Transformers: The Last Knight

They came for the All-Spark. They came for the Sun Harvester. They launched an invasion from the moon. They fought for The Seed. Time and time again the Transformers have come to Earth, their history secretly intertwined with that of humanity. But the relentlessness of their visits hides a deeper secret, one that now draws the wrath of the alien sorceress Quintessa – a creator of the Transformers – and the Autobot warrior enslaved to her will: Optimus Prime. Fugitive inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), Oxford professor Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock) and eccentric historian Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) must solve the Arthurian mystery of Earth’s importance, if they hope to save it.

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You know what’s both hilarious and depressing at the same time? Even Rotten Tomatoes, the Internet’s film review aggregator, has thrown its hands up in resignation at this one. “The Last Knight is pretty much what you’d expect from the fifth instalment of the Transformers franchise”. Because honestly, that’s it. That’s the latest edition of Michael Bay’s bot-battling, bolt-bashing, flatulently-explosive, bullet-haemorrhaging sci-fi disaster porn. That’s two-and-a-half hours and $217 million spent. On the big-screen equivalent of someone jingling keys in front of your face whilst a squad of wind-up monkeys continuously bash their symbols together in a circle around you, and the shipping forecast plays on the radio in the background. And we’re just resigned to it now, clearly. We accept this constitutes ‘fun, dumb cinema’ today. Never mind the fact that once upon a time, ‘fun, dumb cinema’ meant a genuinely good time at the movies and a healthy suspension of disbelief. Never mind however sensationally silly blockbusters got, you still got a real sense of the passion and effort their creators put into them. Jurassic Park. Independence Day. Even Bay’s own Armageddon! They were the real deal. This…this doesn’t even qualify as dumb. This is a lobotomy. This is brain death. An empty husk of a blockbuster practically begging for the franchise to be put out of a now utterly joyless existence.

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Sitting through just ten minutes of The Last Knight proves to be something of a memory test, in that you can’t ever remember exactly how things happening onscreen transpired based on scenes that preceded them, and even when you try to focus you find yourself piecing together visuals, beats and plot devices that are so tenuously linked that it’s like trying to recreate M.C. Escher’s ‘Crazy Stairs’ by just drawing zig-zags. A Suicide Squad-esque unveiling of Megatron’s evil Decepticon crew? He’s Megatron, he leads the entire Decepticon army. Why does he need a crew, and if they’re in human prison then they clearly aren’t the A-Team. An orphan ‘street smart’ girl who just sticks around Mark Wahlberg for the first half hour, then doesn’t, then reappears at the climax to…give a motivational talk to her pet robot? Even an entire storyline about Merlin’s bloodline and a secret society is just a flimsy rehash of The Da Vinci Code. And who in their right mind would look at a Transformers film and think “you know what this need? A little Dan Brown”. And what makes it all worse is how none of these things are done with even the faintest sense of effort and consideration. They just happen. Anything that isn’t an explosion is there to just pad out the runtime. And speaking of padding…

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Mark Wahlberg. Can he act? Does he act? In general, this is a debate in and of itself. Here, it’s a resounding no on both counts. His Cade is a nonentity. A walking, talking commercial for protein bars, tight shirts, and talking smack. Energetically dislikeable, thin-skinned, there simply is no reason why he needs to be in this film at all. Everything important that requires a human face ultimately ties into Haddock’s professor, who unsurprisingly is given little room to showcase her credentials beyond a sharp tongue which the ‘script’ rarely rises to meet. You’ll be scratching your head over how one ‘retort’ to Cade’s quips was supposed to show her as challenging and headstrong when her words are literally “would you rather I take this dress of?” Even the great Sir Anthony Hopkins, the latest in the franchise’s tradition of revered actors paid exorbitant sums to be exposition machines, is reduced to an eleven year-old’s caricature of an old English fellow ‘down with the kidz’, and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey’s Mr Carson) joins him at the bottom of that barrel of cringe as Sir Burton’s sociopathic Transformer butler. Imagine ITV’s Vicious if either Derek Jacobi or Ian Mackellan was a robot. Clearly, the writers did.

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This franchise has never pretended to be anything high-brow, or even somewhat cerebral. Transformers has always been the province of kids and pre-teens, action figure battles royale. The first film did a somewhat decent job of just being that. Simple, stupid, silly spectacle. Every sequel from then to now may have brought the franchise ever-closer to rock bottom, but each one still had at least something that amounted to a highlight. John Turturro. Stanley Tucci. Steve Jablonsky’s score. Dark of the Moon actually getting a little dark. Transformers 5 has all these… and amounts to nothing. It’s a film that doesn’t so much give up the ghost as laugh at you for thinking there was ever a soul to begin with. This isn’t the Transformers of kids and their action figures. This is the Transformers of the Saturday morning commercial break. It just wants to sell. Your entertainment be damned. And the fact that it’s stopped trying to be otherwise deserves a huge loss of whatever respect was still going for it.

Quality: 0/5

Entertainment: 0/5

Final Score: 0/5

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The Mummy

Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a US soldier-of-fortune (as in, spends more time looting treasure in Iraq than fighting insurgents), until he accidentally uncovers the prison-tomb of the ancient Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), and frees her undead soul. Cursed as her ‘Chosen’, Nick’s only hope of both personal and global salvation lies with archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) and the resources of her enigmatic employer – Dr Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe).

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Look, there’s an elephant in the room here. In fact, it’s not an elephant in a room at all, but a bull in a china shop. It’s this incessant, ham-fisted agenda that every major film studio is attempting these days to have its own Avengers moment. All of Hollywood wants to replicate that superhero ‘shared universe’ formula, and we can’t exactly blame them. The Avengers was a phenomenal feat in film history. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the most successful film franchise of all time. The story so far with other studios, however, is not so rosy. An aborted Spider-Man movie-verse at Sony. Warner Bros has taken four films to finally have a knockout on its hands with a DC universe, whilst at the same time half-heartedly setting up a Godzilla/King Kong crossover. Now, Universal Studios wades into these waters with plans for its own ‘Monsters Cinematic Universe’ (or ‘Dark Universe), drawing upon its back-catalogue of iconic movie monsters (think Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc.). Isn’t all this focusing too much, however, on a studio’s long-term plans and neglecting the film itself? Absolutely. Now if only someone had told the filmmakers that!

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An awkward mashup of the classic Hammer Horror, the adventurous spirit of the 90s Brendan Fraser blockbusters, AND laying the groundwork for some kind of League of Extraordinary Gentleman ensemble film, The Mummy is a mess. Forget the atmosphere and psychological chills that made 1932 a classic. It’s all about the jump-scares now, and the film doesn’t even make much effort to set these up properly half the time, whilst its sense of humour is no less sporadic and hit-and-miss. Ahmanet herself and all her demonic doings amount to little more than an Egyptian-themed retooling of your average Pirates of the Caribbean curse, despite Boutella’s indisputably committed performance that makes you kind of wish she had played Enchantress instead of Cara Delevigne in last year’s Suicide Squad (it wouldn’t have saved it, but it might have sprinkled something a little finer).

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Tom Cruise seems to simply be on an ego trip, an excuse to show him going toe-to-toe with gods and monsters instead of his usual fare of criminals, secret agents and terrorists. Either that, or this entire film is his audition tape for Nathan Drake in the upcoming Uncharted film adaptation (please don’t). Crowe as the infamously dual-sided doctor, whilst himself underwhelming, nevertheless strangely provides for perhaps the film’s more interesting ingredients. So much so that it begs the thought that this ‘Dark Universe’ might actually have the most potential (outside of the superhero market).

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Say what you will of the Fraser films, they were at least proudly silly adventure stories with dashes of horror and a relentless commitment to fun at the cinema. Cruise offers a lacking alternative, fundamentally indecisive about its own nature, which ultimately leaves next-to-no impression at all.

Quality: 2/5

Entertainment: 2.5/5

Final Score: 2.5/5

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Wonder Woman

Diana, princess of the Amazons – a race of immortal warrior women created to protect humanity by Zeus himself – has trained her whole life to become the greatest fighter of her people. When US pilot Steve Trevor crash lands on the shores of Themyscira in 1918, the hidden island paradise of the Amazons, she learns of the Great War that has been raging across the world and sets out to bring an end to the fighting the only way she knows how: by destroying the god of war himself, Ares.

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It’s easy to just describe Wonder Woman as a midpoint between Captain America: The First Avenger, for its period setting, and the mythological roots and sprinkled fish-out-of-water humour of Thor. A fair enough description, if all you’re really looking at are the aesthetics. Wonder Woman, taken in its entirety, is perhaps one of the most unique and awe-inspiring films to have ever come out of the comic book genre. Rarely has a film of its kind demonstrated such an unyielding commitment to substantiating the hero’s journey, and such defiantly patient storytelling in a bazaar of relentlessly quick-fire, breakneck-speed blockbusters. This is a film that breaks the spell of cinematic bloodlust and craving for carnage that has beset this genre for so long (not that Wonder Woman is without its exceptional action set-pieces), and brings the focus back down to earth, to a person who just wants to help people however possible. Director Patty Jenkins has hit it out of the park.

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Gal Gadot has now entrenched herself as the definitive Wonder Woman of our time. Her performance is nothing short of sensational, embodying not only every aspect of Diana’s personality but every step of her maturing process to a flawless degree. Diana is woman, and warrior, and both define her just as much as each other without compensation or compromise. Her relationships with her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and aunt/mentor General Antiope (Robin Wright) are especially integral in establishing this balance. Arguably more so than most origin stories, Wonder Woman lives or dies on the calibre of its star performer, and so this film truly belongs go Gadot. Chris Pine also is on standout form as the daring and honourable Steve Trevor, charismatic as ever but here imbued with a quiet, war-weary cynicism for his fellow man that clashes with his fundamental faith in humanity. If performance-wise the film belongs to Gadot, then character-wise the film almost belongs to Steve for precisely this conviction that provides the film’s fundamental lesson: that between love and war, there’s trust. (A think-piece by the Nerdist’s Alicia Lutes explores this more fully that’s well worth a read).

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What criticisms can be made of Wonder Woman are largely nit-picky: at times, the film can feel somewhat overly weighted-down, so determined to ‘get it right’ that it perhaps overspends time and energy on what really should be minor considerations, an overlong boat scene meant to establish Diana and Steve’s dynamic when alone for example. Also in that regard, perhaps too often dialogue veers into excessive explaining territory, rather than letting performances and actions speak for themselves (a pitfall of the film’s climax especially). The only shortcoming of the film’s spectacular action sequences (truly unleashing the power of Wonder Woman) is a mild overindulgence of slow-motion that can likely be blamed on Zack Snyder’s input, and a case can be made for somewhat subpar CGI in these instances. The greatest misstep of all? An attempt at sleight-of-hand with Ares’ earthly identity that falls short of a ‘twist’, but still delivers a memorable payoff.

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Context, so often, is everything. What we make of something depends almost always on not just the thing itself alone, but on ourselves at the point in time we experience it. The brightest, funniest, warmest film in the world cannot guarantee that someone watching it on a dark, terrible, cold day will laugh or smile. To say that Wonder Woman arrives with an abundance of context is to say the least. Stuttered, intensely divisive efforts to establish a shared cinematic universe of DC’s most iconic superheroes. An ongoing international wave of feminism, acting as both umbrella and lightning rod for a plethora of social issues, met with both enthusiastic support and evermore combative opposition.

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Should any of this remotely impact the Wonder Woman watching experience, when so many superhero origin films have come and gone in baggage-free luxury? Absolutely not. But like Diana herself discovers upon leaving Themyscira’s waters, the world is not what it should be. Nevertheless, she persists, and the result is a superhero film that earns its place in the league of Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. From the moment Diana steps out into No Man’s Land, to a final shot that we can hope will serve as a rallying symbol for cinema of the future, Wonder Woman sheds all considerations of its context, and in doing so becomes timeless.

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Quality: 4.5/5

Entertainment: 4/5

Final Score: 4.5/5

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales)

The tide has never turned so against Captain Jack (Johnny Depp). With no ship, a bare bones crew (the ‘a few men short’ kind, not the seabed-marching undead kind), and by his own unwitting actions are the infamous pirate-hunter Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his crew of wraiths released from their unearthly prison. His only hope lies with finding the fabled Trident of Poseidon, the source of ultimate power over the sea, a relic also sought after by not only horologist Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), but the son of Jack’s old pirate comrade Will – Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites).

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Let’s parlay for a moment to get the question out that quite literally everyone is asking regarding this film: how on earth did we ever get from a theme park ride to a five-film franchise spawned by that ride? How is it possible for ten minutes of sitting in a boat watching animatronic figures firing cannons and drinking rum to fuel roughly eleven hours of cinema to date? Disney, you truly are the magic kingdom. Take that how you will, but with Pirates 5 it’s a reality the film constantly struggles to escape from. Like a broken compass or a sword without a wielder, there really is no purpose to its being, and yet what surprises most about the film is just how double-edged a sword it turns out to be. What makes for the largest crack in its hull is also, curiously, what keeps it afloat – its sense of resignation.

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Effectively a remix of Pirates 1 and 2, with occasional lashings of 3, Pirates 5 cherry-picks the strongest ingredients of its predecessors and blends them into a concoction which, whilst by no means surpassing or even equalling its ancestry, at least makes for a satisfying and memorable experience. Somewhat worryingly, it’s when the film tries to throw in something of entirely its own ingenuity that things get either weird or tedious. An irrelevant and random wedding ceremony. A pointless Paul McCartney cameo. Steering away from the series’ more melodramatic leanings and favouring a course of rapid-fire wit, the onus for carrying it all ends up resting once again with its characterisations, to varying effect.

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Depp’s Sparrow, who’s eccentricities belying a cunning and daring miscreant we all fell in love with, now seems to have been largely consumed by his own idiosyncrasies. From Han Solo to Jar Jar Binks, saved only by the occasional, faintly recognizable trace of former charismatic glory. Geoffrey Rush, conversely, is perhaps the franchise’s ultimate unsung hero for his relentlessly enthusiastic performances as Jack’s intermittent ally and enemy Hector Barbossa, and his presence here doesn’t disappoint for a second. Javier Bardem delivers a solid antagonist to the proceedings, but Salazar as a basic concept is so anchored to recycled Pirates villainy – half-Rush’s Barbossa debut, half-Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones – that he remains a shadow within the shadows of his precursors. Thwaites and Scodelario, almost shamelessly pushed on the audience as Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley 2.0, make for lacklustre companions. Scodelario’s Carina is at least a decent attempt at a more than two-dimensional character, but between the script’s faux feminism and a general overreliance on expository dialogue, both she and Henry tend to fade into the background amidst their fellow cast members.

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For all its flotsam and jetsam however, there’s no denying that Pirates 5 manages to capture something of an echo of what made the original such a success and so endearing to fans. It’s straightforward, visually impressive, decently paced with a series-high sense of humour and boasting several standout set-pieces, but above all there’s a certain heart to these seafaring tales that it at least pays honest tribute to. It’s been an oddity of the Pirates franchise from the very beginning: taking characters that aren’t necessarily all that interesting or substantial, and working just hard enough to make you feel a little something for them by the end. With the future of this franchise uncertain, Pirates 5 works as an adequate and fond farewell to the Caribbean and all its curses and cutthroats, like a short story or epilogue that revisits a familiar world and its inhabitants years later. At least, better it end like this than continue charting a course into undead franchise waters.

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Quality: 3/5

Entertainment: 3/5

Final Score: 3/5

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Moonlight

Most of the time, films exist quite openly as simply a form of entertainment. We go along to the cinema, or download them onto TVs and other gadgetry, we sit down for a couple of hours, and go swimming in Imagination Land (albeit with the exception of documentaries. Even the truest of biopics about real-life figures and happenings rarely escapes that fundamentally ‘theatrical’ DNA. Actors have their big moments. Music swells. Symbolism abounds, with subtlety or otherwise. Act One, Act Two, Act Three, then show’s over. This isn’t criticism. Most films know exactly what they are, or at least what they’re trying to be: someone’s idea of a good story that others will enjoy and/or appreciate. Describing Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as ‘entertainment’ is a disservice. The film is nothing less than a portal, a transporting experience, and an unfiltered exploration into the life of a young, black, gay man coming of age.

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‘Little’. ‘Chiron’. ‘Black’ (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, respectively). Over the course of his troubled upbringing in the ghettos of Miami, Florida, Chiron goes by each of these in his search for an identity he can understand. With his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) a drug addict, a young Chiron finds guidance in Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), but the older he gets the more he realizes the terrible truth that knowing who you are isn’t something that can be told to you. It’s something you must discover for yourself.

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Moonlight is truly, unequivocally, a special film. No matter if the story had been autobiographical or a complete work of fiction (Jenkins adapts the film from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2003 semi-autobiographical stage-play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’), watching Moonlight isn’t so much like looking through a microscope into Chiron’s life as it is entering that microscope. Jenkins takes what could easily have been another in a long line of ‘culture studies’ of African American livelihoods in modern America, and instead delivers a soulful, sincere, immensely affecting snapshot of a life both far too real and far too nuanced for the silver screen to fully satisfy. We never completely know the person that is Chiron, because the questions of identity the film deals with are fundamentally too pervasive and profound to answer in general, let alone in two hours.

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What makes the film remarkable is how deeply we do come to understand him with how little we are given. Performances across the board fill even the simplest of glances and facial expressions with all the emotional weight and volume of grand monologues. Mahershala Ali and Naomi Watts steal their every scene, each a supremely powerful and vivid example of the vicious cycle of circumstance that is their livelihoods, and scenes of their collision electrify the film like a fireworks display. Musically, the film plays out mostly in silence, allowing only the most electrically charged of moments a few emotional chords. Minimalism is the name of the game here, and all of it takes the emotionality to maximum. Nothing is superfluous, nothing feels contrived, everything has a purpose and something to say.

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Watching Moonlight isn’t really like watching a film at all. It’s the experience of floating invisibly around the life and times of a vulnerable soul, as if you’re in the company of Dickens’ three spirits. It’s a film that fundamentally redefines romantic drama on the silver screen, a profound expression of the importance of self-acceptance and how deeply it contributes to the ability to love, and a much-needed spotlight on communities all too often overlooked by mass media storytelling.

Quality: 5/5

Entertainment: 5/5

Final Score: 5/5

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Hidden Figures

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The Help. Crash. Remember The Titans. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Blazing Saddles. Putting race relations and civil rights in America under cinema’s microscope is a cultural exercise almost as old as Morgan Freeman. It’s a subject that transcends both eras and genres alike, as relevant to today as it’s ever been, but it faces a fundamental problem; the longer the issue itself endures, the more at risk stories about it are of growing stale. How many ways of saying ‘racism is bad’ must there be before the point is rendered obsolete? Standing out from the crowd is an ever-growing pressure for African American stories and storytellers in this industry, but what sets Hidden Figures apart is a surprisingly simple reworking of the ‘African Americans struggling in a white man’s world’ formula – emphasis not on the ‘white’, but on the ‘man’.

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In 1961, as the US and the USSR are locked in the intensity of the Space Race, mathematical prodigies Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) work as human ‘computers’ for NASA. As pressure mounts within the US government in the face of Soviet success, Katherine finds herself seconded to the Space Task Force, whilst Mary’s assistance with the space capsule convinces her to pursue an engineering degree, and Dorothy fights for her job against the introduction of electronic computers. But in a time when red is the enemy, can NASA look beyond black and white?

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The issue of race relations may seem a little tacked on there, but it illustrates what is easily Hidden Figures’ unique selling point. It’s odd to say this of a film that so highlights 1950s/60s US segregation, with characters citing Brown v. Board of Education and newscasts namedropping the Freedom Riders. But as much as Hidden Figures acknowledges this day-to-day reality for its protagonists, ultimately it’s all just context and backdrops. It’s not the colour of their skin that defines them most, but their sex. It’s a shift in emphasis that’s nothing short of inspired, elevating the story from yet another two-hour case study of racial injustice, and conflating it with today’s concerns over sexism and gender equality. What’s more difficult than being black and ambitious in early 60s America? Being black, and ambitious, and a woman in early 60s America.

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In communities and groups both black and white, our leading ladies are continuously disparaged and undervalued, even by the men in their lives. Jim Parsons’ snooty head engineer Paul Stafford is something we’ve seen a dozen times, and so his slights towards Katherine come as no surprise. Katherine’s love interest Jim (Mahershala Ali), on the other hand, his early condescension towards her work and ambitions makes an indelible mark. In so doing, the film captures a distinctly more holistic picture of the issue at hand than many a major Hollywood feature of its kind, a reminder that true progress towards social equality cannot be achieved in the workplace without its equal recognition in the home, and vice versa.

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Despite Katherine being the central focus of the story, the trials and tenacity of Mary and Dorothy are fleshed out and explored so fully that to call either of them supporting characters feels like a disservice. Henson, Monáe and Spencer bring their A-game to their every second of impressively balanced screen-time, with Monáe’s courtroom speech an especial standout both as a scene and as a performance. Outside of the film’s core on-message moments, however, things can at times feel a little run of the mill. Kevin Costner’s turn as the weighted down Space Task Force director Harrison leaves little impression, but when your ‘big moment’ is centred on the line “we all pee the same colour”, you know this isn’t exactly a Spencer Tracy-type role. Likewise with Kirsten Dunst’s half-baked southern accent as supervisor Vivian, the job is done fine but to generally blunt and toned-down effect.

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Nevertheless, Hidden Figures is a cinematic triumph for feminism of a different colour, and a reminder of the importance of intersectionality in the fight for gender equality today. It makes no attempt to downplay its ethos of ‘pursuing the improbable’, frequently conflating the struggles of Katherine, Mary and Dorothy with mankind’s greater destiny amongst the stars, but it befits the spirit of the times both then and now. Basking in the ample charisma of its leading ladies, as well as a thoroughly foot-tapping soundtrack, Hidden Figures is a timely film that knows it doesn’t have to take itself too seriously for its point to be made.

Quality: 4/5

Experience: 4/5

Final Score: 4/5

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Lion

Danny Boyle famously accredited his casting of Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire to his daughter, a fan of the TV series Skins in which Patel first made his name. As Anwar, a Pakistani teenage ne’er-do-well who only prayed five times a day to make up for his devout lifestyle of drug-taking and casual sex, Patel was an underwritten scene-stealer defined by a quiet difficulty to reconcile his Islamic faith with his enthusiasm for the group’s anarchic antics. Ten years later, Patel has carved out a solid and genre-crossing career of starring roles with The Man Who Knew Infinity, Chappie and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But whether it was Anwar’s identity crisis specifically that caught Boyle’s attention or not, Patel has shepherded an innate gift for portraying nuance and contradiction in his characters to such natural effect. With this season’s Lion, he takes this to the next level with a role demanding not only an identity in crisis, but an identity haunted.

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At only five years old, in the rural slums of India, Saroo is accidentally separated from his older brother Guddu and their family. Lost in the chaos and corruption of Calcutta, hundreds of miles from home, he is eventually just lucky enough to find himself in an orphanage, where he is adopted by Australian couple Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty years on, Saroo (Dev Patel) has flourished under their care, but the family he left behind haunts him still, and soon begins a desperate search for the pieces of his past life.

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There’s very little about Garth Davis’ feature debut as director that can be said without one word; haunting. Saroo’s story, an awe-inspiring true story with next-to-no creative license taken, is in a way a ghost story. Saroo is a person literally haunted by his past, and all the agonizing questions that anyone would chase in circles forever around their head were they in his position. Lion’s greatest triumph is that it doesn’t simply engage the audience with his turmoil: it actively puts you in it. His journey is our journey, and his ghosts become our unfinished business. The film takes the awful reality of Saroo’s childhood trauma and applies next-to-no creative license, because no dramatic contrivance is needed. His desperate experience plays out in full, vivid and harrowing fashion, and all of it executed to such intensely hair-raising effect. Dev Patel certainly delivers a career-high performance for Saroo’s adult years, but ultimately the film belongs to Sunny Pawar as the lost boy. It’s his part of the story that does all the heavy-lifting, and for a child actor to carry a film such as this to the extent that he does is nothing short of incredible. He doesn’t need a big crying scene, or to scream for his character’s mother and brother, to fully convey his slow descent into hopelessness and despair, but equally he doesn’t need to act jubilantly to capture the happiness Saroo finds with his new family. Pawar plays it soft and quiet, and so his performance hits the hardest and rings the loudest.

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Lion is very much a story in two parts, to such extent that despite its standard two-hour run-time it ultimately feels more akin to a three-hour epic, so effectively does it capture Saroo’s long journey from home to home to home. In many ways, this is exactly the kind of compact yet comprehensive approach that so many of the major ‘two-part’ book-to-blockbuster adaptations shun, to their constant detriment. Watching Patel scour Google Earth to retrace his childhood wanderings, it’s somehow both difficult and easy to remember he is that same lost boy who fled from human traffickers, scavenged for food and slept on sheets of cardboard, so distant does his own past feel to the audience. The film goes to such tremendous efforts to fully flesh out both his lives in equal measure, aided not least by the supporting talents of Kidman and Rooney Mara as his college girlfriend, as well as an electric turn from Divian Ladwa as Saroo’s fellow adopted brother Mantosh (whose own torments are worn much more openly). How the questions that haunt him impact those he cares about, as well as his ability to be anything other than that ever-searching lost boy, is a constant tug at the heartstrings. At times, the intense focus on his pain does detract from a clearer understanding of the overall goings on in his life, but even this plays into the story’s tone of deep despair and desperation.

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Awards season is no stranger to films billing themselves as ‘the incredible true story’ or ‘based on true events’, however vaguely. What sets Lion apart from the biopic herd is an uncompromising commitment to truth. Saroo’s story doesn’t need to take creative liberties, and the film has the confidence and the respect not to take them. The result: a tremendously powerful experience that speaks to the importance of family and human connection in all its forms, and shines a light on parts of the world where to lose such connections is to lose everything.

Quality: 4.5/5

Entertainment: 5/5

Final Score: 4.5/5

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