Fiona’s March Round-Up

Written by Fiona Underhill

While the UK enjoys the quality of Oscar-nominated films such as ‘The Shape of Water’ and ‘Lady Bird’ in the first few months of the year, the first quarter can be something of a barren wasteland in US cinemas. We did get ‘Paddington 2’ in January and of course, there has been ‘Black Panther’, but other than that, there have been slim pickings to choose from. But, like buses, they can all suddenly come along at once and I’ve seen 5 films in the last week that have greatly improved my year in film. Below is a round-up of my movie-watching month, which has ranged in quality, but certainly hasn’t been boring!

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Gringo

(starring David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton & Thandie Newton)

‘Gringo’ stars Oyelowo as a businessman working for his friend (Edgerton) and his colleague (Theron) at a pharmaceutical company. The three of them go to Mexico on a business trip, which unbeknownst to Oyelowo is connected to the drug trade. There Oyelowo gets embroiled with drug dealers, traffickers, kingpins and mercenaries (including another great turn from Sharlto Copley) while trying to stay alive and ahead of the law. Although amusing at times, ‘Gringo’ has big tonal problems and inconsistencies. Theron is playing an unlikeable, edgy character, demonstrated by her saying things like “fat people are so funny” and Newton’s character is handled offensively at the end. Great cast, but disappointing execution.

Verdict: 4/10

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A Wrinkle in Time

(starring Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling)

Despite its critical reception, I really enjoyed ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and crucially, so did my 8 year old (the target audience of this film). An adaptation of a beloved children’s book, we follow Meg Murry (Reid) on an adventure across space and time. With stunning visual effects and incredible costume, hair and make-up design; this film was a feast for the eyes. It also featured an emotional story, with two children on a quest to find their missing father and I struggled to hold it together towards the end. Featuring some astounding performances from the child/teen actors, I really loved this film and recommend it to families during the spring/Easter holidays.

Verdict: 8/10

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The Hurricane Heist

(starring Toby Kebell, Maggie Grace & Ryan Kwanten)

Last year’s ‘Geostorm’ spoiled us in terms of trashy disaster movies (a genre which I adore), but ‘Hurricane Heist’ is possibly even better, if you can believe it. Everything you need to know is right there in the title: it’s about a heist that takes place during a hurricane. I don’t know what else to tell you.

Verdict: 10/10

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Flower

(starring Zoey Deutch, Kathryn Hahn and Adam Scott)

‘Flower’ follows Erica (Zoey Deutch) a troubled 17 year old girl who spends her time giving blowjobs to men and then blackmailing them for money so she can try to bail her father out of prison. Her world is disrupted when her step-brother Luke (who she has never met) leaves rehab and moves in with her. Luke accuses a local man Will (Adam Scott) of having abused him while he was his teacher, so Erica and her friends set out to avenge him with some vigilante justice. Despite a strong cast, led by another winning performance from Zoey Deutch, this film was a little problematic, with unlikeable characters and will end up proving rather forgettable. I’m frankly getting a little tired of teen girl characters being written and directed by men.

Verdict: 6/10

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Final Portrait

(starring Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer & Tony Shalhoub)

The release date for this film has been all over the shop, but it’s now on UK Netflix and I managed to find one cinema showing it in LA. Directed by Stanley Tucci, it follows the sculptor and artist Giacometti (Rush) as he struggles to paint a portrait of his friend/muse James Lord (Hammer). And that is it – the whole plot. Frankly, the only thing that got me through this film was the long, lingering close-ups of Hammer’s face. One for die-hard fans only, I would suggest.

Verdict:  4/10

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Oh Lucy!

(starring Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami & Shiloi Kutsuna)

This film follows Setsuko (a sublime performance by Terajima), an unusual woman who does not view her job or relationships in the same way as her contemporaries. Her niece Mika (Kutsuna) persuades her to take English lessons from John (Hartnett), but then he abruptly leaves for LA, taking Mika with him. Setsuko and her sister Ayako (Minami) set out to track them down and end up on an adventurous road trip of sorts. I absolutely adored this film from director Atsuko Hirayanagi and appreciated the creation of a fully-realised, complex and unique woman as the protagonist. Seek this out – you won’t regret it.

Verdict: 9/10

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Thoroughbreds

(starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke & Anton Yelchin)

‘Thoroughbreds’ focuses on childhood friends Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke), who have grown apart but are forced together when Amanda’s mother pays Lily to tutor her daughter. Set in the ultra-privileged world of private school Connecticut kids, this is an insight into a rarefied world. Lily and Amanda plot to kill Lily’s step-father with the help of local drug dealer Tim (one of Yelchin’s last roles). I appreciated the score and some of the camerawork in this film and the central performances are fantastic. Again, it’s a little difficult to fully engage with a film where everyone is terrible, but it’s stylishly done.

Verdict: 7.5/10

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Gemini

(starring Lola Kirke, Zoe Kravitz & John Cho)

‘Gemini’ is another film that seems to have had its release date majorly delayed because I first saw trailers for this over a year ago. An LA-set neo-noir (a genre that is very much up my street) focusing on the relationship between a celebrity, Heather (Kravitz) and her assistant, Jill (Lola Kirke), this is a mystery-thriller that is sure to intrigue. When Heather is murdered, Jill is immediately under suspicion and is pursued by Detective Edward Ahn (Cho), so she sets out to clear her name. The central performance by Kirke is incredible, but unfortunately there was not enough Cho for me. There is a delicious slice of black humour that runs through this film and it is a slightly ridiculous, but fun watch.

Verdict: 7.5/10

 Don’t forget to check out Fiona’s full reviews for Love, Simon and Journey’s End

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Journey’s End

Year: 2018
Directed by: Saul Dibb
Starring: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Stephen Graham, Toby Jones

Written by Fiona Underhill

Based on the play by RC Sherriff, which will be familiar to many British school students, this film has just opened to a limited release in the US and I was lucky enough to find a showing of it. As someone who has taught WWI literature, I was keen to see what a new film adaptation of this beloved play would be like. When I heard about the cast; my interest was piqued further. Even though I am very  much the target audience for such a film, it still managed to exceed my expectations.

Sam Claflin stars as Captain Stanhope, who is dealing with the trauma of war by drinking through it. The ‘peace’ he has managed to find for himself in doing this is disrupted when an old school friend, the extremely green and naive Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) arrives and specifically requests to be assigned to Stanhope’s unit. Despite appearing to be about 15, Raleigh is an officer, so is bunked in extremely close quarters with the older, more experienced Osborne (Paul Bettany), Trotter (Stephen Graham) and Hibbert (Tom Sturridge). There, they are waited on by Mason (Toby Jones), who does what he can to turn the meagre rations into fine feasts for the officers. Almost the entire film takes place in this tiny officer’s bunk and the trench on the frontlines in 1918, giving the film a claustrophobic quality. The tedium combined with unbearable tension is skilfully conveyed by the production design and the acting, which is phenomenal.

Sam Claflin was in two of my favourite films of last year – ‘Their Finest’ (his second collaboration with director Lone Scherfig after the excellent ‘Riot Club’) and ‘My Cousin Rachel’ and he is quickly becoming an actor who can be relied upon to give interesting and layered performances. Asa Butterfield has been a child/teen actor around for some time now; in the underrated ‘Hugo’ (one of my favourite Scorcese films) and in the unfairly overlooked ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ (Burton’s 2016 film). He is perfectly cast here as Raleigh, looking like he’s just been plucked from his boarding school dorm and dropped into the hell of war; completely unprepared for what he’s about to face. Having only really seen Bettany in red make-up and a tight-fitting silver suit for the last few years (as Vision in the MCU), it is refreshing to see him getting to stretch his acting muscles again. He is sublime here, in what could be a boring, ‘good guy’ role. Osborne is the only thing keeping Stanhope from spiralling off the rails completely – his stillness centres and his steadiness grounds Stanhope, tethering him to the reality of leading his men. Stephen Graham is absolutely the best (along with Vicky McClure and Joe Gilgun) that British acting has to offer the world at the moment. Some highlights from the prolific actor are ‘Taboo’, ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and the ‘This is England’ film and TV series and he is insanely good in each one. Trotter is the only working class man in the officer’s bunk and his cheery demeanour is in stark contrast to Hibbert, who is suffering from shell-shock and on the verge of deserting.

Raleigh’s arrival on the frontlines is particularly worrying for Stanhope because his ‘sweetheart’ is Raleigh’s older sister Margaret. He is paranoid that she will get wind of what war has done to him and that he is a shell of his former self. It is slightly laughable that Claflin is supposed to be 3 years older than Butterfield (when the age-gap is in fact nearly 10 years). However, the physical contrast between the two works well to amplify the gulf between them; Raleigh is fresh-faced and Stanhope is broken. The film does an incredible job of portraying the everyday reality of war (admittedly mainly from the officers’ perspective). Their lives revolve around food, tea (even if it’s a bit oniony), cigarettes (or Osborne’s beloved pipe) and for Stanhope: whiskey. They spend their days waiting for their orders – when will they have to go on a raid, or will this finally be the day that the Germans attack? Despite his rank, Captain Stanhope has no control over the fate that will befall his men, he can only try to prepare them as best he can. As with any artwork about the First World War, futility is always going to be a main theme; something keenly felt by Hibbert. What is the point in doing anything when you are all going to die anyway and your death will have served no purpose? It is impossible not to experience anything to do with WWI and not come away feeling sick and angry about it. It goes without saying that the ending of ‘Journey’s End’ is devastating. It could end no other way.

I hope that as many people as possible in the US seek this film out on its limited release (I believe that is has pretty much left UK cinemas now). There is no doubt in mind that this film will be used widely in history and English lessons in the UK and they are fortunate to have such a good film as an educational tool. I was expecting to be interested in this movie, but not to be blown away on the level that I was. This is the film of the year so far for me and I urge you to find a way to watch it.

Fiona’s Rating: 9/10

Pacific Rim: Uprising

Year: 2018
Directed by: Steven S. DeKnight
Starring: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman

Written by Rhys Bowen Jones

Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Pacific Rim’ is, unashamedly, a favourite of mine. Taking the craftsmanship and dedication of the man behind genuine classics like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ and applying it to a giant monsters vs giant robots film just worked. Del Toro loves Japanese culture and their obsession with kaiju, and that comes across in every beautiful, neon splashed frame of ‘Pacific Rim’. You can imagine my, and the rest of the world’s, hesitation when a sequel was announced, but sadly Del Toro wouldn’t be in the director’s chair. That hesitation, as it happens, was not wrong.

‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ takes place 10 years after the events of the original. They cancelled the apocalypse and restored order to the world after closing the portal at the bottom of the ocean at the end of the first film. Jaegers are being built again, but with less need than previous given the lack of kaiju around the place. Corporations, though, are hell bent on making Jaegers AI-operated in order to be mass produced, eliminating the need for drift-compatible pilots. When a rogue Jaeger attacks a demonstration of this, it’s up to the John Boyega’s Jake Pentecost, son of Idris Elba’s Stacker, and the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps to find out who is behind the defected Jaeger.

Immediately, red flags begin to rear their heads. The allure of the first one was the kaiju and their immaculate designs. The second film near enough removes kaiju from the equation entirely. Monster vs robot action is replaced by robot vs robot action, ultimately moving the Pacific Rim franchise towards becoming a little too similar to ‘Transformers’. Thankfully, the robot vs robot action is frequently great and isn’t painful to look at like in ‘Transformers’. For all the problems ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ has, the action isn’t one of them.

One major change between the first and second film is, genuinely, the time of day. Where ‘Pacific Rim’ kept all the major action sequences at night, using neon to its advantage and allowing the colours on screen to truly dazzle the audience, ‘Uprising’ keeps all the action in the day. This was an intentional move by director DeKnight because of what Del Toro managed to achieve with his night-time sequences; DeKnight wanted to try something different. I fully respect that move from a novice director, a man who has largely been known for working on the ‘Daredevil’ Netflix series and ‘Spartacus’, making his directorial debut with a $150million film.

Where the action scenes falter compared to the original is in its weight. Every punch in ‘Pacific Rim’ had weight to it, you really felt like these were two giant beasts going at it and making huge amounts of damage to each other. In ‘Uprising’, while the action scenes are fun, they feel almost completely weightless. The punches and sword slashes don’t have the same impact as the original; the scale of the fights simply isn’t there. A stand-out shot from the first film is Gipsy Danger, carrying a tanker as a baseball bat, walking over the camera looking up from the ground, you saw these robots were literally the size of a skyscraper. In ‘Uprising’, it just felt a little like action figures going at it. That didn’t stop certain Jaegers making an impression (Saber Athena was my personal favourite of the new Jaegers), but the impact of the fight wasn’t as strong.

For a big action blockbuster, you don’t expect to see Oscar-worthy performances, and this remains true here. The acting is serviceable, but given the majority of the cast is young and new to the whole acting game, it isn’t surprising. Scott Eastwood, known for being an actor not understanding that ‘The Fate of the Furious’ is meant to be a fun film, continues to be entirely wooden on screen, lacking any sort of charisma you’d expect from a man who literally fights monsters for a living.

Fortunately, John Boyega is on hand to pick up the pieces left by Eastwood and charisma the hell out of us. Boyega, having won everyone over with his great performances as Finn in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Last Jedi’, is able to slip back into his natural accent for a change. Back to being a boy from East London for the first time since 2011’s terrific ‘Attack The Block’, Boyega is out there just having fun. His charm and humour elevates this film so much because he’s a man that everyone can root for given his outright cool demeanour. Everyone either wants him or wants to be him, and ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’, whatever you think of the film, is yet another example of his talent on his meteoric rise to stardom.

All told, I enjoyed ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’. The action was solid if unspectacular, it was visually impressive, and John Boyega sells the film with everything he has. I found the film fun and enjoyable, and when the action finally kicks in against the kaiju the film becomes even better in the final act. It’s just a shame it takes so long to get there.

Rhys’ Rating: 6.2/10

Walk Like A Panther

Year: 2018
Directed By: Dan Cadan
Cast: Stephen Graham, Dave Johns, Stephen Tompkinson, Steve Furst

Written by Tom Sheffield

British comedy films can be rather hit and miss and in the case of ‘Walk Like A Panther’, it unfortunately looks like we have another miss on our hands despite having a promising premise and cast. 

22 years after the plug was pulled on British Wrestling on TV, a close-knit community in West Yorkshire squeeze themselves back into their spandex in order to save their local pub, the ‘Half Nelson’ – which is run by Mark Bolton (Stephen Graham) who has wanted to wrestle in the ring all his life after growing up surrounded by his Dad and his wrestling family, the ‘Panthers’.  With his pub being closed down by the brewery, Mark sets out to prove himself in the ring to make enough money to save the heart of his community and prove to his dad he has what it takes to be a Panther.

Stephen Graham is a fantastic lead and manages to make the most of a shoddy script by making some of the poor humour quite laughable with his charm and natural comedic delivery. Dave Johns plays the Panther’s leading man and Mark Bolton’s father, but the former was always more important to him than the latter. Johns is great at delivering an emotional gut punch, you only need to watch ‘I, Daniel Blake’ to see what I mean, but his performance is undermined by poorly written jokes and his character not getting the attention he deserves.

The supporting cast were all fantastic, with each of their personalities offering something different to the attempt at humour. The film also benefited from having such a big age range between its cast members, with the older Panthers getting help from some of the teens in the community who help promote the fight on social media. Stephen Tompkinson plays the villain of the piece as the manager of the region’s breweries and wants nothing more than to demolish the ‘Half Nelson’. Tompkinson plays his character as if he were a villain in a pantomime – his dialogue delivery is eccentric and purposely villainous and it’s completely jarring because it feels like his character is in the wrong film. The same could be said for Steve Furst’s character when we first meet him, but as he spends more time on screen with the other characters, it becomes less of an issue and his character becomes believable.

Michael Socha (‘Once Upon A Time’, ‘This Is England’) plays one of those dickhead-type teenagers who is always blasting their shitty music and has no dress sense.. You know the one. His character instantly gets on your nerves from the moment he’s introduced to us, but he later becomes an integral part of the story when he is shunned by his friends and becomes a sort of mentor to Mark to help him train for the big fight. I personally didn’t see this redemption arc coming, but it’s sincerity was lost on the audience with the poor attempts at humour.

Upon doing a little research I discovered this premise was originally pitched as a TV series by Dan Cadan back in 2011 but it wasn’t picked up – which is a shame because I think this idea would have worked a lot better had if we’d have gotten to know the characters more and had a better build up to the event. To rub some salt in the wound, it also looks like the majority of the cast in the film were lined up to play their respective roles in the TV show too, which would have been perfect. A little more character depth in this film would have gone a long way. 

The only thing I took away from this film was how much more I want to see of Lena Headey, who makes a criminally brief (and I mean extremely brief) cameo appearance (uncredited) as the head of the brewery. Kudos to the writers for managing to work in a ‘Game of Thrones’ related joke (my best laugh of the entire film) that didn’t come off as cheesy or feel shoehorned in.

You will undoubtedly find this film in the bargain bin of your local shop shortly after it’s home release. A lot of the jokes fail to land, and most will fly over the heads of people outside the Yorkshire border. The cast do their best with what they’re given, but even the gorgeous Yorkshire backdrop isn’t enough to draw me into a second viewing of this film.

Tom’s Rating: 3.0/10

Love, Simon

Year: 2018
Directed by: Greg Berlanti
Starring: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Keiynan Lonsdale

Written by Fiona Underhill

2017 was a banner year for LGBQT cinema, with prestige pictures such as ‘Call Me By Your Name’, ‘God’s Own Country’, ‘Beach Rats’, ‘A Fantastic Woman’, ‘BPM’, ‘Princess Cyd’ and ‘Professor Marston & the Wonder Women’ all doing extremely well critically and at various awards shows (and I personally highly recommend that you seek them all out). However, these were pretty much all arthouse indie fare that didn’t make that much of an impact on the mainstream audience. Hopefully, ‘Love, Simon’ is here to change that in 2018 – with a big studio (20th Century Fox) and a wide release, designed to appeal to young adults. ‘Love, Simon’ appears to be a typical coming-of-age, high school romantic comedy – which had a golden age in the late 1990s/early 2000s with ‘10 Things I Hate About You’, ‘She’s All That’ and ‘Get Over It’ among others. The twist here is that boy doesn’t love girl, boy loves boy.

One of the refreshing things about ‘Love, Simon’ is that it tackles modern day teens in a realistic way, acknowledging how much their lives are fueled by social media and iced coffee. Simon (Nick Robinson) lives with his parents Emily (Jennifer Garner) and Jack (an unfairly well-aged Josh Duhamel) and younger sister Nora (Talitha Bateman) in ridiculously affluent and well-adjusted circumstances. Nora is obsessed with cooking and tries out all her recipes on her family and they have a weekly ‘family TV night.’ Simon is also pretty happy at school, with his friends; Nick (Jorge Lendeborg), Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and Leah (Katherine Langford). Simon has a small role in the high school musical; ‘Cabaret’ led by Ms Albright (the absolutely hilarious Natasha Rothwell). The only person Simon has to avoid in the corridors is the overly familiar vice-principal Mr Worth (Tony Hale). One day, the school is rocked by a post on a tumblr for high school gossip; ‘creeksecrets’ – an anonymous user saying that they are secretly gay. Simon makes the decision to contact this person, known as ‘Blue’ using an alias of his own; Jacques. The rest of the film centres around Simon’s growing attachment to Blue and his quest to find out who he is.

Nick Robinson is a likeable screen presence and after ‘Jurassic World’ and ‘Everything Everything’, he is on a successful run at the moment. Katherine Langford is quite a big draw for this film’s target audience after appearing in Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why,’ however I feel she was slightly miscast here. Logan Miller plays Martin, who discovers Simon’s secret and starts blackmailing him. Clark Moore plays Ethan – the only openly gay kid at school and it is refreshing that several very different LGBQT people are represented.

The film hits many of the typical senior year of High School milestones – getting drunk at a Halloween party, sleepovers, the big homecoming football game and the musical. There is one delightful fantasy musical sequence (set to the best possible song; ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’), where Simon imagines going to a liberal university and being able to be ‘loud and proud’ in his homosexuality. This was a highlight of the film for me and I wish that this had been more of a feature. Another successful element is that the film turns into a mystery – with Simon on a quest to uncover Blue’s true identity. As he speculates as to who it could be, the voiceover reading Blue’s emails changes to fit who he is imagining and he pictures scenarios involving each potential candidate.

The film builds to an exciting climax, after Simon gradually comes out to those closest to him and then is eventually outed publicly. The big reveal of Blue’s identity is effectively tense and has the appropriate level of cheese for a rom-com, which will melt a stony heart and leave you smiling warmly long afterwards.  Yes – on the one hand this is a blandly suburban middle-class mainstream film, but on the other, it has made an effort to have a diverse cast and of course, crucially, it is a major studio release tackling a young gay love story. It’s really enjoyable and absolutely worth you leaving the house and lending your support to. You won’t regret checking out ‘Love, Simon’ this weekend!

Fiona’s Rating: 8.5/10

Tomb Raider

Year: 2018
Directed By: Roar Uthaug
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Walter Goggins, Daniel Wu, Dominic West, Kristin Scott Thomas

Written by Tom Sheffield

It doesn’t feel all that long ago since Alicia Vikander was announced to play the iconic role of Lara Croft in a new ‘Tomb Raider’ reboot and now here she is! It was only a matter of time before a reboot was inevitably made with it being 15 years since Angelina Jolie wielded Lara’s iconic dual pistols and went on the hunt for ancient artifacts. Jolie played Lara twice in ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ back in 2001, and then again it it’s sequel ‘Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life’ 2 years later. Whilst it’s considered Jolie’s breakthrough role, the films themselves are pretty forgettable and I think now is the perfect time to for Lara’s return to the big screen (for many reasons).

Following the disappearance of her father, Richard Croft, seven years ago, Lara has since refused to believe he is dead and rather than claim her inheritance by signing a document acknowledging his death, she opts for a carefree approach to life whilst looking for new ways to give herself a rush. After years of trying, Richard’s business partner manages to persuade Lara that claiming her inheritance and his business is the right thing to do for her family – but before she signs the document she discovers her father has left her some clues that lead her to discover the truth about his line of work. This in-turn leads Lara to enlist the aid of drunken sailor Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to take her to the island of Yamatai, in the heart of the Dead Sea to try and discover what happened to her father. Here she discovers an organisation called ‘Trinity’ are trying to unearth Himiko, the ancient Queen of Yamatai who was said to bring death to whoever she touches. 

Alicia Vikander put absolutely everything she has into this role and it really does show. Her athleticism and determination to perform the majority of stunts herself really paid off in the final product, making them believable feats and a visual treat for the eyes. I was always on board with Vikander portraying Lara from the moment it was announced, she completely encapsulates young Lara’s naivety in the beginning but also absolutely kills it when the action kicks in. Walton Goggins is Mathia Vogel, a head lackey for Trinity who has spent seven years on the island looking for Himiko’s tomb. Vogel can’t leave the island until he is successful, so his exhaustion and rage make him a rather unpredictable villain, and it’s easy to see that these are merely masking Vogel’s utter desperation to return home at whatever cost.

Daniel Wu’s Lu Ren got less screen-time than I was expecting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The trailers gave off the impression he would be kind of sidekick to Lara on the island, which he was but in a very small way. The plot only dips its toe into Ren’s backstory, which felt like just the right amount. The focus wasn’t pulled from Lara or her quest to find out what happened to her dad, but we did learn enough about Ren to buy his character and his new relationship with Lara.

From the the moment this film was announced, Warner Bros. made no secret of this film would loosely be based on the 2013 ‘Tomb Raider’ reboot game that had been a huge hit with gamers. Obviously, this news went down a treat with fans and I think it’s fair to say that this is easily one of the best video game adaptations to make it to the big screen, but that might not be saying much given the poor attempts we’ve witnessed in the past. Some of the action sequences and shots feel like they were ripped right out of the game, as does Lara when she sports her bow and arrow in her ripped tank top and combat trousers. Square Enix’s close involvement with the film has obviously been of great benefit to the end result and is likely a huge factor in why it works so well. 

I feel like the marketing for this film may put a lot of people off. From the lacklustre posters, to the trailers with (what I now know are) over exaggerated grunts from Lara (which sparked a lot of conversation online), it’s like Warner Bros. didn’t want to get people excited for Lara’s big return. Don’t let their apparent lack of enthusiasm or faith put you off from paying a visit to your local cinema to see this film.

As an origin story I expected it to be played a little safe, which it was, but it’s understandable given it’s Lara Croft’s story. It’s one that needs to be told in order for her sequels to go bigger and better(should we be lucky enough one gets greenlit by Warner Bros) and for her character development. Origin stories almost always struggle to nail that perfect balance between giving the audience what it really wants and avoiding relying heavily on flashbacks – Geneva Robertson-Dwore and Alastair Sddon, who both penned the screenplay, make a fair attempt at striking this balance but the start of the film is quite slow in comparison to what comes in the second and third acts, but there is  never a dull moment. 

It’d be criminal if a sequel wasn’t to happen because future stories wouldn’t need to be slowed down by a backstory on Lara’s father, we can entirely focus on Lara as she sets out on this new path of stopping Trinity and we can watch her grow and become the iconic Tomb Raider that many of us grew up knowing and playing in her video games. With the game franchise’s continued success, and a third one on the way, there’s huge potential for a film franchise if the studios continue to work closely with Square Enix.  Whilst I was quite skeptic of the fairly unknown Roar Uthaug being in the director’s chair for such a potentially huge film, he did a more than respectable job with this film and I’d be all for him returning for a sequel, should that be the decision of the studios. 

It’s a visually compelling, albeit slow starting, origin story for Lara that shows a lot of promise her future adventures. Accompanied by a sublime score from Junkie XL that really elevates some of the action sequences, this compelling adaptation is an applause worthy success in my eyes and I highly recommend putting any reservations you have about the film to one side and support it whilst it’s in cinemas.

Tom’s Rating: 7.5/10

Wonder Wheel

Year: 2018
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Max Casella.

WRITTEN BY HUNTER WILLIAMS

“Men can’t be trusted”, says Kate Winslet, in one of her best performances in more than a decade. Under a different director, reading that wouldn’t be as uncomfortable, but only prolific writer-director Woody Allen could mistakenly emphasize such a line within these circumstances and still perform a miracle that is ‘Wonder Wheel’.

In the lush, colourful setting of 1950’s Coney Island, sad waitress Ginny lives a dysfunctional family life where love and betrayal collide like unhinged roller coasters. On one hand, she meets a young and charismatic playwright who sparks love back into her life. And on the other, she’s married to the wrong man, while also taking care of two chaotic children. It’s a big story for a small island.

Of course, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Comparisons to Allen’s previous work on ‘Blue Jasmine’ are expected, and, as always, each of the main protagonists exist as a different version of Woody Allen himself, only in another universe. But, ‘Wonder Wheel’ is certainly the most assured he’s ever felt, improving on many of his own staples: smooth jazz, vivid colours, hardcore melodrama, and larger-than-life characters. It makes for a very exciting and emotional roller coaster and those, typically, are the best kind.

Kate Winslet plays the beleaguered middle-aged wife who’s tragic flaw can burn any type of love to the ground. Her relationship with her husband, Harold ‘Humpty’, is explosive and unpredictable, allowing both actors (Winslet and Belushi) to equally shine in their most emotionally resonant performances in years. Ginny is also challenged by her son’s destructive nature in literally watching things burn. And, lastly, her daughter is marked by her ex-husband’s gang. What could possibly go wrong?

As Ginny begins to fall apart, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shifts gears and transforms the poetic photography into a thrilling chase for the truth. In ‘Wonder Wheel’s’ final act, for example, Allen’s sharp dialogue is complemented by the fast-moving energy of the camera. It adds a new level of feeling that is, as described by a side character, Jake Jacoby ‘Mickey’s Friend’, “playing in a whole other ballpark”. It proves the relationship between Allen and Storaro has shaped into a masterful pairing since they shot the ‘Life Without Zoe’ segment on ‘New York Stories’ all the way back in 1989.

Since 1989, however, we’ve learned two things: We can’t trust Woody Allen with everything, but we can certainly trust him to make a good movie. ‘Wonder Wheel’, in this case, it told with such a striking awareness of its own tone and characters that even if it were one of his last films—assuming Hollywood disowns him still— that would be okay because it’s just that wonderful.

Hunter’s Rating: 7.9/10

 

Red Sparrow

Year: 2018
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker

WRITTEN BY: CHRIS GELDERD

This 2018 American spy thriller, directed by Francis Lawrence and based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, stars Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons.

Following a career-ending injury, former Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is offered a new life and a new place in society to help both her country and continue to care for her sick mother. Her uncle Ivan (Schoenaerts) sends her to train with Russian intelligence to become a ‘Sparrow’ – a covert spy.

Ivan is working alongside General Korchnoi (Irons) and Colonel Zacharov (Hinds) to observe known CIA operative Nate Nash (Edgerton) who is working with a mole in the Russian government. It is Nash who Dominika, fully trained, is assigned to in order to gain his trust and find the mole.

But Nash feels Dominika wasn’t born to serve the state – he offers her a chance to act as a double agent and help the CIA bring down a traitor in their own agency and end corruption within the Russian government. The fate of nations rests on just who Dominika will pledge her allegiance to…

With a title akin to that of a John Le Carré novel and evoking such celluloid thrillers such as ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ or, most recently, ‘Atomic Blonde’, this espionage thriller doesn’t attempt to re-write the genre, but it does attempt to set it out of the usual template we are used to and on the whole it works because of it.

Jennifer Lawrence only appears on my radar thanks to the ‘X-Men’ universe and her role as shape-shifter Mystique. I’ve never seen ‘Hunger Games’ and a few of her other roles have cropped up, but don’t linger in my conscious for long after the credits roll. For the first time, I think she has nailed a role for mature audiences and gives a pretty good stab at things. From the ballet which she deftly carries out, to the basic Hollywood-Russian accent (could be worse) and the way she handles herself with quiet confidence and fragile emotion, Lawrence thankfully let me forget her otherwise annoyingly brattish, egotistical and otherwise simply self-centred attitude off camera to invest in her mature Dominika, a world away from American Lawrence, for these 2 hours.

Sharing the spotlight is the poor man’s (or some now say rich man’s) Jeremy Renner in the guise of Joel Edgerton. The man can act just fine, and he constantly gives himself to the material on offer to pull out a good performance. Here his CIA agent Nate Nash goes up against both Russian and American governments to be the spy we can at least have faith in fighting the good fight. He’s likeable and keeps things moving with his urgency and determination to break down an unbreakable Sparrow, which leaves his character in a good position as you always question if he’s going to make it to the end credits without being double-crossed or killed.

The supporting cast also nail their performances and carry over the accents that Hollywood teaches them for Russian officials and agents. Jeremy Irons is at his brooding, menacing best here but still somehow feels under-used, which is a shame because his role could be that of Simon Gruber 20 years later. Matthias Schoenaerts has an aura about him you feel comfortable yet uneasy about during his screen time which is exactly what is needed, and Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, and Joely Richardson offer their veteran talent to flesh out a cast who you can really get behind and see their pieces in the puzzle.

Story-wise, the film (from the novel remember) doesn’t try to give us anything too complex or ground-breaking which is what I want in these things. I want something that has worked for years and years, just presented in a fresh way. It’s these factors that lifted ‘Red Sparrow’ into something much more enjoyable than if it had been a carbon-copy of what we’ve seen before where even the cast couldn’t have elevated things with their tools.

The opening minutes are some of the most well shot and scored moments I’ve seen recently. Simple, but effective. The haunting and powerful music by James Newton Howard and cinematography by Jo Willems introduces us without the need for dialogue to paint a post-Cold War Russia and America, present-day countries that are rife with corruption and covert counter intelligence, more relevant than ever in our President Trump era.

The look and sound of ‘Red Sparrow’ is both beautiful and grim at the same time. The elegance and pride bleed off the screen when we see the glory of Mother Russia, but in a heartbeat turns to a dark and working-class world were nothing can guarantee your safety in the eyes of spies. Moscow, London, and Budapest are stunning cities and the perfect backdrop to the staged spy game, and nothing is really held back by director Francis Lawrence. It’s a mature film for mature audiences; it doesn’t shy away from the violence and brutality, yet is never gratuitous. There is nothing we don’t see, hear or feel that isn’t important to our characters and story, and plenty of moments had me wincing and grimacing in my seat. And it was brilliant. Just the reaction I wanted from a film shying away from watering down content for young audiences.

And as for the idea of exploitation of women, I for one found the sexual slant of this story tasteful and powerful and respectful to both Jennifer Lawrence in her portrayal and that of women in general. With a tidal wave sweeping through Hollywood about equality, the idea of using one’s body as a weapon initially seems to U-turn the movement, but actually, it is a raw and natural thing for these hard-edged and brutal spies to do. The mind and body is a weapon, and we are reminded that through brilliant training sequences from the delicious 007 Rosa Klebb-esque Charlotte Rampling.

The male targets come across as single-minded and stupid and blind to everything around them when presented with a suggestive glimpse of flesh or wandering hand. Lawrence plays it perfectly and never looks or feels exploited, at least in my opinion. It’s a harsh, brutal world of covert intelligence set in a totally different world than the West understands, and so in that respect, it makes perfect sense and easily throws us out of our comfort zone.

It’s these elements that drag it above standard American-based thrillers. While the story sags a little in the middle, easily allowing us to shave a good 10 minutes off the talky-talky moments, the flow is bookended with tight sequences that offer thrills, tension and bloody action without ever having to feel they need to resort to loud, physics-defying shoot-outs, car chases or dumb action sequences.

It’s a grounded and down to earth film with a climax you may or may not see coming as the pieces fall into place, but it’s done in a neat way that you’ll be happy with if you’ve enjoyed the journey through the beauty and danger of Capitalist West v Communist East.

CHRIS’ RATING: 9/10

Peter Rabbit

Year: 2018
Directed by: Will Gluck
Starring: Rose Byrne, James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie

Written by Jessica Peña

With an obsession for the cheap laugh and dull dialogue, ‘Peter Rabbit’ fails to capture a lasting impression of a moral lesson. The film is adapted from ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, the children’s book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter, which were later adapted into an animated series on the BBC network as ‘The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends’. The story of the peculiar, blue jacket-wearing rabbit has blended itself into British history as a best-selling classic. There’s a comfortable joy in the way the stories taught readers how to dream beyond our own boundaries and take a leap into new adventure. Peter’s treks into Mr. McGregor’s garden boasted an innocent curiosity in his little rabbit world. Heck, the stories even made eating vegetables look so fun! ‘Peter Rabbit’ paints a weak imagination of the classic, mischievous rabbit. If we want to get straight to the point, it is a film targeting children, so it’s hard for that audience not to like it, but the film hops around too many laughs to be compelling for the average viewer.

Domhnall Gleeson is the redeeming villain we can’t help but love. Sure, he’s a little extreme and comical, but it honestly works so well and makes ‘Peter Rabbit’ a little more enjoyable to watch. This young McGregor gets fired from his position as floor manager at Harrods and finds himself staying in the inherited countryside home, living beside the kind hearted Bea (Rose Byrne) and her furry companions. Gleeson’s McGregor is so intent on keeping the animals out of his garden that he pulls out measures like electrical fences and bolted mesh to doors. The rabbits, led by Peter’s self proclaimed “character flaw,” quickly devise ways around it, using very meticulous tricks to scare the young McGregor out of the house and far away from Bea’s affection.

The film brings some charm here and there as the rabbits are mischievous to no end. Peter, voiced by late night host, James Corden, declares some sort of turf war and his siblings reluctantly agree. McGregor faces hysterical misery in the form of bear traps, stepping on rakes, and even electrocutions that kids will get a kick out of. It would be a lie to say its target audience of the young age wouldn’t enjoy the antics. It has inventive, quirky obstacles. They make up the majority of the film, but ultimately find no release. Its sentimental value peeks here and there, but offer little to no redemption for what it’s cast over the legacy of the children’s book.

Rob Lieber and director Will Gluck really try to make these rabbits so human and trendy in mannerisms that it becomes grossly too much. Sony Pictures even received backlash for “allergy bullying” stemming from a scene where Peter slingshots a blackberry into McGregor’s mouth after it’s been revealed he has a serious allergy to those. It has been debatable online, but one thing that’s evident is they could’ve easily done without that bit. In picking out ways to use carrots, other vegetables, and nature itself into play, ‘Peter Rabbit’ tries very hard to barrade the viewer with so much gag laughs that it falls short in carrying emotion all the way through. There’s a whimsical and pure energy that is lacking. The closest to the source tale is probably Rose Byrne’s Bea. She loves her rabbits unconditionally and we really buy into her good nature and how she just wants to have a happy life, possibly with Thomas, but certainly not if her furry friends are being hunted. She’s the fresh air of humanity that helps reel the mayhem back in.

There’s perhaps too much vulgarity in terms of the nature of these animals. The writers thought it’d be tasteful to include a modern edge of pop culture, but it’s honestly flat. It’s not very faithful in the sense of whimsy and proper behavior. Gleeson and Byrne save this film only as much as they can. We can go as far as to say Gleeson is wasting his talent in this. There’s a small payoff in moral that will translate to kids, but it is short lived as the bulk of the film shadows it in cheesy hilarity. ‘Peter Rabbit’ is enjoyable enough to catch our hearts for a moment or two, but is sadly mistaken if it thinks it’s being a clever, modern take on Beatrix Potter’s children’s books.

Jessica’s Rating: 5/10