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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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!!!


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.


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.


Starring: Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Justin Theroux (Mulholland Drive), Luke Evans (Dracula Untold), Edgar Ramirez (Joy), Allison Janney (Juno)

Director: Tate Taylor (The Help)

Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson (Men, Women & Children)

Runtime: 1 hour 52 minutes

Release Date: 5 October (UK), 7 October (US)

It’s great to see directors take on different genres and styles; it proves they are versatile storytellers. However, some directors are better off staying away from certain types of films, and it’s only more disconcerting when it’s clear they are trying to imitate another director’s sensibilities. Steven Spielberg’s attempt to mimic Stanley Kubrick with AI was mixed at best, whilst Peter Berg aping Michael Bay with Battleship proved there is a warped artistry to Bay’s style that can’t simply be copied. The novel The Girl on the Train was marketed as the next Gone Girl, and so it only seems natural that the film adaptation would go for a style similar to David Fincher. But this film doesn’t have Fincher and so, like those previous attempts at replication, all that leaves us with is a competent but artistically blank movie.


The Girl on the Train is structurally similarly to Gone Girl by following multiple viewpoints both past and present, but it lacks the pacing and tension of the former. It’s about half an hour in before the main crisis even occurs, and it’s only once the second reaches its close does the situation even begin to seem taut. This may be mainly because the mystery itself lacks much depth, hiding its skeletal frame behind lots of scenes of Rachel (Blunt) wandering around intoxicated and remember how much of a f*ck-up she is. The principal cast is simply way too small and the details far too restrictive to allow the possibilities to run wild, leading to only a handful of potential scenarios before the ultimately lacklustre reveal. The warped perspective of Rachel does help keep things up in the air, and an important character reveal is well done and completely makes you re-evaluate the entire situation, but even in that moment it quickly becomes far too clear what is actually going on. The final act does manage to wring some suspense out of the ordeal and finally reveals the grit the film lacked earlier, but it’s all too little too late. I suspect the story may have flowed better as a novel, but in translation it just doesn’t come across as anything particularly noteworthy in the mystery thriller genre.

What thankfully saves the movie are some strong performances from the principal cast, particularly Emily Blunt as the perpetually in-torment Rachel. Her portrayal of an alcoholic feels genuine and depressing, and no matter the situation she holds your attention throughout. She’s not an easy character to like, especially in the first half where it’s easy to write her off as pathetic, but by the end you’re rooting for her and without Blunt the film could have easily fallen apart. Haley Bennett as missing person and secondary protagonist Megan is also excellent, painted with similar shades to Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl but with far more sympathy and relatability; you don’t exactly like her, but you at least understand her. Rebecca Ferguson’s Anna doesn’t get nearly enough screen time and you could easily deduce she is unlikable, but given her situation you can’t blame her for being untrusting and Ferguson does a good job of balancing the line of morality. The rest, however, aren’t quite as successful. Both Justin Theroux and Luke Evans feel far too one-dimensional and on-the-nose in their performances, making it easy to guess the roads they’re going to go down. Edgar Ramirez doesn’t exactly stand out in a role that could have been played by any number of actors, and by the third act both he and Evans completely disappear from the plot. Allison Janney’s detective is also pretty poor; she doesn’t solve anything and instead spends most of the movie making wild presumptions and patronising Blunt.

Tate Taylor’s background as a director is in light-hearted dramas, so shifting from that into a murder mystery is a hard but not impossible task. However, instead of finding his own way of telling the story, Taylor too often feels like he is imitating David Fincher without fully grasping that style. The film is competently constructed on all technical levels, but nothing particularly stands out. With the bland cinematography, acceptable editing and forgettable score (which I should not be saying about anything composed by Danny Elfman), the film lacks any kind of voice in its presentation. Taylor’s influence is felt in the more dramatic scenes and he does a good job of presenting Rachel’s mindset visually, but anything that’s meant to be thrilling feels adequate at best. By attempting to replicate another director’s style, he’s only gone and lost his own voice in the process.

The Girl on the Train isn’t a complete waste of time thanks to Emily Blunt’s performance alone, but everything else about it only feels a slight grade above what you’d get on the average crime drama: mildly thrilling, but nothing you’re going to remember for long. It lacks an identity of its own, clinging to the aesthetics of its spiritual brethren and disguising its lack of complexity with a lot of alcoholic melodrama. Maybe that’s enough for the average audience, but if you’re at all savvy when it comes to these kinds of movies it’s going to be far too easy to figure out what’s going on.


Starring: Denzel Washington (Man on Fire), Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Ethan Hawke (Sinister), Vincent D’Onofrio (Jurassic World), Byung-hun Lee (GI Joe: Retaliation), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Cake), Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett (Hardcore Henry), Peter Sarsgaard (Green Lantern)

Director: Antoine Fuqua (Training Day)

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (The Equalizer)

Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes

Release Date: 23 September (US, UK)

In this landscape of remakes and reboots, a new version of The Magnificent Seven honestly isn’t such a bad idea. The original 1960 classic is itself a westernised retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai, and there’s plenty to improve on considering the dated and somewhat un-PC elements of the original film. For this new version, Antoine Fuqua has taken what worked best about both previous versions and given it a modern polish, making for a movie that isn’t necessarily better than either incarnation but is a solid and entertaining western shoot-em-up in its own right.


The basic premise of a town under threat and the band of heroes assembled to protect it stays pretty much the same, but a lot has been done to update the story for a modern audience. Instead of violent bandits oppressing the town, we have a tyrannical tycoon taking it over. Rather than merely raiding it for supplies, our villain Bogue (Sarsgaard) has complicated motives regarding the relationship between capitalism and God, which also helps give the film greater themes than just “being mean is bad, and teamwork is good”. But most importantly, our titular group is a far more diverse bunch both in terms of skill set and ethnicity (which is refreshingly not made a big deal about). The story certainly has its sombre and emotional moments but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, often feeling tonally closer to a Marvel movie than a classic western, but it’s a welcome take on the genre and for Fuqua’s usually po-faced filmmaking in general. The pacing does lull a bit in the middle as we venture into the typical recruiting of the team, but it does give us time to get to know these characters and only further builds anticipation for the inevitable confrontation. There’s only a few small action beats sprinkled through the first two thirds of the film, all of which are well executed, but once the third act kicks in the movie explodes into a bonanza of gunfire. There is not a moment wasted in the entire sequence, making for an action extravaganza on par with some of the best set pieces of the year so far.

The original Magnificent Seven consisted of some of the manliest men in Hollywood at the time such as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn, and the new team equally reflects today’s perception of the action hero. Denzel Washington once again teams with Fuqua to deliver a typically Denzel performance, stepping into the equivalent shoes of Brynner and making for the perfect leader of this team. Similarly, Chris Pratt is allowed to do what he does best as the wisecracking Farraday and his performance and chemistry with Washington helps keep the film consistently lively. The rest of the Seven don’t get quite as much focus as Washington or Pratt, but they all manage to leave an impression with what they have. Ethan Hawke initially seems perfunctory but is given some depth with his morality regarding violence, and his buddy relationship with the badass Byung-hun Lee further adds to the team dynamic. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo brings some grit as the outlaw of the team, with the back-and-forth between him and Pratt adding more humour, and Martin Sensmeier’s turn as the quiet Comanche warrior Red Harvest is small but memorable. Vincent D’Onofrio pretty much steals every moment he gets as the gentle giant Jack Horne, flitting from reserved mountain man to brutalising berserker at the drop of a hat without losing any of his likability. Rounding out the cast is Haley Bennett as instigator of the team Emma Cullen, who quickly proves herself a character worthy enough to perhaps join this band in the future, and though Peter Sarsgaard’s Bogue is hardly the most nuanced villain he does drench the character with as much slime as he can to make him truly despicable.

As previously mentioned, the action on display in this new Magnificent Seven is easily its biggest draw and what makes it so entertaining once the bullets start flying. Fuqua’s ability to direct action has certainly only gotten better since efforts like Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer, but even with the restriction of a PG-13/12A rating he manages to keep it just as brutal. The cinematography and editing practically morph whenever the mood changes; most of the movie has the look and tempo of a classic western, but it quickly adapts to a modern action feel with little jarring effect. The music is also wonderful, not only for featuring the iconic theme song but it also has the sad of honour of being the late James Horner’s final score. His compositions, completed with the assistance of frequent collaborator Simon Franglen, feature all of Horner’s trademarks and acts as a beautiful swansong to one of the great composers of our time.

The Magnificent Seven doesn’t change the game in regards to remakes of classics or the place of westerns in the modern cinema landscape, but it’s certainly an entertaining time at the movies. It captures the spirit of the original whilst not being overly reverent to it and mostly does its own thing, which is exactly what a great remake should do. The cast is an overall success, the story remains as timeless as ever but updated just enough to modern taste, and the action never lets up once it starts. Whether this is the start of a new franchise or just a one-off tribute to the original, it’s something definitely worth checking out whether you love old school westerns, modern action or, most ideally, both.


Starring: Jane Levy (Evil Dead), Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps), Daniel Zovatto (It Follows), Stephen Lang (Avatar)

Director: Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead)

Writers: Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues (Evil Dead)

Runtime: 1 hour 28 minutes

Release Date: 26 August (US), 9 September (UK)

One of the main reasons a lot of horror movies don’t scare me is because I know it’s not real, but that’s doubled whenever dealing with the supernatural. I’m not a superstitious person, so rarely after watching a movie involving ghosts or zombies or what-have-you do I find myself still in fear because I know that kind of thing would never happen to me. Even most slasher movies don’t get to me because they start over the top or degenerate into the fantastical like the Halloween franchise did. I still enjoy them from a cinematic perspective; I just don’t find them scary. What does get to me, however, is when horror movies deal with real-life terrors. For example, Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are scary because they, for the most part, feel like they could actually happen. Don’t Breathe falls into this camp by deriving scares from a realistic situation, never cheating in its objectives or falling back on the supernatural, to deliver easily the best horror movie of the year so far.


Don’t Breathe has an incredibly basic premise and wastes no time getting to the meat of the story. It results in a somewhat rushed beginning, but within it is packed all the basic motivation and information you need to get behind these characters. From there, the tension begins to build and pretty much never stops. Every other beat there’s a new obstacle to overcome, and every lull in suspense is quickly made up for with a jolt of fear. The plot has just enough twists to keep you guessing and increase the stakes, but the story remains tightly focused thanks to its enclosed setting and minimal cast. It mostly plays out like a mixture of Panic Room and Hard Candy, but the presence of Stephen Lang’s Blind Man gives it shades of Alien and Predator as our protagonists sneak their way around him. The film occasionally relies on jump scares but they never feel forced or undeserved, and ingenious sequences like the blacked-out basement and dog-and-car scenes more than make up for it. By the film’s third act all bets are off as to what could happen, and the film’s ending is satisfying but doesn’t forget to leave you with a lurking sense of dread. My only flaw with the story is that the film’s opening shot, whilst cleverly done and perfectly sets the mood, is an in media res moment before cutting back to a few days earlier; it results in you knowing that at least two characters will survive to that moment, taking away some of the surprise until the plot catches up.

The cast of Don’t Breathe is kept pretty small; with the exception of a few minor characters in the film’s bookends, it’s basically just three twenty-somethings and a badass blind pensioner in a house. Jane Levy, teamed once again with her Evil Dead director Fede Alvarez, delivers a strong performance as main character Rocky. She’s not exactly a saint considering the lengths she’s going to just for some money, but her motivations are completely justified and they just about manage to keep her in the sympathetic camp. Dylan Minnette as Alex is the more doe-eyed reluctant member of the group, mainly acting as the voice of reason who just wants to get out of this nightmare, but again his motives and personality justify the times he makes rash decisions. Daniel Zovatto is easily the weakest of the bunch as scumbag Money; you know he’s going to get what’s coming to him from scene one, but he at least serves the purpose of setting the stakes. But the real scene-stealer is Lang as the Blind Man, who barely says a word of dialogue until the third act but gets across so much through simple things like body language and rate of breathing. He’s more of a creature than a man at points, like a more realistic Michael Myers with far more efficient combat skills, but he has just enough humanity to make him both somewhat relatable and yet so incredibly terrifying.

Alvarez’s experience on Evil Dead definitely shows here, and now he seems far more comfortable with elements like tone and atmosphere. The cinematography uses a lot of long takes to both build tension and familiarize the audience with the terrain of the house and, whilst the camera does sometimes linger too long on an object just to set it up for later, the effect works brilliantly in the long run. The sound mixing is very strong as well, with plenty of sparse moments as our characters try to avoid being found out by Lang followed by the intensity of running feet and gunshots. The filmmakers have also done a great job of making Hungary look like a Detroit suburb; fairly easy for the most part considering the enclosed location for the majority of the film, but even when out in the open it’s entirely convincing compared to other productions.

Don’t Breathe will take your breath away, pun intended. It’s an intense ride from start to finish with well-executed scares, strong performances, and a plot far more intricate and entertaining that I expected. Whilst it didn’t exactly scare the pants off me, I found myself actually invested in the characters and wracked with tension during the really intense scenes, so those who do scare easily and crave that sensation will totally have a blast with it. It’s a vast improvement over Alvarez’s so-so Evil Dead, and I hope from here on out he takes on more original concepts like this with producer Sam Raimi at his side rather than competently rehashing the latter’s already perfect movies.


P.S. I’ve posted the trailer here as usual, but I honestly recommend you don’t watch it as it spoils a few key moments; I didn’t watch it before I saw the movie and I’m glad I didn’t. Watch at your own risk.

Starring: Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones), Ralph Fiennes (Hail, Caesar!), George Takei (Star Trek), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar)

Director: Travis Knight

Writers: Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (ParaNorman)

Runtime: 1 hour 41 minutes

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

In the wonderful landscape of animated movies we live in now, Laika is a company that is getting constantly overlooked. All of their movies so far (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) have been wonderfully imaginative and beautifully crafted, bringing a much needed darker vision to a genre that generally plays it safe, but nowhere near enough people actually bother to see them. Maybe it’s because they’re so aesthetically different or they don’t have the brand recognition of a Disney or a DreamWorks, but whatever the reason Laika has yet to have a big smash success. Kubo and the Two Strings is their latest effort and certainly their most ambitious film so far, and whilst I again worry the general audience will look over it, those who do see should find that it’s probably their best and most accessible movie to date.


Kubo follows a very traditional hero’s journey plotline with our young hero sent off on a quest with his quirky companions to collect three magic MacGuffins to fight off the big evil guy at the end, but not only is it a well-told version of that classic tale it is one embellished with wonderful details and themes. Similar to the Kung Fu Panda series and Avatar: The Last Airbender, the film doubles as a wonderful lesson in Eastern folklore and philosophy that’s understandable for children, using those as a great backbone for its messages about family, storytelling and loss. The story for the most part is fairly predictable with twists that older audiences should see coming, but the third act culminates in an unexpected and emotional way that eschews the traditional action climax for something more fitting of the film’s themes. What ultimately keeps Kubo moving along at such a breezy pace is its subdued but charming sense of humour and its warm heart. There is never a moment where the pacing drags, the jokes aren’t gut-busting but they add a lot of charm, and every key emotional beat hits home every time. It’s certainly the closest Laika has every come to making a traditional family movie, but all of their trademarks are still there and that element of darkness only makes those bright spots feel more earned.

The cast of Kubo is pretty small, but that only allows for more time to focus on our main players. Kubo himself is probably the least interesting character of the bunch, but he’s still a likable presence with a cheeky sense of humour and Art Parkinson really sells the earnestness of the character. The real main attractions of the picture are Charlize Theron’s Monkey and Matthew McConaughey’s Beetle, with the two of them together making for an excellent double act. Monkey’s po-faced seriousness and determination is perfectly balanced out by Beetle’s scatterbrained goofiness, but they both have their solemn moments together too and their relationship with Kubo forms the emotional core of the film. Ralph Fiennes has limited screen time as the antagonistic Moon King, his character being talked about far more than actually seen, but he makes for a refreshing villain in a kids’ movie in that his motivations have a certain sense of logic to them. Rooney Mara as his masked twin minions The Sisters serve as the more physical threat, and Mara’s chilling voice perfectly suits this pair of twisted characters that are sure to give some kids nightmares. Combined with some smaller roles from recognisable voices like George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and you’ve got yourself a strong cast behind all the magic.

As strong as their stories are, the real wonder of watching a Laika movie is all of the artistry that goes into making it, and Kubo is easily their most complex and beautiful film so far. It becomes incredibly hard to tell at points where the stop-motion ends and the computer animation takes over, with both elements blending perfectly together to create a seamlessly wondrous image. The whole movie is fantastically imaginative in how everything is designed and brought to life from how Kubo brings his origami to life with his guitar to the giant monsters he and his companions have to battle; be sure to stay through the credits for Laika’s usual behind-the-scenes bit that shows off how they accomplished one of the movie’s most spectacular scenes practically. Music plays a key role in the plot of Kubo, so it’s only natural that the film’s music lives up to the visuals. Dario Marianelli’s score is a wonderful blend of traditional Japanese music with a more western orchestral score, all of topped off by Regina Spektor’s beautiful cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; it compliments the movie perfectly and it’s one of the best Beatles covers made for a film since Fiona Apple’s “Across The Universe” from Pleasantville.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a stunning piece of filmmaking from start to finish, telling a simple but appealing story that takes advantage of everything the medium of animation allows. It’s certainly toned down compared to Laika’s previous films, but it retains enough of their unique style to both appeal to a wider audience and still be unequivocally theirs. Whilst the summer blockbusters have fallen, animation in 2016 has remained strong throughout this year and Kubo certainly stands amongst not only the best animated films of the year but with the best films in general so far this year. Don’t let this one pass under the radar like Laika’s previous efforts. Go see it in a movie theatre and support film that not only deserves your money but also desperately needs it.


Starring: Seth Rogen (This Is the End), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins), Edward Norton (Fight Club), David Krumholtz (10 Things I Hate About You), Salma Hayek (Desperado), Nick Kroll (Vacation), James Franco (127 Hours), Jonah Hill (War Dogs), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man)

Directors: Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs. Aliens) & Greg Tiernan (Thomas & Friends: Hero of the Rails)

Writers: Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir (The Night Before) & Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (Superbad)

Runtime: 1 hour 29 minutes

Release Date: 12 August (US), 2 September (UK)

There’s a stigma in our Western culture that animated films are just for kids, and I think that’s a shame. Animation is just another way of telling stories, a medium that can accomplish things that simply cannot be done in live-action, and whilst countries like Japan understand that, Western animated films for adults are extremely rare. The fact that no one has ever done a feature-length parody of animated family movies is frankly bizarre, but who better than Seth Rogen and his band of usual suspects to finally break that barrier with Sausage Party.


Just again up front in case you haven’t got the message: this film is definitely NOT for kids! Sausage Party is vulgar enough to shock even the most well balanced adult, and any child who somehow manages to watch this is probably going to need therapy. If you are easily offended by jokes dealing with race, religion or sexuality, this is also definitely not a film for you. This is the kind of movie that takes a jab at everyone and doesn’t care about things like modesty or political correctness. It most reminded me of the works of Trey Parker & Matt Stone in that way, and also much like both South Park and Team America it uses crass humour to ultimately talk about social issues. Sausage Party uses the template of a Pixar movie not just to make gags about weed and f*cking, but also to discuss the effect of religion on our society and how it can limit our perspective on alternative views. This at first can make the film look like a putdown piece by made by self-important liberal atheists, but the film soon acknowledges that the drastic alternative of slandering those beliefs only leads to more chaos and that a compromise needs to be found. It’s a smart and forward-looking film that uses our culture’s ideologies and stereotypes to paint a metaphorical picture of our world and then just goes bananas. The third act is where the movie really just dives into insanity, delivering a climax that is as surreal as it is hilarious before diving into one of the most debauched scenes ever put to animation and a sequel hook that is quite literally out of this world. The plot isn’t always the most coherent, especially in a moment in the third act where several characters just show up with only a hand wave explanation as to how they got there, but for the most part this is a solidly written and consistently hilarious piece of satire that will stand the test of time.

Taking food and giving it a personality may seem like a bizarre and difficult task, but Sausage Party makes it seem effortless. Sure, the film does rely a lot on stereotypes to create its cast, but it never feels derogatory and they mine some good humour out of it. Seth Rogen as lead sausage Frank is basically just playing another variant on his own personality again, but as the closest thing to a straight man this movie has it’s a characterisation that works and allows the rest of the cast to bounce off of him with their wackier characters. Kristen Wiig as the voluptuous bun Brenda is a lot of fun as the “religious” character in denial of the truth (similar to Wiig’s arc in Paul), and her chemistry with both Rogen and Salma Hayek’s taco Teresa works wonders. Edward Norton and David Krumholtz as a bagel and a lavash who constantly bicker is full of comedic gold, with Norton especially shining with a spot-on Woody Allen impersonation, and the way their relationship culminates is both hilarious and emblematic of the whole film’s message. There are so many other great characters like Bill Hader’s shamanistic Firewater or Michael Cera’s diminutive sausage Barry, but the real scene-stealer is Nick Kroll as the film’s villain. I don’t want to reveal his character’s identity in case you don’t know, but for such a stupid joke it creates a goldmine of a comedic antagonist.

Sausage Party takes full advantage of the medium of animation to tell its story, accomplishing gags and set pieces far too insane to be done in live-action. The only problem is that the animation quality itself is a little lacking in detail. There are many moments where it does shine, mainly in the especially graphic scenes, but for the most part it doesn’t look worthy of a theatrical film; it looks far more like what you’d see in an advert or a TV show aimed at toddlers. This could have been circumvented if the film acknowledged the lower quality through a gag, kind of like how Team America took advantage of the limitations of the marionette format to create jokes, but that’s never even touched on here. The designs of the characters is also a little unimaginative, with most just coming down to sticking googly eyes and Mickey Mouse-style limbs on the food. Some are more creative like the curvaceous hot dog buns with vertical mouths or how the hole of Norton’s bagel is also his mouth, but ultimately the designs feel too flat and it never truly feels like this movie could blend in with a film by Disney or DreamWorks. Making up for that, however, is Disney musical legend Alan Menken not only co-writing the score to the film but also composing the original song “The Great Beyond”; it’s a wonderful little piece that perfectly meshes the uplifting music of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid with the satirical and foul-mouthed personality of the movie.

Sausage Party is the perfect antidote to what has honestly been one of the weakest summer movie seasons in recent years. It goes beyond merely lampooning its target to create a film hilarious enough to stand up on its own, whilst at the same time making a humorous but relevant nonetheless statement about our culture’s tendency to accept the easy lie over the harsh truth. This is a movie that could finally shift the landscape for Western animation away from just material aimed at families, and if Rogen and co’s sequel promise comes to fruition then we’re in for an even crazier ride next time. Just get a bigger budget for your animation next time, OK?