Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Release date: 14th December 2017/Watch the trailer here

The Last Jedi is Episode VIII of the Star Wars saga, with The Force Awakens‘ J.J. Abrams passing on the writing and directing responsibilities to Rian Johnson this time around. With the story picking up almost exactly where it left off two years ago, The Last Jedi begins with Rey (Daisy Ridley) having found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote island planet, where he reluctantly agrees to train her in the ways of the Force. Elsewhere in a galaxy far, far away and the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), are struggling to defeat the First Order. While The Force Awakens was very much about Rey’s journey, The Last Jedi chooses to focus on the battle of light vs dark, good vs evil, and the fact that the difference between the two isn’t always so clear-cut.

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At two and a half hours, The Last Jedi is the longest Star Wars film yet, and with good reason: there’s an awful lot of story to be told here, constantly alternating between Rey and Luke; Leia, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and the rest of the Resistance; the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver); and a separate mission undertaken by Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance maintenance worker. For the most part, The Last Jedi succeeds in juggling between its many characters, and while there may be long periods where some of our protagonists are absent, each individual thread weaves together in the end to produce an explosive finale, the likes of which have never been seen before in a Star Wars movie.

It helps that such an incredible cast has been assembled here, and to list the strengths of each individual actor would probably take all day. Standouts, however, are of course Luke and Leia – although the presence of Han Solo is missed – and The Last Jedi makes for a perfect, albeit bittersweet, tribute to the wonderful Carrie Fisher. As for some of the newer faces, it’s good to see Poe receiving more screen time after being underused in The Force Awakens, and Kylo Ren continues to be an incredibly well-written antagonist who is at the forefront of some of the film’s best set pieces. Rose makes for a charming new addition and she is the most likeable of the lot, with Laura Dern’s Resistance officer Vice Admiral Holdo being a little under-developed and Benicio Del Toro’s shady codebreaker DJ missing the mark slightly.

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While The Last Jedi is a vital addition to the saga, there’s no denying that many fans are going to find themselves disappointed – but what might make it disappointing to some will likely be what makes it so excellent to others. The Force Awakens, though a fantastic film (and, in all honesty, probably slightly better than The Last Jedi), played things very safe: Abrams made a film that was unmistakably a Star Wars movie by following a tried and tested formula. The Last Jedi doesn’t do this: it takes risks, and lots of them. The film’s most repeated message is one of letting the past die, and The Last Jedi does this by paving a new path for the forty-year-old franchise going forwards into Episode IX. This is not a mere retread of The Empire Strikes Back; this is something very different, and it succeeds with almost every risk it takes. If nothing else, it’s going to inspire a lot of heated discussions, but it’s refreshing to have a big-budget blockbuster that dares to challenge its audience.

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This is still a Star Wars movie, though, and while it may challenge its audience, it doesn’t forget to excite them, either. There are spectacular set pieces, one of the best lightsaber battles in all eight episodes, adorable new aliens in the form of Porgs, as well as all of the heart, humour, heroism, villainy and the occasional plot twist that one can expect. It may not be a perfect Star Wars film, but it comes very close – and it provides two and a half hours of non-stop awe, delight and wonder while pushing its story in unexpected and exciting directions.

★★

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The Disaster Artist

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Release date: 6th December 2017/Watch the trailer here

There’s something ironic about The Disaster Artist: it’s about what is widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made, and yet it’s ended up being one of the best films of the year. Directed by and starring James Franco, The Disaster Artist is a biopic about Tommy Wiseau; best known for his 2003 film (which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in) The Room, which has become a beloved cult classic due to how terrible it is.

In San Francisco in the late ’90s, Greg Sestero (played by Franco’s brother Dave – Sestero also wrote the book of the same name that The Disaster Artist is based on) is an aspiring actor who meets the bizarre and mysterious Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in an acting class. He doesn’t know where Wiseau is from (he claims New Orleans, but his accent suggests otherwise) or how old he is – facts which remain unknown to this day – but the pair strike up an unlikely friendship and move to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams of becoming stars. After months of struggling, Wiseau decides to make his own film: The Room, a drama about a man named Johnny whose fiancée Lisa cheats on him with his best friend, Mark. The film was doomed from the start, and The Disaster Artist focuses on the often-hilarious production process: from shooting on both film and digital cameras simultaneously upon Wiseau’s insistence, to possibly the most awkward sex scene in the history of Hollywood.

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The Disaster Artist is, primarily, a comedy, and a very funny one at that, but it’s also surprisingly emotional. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for Wiseau: after all, he’s a man who, somehow, sincerely believed that he was making a masterpiece – and in particular, a scene towards the end of the film during The Room‘s premiere, where the audience is in fits of hysterical laughter while Wiseau becomes increasingly upset, goes a long way to capture the heart at the centre of the enigma that is Tommy Wiseau.

This is largely due to Franco’s terrific performance: he has a lot of fun with the weirder elements of the character, but it never feels cruel or mocking. He is sensitive to the fact that there’s a real human being with hopes and dreams buried beneath all that hair and the funny accent, but he also doesn’t shy away from showing that Wiseau wasn’t a very pleasant person to make a movie with, or even be friends with. Franco, along with a cast of familiar faces (Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Zac Efron, and a multitude of cameos), come together to create a film that is winning on almost every level, earning frequent laughs while managing to be oddly inspirational, with an underlying message about believing in yourself and your abilities.

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It’s not hard to imagine The Disaster Artist earning its own cult status one day: if nothing else, it will make for an excellent double feature with The Room. At the end of Franco’s film, a handful of his recreated scenes play alongside Wiseau’s original ones, and the likeness is remarkable. Franco has succeeded in not only making an incredibly entertaining and exuberant comedy in its own right, but also an impressive tribute to the worst film ever made.

Wonder

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Release date: 1st December 2017/Watch the trailer here

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by R. J. Palacio, Wonder is the latest film from Stephen Chbosky, who previously directed the adaptation of his own book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Wonder tells the story of August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) – Auggie for short – a ten-year-old boy about to start school for the first time, after having been previously homeschooled by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) due to the facial differences that he was born with. The film navigates Auggie’s first year of school and the highs and lows that come with it, as well as the impact Auggie has on the people around him, such as his parents (his dad Nate is played by Owen Wilson) and his older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).

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It would have been all too easy for Wonder to become schmaltzy, but as Chbosky proved with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, he has a knack for taking a sentimental story and transforming it into a crowd-pleaser, without ever crossing the line into mawkishness. What makes Wonder work so well is the way in which it explores multiple threads of the same story: including Via, who struggles with the conflict of loving her brother but feeling resentful of all the attention he gets from their parents; and Auggie’s friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who initially befriended him because his mum told him he had to, but later discovers that Auggie is just an ordinary ten-year-old, who likes science and Star Wars and wants to be an astronaut.

Tremblay has already proven himself to be an incredibly gifted young actor in Room, and he continues to do so in Wonder. There is far more to his performance than merely the prosthetics on his face: he is the heart and soul of the entire film, and he has an exceptional way of making the audience feel every emotion – happiness, sadness, anger, frustration – along with him. The adults are all on fine form too, but Wonder is a film that truly belongs to its younger actors – we like the kids who won’t let Auggie eat alone at lunchtime, we hate the bullies, we root for Via and her first boyfriend. The direction and writing are a large part of Wonder‘s success, but those factors would achieve very little without the heartfelt performances that are behind them.

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Of course, that’s not to say that Wonder isn’t a little manipulative when it comes to its more emotional moments, but even though it’s more or less telling you what to feel and when to feel it, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it’s done as sincerely as this. Wonder may be a real tearjerker at times, but there’s enough wit and warmth to be found along the way for you not to feel resentful about needing to reach for the tissues. Instead, the emotions feel well-earned through a genuinely moving story and some well-written, well-acted characters – and if it teaches children the importance of kindness and acceptance along the way, then Wonder has really accomplished everything it intended to.

Suburbicon

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Release date: 27th November 2017/Watch the trailer here

If Suburbicon feels like two films rolled into one, that’s because it pretty much is. The film is an amalgamation of an old screenplay written by Joel and Ethan Coen combined with an idea of director George Clooney’s, involving racism in the late 1950s. The result is a story about the Lodge family – father Gardner (Matt Damon), mother Rose and her sister Margaret (both played by Julianne Moore), and son Nicky (Noah Jupe) – whose peaceful life in a seemingly idyllic suburban community is disturbed by a home invasion. It’s essentially Fargo lite, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but Clooney’s decision to incorporate his racism subplot (a black family move into the all-white Suburbicon, and the neighbours attempt to drive them out) is unfathomable.

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The problem is, this subplot has very little – if anything – to do with the rest of the film. There’s nothing wrong with the concept – and it probably could have worked well had it been fully fleshed out in its own film – but by relegating it to the sidelines as the main plot of Suburbicon plays out, Clooney gets the execution of his own idea entirely wrong. As for the murder-mystery that takes up most of the runtime, there’s an awful lot of murder but very little mystery. We find out what happened early on in the film, and this is never built upon further: nothing is revealed, nothing is developed, no characters we thought were good end up being bad or vice versa. Not every film needs a plot twist, but Suburbicon certainly needed something to make it a little more compelling, because as it is, we’re watching a mildly entertaining story play out in exactly the way we expect it to.

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The actors appeared to realise that Suburbicon wasn’t worth the effort, too, and most of them – Damon in particular – phone it in. The only memorable character is insurance agent Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac), whose scenes are by far the best of the whole film – and, coincidentally, some of the only scenes left unchanged from the Coens’ original script – but Isaac is criminally underused, amounting to little more than ten minutes of screen time.

Isaac’s character is a good example of what’s so frustrating about Suburbicon: there’s a good film buried in there somewhere (possibly even two), but under Clooney’s direction it’s become something of a muddled, unfulfilling mess, with so many different ideas all fighting for attention. With so much talent involved both behind and in front of the camera, Suburbicon had a lot of potential – so it’s almost baffling that in the end, it never amounts to much more than just okay.

Battle of the Sexes

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Release date: 24th November 2017/Watch the trailer here

The titular battle of the sexes in the latest film from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is the one that took place in 1973: a tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Leading up to the match, King – with the help of the founder of World Tennis magazine Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) – was attempting to start her own women’s tour, after clashing with commentator Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) over his refusal to offer women the same amount of prize money as the male players. During this time, King was also exploring her own sexuality, falling for her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) despite her marriage to her husband Larry (Austin Stowell). Meanwhile, Riggs – whose own marriage was in trouble due to his gambling addiction – came up with the idea to challenge the top female player to a match, boasting that he could easily beat any woman. King, keen to prove him wrong and thus hopefully changing the state of tennis for women, accepted his challenge.

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It’s an entertaining story that certainly deserved to be told on the big screen, and Dayton and Faris’ film, while flawed, succeeds in doing so for the most part. It goes without saying that this is Stone’s movie, and Battle of the Sexes is at its most compelling when the story focuses on Billie Jean – and in particular, her relationship with Marilyn. The film does a good job at exploring Billie Jean’s feelings for both Marilyn and her husband: the initial confusion of falling for a woman, and the guilt she felt for betraying Larry, who she clearly still loved and respected very much, if not in the romantic sense. Battle of the Sexes is bolstered by a number of strong supporting performances – Silverman; Alan Cumming as Ted Tinling, King’s friend and fashion designer – but Riseborough’s is perhaps the most powerful. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography utilises a number of intense close-ups, and these are incredibly effective at conveying the affection shared between Billie Jean and Marilyn beautifully.

This is why it’s often frustrating when the focus of the film shifts to Riggs. It’s not that Carell doesn’t give a strong performance too, it’s just that his character is monumentally less interesting. Battle of the Sexes makes it clear that Riggs’ whole persona – ‘male chauvinist pig’; ‘putting the show back in chauvinism’ – is largely an act and that the real antagonists of the story are the men behind the scenes; the ones with no respect for women and who think that the idea of equality between the sexes is ludicrous. Even so, this means that many of the scenes involving Riggs are played for comedic effect, which are jarring when seen side-by-side with the more serious, dramatic moments involving King, and as a result Battle of the Sexes struggles to settle on a consistent tone.

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Up until the final act, Battle of the Sexes isn’t even much about tennis – and this makes the match that the entire film has been building up to all the more effective. The result of the match is well-known (and even if you didn’t know beforehand, it’s fairly obvious which opponent is going to come out of it as the winner), but watching it play out onscreen is surprisingly gripping all the same. It leads to a winning, feel-good ending which helps Battle of the Sexes feel like a likeable and worthwhile effort, even if it might have encountered a few bumps along the way.

Ingrid Goes West

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

Following a stint in a psychiatric hospital and a restraining order against her, Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) is looking for someone new to stalk on social media. Enter Instagram star Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), whose seemingly perfect life becomes Ingrid’s latest obsession. Using the money that her recently-deceased mother left for her, Ingrid moves west to Los Angeles, ready for a new Instagram account and a lifestyle to match. She goes to Taylor’s favourite restaurants, reads her favourite books and buys the same clothes, and eventually manages to insinuate herself into Taylor’s life as her new BFF; resorting to increasingly desperate methods to cling onto their friendship and the glamorous lifestyle that comes with it.

The directorial debut from Matt Spicer, Ingrid Goes West is a dark comedy that attempts to satirise the current obsession with social media. Truthfully, the message is nothing that we haven’t heard before – the danger of publicising your entire life online has been a consistent talking-point since the dawn of social media – but the film approaches it in a manner that feels refreshingly unpatronising. It mocks without any excessive eye-rolling at young people and their fixation with their phones; instead succeeding in capturing what it is about social media that’s so appealing – something which similar commentaries often fail at.

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Besides, the message that Ingrid Goes West is really trying to get across is less of a warning and more of a reminder: that people only share the very best parts of their life online and that a person’s life is rarely as perfect as their Instagram profile might suggest. This is where Ingrid Goes West triumphs, and it’s the reason why the first half of the film works a lot better than the second half, when it begins to lose momentum and its morals get a little lost amid all the craziness.

It’s this utter craziness that Aubrey Plaza truly shines in, however. She excels at choosing roles that are just right for her unique brand of comedy, but perhaps what’s most impressive about her performance here is that by the end of the film you find yourself wanting Ingrid to succeed. This is a character who befriended a woman by stealing her dog and then responding to the ‘missing’ posters, yet thanks to Plaza she’s every bit as sympathetic as she is terrifying. Ingrid’s behaviour is so creepy and cringeworthy it’s downright uncomfortable to watch at times, but Plaza ensures that you don’t want to look away. Even when Ingrid Goes West misses the mark – and it definitely does, more than once – the combination of Plaza’s performance and Spicer’s deft writing means that we end up rooting for a character that we know we probably shouldn’t.

Justice League

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

A fun game to play while watching Justice League, the latest film in the DC Extended Universe, is ‘spot the reshoots’. While a movie undergoing reshoots is far from a rare occurrence, in this instance it’s notable: director Zack Snyder stepped down due to a family tragedy, leaving the $25 million reshoots in the hands of Joss Whedon (no stranger to superhero team-up movies, having directed both The Avengers and its sequel, Age of Ultron), who also received a screenwriting credit.

It wasn’t just a turbulent production process that Justice League had to deal with, either: despite the tremendous success of Wonder Woman over the summer, the DCEU hasn’t had the best of beginnings, with both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad best left forgotten. Unfortunately for the DCEU, however, it seems that Wonder Woman may have been a fluke rather than an indication of better things to come, because Justice League veers a lot closer to Suicide Squad territory in terms of quality.

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Following the ‘death’ of Superman (Henry Cavill – and there was never any doubt that he would return in Justice League), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and his newfound ally Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) assemble a team of heroes to face the incoming threat of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds). Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash (Ezra Miller), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) must join together to prevent Steppenwolf and his army of Parademons, before he finds the three ancient Mother Boxes that are scattered across the world.

Justice League feels strangely short at just two hours, and it’s clear that there is a much longer version of it somewhere. In its defence, if it had been too long it would have been criticised for being bloated – but two hours simply isn’t long enough to introduce three new characters, motivate them to join forces, bring back Superman, and battle against a villain. As a result, the film staggers from scene to scene, methodically introducing each character and never quite achieving a cohesive narrative. The overall effect is a strange one, made all the more jarring by the fact that Justice League barely has a single subplot; which wouldn’t be such a problem if the main plot wasn’t quite so dull: once again, our heroes must defeat a generic, CGI villain, and there’s never a reason to believe that they won’t succeed in doing so.

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One of the main and most valid criticisms of Wonder Woman was its CGI-heavy third act, and that’s a complaint that has become increasingly common with regards to big-budget blockbusters. So it’s not a surprise that Justice League suffers from the same problem – except it’s not just the finale, it’s almost the entire film. Worst of all, it’s not even good CGI. There’s simply no excuse for a movie to look as ugly as Justice League does in 2017; like watching a cutscene from a video game that goes on for two hours. It doesn’t help that the reshoots were obviously done in front of a green screen rather than on location – and quite honestly, the less said about whatever they did to Henry Cavill’s face to remove his Mission: Impossible 6 moustache, the better.

Snyder made so many mistakes with Batman v Superman that it feels strange to say this, but you can’t help wondering what Justice League would have been like if Whedon hadn’t come onboard. His rewrites of the script were evidently intended to add in some much-needed humour, but the jokes very rarely land. The dark, brooding Batman that we were introduced to last year (one of the few good elements of Batman v Superman) is more or less gone, reduced to making constant, Tony Stark-esque quips. Meanwhile, Whedon has never met a female character that he didn’t want to give an unnecessary love interest, so don’t expect a Wonder Woman anywhere near as well-developed as the one we got to see earlier this year. Most of the best moments come from the new additions to the cast, and it’s frustrating that The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg weren’t given their own solo movies beforehand, as opposed to a few minutes of hurried introduction each.

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It’s difficult to resist the temptation to compare Justice League to The Avengers, but this is its biggest downfall. Seeing the Avengers team up on the big screen for the first time was an epic, exciting moment, but Justice League never has a moment like this: it barely even gives its heroes a memorable set piece – and with Danny Elfman as composer, the Justice League don’t get a theme that you’ll be humming on your way out of the cinema, either (not only did Hans Zimmer not return to score Justice League, but his excellent work on the themes for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is almost entirely discarded, too).

Of course, for longtime DC fans, there are surely going to be some incredibly satisfying moments here, from seeing Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg working together, to some of the other characters that are teased and hinted at for future instalments in the DCEU. For the most part, though, Justice League does little more than raise yet more questions about how the DC Extended Universe has gone so wrong – if nothing else, there’s no reason why a movie that assembles its most famous heroes should feel as tedious as this one does.