The Dark Tower

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Release date: 18th August 2017/Watch the trailer here

Adapting epic fantasy series The Dark Tower – written by Stephen King and spanning eight books – was never going to be an easy task, but surely someone could have done a better job of it than this. Brought to the big screen by director Nikolaj Arcel and writer Akiva Goldsman (whose previous work includes Batman & RobinInsurgentThe 5th Wave and Transformers: The Last Knight, which really should have acted as a warning for the fate of this film), The Dark Tower took an incredible ten years to finally get made, after being passed along between various studios and filmmakers, with both J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard having been attached to it at one point. Combining elements of the story from multiple novels, the intention was to launch a film and television franchise, but as it currently stands, that’s looking far from likely.

The film primarily follows Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), an eleven-year-old boy who has been having dreams about another dimension called Mid-World. Upon discovering that his dreams are actually reality, he stumbles through a portal into Mid-World and finds himself caught up in the battle between Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of the Gunslingers, and his nemesis Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer known as the Man in Black. Roland is on a quest to protect the Dark Tower, a mythical structure that holds the entire universe together and which the Man in Black is hoping to topple.

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The decision to make Jake the protagonist of the story is both understandable and frustrating: evidently the filmmakers were hoping that a young hero from New York City would give the film wider, more universal appeal, but the result plays out like an adaptation of a bad YA novel at a time when the demand for such films is long over. The choice to condense an entire book series into one, ninety-five minute movie is also a frustrating one: successful fantasy adaptations such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings worked because they released a film per novel, taking the time to flesh out the universes and their characters and, in the process, giving the studios a steady stream of box office revenue for years to come. The Dark Tower, however, will struggle to find an audience in such a way: fans of the books are sure to be disappointed by just how much is missing, but newcomers to the series will likely find themselves baffled by the complete lack of world building. The Dark Tower feels the very furthest thing from epic or fantastical; instead it has the awful feel of a pilot episode to a television series that ends up being cancelled after the first season.

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Most frustrating of all is that it’s not all terrible; there are (very) occasional moments of greatness that hint at the potential The Dark Tower had. For one thing, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are an example of perfect casting – but they’re utterly wasted on a weak plot and a screenplay packed with cringeworthy one-liners (not even McConaughey can make the line ‘have a good apocalypse’ work for him). For a film of its genre, it’s almost ridiculously short, but by the time the cliché-ridden finale rolls around you’re practically begging for it to just get it over with.

The only thing worse than a bad film is a bad film that could have been a great one. The Dark Tower takes that one step further: it’s a bad film that could have kick-started an entire franchise of great films. Instead, we’ll probably have a very long wait before any filmmaker (and hopefully a competent one, next time) is brave enough to tackle The Dark Tower again.

★★

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

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Release date: 17th August 2017/Watch the trailer here

The trial of the century – that of ruthless Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) – will amount to nothing without a testimony from a key witness. With Dukhovich’s men killing all potential witnesses, only one remains: notorious hitman Darius Kinkaid (Samuel L. Jackson). After the Interpol team responsible for transporting Kinkaid to The Hague for the trial is compromised, agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung) enlists the help of an outsider: disgraced bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), who is looking to earn back the ‘triple A rating’ that he lost following the death of one of his most high-profile clients.

It shouldn’t really work, but surprisingly it does; in large part due to the undeniably fantastic chemistry between Reynolds and Jackson. The Hitman’s Bodyguard follows the duo as they attempt to make their way from England to the Netherlands, which is no easy feat with Dukhovich’s relentless henchmen on their tail, as well as the constant bickering and one-upmanship between Bryce and Kinkaid.

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The Hitman’s Bodyguard is being marketed as an action-comedy, and it succeeds in both elements for the most part. The action is nothing we haven’t seen before and the comedy follows the tried-and-tested formulas that are familiar to each actor, but it makes for a shamelessly fun way to while away a couple of hours.

The supporting cast are frustratingly underused, however: Salma Hayek, as Kinkaid’s imprisoned wife Sonia, is given little more to do than gratuitous cleavage shots and swearing in Spanish, while relegating Gary Oldman to nothing more than a questionable accent is practically criminal – but it’s also a film that isn’t pretending to be anything more than a vessel for some violent Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson hijinks.

And while this works for the most part, it does begin to wear thin once the film passes the ninety-minute mark. The Hitman’s Bodyguard should have been short and sweet, but instead it overstays its welcome by about two car chases and three shoot-outs too many. Confusingly, it also dedicates far too much runtime to a romantic subplot between Bryce and Agent Roussel, and any attempts at evoking an emotional reaction miss the mark entirely. All the same, The Hitman’s Bodyguard achieves what it sets out to do and has a lot of fun while doing so – and no one was really expecting anything more than that.

★★

Atomic Blonde

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Release date: 9th August 2017/Watch the trailer here

Atomic Blonde comes from David Leitch, one half of the directing duo behind John Wick. Those calling this film a female-led John Wick aren’t wrong in saying so: stylish and with slickly-choreographed action, it’s difficult not to draw parallels – but there are elements of James Bond here, too, with a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a John le Carré book.

Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, the film is set in 1989, on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Following the death of an MI6 agent, fellow spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is dispatched to Berlin, tasked with recovering ‘the List’: a piece of microfilm that contains the name of every active agent in the Soviet Union. She meets up with her main contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), hoping to find a lead on the location of the List – as well as the mysterious Satchel, a double agent that she has been instructed to assassinate.

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While McAvoy is charismatic as ever and supporting turns from John Goodman as a CIA agent and Toby Jones as Lorraine’s MI6 superior are as good as to be expected, this is quite clearly Theron’s film, and it’s difficult to imagine another actress who would be such a perfect fit for the role. Ice-cold, painfully cool and never anything less than impeccably dressed, Lorraine will surely join the ranks of Furiosa in Theron’s line of iconic action heroines.

What sets Atomic Blonde apart from the rest – aside from its protagonist and a neon-tinged colour palette that would make Nicolas Winding Refn jealous – is the sense of realism that its action sequences bring. Lorraine can’t effortlessly overpower male opponents that are twice her height and weight, and she’s not afraid to fight dirty and with whatever she can get her hands on if it means winning. There’s a wonderful moment that comes at the end of a fantastic long-take stairwell fight scene that’s worth the price of a cinema ticket alone, when Lorraine and the last opponent standing stagger around like drunks, bruised and exhausted, while she swings at him with a corkscrew that made for the nearest makeshift weapon available.

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But for all of its style, Atomic Blonde does lack a little substance. The ’80s setting and a soundtrack to match go a long way towards making Atomic Blonde a fun ride, for as long as you don’t pause to examine the plot. It’s far more convoluted than it has any need to be, and with seemingly every character ending up as a double or triple agent it’s hard to keep track of who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. Eventually, when it feels like the film has come to a natural and satisfying conclusion, an extra ten minutes appear to have been tacked on purely for the sake of one last fight scene and a ‘twist’ ending.

Atomic Blonde gives off the impression that it doesn’t care too much about the finer details, though. It wants to be an unashamedly fun action romp, with a kick-ass heroine and dynamic, tightly-choreographed fight sequences – and in that, it most definitely succeeds.

★★

Detroit

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Release date: 25th August 2017/Watch the trailer here

The latest film from Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty) is Detroit, a film set amongst the chaos of the riots that took place within the city in 1967. Although the film takes the time to explore how the riots began – an escalation following a police raid on an unlicensed bar, at a time when racial tensions were already high – the predominant focus is on an incident that took place at the Algiers Motel, resulting in the deaths of three young African American men.

With the streets of Detroit swarming with police and National Guardsmen – the large majority of whom were white – lead singer of The Dramatics, Larry Reed (Algee Smith), and his friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) rent a motel room to take refuge from the increasingly violent riots for the night. There, they meet two white women, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), who introduce them to their friends, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.). What starts as a prank by Carl involving a starter pistol ends up attracting the attention of nearby troops, and a group of police – led by trigger-happy Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) and joined by private security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) – arrive at the motel to deal with what they believe to be sniper fire.

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The incident in the Algiers Motel takes up the entire second act of Detroit, and it is by far the most powerful part of the film. The atmosphere that Bigelow creates is one of uncomfortable and claustrophobic tension, as Krauss and the rest of the police line up the residents of the motel against a wall, taking them aside one by one to scare them into confessing where the supposed weapon is hidden. It’s by no means entertaining or enjoyable to watch – on the contrary, for the most part Detroit makes for unpleasant and difficult viewing. The acting here is of an incredibly high standard, with Poulter being the standout: it’s hard to think of a more despicable and unlikeable character in a film in recent memory.

Poulter may play the most obvious villain of Detroit, but writer Mark Boal’s screenplay is not always so clear-cut: the Guardsmen who are so unwilling to get involved that they turn a blind eye to awful, preventable abuse are almost more sickening to watch than Krauss. When we’re so used to movies that clearly tell us who the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ are, it’s frustrating to see a chain of events that could have had an entirely different outcome if the apparent good guys – be it the National Guardsmen or the legal system that dealt with the aftermath of the incident – had cared more about the lives of those three men who didn’t deserve to die. What is perhaps most depressing of all about Detroit is that although fifty years have passed since the events of the film, all we need to do is turn on the news to see that similar occurrences are still taking place. Change the music and the costumes, and Detroit could just as easily be set in 2017 – and that’s what makes it so effective.

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The rest of Detroit never quite manages to live up to its excellent second act, however. It would have been all too easy to end the film almost immediately after the motel incident came to a conclusion, and while it’s admirable that Bigelow wanted to make a film based on more than just mere shock value, Detroit is at least twenty minutes too long and its drawn-out conclusion detracts somewhat from the impact of the rest of the film. While it’s both infuriating and interesting to see the legal proceedings that followed, it’s also at this point in the film that some of the characters feel slightly lost, most notably Boyega’s.

All the same, Detroit is not just a well-made, well-acted piece of cinema. It’s heartbreaking, shocking, important – and above all else, it’s absolutely necessary viewing.

★★

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Release date: 2nd August 2017/Watch the trailer here

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the latest film from iconic French director Luc Besson (best known for Léon: The ProfessionalThe Fifth Element and – more recent but far less beloved – Lucy), is based on a series of popular French comics, Valérian and Laureline (which, incidentally, would have been a much better name for the film). Set in the 28th century, the film follows special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who embark on a mission to the city of Alpha – an ever-expanding metropolis where thousands of species from all across the universe have converged to share their knowledge and cultures. The mystery lies at the centre of Alpha, where an ominous force is threatening the existence of the City of a Thousand Planets and with it, the future of the entire universe.

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Much like Ghost in the Shell earlier this year, the source material which Valerian is based upon (first published in 1967) has been so influential within the science-fiction genre that the film can’t help but feel like it’s borrowing heavily from the very movies that were inspired by the comics in the first place – for example, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Star Wars. Even so, there’s much about Valerian that feels dazzlingly original, and in terms of world-building, creature design and the stunning visual effects used to bring the various locations and their array of alien inhabitants to life, Valerian has plenty to be commended for.

Frustratingly, however, Valerian falls short in all other major aspects: unlikeable and poorly-cast main characters, a flimsy plot and a clunky screenplay from Besson. What makes this even more frustrating is that the first half-hour of the film is really very good: a fascinating introduction to an alien race that end up becoming central to the story, followed by an utterly bonkers set piece taking place in a huge market set within another dimension that humans can only access via special helmets – but then the main plot kicks in, and Valerian grinds to an abrupt halt.

Yet for such an insubstantial plot, Besson insists on dragging it out for the maximum amount of time possible. On numerous occasions, the story pauses for twenty minute intervals to take bizarre detours; such as a fishing trip to find a jellyfish that will (somehow) assist Laureline in finding the missing Valerian, and an out-of-place burlesque performance by Rihanna (as Bubble, a shapeshifting alien) that will (somehow) assist Valerian in finding the missing Laureline.

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All the same, Valerian is just fun (and completely insane) enough to get by in spite of most of its flaws – or, at least, it would be, if it weren’t for the total miscasting of its two main characters. Delevingne’s questionable performance in Suicide Squad (which, admittedly, didn’t give her much to work with) made many people question whether she made the right decision to trade modelling in for acting, and Valerian likely won’t do much to change their minds. Compared to DeHaan, however, Delevingne delivers an Oscar-winning performance, at least giving Laureline a little personality, as opposed to the strained ‘cool guy’ attitude and lone facial expression that DeHaan offers up as Valerian. It doesn’t help that both characters are so inconsistently written that even after two and a quarter hours, the audience is still left feeling like they don’t know Valerian and Laureline any better than they did at the start of the film. Worst of all, though, is the romantic subplot (despite never having been on a single date with her, Valerian is persistent in asking Laureline to marry him, total lack of charisma notwithstanding) that takes up far too much runtime considering two actors have never shared less chemistry than DeHaan and Delevingne.

While obviously a passion project of Besson’s, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is ultimately a big, beautiful mess, and it comes as little surprise that it’s struggling to find an audience. Source material as vast and interesting as Valérian and Laureline deserves more films to flesh out all of its planets and their many creatures – and a Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets spin-off wouldn’t go amiss – but as it stands, that’s not looking likely.

★★

The Big Sick

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Release date: 28th July 2017/Watch the trailer here

The Big Sick is inspired by the real-life relationship between Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. Written by the couple and starring Nanjiani as himself, it follows the Pakistan-born Kumail, living in Chicago and trying to make it as a stand-up comedian while driving for Uber to make money in his spare time. Despite his parents’ wishes for Kumail to have an arranged marriage with any of the number of Pakistani women they introduce him to, Kumail falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan) instead – who also happens to be white. However, their relationship comes to an end as they struggle to overcome their cultural differences: Kumail is reluctant to introduce Emily to his parents because he knows that he’ll most likely be kicked out of the family for dating a white woman. After their break-up, Kumail continues his life as normal, until he is woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call telling him that Emily is in the hospital with a serious infection. As Emily is put into a medically-induced coma, Kumail attempts to bond with her parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), with humorous consequences.

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With Judd Apatow on board as producer, comedy writer and actor Michael Showalter directing, and Nanjiani’s own roots in stand-up comedy, it comes as no surprise that The Big Sick is genuinely funny. When so much comedy at the moment tends to revolve around gross-out humour and people getting drunk, it’s refreshing to watch a film where the laughs come from a witty and well-written script. The initially awkward relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents is where the large majority of the film’s funniest moments stem from, and also some of the most heartwarming ones. Since he’s playing himself, it’s no surprise that Nanjiani appears to be comfortable in the role, but Hunter and Romano are easily the strongest members of the cast. Their performances succeed so well because they feel so effortless and natural; if you didn’t know better, it would be easy to assume that they were a real married couple, playing themselves just as Nanjiani is.

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The Big Sick is also a reminder of just how long it’s been since we’ve seen a truly excellent romantic comedy, and it works because it remembers to do what so many other modern romcoms seem to forget: to be romantic, and to be funny. It helps that it’s rooted in real life, but there’s something very genuine and organic about The Big Sick that gives its emotional moments a well-earned impact without needing to rely on melodrama. If there are any complaints to be found, it’s that it maybe overstays its welcome for fifteen minutes too long, but each scene is so rewarding that it’s impossible to find fifteen minutes that aren’t necessary. To put it simply, The Big Sick is just a truly lovely film; warm and tender, hilarious but serious when it needs to be, and setting an incredibly high standard for all future romcoms.

★★

Dunkirk

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Release date: 21st July 2017/Watch the trailer here

For the large majority of directors, it’s rare for even one of their films to ever be considered a masterpiece. So Christopher Nolan should sleep easy with the knowledge that before even reaching the age of fifty, he has made two films that could (and will) rank alongside some of the greatest films ever made; and he’s made them both in the space of a decade. Nolan’s first masterpiece is, of course, The Dark Knight – and his second is Dunkirk.

What’s astonishing about Dunkirk is how Nolan has done something that feels not only fresh and new, but truly groundbreaking; all within the confines of a World War II film, which is something that has been done time and time again. Admittedly, there’s never been a major film that focused solely on the Dunkirk evacuation before – but there’s never been a film quite like this before, either. The evacuation in question is well-known in the UK and Europe but less so across the pond: in 1940, a large number of British and French soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France after being cut off and surrounded by German troops. What followed is widely regarded as a miracle to this day.

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Immediately, Nolan shakes off the criticism that surrounds many of his earlier films in regards to his favoured large amounts of expository dialogue by throwing his audience straight into the chaos of war, with little to no time given to introducing the characters that we are to spend the next one hundred minutes with. Yet what’s groundbreaking about Dunkirk isn’t Nolan’s decision to eschew exposition (and even dialogue, for large portions of the film), but his choice to tell the story via three separate perspectives: the mole, the sea, and the air. We are told that the scenes taking place on the mole (the pier) and the beach surrounding it take place over one week, the sea across one day and the air spanning an hour, but we are left to believe that the events all occur simultaneously. The moment that it first becomes clear that the three narratives are non-linear is jaw-dropping in its cleverness, and the moment towards the end of the film when the timelines finally converge is spectacularly satisfying.

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We spend the mole timeline primarily with a group of young British soldiers – including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) – and their struggle to make it off the beach alive. Many of Dunkirk‘s most suspenseful scenes involve this group of young men, from a stunning shot of Tommy cowering on the beach as bombs are dropping increasingly closer to him, to a claustrophobic scene taking place within an abandoned boat that is being used as target practice by the enemy. The actors in these moments are largely unknown, but they are actors that you’ll want to look out for in the future (Harry Styles included).

Meanwhile, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their teenage hand George (Barry Keoghan) are the focus of the sea narrative as they take their own private boat out to Dunkirk to assist the Navy with the evacuation, encountering a shell-shocked solider (Cillian Murphy) along the way. In the air, we join two Spitfire pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they travel across the English Channel to provide support to the troops at Dunkirk. As is quickly becoming Nolan tradition, Hardy’s face is largely obscured for all but a few seconds of the role, yet he does a remarkable job of acting through his eyes, and his narrative ends up being one of the most emotional and gripping of the entire film.

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All of this is soundtracked by (again, as is Nolan tradition) a Hans Zimmer score, and with Dunkirk Zimmer has quite possibly outdone himself. His score, which features a constant ticking clock, is always present throughout the film, to the point where the brief moments of silence sound even more deafening than the noises of gunfire, explosions and the dread-inducing wail of the German dive bombers. Zimmer’s score, coupled with the non-stop intensity of the film itself, makes Dunkirk more than just a film: it’s an exhilarating, nerve-racking, highly emotional experience, which can only be increased by viewing the film in its intended IMAX 70mm format.

But perhaps Nolan’s greatest achievement of all is the way in which Dunkirk succeeds in conveying not just the atrocities of war, but the never-ending fear, the hope, the loneliness – and all without showing a single drop of blood. Nolan takes the most intense, visceral on-screen war sequences you’ve ever seen and expands them into a feature-length film. The audience are never allowed to feel like they’re watching actors pretending to be soldiers – instead, we’re made to feel like we’re living and breathing the experiences of real men, and it’s harrowing and powerful in a way that no other war movie has ever achieved to this extent.

So, yes – Dunkirk is a masterpiece. There’s simply no other word for it.

★★