Dunkirk

Year: 2017
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan
Written by Sarah Buddery

Films directed by renowned British director Christopher Nolan are always something of an event; few and far between but whenever does come along there is always incredible amounts of expectation. Nolan is one of those rare “classic” directors, one who has a love and appreciation for the craft and skill in making a film, and one who can easily stand amongst the all-time greats, despite his relatively small filmography.

The notion of Nolan directing a war film perhaps surprised a few people, and indeed I was one of those people questioning whether it would be Nolan directing a straight-up war film, or whether it would be a “Nolan-ified” war film. The short answer is it is neither of those things and it is wise not to go in expecting a “war” movie as you might imagine one. It isn’t short on action by any stretch, but it is much more of a thriller that just happens to be set during the events of Dunkirk.

It is fairest to describe ‘Dunkirk’ as a “ticking-clock thrilller” – quite literally in fact, as not only do the events seem to occur in real-time, but there is an ever present ticking sound incorporated into the score, serving as an ever present reminder of impending doom and tension.

This film was almost nothing like I was expecting, but was absolutely everything I wanted and so much more! ‘Dunkirk’ has the Nolan stamp all over it, with all the class and finesse that you would expect, but it is boldly and brilliantly different from anything he has done before. ‘Dunkirk’ is a breath-taking, heart-stopping masterclass in nail-biting tension that perfectly balances the action with genuine human emotion. It is a survival story at its core, and just as meticulous, precise and measured as you would expect from Nolan.

Shot on IMAX film, ‘Dunkirk’ is visually stunning to look at, and it is so refreshing to see an action thriller that is genuinely worthy of receiving awards. The cinematography is stunning and the mind-blowing attention to detail ensures that everything looks and feels as accurate as it possibly can. The incredible aerial acrobatics and dogfights were largely done for real, using real planes and with the actors genuinely placed within the cockpit of an aircraft; the result is something which is immersive and heart-stopping in places. So often you can be taken out of the moment because you know it was created on a computer or using a green-screen, and whilst you can be assured Tom Hardy and co were safe throughout, there’s some genuine heart-in-your-mouth moments that are heightened by knowing that they were done for real.

Frequent Nolan collaborator, Hans Zimmer is back with an incredibly emotive and brilliant score. It is so wonderfully woven into the soundscapes of war, incorporating the roars of planes and the tense ticking clock to absolute perfection. The  use of sound in ‘Dunkirk’ is undoubtedly awards worthy, and whilst it might be too early to call, I would be very surprised not to see it up there in the technical categories.

As is so often the case with Nolan films, the score and sound are sometimes a little overwhelming in places which made it a hard to hear the dialogue in places. Whilst it did an excellent job of conveying the chaos and noise of war, it did also make it a little difficult to connect with the characters at times. Whilst the tight run-time (by Nolan standards anyway!) did a great deal to keep it concise and measured, it did also leave a few untied loose ends which some may find frustrating. However, it is still dramatic at every turn, with unbelievable amounts of tension and an unrelenting energy that will leave you breathless.

It is perhaps the nature of the story that it wasn’t about connecting with the characters, more just the various situations occurring simultaneously which does make it difficult to pick a stand-out acting performance. Mark Rylance’s heroic every-man was the easiest to connect with however as he made a daring trip across the sea to save those stranded and surrounded by the enemy. Cillian Murphy’s deliberately un-named and shell-shocked soldier also does an excellent job of conveying the horrors of war and the effect it had on many. Despite it only being one man, the fact is he represents the mental anguish and damaged psyche of millions of people who have been through similar horrors, and it was a surprisingly powerful performance.

‘Dunkirk’ is an utterly stunning film which isn’t quite perfect but boy does it come very, very close. A fair warning if you’re hoping to see this in IMAX; the noise of the bombers and gunfire is absolutely deafening, so whilst it might lead to a loss of hearing, it’ll be more than worth it. Absolutely unmissable.

Sarah’s rating: 10 out of 10
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War for the Planet of the Apes

Year: 2017
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller, Gabriel Chavarria
Written by Rhys Bowen Jones

The rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy has had a strange existence. With ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, it’s safe to say that most people were surprised at just how good the film was, better than it had any right to be, and becoming one of the surprise hits of 2011. Then along came ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ in 2014, a true blockbuster in every sense of the word by winning over audiences and critics alike thanks to its stunning visuals, compelling story, and wonderful performances. ‘Dawn’ stands tall as, for my money, one of the finest science-fiction films of the century. And yet, with ‘War’ upon us, the series as a whole isn’t yet mentioned alongside greats of cinema like ‘Back To The Future’, ‘Toy Story’, or ‘Lord of the Rings’. With Caesar’s return to the silver screen, Planet of the Apes has a series capper that manages to exceed and subvert our expectations and cement the series’ place as an all-time great trilogy.

After the events of ‘Dawn,’ in which Koba (Toby Kebbell) led a revolt against Caesar (Serkis) and a devastating battle against human survivors in San Francisco, the Ape colony are in hiding in an undisclosed location. We join the film in the middle of the action as a small troop of soldiers close in on an Ape camp for a surprise attack. After the attack, Caesar discovers the humans are capturing and using apes as “donkeys” in war to help the human cause. After the colony suffers a great loss, Caesar takes it upon himself to get revenge on the human in charge of this attack, The Colonel (Harrelson).

Upon reflection, it’s important for the prospective audience to know that ‘War’ may be a surprise to some. Given the title, it wouldn’t be foolish to expect Ape-on-Human anarchy throughout as the titular war rages on, but ‘War’ is, in fact, much more introspective and personal than I expected. Forgoing battle in favour of a grand character study of what it means to be human and what’s at stake for both humans and apes is a bold move for a summer blockbuster. That’s not to say there aren’t scenes of anarchy and battle and war, it’s just not the focus of the film. Caesar is at war with his inner demons as much as he is at war with The Colonel to protect his colony.

The series so far has had stellar performances from its apes, none more so than from Andy Serkis, but ‘War’ takes these performances to the next level. One must wonder what more Serkis must do to gain recognition from the Academy because his work in these films is utterly unparalleled. Caesar faces several obstacles to overcome, questions of family and loyalty and morality, all of which are written on his face in typically meticulous fashion. There are so many shots of Caesar’s eyes and they dominate the screen as he wrestles with himself and what he needs to do next. Caesar commands the screen in the same way he commands his colony. One raise of a hand is enough to silence a hundred apes, and he has the same effect on the viewing audience. Caesar is such an incredible achievement in character creation, design, and development that every word, every gesture feels weighty and important. Serkis’ fellow apes, Konoval, Notary, Zahn, are all impressive in their own right, but Serkis is the master, and in ‘War’ we are seeing a master at the very height of his powers.

If any criticism could be aimed at ‘Dawn’ it would be its lack of comic relief. ‘Dawn’ is a very dark film addressing a very serious subject matter, and while ‘War’ is no different by arguably going even darker, this criticism is addressed with the film-stealing Bad Ape (Zahn). After crossing paths with him accidentally on Caesar and company’s travels to find The Colonel, Bad Ape reveals himself to be an escaped chimpanzee from a zoo who learned to speak only by listening and, unlike most apes on screen, is unable to use sign language. Bad Ape learned to live on his own and meeting an ape of a different style to what we’re used to is a great touch for the third entry in the series. The comedy Bad Ape brings, both verbal and physical, is wholly satisfying, the highlight of which is a visual joke before they all set off on a long, cold journey north which had the entire cinema laughing.

Addressing the obvious, ‘War’ is home to the finest performance capture work in cinema. On a purely visual level, the Apes are stunning. No pixel has been left unused as every Ape on screen looks photorealistic, the most impressive of which on this front is Maurice (Konoval), the hulking Orangutan. Many, many critics state that the true power of any performance is in the eyes, and here it’s no different. Most of the Apes are unable to speak and communicate through sign language, so the eyes are as important as ever and each character’s eyes, whether Caesar, Maurice, Rocket (Notary), or Bad Ape, portray so much about their feelings in any given moment.

Beyond the Apes, the effects in general are stunning and I frequently found myself spellbound by the action on screen. Seamlessly blending CGI with humans, whether a small, lost girl (Miller) they found is hiding behind Maurice, or an Ape hands a human a machine gun magazine, it’s an achievement in itself that it looks so perfect. In scenes of battle and in quiet, dialogue filled scenes, the film manages to convince us that what we’re watching is real. If you were to show someone from even 1997 this film, they’d likely be convinced that these were real apes.

‘War’ is as good a series ender as any other. It manages to conclude Caesar’s arc in a satisfying way while keeping the doors open to future instalments. Reeves’ achievements with this film and ‘Dawn’ should not be underestimated as he has taken the fine foundation of ‘Rise’ and elevated it to a level beyond which any of us could have possibly imagined. For me, ‘Dawn’ remains the series’ peak, but ‘War’ is a stellar achievement in film-making. Apes. Trilogy. Strong.

Rhys’ rating: 9.1 out of 10

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Year: 2017
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya
Written by Tom Sheffield

To say there were high expectations for this film from it’s waiting audience would be a understatement. For the third time in 15 years we were about to witness a new actor take on the role of Spider-Man, but this time would be different because he now exists in the same universe as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and all the heroes we’ve seen so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities that weren’t possible with the webhead’s previous live-action incarnations. Having already been introduced to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker briefly in ‘Captain America: Civil War’, I was eager to see how he would hold his own in his first film. I’m relieved to say he did not disappoint, and neither did the film as a whole.  

Following his participation in the epic airport battle against Captain America and his team, Peter Parker (Holland) returns home feeling that his day-to-day heroics helping average citizens is a huge step down from what he just took part in. Eager to participate in more Avengers missions, Peter wants to impress Stark (Downey Jr.) and show him he’d be a valuable member of the team. When Peter starts interfering in Adrian Toomes’ (Keaton) plans, Toomes sees no other option than to put an end to the Spider-Man.

Tom Holland may just be my favourite portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man to date. He completely embodied Peter’s awkwardness, his eagerness to do more to help people, and his struggle to please everyone. Both in and out of the suit, Holland is a joy to watch on screen and I’m excited for what’s to come for Peter following certain revelations in the film, and the fact we get to watch him progress through High School, juggling school, a social life, and his evening heroics. Michael Keaton was menacingly brilliant as Toomes / Vulture. There’s one scene in particular where he is face to face with Holland and his delivery is enough to send shivers down your spine. Vulture has quickly become one of my favourite villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because whilst a lot of villains we’ve met so far see themselves as Gods or are willing to cause havoc and mayhem to gain power, Toomes is just a guy who thinks he’s doing the right thing to provide for his family. It’s this protective behaviour that spurs him on to don his Vulture wings and do what he deems necessary.

Despite appearing heavily in the trailers and posters, Iron Man’s involvement in the film isn’t as big as many had feared, with people often dubbing it ‘Iron Man 4’ due to how much he was in the trailers. Stark’s protectiveness over Peter and his heroics provides one of the best exchanges of dialogue between two heroes in the MCU, which I won’t spoil here, but if you’ve seen the film you’ll know what I mean. It truly shows how much Tony has changed from his arrogant, selfish, playboy ways when we first met him in ‘Iron Man’  and how what he’s experienced since then has changed him.

Michael Giacchino’s opening score had me excited from the get go. Incorporating the classic Spider-Man theme tune was always going to be a winner in my eyes, and after hearing it in the little teaser video he released on Twitter, I couldn’t wait to hear it blasting from the cinema speakers. What a treat that was! Sadly, Giacchino’s score throughout the rest of the film is pretty forgettable, which regrettably seems to be a recurring thing in Marvel movies.

Overall, ‘Homecoming’ is one of the strongest first entries in the MCU and I feel that Marvel/Sony taking the risk and not making it an origin story was definitely a huge factor. With this being the third reboot in the last 15 years, the audience for this film know how Peter gets his powers, they know his parents history and Uncle Ben’s fate. Skipping all that allowed them to focus on Peter’s struggle as a kid to balance school, friends, and keeping this huge secret from those closest to him. 

Tom’s rating: 8.7 out of 10

Cars 3

Year: 2017
Director: Brian Fee
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Bonnie Hunt
Written by Chris Gelderd

After a lacklustre response to ‘Cars 2’ which, in its defence, had some fresh ideas and a fast-paced plot, Pixar returns to the narrative of their original story for the third and possibly final (only if the cash doesn’t flow) chapter of the Lightning McQueen story. After some of the most dramatic marketing for a Pixar film in the guise of teasers and posters for the story that “will never be the same again”…. it pretty much IS the same and I am so frustrated by it.

When the marketing effort is more exciting and dramatic than the film itself, you know you’ve been sucker-punched into thinking this was something major. It’s not. The “money shot” of the trailers is out the way in the first 10mins, leaving the other 70 for a ho-hum, been there done that story that fails to step out of its comfort zone too much.

While ‘Cars’ had a perfect balance of characters, melodrama, racing and slapstick fun, ‘Cars 2’ came off as a spin-off film for hillbilly pick-up truck Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. With a host of new locations and characters, it was very different to what we expected. ‘Cars 3’ tries to learn from the critical and audience panning by taking us back to familiar places, showing us familiar faces and spending more time with our red racer and less with the pick-up truck. Does it work? Just. The balance is still not right, and there are more new faces and more old faces but lots of moments feel shoe-horned in for effect and the overall pace is a bit jarring, jumping back and forward, which may be a bit too much for younger viewers to keep up with.

The film belongs to Owen Wilson as McQueen and newcomer Cristela Alonzo as trainer Cruz. Remember that sleek black racer from the trailers and posters? The “villain” of the piece? Armie Hammer voicing? Yeah you’ll forget him soon enough sadly as he spends all of his amounted 10mins of screen time driving around a racetrack or sneering in the pits.  He doesn’t get to do much at all, nor does he present many thrills or any danger. He looks brilliant and sounds superb on screen, but he doesn’t do much, and I think it’s a real shame because he could have added the much needed “ka-chow!” to this.

You can see my frustrations here now – there is so much talking and little else, that I was a getting bored by the third time McQueen reflects on his past, or the fifth time friends remind him of Doc Hudson (voiced by the late Paul Newman via unused footage from the first film), and the sixth time McQueen or Cruz or Sally or whoever fail to see themselves as anything but worthless.

Jeez, Pixar, talk about bringing the mood down.

Yes, there are fun moments, and a few silly goofs and crashes to tickle the funny bone, but they are few and far-between all the heartfelt talking, training, failing and floundering. From a blistering opening race that is more exciting than the rest of the film, to a mid-section stock-car race, to an under-whelming training session and an even more under-whelming finale, it seems the cars here want to talk more, train more but race less. Will this appeal to younger audiences? My little boy certainly switched off half-way through when the mood got solemn and the sequences were slower and moody – he came for the thrills of the first and fun of the second, but got little.

However, on the whole, the way the film looks is one big success; another perfectly presented Pixar production. The colours leap off the screen, and the attention to detail is immersive. Textures looks superb and the characters are sleek and stylish. A sequence on a beach looks as if the beach is real and the cars are super-imposed there, it looks that good! ‘Cars 3’ doesn’t disappoint technically, and the sounds of the racers send shockwaves through your bones when they rev their engines and speed around the track…when it happens finally that is.

As you can see, I love the first film and tolerate the second. This third outing is just frustrating as it sold us on something like ‘Rocky 4’ in the Pixar world. Instead, it’s a slow journey dragging a mopey racer back to the podium with little chance to fist pump the air in triumph. The actors give their characters personality, yes, that’s not in question, but they sure seem to lack some vigour in doing it.

The door has been left ajar for a fourth film, and I imagine the takings from the toys are going to smash the box-office takings as the 90min toy advert certainly sells lots of new faces and race-tracks for young audiences.

Do they need another film? At this point I’d say no, and if they do, it needs to really think what made the first film a winner and harness that again because ‘Cars 3’ starts with a bang and ends on a whimper.

Chris’ rating: 4.8 out of 10

 

The Big Sick

Year: 2017
Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham
Written by Fiona Underhill

Fans of ‘Silicon Valley’ will recognise Kumail Nanjiani, but apart from that and the stand-up comedy circuit, he’s gone fairly under-the-radar, until now. Nanjiani has teamed up with his wife, Emily V. Gordon to write the true story of their courtship. Zoe Kazan (who I loved in ‘What If’) plays Emily and Nanjiani plays himself, which must feel bizarre, especially when shooting romantic scenes with an actress playing your wife, who is on-set watching proceedings. The film is directed by Michael Showalter, who also directed the delightful ‘Hello, My Name is Doris’ (currently on Amazon Prime).

Nanjiani is a Pakistani immigrant, trying to make it on the stand-up circuit in Chicago. He does the same open-mic night with fellow comedians played by Aidy Bryant (terrific in ‘Girls’), Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler – all hoping to be noticed by someone who can help them make the leap to ‘SNL’, or similar stardom. His parents parade a slew of Pakistani girls in front of him, in the hope he will find a suitable match for an arranged marriage. However, after heckling him at the comedy club, Emily catches Kumail’s eye and they end up going home together. Their relationship seems to be going swimmingly, even surviving the skeletons in Emily’s closet (she’s been married before), but when she discovers that Kumail seems to be judging ‘Pakistan’s Next Top Model’ – they have a huge fight and break up. He then gets a late-night phone call, letting him know Emily is in the hospital and this is where we get to ‘The Big Sick’ of the title. Emily has a mysterious infection and has been placed in a medically-induced coma.

It is here that perhaps the strongest supporting characters enter the scene – Ray Romano and Holly Hunter – as Emily’s parents. As someone who detests ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ – it almost pains me to say that Romano provides some of the biggest laughs of the whole film. Hunter gives a typically tender performance as a heartbroken mother, desperately doing everything she can to solve this problem for her daughter. Incidentally, she is also one of the strongest aspects, in a similar role in a totally different type of film from this year, ‘Song to Song’. I was also pleased to see, among the supporting cast, Adeel Akhtar, who plays Wilson Wilson in ‘Utopia’ – the best television programme of the last ten years (including all of the American golden age fare).

‘The Big Sick’ is a very good example of a rom-com – funny, charming, tender – probably precisely because it is true. Nanjiani makes a natural and compelling central figure – all of the action revolves around him. It may sound easy to just be playing yourself, but it takes a lot of guts to be that vulnerable. To also be publicly exposing what must have been a difficult time – not just dealing with a gravely sick girlfriend, but also facing a choice between romantic and familial love – is brave and refreshingly honest. In some ways it feels old-fashioned – almost a Romeo & Juliet style tale – but it is also modern – dealing with the immigrant Uber driver, the post 9/11 climate and Islamophobia. The film has taken on a more political stance than it perhaps intended, now that Trump is in power. There is a scene in which a heckler becomes racially abusive but now, it could be argued that he represents roughly half of American voters.

It is important to Nanjiani to represent Muslims as something more than terrorists in the mainstream media and he provides a well-rounded character to do just that. The fact that the character IS him definitely makes the film seem more real and while there are moments that are perhaps more dramatic or with more perfect comedic timing in the movie, it is character-driven at its core. ‘The Big Sick’ is currently ‘expanding’ throughout the US, relying heavily on word of mouth. It deserves to succeed in the US and internationally, as it is rare to see such a well-written, non-clichéd rom-com. Go see it!

 Fiona’s rating: 8 out of 10

Despicable Me 3

Year: 2017
Director(s): Kyle Balda, Peter Coffin
Starring: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Jenny Slate
Written by Andrew Garrison

Whilst I enjoyed the previous two ‘Despicable Me’ films, 2015’s the ‘Minions’ movie was a bit of a disappointment, being tolerable at best film. Following that, my anticipation for this movie had dropped considerably, however I was hopeful that bringing Gru and the gang back would elevate the film over the previous.  Thankfully, it did, but not nearly as much as I’d prefer.

Despicable Me 3′ tells the story of Gru (Carell) who is now working as an agent for the Anti Villain League alongside his wife, Lucy (Wiig), and this time ex-childhood TV star of the 80s, Balthazar Bratt, is the one being a nuisance. Lucy and Gru end up getting get sacked from their jobs, resulting in Gru suffering a personal loss of purpose. It is then discovered that Gru has a long-lost brother named Dru (also voiced by Carell). The two siblings reconnect and quickly devise a complicated heist that is ripe with ulterior motives.

Whilst ‘Despicable Me 3’ wasn’t a complete disaster, it did have several issues worth noting.  Of the three films, I felt the writing in this one was the weakest. In past films, the humour hit its mark often, and there were also moments that pulled at your heartstrings.  In this third installment however, the heart is missing. There are a couple of moments that rise to the right level, but plenty do not, and you will leave this movie with dry eyes.

As for the humour, there are several very funny moments in the film, however, there are also many jokes that were weak and missed their mark because of poor timing, delivery, and overall substance. The first act was quite hilarious, but the jokes diminished drastically in the latter two-thirds of the film. As a result, the first act is the strongest, but the movie drags in the middle. You wind up with a few laughs, a little bit of heart, and then a ton of downtime.  Perhaps the biggest issue here is the film touched on a subject that could have delivered the greatest amount of heart, allowing us to grow closer to these characters, but this was never fully developed. 

The humour saves this movie from being dismal.  When the jokes hit right, they were hilarious, and this was mostly thanks to Trey Parker as Balthazar Bratt; a 1980’s childhood star turned evil. The sight gags, sheer energy of the character, and 1980’s references are thoroughly entertaining.

Gru, Lucy, and the minions had personal story arcs that needed to be fulfilled.  Whilst Gru and his relationship with Dru carries the film, Lucy has her own issues to work out as she is filling a very unfamiliar motherhood role. This story arc showed promise, but I just wish it was explored more, however overall I was satisfied with the conclusion. 

Like many, I prefer when the minions are used sparingly, their story here is entertaining, but it did not have me longing for more.  It works well enough for the construct of this movie and there certainly were some humourous minion moments. Let’s be honest, if not for the minion madness that has spread across the globe, these little guys would still be hilarious in small doses.

Finally, the connection between Gru and Dru and their brotherly dynamic is interesting; both have expectations of the other and both have to make adjustments accordingly.  Although much of the best potential is wasted, there is enjoyment to be had in seeing these two bond as brothers.  In the end, I like the lessons that Gru learns about his purpose in life, and whilst his character doesn’t alter as much as one would hope, there is a noticeable change. 

It may have been less than stellar in comparison to other ‘Despicable Me’ movies, but it was considerably better than ‘Minions’. ‘Despicable Me 3’ has enough humour to keep all ages entertained for the runtime, however it had potential to do so much more and never fully delivered on it.  

Andrew’s rating: 6.5 out of 10 

 

Okja

Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, An Seo-Hyun, Jake Gyllenhaal
Written by Fiona Underhill

‘Okja’ has been one of my most highly anticipated films of the year. South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’ is one of my favourite films. ‘Okja’ also features ‘Snowpiercer’s’ Tilda Swinton, along with Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano and ‘Breaking Bad’s’ Giancarlo Esposito – it really feels like dream casting, almost tailor-made to appeal to me.

Of course this film is unusual for several reasons – the main one being that it has been released on Netflix with little opportunity to see it on the big screen.  There are some cinema showings of it (mainly in big cities), but significantly, these have been after the film debuted on Netflix. This fact caused much controversy at Cannes Film Festival – with people debating whether it should be shown at a film festival or if it should be eligible for competition. It feels ridiculous to me that ‘OJ – Made in America’ can be considered eligible for film awards and ‘Okja’ could not be. It is absolutely time that Netflix and Amazon are recognised as the significant film production and distribution companies they now are. Certainly when they allow directors to take risks, have final cut and follow their unique vision, as they have done with Bong here. 

I have mentioned some of ‘Okja’s’ more ‘big-name’ actors above, but they are actually not the stars of the film. At the centre of the story is a 12 year old girl; Mija (An Seo Hyun) and of course – the CGI creation that is Okja. Okja is absolutely a central character in the film – she has an almost mystical connection to Mija and her eyes have been imbued with humanity, an impressive achievement by the effects team. Swinton plays Lucy Mirando – head of a large global corporation that has genetically engineered a ‘super-pig’ – enormous hippo-like creatures. She acts as if they are environmentally-friendly (leaving a minimal footprint etc) and further pervades these ‘eco’ credentials by sending 26 out to the best farmers all over the world to be raised over a period of ten years. This is turned into a competition to see who can raise the most super of the super-pigs. Mija’s grandfather is one of the farmers raising a super-pig and Okja has very much become part of their family, isolated in the mountains of South Korea. These early scenes, set in the picturesque countryside, deserve to be seen on a big screen. 

Jake Gyllenhaal plays ‘Doctor Johnny’ – a Steve Irwin dialled up to 11 – as the public face of the Mirando Corporation, ostensibly sent out to check on the health and welfare of the super-pigs. It is the most outlandish performance by an almost unrecognisable Gyllenhaal, but he does well to hint at the character’s insecurities underneath all of the bombast. The MVP for me (as is often the case), is Paul Dano, as Jay, the head of ‘ALF’ – an animal rights activist group who stage a convoluted ‘rescue’ mission. The group is a band of misfits, including one who whose extreme veganism has left him weak with hunger and a Korean translator who wields more power than he should. There is an impressive lorry chase and a sequence with Okja rampaging through a subterranean mall in Seoul – the production values of the action and CGI are as high as anything you would expect if the film were getting a wide cinema release. 

Once the action transfers to New York, Swinton gets to really stretch her acting muscles, playing both Lucy and her sister Nancy. The production design is every bit as lush and outrageous as you would expect, after ‘Snowpiercer’. Lucy puts Mija in a matching ‘Mirando-designed’ kimono for the big press event – another scene where Swinton’s character’s hubris is punctured and she comes crashing down to earth.  Swinton plays this beautifully – she is truly one of the finest actors working today.

Towards the end of the film, the message does become slightly preachy – by showing the concentration-camp-like conditions of the meat factory. Yes, there are huge problems with the commercial meat production industry and this highlights them in an unusual way. But, I’m sorry to say, ‘Okja’ is not enough to put me off my bacon. 

Although I really liked ‘Okja’, it didn’t quite meet up to my (extremely high) expectations. It did get a little too sentimental and manipulative for my tastes. Visually, it was a huge treat and the central performance by Seo Hyun was exceptional. The wider ensemble cast were also all fantastic, providing humour as well as showing the vulnerable side of seemingly powerful characters. I’m a proponent of this type of bold, risk-taking singularly visionary film-making, whatever platform it chooses and I hope we get to see much more like it. However, I was a little disappointed by ‘Okja’ – I need to keep my anticipation in check next time! 

Fiona’s rating: 8.5 out of 10

 

Rough Night

Year: 2017
Director: Lucia Aniello
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, Jillian Bell
Written by Fiona Underhill

I saw the trailer for this film and thought it looked like a female version of ‘The Hangover’, which is pretty much exactly what it is. Although the trailer did not appeal to my sense of humour, it had a strong cast (including Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon and Zoë Kravitz) and I wanted to support the film because it’s a female-directed, female-driven R-rated comedy and I believe there should be more of all those things. Interestingly enough, like buses, two have come along at once – the similarly-plotted ‘Girls Trip’ (starring Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah) is also coming out this Summer, showing there is room for more than one studio comedy from the female perspective. I am pleased to say I was pleasantly surprised by ‘Rough Night’ and I ended up laughing a lot more than I thought I would. 

Jess (Johansson) is a goody-goody, trying to carve a noble political career and engaged to a boring and sensible man. Her former college roommate, Alice (Jillian Bell) has planned a wild weekend in Miami for Jess’ bachelorette party. Along for the ride are uptight and wealthy Blair (Kravitz) and free-spirited hippy Frankie (Ilana Glazer) – who have a romantic history from college. The fifth ingredient is Pippa (McKinnon) – Jess’ friend from a year out in Australia. Pippa immediately gets Alice’s back up, as she feels jealous and threatened in her best friend status with Jess. The weekend starts off predictably wild – with drink, dancing and drugs and a stripper is ordered once the girls are back at their luxury Miami pad. In the fine tradition of a Joe Orton farce – an accident occurs, the stripper ends up dead and the rest of the film covers the panic of what to do with the body. 

It’s interesting that because it is women reacting to the death of someone in their midst, the tone did become more serious and emotional – at least for a while. I was in a packed cinema, with a mostly female audience and the atmosphere did become a little awkward and uncomfortable when the stripper was killed. It’s hard not to empathise when you see yourself represented on screen and initially the group of women are quite shattered by what has occurred. The writers – Lucia Aniello (who also directed) and Paul Downs (who plays Jess’ fiancee Peter) quite deftly handle this tonal shift and fairly subtly but quickly build the moment back up to comedy. Bell and McKinnon, who play the more outlandish comic figures also greatly help with returning the mirth. I did find myself swept along and almost despite myself, laughing at crude and broadly comedic moments – which usually isn’t really my thing. 

The film alternates between the raucous bachelorette weekend in Miami and Peter’s bachelor party. In a slightly tiresome role reversal, his is a much more sedate wine tasting affair. However, after a panicked phone call from Jess, Peter believes she has cheated on him with the stripper/prostitute and his friends persuade him to pull an insane all-nighter – fuelled by Adderall, Red Bull and adult nappies – and drive to Miami to confront her. This was a pleasantly unhinged performance from Downs (who I’ve not seen before) and did provide some welcome relief from the body-hiding shenanigans.

Add in great cameos from Ty Burrell and Demi Moore – as the randy neighbours to the party pad – and all in all, this was an enjoyable night at the cinema. I can definitely see this proving popular with groups of girls, who want to go out and have a few drinks and have a fun night at the movies. Films like that don’t come along all that often (‘Magic Mike’ and yes, ‘Fifty Shades’ are probably the most recent examples), so we have to take what we can get. I think ‘Rough Night’ is going to do well financially and I’m happy about that. Of course, many films have tried to replicate the success of ‘Bridesmaids’ and not many have managed to pull it off. Hopefully female-driven comedies will not be so few-and-far-between in future and we don’t have to put so much emphasis on female directors, writers and stars when reviewing them. It should be standard, run-of-the-mill, not worth noting. But we’re not there yet. 

Fiona’s rating: 7 out of 10

It Comes At Night

Year: 2017
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison Jr. 
Written by Noah Jackson

‘It Comes at Night’ stars Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo (of ‘Selma), Christopher Abbott, and Riley Keough (of Netflix’s ‘The Discovery) in a psychological horror-thriller written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, the filmmaker behind 2015’s indie darling ‘Krisha. It centers around a family unit in a dystopian world that suddenly enters a power struggle when they allow another struggling family into their backwoods home.

I say this movie is a horror, and IMDb will say that it is a horror, and the trailers will definitely try and sell this movie as a horror, but this is a different, more agonizing kind of horror, because it’s the type of horror that requires patience and thought. Another recent comparison for this type of genre is Robert Eggers’ ‘The Witch, or a more famous example could be something like Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining. ‘It Comes at Night did indeed have its moments of scariness, but so much of what makes the film scary in the conventional sense is an underlying tension that only escalates throughout the entire movie.

The way this tension is created is through the direction of someone that I think will have a long and decorated career making movies if he stays on the curve. What Shults manages to do in this movie, rather brilliantly, is keep the audience on pace with the characters, in terms of the information given. For the world this film takes place in, there is definitely something going on, but it’s very unclear what that specific thing is, and the audience is informed just as much as the characters are. What helps create the paranoid feeling is when different characters enter the story, and their versions of events aren’t necessarily correct. In the average film, if a character states something as fact, the audience is expected to take this statement as 100% factual truth. What keeps this film above average is that is very clearly makes its intention known that not everything told will be factual, and to me, this tiny notion of not knowing who I was supposed to believe kept me on the edge of my seat.

Switching directions to talk about the cast, there are six main cast members. There’s Joel Edgerton’s family, consisting of him, his wife Sarah (Ejogo), and their son Travis, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. About 15 minutes into the movie, the secondary family is introduced, played by Christopher Abbott, his wife Kim (Keough), and their infant son Andrew. Every cast member here is fantastic in their respective roles. Joel Edgerton for me is one of the most consistently underrated main actors in the business, and the subtlety he demonstrates here further credits my belief. For Christopher Abbott, this is the first film I have seen that features him prominently, and I found his character to be the most unpredictable, which I credit to not only his excellent performance, but the tone and setting developed by this director. My favorite performance of the movie is that of the main protagonist, Travis. This young actor deserves lots of praise for carrying this story on his shoulders. Despite not being the top billed star, he is clearly the central focus of this story, with lots of the main events being played out through his perception. A main share of the actual jump scares, because there are some in this movie, are done in dream sequences, through Travis’ dreams.

While the actor playing Travis certainly gives a great performance and has many moments wherein the progression of the plot intertwines with his development as a character, my biggest issue with this story revolves around how from a horror perspective, everything that is supernaturally scary occurs in dream sequences, and the dream sequences are pretty easy to spot because the aspect ratio changes, making it simple to spot when it’s a dream.

After leaving the theater, my buddy (we’ll call him Chip) and I were both desperately trying to dissect what was going on in that movie. On the car ride home it was lots of yelling and theorizing about what went down and what made this dystopian world different, and in our opinion, more interesting than most. The ensuing text conversation that went on for the next few hours was even more trippy, as we spelt out our own complete theory as to how this film works. We both walked away absolutely adoring this film, and the fact we could talk about it in such depth further spoke to that, because it revealed that we both were wrapped up attentively in the story.

While some obvious dream sequences and a few illogical decisions impeded my full enjoyment of the movie, there hasn’t been another film this year that had me asking so many questions (as in questions about further understanding the film’s universe, not the questions I asked about ‘The Book of Henry, like how the hell did it get made). It’s inconclusive, because as I said earlier, the audience only knows as much as the characters do, so certain pivotal plot points don’t actually have definite answers. Which also makes this the only movie of the year, other than ‘Wonder Woman because duh, that I think requires more than one viewing.

Noah’s Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Churchill

Year: 2017
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, Ella Purnell
Written by Tom Sheffield

Often referred to as “the greatest Briton ever”, it’s no surprise that there have already been a number of films and documentaries centred around the life of Winston Churchill, with this latest film about the former Prime Minister coming from director Jonathan Teplitzky (‘The Railway Man’, ‘Broadchurch’).

This whole biopic centres around Churchill (Brian Cox) in the 96 hours before the D-Day landings in Normandy, 1944. Churchill is haunted by his past experience of war, obsessively worrying about what the public will think of him, whatever the outcome of this plan, and filled with fear by the sheer number of young men’s lives at stake if he makes the wrong call. Trying to support her husband the best she can, Clementine Churchill (Miranda Richardson)  must make Winston see that his self-pity will not win the war, and it certainly isn’t how a leader should act.

First and foremost, my favourite thing about this film was easily the cinematography, courtesy of David Higgs (‘RocknRolla’, ‘Lesbian Vampire Killers’). Some of the scenes were so beautifully shot that even the dull, and often tiresome dialogue managed to keep my attention. The film kicks off with shots of Winston on a beach, the seas red with blood, and as he walks away the colour fades to black and white and the empty beach is now filled with the bodies of young soldiers. This harrowing shot sets us up for Winston’s state of mind for the rest of the film and a visual representation of what he fears may happen.

Alongside the superb cinematography, Cox and Richardson’s performances are the only other saving graces of this film. The way in which they deliver their lines during some of the most intense and emotional scenes really capture your attention. The hour and forty-five minute run time feels seemed to drag in places and I think a ninety minute run time would have sufficed. A number of shots throughout the film are Winston staring into the distance, cigar in his mouth, with his facial expressions giving clear indication there is a lot running through his mind. The silence is often broken with Clementine entering the room and speaking a lot of sense and often reminding Winston to act like the leader he wants to be remembered for being.

The film focused on Churchill’s demons and his on-going fight against them, and because of this I think this film focused on the wrong Churchill. Had the film centred around the same 96 hours but from Clementine’s point of view and her struggle to support her husband, I think that would have made for a much more intense and ‘thriller’ like film. I left the cinema wishing I’d seen more of her and what she was doing whilst Winston was out butting heads with his American allies about the plans for D-Day.

I can’t say I’d recommend giving this a watch whilst it’s in the cinemas, but if you’re interested in films about World War II or Churchill then you’ll probably want to pick this up when it comes out on DVD. There’s certainly a lot of comments online about the films historical accuracy, but I’ve avoided going into detail on this in my review as biopics tend to be flexible with truth behind the stories they’re trying to tell. But with solid leads and some beautiful shots, ‘Churchill’ would be a film I recommend for one of those days where you’re just not quite sure what to watch.

Tom’s rating: 4.5 out of 10

Transformers: The Last Knight

Year: 2017
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Isabela Moner, Jerrod Carmichael
Written by Corey Hughes

Whether you love it or hate it, franchising has become a fundamental influence on Hollywood’s success in film today. From the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the Fast and Furious series, movie franchises come in many shapes and sizes. Yet despite an overwhelming consensus of negative reviews from critics, the Transformers franchise is one that refuses to die down.

And why should it? With Michael Bay’s retail-toy adaptations being as lucrative as they are, Bay wipes the tears of negative criticism with $100 dollar bills. But with ‘The Last Knight’ reputedly being the final one to be directed by Bay, (fingers crossed), is there a possibility that the fifth film will defy all odds?

Nope.

Summarising a synopsis for ‘The Last Knight’ is as useful as a eunuch in a brothel. As the film begins, we are thrown back into the ‘dark ages’ of England, where King Arthur and the Vikings are at war. With the battle against Arthur and his men, the king seeks out the magic of Merlin (Stanley Tucci’s second outing in the franchise) to tip the balance of war in his favour. 1600 years later, the fate of the human race relies entirely on the discovery of Merlin’s magical staff. Blah, blah, blah; if you’re really into the plot at this point, then all credit to you.

This boils down to what I believe is Michael Bay’s biggest flaw as a filmmaker. Barring his over reliance on slow-motioned, explosive and debris-propelling action, he is entirely incompetent at telling a coherent and engaging story. His films, especially his treasured Transformers flicks, are told exclusively through these grand, spectacular action set pieces. Narrative, for Bay, seems secondary; a grout to fill in the gaps. The action, nonetheless, does look spectacularly convincing. The use of CGI, especially for the appearance and movement of the Transformers, is unparalleled in its presentation.

With the story being as convoluted as it is here, with multiple sub-plots in play, the film is desperately calling out for strong performances, but there’s none to be seen here. Although new arrival Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the crude, but whimsical old Brit is amusing, it’s Wahlberg’s ‘The Happening’-esque wooden performance that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. Yet that’s the least of the film’s problems. ‘The Last Knight’ establishes no sense of continuity from its predecessor and with the onslaught of new characters being vomited onto the screen, Bay and co. are discouraging their viewers to invest in the characters and the conflict that they find themselves in. Even the on-screen relationship between Wahlberg’s Cade and Laura Haddock’s highly-educated and snobby Vivian Wembley seems forced, with no eye for attention being invested in their developing attraction. It’s sloppy, unconvincing, and if we didn’t care about the film before, we surely don’t now.

In the end, this fifth outing for the Transformers franchise regrettably ticks all the boxes for a totally unforgettable Michael Bay action flick. Hot girl? Check. Unforgivable product placement? Check. Flat-lined humour with a paper-thin story? Check. Resisting the urge to pluck your eyes out from their sockets? Check.

On a more light-hearted note, I’ve created a new drinking game for ‘The Last Knight’: take a shot every time Optimus Prime declares, “I am Optimus Prime!” That way, by the time the final credits roll, you’ll be absolutely shit-faced. It’s by far the only way you’re going to enjoy this one.

Corey’s rating: 3.5 out of 10

 

Baby Driver

Year: 2017
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez
Written by Rhys Bowen Jones

Odeon’s ‘Screen Unseen’ is a regular event in which the cinema chain hand picks a film for an early screening. In the build up to the eventual screening, Odeon release very cryptic clues for the film they’re showing. This film’s clues were “Political hangover,” “Soon shorter star, surrogate shop,” “Tiny, dark, waiting in the wings, “ and “Fingers ‘n Finest formed.” I’ll let you figure out exactly how they link to the film in question, but as you can tell, Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ was the ‘Screen Unseen’. For a film to join the ranks of previous ‘Screen Unseen’ films like ‘Moonlight’, ‘The Revenant’, and ‘Whiplash’, Odeon certainly had high hopes for ‘Baby Driver’. Those high hopes were not unfounded. ‘Baby Driver’ is one of the films of the year so far.

‘Baby Driver’ is the story of Baby (Elgort) and his adventures as a getaway driver for mysterious criminal and bank robber Doc (Spacey). As far as the plot goes, giving much else away would ruin some of the surprises and magic you have in store. In ‘Baby Driver’, you have a film where the motto seems to be “it’s not about the destination, it’s how you get there.” Both the film and its title character get from Point A to Point B in the only way they know how; driving really fast to the sound of a really loud, really eclectic iPod. It’s a blast.

From the first scene, Wright lets us into idea of the film. Baby is the getaway driver and he is our lead character; he is the focus of our story. While some of his criminal associates are off performing heists, that is purely background noise to Baby’s enjoyment of music. The first song we hear is ‘Bellbottoms’ by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a blues-y, headbanger of a song, and the entire heist is ignored in favour of Baby air-guitaring and air-drumming and miming along to the song. Instantly, Baby comes across as charming and likeable and once the driving begins, almost impossibly talented. The first car chase, in the red Subaru that’s all over the trailers, is spectacular. It’s an intense, white-knuckle thrill ride through the streets of Atlanta. There are close shaves, clever tactics, handbrake turns galore, and accompanied by the song in question it becomes one of the best car chases I’ve seen in years. This becomes a common theme. Every car chase or major set-piece in ‘Baby Driver’ is on its own level of awesome.

As a huge fan of Edgar Wright, his Cornetto trilogy, ‘Spaced’, and ‘Scott Pilgrim’, I found his energetic style of filmmaking to be a perfect fit for ‘Baby Driver’. Even small, conversation filled scenes are punctuated with small sound cues at just the right moment or gesture. I got the impression as the film went on that the visuals on screen were so meticulously planned from the get go, almost as if the scenes themselves were filmed with a song in order to truly nail the timings. Everything you see in Baby Driver can be matched to a musical influence of some description, gunshots were in perfect sync with the music playing overtop, and even Doc explaining an upcoming heist had the rhythm of a drum solo. Wright manages to keep the pace and flow of the film at such a high level that I have no doubt that there are moments and jokes that I didn’t catch on first viewing and will require a second or third viewing. What a shame.

Given the talent on show, it should come as no surprise that the performances are terrific across the board, particularly from Elgort, Foxx, and James. Foxx’s Bats is a loose cannon, a difficult business partner when the business is crime and several characters find themselves on the wrong side of Bats. Lily James’ Debora leaves a long-lasting impression too as she comes across so endearingly from her very first appearance. It’s possible that there’s a manic-pixie-dream-girl element to her as she is Baby’s perfect match instantly, but when James pulls off the character so well you can’t help but be swept up along with Baby and his love for her.

Baby Driver’s driving force is no doubt its music. Judging by my Spotify playlist having increased in number by no less than 15 songs, there’s something for absolutely everyone as the song choices span several decades. ‘Baby Driver’ does for 80s blues what ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ did for 70’s rock. ‘Baby Driver’ covers every base it can in a soundtrack that no doubt took almost as long to get right as it did to actually film. A late chase sequence to the sound of a Queen song had my mouth agape for its duration as it was such a perfectly intense song for the visuals on screen. That scene, as well as several others, were utterly breathless and I can’t wait to see them again.

If I had a gripe about Baby Driver, I would say it’s in its third act as some characters make some choices that are questionable, possibly going against what we’ve been shown in the previous 90 or so minutes. One character has been far-removed from the key action until the third act and when they are, they appear to brush off fairly brutal violence very casually. That said, it’s a small gripe that has no bearing on my overall opinion of the film.

‘Baby Driver’ is a blast. It’s exciting, funny, heart-warming, and very original. The performances are terrific, it’s written and directed superbly, and all being well, ‘Baby Driver’ should be one of the big hits of the summer. Edgar Wright, you’ve done it again.

Rhys’ verdict: 9.2/10