Deepwater Horizon

Year: 2016
Director: Peter Berg

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez
Written by Tom Sheffield

In a year that has produced a lot of great films that are based on true events (‘War Dogs’, ’13 Hours’, ‘Sully’), the ‘Deepwater Horizon’ trailers had caught my attention as a film I felt could become my favourite this year. ‘Deepwater Horizon’ was an oil drilling rig located in the Gulf of Mexico, and on the 20th April 2010 it exploded, with 126 crew members on board, resulting in America’s largest oil spill in history.

The film follows Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), an electrical technician aboard the oil rig at the time of the disaster. We first see Mike at home with his wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson) and his 10 year old daughter, Sydney, before he flies out to the rig. In this scene Sydney practices her show and tell project, in which she plans to show everyone in her class what her Dad’s rig does to get the oil. She uses an upside Coca Cola can and a little metal tube which she stabs into the bottom of the can to represent the pipe, and pours syrup in it to stop the ‘oil’ spilling out of it. This scene basically has Sydney give the audience some easy to digest background knowledge on what the pipe does, and in the greatest example of foreshadowing, the coke can suddenly bursts and spews out cola!

Once Williams is aboard the rig, it becomes apparent that relations between the TransOcean workers and the BP bigwigs are close to breaking point, with BP neglecting regulations and tests in order to ensure their pockets are filled with money, and totally disregarding the safety regulations. The film has no issue with making it clear that BP are to blame for the events that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, much like people around the world who voiced their anger and hate towards BP after the disaster. Obviously knowing the disastrous outcome of this neglect, we as the audience witness the build up to what causes the explosion, but I was constantly on the edge of my seat because even though you know what is going to happen, you don’t know when it’s going to happen.

The scenes before the disaster are well paced and they give the audience an insight to the personalities of some of the workers on board the rig; this in-turn helps you empathise with their situation when things go south, and you see their struggle and desperation to survive. Whilst Wahlberg’s character is the main focus, each and every actor involved in this film gave an incredible performance, regardless of how much screen time they had.

Without a shadow of a doubt, this is my favourite performance from Mark Wahlberg in any of his films to date. His portrayal of Mike Williams and his heroic actions on board the rig had me rooting for him the whole time, and biting my nails as he navigates his way through the exploding rig to find Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the Supervisor of the TransOcean team. Russell also gave a great performance, demonstrating strength, and showing the struggles of being a leader during such a horrific disaster.  

Peter Berg’s direction, the cinematography, the sound effects and the music had me completely hooked throughout the film. We are treated to some stunning landscape shots, and a 360 degree view of the rig; which incredibly was a real rig that was specially built for the film. When the rig is aflame, the visual effects and scenes are stunningly executed, but horrifying to imagine in reality. I watched ‘Deepwater Horizon’ in IMAX, and I can honestly say it’s one of the most stunning films I’ve watched in IMAX to date.

The film ends with a very touching tribute to 11 of the crew members who died on the Deepwater Horizon, serving as a final reminder that this was a real disaster and there were very real consequences to BP’s negligence. After watching this, I am really looking forward to watching Berg and Wahlberg working together again for the upcoming film ‘Patriot’s Day’ based on the Boston Bombings in 2013, even more so now there has been a trailer released online. If it’s anywhere near as good as ‘Deepwater Horizon’, then it’s going to be an absolute must-see!

Tom’s rating: 9.4 out of 10
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Café Society

Year: 2016
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell
Written by Noah Jackson

A large cast, larger than life setting, and a big-talent writer/director should spell success, however Woody Allen’s latest had one of the messiest trailers that I’ve seen in a long time. That could explain why the film is something of a box office flop. Additionally, it had no coherent plot that I could deduce from the trailer whatsoever, and all that I knew for certain was Woody Allen’s presence. After seeing the movie however, I can happily say those trailers aren’t reflective of the actual quality of the film.

‘Café Society’ stars a large ensemble cast, featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Parker Posey, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, and the voice of Woody Allen himself. The plot is focused around the faux glamourous society during the 1930s, in two places, Hollywood and New York City. Though it’s not mentioned, it is set during the Great Depression, one of the worst economic times in American history.  The movie primarily centers on Jesse Eisenberg’s character, Bobby, a Bronx native that moves to LA in the hopes of making it big in the land of talent agents, like his uncle Phil, played by Steve Carell. Bobby meets his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie, played by Kristen Stewart. As is the nature of all Woody Allen movies, we have a love story; not just between characters, but between the director and the setting as well.

The clearest thing that spoke to me with Allen’s direction, is the tone of LA, NYC and other places, and how they change our characters. Allen’s clear love for New York City shines throughout the second half of this movie in particular. The feeling for Los Angeles comes across as a type of love/hate relationship, where the city itself is incredibly superficial, but the buzz about it is unique and impossible to replicate. The scenes in LA are bathed in yellow, from the reflection of the sunlight to the paint on the walls, while New York has a bluer color palette. The set design has multiple questionable anachronisms, or things that just feel like they don’t fit in the time-frame in general. The score and music definitely fits the movie, with that nightclub jazz vibe being utilized to its full potential.

The performances are good overall. Allen’s direction of actors is one of his best attributes; all of the characters and performances remain consistent and feel like they all come from the same movie. The standouts to me were Corey Stoll’s Ben, who is Bobby’s older brother and a gangster of sorts, and Bobby’s stereotypical Jewish mother, played by Jeannie Berlin. Eisenberg does his thing, where he talks fast and is awkwardly philosophical, and Stewart acts as a nice counter to that, slowing him down and making him more like a person than a middle-school kid trying to ask a girl out. Steve Carell is average; he doesn’t noticeably change moods without his lines, but his line delivery is always great. Stoll and Berlin are the standouts; they make every scene they are in the best in the film. They have the best comedic energy, Stoll has the best character arc, and they command the screen. Blake Lively feels wasted in the 10 minutes she’s in the movie, but she is an impossibly attractive human being so I guess I can’t criticize her for basically being in the movie for that purpose.

My biggest problem with the movie is the story. The trailer definitely had some messy delivery in trying to convey the film’s message, and whilst the actual film isn’t bad, it definitely isn’t perfect. The film has two entirely separate chapters, only connected by having the same characters. The main love story between Eisenberg and Stewart felt mostly forced, as a way to easily relate the characters and so that Woody Allen can have an easier time telling the story. The film just kind of ends, and a lot of the transitions leading to the non-ending end are strangely done. The main story arc involving Stewart’s character is disappointing, and especially at the peak of her storyline, there’s a poorly explained twist that just didn’t sit right with me. It could just be me being disappointed by having my expectations subverted in a rather abrupt manner, but whatever. It also doesn’t really point out its reason to exist. Most films eventually get their point across, when they say or show the grand message they want the audience to take away. This film has nothing related to that; it exists as filler entertainment.

In summation, Woody Allen has made another Woody Allen film. It’s got the same sexual and urban vibe that something like ‘Midnight in Paris’ did so well, while having the in-the-moment feeling that some of the earlier Richard Linklater films had (‘Dazed and Confused’, ‘Before Sunset’). It doesn’t bring anything new from the genre or retread anything classic about what makes Woody Allen films so unique. His directorial style and sense of humor are well used here, and there’s no one else that could’ve made a film like this any better. If you like Woody Allen, you should be able to enjoy this one. If you don’t like dialogue driven dramas, then maybe skip this one. It’s a pleasant afternoon movie that would be a good rental on a rainy day. 

Noah’s rating: 7.0 out of 10

The Birth of a Nation

Year: 2016
Director: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union
Written by Gillian Finklea

‘The Birth of a Nation’ has been the center of many controversies during it’s short tenure; it has reclaimed the title of an earlier movie about the KKK, it was the subject of the most expensive bid for a movie at Sundance, and it marked the beginning of a promising career for a new film-maker, followed rapidly by a downfall due to a controversial event from his past. Unfortunately, the things I mentioned there are more interesting than the movie itself, and if that last point about Nate Parker’s past gives you pause, you may just want to sit this one out.

The film begins with a eerie rendezvous in the swamp involving a young Nat Turner. The dreamy sequence may be just that, as the real Turner was plagued (or blessed, depends on how you interpret) by what he believed to be visions from God. We then jump to young Nat learning his way around the plantation and what his role in life will be. After his father runs away, Nat quickly makes an enemy in the overseer (Jackie Earle Haley), and the extra scrutiny from the mistress of the farm (Penelope Ann Miller), who sees something special in Nat and teaches him to read.

Eventually Turner (Nate Parker) becomes a preacher and develops a semi-cosy relationship with his new master (Armie Hammer) which allows him the privilege to travel from plantation to plantation preaching the gospel. After suffering great personal misfortune at the hands of slave owners, Turner realizes that even with some privilege he has no rights. He and his family are still just property and the gospel he preaches is being used to subjugate his fellow man, not free him.

That’s how the climax of the movie, the actual rebellion, comes about. Parker takes his time plodding through the atrocities and indignities of being a slave (which are important to note, but Parker’s take adds nothing new) and when he finally gets around to the rebellion and its terrible aftermath, the movie is over!

Acting-wise, Parker is fine in the lead role, but is outshone by the wonderful performance of Aja Naomi King as Turner’s wife. Armie Hammer is cast quite well as someone the audience is quick to laugh at and with, until he does something that reminds you that he thinks it’s okay to own people. True to her word, Gabrielle Union has no lines but has one of the more powerful moments in the film, especially when you know about her life before this.

Spoilers to this historical event, but Nat Turner does lead a rebellion that ended in killing around 65 people, men, women, and children alike. What is barley mentioned in the movie however, is the rebellion’s terrifying aftermath. Over 200 slaves were killed by militias and mobs, and new laws were passed preventing slaves from education, free assembly, and worship. The United States is currently grappling with its own problems of accountability regarding law enforcement and black citizens, and whilst the two events are by no means the same, they do have a similar thread of unchecked power and judgement without trial. It seems like something Parker missed out on addressing, which is a shame.

This movie also comes just a few years after ’12 Years A Slave’ and while the films tell completely different stories, they both are tasked with depicting the daily life of slavery in all its horror. Steve McQueen displayed the South as a place of beauty that served as a backdrop for such ugly atrocities that I still can’t forget some scenes. Parker however seems to be going through the motions of what to show and it comes off as uninspired and unoriginal, albeit with a few powerful scenes. It may not be fair to compare the two films but I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Overall, the movie is filled with moments that pack a powerful punch, but the film itself left me cold. It is straightforward and follows the “wronged man gets revenge” narrative to a fault. I would say it is a promising start for a first time director but I’m not sure if Parker has much of a future after the backlash he has received about his past. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ may simply live on in film history as a movie where the surrounding press overshadowed a decent movie.

Gillian’s rating: 5.7 out of 10

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Year: 2016
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp
Written by Abbie Eales

‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ is so Tim Burton, it feels like it could have been specifically written for him! Jake (Asa Butterfield) is an outsider, his parents tolerate him, everyone at school ignores him and he feels in some way different. The only person he is truly close to is his grandfather, Abe, (Terence Stamp), a man who believes in the magical and tall tales. Following Abe’s untimely demise, Jake finds himself taking a trip to Wales, accompanied by his wonderfully passively-neglectful father (Chris O’Dowd), trying to track down the children’s home where Abe grew up, to help him piece together the mystery of the man he misses so dearly. Upon arrival at the children’s home Jake is plunged into a world of peculiar children; one of whom is lighter than air, one stronger than 10 men and one who has a whole hive of bees living inside them, all overseen by Scary Poppins, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). Oh, and they’re now in 1943, live the same day over and over again, ‘Groundhog Day’ style, and are being chased by monsters. Still with me? If anyone other than Tim Burton directed this, it would have been a nonsense.

The first act of the film sees Burton and cast on top form, with the pastel-coloured Hopper-esque Florida homes reminiscent of those in ‘Edward Scissorhands’, paving way to the dark dreary Welsh island where the children’s home stands. The characters seem profoundly real, and Jake’s need to connect with his grandfather proves to be a powerful drive, providing a good emotional scaffold to the tale. Indeed, during this first act it appeared this was a film that could rival Harry Potter in it’s imagination, scope and sense of whimsy.

However, the film seems to lose it’s way once it disconnects with reality entirely. The early scenes of Jake travelling through the ‘loop’ (the plot device explaining how the children remain shielded from the real world) from the dark and rain of Wales to the seemingly idyllic sunshine bathed children’s home in 1943 work well, as Burton explores the disconnect between fantasy and reality, unpicking Jake’s grieving process.

Rather than becoming the next Harry Potter, the narrative seems to drag the film down into becoming the next generic YA outing. You know, the one where Percy Jackson fights immortal trolls in a maze, and heals the rifts in a divided society, all the time finding out who he is as a person.

A whole raft of faux-mythic words are unleashed upon the audience as ‘ymbrines’ (Miss Peregrine herself is one, capable of creating a time-loop, turning into a bird, and entrusted with the care of the titular peculiar children), and ‘hollowgasts’ (‘peculiars’ who were transformed into terrifying eyeball eating, invisible creatures) take centre-stage, over-shadowing the very charming tale of Jake and his grandfather.

Then Samuel L. Jackson’s Barron (head hollowgast) bursts into the plot, in full comic-book bad guy mode, (providing the Johnny Depp element, perhaps?) and drags the film even further into the realms of the silly.

Those criticisms aside, ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ still feels like a return to form for Burton, as he captures both the gothic and magical elements of the story and the dreary mundane heartbreak of reality with some style. The connect between the Hollowgasts and the horrors Abe’s grandfather endured during his time in Poland during WWII is made subtly, and with care. Visually it is pure Burton, playing with colour-palettes and surreal and uncanny imagery. He even indulges in paying homage to other films, with nods to Ray Harryhausen and Stanley Kubrick (“Heeeerrrre’s Samuel!”) peppered throughout.

The fact the original novel was written around some intriguing photographs speaks volumes. The images here are clear and precise, but the narrative feels somewhat secondary.

Largely enjoyable, if overly long and peppered with over-cooked YA tropes (when an intriguing story about family bonds lay underneath it all), ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ will probably prove to be a popular addition to future Christmas TV schedules, but is ultimately quite forgettable.

Abbie’s rating: 6.4 out of 10

Blair Witch

Year: 2016
Director: Adam Wingard
Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry
Written by Rhys Bowen Jones

‘The Blair Witch Project’ has, like it or not, lived far beyond perhaps its initial quality deserved. When it was first released in 1999, there was a genuine belief that what we were watching was real, that this footage of people disappearing in the woods was actually found in the woods in Burkittsville, Maryland. 17 years later, safe in the knowledge that ‘The Blair Witch Project’ wasn’t, in fact, true at all, Adam Wingard jumps on the hot topic of the Blair Witch and delivers yet another horror film to cinemas in 2016. Originally called ‘The Woods’ before the big reveal at San Diego Comic Con, ‘Blair Witch’ has been on the receiving end of a lot of negative reviews. Contrary to popular belief, I found ‘Blair Witch’ to be remarkably entertaining.

Following the same found footage trope of the original, but with a modern twist, ‘Blair Witch’ follows a group of friends as they investigate the same Blair Witch of the first movie. Their investigation comes two fold; firstly, to find out whether the legend is true, and secondly, to trace what happened to Heather, the sister of our lead James (McCune), who went missing back in 1999. And so begins the creepy trek through the forest.

‘Blair Witch’, thankfully, doesn’t mess around. It has a brisk 90-minute run time, and the characters are on the road to Burkittsville within the first 10 minutes. Despite the immediacy of the action on screen having a detrimental effect on character development (namely, that there isn’t any), I got the idea that Wingard knew exactly what he wanted ‘Blair Witch’ to be, and what the prospective audience would want from the film. It spends more time on the forest, the creepy atmosphere, and branches snapping mysteriously than anything else in the film, and this focus gets a huge pay off as the film reaches its finale.

The fairly relentless quiet, quiet, quiet, LOUD approach to the film could very easily become annoying to some; there is a long stretch around the midpoint of the film where there was loud noise after loud noise. At the time, it became tiresome and predictable, but once the film was finished, I actually came to appreciate this in hindsight. We came to expect these cheap jump scares, so when the film hits the final 20-30 minutes, those expectations became entirely subverted, and moments where jump scares were expected just didn’t happen. Wingard purposely upset the rhythm of his film to throw his audience off guard. It certainly had this effect on me, and I can confidently say this 20 to 30 minute segment is one of the most stressful times I’ve had at the cinema in a long while. My hands didn’t leave my face from the moment the film truly snaps into focus.

‘Blair Witch’ does have an updated take on the genre. Found footage has gone under quite the transformation over the last 10 years with the on-screen filmmakers finding new ways to film things. Where the stellar ‘Chronicle’ had its protagonist fly his camera around the room with his telekinetic powers, ‘Blair Witch’ steps into the 21st century with the inclusion of first person cameras strapped to our characters’ ears, night-vision cameras, and even drones. Side note, the opening title card says the footage on screen was from May 2014, which threw the inclusion of drones into question, but that’s getting into semantics. The drone provides nice overhead shots of the forest while remaining faithful to the format, but it’s worth saying that the film works best when it cuts out the new tech and sticks to old fashioned hand-held camera shots. The final segments of the film are largely first person by using the ear-strapped cameras to provide a genuine first person POV, not quite in the way ‘Hardcore Henry’ had it, but you saw every head turn of the characters. It added to the stress because these shots were uninterrupted; they provided a view of the forest that felt really immersive. 

In short, ‘Blair Witch’ shouldn’t be as good as it is, but I liked it! A sequel to a film 17 years old that has become something of a running joke among literally anyone in the world who starts filming something in the dark, shouldn’t be this well made. It’s certainly flawed, because despite how quickly the characters get to the forest, the first 45 minutes of the forest is very typical horror film stuff; strange noises, erratic camera movement, character development trying and failing to be established. However as I’ve said, there is a definite turning point in the film, you will know it when you see it, that really turns it into a genuinely scary, intense, creepy thriller. What you don’t see, or rather what you think you just saw, is scarier than what you actually do.

I can’t help but feel ‘Blair Witch’ has been on the receiving end of some very harsh criticism. It’s entertaining, it’s creative, and it is genuinely scary once it finally gets going and doesn’t let up until its final frame.

Rhys’ rating: 7.3 out of 10

 

The Girl with All the Gifts

Year: 2016
Director: Colm McCarthy
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Sennia Nanua
Written by Abbie Eales

Based on a novel of the same name, ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ is a horror/drama set in a dystopian Britain, where an aggressive fungal infection has turned most of the population into mindless, flesh-eating ‘hungries’ (zombies essentially). ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ follows the fortunes of a young girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua) on her journey of self-discovery. Starting in a bleak underground bunker on an army base, we see Melanie and her classmates being strapped into wheelchairs and transported from their tiny cells to an austere classroom by heavily armed soldiers. Leading the class is affable teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who treats the children with a warmth and respect the military personnel lack. As the story unfolds Melanie finds herself on the run with Miss Justineau, Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close), Sgt Parks (Paddy Considine) and Kieran Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade), fleeing to escape a horde of hungries, slowly learning more about who she is, where she came from and her part in the unfolding horror around her.

Created by a British team on a relatively tiny £4.4 million budget, ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ is an ambitious genre piece with a surprisingly glossy production feel. Mike Carey has taken his own novel and penned the script, making some interesting choices with its adaptation from book to big screen. Taking out some of the more horrific elements of the novel, Carey instead brings us a more intimate tale, with some of the characters sharp edges filed away; which at times leads to their motivations feeling muddled and two-dimensional.

Melanie however, played by shining star Sennia Nanua, feels fully formed, ferocious and frightening, veering from wide-eyed innocence to feral abandon with ease. Her idolisation of Miss Justineau is both claustrophobic and beautiful, with Arterton and Nanua managing to convey their peculiar bond with a single glance. Glenn Close was an apt choice for the role of the Cruella De Vil-esque Dr Caldwell, who is desperate to dissect our heroine. She seems to disappear into the background for most of the middle act, only to make an impactful return for the heart-crushing finale. Some light relief comes in the form of Paddy Considine as Sgt Parks, whose ‘call a spade a spade’ attitude and practicality reflects the fact that despite the horror it portrays the film does not take itself too seriously.

One of the most successful aspects of the film is the wonderful score, by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, which takes a repetitive refrain of looped voices to add a real sense of foreboding and dread to the bleak landscapes.  

While some of the practical make-up and effects look a little clunky (understandable given the budgetary restraints), and not all of the hungries elicit the same level of fear (indeed one or two raised a quiet snigger), the sheer imagination and emotion of ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ manages to steer it past B-movie territory and could well see it considered one of the best films in the zombie genre.

Now you all need to go and see it so we can talk about that ending…

Abbie’s rating: 7.5 out of 10

Free State of Jones

Year: 2016
Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Written by Noah Jackson

‘Free State of Jones’ stars Matthew McConaughey (‘Dallas Buyers Club’), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (‘Belle’), Mahershala Ali (‘House of Cards’), and Keri Russell in a civil war set drama. Within the Revolution of the Confederacy in the U.S.A, there is a band of farmers and runaway slaves that felt cheated by the Confederacy, by being forced to fight in a war with no clear objective, as well as having all their food and supplies stolen by the Army. So, a deserter from the Confederacy, Newton Knight (McCounaghey), organizes a revolt within the revolt to stop the Confederacy.

Read that synopsis again. Sounds interesting, right? Well that’s what I thought. Initially when the movie came out, it received mixed reviews, some praising the performances and realistic setting, others not so enthused by receiving a 140 minute history lesson. Sadly, I have to side with the negative reviews here.

What the film does have going for it is squandered by a long, dull, slow script that features too many subplots, with not enough substance in any of them. It jumps from a historical drama, to an intense war film, to a courthouse drama. to a character piece to a…well you get the point! All of which encapsulates the story of this rather unknown and interesting guy, Newton Knight. This character and McConaughey’s portrayal of him are the best parts of this movie. I continue to think that McConaughey is one of the best actors currently working, post-2012 with his “McConaissance,” and he demonstrates that wholeheartedly in this film. All of the other performances are really well done, especially Mahershala Ali’s Moses, who is a runaway slave. The dynamic that Newton Knight has with his mini-platoon of fellow Confederate haters is also really interesting…until it happens on screen.

Other notable things about the movie include the music and the setting. The costuming is terrific, and the southern accents are all squeaky-clean. A lot of the fighting has a sense of the fighting style for the era, and the message about race relations and the unity of people are all in the right place. Sometimes, the parts are better as parts rather than a whole.

There are at least five speech scenes spread throughout the film that seem completely phoned in, director wise. Everything looks the same and is cyclical. The frame rarely holds anything of weight, there aren’t any laudable subtleties from the direction, and there’s too many tonal shifts. There’s a 10 minute vignette set in a 1960s courthouse in Mississippi, parts being spread throughout the film, that could be completely cut. The only reason the court scenes exist is because that is the only reason that this film could be relevant. I know it’s based on a historical book, and all of these events were real. But something about how this movie was handled by the director makes it seem both too dramatized and too respectful to the real people, with no real entertainment value or cultural status. For example, all of the war scenes have an incredible amount of brutality and violence. It seems director Gary Ross is making up for all of the shaky-cam nonsense in the first “Hunger Games” movie. All of these scenes don’t feel like they could’ve happened in the 1860s, there’s too much “action hero” stuff going on. But to counter this, every conversation in the film has a pause between every line that is sleep-inducing. It doesn’t help that the film’s shot composition is almost entirely under-exposed and gray.

None of the conversations really convey anything of interest. There’s some intriguing backdoor politics, that’s a good five minutes. Some of McCounaghey’s scenes talking about his strategy are good, there’s another ten minutes. There’s maybe twenty to thirty minutes of fighting. That leaves 90 MORE MINUTES OF BORING CHARACTER BUILDING. It’s not to say that slow films are bad, but slow films have to have a reason for them to be slow. There has to be a tension of sorts, or someone relatable and compelling to hold your interest. This film tries to do so much of what better films have done, that it just feels like watching a second-rate movie. You want a good slave movie, then watch ’12 Years a Slave’. You want a good character study? Go for ’12 Years a Slave’. You want a good historical drama? Go for ‘Schindler’s List’. Bottom line, you can skip this one. It’s not worth spending money to see. 

Noah’s Rating: 4.5 out of 10

The Magnificent Seven

Year: 2016
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard
Written by Andrew Garrison

‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1963) may very well be my all-time favorite western, an iconic classic inspired heavily by Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954). When I heard about this remake being created, I broke down and wept passionately, or rather became quite annoyed.  Why would such a brilliant film need a remake?  Because it was made in the 1960’s and can bring in more money for some studio?  Then I reminded myself, there are far more upsetting things than a remake of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ going on. Such as the remake of ‘Memento; (2000).  All kidding aside, I wasn’t pleased about this remake, and even when the cast was set, I was still resisting.  By the time the trailer was officially released, I was willing to give the film a chance. I think almost every film should be given a chance to pass or fail based on the quality of the movie alone.

The plot of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ is something you should know well even if you haven’t watched the original. It tells the story of a group of rogue individuals who unite to defend a town against a really bad dude and his men.  It has been used countless times, but it can still create a good story when you have talented characters behind it. As for this film, it isn’t flawless, but I have to admit for a remake, it was impressive. 

My biggest issue was Chris Pratt. I really like the actor in many things, but at times in this movie, his strong likable personality comes out too much. I no longer saw him as Josh Faraday, but as Chris Pratt! 

A few other characters were not clearly defined, and as with other films this year with a lot of characters, not everyone is going to get equal story time. If that was the case, the movie would be four hours long and not many people would love that. Still, I wish each character had another line or two to explain why they are there, and who they are.

I really can’t knock the premise because it is a remake, and so many other movies have used the same premise, likely inspired by either the original ‘Magnificent Seven’ or ‘Seven Samurai’. It is just a bit predictable. Then again, if you go into a remake expecting complete originality from its plot, you have chosen poorly.  

I have to say, despite my reservations about this film, I actually enjoyed it a great deal. It paid respect to the greatness of the original, but also found ways to make its own impact. The cast was very diverse, the action was crisp and sometimes quite strong. This is a pretty hard PG-13 film that some could even suggest should be rated R.

Antoine Fuqua is a talented director and you can tell this by his ability to show you violent scenes without overkill. They give you that sense of disgust, anger, sadness, and fear, but not in a grotesque fashion. That is exactly what I’d hope for with any film, but especially a remake of a classic like this. 

The film touches on various thing like gender equality, and the dangers of unchecked capitalism, and the souring of morality in the face of overwhelming greed, and it does this without being preachy about it. The classic motto of “show us, don’t tell us” applies wonderfully here. 

As for the cast, Denzel Washington was excellent, but when is Denzel ever terrible? Chris Pratt was good minus a few moments I discussed earlier.  I actually like Vincent D’Onofrio’s character which was especially colorful in mannerisms and language.  Seeing Ethan Hawke team up with Washington again was quite awesome, and Hawke was a perfect cast for his character.  Byung-hun Lee was also pretty solid in his role too. 

This film has some tough moments to watch, it uses language and makes jokes that other films wouldn’t dare try to pull off today, but I think it worked to create a more authentic, dirty, more rustic western. 

What I was dreading was a complete change from the original ending.  That today, certain things happen and don’t happen.  This film refuses to sugarcoat anything and it pays tribute to the original in fine fashion.

The villain is better than most movies I’ve seen this year.  You understand why he is such an awful human being, and he has a belief system within him which drives him to do heinous things, that is on display several times throughout the film.   

The set designs were quite beautiful, the cinematography, and attempts to keep the film grounded in both reality and rustic nature were very effective.  It wasn’t a flashy CGI film and nor should it have been. This film has everything you love about the Old West setting. The gunfights, the ideals of honor, lawless rogues, legendary lawmen, and good hearted women.  This was a legitimate western.

The ending is really intense and although the film is a slow burn for some, many appreciated the growing tension and the various stories coming together at the end.

Does this version of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ live up to or surpass the original? Of course not, it is a remake and that rarely happens. However, is it among the best remakes in recent history:  a film that is worthy of your time with great visceral action, a very good cast, beautiful cinematography, quality, directing, and musical score? Absolutely it is. This movie is among the best remakes I’ve ever seen.  If you can appreciate a classical film tone mixed with modern day action styles and diverse cast, this is a movie you definitely need go watch for yourself. 

Andrew’s rating: 7.8 out of 10 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Year: 2016
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata
Written by Abbie Eales

If you consider that Taika Waititi’s previous body of work includes the supremely quirky ‘Eagle Vs Shark’, and the pant-wettingly hilarious vampire mockumentary ‘What we do in the Shadows’, to go into a viewing of ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ expecting anything other than offbeat and idiosyncratic would be foolish.

‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ takes on a familiar story as we follow the progress of orphaned Ricky (the very charming Julian Dennison), as he reluctantly starts out his new life with foster family Aunty Bella (played with unabashed joy by Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (a grumbly Sam Neill) on a small holding in the remote outback of New Zealand. Having been through a number of foster homes, with social workers writing him off as a wannabe gangster and rotten apple, Ricky tries his best to escape his new life, but soon finds himself drawn in by Bella’s unflinching warmth, good humour and ninja-like deployment of hot water bottles.

Tragedy soon strikes, although it is handled in a distinctly low-key and stiff-upper-lipped way, with the men going about their normal business to the best of their abilities. Then, through a series of unfortunate events, Ricky finds himself on the run with stoic Uncle Hec and dogs Zag and Tupac in tow, trekking through the thousands of hectares of dense forest surrounding the family’s farm, on the run from both the police and a very angry social worker.

As with Waititi’s previous directorial outings the real joy comes with the unpolished and off-kilter, from Hec’s quiet awe at the “majestical” landscape that lies before them, to Ricky’s ill-fated attempts at running away from home. There is the seemingly obligatory appearance by Rhys Darby as outback hermit Psycho Sam, along with a cameo by the director himself as an eccentric Vicar (who almost steals the show with his tale about Jesus hiding behind doors).

The New Zealand landscape looks both awesome and terrifying as the pair immerse themselves in wilderness living, becoming both an ally and an enemy in their battle to stay together.

Waititi is becoming masterful in his directorial style, and brings a wonderfully fresh slant to what could have been a hackneyed, odd-couple buddy movie, making it a joyous and heart-warming tale of strong characters overcoming adversity and finding comfort in new forms of family.

Abbie’s rating: 7.3 out of 10

The Infiltrator

Year: 2016
Director: Brad Furman
Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger
Written by Tom Sheffield

When I first heard about ‘The Infiltrator’, it ticked all the right boxes. Based on a true story, with Bryan Cranston in the leading role, and 80’s law enforcement undercover investigations. The cast looked pretty solid, and after doing some research on the true story on which the film is based, I was really intrigued to see how it would be adapted for the purpose of the film.

Based on the incredible true story of Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), a U.S Customs officer, the film follows Mazur’s story as he goes deep undercover as a money-laundering businessman under the name of Bob Musella, in order to infiltrate the infamous Pablo Escobar’s drug trafficking business. Alongside Bob is his partner, Emir Ebreu (John Leguizamo) and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), who is a new agent on her first undercover investigation that poses as Bob’s fiance to make his character seem as real as possible. Mazur and his team are fully aware of how deep they are in the drug cartel and extremely conscious of the fact that one wrong word or slip up will blow the operation and potentially cost them their lives. Mazur and his team risk everything in order to try and bring a stop to Escobar’s drug cartel and his friends in high and corrupt places.

Bryan Cranston delivers nothing but an outstanding performance throughout the film. His portrayal of Mazur was brilliant, and in my opinion it was perfectly clear the effort he put into differentiating his actual character, who is a caring, loving, family man struggling to separate his work life from his home life, and his cocky, slick talking, no shit taking undercover persona. Mazur’s investigation sees him go through a lot of highs, lows and intense points of uncertainty, and Cranston makes each scene as  believable as the next. His co-stars Leguizamo and Kruger also deliver strong performances, both as their characters and their undercover alter-egos. Throughout the film Mazur, Ebreu and Ertz have a lot of strain put on their relationship, often doubting one another or struggling to trust their judgements due to the nature of the case, and how one minuscule hiccup could have all 3 of them killed without any pause for thought from the criminals they are rubbing shoulders with. The 3 of them had great energy on the screen together and I think this made the storyline even more tense and attention grabbing as they each wanted to handle the case differently. This meant the story refrained from being predictable because we didn’t know who would do what or when they would do it.

Whilst the film manages to retain a strong feeling of danger and tension from the start, it does sometimes find itself drifting off from the main plot into areas that aren’t really as interesting as the main story. These few sidetracked scenes still showcase the acting talents of the cast, but you can’t help but think these scenes were just added to extend the running time. There were a few times where jumps in the story were days or week apart and it took me a minute to figure out the story had jumped forward, thanks to to dialogue between the characters explaining what we had missed off-screen.

I highly recommend giving ‘The Infiltrator’ your time and attention, even if the cast don’t seem like your cup of tea, the story has to be seen to be believed as this incredible undercover case leaves you on the edge of your seat throughout. Whilst obviously some of the scenes are a fabrication for the film’s purposes, they don’t stray too far from the real story which I think always makes films based on true stories that bit better, and more enjoyable.

Tom’s rating: 7.9 out of 10

The Wicker Man

Year: 2006
Director: Neil LaBute
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn
Written by Noah Jackson

Let us go back in time to a simpler time. A time when Adam Sandler wasn’t peddling shit to the masses and looking suicidal whilst doing it, and a time where the world had yet to experience Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers’, and Nicolas Cage was going bankrupt as the result of some bad realty investments. In fact, this entire movie’s existence, and many more starring Cage, can be attributed to that one simple fact; he was broke and desperate. He still found enough money to executive produce ‘The Wicker Man’ though, and this was something of a passion project for him. And, love him or hate him, the guy does have talent. His performance in ‘Adaptation’ is not only one of the strongest written characters in all of cinematic history, but Cage makes it his own. He is an Oscar-worthy actor, and though his career choices may not be the best, he does offer up great entertainment. He’s also a relative of Francis Ford Coppola, arguably one of the best filmmakers of all time. Which begs the question – where did it all go wrong?

The Wicker Man’ follows the story of a cop, Edward Malus, played by Nic Cage in a performance that I can only describe as “ill-suited”, who receives a letter requesting his help in finding a small girl. This girl went missing on an island in the Pacific, near Washington State, and we learn that the island is run by what is basically a pagan cult of women. The original ‘The Wicker Man’ back in 1973 had a similar plot, though that was set in the UK, and paid more attention to religious conflict. This effort plays as more of a “battle of the sexes” narrative. It had a budget of $40 million, which was entrusted to Neil LaBute – a man whose filmography aside from this is obscure, to say the least. The film returned a little more than half that at the box office, making it a flop, and it was widely regarded as one of the worst movies of the year, as it should be.

Why is the movie so bad? Well, it’s hilarious. It’s a mystery-thriller with horror archetypes thrown in, except none of it is done well. The script is nonsensical, the performances range from truly awful to just weird, and it just feels like wasted talent. Then why am I talking about it? Well, because it’s hilarious. Remember how I said Cage’s performance was “ill-suited”. After the first 15 minutes, I realised he wasn’t even in the same story. He’s this jolly guy who just wants to wander in and do his job, and he has this big smile on his face for a good portion of the runtime. Watching him perform this nonsensical and inconsistent character was a special kind of magic on screen. He single-handedly makes this movie watchable. There are so many good quotes that he has, that I still laugh thinking about some of the stupidity I was subjected to. Favorites include “NOT THE BEES!”, “What’s in there, a shark or something?”, “HOW’D IT GET BURNED?! HOW’D IT GET BURNED?!” and his “oh my god” line near the end. Seriously, Nicolas Cage is amazing(ly awful).

All of the other acting is atrocious. Cage’s ex-fiance Willow (played by Kate Beahan) is excruciatingly bad. Ellen Burstyn is just there, she doesn’t really do anything other than dish out some creepy smiles and speak utter nonsense. Diane Delano – the woman who plays Sister Beech – is basically just doing her best Kathy Bates impression the whole time. Nevertheless, all of their scenes with Nicolas Cage are so fun to watch.

Getting away from acting (but sticking with the negatives), the script is terrible. To start the film, Cage’s character experiences a trauma that has nothing to do with the plot of the film. But the trauma gets brought up at least six times throughout. I mean, there’s just so many flaws and an absurd amount of dream sequences. The very premise of the film, having Cage go this island, is implausible. He’s a cop in California and he starts conducting his investigation in Washington State. He does all of this without warrants, assaults suspects and uses deadly force completely unnecessarily. More importantly, he never actually does any investigating in a correct manner. The pieces are laid out so easy that a five-year-old could deduce the solution, but the movie has to happen first. And finally when we reach the “twist ending”, we get a giant exposition scene that just leads to brutal and disgusting torture. God, I love Nicolas Cage.

‘The Wicker Man’ is one of those “so-bad-it’s-good” movies; a cult classic for all the wrong reasons. I wouldn’t say I want to repeat my experience of sitting through this terrible-VFX-laden, aesthetically bland, audibly dull, uninteresting and implausible, badly acted, and overall, insultingly dumb movie. But damn, I sure did laugh my ass off watching it. Get some friends together and just enjoy poking all of the holes in this movie. Make a drinking game out of it (sip for every bee, or awkward Nicolas Cage smile, or dream sequence, or sexual innuendo, or every time you see someone in an animal mask). If the booze hasn’t killed your brain within the first 20 minutes, enduring the rest of the film certainly will. This is a real car crash of a movie, but for pure entertainment value, I kinda recommend it.

Noah’s rating: 2.0 out of 10

Nine Lives

Year: 2016
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: Kevin Spacey (voice), Jennifer Garner, Robbie Amell, Christopher Walken
Written by Fiona Underhill

Kevin Spacey as a cat; what more do you want? I’m going to warn you now (spoiler alert), I liked this film. Despite every single member of the film community on Twitter telling me this was a bad film, I liked it. I like cats. I like Kevin Spacey. So what’s not to like about ‘Nine Lives’?

Firstly, ‘Nine Lives’ got me feeling nostalgic. They really don’t make them like this anymore. It reminded me of ‘Beethoven’ – a film about a naughty but lovable St Bernard dog who brought a family together, despite cranky Charles Grodin’s protestations. It also reminded me of the classic ‘Vice Versa’, which some (silly) people see as a lesser version of ‘Big’. It basically reminded me of being poorly, on my sofa, between the ages of around 8-12, and being comforted by a delightful family film. And I would recommend this film to a child of a similar age today, for a rainy afternoon’s entertainment.

Secondly, ‘Nine Lives’ is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld – director of two excellent ‘Addams Family’ films, two excellent ‘Men in Black’ films, ‘Get Shorty’, a few episodes of ‘Pushing Daisies’ (an excellent TV show) and…let’s not mention ‘Wild Wild West’. His sense of playfulness and humour definitely run through into this film, and it’s clear to see that he is having fun with it.

Thirdly, ‘Nine Lives’ does have an impressive cast – Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, Christopher freakin’ Walken, and a really hot guy (Robbie Amell) as Spacey’s son. Spacey ain’t phoning this performance in either – he looks like he’s relishing it. I love imagining him flitting between the sets of ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Nine Lives’ – I’m sure it provided some much-needed light relief for him. Christopher Walken is as delicious as always as the mysterious owner of the pet shop where Mr Fuzzypants is purchased, and who seems intent on teaching Tom Brand (Spacey) a valuable life lesson.

Brand is a billionaire business owner, trying to build the tallest building in New York. He neglects his wife and daughter, and all his daughter wants for her birthday is cat. In a bizarre “accident”, Brand’s body ends up in a coma in hospital, but his mind and personality end up in the cat. Cue many entertaining scenes in which Mr Fuzzypants gets drunk, refuses to eat cat food or use the litter tray and generally plays havoc with the family and their home.

Yes, I am an adult human woman, and I went to see this film (voluntarily) with another adult human woman, and we both laughed out loud on more than one occasion watching this film. There is room in my life for Powell and Pressburger, Pedro Almodovar, David Lean and now, there is room in my life for ‘Nine Lives’. Much has been said about 2016 being a woeful year for film, and in a year which contains ‘Batman v Superman’ (a film I really detested), I would agree to some extent. Put it this way – I know which film I would rather see again. I may be hounded off Twitter after this review. Hell, I may be hounded off this very website (if this should be my film criticism swansong, then I bid you goodbye dear reader), but I have no regrets. My name is Fiona Underhill and I liked ‘Nine Lives’.

Fiona’s rating: 7.5 out of 10