The Darkest Minds (2018)

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Just when you thought it was safe to think Young Adult tales of togetherness, political angst and romance were over, this film powers up and hits the big screen. ‘The Darkest Minds’ does little to feel any fresher than what we’ve seen countless times before and the script is muddled and tiresome.

A lethal disease has taken the lives of 90% of children under 18; the ones that survived developed powers from telekinesis to more dangerous enhancements. 16 year old Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) is trying to hide the fact she possesses one of the more extreme powers and goes on the run with three other super-teens to try and find a place where everyone is equal and safe from children’s camps.

Of course this film proudly screams it’s producing credits of ‘Arrival’ and ‘Stranger Things’, pretending this will be a film of similar genre and calibre and it definitely misses the latter desire. There are clear echoes of the hit Netflix show and in turn ‘E.T’ here; with the group of kids walking deserted train tracks, evading vehicles on empty streets with their powers and trying to stick together against the violent motives held by government figures but none of the acting, dialogue or visuals are as exciting or tensely dramatic as in ST or E.T.

Chad Hodge’s screenplay becomes a messy shambles and seems to just repeat ideas, most likely explained better in the novel but to no climactic gain here. Conversations about factions of authorities like Tracers or League cohorts become more infuriating to listen to and Ruby just floats between running away and coming back again in what is a highly yawn inducing watch. Ruby’s powers also seem to develop and change depending on the plot needing a way out, the villain is introduced too late and is a weak adversary, it’s not even a surprising turn of events to counter balance the feeble storytelling.

Every now and then, there are some neat uses of effects; be it practical or computer generated. There’s also a short-lived but cool moment of entrapment set up in an abandoned mall. Aside from those examples and the talents of the lead female actor, this is one of those tween sci-fi dramas that thinks its premise is way more captivating and smart than it really is.

Stenberg is good I have to admit, it’s almost like she’s trying to keep her head above the water of this sinking, stinking ship and she just about manages to do so. Skylan Brooks is probably the only other performing highlight of this movie, playing the intelligent and cool Chubs. Liam, played by Harris Dickinson looks too old to be a romantic interest for Ruby and uses his forceful power to somehow make us believe these two are in love. The pairing is hugely jarring and there’s no chemistry to speak of. Lastly, Gwendoline Christie gets the Captain Phasma treatment, by being severely underused in a role that could have been more interesting and corrupt.

‘The Darkest Minds’ is boring and nothing we haven’t already seen, it even comes complete with ‘Hunger Games’ inspired hands-up-into-the-air-in-unison moment. The film seems to think they’re kicking off another YA franchise but all I can hope is that never happens.

3.5/10

 

 

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Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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It wasn’t a long time ago, on a cinema screen not that far away, that we had a Star Wars adventure to revel in. Moving on from the hugely divisive ‘The Last Jedi’, we get this spin-off story which centres on Han Solo and his life before turning into Harrison Ford.

On a less than glamorous planet, lives Han (Alden Ehrenreich) who aspires to be a pilot and see the stars with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). As they attempt an escape, Han ends up by himself and over subsequent years he clings onto any person or team he can, in the hope to make some money, get a ship and find Qi’ra again.

I’ll hold my hands up and say I’m not the biggest Star Wars fanboy. I know enough of the originals to get by and find the recent offerings to be entertaining but hearing that Han was to get a feature, wasn’t something I had any feeling about whatsoever and it still vaguely feels that way after watching the film. It’s enjoyable enough and deepens Han and his world but it never blew me away or felt like something I’d choose to watch more than the one time.

This movie has numerous flaws and a big one lays within the comedic elements the script strains to lean towards at times. The writing of these lighter lines sound forced and maybe boil down to the aftermath of the troubled production; what with previous comedy duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller being kicked out and replaced by Ron Howard. The latter director finds his stride away from the comedy moments and he provides some strong directing in the building of the titular character and adding treachery.

There are also a good number of places where I felt this film was lagging and dare I say, lame. It took a while to feel like the cool science fiction western it’s trying to be and earlier scenes setting up everything didn’t exactly do their best in inviting me in like they should. In my opinion the plot does get better as it goes on and nearer the end, as the mission almost wraps, is where I felt the progressing character paths became so much more engaging and interesting. A neat level of are they/aren’t they back and forth is also played with well.

I had fun whilst watching two major sequences; one being an earlier train heist and the other actually showing us the quotable Kessel Run moment. Both these big blockbuster scenarios are gripping and very well made. They each share elements of fun, personal stakes and visual skill which heightens the drama. Luckily these sequences did just about enough to make me forgive the many uses of extremely on the nose dialogue throughout the movie and moments that caused an eye roll – how Han got his name being a major example.

Ehrenreich is a great youthful Solo, he carries a swag and boyish yet capable know-how which works, with just the right level of roguish charm that I’m sure Ford would admire. Clarke is a captivating character helped by the fact she’s a captivating actor. She definitely does well in playing cards close to her chest, being smart, kick-ass and someone you just can’t quite work out. Donald Glover pretty much steals the galaxy, as do his eye-catching capes. It looks like he’s having a ball playing Lando Calrissian; someone else who can be unreadable and whip smart. Phoebe Waller-Bridge may be a good performer but I found the droid character of L3-37 to be an annoying robot sidekick that never grew on me. Paul Bettany is slightly underused but is a believable villain in a world that’s set up as untrustworthy. Anyone could have an agenda against good hearted motives, anyone that is but Han, whether he’d admit it or not.

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ possesses some moments that make you feel as if you’re in the Millennium Falcon; a cinematic theme park ride to enjoy. Then there’s other moments where both the action and story lulls and you wonder why we need to see this story. There’s fun to be had but it’s not a well-oiled machine.

6.5/10

 

 

 

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018)

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Almost 5 years after ‘Pacific Rim’, comes this monster follow up that sees a debut role for Steven S. DeKnight as feature film director. Gladly, Guillermo del Toro has producing credit and seems to have retained some neat apocalypse cancelling world-building in what is otherwise a silly yet joyous popcorn flick.

Ten years have shuttled by since the monstrous Kaiju breached the Pacific Ocean and destroyed many cities. Now, former Jaeger front-runner, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) is taken out of his scavenging ways to train new cadets. A promising talent lies within Amara (Cailee Spaeny), but is she and the battle station ready for the troubling return of the Kaiju?

I haven’t actually seen the 2013 movie since it was released but I recall it being a tremendous blast on the IMAX screens and enjoyed the moments of del Toro handled monster-lore in between the beast vs robot carnage. This one definitely seems to have a tongue firmly stuck in its cheek with a movie that is more about the fun side of proceedings.

You really don’t need to go into this film remembering many aspects of the first feature, or in fact with your mind on at all, it’s a pre-summer blockbuster kind of film that is as subtle as having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick! If that’s your thing then you’re in for a great treat and I honestly have to say that I enjoyed pretty much the entirety of this film.

How the trainee cadets are ever ready to perfectly mind-meld for duty and fight the Kaiju is a thought to push away, as is the question about never once knowing Idris Elba had a son, oh and the countless helpful convenient plot points. But, this isn’t a film warranting script scrutiny, as said, this is one of these films that doesn’t try to be anything more than the big screen madness of its smashy smashy noise.

DeKnight takes over from Academy Award holder del Toro and you can unmistakably see his TV show – ‘Spartacus’ style. The robots beating the metal crap out of each other, the lighthearted asides, the frequent almost epic slow-mo shots all come from his Starz days, from a show I rather enjoyed to tell the truth and that gladiatorial experience has helped craft an enjoyable sci-fi combat movie.

Boyega excels in a fun role here, bursting almost to the seams with quips to counter any possible predicament. It’s a character with far more energy, engagement and sparkle than Finn from the recent Star Wars movies. Scott Eastwood doesn’t really do much in a supporting role that sees him bark orders at people and twinkle his ‘handsome’ eyes when necessary. Spaeny is a talented up and coming actor, her performance is refreshing, vulnerable and yet brashly confident which works well opposite Boyega. Burn Gorman and Charlie Day resume their characters from before, with the former doing well in a backseat science supervisor kinda way and the latter pulling typical Charlie Day shouting and vague comedy that feels wrong considering where his amped up role journeys.

I was never eagerly awaiting a sequel but now this one has arrived in cinemas I can’t say I dislike the fact it exists. It’s a rampaging delight of big and bold destruction and in the words of the late, great Eduard Khil: “Trololo” indeed, this is a damn fun film to feast upon.

6.5/10

 

Annihilation (2018)

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Arriving on Netflix, is this bold and engagingly strange science fiction from Alex Garland. It’s arguably one of the finer films of this genre I’ve ever seen, questioning the audience with its intelligent themes of rationality and life.

After a figure from Lena’s (Natalie Portman) life comes back into the fold, she ends up at a government facility close to a glistening barrier known as The Shimmer which is expanding. Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads Lena and three others into this weird anomaly to try and stop it reaching civilisation and to hopefully uncover exactly what it is.

Alex Garland has been writing screenplays since 2002 and after his blistering debut directorial work on 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’, this was a movie I was eagerly awaiting. Garland has managed to capture the traumas and oddities of a strange new world from within Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. As this film goes along, there’s a fantastic sense of slow-burning tension that doesn’t always need to pay off with big action because he directs in such a way that chills to the core and makes this environment feel visceral.

A sci-fi with plenty of intrigue and interesting ideas aren’t always common to come by, so gladly this is an exception, in the same vein as the smartly concocted ‘Arrival’. It’s a film that I think deserves to go down as a classic in its genre, as it grips like a row of razor sharp teeth sinking into you, as you get hooked onto the creepy air of unease and confusion that roams this altering landscape.

The Shimmer itself is a world of melding possibilities leading to some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen this year, ones that I utterly wished I could have seen on the big screen, but again Paramount offloaded one of theirs to be released by streaming juggernaut Netflix. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is sublime and truly keeps you on the edge of your seat as we trek through somewhere, that is at once stunning and dripping with mystery.

There are some unnerving moments within ‘Annihilation’ which I won’t divulge any further as to avoid spoilers, but I will say, what lurks in The Shimmer certainly builds a scary level to the back and forth narrative with Lena. Also, the final act is absolutely incredible. My mouth was agape for the duration and my skin was layered with goosebumps, in a lighthouse set sequence I can only describe as hauntingly glorious and terrifying in a way that seems to burrow into your very being.

Natalie Portman is a strong presence from start to finish, her character background aptly aids her through this lush yet dangerous world of lost memories and trepidation. Portman easily acts that sense of forceful wanting and knowledgeable progression. She also carries an empathetic sadness and regret throughout, which makes her an interesting character to follow. The entire team are a formidable squad of females with enough drip fed information about their lives, to give us understanding of their choices and motivations. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Gina Rodriguez all neatly display the fraying of their minds as they descend further into The Shimmer. The latter gets a crackling turn to shine in a scene that sees her burst with an intensity, adding to the ferociousness of what happens.

‘Annihilation’ is a masterful movie and one I will definitely be watching again. It carries a quiet menace as the unknown is explored and identity is questioned more and more.

8.5/10

 

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

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Dropped like something out of the sky; here comes a game-changer in terms of movie marketing and distribution, but that aside is this a good ‘Cloverfield’ movie?

Set in our future and aboard the Cloverfield Station are a crew from various countries who are hoping to perfect a particle accelerator; which could solve the energy crisis on Earth. As their mission finally catches a break, it seems not everything is good. The team become stranded, meanwhile life back on Earth isn’t looking safe and sound either.

So, after a few months of whisperings and internet talk about a new feature in the ‘Cloverfield’ series, we’re finally greeted with this big surprise release. It was due last year and then apparently again for an April 2018 cinematic date under the name ‘God Particle’ from Paramount Pictures, but as the sporting spectacle of the Super Bowl reached it’s halftime parade of expensive ads and new trailers, a teaser for this very movie was shown. Not long after the game itself the film was up on Netflix for all (subscribers) to see.

This I must admit is a bold move to make and pretty special to keep something under wraps. Having a $45 million movie on your hands and to maintain its secrecy and avoid the usual over hype of many trailers and TV spots is a fantastic achievement, if not one that disappoints me slightly because it’s final destination means it can’t be seen on the big screen. It’s a great film visually and the sci-fi element is explored quite well through the vacuum of space and a sleek revolving spaceship but Paramount mustn’t have had high expectations to forgo a cinema roll-out and leave Netflix to pick up the rights. This can be felt in a film that seems to have grown out of control to fit within the ‘Cloverfield’ universe.

It’s a mildly slow-burner of a science fiction to watch, there’s neat moments of burrowing unease as things start to go wrong; as they always do in these kinds of films. The back and forth between space and Earth feels like the parts where they re-wrote to segue in the movie monster tie-in and general spots do feel like a scrambled mess to keep that storytelling building.

Saying this, the dynamic of the crew is good and the moments of error, confusion and danger aboard the spacecraft are entertaining. I wouldn’t say exciting or wholly dramatic but they work well and keep the film going along nicely too. The main interest for me was in the construct of the shifting paradox and the problems arising from there, which is explored with both thrills and humour but not as deep as perhaps it may have delved. I feel one reason the film isn’t as successful as it could be is down to the distracting technique of its release and expecting the ‘Cloverfield’ monster/arc to keep rearing up.

’10 Cloverfield Lane’ was one of my favourite films from 2016 because it tied in the monster series nicely and felt like a creepily separate thriller at the same time. This is still a good film but nowhere near as great. It’s a film that perhaps, thanks to its many delays and streaming resting place, feels more like a somewhat enjoyable online flick but not a dazzling or suspenseful one.

5.5/10

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

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The saga returns and the 2nd of the new Star Wars trilogy whams into the cinema with director Rian Johnson ensuring he gives fans a lot to be pleased about whilst gifting the starry sci-fi blockbuster some neat stylish additions of his own.

Continuing on from Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) island meet up with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), she hopes to learn the ways of the Jedi. Meanwhile Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is desperately trying to evacuate the Rebel base as the First Order try and diminish hope from the galaxy and wipe out the chance of Luke’s return. As they keep trying to escape, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is at odds with his place in all this, not helped by visions that unwillingly connect him to someone else.

Rian Johnson ensures the Star Wars aficionados can enjoy seeing certain characters, screen wipes and the charm of space opera good versus bad as the ever central theme. Hope and the notion of crushing that ideal is what drives the franchise and this is no exception but gladly the director after J.J. Abrams hands this outing some stylistic moments; ones that almost step out of the comfortable SW bubble, that I thoroughly enjoyed. These choices keep the film fresh and help it look exciting but more brooding than ‘The Force Awakens’. A sequence with endlessly mirroring a character, the salted planet of red surface and crystal critters and an extremely amazing breathtaking snappy edit of a soundless explosion are some examples of the visual splendour Johnson and his huge crew have created, which keep the galaxy alive with big screen wonder.

There are some points, mostly that lay within the story, that can feel utterly safe and predictable. Obviously I’m not wanting to spoil anything in this review so I’ll keep hush on the negatives I had but sufficed to say there are space filled deus ex machinas abounds and little character events that I expected straight away which sort of took me out of the immersive thrill. Also, some writing choices they give the action and/or characters felt cheap or not wholly unnecessary and without spoilers I really felt no need for a kiss that comes at one time.

Luke’s island hideout is rife with creatures and one species is the well advertised and product placed Porgs that clearly strike for the kids and the cute factor. Granted they can be quite fun but the clear merchandise cash in that they are and their constant gaping mouth wide eyed shtick becomes less amusing and ever tiring. Aside from a couple of story gripes and these puffin-esque beasties this movie has a good amount of twists and turns that keep the narrative interesting, a mission on a casino centred Canto Bight is rich with wealth, class differences and a couple of fun cameos. Another positive is John Williams returning with a score that’s safe but swells and simmers with the fan buzz of familiar sounds to satisfy all. I also love that a lot of the creatures you see are handled with animatronics which look much better and charming than the sheen of CGI.

Mark Hamill gets his teeth into much more screen time and it’s nice to see Luke Skywalker back, though he’s getting to play well with the bitter side of things. Hamill delivers enough emotion into his journey of who he is now and why he’s left the Jedi Master qualities behind with a tinge of will he/won’t he be a bad egg. Both Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher lift the film with an explainable grace that probably stems from the nostalgia of their presence amongst the whirlwind of desperate escape tactics. Fisher herself still carries Leia as a beacon of hope and strength, she’s good and efficient and Fisher performs this effortlessly filling the General shoes with ease. Adam Driver gets to slowly break away from his angsty teen fits and dramatics and the conflict in his path is nicely evident in the performance. Daisy Ridley manages to keep up the brave and strong qualities of Rey, a hero through and through but one where Ridley nicely plays with the pressure of balancing her place in the Force and the pull of the dark side. Domhnall Gleeson amps up the villainous panto switch with sneers aplenty. Supreme Leader Snoke gets more screen time and has more depth and a constant creepy shadowy presence thanks to the mo-cap work from Andy Serkis.

It’s definitely a long film and this is a long review to almost reflect that. It’s the longest one yet but luckily it never feels a slog; it may not zip on by but it’s a well handled and well paced space adventure that feels like a grand step up from Episode 7 and one that has humour and stakes around every corner.

8/10