Wind River

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Release date: 8th September 2017/Watch the trailer here

The directorial debut from Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High WaterWind River is set in the wilderness of the Wind River Indian Reservation during the unforgiving Wyoming winter. Sharing much in common with Sheridan’s other films (he considers them to be his ‘frontier trilogy’, connected thematically rather than by plot), Wind River is something of a modern Western, following local game tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) after he discovers the body of a teenage girl in the snow. Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in from Las Vegas to assist, and although she quickly finds herself unprepared for the freezing cold and isolation of Wind River, her tenacity and passion drives her to solve the case.

Hugh Dillon, Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene star in Wind River

Much like Sicario and Hell or High Water before it, the heart and soul of Wind River lies in its screenplay. Sheridan has a gift for capturing a sense of authenticity in locations that are rarely explored on screen. From the supporting characters to the actual setting – as much its own character as anyone else in the film – everything about Wind River feels genuine and gritty. This touch of realism can be seen in the crime that the movie is built around: veering away from serial killers and grisly murders and instead focusing on the very real plight of Native American women on reservations, for whom there are no statistics to be found on just how many are missing. Wind River also touches on themes of grief, depression, drug addiction and sexual assault – in many ways, it’s a film that’s every bit as bleak as the desolate landscape it takes place in, beautiful though the cinematography may be.

So Wind River may not be an easy watch, but it is an important one, with two brilliant performances at the centre of it. Renner may be the least charismatic person on screen in a Marvel movie, but he comes alive when he is given the chance to play characters that feel a little more human – much like in Arrival, his character here is believable and grounded; the emotional core of the film. Olsen, too, has found the perfect role for her – the rookie agent who cares far more about the fate of an innocent young woman than the opinions of the men that surround her and make no effort to hide their initial doubts regarding her capability.

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There are still a few faults that Sheridan will undoubtedly overcome in his future films, both as a screenwriter and a director, but there’s no denying his talent. There’s the occasional character who is developed in the first act only to be forgotten about by the second, or a seemingly important interaction that ends up with no value to the overall plot, but these are minor flaws in an otherwise excellent screenplay. As far as directorial debuts go, they don’t get much better than this: Sheridan masterfully creates tension during a stand-off at gunpoint, before proving himself as a fine director of action, too, in the shoot-out that follows.

On the surface, Wind River is a simple mystery, by-the-numbers for the most part but gripping nonetheless. Yet for all its stark simplicity, it’s what lies beneath that’s most impressive: the very human characters and their very human problems, and these are the things that promise to stay with you long after the culprit has been discovered and the crime has been solved.

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IT

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Release date: 8th September 2017/Watch the trailer here

At more than a thousand pages, adapting Stephen King’s epic horror novel into a digestible, two-hour movie was never going to be an easy task. IT has been adapted before in the format of a three-hour miniseries, but director Andy Muschietti opted for a different approach this time. The novel spans two separate timelines: with the protagonists as children in the 1950s and later as adults in the ’80s, when the book was written and published. Muschietti’s film has chosen to focus solely on the first timeline, bringing it forward into the 1980s to allow the inevitable sequel to be set in the present day (while simultaneously cashing in on the current trend for ’80s nostalgia – it even stars one of the kids from Stranger Things).

IT takes place in the summer of 1989, in the small town of Derry, Maine – a town where tragedies seem to occur every twenty-seven years, and whose children are currently going missing in a spate of gruesome murders and mysterious disappearances. A group of bullied kids who call themselves the Losers’ Club – Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and their stuttering leader, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), whose little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) was one of the first victims to the force that plagues Derry – spend the summer together, bonding over the terrifying and inexplicable occurrences that haunt them. When they begin to suspect that the culprit behind the disappearances is a monster that takes on the appearance of a clown and calls itself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), they find themselves determined to put an end to It for good, before It kills anyone else.

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While IT is undeniably a horror film, it works so well because it chooses to be more than just that – there are elements of The Goonies and, indeed, Stranger Things to be found here, venturing into the realms of childhood adventure and dark fantasy at times. Of course, it helps that the film has assembled such a great group of kids to be at the centre of it, taking the time to develop each character and building chemistry so that they feel entirely believable as best friends. Wolfhard has already proven himself to be a capable child actor, and he’s the star of the show in IT, taking Richie – who was a fairly annoying character in the novel – and making him hilarious, providing some much-needed comic relief amidst the unrelenting dread. Grazer as the illness-phobic Eddie is also a standout, but it seems almost unfair to pick favourites when every young actor in IT gives such an effortless, charismatic performance.

But for every lovable protagonist, there’s a hated antagonist, and Skarsgård certainly is that. Even for those who don’t think that clowns are the creepiest things in the world, it’s hard to erase Pennywise from your mind after watching this film: from his voice to his freakish, unnatural movements, everything about him is pure nightmare fuel. Yet on the slightly more human side of things, there is also the deranged teenage bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who is possibly even more frightening than Pennywise: after all, he’s the kind of monster that really does exist.

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There’s more than enough here to satisfy those in the audience who are unfamiliar with the source material, but fans of the book shouldn’t find themselves disappointed, either. IT is surprisingly faithful for the most part, and while there are some things missing that could have done with being included – much of Mike’s backstory and the fire at the Black Spot is absent, as are the more disturbing secrets behind bully Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague) – there’s no denying that this is the better Stephen King adaptation of the year, after the disappointment that was The Dark Tower.

Soundtracked to a haunting score by Benjamin Wallfisch, IT is engrossing from the very first frame and refuses to let you go until the last. With memorable scenes that will undoubtedly go down in the horror movie hall of fame and others that are more reminiscent of a coming-of-age movie, IT simultaneously succeeds in making the grown-up audience members long for their childhoods, while also making them too scared to sleep for the next week.

Chapter Two can’t come quickly enough.

Logan Lucky

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

As the director of Ocean’s ElevenTwelve and Thirteen, Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to the heist movie – but there are no suave George Clooney or Brad Pitt types to be found in Logan Lucky. Instead, the film focuses on the Logan brothers from West Virginia: construction worker Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and one-armed veteran Clyde (Adam Driver). Following a spate of bad luck that Clyde believes to be a Logan family curse, the brothers decide to attempt to execute an elaborate heist during the Coca-Cola 600 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, enlisting the help of their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) and convicted explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig).

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Despite all the build-up, though, Logan Lucky is never quite as exciting as it promises to be. The heist itself feels far too convoluted and far-fetched to create any kind of suspense or tension, and there’s never any real source of conflict to lead us to believe that our protagonists might not succeed.

It is these protagonists, however – or rather, the actors who play them – that act as the film’s main redeeming quality. Tatum has consistently proven to be surprisingly capable in both comedic and dramatic roles and Driver is never anything less than on top form; while Keough, too, continues to prove herself to be one to watch. But it will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen any of the marketing for Logan Lucky that Craig is the real star of the show: after years of seeing him in surly 007-mode, it’s refreshing to see him having such gleeful, unabashed fun with a role that couldn’t be further from Bond if it tried. Logan Lucky is almost worth watching purely for the whimsically insane character of Joe Bang, and he’s certainly the funniest part of a film that’s often not as amusing as it likes to think it is.

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Yet for a film with such strong leads and some equally strong supporting turns, there’s also some distractingly bad acting on display here; most notably from Seth MacFarlane as a bizarre ‘British’ businessman and Hilary Swank as the FBI agent responsible for dealing with the aftermath of the heist – both of whom seem like they’ve wandered in from different film sets to the rest of the cast.

They make for strange additions to what can already only be described as a strange film, with uneven pacing, unnecessarily stretched-out dialogue and too many scenes that have little or no purpose to the overall plot. Strangest of all, however, is how Soderbergh has managed to make a film that should have been so much fun into something quite so dull.

The Dark Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

★★

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

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

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

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

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

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

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

★★

Atomic Blonde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

★★

Detroit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

★★