Love, Simon

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

Based on Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, a 2015 young adult novel written by Becky Albertalli, Love, Simon is the story of Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a seventeen-year-old high school student with a loving family, great friends and a huge secret: he’s gay. When another closeted gay kid at his school – going by the pseudonym ‘Blue’ – makes an online confession, Simon begins communicating with him via email and the two soon begin to form a close connection, despite being unaware of each other’s identities. The film sees Simon attempting to resolve the two main issues in his life: coming out to his friends and family, and solving the mystery of who Blue really is – but both matters are complicated when his emails are accidentally discovered by another student.

It’s exactly the kind of cheesy teen romance that straight kids have always had a plethora of to choose from, but what sets Love, Simon apart from the rest – aside from a gay main character, of course – is the little details. From Simon discussing the confusing dreams he had about Daniel Radcliffe as a child to Googling ‘how to dress gay’ once he finally begins to accept himself, there are a multitude of small moments here that will be relatable to so many people in a way that most other films have never been able to achieve, and this is just one of the reasons that Love, Simon is such a hugely important film.

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It helps that the movie found the perfect Simon in Nick Robinson, who encapsulates each and every emotion that Simon experiences – happiness, sadness, anger, frustration and, ultimately, love – perfectly. The audience smiles when he smiles, laughs when he laughs and, more than once, cries when he cries. Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are ideally cast as Simon’s parents, Emily and Jack, and are at the heart of some of the film’s biggest tear-jerker moments, aided by their earnest, heartfelt performances.

It’s not all sadness and tears, however: after all, Love, Simon is, first and foremost, a feel-good movie – and an incredibly successful one, too. It’s packed full of sharp, witty humour, with a pop-infused soundtrack and enough heartwarming moments to keep you smiling long after the credits have rolled. ‘Everyone deserves a great love story’, Simon writes to Blue, and he’s not wrong: the LGBTQ community are long overdue a rom-com with a big, Hollywood happy ending – and Love, Simon, as the first major studio movie to focus on a teen gay romance, is a gigantic step in the right direction for mainstream representation.

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Yes, it’s a genuinely great movie, but never let it be said that Love, Simon is nothing more than that: this is a film that’s going to change lives, and the importance of gay teenagers being able to grow up in a world where films like Love, Simon now exist simply can’t be understated.

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A Quiet Place

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Release date: 5th April 2018/Watch the trailer here

Directed by, written by and starring John Krasinski, A Quiet Place is set in a near-future, post-apocalyptic world where blind creatures hunt for their victims using sound, forcing survivors to live their lives in complete silence. The film follows the Abbotts, a family of four: Lee (Krasinski), his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt, who is also married to Krasinski off-screen), their deaf daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and their son Marcus (Noah Jupe). A Quiet Place is careful to take the time to introduce and develop this family – who are more or less the only human characters we see for the duration of the film – and the way in which they’ve built a life for themselves in an unliveable world: paths are covered with sand to mask footsteps; the floorboards that don’t creak have been carefully marked with paint; Monopoly pieces are replaced with felt counters.

This level of attention that is paid to the characters is somewhat unexpected for a horror film, but while there’s a surprisingly warm heart at the centre of A Quiet Place, the scares are no less effective as a result. Krasinski’s film is a masterclass in building tension and crafting an atmosphere of dread and unease, as the Abbotts continuously find themselves in numerous inventive scenarios that have been successfully designed to be unbearably tense for the audience (the worst of which sees a pregnant Evelyn having to give birth in silence while monsters invade her home).

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Most innovative of all about A Quiet Place, however, is its use of sound – or rather, its lack of it. Prolonged stretches of silence make the louder moments – when they finally arrive – incredibly jarring, and therefore all the more effective. Although Krasinski’s film treads a lot of familiar paths within the oversaturated horror and dystopian genres, A Quiet Place still manages to feel like something that’s fresh and different enough to make for an immensely satisfying experience.

But while A Quiet Place can hardly be criticised as a nail-biting thriller with more than enough jump-out-of-your-seat moments to keep horror fans happy, it perhaps works best of all as an intimate portrait of a family dealing with the loss of a child, each feeling the weight of responsibility in a world that doesn’t allow them the chance to grieve. The film is terrifically well-acted by all involved; a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that so much emotion must be conveyed without the help of words.

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It’s just an impeccably well-made and well-crafted film, utilising the physical presence of its small cast as well as the power of silence and noise to great effect. The result is ninety minutes so intense that you will have barely dared to breathe, left terrified by the knowledge that any movement by the film’s characters, no matter how small, carries with it the chance of sudden death.

But what’s perhaps most impressive of all is that A Quiet Place makes us actually care whether its characters live or die – and that’s something that can be said about only the very best horror films.

Isle of Dogs

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Release date: 30th March 2018/Watch the trailer here

Set in a dystopian, near-future Japan, Isle of Dogs sees a dog flu virus spread throughout the canine population, leading all the dogs of Megasaki City to be exiled to Trash Island following an executive decree signed by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). A 12-year-old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) sets off to the island alone in search of his pet dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), who was the first dog to be banished. After crash-landing the plane he flew to the island, Atari is rescued by a pack of five dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Chief (Bryan Cranston), who, as a former stray, is reluctant to associate with humans, but agrees to help Atari to locate Spots.

Isle of Dogs marks writer and director Wes Anderson’s second venture into stop-motion animation, following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. As it happens, animation works as the ideal medium for Anderson to be able to convey all of his trademark eccentricities and distinctive visual style. The precise attention to detail in Isle of Dogs is nothing short of impeccable, and succeeds in crafting a world that is both familiar to our own and, at the same time, utterly original.

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The decision to have Isle of Dogs take place in Japan is an interesting one: while the dogs all speak in English, most of the human characters speak in un-subtitled Japanese, with only occasional translation from Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand). As a result, an English-speaking audience will view the film from the perspective of the dogs: relying on emotional cues and the occasional recognisable word or phrase (‘fetch’; ‘good boy’) to understand the gist of Atari’s dialogue.

However, while, for the most part, Isle of Dogs feels respectful of the Japanese culture that Anderson has chosen to embrace, it’s regrettable that he chose not to develop some of the Japanese characters and their individual storylines as well as those of the dogs. Aside from Atari, the main human character is American exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), who comes across a little bit too much like a ‘white saviour’ character – it might have been better to give the role Tracy plays in the story to a Japanese character instead.

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Aside from these minor complaints, though, there’s really very little to criticise about Isle of Dogs. It’s a sweet, warm-hearted and occasionally melancholy exploration into the concept of ‘man’s best friend’ and companionship that should resonate with dog-lovers and cat people alike. Anderson’s screenplay is quick-witted and very, very funny, with almost every joke landing successfully and a star-studded cast of voice actors to bring it to life – best demonstrated by the dynamic between Chief, Rex, King, Boss and Duke, which is at the heart and soul of the film.

The result is one of Anderson’s most enjoyable films to date, with all of the hallmarks of a future classic. Isle of Dogs is a winning combination of beautiful to look at and delightful to watch, telling an appealing story with charming, loveable characters. At the very least, it’s guaranteed to put a big, goofy grin on your face for ninety minutes – and that a film can be so unabashedly feel-good and joy-inducing is perhaps the biggest compliment it can be given.

Ready Player One

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Release date: 29th March 2018/Watch the trailer here

Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, Steven Spielberg’s latest film is a return to the science fiction and action adventure genres with which he first made his name. Ready Player One is set in Columbus, Ohio in the year 2045. With the world on the brink of collapse, people have found solace in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Following his death, he leaves full ownership of the OASIS – as well as his vast fortune – to the first person to find a digital Easter egg that he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that captivates the whole world. One of the many people who have decided to join Halliday’s treasure hunt is 18-year-old Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan): going by the name of his avatar, Parzival, Wade and his friends Aech (Lena Waithe) and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) quickly attract the attention of the sinister corporation Innovative Online Industries (known as IOI), who also seek ownership of Halliday’s virtual world.

As with the source material, Spielberg’s Ready Player One pays homage to the popular culture that plays a key role in the plot via numerous cultural references, from Wade driving a DeLorean from Back to the Future when inside the OASIS to obstacles in the form of King Kong and the T. rex from Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park. Rather than giving these references room to breathe, allowing the audience to experience the excitement of recognition, Ready Player One is filled to the brim with so many constant references that one person couldn’t possibly hope to spot them all in one viewing alone.

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But while this multitude of pop culture references will no doubt be the highlight of the entire film for a large proportion of the audience – and this is evidently the demographic that Spielberg was aiming to please when making the movie – it’s also the main downfall of Ready Player One. Far too much of the film’s runtime is spent inside the OASIS – which is entirely CGI, right down to the characters’ avatars – and, as a result, the human elements of the story suffer, with the majority of the characters and their relationships with each other feeling underdeveloped.

While there’s no denying that what Spielberg has achieved with the OASIS is impressive – and proof that he still knows exactly how to direct an action scene – the visual effects are often garish and the constant references leave many of the set pieces feeling hectic. For every beautiful moment in Ready Player One, there’s at least two more that are ugly and cluttered. One of the quests for Halliday’s Easter egg takes place within a recreation of The Shining, and this would be the best and most accomplished set piece in the film if it wasn’t so tonally jarring; like something from an entirely different (and, honestly, better) film that somehow ended up in Ready Player One.

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But even if you consider the ceaseless Easter eggs and references to be more cringe-inducing than awe-inspiring, Ready Player One still makes for an entertaining enough sci-fi adventure – but, for a film with Steven Spielberg’s name attached to it, audiences have come to expect something better. The wonder of Jurassic Park, the excitement of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the warmth and heart of E.T. – all are absent here, replaced by spectacle and not much else. Remove this spectacle, and you’re left with little more than a basic plot, average performances (exceptions are Rylance, Cooke and Ben Mendelsohn as scenery-chewing villain Nolan Sorrento), and a screenplay that’s riddled with clichés and plot holes: characters fall in love within minutes of meeting each other, while the plot is explained largely through an overabundance of expositional narration. For a film that’s at least half an hour too long, Ready Player One feels rushed and in a perpetual hurry to get to the next plot point or cultural reference.

But, sure, seeing Mechagodzilla and the Iron Giant punching each other is cool, too.

A Wrinkle in Time

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Release date: 23rd March 2018/Watch the trailer here

Based on the much loved 1962 novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time is the latest live-action film from Disney, directed by Ava DuVernay (best known for Selma and 13th). The story’s protagonist is Meg Murry (Storm Reid), who – along with her younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) – has been struggling without her scientist father (Chris Pine) after he went missing four years earlier. Mr Murry had been working on a type of space travel known as the tesseract, and in doing so found himself transported across the universe. One day, Charles Wallace introduces Meg and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) to three mysterious women – Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey) – and together, they travel through the tesseract and to a distant planet in search of Mr Murry.

If the plot makes little sense when written down in synopsis form, it somehow manages to make even less sense in the film. This is in part due to an incredibly poor screenplay, but it’s also evident that an awful lot of the film must have been cut and edited beyond recognition in post-production – including a scene from the trailer where the concept of ‘wrinkling time’ is actually explained. The original book is a science-fantasy novel, but there’s very little science to be found in this adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time – which is frustrating, because a young female protagonist with a love of science is exactly the sort of thing that we should be seeing more of in films – instead falling back on the ‘a special child can save the universe through the power of love’ trope.

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But A Wrinkle in Time is every bit as disappointing as it is frustrating: an accomplished director, diverse cast and a message of empowerment at the film’s heart are difficult to celebrate when faced with an abundance of problems, from plot holes to visual effects that would have looked dated ten years ago. There are some beautiful ideas buried in here somewhere, but they’re rarely beautifully realised – and while there’s some stunning costume design on display in the numerous outfits worn by Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which, the garish CGI, distractingly bad cinematography and overwrought score leave much to be desired.

A Wrinkle in Time has also assembled a star-studded cast, but – while Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon seem to be having a lot of fun with their eccentric characters – it’s only Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in her brief appearances as Mrs Murry, whose performances could be described as ‘good’. As for the child actors, Reid gives an earnest, heartfelt performance and makes for a likeable protagonist, but the same cannot be said for the character of Charles Wallace – who is so annoying he borders on insufferable and detracts from any intensity the film’s finale has to offer as a result – while Calvin is largely pointless, except as an unnecessary and slightly cringeworthy romantic interest for Meg.

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It may take a little while to find its feet, but once it does, A Wrinkle in Time does improve enough to become a moderately entertaining family fantasy-adventure – while it may not be a good film, it’s still a long way from being an offensively terrible one. It’s just exasperating that, while A Wrinkle in Time is a huge step in the right direction for representation both behind and in front of the camera, it couldn’t have also been a film that’s as consistently ambitious and imaginative as its very best moments – rare as they are – manage to be.

Annihilation

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

About thirty-five minutes into Annihilation’s run time, there’s an exchange of dialogue between two characters that manages to encapsulate the entire film fairly succinctly: ‘It was dreamlike.’ ‘Nightmarish?’ ‘Not always. Sometimes it was beautiful.’

From Ex Machina writer and director Alex Garland and based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer – the first book in the bestselling Southern Reach trilogy – Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former soldier who finds herself at the government-run ‘Area X’ after the mysterious return of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who went missing on a mission almost a year ago and has since been presumed dead. At Area X, Lena discovers the presence of an anomaly known as ‘the shimmer’, an electromagnetic field that has been spreading across the southern coast for three years. Despite knowing that military teams have been regularly venturing into the shimmer with no one ever returning, Lena joins a team consisting of a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and a geologist, Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), on a research mission into the shimmer.

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From technology failing to forgetting extensive periods of time and attacks by strange, mutated animals, things grow weirder and weirder for the team from the moment they enter the shimmer. Although certain story beats can’t help but feel familiar for the first half of the film, such a surreal setting allows Annihilation to become something truly original through a combination of cinematography, production design and visual effects. Annihilation contains instances of genuine horror, but this is juxtaposed with a beautiful, dreamlike quality that Garland maintains throughout the film.

As for the more nightmarish elements of the film, they vary from mildly unsettling, to gruesomely gory, to downright horrifying – but even these moments are presented with creativity and ingenuity. While the plot is slow-paced, it builds suspense with a constant, unrelenting atmosphere of dread and foreboding; occasionally breaking this tension with scares that range from disconcerting body horror to a truly disturbing bear attack, made all the more nightmare-inducing by its incredibly inventive use of sound design.

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Annihilation is, however, first and foremost a science fiction film, and Garland aims high. The true horror of it lies not with the blood and guts and shock factor but with the lasting implications, the kind that linger for long afterwards and leave you pondering some of life’s bigger and more meaningful questions. The best sci-fi films – Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Garland’s own Ex Machina – are the ones that can spawn endless discussion, and Annihilation achieves this through both its ambiguous nature and a refreshing level of respect for the intelligence of its audience.

With Annihilation, Garland may not always reach the heights of his own ambitions, but he should be applauded for being daring enough to try. He has crafted a film that is more than just impressive visuals and a gripping mystery – it’s a film that dazzles, haunts and fascinates, and – when done well – that has the potential to be far more rewarding than a film with a clear, decisive conclusion.

Tomb Raider

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Release date: 15th March 2018/Watch the trailer here

When the only previous Tomb Raider movies are the Angelina Jolie-starrers from the early 2000s, the good news for the reboot is that the only way to go from there is up. From Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, the 2018 Tomb Raider (loosely) follows the plot of the rebooted game from 2013, and sees Alicia Vikander taking on the iconic role of Lara Croft. Not spending her days training in Croft Manor this time around, Lara instead leads a reckless, carefree life following the disappearance of her father, Richard (Dominic West), years earlier. She eventually comes into possession of a key leading to a series of clues that hint at the last known whereabouts of her father: a mythical island off the coast of Japan, home to the tomb of Himiko, a queen who was once said to command power over life and death. Lara sets off on a perilous journey, enlisting the help of a sailor, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), along the way – but Lara soon learns that her father wasn’t the only person searching for Himiko’s tomb, and a shadowy organisation named Trinity, seeking to harness and weaponise her power, have sent an expedition led by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) to the island, too.

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Tomb Raider comes in at a little under two hours, and at least ninety per cent of that time is spent with Lara in near-peril – even a harmless bike race in the film’s first five minutes is filmed with breathless intensity, and it’s good fun – to begin with. Vikander, known for award-winning roles in films such as Ex Machina and The Danish Girl more so than as an action hero, is surprisingly capable and refreshingly un-objectified as Lara (compared to the Jolie films, at least). She has more than enough charisma and likability to carry the film – and while Lara comes across as a little bland and under-developed at times, those are issues with the script rather than Vikander’s performance – but when Tomb Raider enters its second hour of Lara being repeatedly punched and shot at (she probably spends more time grunting, groaning and screaming than she does actually talking), it becomes more than a little tiresome. There’s a moment when Lara exasperatedly asks ‘really?’ while she dodges her third or fourth near-death experience in the space of about five minutes, and the audience can’t help but wonder the same thing.

Still, Lara gets more to do than the rest of the cast – West is fine as her father, but Walton Goggins’ villain is generic and forgettable, while what started as a promising supporting role for Daniel Wu eventually becomes little more than his character repeatedly talking about not leaving Lara behind, and then disappearing for half an hour. The problem is, all interactions between characters feel like little more than cutscenes, and the action – though occasionally exciting – isn’t much better. Too often Tomb Raider forgets to rise above its video game origins, and while there’s nothing wrong with the odd nod to the game it’s based on, Lara frequently feels less like an autonomous human being and more like a character being controlled by a player on the other side of the screen.

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With all that being said, however, Tomb Raider isn’t necessarily a bad film. It’s not a very good one, either, but it passes a couple of hours entertainingly enough, which is perhaps better than expected. It also wastes its final few minutes by getting too bogged down with setting up a sequel that will likely never exist – but then again, perhaps it will. If this is to be the video game movie that progresses the genre from ‘absolutely awful’ to ‘it’s alright’, then who knows – we might even get a ‘quite good’ one in another ten years.

★★