The Shape of Water


Release date: 14th February 2018/Watch the trailer here

Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a cleaner in a top-secret, high-security government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore. Although she has two close friends in the form of her next-door neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa lives a relatively isolated existence – until her life changes forever when she discovers the lab’s biggest secret: an amphibious creature (played by Doug Jones) that is imprisoned inside a water tank. Elisa soon develops a unique bond with the mysterious creature, but she isn’t the only one with an interest in him. She must protect the creature from those seeking to exploit him – including government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and the Soviets, both of whom hope to use him to their country’s advantage in the Space Race.


With The Shape of Water, del Toro has crafted a genre-defying fairytale: fantasy, romance and horror in equal measure. At the centre of it all is an incredible performance from Sally Hawkins, who powerfully conveys a plethora of emotions through facial expressions and sign language alone, bringing Elisa to fully-formed, three-dimensional life without so much as uttering a single syllable. But while The Shape of Water is undeniably Hawkins’ film, the supporting actors are by no means slacking, either: Michael Shannon makes for a deplorable villain, but it is Richard Jenkins who is the most noteworthy as Giles, who, as a closeted gay man and a struggling illustrator, encapsulates the film’s themes of isolation and loneliness just as much as Elisa does. It would have been all too easy for del Toro to write Giles as a series of clichés, but he is a complex, nuanced and infinitely likeable character, and while Jenkins’ performance may be more understated than Hawkins’, it is no less powerful.

These well-written, well-developed characters inhabit a world that is just as whimsical and fantastical as The Shape of Waters storybook romance. It’s a film that’s a treat for all of the senses: from the exquisite costume and production design to the stunning cinematography and a wonderfully charming score from Alexandre Desplat. The visual choices in The Shape of Water are just as ambiguous and open to interpretation as the plot and characters: for instance, the use of the colours green and red and the meaning behind their usage could be discussed for hours on end without ever coming to a firm conclusion.


But for all of the endless conversation that The Shape of Water could inspire, there’s very little that can be said about it in mere words alone that could ever do such a strange, sublime film justice. It may be a fairytale love story at heart, but there’s a little something in this film for everyone: romance, occasional moments of shocking, gruesome violence, contrasting humour, and even a black and white musical number. It’s a peculiar mixture of elements that have no reason to work well together, but del Toro’s magic touch effortlessly blends them with style and confidence. An awful lot of heart and soul has been poured into The Shape of Water, and this manifests itself as the cinematic equivalent of a warm bath or a comforting hug: it’s the sort of experience that you can’t quite put into words, but you know that in that moment, you don’t ever want it to end.



Black Panther


Release date: 13th February 2018/Watch the trailer here

Following a memorable introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther sees the titular hero return to our screens for his first solo film ahead of playing a pivotal role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. Set just one week after the events of Civil WarBlack Panther begins with T’Challa returning to his home of Wakanda – an isolated but technologically advanced African nation – to take his rightful place as king after the death of his father. But when two enemies, both old (Andy Serkis reprising his role of arms dealer Ulysses Klaue from 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron) and new (Michael B. Jordan as Wakandan exile and American black-ops soldier Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens), conspire to bring down the kingdom, T’Challa’s fortitude as both king and Black Panther is tested.


It goes without saying that Black Panther is far more than just another superhero movie: it’s also a well-timed political statement and a proud celebration of culture and identity. Director Ryan Coogler (known for Creed and Fruitvale Station) has made a film that is all of these things and then some, while not forgetting to make a genuinely fun and exciting Marvel movie in the process. Perhaps most impressive of all is the way in which Black Panther brings the fictional nation of Wakanda to life, steeped in African influences but with a hefty dose of futurism. Through a combination of visual effects and impeccable costume and production design, Wakanda is so vividly realised you’ll leave the cinema feeling patriotic for a nation that doesn’t even exist.

Of course, it helps that the people who populate it are every bit as well-developed and lifelike as Wakanda itself. Boseman is a charismatic lead who easily holds his own in a star-studded cast, but Black Panther is a rare film where the supporting characters are just as fleshed out as the lead, and as a result many of them threaten to steal the show. There’s not a single character here who feels under-utilised, and some of the highlights include T’Challa’s 16-year-old sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), responsible for designing new technology for Wakanda and injecting each of her scenes with zest and sharp humour; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), an undercover spy for Wakanda who begins the film fighting for enslaved women in Nigeria; and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, who is one of Marvel’s best and most memorable villains to date.


Coogler also continues to prove himself as a talented director of action with set pieces that are inventive and breathlessly exhilarating, culminating in a jaw-dropping final battle that shrugs off the ‘let down by a weak third act’ cliché with ease. While Black Panther may ultimately follow a tried and tested formula, it does so while avoiding the MCU’s more common pitfalls (too much unnecessary humour; a forgettable villain) and while still managing to feel fresh and entirely unlike anything we’ve seen in the MCU before. In fact, Black Panther is entirely unlike anything that we’ve ever seen before, full stop: it’s a huge breath of fresh air in a genre that’s started to be at risk of growing stale and predictable, but it’s also a film that’s undeniably important. With powerful themes and meaningful things to say about a vast multitude of issues, Black Panther is proof of why representation matters – and it’s merely an added benefit that it also happens to be a vibrant, dazzling delight; embodying everything that makes the superhero genre so much fun when it’s done exactly right.

The Cloverfield Paradox


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

During last night’s Super Bowl, something huge happened. The Super Bowl is always an exciting night for film fans: trailers for upcoming and highly-anticipated films are to be expected. What’s not to be expected, however, is for Netflix to release a trailer for a film – and not just any film, but the third movie in the Cloverfield series – and to then announce that it will be available to watch later that very same night.

That film is The Cloverfield Paradox, and it acts as a prequel to both 2008’s found-footage monster movie, Cloverfield, and 2016’s surprise sequel, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Set almost entirely on a space station that’s orbiting an Earth on the brink of war, it follows a crew of international astronauts – Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Schmidt (Daniel Brühl), Kiel (David Oyelowo), Mundy (Chris O’Dowd), Volkov (Aksel Hennie) and Tam (Zhang Ziyi) – who are testing a particle accelerator in the hope that it will be the solution to a global energy crisis. However, one of their experiments has unexpected results, and the space station crew find themselves isolated and fighting for survival as increasingly strange and frightening things start happening – and set in motion a series of familiar events down on Earth in the process.

Perhaps the fact that The Cloverfield Paradox can be viewed in the comfort of your own home, free of cost, shines a more favourable light on it – because as far as Netflix original movies go, it’s one of the better ones, but in terms of the Cloverfield series, it’s the weakest entry yet. The main problem with it is that it’s not entirely sure what it wants to be: for the most part, it’s a serviceable sci-fi thriller, but there are fleeting moments of genuine comedy thanks to Chris O’Dowd’s character, and there are also times when it veers into horror movie territory (which is when The Cloverfield Paradox is at its best). The concept of a group of astronauts confined to a space station and being killed off gruesomely, one by one, may be far from original – it’s something that we’ve seen innumerable times before, from Alien to the more recent Life – but The Cloverfield Paradox should be commended for at least attempting to do something different with the genre. There are no aliens to be found in this movie, instead introducing the idea of alternate dimensions to the series, but frustratingly, the science behind it is ultimately confused and not as well explained by the end of the film as it should have been.

That’s not to say that The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t hugely entertaining, however. So often these days we watch a movie for the first time after having been exposed to countless trailers and teasers and TV spots which frequently end up revealing too much about a film we haven’t even seen yet – so there’s a lot to be said for going into a film as eagerly anticipated as The Cloverfield Paradox with virtually no idea of what to expect. The J.J. Abrams-produced franchise is taking a lot of risks with its movies and daring to try new and unexpected things with them, and for the most part these risks appear to pay off. We’re still yet to see a perfect Cloverfield movie, but each film has attempted something different (a pattern which looks set to continue with a rumoured WWII-set Cloverfield 4 coming later this year). For The Cloverfield Paradox, that ‘something’ is one hundred minutes of perfectly enjoyable science-fiction that’s often thrilling, occasionally scary and consistently engaging, with a strong ensemble cast that bring an assortment of largely likeable (if underdeveloped) characters to life – and for a movie that, twenty-four hours ago, we were barely aware of its existence, that’s good enough.

12 Strong


Release date: 26th January 2018/Watch the trailer here

Based on a declassified true story, 12 Strong is a film about the first U.S. Special Forces team deployed to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, who went on to be known as the ‘horse soldiers’. Under the leadership of Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), the twelve soldiers (made up of a supporting cast including Michael Shannon, Michael Peña and Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes) must develop an uneasy partnership with an Afghan warlord, General Dostum (Navid Negahban), in order to take down the Taliban forces.

12 Strong marks the directorial debut for Nicolai Fuglsig, and from a technical perspective, it’s not a bad effort. It’s a film that’s made up of every single genre cliché in existence, but in terms of action at least, Fuglsig’s debut delivers, executing his battle sequences (many of which take place on horseback) with breathless intensity. He’s also assembled a good cast: Hemsworth has already proven that he’s more than capable of carrying a film with the Thor movies, and he’s just as charismatic here. There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie between Hemsworth and the supporting cast that helps 12 Strong to stay afloat, even in the script’s (admittedly rare) quieter moments.


Other than that, however, there’s not a great deal to be praised. 12 Strong is telling what seems like an interesting story, but it does so in such a by-the-numbers way that it doesn’t really do the truth justice. The film’s biggest downfall is its determination to play it safe and stick to the basics, never daring to comment on a war that has killed thousands with any kind of depth or insight. It hardly bothers to give any of its characters distinguishing features aside from a name and the occasional wife they want to return home to – and as such, a film that should be all about its characters is left feeling bland and impassive, sacrificing character development in favour of guns and explosions and killing the bad guys.


Of course, for a lot of people, that’s all they want from their war movies, and by playing it safe, 12 Strong will at least ensure itself as a crowd-pleaser. This also means that there’s more than a little cheese, and it’s filled with the kind of trite one-liners that will be more likely to have you rolling your eyes than reaching for the tissues. All in all, 12 Strong is watchable and just about engaging enough to be entertaining throughout, but it’s little more than that. It’s certainly not the kind of film that will leave a lasting impression, which is a shame when you consider that the true story probably deserved something a bit more memorable than this.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure


Release date: 26th January 2018/Watch the trailer here

The Maze Runner franchise arrived a little late to the ‘movie adaptations of young adult dystopian novels’ party, and as a result it’s always been slightly forgotten about: not a huge success like The Hunger Games, but not as disastrous as the Divergent series, either. It doesn’t help that The Death Cure – the third and final instalment in the franchise – was originally supposed to be released almost a year ago, until a serious on-set injury sustained by lead actor Dylan O’Brien caused production to be halted while he recovered. But perhaps the main reason the Maze Runner movies have never been more than minor successes (but never total failures, either) is because they’ve always been decidedly average: and while The Death Cure isn’t quite the film to buck the trend, it’s also by far the best of the three.

Based on the popular novels by James Dashner, The Death Cure follows on from 2014’s The Maze Runner and its 2015 sequel, The Scorch Trials, set in a dystopian future that has seen the planet turned into a desolate wasteland with its people driven mad by a virus known as the Flare. The series’ protagonist, Thomas (O’Brien), must now lead his fellow escaped ‘Gladers’ in their most dangerous mission yet: in order to save their friends and find a cure for the Flare, they must break into the legendary Last City, a labyrinth that is controlled by the sinister organisation known as WCKD.


All three movies have been directed by former visual effects supervisor Wes Ball, and the best thing about The Death Cure is seeing what a talented action director Ball has become. Despite being made on a relatively low budget for the genre, The Death Cure has impressive visual effects that, along with some impeccable attention to detail, successfully build and develop the series’ dystopian future – as well as opening with one of the most impressive action set pieces in recent memory. The action is well choreographed and even better filmed, depicting complex sequences clearly and coherently, and all elevated by John Paesano’s score, which has been a reliable highpoint of the entire franchise.

But while the elaborate stunts, actions and explosions are constantly exciting and rarely grow tiresome, The Death Cure stumbles by not giving its plot and characters enough room to breathe. The story is convoluted and silly when the movie stops for long enough to let you think about it, and a frustrating number of loose threads are left untied at the end. The main characters are all likeable enough, but the villains – predominantly led by Aidan Gillen as a WCKD higher-up – aren’t threatening enough and, aside from the touching and believable friendship between Thomas and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), there’s little to provide The Death Cure with any kind of emotional intricacy.


Still, this is a popcorn movie through and through, and it’s a relatively efficient one in terms of providing two hours of enjoyable entertainment that doesn’t require too much brainpower. By this point, there’s very little left of the The Death Cure that feels fresh, and it’s riddled with clichés: bad guys with worse aim than stormtroopers and lucky escapes that always seem to happen at the very last second – so perhaps it’s just as well that The Death Cure signifies the end of this particular subgenre (for now). Even so, there’s enough to like about the Maze Runner films to be glad that the series has ended on a high note, and it’s one that at the very least hints at a promising future for Wes Ball.

Early Man


Release date: 26th January 2018/Watch the trailer here

The latest film from the minds of Aardman – the British animation studio known for Chicken Run and, most famously, Wallace & Gromit – is Early Man, directed by Aardman regular Nick Park. Set at the dawn of time, it’s centred around a plucky caveman named Dug (Eddie Redmayne), whose tribe faces a threat to their simple existence when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) plans to take over the valley that they call home and transform it into a giant mine. Not ready to go down without a fight, Dug – along with his sidekick Hognob and his new friend Goona (Maisie Williams) – unites his tribe and attempts to teach them to play a new sport called football, in the hope of defeating the enemy in an epic clash of the ages: Stone vs Bronze.


In this day and age of flawless computer animation à la Pixar, there’s something undeniably charming about Aardman’s trademark stop-motion techniques, proud of their imperfections, right down to the fingerprints in the clay characters. However, both Park and Aardman have set the bar rather high for themselves in the past, and Early Man, while entertaining, never comes close to the heights of their best film (which is, of course, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit). A short runtime is to be expected of an animated family film, but this, when coupled with a paper-thin plot, leaves Early Man feeling an awful lot like a fun little animated short that somehow ended up getting stretched into a feature-length film.


There’s still a lot of Nick Park trademarks to be found, from the daft humour to the caricature-like characters, brought to life with equally exaggerated voice acting, but some of Aardman’s usual warmth and wit seems to be disappointingly absent. The best moments are the cleverest ones, such as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gags and the sharp puns and wordplay, but these moments are all too fleeting. In the end, Early Man is likeable enough to win you over, but it can’t help but feel a little like lost potential.

The Commuter


Release date: 19th January 2018/Watch the trailer here

The Commuter sees Liam Neeson reunited with his regular collaborator, director Jaume Collet-Serra, and it follows UnknownNon-Stop and Run All Night as the duo’s fourth entertaining but largely forgettable action-thriller.

Neeson plays insurance salesman (and ex-police officer, of course) Michael MacCauley, whose daily commute home takes a turn towards the mysterious when an enigmatic woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) instructs Michael to carry out a simple task in exchange for $100,000. He is told only that one of the passengers on the train does not belong and that it is his job to find them, but as he works against the clock to solve the puzzle, he realises that he has become unwittingly caught up in a criminal conspiracy that threatens the life of everyone onboard.


It’s an intriguing enough concept for a film, and The Commuter works best when it sticks to thriller/mystery territory. Unfortunately, however, this is a Liam Neeson movie, and for the past ten years that tends to mean only one thing: soon enough, people are going to start punching each other.

The occasional fist fight wouldn’t be so bad (and at least the ex-cop backstory helps to explain why a sixty-something-year-old man can hold his own against assassins, because it doesn’t seem to serve any other purpose to the plot), but the moment the train in The Commuter gets derailed, so too does the film, with the final act becoming increasingly far-fetched and ridiculous.


Still, it’s never anything less than entertaining, and the modest runtime flies by with little need for distracted watch-checking. It’s a shame to see actors like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill and Jonathan Banks delegated to a meagre handful of scenes each – but as usual, this is Neeson’s movie, and he can still convincingly sell the role of an action hero. While the central mystery may grow more and more nonsensical as the plot goes through its various twists and turns, it’s still enough to maintain suspense – particularly when coupled with the film’s single, claustrophobic location.

By the time the credits roll, it may be difficult to distinguish The Commuter from every other Neeson-starring action-thriller from the last decade (or even some of the other recent set-on-a-train movies, such as Unstoppable), but it’s decent, meaningless entertainment that’s never bad enough to offend but still not quite good enough to stand apart from the crowd.