Miss Sloane

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Release date: 12th May 2017/Watch the trailer here

While we’re practically spoiled for choice when it comes to television centred around the powerful people of Washington, D.C. and all of the bitching and backstabbing that goes on between them, feature-length options can be a little harder to come by. Miss Sloane is here to rectify that, playing out more or less like a two-hour episode of House of Cards, and every bit as impossible to look away from.

The film opens with its formidable titular character, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), pleading the Fifth at a congressional hearing, before we are taken back three months prior to see the series of events that led to Elizabeth being questioned about possible ethics violations by John Lithgow’s Senator Sperling. As a highly sought-after lobbyist, Elizabeth is approached to lead the opposition to a proposed bill aimed at expanding background checks on gun ownership. After laughing in the faces of the men who tasked her with ‘getting women into guns’, Elizabeth leaves the firm she was working for, taking most of her staff with her, to work for the rival lobbying firm looking to lead the effort in support of the bill, led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong).

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The film belongs entirely to Chastain: the real fun of it lies in watching Elizabeth – always impeccably dressed and with wits as sharp as her heels – willing to go to any and every length possible in order to win, even if it means throwing her colleagues under the bus in the process. We know from the get-go that Elizabeth is cutthroat and driven, but we never see the true, monstrous extent of her personality until winning comes at the cost of Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an employee and a survivor of gun violence, something which Elizabeth is all too happy to manipulate for her own gain.

She’s far from a likeable character, but all the same, it’s difficult not to want to root for her: after all, Elizabeth is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and complex female characters that we’ve seen so far this year. Chastain’s Golden Globe-nominated performance is one that will probably be remembered as ‘career-defining’, and it’s hard to imagine Miss Sloane being anywhere near as gripping without her at the forefront.

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It is Chastain who also keeps things grounded when first-time writer Jonathan Perera’s screenplay starts to veer wildly off-course, trading in the sharp, enigmatic dialogue of the first half for some silly plot twists and a frustratingly ridiculous ending that doesn’t even try to aim for realism. Then again, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the best thing about Miss Sloane is, of course, Miss Sloane herself.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

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Release date: 19th May 2017/Watch the trailer here

If there’s one film that we could probably do without, it’s yet another half-hearted attempt at tackling the epic myth of King Arthur – but if there’s one film that we could definitely do without, it’s director Guy Ritchie’s half-hearted attempt at tackling the epic myth of King Arthur. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’ve been given: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the first film of a proposed six-film franchise (although this is a number that is currently looking very, very optimistic).

Legend of the Sword is more or less a King Arthur origin story: after being cast away on a boat as a young child, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is raised in a brothel in Londinium, unaware that his father was the rightful king, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). After a chaotic prologue details the overthrowing of Camelot and Pendragon by power-hungry Vortigern (Jude Law), the film whiplashes without warning from big-battle fantasy-epic into full-on Guy Ritchie mode. This is, after all, the director who made a name for himself with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and their influence is strongly felt throughout King Arthur. Arthur has made a name for himself by running the backstreets of Londinium with his friends – with names like ‘Wet Stick’ (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and ‘Back Lack’ (Neil Maskell) – and their introduction is made up of fast cuts and faster talking, in true Ritchie style.

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It’s not dissimilar, then, to Ritchie’s equally fast-cut and fast-talking Sherlock Holmes movies; although the reason why those films tended to work so well was largely down to Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic leading performance. Charlie Hunnam, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of charismatic: he may look like a leading man, but he certainly can’t act like one. Clearly, however, acting wasn’t a high priority for Ritchie – why else would he allow the pivotal pulling-the-sword-from-the-stone moment be sabotaged by a truly terrible cameo from friend and former footballer David Beckham? There are a few good actors here somewhere – Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou as Bedivere, Aidan Gillen as ‘Goose Fat’ Bill – but they’re all more or less on autopilot in roles that aren’t particularly interesting or well-written. Still, at least they got a slightly better deal than any of the female characters, all of whom are either prostitutes, seductive mermaids, or killed off after getting to speak five words. The only exception to this rule is the nameless mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) who teams up with Arthur – but on an acting scale of 1 to Charlie Hunnam, she’s closer to the Hunnam end.

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A lack of any likeable or well-developed characters to root for or care about makes the rest of King Arthur all the more exasperating. The formulaic, predictable plot (Arthur pulls sword from stone; is at first reluctant; training montage; big battle; roll credits) is all too evident, and Ritchie leans heavily on his love of cross-cutting to the point where it is literally the only interesting thing that Legend of the Sword has to offer. Much like Hunnam, it loses its initial charm very quickly, and it’s used far too often to be effective, until it begins to feel like Ritchie doesn’t really know how to film an action scene without it. That may well be true, because the battles that should be (at least slightly) epic are instead dark, shaky, effects-laden messes with more cuts than Taken 3 and soundtracked to a score by Daniel Pemberton that could have been perfect in the right film, but here feels glaringly out of place.

It’s quite possible that the large scale the legend of King Arthur requires simply overwhelmed Ritchie. The film certainly works best when it keeps to more familiar territory for the director, but even then there’s little disguising what a shockingly poor effort this is. Forget about another five King Arthur films: at this point, even one sequel is looking unlikely, as much as the non-ending of Legend of the Sword would like to convince you otherwise.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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

When you consider the two main components that made Guardians of the Galaxy such a surprise success in 2014 – writer and director James Gunn and fantastic chemistry between the cast – it was inevitable that Vol. 2 would be another certified success (albeit far less of a surprise one) for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, given that Gunn and his Guardians were all returning.

Vol. 2 opens pretty much exactly as one would expect: with the Guardians of the Galaxy – led by Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill (although he would prefer you to call him Star-Lord) and made up of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) – fighting off a giant, tentacled alien, soundtracked to the first song from Peter’s Awesome Mix Vol. 2 (‘Mr. Blue Sky’) of many more to follow.

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What’s unexpected, however, is Vol. 2‘s departure from the standard Marvel formula: okay, yes, there may be another all-powerful villain with the destruction of the galaxy on their mind – but at its core, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a warm and often emotional character study. There was always an underlying message about family that ran through the first film, but it’s at the forefront in the sequel. The trailers for Vol. 2 have made no secret of the reveal that Kurt Russell is Star-Lord’s elusive father (Ego; a celestial being with his own planet), but it’s not just this father-son bond that the film focuses on. There’s the troubled relationship between sisters Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), a blossoming friendship between Drax and newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and an unexpected connection between Rocket and returning character Yondu (Michael Rooker); as well as the ups and the downs of the various relationships between the Guardians themselves. Gunn has taken the advantage of his audience already feeling like they know these characters well and used it to develop them in unpredicted ways, giving the film the sort of emotional heart that comes as such a welcome surprise from a sci-fi superhero sequel.

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The only downside to this character-driven approach is the negative impact it has on the film’s plot, or lack thereof. By the time things start to happen in terms of a villain and (of course) a situation that requires the Guardians to save the galaxy once again, it comes as something of a shock that you’ve been watching the film for ninety minutes with no real idea of the direction it’s going in. Even so, that’s not such a bad thing, since Vol. 2 is never anything less than entertaining: it’s more than enough just to get an opportunity to revisit these wonderful characters and spend a couple of hours with them.

Something else that’s just as integral to Guardians of the Galaxy as its soundtrack of ’70s and ’80s classics and the words ‘I am Groot’ is its sense of humour. The laughs in Vol. 2 may not always come quite as naturally as they did in the first movie, but they’re just as present throughout. The surprise standout is the straight-talking Drax, with much of the humour coming from him and his hilariously sweet friendship with Mantis, but every character is given an equal opportunity to shine. Thankfully, the fears that the adorable Baby Groot would be overused to the point of annoyance were unfounded – although it should come as no shock that many of the film’s funniest sequences feature Baby Groot at the centre.

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And while there’s at least one set piece in Vol. 2 that surely deserves to feature in the MCU hall of fame, it’s undoubtedly the best-looking film that Marvel has made to date. It’s a spectacle from start to finish, told entirely in vibrant colours and creating intricately detailed planets and the people that populate them, yet always anchored in its extravagance by its main characters.

Vol. 2 may never manage to reach the heights of Guardians of the Galaxy (though it would have had to reach pretty high to do so), but it makes for a fresh entry in the occasionally stale MCU – and it’s ridiculously good fun in the process, leaving you with the same giddy sense of happiness that only the Guardians of the Galaxy could elicit.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

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Release date: 21st April 2017/Watch the trailer here

The Zookeeper’s Wife is inspired by the true story of Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), who used their zoo in Warsaw to rescue and shelter more than three hundred people who had been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto following the German invasion.

It might seem puzzling that a World War II film focusing on the Holocaust, based on a critically acclaimed book and starring an Academy Award-nominated actress, is being released in April and not towards the end of the year instead, when we can usually expect to see an influx of such typical ‘Oscar bait’ films. However, upon seeing The Zookeeper’s Wife, it becomes all too clear why it has been hidden away in a month filled with forgettable releases.

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The first downfall of The Zookeeper’s Wife lies in its struggle to settle on a consistent tone: one minute, Antonina is cuddling adorable lion cubs and happily feeding apples to elephants, and the next minute, those same animals are dying in bombings and being shot by German soldiers. The film continues to seesaw between the schmaltzy and the tragic throughout the rest of its runtime, the horrors of the Holocaust only ever being lightly touched upon before it’s back to Antonina, more often than not clutching something small, cute and fluffy. She makes for an amicable enough heroine (Chastain’s distracting attempt at a Polish accent notwithstanding) and there’s no denying the amazing feats that this incredible woman accomplished, but she’s ultimately held back by Angela Workman’s clumsy script. It’s not just Antonina that suffers at Workman’s hands, either – Daniel Brühl as ‘Hitler’s head zoologist’ Lutz Heck (Brühl is now destined to be typecast as Nazi characters for the rest of his career) goes from friendly, helpful elephant wrangler to cartoonish villain in seemingly no time at all.

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That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its high points, but even its best moments are hampered by a frustrating amount of fastidious tastefulness; never does The Zookeeper’s Wife feel painful or difficult to watch – and for a Holocaust film, that’s surely a rather sizeable flaw. Instead, it’s careful to make it crystal clear to its audience when they’re supposed to feel happy and when they’re meant to feel sad – yet they’re never given the opportunity to feel shocked or appalled at one of the very worst chapters in the history of humanity.

It’s all just very, very average – there’s nothing so overtly wrong with it to call it ‘bad’, but it’s quite a long way from ‘good’, too. The fascinating story of the Żabińskis is certainly one that deserved to be told on the big screen, but it’s a pity that The Zookeeper’s Wife failed to tell it as well as such an undeniably powerful story truly deserved.

Ghost in the Shell

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Release date: 30th March 2017/Watch the trailer here

In a Hollywood that currently thrives on remakes and reboots, it’s almost surprising that it has taken more than twenty years to spin out a live-action adaptation of Japanese director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell, based on the manga of the same title. The original became a huge phenomenon thanks to the thought-provoking questions of humanity and identity that it raised, and it went on to act as direct inspiration for films such as The Matrix and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Meanwhile, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell has so far done little but generate controversy by casting Scarlett Johansson as Major, the story’s protagonist. The remake (directed by Rupert Sanders) goes to great lengths to explain why Major’s artificial ‘shell’ is that of a white woman, but there’s still no denying that it would have made much more sense (and felt a lot more progressive) to cast an Asian actress in the role.

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Ghost in the Shell is set in a not-so-distant future, where Major is the first of her kind: a human mind (or ‘ghost’), saved from a terrible accident and placed inside a cyber-enhanced shell to act as the perfect weapon; a soldier devoted to stopping dangerous terrorists. When a new criminal emerges – Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt), a hacker with the ability to access people’s minds and control them – Major and her team are the only ones able to stop him. However, Major soon discovers that she has been lied to all along – that rather than her life being saved, it was stolen from her by the shadowy robotics company who created her cybernetic shell.

Frustratingly, Ghost in the Shell veers away from most of the deeper themes of the original, instead choosing to spoon-feed its relatively basic plot to the audience, and as a result it feels far more hollow than a film of its genre should. Johansson doesn’t help in adding much depth, either – she has the cyber side of Major down to a T, with robotic mannerisms and a heavy-footed stride hinting at the disconnect between her brain and her body. It’s the brain that she appears to struggle with, though: there’s very little that feels human about the blank mechanisms of her performance, making for a distinct lack of personality that is sorely needed when carrying an entire film on your shoulders.

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What really saves Ghost in the Shell from being a by the book, generic action blockbuster is its appearance; its ‘shell’ making up for what its ‘ghost’ lacks. This is the very rarest of films, the kind that practically begs to be seen in 3D, so that the skyscrapers of its unnamed Japanese city – dominated by giant, holographic advertisements – can truly come to life. The world that Ghost in the Shell has created is staggering in its intricacy, making it far more immersive than its plot demands. On a visual basis, it’s a sheer, jaw-dropping masterpiece, creating the most detailed and believable sci-fi setting that we’ve seen in years. Still, an attractive exterior, no matter how impressive, will never be able to fully distract from an empty interior, and that is where Ghost in the Shell falls down.

Life

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

A large proportion of the marketing for Life has focused around a scene where International Space Station crew member Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is attempting to revive a dormant organism, found in a soil sample from Mars and believed to be the first proof of extraterrestrial life. The organism, nicknamed Calvin, latches itself tightly onto Hugh’s hand and things soon begin to go south, resulting in a wince-inducing moment where Hugh’s hand is crushed in excruciatingly painful detail. It was a smart marketing move to focus so heavily on this: the scene and the aftermath that follows is by far the high point of Life, and so it’s a shame that it happens within the first thirty minutes.

Hugh is joined aboard the ISS by five other scientists, doctors, and mechanics from around the world – Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). While the creature design for Calvin – a life form that evolves and rapidly grows in size throughout the course of the film – may be creative, it’s one of the only parts of Life that feels truly original. Everything else – a claustrophobic monster movie set in space; all communications with Earth cut off – has been done countless times before, and often much better than this.

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The one thing that Life does incredibly well, however, is its horror elements. It may borrow heavily from Alien, but it still finds innovative and unsettling ways in which to gruesomely kill off its characters, while exploring ideas such as what spurting blood might look like without gravity. This means that there are portions of Life – particularly the aforementioned scene involving poor Hugh and his hand – that feel genuinely terrifying and unnerving. Director Daniel Espinosa has proven to be masterful at creating tension and an oppressive atmosphere when he needs to, so it’s a pity that this tension doesn’t continue throughout the entire film.

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Frustratingly, it doesn’t take long for Life to devolve into yet another generic humanity-in-danger movie, fuelled mainly by idiotic characters making idiotic decisions. It’s thrilling when it wants to be and it’s never anything less than watchable, but far too often it just feels wholly unoriginal. The most obvious comparisons to make are with Alien and Gravity, yet Life never comes close to being as compelling as either – largely in part thanks to its underdeveloped characters, played by interesting actors with uninteresting material to work with. There are multiple hints at a promise of something greater here, so it’s exasperating that Life never lives up to its potential. It certainly gets the job done, but it’s destined to be long-forgotten in a year’s time.

Get Out

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

Get Out may be the first foray into horror for writer and director Jordan Peele (best known as one half of the comedy duo Key and Peele) – but it is hopefully also the first of many more to come, because with Get Out Peele has created one of the best horror films in recent memory.

It helps that Peele is well aware that the terrors of reality can sometimes be far scarier than ghosts or demonic entities. Get Out sees Chris (up-and-coming British actor Daniel Kaluuya), a young black man, meeting the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time at their lavish family estate. Rose immediately brushes off Chris’ concerns when he asks whether her parents know that he’s black (they would have voted for Obama a third time if it was possible!), but it doesn’t take long before increasingly strange things start to happen. First, there’s Rose’s psychiatrist mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), who’s insistent on hypnotising Chris to help him quit smoking, and then there’s the bizarre behaviour of the black staff, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who work at the estate – although Rose’s father Dean (Bradley Whitford) is quick to apologise to Chris for the way a wealthy white family with black staff looks.

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This is a different kind of racism than we’re accustomed to seeing in films. In many respects, the subtle form that the racism in Get Out initially takes is much more uncomfortable for the audience than the more blatant varieties that are easier to distant ourselves from – instead of people who voted for Obama and love Tiger Woods and like to remind every black person that they meet about these things to prove that of course they’re not racist. It’s an incredibly clever move from Peele, turning a very real and relevant problem into a horror movie concept, and conversations that begin as almost painfully awkward quickly take a sinister turn.

As is par for the course, the horror becomes slightly less horrifying once the mystery has been uncovered, but Peele has smartly succeeded in avoiding enough genre tropes to ensure that a reveal that could have been ridiculous if handled incorrectly still manages to be thoroughly chilling. In steering clear of clichés, Peele has also treated his audience with respect: Chris is a refreshingly intelligent protagonist, not making any of the dreaded stupid decisions that we’ve come to expect from our horror movie so-called heroes.

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Also effective is Peele’s decision to merge his horror with sharp satire, occasional moments of levity (mainly from Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ scene-stealing TSA friend Rod) acting as a reminder of Peele’s comedy roots. The laughs never detract from the oppressive paranoia that Peele has successfully crafted, however, with each awkward interaction and unsettlingly strange encounter building up an intense and unrelenting atmosphere of unease. Not one scene in Get Out is filler; every single line of dialogue acting as a clue towards solving the mystery (making this the kind of film that’s just as much fun to dissect afterwards as it is to actually watch), and as a result, Peele’s directorial debut is one of the smartest and most satisfying horror films we’ve seen in years.

★★