Widows

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Release date: 6th November 2018/Watch the trailer here

Widows is the kind of film that’s brimming with talent: directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) with a screenplay that was co-written by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, and starring a huge ensemble cast made up of A-list actors. Based on the successful 1980s British television series of the same name (written by Lynda La Plante), McQueen’s take on the story sees the location change to present-day Chicago, where a police shootout has left four thieves dead during an armed robbery gone wrong. Their widows – Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) – join forces, brought together by the only thing they have in common: a debt left behind by the criminal activities of their deceased husbands. Given just one month to repay the money owed to crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), Veronica and her fellow widows attempt to pull off the heist that her late husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), had been planning prior to his death.

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Flynn’s stamp on Widows is evident in the film’s twisting, turning plot, comprised of several different threads, all of which satisfyingly come together around the halfway mark. It’s a film with a vast, sprawling cast of characters, so it’s impressive that Widows not only finds the time to tell its story in a rewarding manner, but for characterisation, too: each character is developed just enough for them to feel three-dimensional, so that the audience understands their motivations; rooting for the widows in their desperate, last-ditch effort to survive. Of course, it helps that McQueen has assembled such a first-rate cast to bring these characters to life – although it should come as no surprise that the film’s standout performance is from Davis.

Surprising, too, is the way in which Widows balances entertainment with substance: for every edge-of-your-seat car chase or shootout, McQueen’s film also tackles some serious sociological issues, dealing with everything from sexism to police brutality. It succeeds as both a classic heist movie, gripping and fun in equal measures, and something with a bit more depth and thoughtfulness to it, too – and it’s the more pensive moments that elevate Widows above and beyond most other films of the same genre.

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That’s not to say that Widows is a film entirely without flaws, however: the heist that the whole film builds up to for almost two hours of its runtime feels disappointingly rushed and anti-climatic in comparison. Still, this is a minor criticism of a film that, for the most part, is an immensely rewarding experience, even if it frustratingly falls just short of the greatness that McQueen, Flynn, and their stellar cast are capable of.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

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Release date: 24th October 2018/Watch the trailer here

Intended to act as a celebration of Queen, their music and their lead singer Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody chronicles the years leading up to the band’s renowned Live Aid performance in 1985, beginning with their formation in the early 1970s and following Queen on their meteoric rise to fame. Directed predominantly by Bryan Singer (until Singer was fired and Dexter Fletcher was hired to complete the film), the film is as much a biography of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) as it is of Queen – while we witness the creation of many of the band’s most iconic songs, we are also shown a darker time in Queen’s history, when Freddie shunned the band in pursuit of his solo career, while also facing a recent AIDS diagnosis.

For the most part, however, Bohemian Rhapsody can’t help but feel like a rather watered-down version of the true story: topics such as Freddie’s struggle with his sexuality, drug-fuelled parties, and the AIDS diagnosis that eventually took his life are touched upon but not explored to their true potential, and the film feels frustratingly safe as a result.

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This is, however, the version of the film that band members Brian May and Roger Taylor wanted: a family-friendly approach that wouldn’t tarnish Mercury’s legacy. This, at least, is something that Bohemian Rhapsody achieves – as Mercury, Malek is suitably confident in his performance, and the ease with which he captures Mercury’s famed flamboyance and showmanship suggests a great deal of time and effort went into Malek’s preparation for the role. The supporting cast, too, give good performances (aided in part by the film’s excellent costume design) – most notably, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello as Queen members Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, respectively; as well as Lucy Boynton as Freddie’s girlfriend, Mary Austin – but ultimately, this is Freddie’s story, and as a result the supporting characters feel superficial and lacking in comparison.

But while Bohemian Rhapsody successfully honours Mercury as as an entertainer, it does little to get to the root of who he was as a person; Malek’s heartfelt performance aside. His story is told through clichés and dialogue that all too often comes across as clumsy and awkward, revising history where necessary until the film is left feeling more like a collection of Queen’s greatest hits, with little of depth or meaning to say in between songs.

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Still, if there’s one thing that you can count on from a Queen biopic, it’s a terrific soundtrack, and in this sense, Bohemian Rhapsody is certain to be a crowd-pleaser – for all of its flaws, the spectacle of the film can’t be denied. Even this approach, however, is not without its faults: while the film’s recreation of the Live Aid performance that acts as its climax is certainly ambitious, there’s not a single moment where it’s easy to forget that you’re merely watching a collection of actors – and convincing ones, nonetheless – miming along to Queen songs. Much like the rest of Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s entertaining, but very little else.

★★

First Man

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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.

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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.

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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.

★★

A Star Is Born

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

★★★★