Starring: Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Clifton Collins Jr (Crank: High Voltage), Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead), Teresa Palmer (I Am Number Four), Michael K Williams (The Wire), Gal Gadot (Fast Five), Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), Kate Winslet (Titanic)

Director: John Hillcoat (Lawless)

Writer: Matt Cook

Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes

Release Date: 19 February (UK), 29 February (US)

Making a unique heist film is very hard to do. They’re heavily reliant on formula, so it’s very easy to follow it to the book and end up being generic, but if you stray too far it loses something. Triple 9 does bring a couple of new ideas to the table and, though nothing it does is particularly groundbreaking, it is an entertaining ride whilst it lasts.

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A major theme of Triple 9 is crossing threads and coincidence, so fittingly the story is told through various intersecting characters that form the bigger picture. It’s a technique that certainly helps increase the citywide scope of the narrative, but with so many plotlines to follow it does end up meaning the individual stories are quite simple. You’ve got the rookie cop struggling to fit in, the noble criminal fighting for his family, the crooked cop caught between two worlds, and they’re all stories you pretty much know the basic beats of; if you’ve seen The Departed, The Town, Point Break, Heat, Sicario, or any other such film, you know what’s coming. However, the film ultimately works because all these different stories are weaved together well enough through pitch-perfect pacing. After an exciting opening bank heist, a looming sense of tension is quickly created and the anticipation for the climax slowly builds throughout the entire film instead of just the last third. When the finale eventually kicks off, it feels a little abbreviated, but the epilogue is where every storyline truly pays off and the film ultimately ends on a suitably thematic note.

Triple 9 has an incredible cast, and though many of them get far less screen time than they deserve, I don’t think anyone’s phoning it in here. Casey Affleck’s Chris Allen is a little by the numbers, but the actor overcomes the marginal material with a powerful performance that hints at a darker, more inquisitive character. Anthony Mackie is great as the conflicted Marcus, injecting his natural charm into the character whilst never making us forget his more nefarious side; whether he and Affleck are arguing or bonding, it’s a compelling watch. Woody Harrelson is as engaging as ever as the vice-ridden but noble detective, and it’s great to see Clifton Collins Jr get a more prominent role that actually allows him to show off his talents. Chiwetel Ejiofor ends up stealing the show though (as he so often does), mining a lot of sympathy with very little screen time to create a character whose moral compass is very hard to pinpoint. The rest of the cast, whilst generally good on a performance level, is more problematic in terms of material. Aaron Paul is saddled with yet another variation on Jesse Pinkman, Norman Reedus’ role is basically an extended cameo, and Teresa Palmer and Gal Gadot’s roles can be summed up as “Affleck’s wife” and “Ejiofor’s baby mama”; that’s literally all there is to say about them. Kate Winslet playing a Russian mob boss is something I didn’t expect to be in her range and, though she certainly looks the part, her accent faded in and out and she ultimately doesn’t get her hands dirty enough to be threatening. Oh, and Michael K Williams is only in one scene, but he gets to play a role you’d never expect him in and he nails it.

Triple 9 doesn’t do anything to really make it stand out as a heist movie, but it does its job effectively enough. The pacing is tight, the performances are generally strong, and the way its structure and themes intertwine is interesting, but there isn’t anything that makes it something you need to rush out and see. If you’re curious enough and are in the mood for a dark but fun crime thriller, you could do far worse.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

Starring: Christian Bale (The Dark Knight), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Ryan Gosling (Drive), Brad Pitt (Moneyball), Rafe Spall (Hot Fuzz), Hamish Linklater (Fantastic Four), Jeremy Strong (Lincoln), John Magaro (Carol), Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story)

Director: Adam McKay (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy)

Writers: Charles Randolph (Love and Other Drugs) and Adam McKay

Runtime: 2 hours 10 minutes

Release Date: 11 December (US), 22 January (UK)

Seeing a director drastically change genre isn’t a new thing. Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson went from gory horror films to iconic blockbusters, George Miller went from Mad Max to Babe: Pig in the City and back again, whilst Steven Spielberg and Danny Boyle flit between styles all the time. Regardless, seeing Adam McKay, director of comedies like Step Brothers and the Anchorman series, swap out goofy laughs for something more dramatic like The Big Short is still a shock. It’s not like McKay’s never shown signs of social commentary, considering how both Anchorman films do satirize the American news network in subtly biting ways, but this is the first time that side of himself has taken focus, and by doing so he’s somehow made one of the best films of 2015.

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The story charts the lead-up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis through three intertwining stories, and the film does a great job of balancing these threads. Though tied together by a parallel goal, they each have their own unique flavour and show the effects of this impending crisis through different eyes. But just because McKay is focusing on serious subject matter doesn’t mean The Big Short is completely dull or po-faced or snooty. The film wants to be respectable, but it also wants to be accessible to a wide audience, and there’s no better way of being both educational and entertaining than through humour. There is a lot of financial jargon to follow, but everything is clearly explained to the audience in simple and entertaining ways. Whether through clever analogies, humorous asides, or characters directly explaining through the fourth wall, it genuinely educates you on how all these seemingly complicated systems are actually simple and flimsy, and soon the complicated mumbo-jumbo is easy to swallow. By doing this, it then allows you to focus on what’s actually going on and how broken the system was and still is. The film also gains a lot of credibility by never completely siding with our protagonists, nor does it paint them as manipulative hypocrites taking advantage the way The Wolf of Wall Street does. The Big Short’s ultimate goal is to show you that our financial crisis was caused by the ignorance and stupidity of the American banking system, and these people whose eyes we see it through did what they did mainly to prove to those bankers how ignorant and stupid they were for ignoring the signs.

The Big Short is so star-studded that I’m probably not going to even mention half of the famous faces the film has crammed into it, so let’s focus on our main players. Ryan Gosling acts as our main guide through the film as a participant in all three stories, and he excels as scheming market trader seizing the opportunity to make some money out of this falling tree; if the film has a Jordan Belfort equivalent, he’s the closest fit. Steve Carell is fantastic as the angry crusader trying to make a difference in yet another brilliant stretch for the comedy star; it’s hard to believe that he’s working under the same director here as the one who told him to say “I love lamp.” Carell’s underlings are wonderful played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong, each offering their own unique comedic flavour to the proceedings, whilst Brad Pitt’s understated performance as the jaded ex-banker helps ground the film when it gets too exuberant. But ultimately, Christian Bale steals the day as Michael Burry, the socially awkward hedge fund manager who discovers the impending crisis in the first place. Though not quite as transformative as some of his other performances, Bale does manage a convincing introverted weirdo and in turn manages to provide some of the film’s biggest laughs and harshest truths. There are a lot of cameos in the movie, some more important than others, but two in particular may rank among the best and funniest cameos in a movie ever; eat your heart out, Stan Lee.

The Big Short often feels more like a documentary than a fictionalised account, and a lot of that is thanks to the presentation. The cinematography uses a lot of loose handheld camera work, often wobbling around a scene whilst going in and out of focus. In most feature films, this would look amateurish but here it gives the film a stronger sense of verisimilitude; by making the film look more grounded in reality, it removes that aura that reminds you it’s not real. The editing is swift and crisp, keeping even the most jargon-heavy scenes feeling snappy and energetic, and there’s a lot of great use of pop culture imagery to remind ourselves of the world in the mid-2000s. That sense of era also permeates the eclectic soundtrack populated by recognisable songs from pop, rap and even heavy metal, often doing so to comedic effect. I won’t say much more, but the film probably has the best out-of-context use of the theme to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera ever.

The Big Short is not just a great film; it’s an important film. It’s the kind of view into such an important subject I wish we got more often. So many filmmakers would have told this story through some serious filter, believing that would be the only way to for it to be done justice. But Adam McKay understands that often the best way to explain a bad situation is to mock it, and by doing so has created an entertaining satire that doesn’t avoid the hard truths of the matter. Even if you have no understanding of how Wall Street or mortgages work, this film explains it to you in a hilarious way and will have you invested in its issues by the time credits roll. After such a dramatic shift for McKay, it might be hard to seem him return to directing Will Ferrell shouting ludicrous nonsense, but whenever he next puts out something like The Big Short again I’ll be sure to pay attention.

FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained), Kurt Russell (Escape from New York), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Road to Perdition), Walton Goggins (Predators), Demian Bichir (Machete Kills), Tim Roth (The Incredible Hulk), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs), Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)

Runtime: 2 hours 47 minutes

Release Date: 25 December (US), 8 January (UK)

As Quentin Tarantino is now even closer to his supposed retirement (his plan being to quit directing after ten films), it seems odd for him to return to the western so soon. Django Unchained was an excellent view on the classic genre from the original film geek, but now he brings us an extra helping of blood-soaked bounty hunter justice with The Hateful Eight. Has the director struck gold twice in the same place, or is he scraping for leftovers at his point?

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As much as many will compare The Hateful Eight to Django Unchained, they have as many differences as they do similarities. Instead of a sprawling adventure across the open fields of the American South, we have an enclosed suspense film set in the snowy mountains of Wyoming. Instead of focusing on one man’s journey for vengeance against those who wronged him, we have several characters all with hidden motives and backstabbing agendas. Otherwise the film is full of all the classic Tarantino tropes: non-linear storytelling, extensive exchanges of witty dialogue peppered with colourful expletives, anachronistic music choices, and a lot of blood. Story-wise it’s as much a mystery film as it is a western, playing out like a sadistic version of Clue at points, with the uneasy tension of not knowing who did what or what will happen next managing to keep the film riveting through its gargantuan running time. The film’s length is its biggest issue, with certain scenes dragged out far longer than necessary, and it’s a complaint that’s plagued Tarantino films for years but one he’s never heeded. Cutting out about fifteen minutes longer would have made it a little breezier, but then again this isn’t even the longest version of the movie; the 70mm Roadshow version in select theatres is twenty minutes longer including an interval.

The main cast of The Hateful Eight is mostly composed of Tarantino regulars, and all of them give the performances you’d expect from such a production. Samuel L. Jackson has certainly had more interesting characters in his previous collaborations with Tarantino, but in the role of Marquis Warren he gets a lot more screen time and he shines in every moment; a scene between him and Bruce Dern is a major highlight of the film where Jackson joyfully revels in mad perversion. Kurt Russell as the no-nonsense John Ruth is perfect casting, allowing the veteran actor to flex both his dramatic and often-forgotten comedic chops, and of all the characters he’s the one I wish I could have seen more of. Jennifer Jason Leigh steals every scene she’s in as the abrasive Daisy Domergue, her madness levels set at a constant ten as she screeches and grins her way through every scene. Walton Goggins gets a rare chance to act against type by playing the most honourable member of the main cast, but even he has his prejudices that make him an unpredictable character; any time he gets to interact with Jackson, the sparks of tension and chemistry fly. Demian Bichir and Tim Roth take on more comedic roles as the Mexican Bob and British Mobray, affecting ridiculous accents that are amusing on their own but are strengthened by impeccable comedic timing. Bruce Dern’s General Smithers spends all of his screen time sat in one spot, playing a character not dissimilar to his role in Nebraska, but he’s as fantastic an actor as he’s ever been and his aforementioned scene with Jackson is wonderful. The only weak link in the main cast is Michael Madsen’s Joe Gage. Not only is the character bland and forgettable, Madsen’s performance feels disengaged as he spends the whole movie speaking like a hung-over Nick Nolte doing a bad Batman impression. I know Madsen has been in I-don’t-give-a-sh*t mode for the past few years (AKA The Bruce Willis Method), but in reuniting with Tarantino again I’d thought he’d give just a teensy bit more effort.

Tarantino has made a big deal about shooting the film on 70mm film in all of the promotion, and though most viewers will never get the full experience of the format you can still appreciate the gorgeous cinematography in digital projection. The film clearly takes visual influence from the classic Spaghetti Western The Great Silence with its grand shots of bloodstained snow on rural American vistas, and the haberdashery set most of the film takes place in is very well detailed and captured on camera. The special effects are as gory and overdone as any of Tarantino’s previous films, especially when it comes to exploding heads; it wouldn’t be one of his films without it. The music of legendary composer Ennio Morricone has been repurposed in many of Tarantino’s films, but for the first time the director has actually brought in Morricone to compose a brand new original score. Though there is some reuse of music from Morricone’s own scores for The Thing and Exorcist II alongside some other tunes, the new soundtrack blends perfectly with the classic imagery so often associated with the musician’s work.

The Hateful Eight isn’t Quentin Tarantino’s finest work but it’s still a fantastic experience no fan of cinema should go without seeing on the big screen. It doesn’t have as many surprises as you usually find in one of the director’s iconic works, but maybe that’s because we’ve seen him riff on the Western before. For his next project, I hope Tarantino tries a genre we haven’t seen him tackle yet; I know he’s expressed interest in sci-fi before, or perhaps a spy movie or a horror would suit him well.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

ROOM – a review by Jacob Heaton

Posted: January 12, 2016 in Film Reviews

Starring: Brie Larson (Trainwreck), Jacob Tremblay (The Smurfs 2), Joan Allen (The Bourne Ultimatum), Sean Bridgers (Trumbo), Tom McCamus (Orphan Black), William H. Macy (Boogie Nights)

Director: Lenny Abrahamson (Frank)

Writer: Emma Donoghue

Runtime: 1 hour 57 minutes

Release Date: October 16 (US), January 15 (UK)

You know how in a lot of thriller mystery movies someone goes missing and at the end the hero finds them living in some hovel in a deranged guy’s basement? What if we saw that story from the captive point of view? Room is that story, but just because it’s about a dire situation that doesn’t mean it’s a depressing experience. It is harrowing and tense in a lot of ways, but ultimately it’s a far more hopeful tale than you’d expect.

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What makes Room so inspired and original an experience is how it’s told from the perspective of 5-year-old Jack (Tremblay). By seeing this story through his eyes, it drastically changes the tone of the movie because he doesn’t see the horror in his situation. In many ways it lightens the mood, but in those moments when you really think about the reality of his and Joy’s (Larson) life it brings you right down to Earth again. When they finally escape their capture, you might expect the film to lighten up, but in certain ways the story takes an even darker turn. It shows how an experience like that would have a massive effect on both characters, and because they perceived their captivity differently they also deal with the aftermath very differently. The film never feels too saccharine or too depressing, blurring the line between the two moods seamlessly, but it’s those moments of high intensity or high emotion where the movie truly sings. The tension in the escape scene is especially frightening to watch as Jack simultaneously deals with trying to flee his captor and comprehend this new world he’s found himself in. It’s a nerve-wracking watch at many points, but ultimately hope wins out and you’ll leave the theatre feeling emotionally drained but fulfilled at the same time. My only major fault with the film is that post-escape the story doesn’t give much closure to the fate of their captor Old Nick (Bridgers). It’s mostly insinuated what happened to him and the story is more about our main characters recovering rather than seeking justice, but I simply felt there was a lack of resolution to that thread.

Brie Larson has been hanging on the fringes of fame for a long time now, popping up in small but memorable roles in films like Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Don Jon, but only recently has she started attracting real attention and I think her performance in Room is going to skyrocket her to even higher stardom. Even during scenes when she’s supposed to be composed and in control, you can sense the fear and frustration underneath every line, and whenever that horror breaks through it’s frightening. A scene where she’s interviewed post-escape and is asked some particularly difficult questions reveals how truly broken she is as a person, making you wonder whether she can or would want to continue living on even though she’s now free. It’s a haunting but beautiful performance that will surely define Larson’s career, and she’s certainly a versatile enough actress as proven by her previous work that she’ll never become typecast. But as much as she impresses, young Jacob Tremblay shines just as brightly. In one of the best performances by a child actor ever put to screen, he is completely convincing as a young boy completely oblivious and even in denial of a world beyond what he knows. The way he locks up when someone unfamiliar enters the room or how he reacts to something unknown or justifies his imagination-fuelled beliefs all feel completely genuine; there’s never a moment where his acting falters. He is the true star of the film, and without such a phenomenal performance I don’t think the movie would have worked even half as well.

Room shows us a horrible situation from the most innocent of perspectives, and in doing so creates a truly unique film experience. Larson and Tremblay elevate the already strong material to awards-worthy calibre, making it certainly one of the best films of 2015. It truly runs the full gamut of emotions during its runtime, but you’ll hopefully find the experience more uplifting than upsetting.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

JOY – a review by Jacob Heaton

Posted: January 9, 2016 in Film Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), Robert De Niro (The Godfather Part II), Edgar Ramirez (Deliver Us From Evil), Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Diane Ladd (Chinatown), Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)

Writer/Director: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

Runtime: 2 hours 4 minutes

Release Date: 25 December (US), 1 January (UK)

David O. Russell’s been on a great roll of late, his last three films all being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I personally was underwhelmed by his last effort American Hustle, but both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook are excellent movies more than worthy of the accolades they received. Joy has been going a little more under the radar however, its presence this awards season overshadowed by bigger pictures and the marketing evasive of what exactly the movie is about. The lack of excitement around it may lead you to believe Joy is one of those movies looking for Oscar attention but failing to get it due to mediocrity, hoping to fly by on name recognition and doomed to join denizens of similarly forgotten “prestige pictures”…but you’d be wrong.

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Loosely based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Magano, Joy is above all about the struggle to pursue your passions. Semi-linearly telling her story from childhood to millionaire, the film focuses on Joy’s (Lawrence) constant struggles with her squabbling family and vicious businessmen that send her constantly slamming into failure. It’s a rags-to-riches tale, but one where our heroine is thrown right back to rags several heartbreaking times. But with the struggle being so much harder, it makes the moments of real joy (badum tish!) feel far more satisfying. It sinks you far better into Joy’s mindset and every time she falls you get just as pissed as she does. It’s a tough film to watch at points, but by its conclusion it’s uplifting and inspirational. The film is well paced and consistently engaging, but it does have a tendency to get a bit experimental and surreal. There are several dream sequences in the film, all of which related to the soap opera Joy’s mother (Madsen) obsessively watches, and whilst they are enjoyable in a kitschy way they feel a bit out of place and are overbearing in how they incessantly hammer home Joy’s psychological condition.

Whether you love her to bits or think she’s overexposed, you cannot deny Jennifer Lawrence is a phenomenal actress when given the right material and clearly Russell knows how to get the best out of her. Her performance as Joy is what ultimately makes the film work so well, portraying a very complex character who evolves from put-upon housewife to commanding woman of business whilst remaining relatable and sympathetic even in her darkest moments. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off and Lawrence acquits herself flawlessly, crafting yet another memorable character to add to her quickly growing collection. The supporting cast is negligible when compared to her, but a lot of them are fantastic in their own right. Virginia Madsen is particularly impressive as Joy’s reclusive mother, and Edgar Ramirez delivers a career best performance as the ex-husband with even more unrealistic ambitions. Robert De Niro is there to do what Robert De Niro does best, and Bradley Cooper’s role is small but vital and he does a lot with his small amount of screen time. The only person that lets the side down from a character perspective is Elisabeth Röhm as Joy’s half-sister Peggy. Röhm does her best with the material, but the role of Peggy feels utterly spiteful and shallowly written. The rest of the family all have their annoying foibles but they all genuine moments of humanity too. Peggy never gets a moment to be human and is purely there to aggravate Joy; maybe it went down like that in real life, but it gets to the point where it’s almost like she’s trying to make Joy fail.

One of the positives I can say about Russell’s work on American Hustle is that he really nailed the time period, and he does similarly great work with Joy. He captures that transitional period from the 1980s to the 1990s extremely well in how the fashions and designs don’t quite fit into either decade specifically; it would have been easy to favour one but they found a good balance. The cinematography is strong too, especially how well it emulates the look of soap operas and shopping channels in certain scenes, looking just cheesy enough to capture the feel without seeming forced.

I can understand why Joy has gotten lost in the shuffle this awards season and I doubt it’ll even make my list of favourites, but that’s no reason to not go see it for yourself. It’s quirky and a bit uneven, but overall the film does a fantastic job of taking what might have been a pretty standard story and making it different and impactful by doubling down on those low moments. Too many inspirational stories like this gloss over how frighteningly difficult pursuing your dreams can be, and instead Joy is completely honest and realistic about the entire situation. In other hands this material could have been complete tripe, but Russell and Lawrence elevate it into something more than worth watching.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle), Sylvester Stallone (The Expendables), Tessa Thompson (Selma), Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show), Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish (The Hobbit)

Director: Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station)

Writers: Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington

Runtime: 2 hours 13 minutes

Release Date: 25 November (US), 15 January (UK)

Like the Italian Stallion himself, the Rocky franchise just won’t stay down. The original 1976 film is a classic not only of sports movies but also of cinema in general; an underdog story that shows it’s not about winning, but about seeing it through to the end. After that, the franchise has had its ups and downs. Rocky II and III were decent sequels, IV is amongst the cheesiest 80s movies ever but enjoyable in its own way, V kind of sucks, and then Rocky Balboa closed out the franchise with true class…until now. However, Creed is less a continuation of the Rocky story and more of a new beginning within the same universe; similar in narrative and theme, but built for a new generation.

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First and foremost, Creed has immense respect for the series legacy. Though not totally fuelled by nostalgia, there are loads of Easter eggs for Rocky fans to find throughout. It’s clear the filmmakers love these movies and want to make sure you know it, but they make sure to add plenty of new flavour too. The film’s story of Balboa training a protégé is actually most similar to the plot of Rocky V, but with the tone of the original and the style of Balboa. The main plot moves along similarly to the other films with similar narrative beats, but much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens it changes up the details just enough to remain fresh. Instead of a nobody given a miraculous shot at stardom, it’s about a man living in the shadow of his father and trying to follow in his path without relying on his name; it’s just as relatable a theme. The film moves along at a solid clip, perhaps a little too lengthy, but it’s paced well and never lets momentum slip for too long, ending on a note that perfectly sums up the film and the entire franchise in a nutshell.

Even though you know how this is probably going to work out, becoming invested in the story of Creed is simple and that’s because the characters are engaging and relatable. Michael B. Jordan is fantastic as Adonis Creed, a man just as determined as his father Apollo but replacing the character’s showmanship and cheer with understandable insecurity. There are small shades of Carl Weathers in Jordan’s performance, but Adonis is far more a character of the actor’s own creation and he does a fantastic job of portraying a stalwart but fearful young man; his reaction right before he’s about to go out for his first big fight perfectly encapsulates what’s going through his mind. Sylvester Stallone rarely flexes his acting muscles these days, but with Rocky being his creation he’s certainly not sleepwalking through this one. He slips back into the hat of Balboa as if the last film took place a week ago, playing the character with a similar mindset to when we last saw him but with an even greater awareness of his mortality. His relationship with Jordan is flawless and sells the film by itself, bantering back and forth and exchanging wisdom in human ways that never feel forced or cheesy. Stallone hasn’t given a performance this good since…well, the last Rocky movie, and it easily ranks up there with his career best. Tessa Thompson is a wonderful find as Jordan’s musician love interest Bianca, keeping the same emotional core as Rocky’s relationship with Adrian but with completely different character dynamics, but she’s also a very fascinating character on her own; you could make a whole movie about her story and it’d be compelling in its own way. The main weak spot of the film, however, is its adversary in Tony Bellew’s Ricky Conlan. He’s a menacing physical presence and the film attempts to give him some back story and motivation, but he doesn’t have that immediate iconic aura the way that adversaries like Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago and, yes, Apollo Creed himself had. Conlan’s hardly an important part of the film beyond being that final hurdle to cross, but he’s just a little too generic of a character.

Ryan Coogler proved his directing chops with the heart-wrenching indie drama Fruitvale Station, and with Creed he proves he can play in the big leagues too. The film has the confidence of a seasoned pro behind the camera, and every technical element delivers on all fronts. The cinematography remains simple and gritty during most scenes, but when it’s time to fight it gloriously shows off the spectacle by taking you into the ring and letting the action play out in long dynamic shots; it adds a visceral sense of realism even most of the good Rocky movies lacked. Backed up by crisp editing and crunching sound design, the boxing scenes are for once just as good if not better than the main drama. Special mention must also go to Ludwig Goransson’s excellent work on the score that only contains hints of Bill Conti’s classic compositions early on and slowly amps them up as the film continues, synchronising brilliantly with Adonis’ own progression as a boxer.

Creed is a more than worthy addition to the Rocky pantheon, paying respect to its forbearers whilst forging its own path to continue the story in new ways. Jordan and Stallone as a team are the true heart and soul of the film, complimenting each other spectacularly in one of the best mentor-student relationships in recent memory. Nobody was particularly asking for another Rocky movie, and though Creed shares its DNA it stands alone as a quality sports movie for this generation, and proves even tired franchises can be reborn with the help of a little youthful spirit.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

2015 has been a pretty good year for movies, and 2016 is shaping up to be a quite a landmark year as well. So now it’s time for my annual tradition of counting down the movies I’m most looking forward to next year. As usual, let me set the rules:

  1. Movies that release in the UK in 2016 but released overseas in 2015 aren’t on this list. They still count as 2015 to me, so don’t expect to see The Revenant, Creed or Spotlight here. If they’re good, they may end up on my Favourites of 2015 list come February.
  2. This is going by what films are currently scheduled for released in 2016 with specific dates. There are certainly movies that aim to release in 2016, mainly awards-type movies, but they don’t have set releases yet and could fall into 2017. Several movies here may end up getting delayed as well (a few movies on this list were on my list last year but got pushed), but they have set releases as of this writing and therefore count.
  3. This is not me predicting what will be the best movies of 2016. Several of what were my most anticipated of 2015 are going to end up on my most despised of 2015, and there are a bunch of movies here I do have serious doubts about. This is about me telling you what movies I’m most interested in seeing and hopeful of their quality. I can’t guarantee any of these movies will be good. You’ll have to see them yourselves when they come out.

And so, without further procrastination, my list:


25. Star Trek Beyond

Release Date: 22 July (US, UK)

Star Trek Into Darkness was a disappointment to many (even my appreciation of it has withered since my first viewing), but third act quibbles aside it still had a lot of what made JJ Abrams’ first film work. Though Abrams has been too busy in a galaxy far, far away to command the Enterprise again, Fast and Furious vet Justin Lin is certainly an interesting replacement to venture where no one has gone before. The trailer definetly indicates a further emphasis on action over diplomacy, something I’m sure certain Trek fans lament, but at least so far this looks like an original adventure rather than reheated memories of the series’ past.

24. La La Land

Release Date: 15 July (US, UK)

Following up an impressive directorial debut can be difficult; just look at Neill Blomkamp or Josh Trank. Hopefully, Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle can get over that stigma and deliver something special with this musical comedy. Casting Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling together for the third time means there’ll be at least some semblance of chemistry, and reteaming Chazelle and J.K. Simmons isn’t a bad sign either.

23. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Release Date: 21 October (US, UK)

The first Jack Reacher was a surprise to both fans of the novels and moviegoers alike who didn’t think Tom Cruise could pull off the role of the grizzled ex-military detective, and hopefully this follow-up can deliver the same mix of action, mystery and wit the first film had. The lack of Christopher McQuarrie behind the quill and camera is a disappointment, but The Last Samurai’s Ed Zwick isn’t a bad replacement and Cruise is as ready as ever to leap back into action hero gear.

22. Kubo and the Two Strings

Release Date: 19 August (US), 9 September (UK)

Laika’s crop of stop motion kids’ films are wonderfully twisted and unique in such a PC world, and after such an underappreciated movie like The Boxtrolls maybe this venture will get the company the respect it deserves. The film features a wonderful voice cast including Matthew McConaheughy, Charlize Theron and Rooney Mara, and I can’t wait to see how Laika depicts ancient Japan with their expressionistic eye.

21. Hail Caesar!

Release Date: 5 February (US), 22 February (UK)

The Coen Brothers aren’t untouchable filmmakers, but even their disasters are interesting disasters, so Hail Caesar should be one to watch regardless. Featuring an all-star cast including Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johanssen and Channing Tatum amongst many others, this comedy about 1950s Hollywood scandal should be an interesting mix of the Coens’ trademark wit and dark humour in a fascinating period of Tinseltown’s history.

20. Finding Dory

Release Date: 17 June (US), 29 July (UK)

Of all the films for Pixar to make sequels to, Finding Nemo would probably be near the bottom of the list and I’m worried this may be just director Andrew Stanton running back to safe territory after his trip to Mars in John Carter proved less than fruitful. The prospect of focusing on Dory is also worrying; as a side character she’s great, but a whole movie of her sounds like it could go all Jack Sparrow. But Cars 2 aside, Pixar’s previous trips back to the well have been at least pleasant, so hopefully this is a story that needs to be told rather than just another attempt at cash grabbing.

19. The BFG

Release Date: 1 July (US), 22 July (UK)

Adaptations of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories have proven difficult over the years, and it’s weird to think that the better ones like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr. Fox are the ones that stray further from the books. Steven Spielberg seems exactly the right type of filmmaker to adapt Dahl’s wonderful tale of a little girl and her gigantic friend to the big screen, and the brief teaser trailer certainly has the same magic as the source book. The film also being the posthumous work of E.T. scribe Melissa Mathison makes this a tearful reunion of director and screenwriter, and the spectacular cast of Mark Rylance, Rebecca Hall, Bill Hader and Jemaine Clement lends even more promise to this adaptation.

18. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Release Date: 18 November (US, UK)

Speaking of going back to the well, it was only a matter of time before we returned to the Potterverse and I’m at least glad it’s for this rather than a reboot. Featuring an original story by J.K. Rowling (with the name only taken from a plotless textbook) and four-time Potter helmer David Yates returning to direct (who also has The Legend of Tarzan opening this year), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes the appropriate prequel approach by telling a story with very little connection to Harry Potter’s adventures (as far as we know). All we can hope now is that doesn’t fall into the same traps as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings when it comes to prequels.

17. Assassin’s Creed

Release Date: 21 December (US), 30 December (UK)

2016 seems to be the year video games movies are trying to break out of their cycle of crap. With Ratchet & Clank, The Angry Birds Movie and another adaptation featured later on this list, perhaps now’s the time for video game movies to have their X-Men and break into mainstream popularity. Assassin’s Creed has promise as a movie from its interesting blend of history and sci-fi alone, but the talent they’ve assembled to create it almost seems embarrassingly overqualified. Macbeth director Justin Kurzel directs his previous collaborators Michael Fassbender (also a producer on the film) and Marion Cotillard in an original story with supposed continuity with the game series, and a great supporting cast like Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Irons and Michael K. Williams means this could certainly have promise as an interesting film even to people who have never picked up a video game controller.

16. Kung Fu Panda 3

Release Date: 29 January (US), 11 March (UK)

This was going to make my most anticipated list last year until its delay right before the end of 2014, but now the adventures of Po can finally continue and answer the cliffhanger left at the end of Kung Fu Panda 2. These films are far better than the title would suggest and I would highly recommend them to anyone who’s written them off as silly kids’ movies, and with some luck this third instalment will contain the same mix of humour, martial arts, philosophy and heart its predecessors delivered in spades.

15. Passengers

Release Date: 21 December (US), 23 December (UK)

The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum directs this sci-fi romance that finally pairs Hollywood darlings Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in what sounds like a fascinating story about two people alone together on a spaceship full of people frozen in stasis, knowing they will die before the ship will reach its destination. This film is still a year out, but the concept of Pratt and Lawrence on screen together trading quips whilst in constant fear of their own mortality is enough to colour me intrigued.

14. Zootopia (AKA Zootropolis)

Release Date: 4 March (US), 25 March (UK)

After skipping 2015, Walt Disney Animation Studios returns for a double dip starting with this comedy adventure set in a world of anthropomorphic animals. The initial concept sounds basic on paper, but Disney has been great recently with taking simple concepts and putting a great twist on them, and with the respective directors of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph steering the ship this has more than enough clout to be on your radar.

13. Doctor Strange

Release Date: 28 October (UK), 4 November (US)

It’s hard to say anything Marvel Studios does is gamble anymore after turning Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man into box office smashes. At this point they’re more like escalating dares, and adapting the psychedelic mysticism of Doctor Strange is a pretty big dare on so many levels. Sinister director Scott Derrickson is certainly an odd choice as helmsman, but the casting of human otter Benedict Cumberbatch as the Sorcerer Supreme himself should help bring in an audience completely adverse to the bizarre concepts of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s quintessentially 60s creation.

12. The Nice Guys

Release Date: 20 May (US), 3 June (UK)

Shane Black returns to the director’s chair for this crime caper that basically looks like a grittier 1970s version of Black’s own Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang mixed with a little bit of LA Confidential. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe don’t immediately jump out as a natural pair on paper, but clashing personalities in a buddy environment is Black’s bread and butter and The Nice Guys looks like it will be no exception.

11. Ghostbusters

Release Date: 15 July (US, UK)

Ivan Reitman’s original classic Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favourite movies and a pop culture phenomenon that hasn’t waned since 1984. Rebooting the franchise is an idea considered blasphemous to most of its fans, but if you’re going to do it you’d better do something different and boy have they gone different. Genderflipping the Ghostbusters is a daring and controversial move that has the Internet in a fanboy whine crisis, but if it works it’s going to set a fascinating precedent for gender roles in future Hollywood blockbusters. The cast they’ve assembled is all around fantastic, and Bridesmaids helmer Paul Feig is the perfect choice to direct these funny ladies in their quest to bust some ghosts.

10. Midnight Special

Release Date: 18 March (US), 15 April (UK)

Yep, this was on my list last year and 2015 went by without it, but Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi drama is now on the docket for an early 2016 release, and the new trailer sheds some more light on the mysterious film. The John Carpenter influence Nichols has mentioned definitely comes through here and mixes well with the director’s own subdued style; it reminded me of Looper a lot in that way. This one definitely has a chance of being the year’s sleeper hit.

9. Warcraft

Release Date: 3 June (UK), 10 June (US)

I’m not at all a fan of the Warcraft video games, but I’m excited for this film for a number of other reasons. Firstly, it’s promising to be the new flagship fantasy franchise; with Middle-earth fully plundered, that’s something we could certainly use. Secondly, Moon and Source Code director Duncan Jones is behind the camera and I’m willing to support anything he does. But most importantly, Warcraft stands a chance of being Hollywood’s first great video game movie and, given the talent involved and the quality of everything I’ve seen so far, I’m on board to see how it goes. But if it fails, hopefully Assassin’s Creed will be there to pick up the pieces.

8. Moana

Release Date: 23 November (US), 2 December (UK)

Moana is the first CG animated film from The Little Mermaid and Aladdin directors Ron Clements & John Musker, and the concept of exploring Polynesian mythology through the eyes of Disney is a simple but alluring concept that could be one of the company’s most beautiful and unique films to date. That and it has Dwayne Johnson in it. Since when has his presence hurt a film?

7. The Jungle Book

Release Date: 15 April (US, UK)

Yet another film that was on my list last year and got pushed, and since then it’s rattled way up the ranks thanks to the fantastic trailer. The Jungle Book looks to be a visual treat on so many levels, and the fact every character and environment except Mowgli was rendered in CG is something that makes those images seem even more amazing. With a fantastic supporting cast and Iron Man director Jon Favreau behind the magic, The Jungle Book has the potential to elevate Disney’s recent obsession with adapting their animated classics into live-action.

6. X-Men: Apocalypse

Release Date: 19 May (UK), 27 May (US)

The First Class trilogy concludes next May with the arrival of ultimate X-Men villain Apocalypse, and sh*t is going to hit the fan. With a whole smorgasbord of mutants ranging from old familiars to younger versions of classic characters and even a few brand new ones, Bryan Singer has compared Apocalypse to a disaster movie and the prospect of a huge mutant on mutant battle could fulfil the promise that was botched in The Last Stand. It’s also going to be interesting to see X-Men in the 1980s, and where the franchise’s future will stand following all the carnage.

5. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Release Date: 25 March (US, UK)

Whilst this is a movie I’m still highly hesitant about, I can’t deny that I really, really can’t wait to see it. I’m still not sure about the overly serious tone, I felt they showed way too much in the most recent trailer (which I have NOT posted below in case you’ve missed it), and I’m very worried that DC is rushing to catch up with Marvel. But, on the other hand, the mere prospect of seeing The Dark Knight fight The Man of Steel is something that even with my concerns I cannot deny how awesome it sounds. Throw in the screen debut of Wonder Woman and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor (screw the haters, I think it’s a brilliant idea), and there’s more than enough to make me excited, even if cautiously so.

4. Suicide Squad

Release Date: 5 August (US, UK)

Now this I have a litle more faith in than Dawn of Justice. Suicide Squad seems to be DC’s answer to Guardians of the Galaxy: a ragtag team of second-tier characters with questionable morals, but drenched in the gritty aesthetic that DC are painting their films in. David Ayer’s dour sensibilities seem perfect for this type of Dirty Dozen story, and the cast is pretty impeccable (with the exception of walking potato Jai Courtney, but he could always surprise). I’m still not fully sold on Jared Leto’s Joker from a design perspective, but Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn is casting so perfect that I can’t really think of anyone better suited to the role.

3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Release Date: 16 December (US, UK)

With The Force Awakens now confirmed as a successful return to form for the Star Wars franchise, it’s now much easier to get excited for the massive expansion of the universe that’s about to take place with the Anthology movies. First out of the gate is Rogue One, which tells the story of the group of rebels that stole the original Death Star plans (a story told several different ways in the Expanded Universe before, but no longer canon. Sorry, Kyle Katarn). Though I haven’t been hugely impressed by Gareth Edwards’ work on Monsters and Godzilla, he’s a director that certainly knows how to sell scale and magnitude, and the concept of a gritty war film in the vein of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down set within the Star Wars universe is irresistable.

2. Captain America: Civil War

Release Date: 29 April (UK), 6 May (US)

It’s heroes vs. heroes in the follow-up to The Winter Soldier, and the first stop on the road to Infinity War. Though the staggering array of characters crammed into this movie suggest this might as well be Avengers 2.5, this is still primarily Cap’s movie and to see resolution to his story with Winter Soldier and how he deals with this crisis of loyalty is going to be a moral dilemma that will divide both heroes and audiences. All that plus the introductions of both Black Panther and Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are more than enough to get excited for Civil War.

1. Deadpool

Release Date: 10 February (UK), 12 February (US)

Hardly a classy choice for most anticipated, but Deadpool has me excited more than any other movie in 2016 because it’s such a risky move. An R-rated action comedy based on a C-list comic book character full of self-referential humour and sex gags? It’s no wonder this film was in development hell for so long, but the fans have spoken and 20th Century Fox has finally listened. Ryan Reynolds is getting the second chance he deserves as Deadpool after getting f*cked over in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and this could be his opportunity to finally escape from the toilet his career has been in lately (I mean, did you see R.I.P.D.?). It’s certainly going to be a divisive movie and if it bombs we’ll never see another like it, but if it pays off it’s going to open up a whole new world of possibilities for comic book cinema. Have your chimichangas ready, because we only have to wait til February for this monster to be unleashed.

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega (Attack the Block), Adam Driver (Frances Ha), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Harrison Ford (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Carrie Fisher (Return of the Jedi), Mark Hamill (Kingsman: The Secret Service), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Andy Serkis (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Domnhall Gleeson (Ex Machina), Max von Sydow (Flash Gordon)

Director: JJ Abrams (Star Trek)

Writers: Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) & JJ Abrams and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)

Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes

Release Date: 17 December (UK), 18 December (US)

The moment Star Wars: The Force Awakens started, I felt 11 years old again. Seeing the opening crawl of a new adventure set in a galaxy far, far away almost brought me to tears, and the feeling was so overwhelming and unreal that if after the movie I suddenly woke up in bed, I would have genuinely believed what I had just witnessed was a dream. The Force Awakens gives you that amazed feeling throughout its running time, injecting you will both nostalgic nods to the series’ roots but also introducing new concepts that are certainly worthy additions to the lore. Is it a perfect movie? No, but really none of the Star Wars movies are, and any problems I have with it are buried beneath mounds of wonder and joy.

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In many ways, The Force Awakens is structurally similar to A New Hope: there’s a MacGuffin both sides want, it ends up in the hands of someone outside the conflict, and then our hero is plucked from obscurity and begins their adventure. The movie returns to the more traditional Joseph Campbell hero’s journey rather than the prequels’ tendency to focus on the politics and intricacies of the world, but it still tells its own unique story is tonally similar to pieces of the other movies and combines them into its own unique beast. The Force Awakens runs at a breakneck pace, easily the most energetic and exhilarating of the series thus far and, whilst this is a welcome change from the plodding dullness of the prequels, it does sometimes feel a little too fast. In its hastiness to get from plot beat to plot beat, it does sometimes feel like details get brushed over or ignored; I’m glad the film doesn’t feel the need to stop the film to strenuously explain unimportant lore, but there are just a few moments here or there that just whooshed by with a “wait, what happened?” The Force Awakens also feels thematically like a continuation of the saga, with many pieces of iconography and character parallels made throughout, managing to just about balance that fine line between loving tribute and fan fiction indulgence. There are definitely elements that have been lifted from defunct elements of the Expanded Universe, as well as several fan theories being correct, but they are all executed in excellent and fitting ways; there are moments where I knew what was going to happen, but it never happened exactly how I thought. It doesn’t feel self-contained in the way A New Hope did, as there are a lot of unanswered questions left dangling for the next few films, but not in the way films like Prometheus or The Maze Runner did. It never feels like they are teasing or needlessly withholding information, and it’s all done in a natural way that intrigues and makes us want to know more rather than confuse or annoy.

The cast assembled for The Force Awakens is all around excellent amongst both returning players and the fresh-faced newcomers. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are simultaneously just as you remember them and noticeably different, time definitely having had an effect on them both, but you would never guess that these actors haven’t played these roles in thirty years. The real focus of the film does however lie on its new characters, and Daisy Ridley and John Boyega make excellent leads as Rey and Finn, evoking that Star Wars character archetype without feeling like carbon copies of previous characters. They are both people conflicted about their place in the world and want to make a change, a mutual feeling that brings them together, and though they can be averse to facing up to danger they ultimately know what the right thing to do is. I feel they’ve only scratched the surface with these characters but in a good way, and I can’t wait to see how they continue moving forward. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren manages to simultaneously be both an incredibly intimidating presence but also surprisingly relatable; moments of humanity shine through his menacing figure, but never in a way that detracts from his villainous persona. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron evokes Han Solo whilst making the character his own with a unique sense of humour and a more amiable swagger, and his on-screen chemistry with Boyega makes them a pair I hope will go on more adventures together. Characters like Domnhall Gleeson’s Hux, Andy Serkis’ Snoke and Gwendoline Christie’s Phasma get a little less focus that I would have hoped and Max von Sydow is basically an extended cameo, but I’m sure several of them will get more time to shine in future films.

JJ Abrams is a Star Wars fan through and through, and in his technical vision for The Force Awakens that love shines through immensely. The cinematography is vibrant and flowing, taking every opportunity to soak in every environment and display the action in the most enthralling way it can; the days of static shots in front of green screens are over. The film’s overall design from the sets to costumes to props to creatures to visual effects is all absolutely top-notch, taking advantage of technological advancements in cinema without feeling indulgent and evoking the classic Star Wars look in a way not seen since 1983. The sound design is beautiful with loads of classic sounds bringing nostalgia to the ears and new ones that slot nicely into the universe, and do I even have to say that John Williams’ score is brilliant? I will admit there isn’t a piece of music that immediately jumps out like ‘The Imperial March’ or ‘Duel of the Fates’ just yet, but iconic status takes time and every single note of this score is undeniably the work of Williams.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens could be essentially described as the most expensive fan film ever made, but doing so would be a disservice to not only how good of a Star Wars movie it is but also how good of a film it is in general. It captures the magic of the original trilogy far better than George Lucas could ascertain and completely washes out the bad taste of the prequels without feeling the need to poke a dead horse. I can see even as a fan that this isn’t a perfect film and I’m sure there are even more problematic details I haven’t quite picked up on yet, but what this film gets right far eclipses its stumbles and I’m hoping they can iron out these little quibbles come the next instalment. The Force Awakens isn’t the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the best based purely on entertainment value and, though I don’t think it’s going to change cinema in any way close to the way Star Wars did back in 1977, it continues it its tradition of being a simple but powerful story that resonates far beyond a simple surface observation. The hype was justified this time, folks. Just enjoy it.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10