War for the Planet of the Apes

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Release date: 11th July 2017/Watch the trailer here

The rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise is a strange one. Financially successful, critically acclaimed and with each entry in the trilogy remaining consistent in their high quality; yet it’s a franchise that no one seems to talk about. Most people just don’t get excited about a new Planet of the Apes movie in the same way that they do with the latest offerings from Marvel or Star Wars. Still, the box office numbers – steadily increasing with each film – indicate that people are watching these movies, and it’s a good thing that they are. War for the Planet of the Apes closes the trilogy in the rarest way possible: with a film that’s not only as good as the first, but even better (although perhaps not as good as the second, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).

Picking up more or less where Dawn left off, War sees Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes drawn into a violent conflict with an army of humans, led by their ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson). After suffering a series of devastating losses, Caesar sets off on his own journey to avenge the apes, meeting a mute human child named Nova (Amiah Miller), and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a lone primate that once lived in a zoo, along the way.

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Unusually for the last film in a franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes is not as much about the final showdown between apes and mankind as the title would suggest. It’s definitely present, but the satisfyingly big and explosion-filled battle acts as more of a backdrop to the central struggle between Caesar and the Colonel, as Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts. This isn’t the only diversion from the norm that War for the Planet of the Apes follows: not least because this is a film which is convincing its audience to choose the side of the apes over that of our own species.

From the very beginning, with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the franchise has always been regarded as something of a great technical achievement, and with good reason: the work that Serkis and his fellow actors do with motion capture is nothing short of spectacular. It’s all too easy to forget that you’re watching humans in funny suits and not living, breathing apes, such is the incredible quality of the visual effects on display here. Yet what’s also amazing is that not only is this a big-budget, summer blockbuster with hardly any human characters, it’s also a big-budget, summer blockbuster with hardly any spoken dialogue. Caesar and some of the other apes have learned how to speak over the course of the films, but most converse in sign-language instead. With the addition of the voiceless Nova to the cast, it’s remarkable to see a film that communicates so much with so little. Lingering close-ups allow eyes and facial expressions to say far more than words possibly could.

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Of course, War for the Planet of the Apes has its flaws, but the sheer amount that it achieves makes it possible to overlook them. The story here is an engrossing and well-told one, but also one that’s dark enough to possibly explain why this franchise isn’t as popular as it deserves to be. It’s staggering to see a summer blockbuster tackling such shocking imagery; from themes of slavery and a concentration camp-like setting to the surprising amount of the plot that not-so-subtly borrows from biblical stories.

That’s not to say that War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t a fun, entertaining popcorn movie, however, because it almost certainly is – it just also happens to be a popcorn film with an astonishing amount of emotion and intelligence, especially for a time of year that tends to be saturated with giant robots destroying cities. War neatly wraps up the central narrative that ran across the trilogy, but there’s also a hint of more to come – and with this franchise, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

The Beguiled

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

A Sofia Coppola-directed remake of a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled is set almost entirely within the confines of a girls school in Virginia during the American Civil War. The year is 1864 and almost everyone at the school has left, with just five students and one teacher remaining alongside the headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). However, the women’s quiet existence is disturbed when one of the young students, Amy (Oona Laurence), stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), while out in the nearby woods.

The arrival of McBurney immediately causes tension within the school, with some wanting him to be delivered as a prisoner of war to the Confederate Army, while others – such as the teacher, Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and an older student, Alicia (Elle Fanning) – find themselves fascinated by the handsome stranger.

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What follows is an uneasy culmination of building sexual tension and a subtle rivalry between the seven women. If nothing else, Coppola has masterfully crafted an atmosphere of quiet suspense that consumes both her characters and audience alike for the entirety of The Beguiled. It’s a slow-burn film for the most part, yet this atmosphere ensures that it is constantly gripping throughout, until it ends with a finale that feels like a worthy climax to the simmering hysteria threatening to spill over.

The Beguiled is also an absolutely stunning film to look at: from the setting, which is somehow both beautiful and unnervingly claustrophobic, to the impeccably-designed period costumes; all filmed in a manner that feels suitably old-fashioned yet still fresh and modern. The cast, too, are on fine form here: Farrell gives a performance that constantly leaves you wondering whether he’s a good person or possibly someone much more sinister (or perhaps he’s both), and while Kidman, Dunst and Fanning are as wonderful as ever, all of the women in the cast shine best when they’re working as an ensemble.

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Yet for all of its strengths, there is something lacking from The Beguiled, yet it’s difficult to put your finger on what exactly that something is. On the surface, The Beguiled gets almost everything right, but there’s really very little to be found beneath its attractive exterior that will make it particularly memorable in years to come. With such a story, Coppola had ample opportunity to inject it with a little depth and substance, but she appears to have eschewed doing so in favour of a competently-made, but very simple psychosexual thriller – and while it keeps you guessing until the moment that the credits roll, it’s never quite as thrilling as you hoped it would be.

It Comes At Night

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Release date: 7th July 2017/Watch the trailer here

It Comes At Night, from writer and director Trey Edward Shults, is a film that throws its audience straight in at the deep end. It opens with a family – the father, Paul (Joel Edgerton); mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo); and teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) – saying their goodbyes to Travis’ grandfather, who is visibly ill, before Paul and Travis take him into the quiet woods that surround their home, and shoot him. The audience is left with little clue as to what the man’s illness was, how he contracted it, or why shooting him was even necessary.

For the rest of its ninety minute runtime, It Comes At Night continues in much of the same way, never pausing to help its audience wade out of the depths. We learn through dialogue that a mysterious illness has plagued an unnamed city, but none of the characters know what this illness is – only that its symptoms develop rapidly and it’s highly contagious. Eventually, Paul, Sarah and Travis take in another family – Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), who come into their lives through dubious circumstances after they catch Will breaking into their house one night in a desperate search for water.

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It Comes At Night has run into a lot of criticism for not being the standard horror movie that its advertising suggested, and while it’s certainly not a horror – it falls more closely within the psychological thriller genre – many elements of it are undoubtedly horrifying. Not since The Witch (which, like It Comes At Night, was also distributed by A24, an independent company which have made quite a name for themselves recently with films such as Moonlight and Ex Machina) has a film radiated such pure, unrelenting dread.

But while there is much to praise about It Comes At Night – it’s an impeccably crafted film, with beautiful cinematography that can turn the most idyllic location into something threatening and incredibly well-acted, multifaceted characters – the lasting impression is an unpleasant one. This is, of course, in part due to the exhaustion of spending ninety minutes clenching your teeth, waiting for something awful to happen, and in part because nothing much really does happen: there is a huge amount of build-up with very little pay-off.

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Obviously, there are plenty of films where a slow-burn feel and a certain level of ambiguity work well – and in many ways, It Comes At Night is one of those films. But there’s almost too much ambiguity here: there are too many questions that are raised and never even come close to being answered, least of all the mystery of what has happened to the outside world and the cause of this seemingly terrible disease. You’ll be left with plenty of your own theories, but it’s frustrating that theories is all they’ll ever be.

Even so, for fans of the genre there’s plenty to admire here. You may leave the cinema cursing its name, but for ninety minutes you’re all but guaranteed to be gripped; It Comes At Night manages to command attention masterfully for such a largely slow and quiet film. If only Shults had chosen to tie up some of the many loose ends, then this could have become a near-perfect genre staple – but as it stands, we don’t even know what it actually is that comes at night.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

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Release date: 5th July 2017/Watch the trailer here

It could be argued that we didn’t need the third big-screen iteration of Spider-Man in fifteen years, but Homecoming comes with a distinct advantage that its predecessors didn’t have: the web-slinging superhero is now a part of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. First introduced in last year’s Captain America: Civil WarHomecoming picks up almost exactly where Civil War left off, with an excitable Peter Parker (Tom Holland) documenting his first foray into the world of the Avengers via a homemade video diary. Two months later, however, and his life is a lot more mundane than he was hoping for: still an ordinary, awkward high school student; his mentor and hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has left Peter in the uninterested hands of his head of security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, reprising his role from the Iron Man movies), determined for Peter to remain as a ‘friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man’ for the time being.

Not content with merely stopping petty crimes across New York City, Peter can’t help but be drawn to bigger, more life-threatening criminals: namely, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), the owner of a salvaging company who has been using his job as a front to make weapons from the recovered Chitauri technology left behind during the alien attack on New York in The Avengers. Peter’s interference soon attracts the attention of Toomes – known as Vulture due to his bird-like, flying suit – putting the life of Peter and everyone he cares about in danger.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best Spider-Man movie to date, and a large reason for this is that, for the first time, Peter Parker actually feels like a teenager. Casting the youthful Holland (who possesses likability by the bucketload) in the role certainly helped, but Homecoming is just as much of a coming-of-age, high school movie as it is a superhero one. Yes, there are plenty of big action set pieces, but there’s also the boy behind the mask, awkwardly navigating his way through school as an unpopular kid with his equally-unpopular best friend, the hilarious Ned (Jacob Batalon), all the while trying to deal with his hopeless crush on fellow decathlon team member, Liz (Laura Harrier). Homecoming also details the struggle of balancing being Spider-Man with being Peter Parker: the incredible frustration of staying silent as his classmates discuss how cool they think Spider-Man is; having to miss out on his big chance with Liz because there are crimes that he needs to fight.

Homecoming is also one of the best entries in the MCU so far (and that’s saying something, when there are currently fifteen other films to compete against), partly due to its success in avoiding many of the frequent pitfalls of the Marvel movies. It’s no secret that the MCU has regularly struggled with its villains, but Vulture feels far more fleshed-out than many of the villains that came before him (Kaecilius, Ronan, Malekith and even Ultron, to name just a few). Of course, it helps that they cast Michael Keaton, who was always going to bring a certain level of charisma to the role, but Vulture is also given a large amount of screen-time to explore his motivations and further develop the character. It doesn’t hurt that his big plan isn’t world domination or bringing about the apocalypse via a beam of light in the sky, either: he simply wants to craft and sell alien weapons. By Marvel standards he’s practically harmless, but to Peter, he feels like a very real threat – and so he does to the audience, too.

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Homecoming also succeeds because it doesn’t concern itself too much with setting up the future of the franchise. There are more than enough Easter eggs and cameos to keep any Marvel fan happy, but Homecoming is a largely self-contained film and it benefits from this. The main plot is brought about by the events of The Avengers (and it explores the aftermath of such life-changing devastation in a way that previously only the Marvel Netflix shows have attempted), but there is little in the way of lasting consequences for the MCU. It could have all too easily become Iron Man 4, but Homecoming is restrained in its use of Stark. This is Peter’s film, and thankfully Marvel didn’t forget it: he’s the undisputed hero of Homecoming.

With talk of the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming acting as the Civil War of the next phase of the MCU – once all of the old heroes have been retired after Avengers 4 – Spider-Man likely won’t be remaining self-contained for long. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – Homecoming hints at future villains and the promise of more screen-time for the scene-stealing Michelle (Zendaya) – but for now, it’s nice to enjoy Peter Parker as he should be: a teenager who’s the furthest thing from cool until he puts on his mask (and sometimes, not even then), brimming with excitement at the prospect of being a world-saving superhero – but not before he’s saved his own city first.

Baby Driver

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Release date: 28th June 2017/Watch the trailer here

When your directorial back catalogue includes Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you’ve certainly put a lot of pressure on yourself to continue making great films. Luckily for Edgar Wright, with Baby Driver he’s not only made a movie that’s every bit as good as his previous ones: he’s made a movie that’s even better.

Baby Driver has all of the trademarks of an Edgar Wright classic (albeit lacking Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), while still managing to be something entirely different from any other film out there. It follows the titular character of Baby (Ansel Elgort), who listens to music constantly to drown out the ringing in his ears that he was left with following an accident as a child. Baby also happens to be an incredible driver; a skill that has resulted in him being coerced into working as a getaway driver for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). After meeting and falling in love with a waitress named Debora (Lily James), Baby wants nothing more than to leave behind his life of crime and run away with her, but he soon learns that Doc won’t make it easy for him. He agrees to be the driver for one more heist, alongside fellow criminals Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), but it quickly transpires that the heist was doomed to fail from the start.

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On paper, Baby Driver sounds far from original: we’ve seen bank heists in movies many, many times before, and the concept of a reluctant getaway driver is familiar from Drive. What truly sets Baby Driver apart from the rest (aside from Wright’s trademark sharp sense of humour, of course) is its use of music. Admittedly, plenty of recent films have used a soundtrack of songs predominantly from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s to varying degrees of success (it worked well in Guardians of the Galaxy; less so in Suicide Squad), but none of them have used music quite like Baby Driver does.

In Baby Driver, the music is its very own character: each scene is set perfectly in time with its own song (this works particularly well during a shootout set to ‘Tequila’); and on the rare moments that Baby takes out his earphones, the music stops for the audience, too. It’s an incredibly ambitious move by Wright and one that really has to be seen to be fully understood; no words will ever succeed in conveying the way in which Wright has injected life into his film by using music as a living, breathing being.

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The actual living, breathing beings in Baby Driver are all on top form, too: Elgort (who up until now had only been seen in YA movies such as the Divergent series and The Fault in Our Stars) has found the role that he was destined to play, and he completely embodies every element of Baby: from the awkward music-lover who dances in the street to his favourite songs, to the impossibly cool getaway driver and the hopeless romantic. He has fantastic, believable chemistry with Lily James, who is utterly charming and almost impossible to not fall in love with – and it also helps that she’s given far more to do than the average ‘love interest’ role. The more A-list members of the cast – Spacey, Foxx and Hamm – seem to be having a blast playing somewhat more villainous characters, and they all have their scene-stealing moments without ever taking away from Elgort and James, who are the undeniable heart and soul of the movie.

Much like Baby himself, impossibly cool and hopelessly romantic both seem like ideal phrases to describe Baby Driver. The subplot of Baby and Debora’s relationship may take up more of the runtime than your average action movie; but fans of car chases, shootouts and numerous gruesome, gory deaths will be far from disappointed. With minimal CGI and a focus on practical effects and real stunts, the action sequences of Baby Driver – most notably the opening car chase and the entire final third of the film – are breathlessly exhilarating while being slickly choreographed: a cinematic joyride from start to thrilling finish.

★★

Gifted

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Release date: 16th June 2017/Watch the trailer here

Gifted, from director Marc Webb (500 Days of SummerThe Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2), is a film that proves that a story doesn’t always have to be the most groundbreaking or original, so long as it’s a story that’s told well. This particular story is about a precocious seven-year-old child prodigy, Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), who lives in Florida with her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), and a one-eyed ginger cat called Fred. Mary has lived with Frank since she was a baby, following the suicide of her genius mathematician mother, and after several years of home-schooling, Frank believes it’s time that she goes to an ordinary school, determined to give his niece a normal life. For the first time, Mary is interacting with people other than Frank, Fred and their landlady, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), but she has little interest in children her own age and it quickly comes to the attention of her first grade teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate), that Mary is an extraordinarily gifted child. Still, Frank refuses to send Mary to a special school for children as educationally advanced as she is, and his stubbornness soon brings his mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), back into his life, whose desire to take her granddaughter back to Boston draws her and Frank into a vicious custody battle with Mary at the centre.

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Of course, there’s little about a story such as this one that hasn’t already been told before, but Webb has proven in the past to have a keen eye for his characters and he’s proven this again with Gifted. The casting here is impeccable; with strong turns from the supporting cast and a heartfelt performance from Evans that acts as firm evidence that he will continue to have an impressive and varied career long after he hangs up Captain America’s shield. But the real standout here is McKenna Grace, whose performance as Mary is at the heart of both the film’s most humorous moments and the most emotional ones. She’s an absolute delight to watch, and her chemistry with Evans is nothing short of charming. It’s hard to imagine Gifted working anywhere near as effectively without Evans and Grace to hold it up.

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It’s also because of these two that the emotional manipulations of the film feel a little bit more honest. Gifted knows exactly when it wants to make you cry, but it’s almost impossible to deny it when Frank and Mary are crying, too. The formulas the film uses to tug on the heartstrings are all too transparent (especially since they’ve already been used plenty of times before), but Gifted is endearing, warm, witty and genuinely moving enough for you to not mind too much. In less competent hands it might feel insincere, but Gifted is entirely the opposite, raising a few moral questions along the way (who’s right here – Frank and his determination for Mary to have a normal childhood, or Evelyn and her desire to see Mary and her incredible brain flourish under suitable education for her potential?). The answer might not be a clear one, but there’s one thing that is obvious: Gifted is a lovely, authentic film, with two equally lovely and authentic performances at the centre of it.

The Mummy

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

If last month’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword didn’t act as a warning for studios to stop announcing huge franchises and cinematic universes before the first film in the series has even been released, perhaps The Mummy will. Rather than being a reboot of the 1999 Brendan Fraser film of the same name, The Mummy is intended to kick off Universal’s recently-announced ‘Dark Universe’. Inspired by the huge success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and (to a slightly lesser extent) the DC Extended Universe, the Dark Universe will be a classic monster movie series, with plans to follow up The Mummy with Frankenstein’s monster (to be played by Javier Bardem), the Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on.

It’s certainly an intriguing concept, but unfortunately The Mummy does very little to build on that intrigue, falling into the all-too-common trap of spending too much time setting up a future franchise and not enough concentrating on making a good, standalone film. The protagonist is mercenary Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), who accidentally stumbles upon an ancient tomb while in Iraq with friend and fellow mercenary Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) and archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). The tomb belongs to the ancient Egyptian princess, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was buried alive as punishment for killing her family and selling her soul to Set, the god of death, in a failed plot to usurp the throne. By discovering the tomb and bringing the sarcophagus bearing Ahmanet back to England with them, Nick and his team unwittingly awaken her and her supernatural powers, which leads Nick to a secret organisation known as Prodigium, led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and dedicated to hunting down evil forces.

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Dr. Jekyll (and with him, of course, comes Mr. Hyde) is supposed to act as the Nick Fury of the Dark Universe, which comes as a slight relief since he’s far and away the most interesting character (aside from Ahmanet) in the entire film, but there’s also the issue that Crowe is severely miscast in the role. So, too, is Cruise, but therein lies the main problem with The Mummy: that it could have actually been a very good horror movie if it wasn’t so determined to be a typical Tom Cruise action movie instead. In both actors’ defence, neither of them phone it in, and they still do the best they can with such an abysmal script.

It truly is staggering to think that it took six (six!) people to write The Mummy when the screenplay is little more than Jenny shouting ‘NICK!’ over and over again, and much of the rest of it is exposition. No one needs to be concerned about The Mummy overtaking Wonder Woman at the box office this weekend; for this movie to be released the week after a film which saw one of the very best female protagonists to ever grace our cinema screens would be almost laughable if it wasn’t so depressing. Annabelle Wallis may be reduced to little more than a vessel to remind the audience of Tom Cruise’s character’s name (and someone for them to ogle at, too – by the end of the film she’s actually wearing a wet white T-shirt), but Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet doesn’t fare much better, either. She’s utterly captivating each time she’s on screen (once again proving the point that The Mummy could have been a pretty terrifying horror movie if it had allowed itself to be one), but the film’s too preoccupied with trying to make Ahmanet into something attractive and desirable, rather than letting her be every bit as creepy and repulsive as what Boutella was clearly striving for – exactly as the titular mummy should be.

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Despite all this, however, The Mummy isn’t so terrible as to completely destroy any hopes for the Dark Universe. After all, they’ve got some decent effects and a real knack for casting their villains under their belt (although they still need to work on their heroes), and for all its faults, The Mummy is never boring. If the future films hire better writers (and really, there doesn’t need to be six of them) and choose to focus on the more monstrous elements of the characters at their centre, there’s still the potential for some very good monster movies to come out of this cinematic universe, once it finds its feet after a rather shaky beginning.