: Infinity War.

I hope Coogler and Boseman have a better script for Black Panther 2. So much time and effort was taken on the look of hidden kingdom Wakanda, that it would be nice if the dialogue matched the occasionally stunning vision.

7/10

Hotel review: The Coniston Hotel and Spa, Skipton

For years I’ve planned to recreate my version of The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s mix of sitcom, travelogue and food porn.

The idea is simple: me and Ian, one of my oldest friends, in a Land Rover; fine dining in the north of England, and talking a lot of nonsense; something we hadn’t done enough of in recent years, living on either side of the Pennines.

So finally, on this crisp winter Sunday, that plan is a reality, though I didn’t expect we’d be in said car at a 30-degree angle, seemingly on the verge of toppling over.

For the first few minutes of our off-roading experience, care of The Coniston Hotel and Spa in Skipton, I fear I’m in over my head as I get to grips with the new world of ’diff lock’ and unlearning 30 years of safe driving habits.

No matter how many eps of Top Gear or The Grand Tour I’d watched, nothing prepares me for being in the driving seat, trying to ignore everything common sense tells me.

Thankfully our instructor, more witty Yoda than Jeremy Clarkson, could not be more helpful, and what he doesn’t know about the Land Rover Defender is not worth knowing.

Ian takes over for the second phase of riding up insane gradients and through seemingly perilous brooks.

As I finish the final leg, everything clicks into place as I realise we’re not driving a normal car but a miracle of engineering. If it was suddenly capable of vertical take off, I wouldn’t be surprised.

That word ’experience’ is over-used and often unworthy in a lot of generic attractions, but this is the real deal. It’s 60 unforgettable minutes.

I think my few hours on site can’t get any better than that.

Thankfully I’m wrong.

But let’s rewind a little.

The trip to Skipton begins with Sunday brunch (a terrific sausage and bacon sandwich with a cuppa) and a chance to soak up the main dining room and that superlative-defying view.

With a roaring fire and a contended dog lolling at the feet of their happy owners, the place instantly puts me at my ease.

We enjoy a tour of the clay pigeon shooting range, and its clubhouse – a stunning Canadian log cabin-style affair which is heaving with punters either relaxing with snacks and beverages, or perusing the guns and merchandise. The whip-crack of gun shots reverberating at the clay shooting ranges is a weird, hypnotic soundtrack to the experience.

This section, like the whole operation, runs like a Swiss watch. Everywhere we go, the staff are amiable, hugely helpful and the facilities are all high end, like they were fitted that morning.

I’m not surprised companies come here for meetings and team-building exercises. All they need to do is study the organisation itself: a model of efficiency.

Later we tour the estate and realise how enormous it is, with standalone residences for those who prefer more seclusion but still want to make use of the facilities.

There’s a wealth of possibilities, from wedding receptions to archery, equestrian or just relaxing in the spa.

And we find out about the latter during a perfectly timed visit before sunset: another jewel in the estate’s crown.

Again the whole thing looks like it was fitted hours ago, with saunas, swimming pool, hot tubs, and an infinity pool looking out over a stunning vista. It’s years since I’ve experienced anything so tranquil.

I enjoy a massage that unknots assorted wound up muscles. Again expertly done, and by the time I emerge from the zen-filled state of dimmed lighting, and transcendent music (as standard), I’m more chilled out than Jeff Bridges’ Lebowski after he gets his rug back.

My room is equally spot on. Spacious and with everything you’d expect from a luxury hotel: comfortable bed; amazing balcony overlooking a breathtaking lake with snow-capped mountains in the distance; tea-making facilities (essential); mini fridge, and a bathroom to die for: heated towel rail, impressive bath and a waterfall shower.

Top tip: set the lever position at 7.05 to get a perfect temperature, unless you like recreating Bill Murray’s icy bathroom scenes from Groundhog Day.

We savour a delicious afternoon tea, with meaty spring rolls, assorted sandwiches and scones, cakes and Eton Mess.

Okay, we might not be your typical afternoon tea types; middle aged blokes savouring nibbles on tiered crockery is no doubt a comedic sight, but I’m always one for bucking stereotypes, and after all, this is not a typical weekend break.

Dinner at the Macleod dining room has a lot to live up to, and as with all hotels featuring stunning food, I expect the ball to be dropped at some point. I think no hostelry, no matter how good, can sustain a level of excellence for the length of my stay.

Again I’m happily proved wrong, as we enjoy a mouthwatering dining experience.

My slow cooked belly pork starter with apple, tonka bean and crackling (£8.50) is a dream, and the fillet of beef at £28.50 is also worth every penny. I treasure each mouthful like it’s my last meal. With Pomme Anna, mushroom purée, spinach, crispy shallots and bone marrow bon bon, it’s exactly the sort of thing Coogan and Brydon would approve of inbetween assorted impersonations.

I do know it’s left a great impression on my taste buds. Everything is beautifully cooked, and mid-meal we order a side of baby carrots, which arrive in next to no time – the perfect addition.

My dessert, A Taste of Mocha at £8.50, is also a delight. A white chocolate and Baileys milkshake, coffee mousse, espresso cookie and churro is an almost a perfect way to round off an outstanding meal. Then the white port dessert wine arrives, and it’s the final piece of the culinary puzzle.

The mix of spa, massage, food, fresh air and pottering around the grounds ensures I’m out like a light.

After a good night’s sleep and that amazing shower, it’s time for more food. Well, you have to keep your strength up for this sort of thing.

Breakfast at £14.50 is a mix mix of fruit juice, cereals and then a full Yorkshire: sausage, black pudding, bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, mushroom, potatoes. All cooked to perfection; that fried bread is especially outstanding.

And this is where you came in.

The 4×4 off-roading experience, as you may have guessed, is phenomenal. And at the risk of sounding like Mr Creosote, it’s time to sample more of that amazing menu at lunchtime.

Over a pot of tea, we enjoy a sharing board of Field Food: sticky sausages with mustard and honey; warm breads, balsamic syrup; devilled whitebait with Tabasco mayonnaise… I could go on but I’m starting to drool again. At £21.95, it’s a perfect tapas-style selection for those who don’t want a full meal.

As Ian (reluctantly) goes back to work, I head to the falconry area, a short drive from the hotel.

Like the 4×4 experience, it’s one of the many attractions I’ve been looking forward to for weeks, and the sight of assorted owls and an eagle soaring over fields to land on my talon-proof glove and wolf their dinner is one of ’those’ moments.

If the 4×4 was the pure adrenaline of a great action movie, this is the ET-style sucker punch at the end of the film that leaves me (almost) speechless.

I think half an hour or 45 minutes will be enough for the experience. Sadly it flies faster than the Bengal eagle owl, just one of the stunning birds who scoffs his dinner from my hand and steals my heart in the process.

I’ve been at one of the UK’s finest resorts and spas for a little over 27 hours and packed so much in to my stay, it feels like days.

I wish I had longer.

Incredible facilities, stunning food, great staff and genuine life-affirming experiences that will live with me for years.

At the risk of sounding like a corny greetings card, I’ll leave you with this rather apt phrase.

’Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away’.

Consider me breathless.

:: With thanks to Eric the owl, and everyone at Coniston Hotel and Spa.