Searching (2018)

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‘Searching’ is the first big Hollywood thriller to be led by an Asian actor; the wonderful John Cho and in Aneesh Chaganty’s debut full-length feature we are presented with a technology based run of hints and danger with near-perfect execution.

After Margot Kim (Michelle La) doesn’t return home after a supposed study session round her friends, her dad David (Cho) begins to worry as this isn’t how she normally behaves. As her days gone missing go by, he learns he doesn’t know as much as he thought about his child and with the help of officers from the California South Bay police force he hopes to understand what’s happened to Margot.

It wasn’t too long ago that a similar-but-not-sequel of ‘Unfriended’ was out and showed us the dark side of the web. This thriller, again provides audiences with the same stylistic methods of the 2014/18 horrors but puts across its unfolding dark side through the drastic clue quest taken by David and the possible warning signals of people around Margot. ‘Searching’ also fares a lot better than the computer-screen heavy visuals of the ‘Unfriended’ movies by better realising its concept and creating an engaging watch from start to almost finish.

The ending is slightly underwhelming, just in the sense I found it to unravel what was an excellently taut story with a fairly ridiculous and sentimental conclusion. The plot does also rely on bordering on silly camera placements and websites to keep the online, onscreen narrative going along. Aside from this, the film is a riveting thriller boosted by Torin Borrowdale’s work, his score has hints of dark tension which add to the slow-burning stakes and with the eventual revelations this adds up to a dynamic, chilling movie.

What do you really know about your children? This suspenseful success at the box office proves that it’s not always that much. Truths get uncovered, mysteries are juicily served up and a visual representation of a detective-esque Crazy Board on a desktop scattered with files speaks volumes for the strained search a father goes on to hopefully find his girl. This film works well because it has you guessing along, as if playing a cinematic game of Cluedo. That sense of intrigue is like catnip for many people and seeing this story play out via live news broadcasts, mobile chats and social media stalking has us invested in a gripping turn of events.

John Cho is great in this movie, whether up for judgement in pixelated zoom or seen through countless FaceTime conversations he really does sell us the panicked, doting father with flaws that help round him out as an interesting character who forgets what is important to both him and his daughter Margot.

There may have been a smidge of expected moments come the wrapping up of this movie but by and large, ‘Searching’ is an expertly organised thriller that may utilise a gimmicky premise but plays on an effective story to quickly overshadow that feeling.

8/10

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The Equalizer 2 (2018)

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There’s a storm coming, we’re frequently told in this sequel to 2014’s ‘The Equalizer’. This foreboding grey, rain soaked onset of weather nicely mirrors the grey, dreary soaked plot that’s scattered with showers of subplots and only thunders with some flashy snaps of violent action.

In a block of apartments, former spy Robert ‘Mac’ McCall (Denzel Washington) is still living under the guise that he’s dead but makes money and back-seat friends from his gig as an on-demand taxi driver. Upon hearing that one of his only friends has been killed, Mac exits the shadows to try and get help from one time teammate Dave York (Pedro Pascal) to work out who was behind the murder.

It was four years ago, but from what I remember I enjoyed the kinetic thrill of Antoine Fuqua and Washington teaming up to create a movie which had great style, music and bloody vigilante justice. They’re both back but the their talents don’t make for a repeat success because this follow up is very disappointing.

There’s just something about the film; mostly down to the plot, that lives a bland taste in the mouth. As you try and follow the narrative it just gets littered with taxi-led subplots  and the link with Mac and his past is never unexpected or dramatic enough to sustain interest. Richard Wenk’s story doesn’t twist or turn enough to positively overshadow the underwhelming action scenes.

Some of the hand-to-hand combat are energetic, even if so snappily edited that you can’t see what’s going on but on the whole I found the action to be sorely lacking something special. The final wind-battered blowout is majorly anti climactic too. Mac constantly takes down foes with no effort before this point but here it would have been electric to watch him tackle some equally equipped opposition but that isn’t the case.

Two things are great with this film; the first is a sequence that’s empty on action but fantastic for that reason. This panic room portion is loaded with tension and really makes you feel the threatening entrapment of the situation. Second is the the presence of Washington who is cool, charismatic and a top class actor as always. A heated scene of paternal advice between him and a character named Miles demonstrates the peak performing talents of Denzel but even he cannot save ‘The Equalizer 2’ from an almost boring tone.

After this movie, all I can say is I feel like ordering a Lyft what with the excessive shots of car journeys but this movie ride won’t be gaining 5 out of 5 stars from me.

5/10

Entebbe (2018)

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Inspired by a true moment in history, this biographical thriller from Jose Padilha has some nicely executed tension in places and a bold choice of book-ended dancing but isn’t as thrilling as you’d expect it to be.

Set over one week in 1976, we see the planning and execution of Palestine ‘freedom fighters’ hijacking a plane and keeping the passengers hostage at an airport terminal in Entebbe, Uganda. Hoping to lead and show they’re not radicals or dangerous is Wilfried Bose (Daniel Bruhl) who doesn’t reckon on the Israeli government strategising a combat response to their demands.

Considering the events being shown to us are based on real life ones, the film never really lifts off and becomes as deeply tense as it would have been in that scenario for the captives. There are some brief elevations of tension that help keep some interest alive, but these are at the beginning and end of the film, which leaves a hefty middle portion to sit almost stale-like.

For a film that’s tackling events previously shown in other TV films, this one bravely includes a sequence to differentiate itself and stand apart. This is the opening dance number that then returns nearing the end and becomes a unique bookend for the movie, that I did find to work well. It mirrors the alarming nature of what is happening in Uganda and is exceptionally edited, giving the film a much needed sheen of atmospheric style.

More than anything, this is a movie that doesn’t just slow burn like great thrillers do, but just feels slow. Come day four and five, ‘Entebbe’ begins to lull and dare I say ache with boredom but does pick up its pace and as day six and seven roll around, the film had me more attuned and awake. There wasn’t much emotional attachment within the film and that’s maybe why the film feels slow, they try showing us a dancer and her soldier boyfriend but it comes to late to capture any connection to them and generally, there’s no one really to root for.

Bruhl is interesting in his role as someone wanting to fight against the powers of Israel and free his people, it also lets him briefly shine as he desperately hopes to step away from the expectations of society viewing the fact he’s German and taking prisoners, as the unfortunate parallels it has to WW2 Nazism, but it’s not his best performance by any stretch. Rosamund Pike is great in this, she has such expressive eyes which are full of guilt, sadness and ultimately, a realisation of the situation she’s ended up in. A scene with Pike at a payphone rings with softly powerful words and a simple yet effective static shot over this scene really hits home the problem Brigitte Kulhmann has gotten into.

The issue of the film is that there are no sides to take and the complexity of the still ongoing Palestine and Israel conflict; sees this film mired with frustrating emptiness, only briefly saved by some snippets of style and tension.

5.5/10

 

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

 

Journey’s End (2018)

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Never shying away from the mud and blood of World War I, this British feature is moving and tense and like the soldiers, is committed to the last in showing this.

Set over a period of four days in March 1918, we follow young lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) into the front trenches. He wants to be here because he knows the captain from back in Blighty, though Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is a different man thanks to the war. There’s been a long stalemate and as Stanhope’s men are tasked with holding the line, any day now seems likely for German soldiers to make their advance.

Based on a play from 1928 by R.C. Sheriff, this drama is incredibly effective and at times almost emotional as we see the horrors and futility of war take hold. There are a lot of different characters and Simon Reade; who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation has ensured that they don’t become overblown stereotypes. Throughout this film there is a definite sense of crushing hopelessness, this works so well in highlighting how pointless actions of these men are and just how grim their situation is.

Saul Dibb directs in a manner that truly throws the audience in amongst the ticking tension. There are plenty of tight frames and close ups of characters that give nearly the entire movie a claustrophobic wash of unease. Seeing these group of soldiers facing a horrifying possibility of death never really lets up, like some slower patriotic movies may have done. It hits home how devastating their plight is and the bitingly cold scenery of their sunken home for that time can be felt through the screen, as if the director is immersing us alongside these men. A camera movement following them through the sodden mud is a great example of how bleak and involving the film can be.

I would say that its only weakness lays in a raid scene, that builds up fantastically but once it hits the editing becomes too frenzied. I know in one way this works to show how maddening and scarily chaotic this would have been but trying to focus and keep up with what was happening on screen became difficult and you lose what happens to the characters.

Asa Butterfield is great in a role that guides us through the outskirts right into the very heart and disheartening midst of trench warfare. He plays the naive and excitable young soul well which makes certain changes in what he sees and eventually understands much more painfully real. Sam Claflin excels here, in what is the best performance I’ve seen him in. Clinging to whiskey and straining to retain calm is evidently felt and in one scene opposite Butterfield, he barks and foams at the mouth with an intensity that isn’t violent but one of increased frustration of how much he can bear. Paul Bettany gifts the film some good ol’ British spirit and stiff upper lip playing Osborne, and ensures to show that behind the eyes he’s just as scared as everyone. Stephen Graham and Toby Jones are other notable mentions who have moments of levity but ultimately are lost men drawn into the front.

This is a film that certainly makes you think. It’s a well made movie with an affecting tone which hangs over your head after the credits scroll. There’s an intensity and undeniable foreboding quality from start to finish.

7.5/10

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

 

The Commuter (2018)

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A typical set up of mysterious question and the capable Irish action star come together on a plane…sorry train this time but in fact it’s not as bad as you’d think. Sure it has flaws and is something akin to what we’ve seen before but it’s a silly delight.

Serial commuter, Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is used to familiar faces and the hustle and bustle of travelling back and forth through New York but this one day sees him approached by the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him there’s $25’000 hidden away, plus a further $75’000 if he works out who doesn’t belong on the train before it reaches the end of the line.

From the trailer alone; I guffawed at the typical Liam Neeson vehicle we’re now used to see him starring in. Gladly it surprised me and was a more enjoyable flick than the generic trashy kind of movie I was expecting to witness. That isn’t to say that’s a fantastically well made film that can blow your mind but it’s damn entertaining and comes with carriage loads of thrills to keep the film chugging along nicely.

Director of reasonable shark thriller ‘The Shallows’ and previous Neeson feature ‘Non-Stop’, Jaume Collet-Serra manages to keep the film from derailing for the majority of the thriller outing. There’s a neat set up in the repetitive routine of Michael’s morning and the character introductions are all well and good, nothing special but there’s enough going on to set up the oncoming mystery to be solved. It’s in the strained searching of an unnamed passenger that the film hits a nice stride, as we too attempt to uncover the missing puzzle piece.

There are some downright dumb moments, where actions taken feel forced or action set ups fill the CGI quota and big spectacle box is ticked but the unexpected pleasure is in the storytelling of what the heck is going on and who Michael is trying desperately to find. There are a few twists along the way and some are ones I didn’t see but one quite big reveal is quite an obvious one but it didn’t take away from the fun I had in watching this movie unfold.

A train full of passengers makes for a great cast of characters and it’s these many faces of possible suspects that create the best aspect of the film. Neeson himself is in a role well tailored to him by now and he has the gruff charisma that makes Michael a believable figure to lead the way. Farmiga is a fantastic actor and this possible sinister presence she carries suits her down to the zebra striped shoes she wears. Even the sound of her voice on the phone carries a mysterious air of calm and danger. Jonathan Banks, Roland Moller and Shazad Latif are interesting in their roles of possible players knowing more than they let on; in the sense they are thrust forward a lot more as people to keep an eye on. I won’t go on much more as I feel more cast chatter could spoil the reveals of the movie but it’s a ensemble that work together greatly, in a mostly single set narrative.

This shuttling train thriller has more intrigue and whodunnit suspense than last years ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Who would have thought that Neeson on a Train would be more engaging and mysterious than an Agatha Christie classic!? Not me, but it truly is a fun and exciting popcorn movie.

7/10