Starring: Michael Fassbender (X-Men: Apocalypse), Marion Cotillard (Inception), Jeremy Irons (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), Brendan Gleeson (The Guard), Michael K. Williams (Triple 9), Ariane Labed (The Lobster), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)

Director: Justin Kurzel (Macbeth)

Writers: Michael Lesslie (Macbeth) and Adam Cooper & Bill Collage (Exodus: Gods and Kings)

Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes

Release Date: 21 December (US), 1 January (UK)

The Assassin’s Creed video game franchise has certainly waned in recent years after countless sequels and spin-offs have run the formula dry, but the core concept remains fun and amongst the numerous entries are some of the landmark titles of the past ten years. Ubisoft let the franchise rest this year, but have instead gone ahead and thrown their hat into the film ring with a cinematic interpretation on the ongoing battle between the Assassins and the Templars. Now video games movies are still as taboo today as they’ve always been, but with the developers heavily involved and some great film talent guiding it, this should be the one to break the curse, right? The short answer: no. The long answer follows…

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Assassin’s Creed makes a wise move by not directly adapting any of the games and instead tells a new side-story set within the canon of the franchise, with a few small but appreciated nods to the series’ past. It still follows the basic structure of the games (man forced to work for Templars, goes back into memories of ancestor, does a bunch of random quests to further plot and find Piece of Eden), but at least it can forge its own path and not have to cram ten hours of gameplay into a fifth of that experience. Unfortunately, what they’ve decided to focus on is every bad part of the game: the modern day story. A sizable majority of the film is spent in a cold research facility, and even when we are thrown into the assassin story during the Spanish Inquisition it still cuts back to the present constantly. Both plotlines are dull and underdeveloped, especially the past story because we are constantly thrown into it at random intervals with no indication of how much time has passed and what’s happened in between sequences; it’s like watching a bunch of random missions from the game with no context.

The film’s biggest crime, however, is that it’s dull. The games aren’t exactly action-packed thrill rides jam-packed with explosions and one-liners, but they have a sense of humour and revelled in the fun of being an assassin just as much as all the political intrigue and shadowy machinations. Here, any sense of joy has been sucked out and we are left with a cold, unappealing and po-faced slog that takes itself way too seriously. There are clearly even lines of dialogue that are meant to be witty but they are played completely straight; it’s almost like the director doesn’t understand the concept of humour. The pacing constantly drags as the movie weighs you down with painful scenes of characters prattling on about morality and control and power, and even when the action does kick it is all too brief and the cycle begins again. There are the occasional sparks of an interesting story underneath all the clutter, one that might have been entertaining if it actually played to the strengths of the game, but none of that is taken advantage of. By the halfway mark I was bored, and when the sequel-tease ending finally arrived I felt like I was being set free.

The protagonists of Assassin’s Creed can vary wildly in likability, with some endearing stars like Ezio or Edward but then there are some absolutely bland ones like Altair and Connor. The movie easily falls into the latter camp and Michael Fassbender is equally unappealing as both present-day captive Callum Lynch and Spanish assassin Aguilar. Lynch is given basically no personality, his backstory is barely touched upon, and his motivations fluctuate wildly throughout the movie due to a complete lack of clear character development; the man pretty much changes his allegiances on a dime. Fassbender’s performance does nothing to make the character stand out, his characterisation basically beginning and ending at a Christian Bale growl, and then there’s the bizarre scene where he starts wailing out Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” as he’s being dragged into the Animus. No, seriously, that’s a scene in the movie. He honestly makes original series protagonist Desmond Miles look positively fascinating by comparison. But at least Lynch has a vaguely discernable story and the skeleton of an arc, because Aguilar is pretty much a blank slate. We are told nothing about his past, he has no real motivation beyond his commitment to the creed, and there is no real resolution to what could barely be described his “story”. All he’s really there to do is engage in action sequences, but it’s hard to get invested when I don’t care about him or the dude experiencing these memories.

The supporting cast is a fantastic assemblage of talent on paper, but they are all given bland and underdeveloped characters to play so nobody comes out looking good. Marion Cotillard probably gets the most interesting role to play as a morally conflicted Templar scientist who doesn’t necessarily agree with all her order’s plans, but everything interesting about her just seems like it’s being saved for a sequel and Cotillard’s cold performances nixes any of the potential intrigue. Jeremy Irons does nothing but blather on about the beliefs of the Templars, Michael K. Williams is wasted as one of several other assassins held in the facility in another poorly developed subplot, Charlotte Rampling is completely pointless as the head of the Templars, and both Brendan Gleeson and Essie Davis are essentially extended cameos as Lynch’s parents. The only vaguely interesting character is Ariane Labed as Aguilar’s assassin buddy Maria, and that’s only because she looks cool and is I think the only character that smiles in the movie.

Justin Kurzel showed he could deliver on spectacle in his adaptation of Macbeth, and whilst there are some impressive moments in the all-too-brief action sequences in Assassin’s Creed they are hampered by numerous other problems. The cinematography is suitably cold and haunting in the present day sequences, but in the past it becomes overdone and jittery. There’s a lot of odd pans and shaky zooms, which completely doesn’t suit the acrobatic style of action the film has on display, obscuring what is clearly some impressive parkour and stunt work. The clumsy editing also ruins the immersion, constantly interrupting the flow of the action to cut back to the present so we can watch scientists watch Fassbender swatting around at air. Barring the film’s overdone reimagining of the Animus, the design of the sets, props and costumes is probably its only saving grace, perfectly capturing the aesthetic style of the games perfectly, but again it never takes advantage of it. One of the joys of the games was exploring a historic city and marvelling at the scale of it. Here, there’s never a moment that really lets you soak in the historic environments. Like everything else in the movie, the joy has been removed entirely.

Assassin’s Creed had everything it needed to be a great movie and makes every wrong decision it can. Not since Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four has so much promise been wasted on idiotic mistake after idiotic mistake. It takes a fascinating premise and makes it dull, it takes great actors and gives them nothing to work with, it takes thrilling action and makes it incomprehensible, and it takes a promising director like Kurzel and makes him look like an incompetent idiot. Say what you will about Warcraft, but it at least showed a passion for the material that this movie seems too afraid to even have. Most bad video games movies at least have the distinction of being hilariously bad. You can watch something like Street Fighter or Super Mario Bros. and laugh at their ineptitude. Assassin’s Creed is far too boring and lifeless to do that with. If Ubisoft thinks this is good enough to start thinking about doing more adaptations of their properties, then they are basically just throwing their money away.

FINAL VERDICT: 3/10

To be perfectly honest, 2016 has not been a great year in general and that is reflected in the quality of cinema in the past twelve months. It was a year plagued by mediocrity and disappointment; a year with very few awful movies not many that were fantastic either. But now that it is coming to a close, there’s no better time than now to look forward to what is to come in 2017. As usual, allow me to explain the ground rules:

  1. Movies that release in the UK in 2017 but released overseas in 2016 aren’t on this list. They still count as 2016 to me, so don’t expect to see Silence, Live by Night or The Founder here. If they’re good, they may end up on my Favourites of 2016 list come February.
  2. This is going by what films are currently set to debut  in 2017 with confirmed release dates. There are certainly movies that aim to release in 2017, mainly awards-type movies, but they don’t have dates yet and could fall into 2018. Several movies here may end up getting delayed as often happens, but they have set releases as of writing and therefore count.
  3. This is not me predicting what will be the best movies of 2017. I’ve had movies appear on my most anticipated that ended up in my most despised list by the end of the year, and most of what will probably end up being my favourites will be surprises or films I haven’t even heard of yet. This is about me telling you what movies I’m most excited to see 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:

  1. The Dark Tower

Release Date: 28 July (US, UK)

2017 is going to be a big year for Stephen King, with both the first instalment of a two-part film adaptation of It and the long-awaited beginning of a multimedia series based on The Dark Tower. The first part in a planned series of films and a television series, the film will apparently serve as a sequel to the book series, which makes me question how accessible to new audiences the film will be; we don’t need another Warcraft on our hands. Regardless, bringing King’s grand multiverse series to the screen should at least make for a visually spectacular movie, and with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey leading the charge it has a lot of promise.

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  1. Life

Release Date: 12 May (UK), 26 May (US)

From the star and writers of Deadpool comes…a sci-fi thriller that essentially looks like a more realistic version of Alien? Yes, it’s an odd change of direction for the creative team responsible for #driveby, but the interesting premise and a stellar cast including Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson means this has the potential to be the sleeper sci-fi hit of the year in a similar vein to 10 Cloverfield Lane or Ex Machina.

  1. Paddington 2

Release Date: 10 November (UK), TBC (US)

The first Paddington was a lovely surprise back when it came out in 2014, bringing the lovable bear to life with respect rather than typical Hollywood pandering. Now the same creative team is back for the sequel and hopefully they can prove the first time wasn’t just a fluke.

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  1. The Mummy

Release Date: 9 June (US, UK)

Universal’s first real step in creating a shared universe out of their Monsters stable (we can all forget about Dracula Untold thankfully), this modern reinvention of The Mummy pits Tom Cruise against a female mummy (played by Sofia Boutella of Kingsman and Star Trek Beyond fame) and sets the stage for the future films with Russell Crowe appearing as Dr. Jekyll. It’s a cool concept if it can be pulled off just right, and the trailer shows off an interesting mix of blockbuster action and traditional horror, but I’ll admit it could easily fall flat on its face too. In any case, it can’t be any worse than that last Mummy film with Brendan Fraser.

  1. Coco

Release Date: 22 November (US), 8 December (UK)

The second of Pixar’s releases next year (the other being Cars 3, which shows potential with its teaser but I’m still highly skeptical), this animated musical fable from Toy Story 3 helmer Lee Unkrich dives into the world of The Day of the Dead and its mythology. It’s subject matter that’s been already heavily explored in works like Grim Fandango and The Book of Life, but I’m hopeful Pixar have come up with a fresh spin on the concept that’ll stand out from its spiritual brethren.

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  1. Beauty and the Beast

Release Date: 17 March (US, UK)

After The Jungle Book turned out so well, I’m far more open to Disney’s obsession of adapting their animated classics to live-action than before, and Beauty and the Beast is a perfect candidate for translation. The casting is absolutely fantastic across the board (well, except maybe Luke Evans as Gaston, but I’ll wait and see), and from the trailers it looks like it’s following the original film very closely but giving it a darker visual makeover. I just hope Disney doesn’t take it too far considering how many more of these things they’ve announced in the past six months. But if this movie in any way ruins the original (which remains my absolute favourite Disney animated film) like how Maleficent ruined Sleeping Beauty for me, this trend needs to be put to bed pronto.

  1. Justice League

Release Date: 17 November (US, UK)

Justice League is a movie I should be way more excited about given how much I’ve wanted to see it since I was a kid, but Batman v Superman has put a damper on my anticipation. But if the film is anything like the footage they showed at Comic Con, it seems like they might have learnt their lesson. If they can lighten the mood and let this be a fun blockbuster rather than overly grim and deconstructive, perhaps this can save the DCEU from total annihilation. Then again, if the post-BvS tampering is as jarring and obvious as it was in Suicide Squad, this would certainly kill the franchise quicker than any kind of Kryptonite.

  1. Ghost in the Shell

Release Date: 31 March (US, UK)

American live-action adaptations of manga have a worse track record than video game movies (Speed Racer, anyone?), but if the gorgeous visuals present in the trailer are any indication this could be the one that breaks the mould. The casting of Scarlett Johansson aside, this perfectly captures the look of Ghost in the Shell and if it can deliver some solid action whilst retaining the original’s thematic heft then it could be a winner. On the other hand, director Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman was the queen of “all style, no substance”, so this could easily go the other way too. Curious to see it how it pans out regardless.

  1. John Wick: Chapter 2

Release Date: 10 February (US), 17 February (UK)

The first John Wick came out of nowhere and showed the world how action movies should be done in the modern age: with top-notch choreography, intelligent cinematography and editing, gratuitous violence and a strong dose of self-awareness. Topping that is going to be a hard task, so I’m excited to see them attempt it in Chapter 2. This is the kind of role Keanu Reeves excels at playing, and reteaming him with Laurence Fishburne for an unofficial Matrix reunion doesn’t hurt things either.

  1. Captain Underpants

Release Date: 26 May (UK), 2 June (US)

The Captain Underpants books were big favourites of mine as a kid (in fact, I think that’s where I really first developed my peculiar sense of humour), and so I’m more than curious to see how DreamWorks adapts the stories to a feature film. I’m a little mixed on the casting choices however. Ed Helms as the Captain doesn’t sound so bad and Nick Kroll as Professor Poopypants is perfect, but Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch as George and Harold? Why can’t the kids be played by, you know, kids? Practically nothing has been revealed beyond the below teaser poster, but rumour has it that the visuals will be something akin to The Peanuts Movie, and if that’s the case I’m certainly interested.

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  1. Thor: Ragnarok

Release Date: 27 October (UK), 3 November (US)

After The Dark World proved to be a satisfactory but ultimately forgettable second chapter, the third Thor film really needs to pick up the pace. How are they doing that? Teaming Thor up with The Hulk and sending them on a cosmic road trip, having Cate Blanchett play the main villain, plus a mini Jursassic Park reunion with both Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill. Yep, that ought to do it. Taika Waititi is an inspired choice to helm what currently looks to be Marvel’s oddest film yet, and considering their last film was Doctor Strange that’s saying a lot.

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  1. Dunkirk

Release Date: 21 July (US, UK)

Christopher Nolan is finally getting away from the worlds of superheroes and speculative science with a war epic that could be this generation’s Saving Private Ryan. The prospect of seeing Nolan apply everything he’s learnt from years of blockbuster filmmaking into something more grounded is going to be interesting to watch, and the cast is a pretty stellar mix of talent like Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and…Harry Styles? OK, now that’s just weird.

  1. Downsizing

Release Date: 22 December (US), TBC (UK)

I’m always up for whatever Alexander Payne has cooking, and this sci-fi comedy that has been his pet project for years certainly sounds like some ripe material for his brand of humour. In what sounds like a farcical take on Fantastic Voyage, the movie features an odd assortment of serious actors like Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz paired with comedians like Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis. Whatever it ends up being exactly, it’s probably going to make me laugh and maybe even cry.

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  1. Blade Runner 2049

Release Date: 6 October (US, UK)

Ridley Scott returns to another of his classic films, but instead of taking the reigns is allowing a new generation to continue the story. Sicario and Arrival director Denis Villeneuve directs what looks to be the gritty sci-fi answer to The Force Awakens, teaming a returning Harrison Ford with Ryan Gosling for another dive into the world of the Replicants. So many films have ripped off Blade Runner since its release, so creating something truly new is going to be tricky, but they’ve certainly got the right creative team to make it possible. It might be too early to say, but I’m so confident in Villeneuve and co that I believe 2049 has the potential to be an even better film than the original.

  1. Kong: Skull Island

Release Date: 10 March (US, UK)

How do you make King Kong more terrifying for a modern age? By making him even bigger! This new take on the classic ape monster looks incredible just from the trailers, promising an intense ride that mixes Apocalypse Now with Godzilla. Top it all off will an gigantic all-star cast including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and many more, and this has a chance of becoming king of the Kong movies.

  1. The Lego Batman Movie

Release Date: 10 February (US, UK)

“Darkness! No parents!” The Lego Movie was a genius piece of satire through and through, and one of the many things that made it awesome was Will Arnett’s deconstructive take on Batman. Now the Bricked Crusader is getting his own spin-off and it looks just as funny and self-aware as the film that spawned it. The cast is fantastic, the animation looks beautiful, and the humour looks to capture that same tongue-in-cheek wonderfulness that Lord & Miller brought us with the first movie.

  1. Alien: Covenant

Release Date: 19 May (US, UK)

Now Prometheus certainly wasn’t what every Alien fan wanted, but Ridley Scott looks like he’s trying to make up for that with this interquel that’s going to start bridging the gap between the 2012 prequel and the original 1979 film. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace return along with a bunch of newcomers including Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride, and it looks like this time we’ll actually be getting something a lot closer to a Xenomorph! If it succeeds, Scott will have successfully resurrected the franchise he started so long ago. If it fails, then perhaps Neill Blomkamp’s shelved Alien 5 will finally get off the ground.

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  1. War for the Planet of the Apes

Release Date: 14 July (US, UK)

Rise and Dawn were already fantastic sci-fi movies that elevated the Planet of the Apes franchise back into modern relevance, so I’m excited to see War for the Planet of the Apes continue to up the ante for what looks to be the finale to an epic trilogy. I’m hoping for bigger action and higher stakes whilst still retaining that moral ambiguity that made Dawn transcend the typical Hollywood blockbuster, and I’m excited to see Andy Serkis’ Caesar develop further as we approach the inevitable beginning of the original franchise.

  1. Wonder Woman

Release Date: 2 June (US, UK)

If any movie is going to give Warner Bros and DC the kick up the backside it needs, Wonder Woman looks like it has its boot primed already. Everything so far has exuded this is going to be a fun but badass piece of superhero action, and to see The Spirit of Truth finally get her own movie is a satisfaction long overdue. Gal Gadot showed promise in her brief screen time in Batman v Superman, so here’s hoping she can carry an entire movie across the finish line, and if this does well then we can expect to see more female-led superhero movies in the future. If not, this movie is going to end up on the same pile as Catwoman and Elektra.

  1. Logan

Release Date: 2 March (UK), 3 March (US)

Hugh Jackman is retiring the role of Wolverine and Fox looks like it’s finally going to hard reboot the X-Men franchise, but if Logan is how this 17 year old franchise is going to bow out then I’m happy. The trailer for this alone is gloriously satisfying, bringing in fan favourite elements like Old Man Logan and X-23, finally delivering a bloody R-rated Wolverine experience, and going out on a sombre note fitting of a well-worn franchise ready for rejuvenation. If nothing else, this movie should reset the ratio of good to bad Wolverine movies to 2:1.

  1. Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Release Date: 29 September (UK), 6 October (US)

Kingsman: The Secret Service was the best spy movie of a year that include both a Bond flick and the best Mission: Impossible film so far, so you know it’s good. With Matthew Vaughn and company returning for a sequel, I’m very excited to see where they can take the franchise next. Bringing in some new talent like Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore (hey, Big Lebowski reunion!) is certainly cool, but I’m more interested to see where they take Eggsy as a character and how, as the below poster hints at, they can bring Colin Firth back into the fold.cfc228_wwaarvi4

  1. Baby Driver

Release Date: 11 August (US), 18 August (UK)

Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-Man was certainly saddening, but if he’s instead going to use that time to do something totally his own I’m fine with that. Loosely inspired by a music video Wright directed years ago for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song”, Baby Driver sounds like a mix of 1970s car chase movies and the insanity of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with its tale of a music-obsessed getaway driver involved in a bank robbery gone wrong. Whatever it ends up being, I’m sure it’s going to be signature Wright and that’s all I really need to be pumped.

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  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Release Date: 7 July (US, UK)

The Wall Crawler is finally back in the hands of Marvel Studios (creatively, at least) and it looks like Homecoming is going to be the most truthful adaptation of the Spider-Man mythos to date. Tom Holland showed the potential of being the best screen version of Peter Parker to date, and here’s hoping this flick can cement that position for him. I’m also loving that we’re going to see some classic villains like Vulture and Shocker come into play, what looks like a meaty supporting role for Tony Stark, and a light-hearted tone that mixes the teen comedies of John Hughes with Marvel’s signature stylings.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Release Date: 28 April (UK), 5 May (US)

How do you top Guardians of the Galaxy? I have no idea, but I hope James Gunn has figured it out. With the first film having gotten everyone used to the idea of a talking raccoon and a sentient tree, Vol. 2 now has full license to go absolutely nuts, and judging by everything so far they are certainly taking advantage of that license. In no sane world should we be getting a movie featuring Mantis, Ego the Living Planet and Taserface, but Marvel really no longer needs to take chances anymore so why not? And c’mon: if you’re not sold on this movie based on Baby Groot alone, you have no soul.

  1. Star Wars: Episode VIII

Release Date: 15 December (US, UK)

Yes, obvious choice is obvious, but after The Force Awakens left fans with so many questions, I can’t help but be most excited about the film that’s going to settle at least some of the arguments fanboys have been darting back and forth for the last year. Rian Johnson helming a Star Wars movie is as much a dream come true for me as I’m sure it is for him, and I’m looking forward to the prospect of Episode VIII forging some new ground in the saga after the previous film was more of a reunion tour to ease us back in. All of this is speculation on my part, but I’m hoping that VIII will go really dark and completely flip the status quo. This film needs to find a way to match the legendary twist in Empire, and I think whatever Lucasfilm has cooking is going to get fans even more pumped moving forward and maybe even retroactively fix a lot of the problems present in The Force Awakens. Again, all fanboy rambling, but that just shows how excited I am to see where Star Wars goes next.

Starring: Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), Andy Garcia (Ocean’s Eleven)

Director: Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

Writer: Jon Spaihts (Prometheus)

Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes

Release Date: 21 December (US, UK)

In Hollywood, it’s almost a given that if your story world is high concept, requiring lavish production assets and a lot of visual effects, then you’re going to have to big on spectacle and stakes too. However, this can often get in the way of the true core of the movie, and nowhere is this more obvious than in Passengers. The film is getting a tough time with the critics for numerous reasons and I can see why, but there is a lot of great material here being held down by an unnecessary need to go big.

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The film has a solid premise from the very start, and in the first half it really shines when it focuses on the human drama of the situation. Jim (Pratt) is alone for much of the first act and runs the gamut of emotions as he deals with his isolation in a very Groundhog Day-like way. There is a lot of heavy exposition dumping during this section but it’s lampshaded well enough and the fun of watching Pratt live alone on this massive spaceship indulging himself more than makes us for it. Once Aurora (Lawrence) and the central conundrum of their relationship comes into play, the film poses an interesting moral question in a mostly compelling way and it evolves from watching someone alone dealing with this situation to watching two people trying to make the best of it and learning to love each other regardless. When Passengers is entirely focused on this, it’s actually a really sweet and absorbing human story. The question the film poses and the direction the characters take it is one many might see as having worrying connotations, but the film doesn’t shy away from those concerns and the character building done up to that point helps to justify those troublesome choices.

However, without wanting to spoil anything, the film begins to fall apart around the halfway point after a key character revelation. It’s an inevitable moment but the reveal just comes out of nowhere, causing what should be a really devastating point in the relationship between these characters to feel undeserved. It’s also at this point when the ultimate revelation of what’s happened to the ship is explained and it is incredibly underwhelming. It’s a problem that could have easily been fixed early if not for a series of understandable but still frustrating plot contrivances keeping our characters from doing so, and from there the film leaps into an action climax that brushes away all of the good character building that had been going on up until that point. By the film’s conclusion, the entire third act feels perfunctory and its message would have run just as true, if not better, if it had just stuck to the drama of two people trying to get along instead of the drama of human annihilation.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are two of the most charismatic and in-demand actors in Hollywood at this moment, so it was only a matter of time before the two had to work together. As you’d expect, their shared penchant for awkward banter means they have strong romantic chemistry right from the start, but when it comes to the more dramatic elements they also manage to shine too. Pratt is especially good in that secluded first act, showing a depression and vulnerability far removed from the wisecracking goofball we’ve come to love. Lawrence is more than capable too, but a character shift with her in the third act never rings true. It just happens abruptly with no event or character interaction that shows us why she’s changed her mind so suddenly.

Michael Sheen makes for an interesting bit of comic relief as an android barman, functioning in a similar capacity to Kevin Spacey in Moon, but his character doesn’t serve much purpose beyond giving someone Pratt to talk to in the first act and being the bearer of that botched revelation that sends the plot spiralling downwards. Laurence Fishburne comes into the story very late and is effectively a human plot contrivance, entering to explain some important story beats and literally give our characters the key to do everything they could have used to fix this problem ages ago before leaving before we can form any attachment to him. Oh, and Andy Garcia is in the movie for one shot. Not for one scene or one line. Literally one shot. Why?

Passengers presents a believable view of the future through its stark but warm production design. It doesn’t take technology too far into the future in a way that would feel dated in just a few decades, instead amplifying our modern tech in directions they inevitably seem headed in. However, the visual effects used to create them are never fully convincing. Maybe it’s the high-quality sheen everything seems to have even when the ship is in disarray, but too often at points it can feel like the movie takes place on the set of a spaceship instead of an actual spaceship. Thomas Newman’s score is appropriately wondrous and soothing, but anyone with an ear for soundtrack will tell he is aping from a lot of his previous music here; there are moments that I swear are slightly altered copies of tunes from American Beauty, WALL-E and especially Finding Nemo.

Passengers is not the Hollywood disaster the mainstream critics would have you believe, but it is a flawed film hampered under the weight of its scope. It’s a movie that might have actually benefitted without all the high-budget glam, ignoring the action and intrigue that ruin it and instead focus on what it clearly wants to be: a love story. Films like Moon and Looper proved you can do high-concept sci-fi on a low budget without sacrificing much quality, and under those circumstances maybe its best qualities would have risen to the surface. Then again, on a low budget you’d never be able to afford Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence anyway. If you’re at all still curious, give it a watch and judge for yourself.

FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10

Starring: Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Diego Luna (Elysium), Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Them Softly), Donnie Yen (Ip Man), Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale), Alan Tudyk (Serenity), Jiang Wen (Red Sorghum), Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland)

Director: Gareth Edwards (Godzilla)

Writers: Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Ultimatum)

Runtime: 2 hours 13 minutes

Release Date: 15 December (UK), 16 December (US)

We are now getting a Star Wars movie every year for the foreseeable future. In the eyes of a fanboy, that can seem either exciting or worrying. You can certainly have too much of a good thing, and there is always the risk of running out of ideas fast. Then again, Marvel Studios has managed to keep things fresh despite now releasing two or three films a year, and Lucasfilm’s approach of exploring stories beyond the Skywalker saga in these anthology films is the best way to stave off staleness. Rogue One serves as the company’s first attempt to broaden the universe in ways only seen in expanded fiction beforehand, and if future efforts can be as solid as this then the experiment is on the right path.

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Rogue One now serves as the official story behind the Rebellion’s mission to steal the Death Star plans, erasing all previous versions of the events (apologies to Kyle Katarn). In tone and structure, it follows the template of the war movie more than Star Wars’ traditional hero’s journey, giving it a unique style right from the word go and cementing it as the first movie in the series aimed more at adults than kids; it’s like Saving Private Ryan mixed with The Dirty Dozen but with lasers and spaceships. It most closely resembles The Empire Strikes Back with its portentous atmosphere, but with the modern sense intensity and charm that The Force Awakens brought to the franchise. The film is a little slow and clunky to start as it introduces the characters and exposits the stakes, but once our band of rebels are out on their first call of duty the action only ramps up from there. Once the final act rears it gloomy head, Rogue One plunges into easily the biggest and fiercest action climax in a Star Wars movie ever before weaving itself into the original trilogy in a satisfying way that the prequel trilogy never really accomplished. There is some tension taken away considering we know where certain pieces fall into place, but it’s like a good history lesson: you know how it’ll end up, but finding out what had to be done and how is what makes it interesting.

The characters of Rogue One are a bit different to the usual noble Jedi and swarthy smugglers we’ve gotten used to. These are the grunts relegated to the background in the saga films, and though they prove to be fun and memorable heroes they aren’t quite as deep. Felicity Jones is a solid and relatable lead as Jyn Erso, probably the most immediately capable protagonist in Star Wars history, but her character lacks the definition it deserves. Her character is brought into the plot too quickly for us to get a beat on her personality, and her shift from reticent miscreant to devoted rebel soldier happens a bit abruptly. By the film’s climax she feels more complete and you’re rooting for her immensely, but a more gradual introduction and character arc would have given her more clarity early on. Similarly, Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor is given an interesting moral dilemma we haven’t really seen in a Star Wars movie that gives him an interesting conflict with Jyn, but again it gets resolved before it has a chance to breathe. The rest of the supporting rebels are given just about enough for the status of their characters, and they add a lot of heart and humour to the dourness of the picture; Donnie Yen as badass blind spiritualist Chirrut and Alan Tudyk’s hilarious Imperial droid K-2SO are constant highlights.

Ben Mendelsohn makes for an imposing threat as Orson Krennic, channelling Peter Cushing’s performance as Tarkin in some ways but with a relatable sense of hunger for respect. He could have done more to be a bigger personal threat to Jyn, especially considering his relationship with her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), but the two only encounter each other a handful of times throughout the story. Forest Whitaker as EU standby Saw Gerrera is fun to see realised on screen, but his screen time is brief and Whitaker’s voice for the character is distracting at first; he practically wheezes all of his lines. There are also a few familiar faces from the previous films, both original and prequel, who make small appearances and for the most part they are well-handled. I’ll keep most of them secret for you to enjoy, but considering Darth Vader has been all over the marketing, I can safely say his scenes are small and not completely essential to the story but are totally awesome; they almost completely redeemed the character to me after the menace was sucked out of him in the prequels.

Gareth Edwards has a much more rough-and-tumble approach to filmmaking compared to previous Star Wars directors, and he applies the same attention to scale and grandeur that gave Monsters and Godzilla a lot of their appeal to the Star Wars universe. It perfectly recaptures the look of the original trilogy but through a trodden and dirty lens, painting a picture that perfectly aligns with the characters’ lower status as cannon fodder amongst the larger conflict. As said before, the action sequences in Rogue One are its major highlight and finally give us the epic skirmishes on land and in space the original trilogy couldn’t accomplish and that the prequels couldn’t be bothered to. Every solider gunned down or starfighter destroyed hits far more than ever, which is exemplified by the glorious sound design and impeccable visual effects; definitely see this in a cinema with the best projector and sound system you can. The only note that unfortunately falls flat is Michael Giacchino’s score, which just doesn’t match the film’s tone most of the time. It feels caught between Giachinno’s style and John Williams’ and never finds a comfortable spot to call its own. It needed a darker and more sombre score that original choice for composer Alexandre Desplat certainly knows how to deliver, and I really wish I could hear what he would have brought to the table for comparison.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a promising beginning for a new series of tales to be told in this galaxy far, far away and delivers a fresh spin on familiar material by simply changing the perspective; those who found The Force Awakens too derivative and safe should hopefully be quelled by this. It really puts the “wars” of this franchise front-and-centre like never before, and what it lacks in depth and polish it more than makes up for with spectacle and grit. Gareth Edwards has essentially crafted the greatest fan film ever made, but the way it compliments A New Hope in ways that improves that film is wonderful after seeing three movies that only detracted from it. If the characters were a little more fleshed out, this had a chance of being as good as The Empire Strikes Back, but as is it still more than meets the lofty expectations.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Ryan Gosling (Drive), Emma Stone (Zombieland), John Legend (Soul Men), Rosemarie DeWitt (The Watch), Finn Wittrock (The Big Short), J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man)

Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)

Runtime: 2 hours 8 minutes

Release Date: 9 December (US), 13 January (UK)

The traditional movie musical has been dead for a long time. We have plenty of animated Disney films and adaptations of stage shows, but rarely do we see an original musical done on the scale of the golden age of cinema. Tastes have changed considerably since those times, but after so many other trends and ideas have been revived to varying success over the years it’s a surprise it took this long for someone to take another shot at one of Hollywood’s traditional genres. However, though La La Land does take most of its inspiration from films of old, it uses those tropes to tell a very modern story that deconstructs the musical genre, show business and the psyche of the modern dreamer all in one unique motion picture.

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The love story is almost always the central dynamic of a movie musical, and La La Land follows suit but through a contemporary and honest lens. They don’t fall in love at first sight, they vent and argue like normal people do, and they don’t act drastically melodramatic about their every emotion. Everything feels genuine and true to life, even somehow when they do break into song-and-dance. The plot plays like A Star is Born but in the cynical, vapid world of modern Los Angeles, with our protagonists not only struggling with their own dreams but also trying to convince an apathetic industry to care. The film doesn’t take a totally cynical approach, sprinkling in a lot of the fun and artistry of show business, but it doesn’t make the road to stardom fanciful or miraculous like a traditional musical would. It’s a film equally in love with film and music but also frustrated with all the seemingly unnecessary hardship that comes with that love.

This candid tone is brought to a fantastic conclusion in the film’s closing moments, which subverts all expectations of the genre but still feels like the only satisfying ending this story could have; anything else would feel too saccharine or too pessimistic. And yet even when La La Land plunges into the saddening truths of the search for fame, it never stops being a joy to watch. The story is constructed elegantly, it moves at a punchy pace, and there isn’t a moment that feels wasted or unnecessary. It’s a solidly entertaining ride throughout the first two thirds, but it’s that ending that pushes it over the edge from a good movie to a great one.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone already proved they have wonderful chemistry together in both Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad (more so the former than the latter), but La La Land will most likely end up being the iconic film of this on-screen couple and deservedly so. There isn’t an iota of this relationship that falls flat, and that’s mainly because there’s never a moment where they feel dishonest. Though the movie treats their courtship like a traditional musical romance on an aesthetic level, their words and actions and emotions feel like those of a real couple in this situation. Their frustrations are relatable, their flaws are incredibly apparent, and though you’ll never question whether these two are in love there is the question as to whether they should be. Gosling and Stone compliment and balance each other out perfectly, never letting one outshine the other for too long, and they captivate for the vast majority of the film’s lengthy run. The supporting cast is surprisingly minimal in presence, especially J.K. Simmons in what amounts to an extended cameo, which is somewhat disappointing but it’s no major problem. Gosling and Stone more than carry the film themselves, and the rest of the cast serve their purpose perfectly fine, so I’d call it less of a flaw and more like an overlooked opportunity.

La La Land pulls a great magic trick by managing to recreate the style of a 1950s Hollywood musical whilst not completely sugarcoating its contemporary California setting. The film of course shows iconic locales like the studio lot or the Griffith Observatory through rose-tinted lenses, but it also does the same for the less glamorous sides of the city and manages to make them look enticing without losing their grit. The cinematography is full of bright saturated colours and warm lighting to give it that nostalgic look, but it combines it with the rapid-fire editing of modern cinema to further cement the marriage between old and new. However, where La La Land doesn’t quite hit the landing is in a place where it matters most for a musical: the music. None of the songs are badly composed or lack passion, but they don’t immediately stick with you like the great musicals do; I can barely recall a single lyric. Luckily, the choreography of the numbers makes them memorable enough, especially the opening piece “Another Day of Sun” that makes a traffic jam on the freeway look like a cool place to be. But going down again, whilst Gosling and Stone shine from an acting standpoint, from a singing perspective they don’t exactly excel. Stone is more solidly consistent and manages to really shine in her final piece “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, but Gosling only just manages to be passable. He’s not distractingly off on a Russell Crowe or Pierce Brosnan level, but it’s abundantly clear he’s no professional singer.

La La Land is a wonderfully entertaining throwback film that respects the legacy it’s drawing from but keeps its eyes on the present, repurposing the magic of the traditional musical to tell a story for the lovers and dreamers of today. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s lead performances elevate the film to heights it couldn’t reach without them, and Damien Chazelle’s passionate direction brings to life a vision of modern show business that is equally mythical and truthful. It’s going to be a crowd-pleaser for sure and the awards circuit is going to eat up every bit of its nostalgic Hollywood sweetness, so definitely go see it before the critics really blow its accomplishments out of proportion. If the actual music was captivating throughout and the first two thirds were as dazzling and heartfelt as those final moments, this would easily be the best movie of the year. As it stands, it’s just a really damn great one.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson (Central Intelligence), Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Temuera Morrison (Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones), Jemaine Clement (What We Do in the Shadows), Nicole Scherzinger (Men in Black 3), Alan Tudyk (Frozen)

Directors: Ron Clements & John Musker (The Little Mermaid)

Writer: Jared Bush (Zootopia)

Runtime: 1 hour 43 minutes

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

Moana represents a lot for Walt Disney Animation Studios. It’s another step for them in their quest to revamp their Disney Princess brand for a progressive age, it’s another chance for them to step outside Western folklore in a way they haven’t tried since Mulan, and it sees long-time veteran Disney directors Ron Clements & John Musker finally step into the realm of computer animation. In a lot of ways, Moana succeeds in those lofty ambitions and does stand out from the pack of traditional Disney films, but on a mechanical level it doesn’t quite do enough to make it the instant classic it is attempting to be.

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Moana does a lot aesthetically to set the film apart from previous Disney tales, but a lot of the core components are still there. You’ve got the strong and outspoken protagonist wanting to leave the path she has been set on for something “more”, some tragic event forces her to do so but she lacks all the necessary skills, she is paired with a kooky side character whom she learns to get along with, and the two help each other get over their issues and become heroes. It’s all done with a lot of heart and passion, but it’s hard not to feel like we’ve seen this all before but in a different coat of paint. They’ve eschewed a lot of other elements like the love interest and the tragic childhood for the better, but then they’ve also avoided having a compelling main villain and an original message to its detriment.

The film is paced well but feels structurally askew with a first act that drags and a third that feels disappointingly brief (which is thankfully held together by an incredibly strong middle), but it feels very similar to Big Hero 6 in the sense it makes me wonder if they got near the end of the movie and had to rush things to fit within a 100 minute runtime. I’ll give it the final climax reveal and its resolution compliments for playing against expectations, but again it feels underdeveloped and it ultimately makes what should have been the film’s emotional denouement lack the punch it so clearly wants to deliver. I’m glad to see Disney continue to be self-aware of their clichés and trying to refine them (there are a lot more in-jokes and fourth wall moments than I expected), but in the process of retooling the formula they’ve lost some of what made it work in the first place.

The real focus of the film is less on story and more the relationship between Moana and the demigod Maui, and in this area the movie shines brightly. Moana as a character is built a lot like her predecessors, mostly feeling like a combination of Pocahontas and Mulan with dashes of Ana and Merida, but Auli’i Cravalho’s charming and enthusiastic performance helps to keep her distinctive enough. It’s a little disappointing to see the “chosen one” narrative trotted out again for her, but thankfully they don’t play it up too much. Ultimately she feels like a character defined too much by what she isn’t rather than what she is. They don’t give her a love interest, no one questions her ability to become a leader, and her gender is never even brought up detrimentally beyond a brief knowing gag. That’s all great, but there’s very little to her as a character beyond her connection with the ocean and her desire to explore it.

But whilst Moana on her own feels a bit lacking, once Dwayne Johnson’s Maui comes into the plot the movie kicks up several notches and improves every other aspect of the film by association. In a performance that owes a great deal to Robin Williams’ legendary turn as The Genie in Aladdin, Johnson lets his already cartoonish charisma go on overdrive and he steals every second of screen time he can grab. His personality finally gives Cravalho something to play off of and the pair has an adorable chemistry throughout their adventure. Rachel House and Jemaine Clement are also fantastic in their supporting roles as Moana’s kooky grandmother/mentor and an amusingly flamboyant crab respectively, but their roles are far briefer. Temuera Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger also feel a bit underdeveloped as Moana’s parents, especially Morrison as the father. He’s the main obstacle for Moana in the first act, but once you finally learn his justified motivations they are never addressed again in what feels like another concession to the story made to fit the running time.

For Clements & Musker’s first outing into computer animation, they have created one of the most beautifully animated productions the studio has put out in recent years. The environments of Polynesia makes for a welcome change of pace from the usual European fantasylands and American cities, filled with gorgeously rendered water and lush tropical islands. The character animation is also wonderfully fluid and vibrant, with the real standout being the marvellous 2D animation of Maui’s sentient tattoos. The action sequences flow with an electric sense of energy, especially a pirate sequence that plays like a child-friendly Mad Max: Fury Road on water. The film’s music from Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda is wonderfully composed and fits the environment of the story perfectly, but some of the songs do blend together and they aren’t particularly well spread out across the film. There are definitely some standouts like “We Know the Way” and Clement’s wonderfully camp “Shiny” but once again Johnson takes the gold with “You’re Welcome”, a ridiculously catchy tune that rivals Beauty and the Beast’s “Gaston” for best smug Disney song ever.

Moana is a thoroughly enjoyable animated adventure that earns a strong place in the Disney pantheon, but it doesn’t quite rise to the lofty ranks it clearly aspires to reach. There’s a lot here like Dwayne Johnson’s performance as Maui and the gorgeous animation that is up there with some of the best work the studio has put out in recent years, but it lacks a distinct sense of spirit that gives the true Disney classics their lasting power. If you’re a Disney fanatic or the parents of one, you are going to end up seeing this anyway and I’m sure you’ll have a good time. Just don’t go in expecting another Frozen.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

Starring: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice), Dan Fogler (Balls of Fury), Alison Sudol (Transparent), Colin Farrell (The Lobster), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Samantha Morton (Minority Report), Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Jon Voight (Transformers)

Director: David Yates (The Legend of Tarzan)

Writer: J.K. Rowling

Runtime: 2 hours 13 minutes

Release Date: 18 November (US, UK)

After the final Harry Potter film came to a close five years ago, it seemed like J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World had come to a conclusive end. Little bits and pieces have emerged here and there in the intervening years, but in 2016 that world has exploded back into the pop culture zeitgeist. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child arrived on London’s West End this past summer but, though having only read the script (because getting tickets to that thing right now is probably only possible if you are an actual wizard), I found it relied too much on what had already come and instead felt like well-written fan fiction. Going into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was worried it too would cling onto the events of the original series, but thankfully this is a film that expands Rowling’s universe into mostly new territory.

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Story-wise, Fantastic Beasts resembles the earlier Potter films more than the later ones, in that it does set the stage for more tales but for the most part is a self-contained story. It’s also tonally closer to the first few, focused more on exploring the fun aspects of the world rather than telling a grand hero’s journey epic. The film is at its liveliest when it’s forging a new path for itself, focusing on the titular beasts and delving into how the wizarding community works in the United States. However, the film’s seemingly main plot constantly gets sidelined by an equally interesting but underdeveloped storyline dealing with a rising anti-magic movement and a mysterious villain hiding in the shadows. For most of the film it’s only tangentially connected to Newt’s (Redmayne) story, but by the third act it completely takes over the movie. It’s almost like Rowling had two separate story ideas and decided to mash them together, and ultimately these two disparate threads compromise each other; one should have been left to the wayside or the two should have more cohesively intertwined. In spite of this, the film surprisingly flows quite smoothly and there’s certainly never a dull moment, making the two-hour-plus running time more than bearable. There is plenty of set-up and potential here for more stories, and thankfully the references to the original films are kept to an acceptable level, but hopefully next time they can decide what kind of movie they actually want to make.

Eddie Redmayne delivers a perfectly fine performance as magizoologist Newt Scamander, managing to breath some life into a character that would feel a little empty on the page. He’s a quirky and likable protagonist mainly thanks to his awkward sense of humour and genuine passion for his work, but beyond that there’s not really much too him. His past is only briefly talked about and not in much detail, and his motivations when entering the story are quickly forgotten about once the plot actually begins. He’s ultimately the least interesting character in his own movie and it’s actually the sidekicks that breathes the most life into Fantastic Beasts, particularly Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein and Dan Fogler as No-Maj Jacob Kowalski. Waterstone brings a grounded but likable performance to the table as Tina, and her character’s goals and ideals feel far more concrete than Newt’s. At points it feels like she should be the real main character considering her heavy involvement in the ballooning subplot, especially in the climax where Newt feels like a third wheel until the last moment. Fogler and Sudol are delightfully entertaining when apart, especially the former’s interactions with this fantastical world, but they are even more special when together and add a lot of much-needed heart to the film.

The rest of the supporting cast is a bit more of a mixed bag. Colin Farrell brings some interesting greyed morality as the elusive Auror Percival Graves, but given the mysterious nature of his character his most interesting traits don’t come to light until the movie is pretty much over. Ezra Miller as the tortured Creedence Barebone is equally kept way too vague a character until the third act, and just as it feels like he’s going to get some resolution he’s taken out of the movie. Samantha Morton as the leader of the anti-magic extremists is very one-note and her story feels like a remnant from an earlier draft where she was more important, as does another subplot involving Jon Voight as a newspaper mogul with a politician son; both serve their purpose in the main plot threads, but they are otherwise pretty superfluous. Ron Perlman has a fun role as goblin gangster Gnarlack but he again feels more like a plot device than an integral character, plus there are a few small roles for some recognisable names that I’ll keep as a surprise but are overall negligible.

Where Rowling has always excelled as a writer is in how she crafts an elaborate and fantastical world, and in Fantastic Beasts she has wonderfully expanded on her already rich universe that keeps the movie feeling fresh. It never feels like everything from the previous films has just been transposed to 1920s New York, instead giving the environment its own unique voice and style. There are a lot of great nuances to the production design that call back to the Potter films whilst still feeling distinctive, and the costumes feel suitably antiquated as well. The cinematography feels vibrant and warm, but the editing during a few moments feels a little clumsy. There are some jarring moments where the cuts feel abrupt, especially a really awkward series of quick cuts when Newt and Tina first meet. Fantastic Beasts relies a lot more on CGI thanks to the plethora of magical creatures crammed into the film, all of which are wonderfully designed and animated; every kid in the audience is going to want at least one of these animals as a soft toy for Christmas. James Newton Howard’s score for the film only gently calls back to the themes established by John Williams and for the most part makes the music his own, including some fun and period-appropriate infusions of jazz into the soundtrack.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fun return to Rowling’s Wizarding World that sets up a potentially interesting new franchise, but its lack of focus does work against it even during its best moments. Rowling shows a decent grasp of storytelling for the screen but there are noticeable growing pains in her shift from the prose medium, and for future instalments there needs to be a lot more streamlining to remove defects like the underdeveloped subplots and superfluous characters. The main cast all deliver, especially from Waterston and Fogler, and director David Yates’ experience on the latter half of the Potter films helps a great deal, but despite the promising start there is definitely a lot of room for improvement in all areas. But even in spite of all the noticable flaws, it remains an enjoyable ride thanks to the irresistable charm of this bounteous universe and I’m looking forward to see how the story evolves from here. As long as they can deliver that much needed focus, I’m certainly ready for another journey into this magical world.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

 

Starring: Amy Adams (Man of Steel), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), Forest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man)

Director: Denis Villeneuve (Sicario)

Writer: Eric Heisserer (Lights Out)

Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes

Release Date: 10 November (UK), 11 November (US)

Humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life has been the subject of a lot of movies. The Day The Earth Stood Still, Signs, Independence Day, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: First Contact; I could go on and on. But one aspect that is often glossed over is, “How would we even speak to them?” Most films would blow over this issue by the aliens being so advanced that they’ve already figured out our language, but if this were to happen in the real world that would be far less likely. Arrival not only tackles this subject in a fascinating way, but goes beyond just that to become one of the most affecting and relevant sci-fi films of modern cinema.

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Arrival, like all of director Denis Villeneuve’s work, is very carefully paced. There is a lot of build-up before our main characters even get to see the spacecraft, and from there the film very gradually builds the tension as the situation gets more heated. It’s a very effective mounting of events as pressure from other governments and the outside world weighs down on this situation, which gives the story a real-world atmosphere not seen since Close Encounters. Anyone expecting an alien invasion flick with a lot of explosions need not apply, as this is a film focused far more on the theory of extraterrestrial contact, so when the sh*t does start hitting the fan it feels way more impactful. All that research and discovery stuff is compelling to watch regardless though, as the amount of detail that goes into creating this alien language and how our characters delve deeper into its meaning only draws you in more. But talking about what really makes Arrival so engaging without going deep into spoilers is difficult but what I can say is that, whilst its twists aren’t exactly revolutionary to the genre, they work wonders because they tie so deeply with the film’s themes and emotions. Above everything else, this is a film about nations having to work together to move humanity forward, and in the current political and social climate that’s a message I think a lot of us can get behind.

The cast of Arrival is small but it packs a heavy punch, and Amy Adams pulls a lot of that weight as language professor turned reluctant alien translator Dr. Louise Banks. Adams has a lot of heavy material to work with but she brings a subdued determination to the role, avoiding overselling these heavy emotions and allowing the moment to let it all sink in. She’s a determined but apprehensive character, wanting to solve this crisis the best she can but she really needs time she does not have to do it effectively. It’s one of Adams’ finest performances to date, but her supporting cast aren’t too shabby either. Jeremy Renner’s scientist Ian Donnelly doesn’t get quite as much to do plot-wise, but he makes for an enjoyable presence for Adams to work off of and they have strong chemistry together. Forest Whittaker and Michael Stuhlbarg feel perfectly cast as the colonel and the CIA agent trying to lead this effort, and luckily their actions that hinder Adams’ progress don’t feel forced; they feel like natural reactions to a mounting crisis instead of the plot forcing conflict.

Villeneuve’s films always manage to fill you with a sense of dread and awe from just the visuals, and Arrival does it as well as any of them. Bradford Young’s cinematography is simply gorgeous in its grandiose simplicity, creating a hazy but chilling atmosphere whenever that looming spacecraft comes into view. The production design across the board is very minimalist but incredibly effective, giving this alien ship and its peculiar inhabitants a neutral presence that makes you question their moral alliance. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is haunting but beautiful in its straightforwardness, subtly pulling on your emotions in the background rather than drawing attention away from the visuals. With a fantastic technical presentation like this, it only makes me more excited to see what Villeneuve can do with Blade Runner 2049 next year.

Arrival is a great example of a simple concept executed to perfection. Villeneuve has managed to do for the genre of science fiction what he did for the thriller with Prisoners and make a seemingly simple but marvelously detailed and emotionally wrenching movie. Not every piece of it is a new invention for the medium, but it takes a lot of the concepts we are familiar with from first contact sci-fi stories and sheds new light on them from a modern perspective. Like Zootopia did earlier this year, this film really shows why as a society we are failing and offers an encouraging message about cooperation for the betterment of everyone. 2016 hasn’t been a great year for cinema, but this would be a crowning gem in any of them.

FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Rachel McAdams (Mean Girls), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man), Benjamin Bratt (Demolition Man), Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale), Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer)

Director: Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us from Evil)

Writers: Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill (Sinister)

Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes

Release Date: 25 October (UK), 4 November (US)

OK, now Marvel Studios is really pushing it. They’ve made a general audience accept Norse gods, talking trees and shrinking people, and now they’re throwing sorcery into the mix. Doctor Strange is a character that really should not work on the big screen given the complex nature of its premise and visuals. Adapting Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s kaleidoscopic interpretation of the mystic realms into live action is a daunting task, and in the wrong hands it could easily end up in Green Lantern territory. Thankfully, Marvel has once again managed to accomplish the impossible by not only bringing the Sorcerer Supreme to life, but also making a visually dazzling and solidly entertaining movie in the process.

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The basic story of Doctor Strange is probably the most staid aspect of the film, but providing a simple groundwork for what is otherwise a really trippy movie is a smart move. Basically functioning like a mash-up of the plots of Iron Man (rich jerk rediscovers his humanity and becomes a superhero) and Batman Begins (guy travels to Asia looking for guidance and training from a monk-like order), it’s a fairly standard superhero origin story but it’s effectively told and all the unique trappings help keep it fresh. Like Thor, the film manages to bridge the gap between science and magic and explains the mystical arts Strange learns over the course of the story in a breezy fashion. All of these supernatural elements create a great sandbox for the film to play in, resulting in some incredibly creative and outright bizarre sequences. The film has a really great pace to it mainly thanks to exciting action set pieces and a lot of well-timed humour, but it does have some humanity and grounds itself just enough with some genuine human drama. It doesn’t exactly break the mould for Marvel from a storytelling perspective, but it makes up for it by doing everything incredibly well and it had me smiling in amazement throughout its runtime. It mostly stands on its own from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe barring a few cute nods, but the potential for this corner of the world to become prominent in the future is abundantly clear and should not be skipped by anyone wanting the full picture on this ever-expanding domain.

Benedict Cumberbatch seems born to play Doctor Stephen Strange, and after seeing his performance I can’t imagine why they would have considered anyone else for the role. He plays Strange as arrogant and self-impressed, eager to crack a joke even if purely for his own amusement, which makes him a fun character to watch even when we’re not supposed to like him. Cumberbatch does sometimes look like he’s stealing from Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark shtick, but he brings his own personal sense of charm to the character and that’s what ultimately sets him apart. He’s certainly the shining star of the movie but the supporting cast is equally excellent all around, even though some of them do get short shrift. Chiwetel Ejiofor provides a fascinating performance as Baron Mordo, bringing humanity to the character rarely seen and sets him up perfectly for bigger things in future movies; this is exactly what I wanted from Sinestro in Green Lantern and didn’t get. Benedict Wong is equally fantastic as Wong, who provides a lot of humour with his deadpan delivery and is certainly a step-up from the outdated interpretation from the original comic books. Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One was the cause of a lot of controversy prior to release, but she plays the character with such an air of mysticism that it’s kind of hard to pin down if she even has a racial or sexual identity. It’s a unique view on the character that I personally enjoyed, and it circumvents the allegations well enough that it didn’t bother me as I watched it.

Unfortunately, everyone else feels a little marginalised. Rachel McAdams is strong when she’s there as Christine Palmer, helping to provide an emotional core and moral compass to Strange, but story wise she doesn’t have a huge impact on the film. Michael Stuhlbarg and Benjamin Bratt are equally redundant, with Stuhlbarg mainly serving as the butt of a few jokes and Bratt’s only real purpose is to get Strange started on his journey; why hire such great and recognisable faces for such thankless roles? Marvel has always had problems creating iconic villains, and they still haven’t quite fixed that problem with Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius. Mikkelsen’s performance is strong, the character’s motivation has some sense to it (even if it is once again about destroying the world), and he has a lot of great antagonistic chemistry with Cumberbatch, but his limited screen time doesn’t allow for much development and he ultimately feels more like an obstacle rather than a nemesis for Strange.

What Doctor Strange needed to nail above all else was translating Steve Ditko’s incredible artwork into something tangible, and this film succeeds in that area with flying colours. This is a gorgeous movie to behold on every technical level, going beyond even what the Thor movies managed to accomplish by creating such a vivid and fascinating world out of the most batsh*t ideas ever. The design of the sets and the costumes are absolutely spot-on, with Strange’s iconic costume brought to life in perfect detail without at all looking ridiculous, and Michael Giacchino’s score beautifully combines the bombast of his Star Trek compositions with Eastern influences and psychedelic rock to brilliant effect. But what impresses most of all are the visual effects, which generate all these different dimensions in ways I’ve never seen in a big budget blockbuster. It is a hallucinatory and jaw-dropping experience to watch any time characters begin shifting reality and breaking physics, and whenever it’s used for action scenes it results in some of the most inventive and outright fun fight sequences in recent memory. If it weren’t for The Jungle Book providing stiff competition, I’d say give the VFX team behind this movie the Oscar right now.

Doctor Strange is yet another excellent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon, bringing a much-beloved cult figure of the comic books to the screen in a respectful and awesome to behold fashion. What it lacks in story originality it more than makes up for with aesthetic creativity, and the cast gives it their all even when the characters aren’t all there from a development standpoint. If you’re a Marvel junkie, you were probably going to see it anyway but now you know it’s more than worth it. If you’re on the fence I’d say definitely give it a try, especially if you’re up for something visually arresting (side note: the 3D is actually well worth it on this one). Even if you’re totally sick of Marvel films, I think it has enough to make it stand out. Essentially, my point is: GO SEE THIS MOVIE!!!

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Tom Cruise (Edge of Tomorrow), Cobie Smulders (The Avengers), Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton), Danika Yarosh (Heroes Reborn), Patrick Heusigner (Frances Ha)

Director: Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond)

Writers: Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai)

Runtime: 1 hour 58 minutes

Release Date: 20 October (UK), 21 October (US)

The first Jack Reacher film wasn’t well received by everyone, but I was amongst those who praised it for being a welcome throwback to action thrillers of the 70s and 80s with a slick modern paintjob. The action was visceral, it had a charming sense of humour, and Tom Cruise imbued Reacher with an entertaining mix of charisma and brutality. I thought it would make a great ongoing franchise for Cruise to jump into between impossible missions, but its marginal profits made a sequel seem doubtful for a while. Thankfully, the numbers just about worked out and now Reacher’s journey continues in Never Go Back. Unfortunately, it’s not quite the follow-up I was hoping for.

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Never Go Back starts off strong enough with a fun opening sequence that perfectly brings the audience back into the life of Jack Reacher, but that’s sadly where it peaks. The main plot this time around goes for more of a Bourne-light feel with our main characters on the run whilst unravelling some government conspiracy, which ultimately seems less fresh than the first’s homicide investigation. The stakes are fairly low and the mystery itself isn’t that intriguing, making the film feel more like a middling episode of a military drama than a cinematic action movie. Even the third act feels incredibly underwhelming as the main conflict being resolved with half an hour still to go, resulting in them pulling an unnecessary chase scene out of their arses just to give it a climax. The film’s comedic moments are also far less frequent and nowhere near as witty, with some of Reacher’s witty remarks feeling more like Schwarzenegger quotes than clever repartee. The absence of Christopher McQuarrie as writer/director is gravely felt throughout Never Go Back’s entire runtime, and whilst Edward Zwick is a worthy replacement he fails to bring anything new to the table. It’s never a boring watch, as the action is still frequent and there are a few moments of comedic brilliance, but there’s very little about it that you couldn’t find in any other action movie.

Tom Cruise is rarely one to phone in a performance, and in Never Go Back he’s still giving it his all despite the lesser material. Jack Reacher is still very much the gruff but charming loner he was in the first, and Cruise once again convinces in the role in spite of his stature. The film delves a little more into Reacher’s softer side with the introduction Danika Yarosh as his maybe-daughter Sam, but thankfully it doesn’t distract too much from all the beat-downs he gives throughout the movie. Cobie Smulders is the film’s real revelation, getting far more opportunities to kick ass than she has in any of the Marvel movies and proves herself a worthy action heroine in her own right. At certain points, I began to wonder why the movie wasn’t focused on her instead, with Reacher operating more as the Mad Max to her Furiosa. Yarosh is decent enough playing the rebellious teenager archetype, but she so often complains about Reacher not trusting her and then immediately does something stupid that it’s hard to sympathise with her. The rest of the cast is pretty interchangeable, filled with a bunch of belligerent military types and shady mercenaries, which only makes the film feel even more like a Bourne rip-off.

The action in the first Jack Reacher was well done thanks to restrained cinematography and good choreography. In Never Go Back, it falls back into the clichés of the modern action movie with quick cuts that obscure all the fun. It’s not done with total incompetence and they do still have energy to them, but there is not a single standout sequence in this sequel compared to the plethora of them found in the original. The film doesn’t make particularly good use of its locations either, with no real sense of identity that makes Washington DC and New Orleans the only places this story could have taken place in; considering the first film made Pittsburgh look interesting, that’s a damn shame.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back does just about enough to remain an engaging watch, but it’s nothing that demands the cinematic experience; wait for it to pop up on Netflix or late at night on TV. Cruise remains an engaging lead and Smulders shows she has real chops as an action star, but the plot is incredibly formulaic and it doesn’t take enough advantage of what made Jack Reacher such a fun ride. If the franchise manages to soldier on, I hope they’ll learn from their missteps here. Bring back McQuarrie, bring back the fun, and maybe we can have another Jack Reacher story worth telling.

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10