First Man

mv5bmdbhotmxn2utyjllys00nwnilwe1mzatzjg3nmexodlimdq0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjmxote0oda-_v1_sy1000_cr006311000_al_

Release date: 12th October 2018/Watch the trailer here

After becoming the youngest ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Director for his 2016 film La La Land, Damien Chazelle makes his return with First Man, the true story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon. Set between the years 1961 – 1969, the film is told through the eyes of astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), exploring the effects of the sacrifices made by Armstrong and the cost of one of the most dangerous missions in history.

Admittedly, this is one story that everyone already knows the ending to – but First Man is surprisingly personal in its approach to presenting those nine years of Armstrong’s life. The focus is, primarily, on Armstrong as a person rather than as an astronaut, offering an intimate glance into the consequences of the mission and their impact on Armstrong, his children and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy). The way in which First Man spends so much of its runtime presenting the lives of Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as so exceedingly ordinary while on Earth only serves to make the juxtaposition of seeing those same, ordinary human beings in space or on the moon all the more astonishing.

mv5bmty2njq3odeym15bml5banbnxkftztgwmtg1oda1njm-_v1_sy1000_cr0016351000_al_

Because of this, the small moments are just as powerful as the bigger, grander ones. This is helped by two excellent, but incredibly different, performances from Gosling and Foy. As Armstrong, Gosling is remarkable at portraying a man who, on the outside, appeared to be devoid of all emotion – to the immense frustration of both his wife and the audience – while in utter turmoil internally. Foy, on the other hand, grounds the audience and offers them something to connect with, giving a highly-charged, compelling performance, laden with the kind of emotion and intense longing that Armstrong was seemingly incapable of expressing.

However, First Man is still, ultimately, a film about the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and the moon landing sequence which, inevitably, acts as the film’s climax, is flawless. Shot with IMAX cameras – as opposed to the grainy, period-defining look of the rest of the film – the moon appears crisp, clear and breathtakingly silent, perfectly conveying the sheer magnitude of the situation. This acts as a complete contrast to First Man’s other space-set scenes – the Gemini 8 mission, for example – which are entirely stripped of all romanticism, instead depicted as hellish, terrifying experiences for all involved. With relentless shaky cam, deafening sound design, and claustrophobic close-ups filmed from within the spacecrafts, the combined effect is frequently overwhelming for the audience, even going so far as to be unpleasant to watch at times. These are the moments in First Man that best establish the heroism of the people involved, and the devastating sacrifices that were made along the way – with Chazelle’s decision to unflinchingly convey just how frightening being an astronaut was, with none of the grandeur and all of the horror.

mv5bmzm5mzc3njkyov5bml5banbnxkftztgwntu1oda1njm-_v1_sy1000_cr0016671000_al_

It’s to Chazelle’s testament as an exceptionally talented filmmaker that First Man has both tension and suspense, despite the outcome of the story it’s telling being so widely known. From an entertainment perspective, First Man might not be on a par or quite as instantly re-watchable as La La Land or Chazelle’s breakthrough film, Whiplash, but it’s still an incredibly well-made and impeccably crafted film, with little to find fault with on a technical level. With a filmography as impressive as Chazelle’s, to say that First Man is perhaps his weakest film yet is still the furthest thing possible from an insult – it’s just not quite his third masterpiece.

★★

Advertisements

A Star Is Born

mv5bmje3mdq0mta3m15bml5banbnxkftztgwmdmwndy2ntm-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_

Release date: 3rd October 2018/Watch the trailer here

Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is A Star Is Born, the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name, and the first time that the story has been remade since 1976. Bringing the story to life for a brand new generation, the film follows seasoned musician Jackson Maine (Cooper), who discovers – and subsequently falls in love with – Ally (Lady Gaga), a struggling young artist. With Jackson coaxing her into the spotlight, Ally soon finds fame, just when she had given up on her dream to ever make it as a singer. But while her career is taking off, Jackson and Ally’s relationship begins to break down, as his battle with his internal demons starts to send his own career into a downward spiral.

mv5bmtu1mzgxnjgyof5bml5banbnxkftztgwota2oda0njm-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

It may be a tale as old as time (or at least as old as 1937), but the success of A Star Is Born lies in the telling of the story, even the elements that feel familiar or predictable. Cooper’s film feels like something fresh and exciting because of how intimately he has chosen to portray Jackson and Ally’s relationship. It might be a film centred around show-business and fame and all of the things – both good and bad – that come with it, but underneath all of the glitz and glamour, the beating heart of A Star is Born is its love story, and the stripped-back, deeply personal way in which it is told.

But as much as Cooper’s understated direction is integral to telling this story, so too are the performances. This is, undoubtedly, the best performance of Cooper’s career so far: soulful and heartfelt, and heartbreakingly, devastatingly real. However, if a star is truly born in this film, then that star is Lady Gaga. As Ally she is simply extraordinary, and the quieter moments of her role are delivered with just as much raw, powerful emotional as the moments in which she gets to rightfully show off the incredible voice that made her famous in the first place. A Star Is Born is well and truly Gaga’s time to shine; her chance to prove herself as an actor, and she does so with credibility and irresistible magnetism. It’s testament both to Gaga’s performance and the authenticity of Cooper’s film as a whole that not once does it feel as though you’re watching one of the most famous and recognisable singers in the world – throughout A Star Is Born, you’re watching Ally, and Ally alone.

mv5bmtk3ntqwmza0mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmte2oda0njm-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

The music, too, plays a crucial part in A Star Is Born, and while the songs and their lyrics are fundamental in expressing the relationship between Jackson and Ally, they also stand up on their own, separate from the film. Many of the songs – particularly ‘Shallow’, the film’s central song – have a timeless feel to them, and are every bit as emotional, raw and heartfelt as the film itself, while spanning a wide range of styles and genres. Cooper and Gaga share a natural, intense chemistry, but this is never felt more so than when they share a stage together; their troubled but tender love story coming alive through the power of their voices.

So many remarkable elements come together to make A Star Is Born the film that it is, but perhaps what makes it quite so special is the fact that it’s a melodrama that never feels melodramatic, its emotions being played out with quiet simplicity, eliciting tears that feel well-earned rather than forced. For a first-time director, little more could be asked of Cooper than telling this story, and all of the heady romance and devastating tragedy that comes with it, and telling it quite so effectively.

★★★★

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

mv5bmtk1mzm1odewov5bml5banbnxkftztgwmte0ota4ntm-_v1_sy1000_cr006311000_al_

Release date: 21st September 2018/Watch the trailer here

Although the name Eli Roth tends to be synonymous with his gore-fest horror movies such as Cabin Fever and Hostel, his latest film makes for something of a change of pace for the director. Based on the 1973 children’s novel of the same name by John Bellairs, The House with a Clock in Its Walls tells the story of ten-year-old orphan Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), who goes to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) following the death of his parents. As it turns out, Uncle Jonathan and his equally eccentric friend and next-door neighbour, Mrs Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), are powerful practitioners of the magic arts, and Uncle Jonathan lives in a creaky old house with a mysterious tick-tock noise hidden deep within its walls. But when Lewis accidentally awakens the dead, the quiet façade of New Zebedee, Michigan springs to life, revealing a secret world of witches, warlocks and dangerous curses.

mv5bzgu0odkyntqtzme1my00otc3ltljntmtmjblmjbindu3zwe1xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

While Roth might be taking a temporary departure from the genre with which he made his name, there are still frights to be found in The House with a Clock in Its Walls, even if these particular scares are of a more family-friendly nature. It’s a fun, entertaining film in a similar vein to Hocus Pocus or even 2015’s Goosebumps; the kind of film that’s ideal for getting the whole family in the Halloween spirit (although The House with a Clock in Its Walls might just be a little too scary for some younger audience members, with Roth evidently unable to resist his film taking a few unexpectedly dark turns as the runtime progresses).

Of course, what really makes The House with a Clock in Its Walls so fun and entertaining is the two lead performances from Black and Blanchett, with Black as exuberant as ever and Blanchett perfectly matched in the role of a feisty, cunning witch with a fondness for purple. Their chemistry steals the show, and the film is at its best when the adults get to take centre stage, bickering good-naturedly with one another while simultaneously flinging insults and magic tricks. As Uncle Jonathan and Mrs Zimmerman, they at least manage to distract from one of the areas in which the film falls short: its young hero, Lewis; a walking YA protagonist cliché, and frustratingly bland (despite frequent attempts to brand him as ‘weird’) when in amongst Black and Blanchett’s combined wackiness.

mv5bmja2mtq3ntc4m15bml5banbnxkftztgwntc2nzqxntm-_v1_sx1500_cr001500999_al_

It’s because of these characters, combined with Uncle Jonathan’s strange old house and all of the quirks and magic that come with it, that make the first half of The House with a Clock in Its Walls far better than the last, as it builds a satisfyingly spooky atmosphere with the assistance of some stunningly evocative sets and costumes; the 1950s setting only lending to the Halloween feel of the film. Unfortunately, however, this atmosphere loses itself along the way, falling victim to a somewhat rushed and cluttered finale.

All the same, and the odd hiccup aside, the family-friendly horror genre has clearly made for an appealing new direction for Roth. If it’s one that he decides to stick with in the future, it will be interesting to see whether he can build on the potential that The House with a Clock in Its Walls has, but ultimately never quite lives up to – something with a little more originality, perhaps, but certainly no less frights and scares.

★★

The Predator

mv5bmjm5mdk2ndixmf5bml5banbnxkftztgwnju5ndk3ntm-_v1_sy1000_cr006751000_al_

Release date: 12th September 2018/Watch the trailer here

Thirty-one years after the Predator franchise was kickstarted by the Schwarzenegger-starring classic, it is rebooted and continued by The Predator, directed by Shane Black (Iron Man 3The Nice Guys) – who, coincidentally, also starred in the 1987 Predator. His addition to the franchise sees a young boy, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), accidentally trigger the universe’s most deadly hunters’ return to Earth – and they are now stronger, smarter and far more lethal than ever before, having genetically upgraded themselves using DNA from other species. Their hunt leads them from the outer reaches of space to small-town suburbia, where only a ragtag team of PTSD-afflicted ex-soldiers – led by Rory’s father, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) – and a disgruntled evolutionary biologist, Casey (Olivia Munn), can prevent the end of humanity.

mv5bmje5mjcyndu0ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwotk5odg0ntm-_v1_sy1000_cr0015021000_al_

While the original Predator is much loved by sci-fi and action fans, the general consensus is that the rest of the franchise varies in quality from bad to worse. Therefore, the bar was never set particularly high for The Predator, and perhaps that shows in the film’s refusal to take itself too seriously. For the most part, it’s a fun, silly action movie (with emphasis on the ‘silly’), and those hoping for a darker, more serious follow-up to the ’80s original will likely be left disappointed. Black might have been a strange choice to direct a Predator movie, and while The Predator is a long way from standing up with the best of Black’s work, his impression on the franchise can be found in the film’s schlocky, campy qualities and a screenplay that succeeds in being surprisingly funny at times.

However, while the screenplay may elicit some laughs at the hands of its crew of foul-mouthed and ridiculously macho ex-soliders – a team which, as well as Holbrook, also includes Trevante Rhodes and Keegan-Michael Key, among others – it fails to offer up much in the way of a logical plot. With plot holes abounding (not to mention the film’s questionable treatment of autism), the entire film has the confusing sense of being somehow incomplete, gradually becoming more and more nonsensical as the runtime continues.

mv5bmjq2otiyndc2mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwotq0odqwnjm-_v1_sy1000_cr0015021000_al_

Still, a relentless pace that doesn’t allow time for boredom and plenty of brutal, bloody violence along the way carries The Predator along entertainingly enough for its first hour or so. It’s not until the third act that it truly starts to lose its way, reeking of reshoots and a troubled production (the entire climax was reshot following poor test screenings, which raises the question of just how bad the film’s original ending must have been if the current one was decided to be an improvement), not to mention a significant decline in the quality of the film’s CGI.

It makes for a disappointing conclusion to what is otherwise a mostly fun and enjoyable romp up until that chaotic final half an hour. Ultimately, while The Predator certainly had the potential to re-energise a more than thirty-year-old franchise, the haphazard final product will likely end up doing little more than providing a couple of hours of entertainment that will have been all but forgotten about in a month’s time – let alone another three decades.

★★

Searching

mv5bmjiwota3ndi3mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzizmza5ntm-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_

Release date: 31st August 2018/Watch the trailer here

The concept of a film shown entirely from the point of view of a computer screen has been utilised before in the horror genre (Unfriended), but with Searching, director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty introduces the concept to a new genre: the thriller. After David Kim’s (John Cho) sixteen-year-old daughter goes missing, a local investigation is opened and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case. Growing desperate after more than twenty-four hours pass with no leads, David decides to search the one place that no one has thought to look yet: Margot’s (Michelle La) laptop, allowing David to trace his daughter’s digital footprint in an attempt to find her before she’s lost for good.

mv5bntyxmtc3ntgtzwi1ns00zmnklwi4owitzdc1yjczntbhmdyzxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq-_v1_sx1777_cr001777999_al_

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Searching is how quickly it becomes easy to forget that you’re watching an entire film play out on a computer screen, the plot being told via text messages, phone calls, webcam footage and various websites. It would have been all too easy for this technique to feel like a gimmick and soon grow tiresome, but the use of technology feels realistic (something which surprisingly few films succeed in capturing) and allows for a commentary on our dependence on modern technology as well as a surprisingly effective way to allow a mystery to unfold.

Keeping the film contained within a computer screen gives Searching a sense of constant tension, driving the plot forwards at a breathless pace without running out of steam. It helps that the film is remarkably well-constructed and equally well-written: along with co-writer Sev Ohanian, Chaganty has written a screenplay that is meticulously crafted. Crammed full of tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it details and without a single plot point that isn’t cleverly foreshadowed at some point earlier on in the film, Searching is a film that practically demands to be re-watched. It helps that the mystery itself is a gripping one, frequently sending the audience in different directions with regards to figuring out what happened to Margot, before finally arriving at a plot-twist conclusion that even the most astute of viewers won’t have seen coming.

mv5bmtg0otu3odazmv5bml5banbnxkftztgwodkwndgyndm-_v1_sx1777_cr001777999_al_

Surprising also is the way in which Searchings visual concept not only works to build suspense, but emotion, too. Years of family history play out in five minutes at the start of the film via photos, videos and nostalgic trips down an online memory lane, and as a result, the relationship between David, his daughter and his late wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn), feels authentic and real, only serving to make David’s loss hit all the harder for the audience.

Managing to accomplish an incredible amount with impressively little, Searching is both a cutting-edge technical triumph in terms of its filmmaking, as well as being remarkably successful at achieving what is required of its genre: it’s thrilling. At the same time, it offers something different for the genre while remembering to consistently engage its audience from start to finish – and in the process, a film that could have all too easily passed under the radar has ended up being one of the year’s surprise best.

★★★★

Crazy Rich Asians

mv5bmtyxndmyotaxn15bml5banbnxkftztgwmdg1odyzntm-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_

Release date: 14th September 2018/Watch the trailer here

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is not just another romcom: it also happens to be the first film by a major Hollywood studio starring an almost entirely Asian and Asian-American cast in a contemporary setting since 1993. The film follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who happily agrees to accompany her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Excited to visit Asia for the first time but apprehensive about meeting Nick’s family, Rachel is also surprised to discover that Nick had neglected to mention a few minor details about his life: namely, that his family is extremely wealthy, and that Nick is also considered to be one of the country’s most eligible bachelors. Finding herself thrust into the spotlight as a result of being on Nick’s arm, Rachel must now contend with jealous socialites, eccentric relatives and, worse, Nick’s disapproving mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).

mv5bymm1nznmowqtnmnjos00nti3lwexmjmtyjg5zjc4y2njodaxxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtkxnjuynq-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_

At first glance, it seems as though there’s little – aside from the cast, of course – that sets Crazy Rich Asians apart from the average romcom – after all, it’s clichéd and predictable from the very first frame. But the thing is, there’s just so much to love about the rest of the film that the clichés and the predictability fail to matter. Even though we all know how the story is going to end, we’ve never seen the story told quite like this before.

For one thing, romantic comedies set in London or New York are a dime a dozen at this point, but Crazy Rich Asians is a transportive cinematic experience that takes audiences somewhere new. Beautifully filmed, Singapore acts as a stunning backdrop for the love story and family conflict that make up the film’s central narrative, and director Jon M. Chu doesn’t hesitate to show the city-state in all of its dazzling detail. From a street food montage that will make your mouth water to an exquisitely beautiful wedding ceremony and all of the opulent displays of unimaginable wealth in between, Crazy Rich Asians is a visual treat; never detracting from its characters or story but adding to them instead.

mv5bmze3mza3nju4mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwntm3ntcwnjm-_v1_sx1500_cr001500999_al_

The characters are another element of the film that elevate Crazy Rich Asians above so many other films of its kind. Often in a romantic comedy at least one of the leads is so intolerable that you find yourself unable to care whether or not they’re together by the end of the film, but Rachel and Nick – likeable, charismatic and with effortless, natural chemistry between the two actors – are a couple you find yourself rooting for right from their first introduction to the audience. Rachel in particular makes for an empowering change from the typical romcom ‘damsel in distress’: a successful economics professor at NYU with lasting friendships and a close, loving relationship with her mother, she doesn’t need Nick in order for her life to feel whole. The supporting characters, too, have their individual moments to shine: in particular, the scene-stealing, hilarious best friend of Rachel, Peik Lin (Awkwafina), and Nick’s formidable mother; cold, powerful, dignified yet also vulnerable, played to perfection by Yeoh.

Ultimately, Crazy Rich Asians has everything you need from a good romcom: laugh out loud humour and, of course, plenty of romance. But it also has everything you want from a good romcom, too: the characters, the costumes, the location, even the music – as well as a surprising amount of depth and meaning, with observations about the relationships between parents and their children and the way in which wealth can warp those relationships, both familial and otherwise. Throw in the fact that the cultural specificity of Crazy Rich Asians also makes it a film that is every bit as important for under-represented audiences as it is tremendous amounts of fun for everybody, and you have all of the makings of a modern classic.

★★★★

Christopher Robin

mv5bmjazotm2otaynf5bml5banbnxkftztgwntg5odg1ntm-_v1_sy1000_sx675_al_

Release date: 16th August 2018/Watch the trailer here

For those who grew up either watching or reading about the adventures of a bright-yellow stuffed bear named Winnie the Pooh, the name Christopher Robin should be synonymous with one of Pooh’s closest friends, a young boy who would join him on his many escapades in the Hundred Acre Wood. But in Disney’s latest addition to the Winnie the Pooh franchise, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is now an adult with very little sense of fun or imagination, neglecting his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) in favour of his demanding job; his old friends now long forgotten about.

But after a surprising reunion with the honey-loving bear (and with Jim Cummings returning as the much-loved voice of Winnie the Pooh), Christopher finds himself revisiting his childhood and with it, the Hundred Acre Wood, in order to help Pooh find his missing friends – including Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Piglet (Nick Mohammed) and Tigger (Cummings).

mv5bmtyynji1odgyof5bml5banbnxkftztgwoty0nzg1ntm-_v1_sx1500_cr001500999_al_

For anyone who has seen last year’s Goodbye Christopher Robin – a film about how the success of Winnie the Pooh negatively affected author A. A. Milne’s son, the real-life Christopher Robin and the inspiration behind his father’s stories – it will be difficult not to view Christopher Robin as a ‘Disney-fied’ take on the true tale – but then again, it’s also a film that features walking, talking toy animals who live in a fantasy world, accessed via a secret door hidden within the trunk of a tree. This is not a film that has ever claimed to be anything other than a work of fiction, after all.

While it might not be a film for the cynical, it’s almost impossible to deny yourself the pure, infectious likability of Christopher Robin. It has the sort of plot that you can guess the outcome of within the first five minutes – the kind that some variation of has been told dozens of times by now – but then again, the plot isn’t where Christopher Robin truly shines, nor is it supposed to be. It’s merely a vessel to carry a sweet, wholesome story about a man rediscovering the joys of life, with a little help from an adorable toy bear named Pooh. The interactions between Christopher, Pooh and Eeyore are well-written and laugh-out-loud funny, and occasionally even unexpectedly moving. These are the moments that make Christopher Robin worth watching, and it helps that the CGI used to bring Pooh and his friends to life is masterfully utilised, bringing a sense of realism to even the most fantastical of stories.

mv5bndywotizyjmtyjczoc00ytnmlwewzgitnmm1zjqwnzkwnmu3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

If there is one hurdle that Christopher Robin will perhaps stumble at, it will be in its search to find an audience. This is a film that’s not entirely sure who it’s intended for: too slow-paced and melancholy for children, but also not a film solely meant for an adult audience, either. But maybe there is an audience for Christopher Robin after all, and it happens to be a lesson that Pooh tries to teach Christopher, too (in his own special way) – it’s a film for every adult in search of their inner child, and the nostalgia that comes with finding it. Christopher Robin might not be perfect, but you’d have to be a heffalump or a woozle to not fall in love with it – and that silly old bear, too.

★★★★