Top Ten Worst Films Of 2016

So, 2016 eh? Apart from a few good months at the beginning and a couple of good weeks near the end, 2016 has been a terrible year for cinema. So many reboots, (unnecessary) sequels, superhero films and outright scum and villainy, it was hard to make a list of just ten films. But anyway, let’s get on with some dishonourable mentions;

Warcraft: The Beginning

Blair Witch

Inferno (although that was at least educational while being gloriously dumb)

and now onto the actual worst (no, Gods Of Egypt won’t be on here).

10.

I don’t really want to remember Independence Day: Resurgence. It was just depressing to remember how good the first one was, and THIS was the film they returned with twenty years later. Let’s just move on, it doesn’t really worth thinking about anymore.

9.

Video games, when will you and Hollywood get along? And since Assassins Creed has been dashed against the rocks, I’m going to have to wait until the new Tomb Raider for a good adaptation. But for now we have to sit through boring slog like Ratchet And Clank. With only a passing resemblance to the games and terrible animation (in a year of exquisite animated films) this one isn’t even for fans.

8.

While Jason Bourne wasn’t a terrible film, it was a thoroughly weak entry in a series that I actually enjoyed. None of the cool spy stuff from the other films was present in JB, with only a hammy Tommy Lee-Jones and a show-stealing performance from Alicia Vikander to liven up the boring story. Add in some silly ret-cons and action that is barely visible (in a series known for doing action right), Jason Bourne needs to slip back into the shadows.

7.

More terrible sequels nobody asked for with Zoolander 2. A well-worn re-tread of the first film, just with more obnoxious cameos. Yes, it was nice to see Zoolander and Hansel walk down the runway again, but everything else was not worth watching. And Sting is nowhere near a good enough replacement for David Bowie.

6.

Pixar are a pretty reliable company when it comes to animation. But instead of continuing their successful run of one-off films such as Inside Out, they are returning to their glory days in the early 2000s to give us half-arsed rehashes of their best work. Finding Dory was one of the most boring films I’ve seen this year, with a story so mind-numbingly dull I was really considering getting my phone out when I was in the cinema to entertain myself. Stop making sequels to your properties Pixar, we don’t know what we actually want. We’re the people who made Cars successful and for that reason alone we need to be utterly ignored.

5.

2013’s White House Down was a genuinely good film, a movie about terrorists attacking the White House. Olympus Has Fallen also came out that year, with the exact same plot and was worse in every single way. But since that one somehow made more money, that’s the one that got a sequel. London Has Fallen was a sloppily made garbage fire of a film, with terrible shot composition, editing and acting. And because LHF somehow actually made money, a third one has just been green-lit. Welcome to a never-ending conveyor belt of Gerard Butler beating up some vaguely foreign-types.

4.

Number four is Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates, a vile little film that takes anyone who isn’t straight, white or male and makes them out to be sexual deviants, wimps and fools. Special scorn should be aimed towards Aubrey Plaza and Adam DeVine for some of the most disgusting things I’ve witnessed on a film screen this year. And a word of advice to Zac Efron, get out of Hollywood for a while and make some darling indie project. Your future career depends on it.

3.

Two films tie for third place this year, each one being a perfect example of how terrible superhero films can be in what is apparent the Golden Age of Comic Book Movies. Batman Vs. Superman is a joke of a film, a 151 minute long fan-service exercise that things being broody and dark is cool but comes off looking immature and stupid. Throw in a non-existent story and the hilarity of “MARTHA!”, it deserves it’s place on here. But what’s worse is that Suicide Squad tries to pander to the criticisms of BvS. Bouts of “comedic” moments, a lighting setup that switches from complete darkness to blindingly white and a finished product seems to have been edited using a chainsaw, Suicide Squad get’s to sit right alongside its sister film. Please keep making terrible films DC, they’re quite fun to rip into.

2.

Point Break made me want to stop reviewing films. An unnecessary sequel of a fairly beloved classic, the new Point Break has none of the wit or charm of the original, with classic characters like Body and Utah reduced to pouty Abercrombie and Fitch models and a script that is more inspirational Facebook quotes than a proper story. But if a film that made me want to stop reviewing films is in second place, what horror awaits us at number one?

1.

I stand by the idea that you can make a good movie out of anything. No idea is too silly or stupid to watch. Heck, some of my favourite movies are films that on paper sound liked terrible jokes of ideas. But my number one is the culmination of a bad idea and a terrible film, Angry Birds. Never have I left a theatre shaking with pure white-hot rage at a film before. With a toothless and generic script, terrible voice acting (why was Peter Dinklage in this film?) and shady and exploitative product placement shoved in during the climax, Angry Birds is not just the worst of this year, it is one of the worst of the 21st Century.

Don’t even buy it on DVD to see how bad it is for yourself. If you buy it, you are supporting the Fruit Ninja film, the Tetris film, Space Invaders, Furby’s, Emoji’s and all the other terrible ideas that are going to be squirted out into cinema in the coming years. The cinema will be filled with nothing but vapid films based on some questionable source material in the next few years if these films make money, and it will be on our heads. Please, don’t go.

 

And that’s it for 2016, please return in the next year, for hopefully some better cinematic fare. Have a good new year and a great 2017!

Come have a read the other side, with The Best Of 2016!

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Top Ten Best Films Of 2016

It’s that time of year again. The nights are drawing in, the festive period is over, and every film critic is creating their best and worst list of the year. And here is mine.

Quick note, scores aren’t a factor on this list. These were just my personal favourites. Before we get going a few honourable mentions:

Love And Friendship

War On Everyone

Everybody Wants Some!!

And now…

10.

Ten is a tie because I couldn’t pick between them, Room and The Hateful Eight. I had no clue what I was expecting with Room, but I never though I would get a emotive family drama, focussing on the interactions of a mother and young son, with an Oscar-worthy performance by newcomer Jacob Tremblay. The shot when he first see’s the sky is still one that I think about regularly even after all this time. The Hateful Eight is a return to the old-fashioned QT, focussing on colourful dialogue with an array of interesting characters in a secluded location rather than the weird genre stylings of his last few films. Fantastic performances from Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason-Leigh, with a perfect accompanying score by Ennio Morricone.

9.

I’m not a romance film person, but The Light Between Oceans lands itself on my Top-Ten List. Stunning performances by Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander (two of my favourite actors) and exquisite cinematography by Adam Arkapaw save the sometimes clichéd story and dragging second half.

8.

A Wild Western reset in the modern day, Hell or High Water was a pleasant surprise at the tail end of the summer. An actor defining performance by Chris Pine, backed up by powerful supports such as Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges. The story may seem like one you’ve seen before, but the modern trappings add a refreshing touch that separates it from similar films with much bigger budgets (I’m looking at you, Magnificent Seven).

7.

Nobody thought Eye In The Sky was going to be good. Even I saw the trailer and thought it looked pretty hackneyed. But the tense arguments, the shocking ideas of collateral damage in war and powerful performances by Helen Mirren, Barkhad Abdi and the late Alan Rickman really make this one stand tall. Here’s hoping for a posthumous Supporting Actor nomination for the latter actor.

6.

At number six, the Master Of Ultra-Violence, Nicolas Winding-Refn, is back with The Neon Demon. An odd mash-up of fairytale and the modelling business in Los Angeles, this is one you don’t want spoiled for you. Just go watch it, but be prepared for some jaw-dropping moments that you’ll be replaying long after the film is done.

5.

Modern horror usually doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t like being jump scared, I don’t seek it out for entertainment. But then The Witch came along, a film of no jump scares or silly noises, and it freaked the heck out of me. The endless tension building, the moody and ominous score by Mark Karven and the debut of lead Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch may not be for everybody, but for horror fans it’s a must-see. A great directorial debut by Robert Eggers.

4.

It took over forty years to make, but High-Rise is worth the wait. A wide selection of great actors including Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Elizabeth Moss and Luke Evans converge in an entertaining and slightly frightening orgy of sex, drugs and violence. High-Rise is the height of decadence and it’s a blast.

3.

Hell Or High Water was a Western through the lens of modern day. Our number three is a Western through the lens of horror. Bone Tomahawk was a sprawling 132 minute exercise in bloody torture and gruesome death and it was one of the my top picks for this year. Another one you don’t want spoiled for you, it’s a remarkable debut by writer, musician, cinematographer and director S. Craig Zahler.

2.

2016 has been a very good year for animation. With soon-to-be classics from Disney with Moana and Zootropolis, and Japanese efforts of When Marnie Was There and Your Name, animation buffs have been spoiled his year. But two films beat them all. Our number two is Laika’s Kubo And The Two Strings is an impressive stop-motion film with inflections of Eastern mythology and settings and a heart of gold underneath. Excellent performances by Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron, along with some near-perfect shot compositions, Kubo will be winning awards left, right and centre at this year’s Oscars.

1.

I saw this all the way back in March, and since then it’ been at the top of my list of 2016. And still, nine months later, Anomalisa has stayed on top. An awe-inspiring dream of a film, written by Eternal Sunshine writer Charlie Kaufman and directed by Duke Johnson, I consider Anomalisa to be a perfect film. Mesmerising stop-motion, beautiful portrayals by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason-Leigh and a story that is heartfelt and crushing, this will be one for the ages.

That’s been 2016, happy new year and may 2017 be a great one!

Why not read my look back at the bad stuff, The Worst Of 2016?

The Girl With All The Gifts Review

During the early 2010s, the zombie craze was huge. While zombies had been a part of entertainment all the way back from the 1950s (mainly through George Romero), as soon as The Walking Dead came out, along with things such as Call Of Duty‘s Zombie mode and others, the zombie craze blew up. Now, a few years after the buzz has died, a new zombie film.

The Girl With All The Gifts stars Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and Glenn Close and is directed by Colm McCarthy. Set in the near future after a zombie outbreak, a young girl called Melanie (Nanua) finds out she is immune to their infections.

Most zombie films deal with the immediate aftermath of the outbreak. Even films such as 28 Days Later, a corner stone of the new zombie films, are set during the initial breakout of whatever creates the monsters. Here, it is a few years after the disease first struck, meaning there has been some developments. Bases are set up that house the half-breed human/zombies, anti-zombie drugs are rationed and the mutation is ever evolving in the towns and cities, now overgrown with fauna and flora. It’s a set-up that apart from Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, I can’t think of many films that have explored it, but is brought to life wonderfully through the film. It’s got hints of John Wnydham’s Day Of The Triffids, with the abandoned cities and oppresive atmosphere, just this time with zombies instead of plants.

The cast are good in their respective roles. Paddy Considine and Glenn Close, who are both part of the military detail that is working towards a cure, have clear arcs and motives. None of them are reduced to silly stereotypes or have odd reveals, they react like real characters, with emotion and thoughts, rather than what the script needs them to do. Gemma Arterton is alright as teacher Helen, but nothing really standout. The best though is young Sennia Nanua as Melanie, the titular character, who has the bloodlust of a zombie but can regulate it and appear like a human girl. Through the film she moves from eager youngster, reading books and writing stories, before having to grow up and become a vital member of the survivors. Her full range of emotions and states, including when she goes into full-on zombie mode are incredibly good for an actress as young and untested as her (this is her second production, and first feature film).

The film has a relatively low budget (£4 million), but it works to the films favour. The stripped-back effect of the films creates a better world. This isn’t a big-budget Hollywood zombie film like World War Z or even a American-style satire like Dawn of The Dead. It feels more like a real-world event rather than a staged film, without zombies running left and right. The zombies are to be feared rather than fought. The biggest set-pieces hardly involve fighting the monsters but rather tip-toeing past them and hoping that they don’t sniff you out.

There is only one real action scene, just after the first half an hour. At the beginning, I wasn’t really sure where the film was going, it’s slow paced and focussing more on characters than giving us a creature feature. But once we are lead out of the underground facility where the first act is confined to, out into the open, we get a glorious raging battle between soldiers and zombies. The entire scene is done in one long take, spanning a few minutes and involving well over a hundred extras. The work and effort to create it must have been astounding, and is worthy of praise.

In the end, The Girl With All The Gifts is an interesting addition to the zombie canon. For those waiting on a The Last of Us film to come out, go watch The Girl With All The Gifts while you can. It’s the closest you’ll come to getting it.

Score: 7/10 A refreshing blend of horror and science-fiction.

The Magnificent Seven Review

I guess Westerns are back. With the surprise hits of Slow West and Salvation back in 2015, and the utterly amazing Bone Tomahawk earlier this year, Westerns are getting both commercial and critical acclaim (let’s just all forget The Lone Ranger, yeah?) And now for one of the most high-profile Westerns ever created, now remade.

The Magnificent Seven stars Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier and is directed by Antoine Fuqua, The story follows a bounty hunter (Washington) who wrangles up a posse to protect a town from a dastardly industrialist (Peter Sarsgaard).

The director, Antoine Fuqua, is the man behind films such as Training Day, Tear of The Sun and The Equalizer. Gritty “guy movies” about competent bad-asses who give and receive gruelling punishments while also being actually good films rather than silly pabulum like the Taken sequels or anything by the director Luc Besson. And with The Magnificent Seven, he’s continuing his trend of macho-action blockbusters without much fail.

The actors are well cast. Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt are doing roles they could do in their sleep, smaller roles for veteran actors such as Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio and a breakout action female role for Haley Bennet. The best though are Byung-hun Lee as assassin Billy and Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior. Both are relative newcomers (Lee is a star in Asia but not Hollywood) but they are perfect in their roles as ultra-capable killers and are seemingly born to be action stars. Look out for these two later on in Hollywood.

The action is explosive and bloody, but Fuqua is a master at capturing the gunfights, which play out more like opera or music, with a great rhythm to the hits and bullets. The sound design is good, you can feel the weight behind the bullets, instead of just sound effects. The first skirmish is split evenly, with each character showing off their abilities. This where the previously mentioned Lee and Sensmeier shine, with their respective weapons of knives and bows. The second and final fight takes up the last half an hour and while it make become a little repetitive after a while, the final five minutes, when our heroes are beaten down and battered, is a high point of emotion-driven action.

There are also tense standoffs, in saloons and deserted streets near the beginning, and again, they are shot very well. You can feel the rhythm of the shots building up, as the film draw close to a shootout. It’s not a slow-burn tension of say, Anthropoid. It’s much more geared towards a popcorn entertainment, but it’s still created well.

The story is a little clichéd, with nothing really standing out or subverting trends in scriptwriting. The scriptwriter is Nic Pizzolatto, the creator behind True Detective. Despite that excellently written former work, M7 comes nowhere close to it. There aren’t many stand-out lines and the plot points feel like 101 scriptwriting. There are obligatory break-up/make-up sections and back-stories to characters that feel tacked on/aren’t explored. One of the main characters has a personal connection to the villain, and if we had learnt about it earlier it could have injected the third act with some human drama about sacrificing innocents for revenge. But no, it’s done away with in a few lines, sloppily added in just because it was on a generic story checklist.

In the end, The Magnificent Seven is a well-done popcorn earner. The little generic traits and standard story conventions are easy to point out, but the action and the actors are what make it a highlight. It doesn’t stand with Seven Samurai (the story M7 was based on) but it probably stand there with the original.

Score: 7/10 Not magnificent, but solid entertainment.

Blair Witch Review

People seem to forget it nowadays but when The Blair Witch Project came out, it was a cultural landmark. Nothing else like it had been created before, and it then ushered in the “found-footage” trope that has been prevalent in the early part of the 2000s. Some people loved it, some hated it. Myself, probably in the middle (although it has been a while since seeing it). Twenty years on, does the new Blair Witch carry on the legacy?

Blair Witch stars James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid and is directed by Adam Wingard. the film follows the brother of Heather from the first film (McCune) who collects a set of friends and a documentary filmmaker to venture into the woods to see if they can find his sister.

In the original, it’s widely known that the cast were just coming into their careers and were genuinely scared of their surroundings. The new cast feel like they are more acting rather that reacting to the things around them, making it feel a little more staged. It follows a more conventional style of filmmaking with stock characters (promiscuous girl, wacky black guy, weird locals), giving us tropes we recognise so we can focus more on the woods and action rather than them.

The film is set up like a found footage movie, but updated to modern times. Drones, little headpiece cameras and an all-matter of gizmos such as GPS and walkie-talkies are brought in, which is an interesting addition. These people are actually going into the forest to look for something, not messing about with a camera. Little bits of the equipment get used here and there, but to no great effect other than some new visuals. The first half of the film is all shaking cameras and no real coherency, which eventually started to give me a migraine. It does calm down in the second half, so it’s half redeemed. When the original was made, the marketing convinced so many people that the film was real, that we were watching the last known recording of the three filmmakers. Now that we know that it was all basically fabricated, the sequel was a bit of a non-starter. We know it’s fake, we know it’s made-up, and no amount of people holding cameras or devices is going to convince me otherwise. It is basically a beat-for-beat remake of the original, but without the clever marketing.

Sadly, the spectre of most horror films nowadays, the jump scare, it used to full effect. Most of the time it’s not even anything remotely frightening, just loud camera glitches or microphone pops, which really get irritating after a while. After getting jump-scared by two of her friends, the main female lead says “Can people please stop doing that!”, almost reading the audience members minds. Again, the second act brings it together, with an excellent mix of some Cronenberg-style body horror, a genuinely tense “hearing-monster-walk-around-you” set-piece, a little glimpse of what could be a witch and an ending with a reveal which is novel and interesting. Good horror should leave it open-ended, and the second half does deliver. We even see what those stickmen are eventually used for, and it’s clever and fun.

Looking back at the whole of the Blair Witch, you can almost see the twenty years of horror that it’s tried to keep up with. You obviously get the nods to the original, but also little flashes of things like the VHS series and The Descent. The new stuff it brings to the table is superb and lends a lot of richness to the lore of the Blair Witch, but the basic retread will put of people who didn’t like the first one. If you hated the original, you will hate this, but if like me you were impartial or liked the original, you might get a kick out of it.

Score: 5/10 An abysmal first act leads into a slightly stronger ending.

Anthropoid Review

Thank the film reels that summer is over. I must be sounding like a stuck record, but I’m genuinely happy that I don’t have to sit through any rubbish blockbusters or jokeless comedies for a while. Now the films will be Oscarbait, so even if some will be asinine art installations, we will get some absolute gems as compensation. And now, the opening act.

Anthropoid stars Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Toby Jones and Charlotte Le Bon and is directed by Sean Ellis. The story follows the true story of two Czech Resistance members (Murphy and Dornan) during the Second World War, as they attempt to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the “Butcher Of Prague”.

The set-up of the film really intrigued me. So many war films seem to only focus on the European Theatre of WW2, and then restricting that down to D-Day and onwards. There are so many other battles, such as the attacks in Asia or Eastern Europe that many films don’t focus on (That’s why I intensely liked The Railway Man for focussing on the former). The Czech Resistance is an unexplored time period, so it would bring something fresh to the film.

The actors are excellent in their roles. Jamie Dornan, who is probably most known for his leading role in Fifty Shades Of Grey shows that he isn’t just a set of abs, with a character that is in the position of never being in a combat zone, and having to come to terms with the knowledge he may have to kill to survive. Cillian Murphy does his usual vacated role, a man who is a little too into being able to murder anyone who gets in his way. Both actors, as well as the rest of the cast sport Czech accents, which while sometimes are a little hard to understand, fit into the world and give it a nice sense of believability. This is heightened by the occupying Nazi’s all speaking German, so we, just like the main characters, are lost when talking to the occupiers.

The film is mainly the planning of the assassination attempt and the aftermath, with the assassination mainly being, at most, five minutes of the film. For those wanting an action-heavy WW2 film, this is not it. The film relies more on the tense atmosphere, the sneaking around, passing slips of paper under the cover of darkness knowing any moment the army might crash through the door. It’s excellent at creating that environment, knowing when to release or heighten the tension. The assassination scene is a highlight of the film, with an almost montage effect, splitting between the various members of the hit squad, waiting for their time to strike.

The film is lent more to the slow-build crowd, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t action segments. The assassination sequence, as well as the finale, are great recent example of how to do shaky camera well. Grenades are going off, gunfire is peppering the scenery, and the camera conveys it without being obnoxious. The final fight hits a watermark of emotion-driven drama, as we realise the limited ammunition the characters have and the unending waves of Nazi troops camped outside their safe house. It’s similar to films like Calvary or 300 (without the weird goatmen), where you realise that our protagonists might not make it out of the story in one piece.

The one part I wasn’t invested in however, was a small romance plot near the beginning. To solidify their cover stories, Murphy and Dornan start to date two Czech girls, allowing them to walk around Prague without the Nazi’s questioning them. The romance plot is not fleshed out, with Dornan and Murphy seemingly falling in love in mere minutes. The romance is meant to grow over a few months, but the time scale in the film makes it seem much sooner. It’s probably to fit the film under two hours, but it bugged me a little.

With Anthropoid, Oscar Season is off to a flying start. This is one to see, just so you can be smug to all your friends when it gets nominated.

Score: 9/10 A tense and stark reminder of the sacrifices of war.

Hell Or High Water Review

Sicario was one of the highlights of last year. A dark, twisting film about an extra-legal team from the FBI trying to shut down the drug cartels in Mexico. So when writer of Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, name came up in the pre-release buzz around Hell Or High Water, my interested picked up. Are we in for another grim treat?

Hell Or High Water stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham and is directed by David Mackenzie. The film follows a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Pine and Foster) who after several daring heists are chased by a determined aging Texas Ranger (Bridges).

The three leads are tremendous, a sure reason to go see Hell or Water. Just like other great suspense heist films such as Heat, we see both sides of the law, seeing their wins and losses, with us rooting for both cop and criminal. Jeff Bridges does his usual “too old for this” schtick. He even says that this is his last case (an all too common trope), but he is still an interesting character. Chris Pine and Ben Foster work well together as brothers Toby and Tanner, they have a good back-and-forth, whether it be during the getaway or back home on the ranch. Pine sheds his usual douchy persona and brings a layered character, trying to provide for his family doing something that might get him killed. Ben Foster starts off as the wackier older brother, but thankfully adds more nuance to his performance rather than the played out lunatic bank-robber formula. All three sport Texan accents, which sometimes are hard to understand.

While the film is supposed to be in West Texas, it was actually filmed in New Mexico. Even so, the scenery is beautiful. Much like Sicario before it, Hell Or High Water has may long. wide shots of the never-ending landscapes and stunning setting suns. The film also makes use of the urban environments, little one-street towns and retro diners, leaving a sense of places that simply got lost in time. It gives both a feeling of modern day but also timelessness. If you swapped out the 4x4s for horses and the automatic rifles for revolvers, you would have yourself an old-fashioned Western.

The film is over 100 minutes, but none of it felt like it was dragging or padding out the run-time. The extended bank sequences, using long sweeping takes rather than conventional editing keep the excitement up as the brothers go from bank-to-bank. The film also masters the art of the “ticking-time-bomb”, having something dangerous (in this case a bank robbery) in the background, while the other characters are talking with each other, oblivious to what is happening behind them. These dual approaches to the story keep it moving rather than the slower methods or predictability of previous heist films. The plot might become apparent to more savvy watchers, but the story behind why the brothers are bank-robbing will keep you invested until the finale, with raging gun battles and car chases suiting the more action-oriented fans.

The action is rather sporadic, but it is explosive and brutal. Guns are used more for intimidation, but when bullets start flying they leave blood and brains splattered. It isn’t glorified, again, similar to Sicario, it’s more sickening than fun.

The film is completed by country music, blaring both out of the radio and as part of the soundtrack, created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. While country may not be to my taste, it fits the film’s setting perfectly, once again creating that atmosphere of young and old merging together.

I was holding Hell Or High Water to a high standard with the list of names attached, but it easily delivered. With tense and dramatic heist sequences, beautiful scenery and supreme acting from the three leads, this is one to go and see.

Score: 9/10 They don’t make many like this anymore.

Ben-Hur Review

They remade Ben-Hur? Sure, why not? With all the other bloody films being remade let’s just do whatever film studios still have the rights to. Disclaimer; I haven’t seen the original (apart from the chariot sequence), but it is usually seen as one of the biggest films of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Let’s see though, maybe the remake could be good.

Ben-Hur stars Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, and Nazanin Bonaidi and is directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Based on the book from 1880, the film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) who is betrayed by his Roman Soldier brother (Kebbell) and forced into slavery during the time of Jesus Christ.

I’ll start with what I did like. The film is split between several built sets and real-life wilderness. While it is very easy to spot the former I really enjoyed the latter. Near the beginning we see a montage of Ben-Hur’s adoptive brother Messala’s army career with him fighting in Germania and Gaul through wheat-fields and falling snow. It reminded me of the opening of Gladiator, but sadly it is only in the film for a limited amount of time. I also mostly enjoyed the chariot sequence. While it can’t hold a candle to the original (famous for the alarmingly high amount of injuries and near-death experiences on set) the destruction throughout has a nice crunch to it.

I’m also glad that a lot of the horse and chariot racing was done for real. Sure, horses being tripped and riders being thrown off or trampled are computer generated, but there are many scenes where Ben-Hur is learning to tilt his chariot onto one wheel or another where he jumps onto runaway horses, and it is all done for real. Director Timur Bekmambetov stated he wanted to not rely on CGI unless it was heavily needed so I applaud him for using it correctly rather than splashing out.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been used and quite terribly. During Ben-Hur’s time as a galley slave, rowing ships for the Roman Navy, he looks out the portholes and sees some truly awful looking ships. The previously mentioned chariot sequence (when it isn’t the real riders) is full of rubbery looking models unfit for the early 2000s. It is a little sad when something goes from real-life stunts to bad stand-ins.

The acting is mixed pot as well. Most of the cast is English or American (odd, since the film is meant to be set in Jerusalem). Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur as a gruff, wooden character, breathing every other word like Kristen Stewart used to do back in Twilight. Toby Kebbell isn’t as charismatic as he was in Warcraft earlier this year (he was honestly the best part of that film), but his character is meant to be a nigh-emotionless killer so I’ll let it pass. The person I was most confused by was Morgan Freeman. While he is really good in the film I was pulled out the experience by his inclusion. Everyone else is either relatively unknown or coming into their careers so to have this huge actor in the film creates a divide. Bekmamtebov said he wanted the film to be global hence his inclusion of Freeman. Alright, I’ll let it go. Morgan Freeman does draw in the crowds since remaking a classic film is not usually a winner of box offices (the film is reportedly making a loss of $120 million).

The bit I found both unintentionally hilarious and odd was the inclusion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is in the original story (the subtitle is A Tale Of The Christ), but in the 1959 version he’s usually off-screen, a higher presence that is alluded to but never truly shown. There is a line in the updated version which basically is, “This Jesus fellow is rather great, he’s just wonderful.” I’m all for including whatever you want in a film, but it was just so funny how the line was presented in the film, it felt really out of place. That being said, Rodrigo Santoro, the actor who plays Jesus (who also played Xerxes from 300 and Karl from Love Actually, interesting fact), is actually giving a good performance and an interesting addition to the film.

In the end Ben-Hur wasn’t as bad as I was thinking it was going to be. Its an odd mix of Gladiator, Passion Of The Christ, and Ben-Hur, but sadly with nothing really standout to warrant it being remade.

Score: 5/10 There are better movies to spend two and half hours with.

Kubo And The Two Strings Review

For all of the shoddy sequels and comic book movies this year, animation has been on point. With Disney’s excellent The Jungle Book and Zootropolis, Studio Ghibli’s final film, When Marine Was There, and the incredible Anomalisa, 2016 is looking up in terms of animation. And now, a new one, Kubo And The Two Strings.

Kubo And The Two Strings stars Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara and is directed by Travis Knight. The film follows Kubo (Parkinson), a young boy who must find a set of magical armour bequeathed to him by his samurai father, while being chased by evil forces.

The animation is some of the best of this year, which is really saying a lot. Laika, the team behind Kubo, is the same team that made ParaNorman and Coraline, two recent greats for animation buffs. The level of detail and the production design is part of the reason to go see Kubo right away. The incredibly smooth stop-motion animation, along with the 3D printed faces turns even the small down time in between the big action set pieces into a jaw dropping display of craftsmanship, you completely forget the massive human effort it took to create something so magical. One of the first big fights in the film includes what is apparently the largest stop-motion character ever animated. Be sure to stick around during the credits, which includes a “see how we did this” behind the scenes moment that shows how ridiculous the task must have been.

Kubo is heavily influenced by Japanese folklore. While the story is a grab bag of several different legends and tales, it’s more in the mood rather than the plot. Little wisps of fog coat lakes, half forgotten statues to Shinto and Buddhist religions are throughout the land, it does a good job of creating a world, and not just a succession of places in a line. The music helps settle us into the world, with the strings of Kubo’s guitar, along with flutes and chimes constantly coming and going from the film, highlighting some scenes as being instant favourites of the year so far. The plot though is very by the numbers. A little boy finding magical armour and defeating dark gods, it’s a story that’s been told before (mainly Legend Of Zelda). The story has a few twists that might be easy to figure out for the older viewers, especially reveals about Kubo’s companions Monkey and Beetle, but overall it’s more a dressing than the central point.

Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are excellent as Kubo’s friend Monkey and Beetle respectively. Theron is doing her usual badass performance, with McConaughey playing a bit against type as the rather slow-minded Beetle. Ralph Fiennes does his sinister charm in a small role as Raiden, and Rooney Mara, playing dual roles as a pair of evil witches is remarkably menacing for how little she is on-screen. Art Parkinson though as Kubo is who deserves the high praise. Most notable as Rickon Stark from Game Of Thrones, the young actor carries the majority of the first act mainly by himself.

I always feel that when animation goes dark, due to it being animated, it adds to the scariness. Kubo And The Two Strings is rated PG for “mild fantasy violence and scary scenes”. The scary scenes are mainly supplied by Rooney Mara’s excellent twin sisters (who never actually get names), who appear at night in a swirl of black smoke. Their black robes and their constantly smiling facemasks add a genuine deal of creepiness to the film, and leave a distinct impression that will be remembered long after it’s finished.

In short, Kubo And The Strings is one of the best of the year and one that will be enjoyed both by young and old. Go see it now while it’s still in cinemas, then go push it on all your friends. You will not be disappointed.

Score: 10/10 Genuinely awe-inspiring.

Café Society Review

Woody Allen is one of the most celebrated directors on the 20th century. With hits like Annie Hall and Manhattan, he’s loved for his quirky, almost self-loathing humour and existential crises. His last film, Irrational Man, released in 2015, was met with mixed response, so let’s see if his new film can do any better.

Café Society stars Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carrell, Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively and is written and directed by Woody Allen. The film follows Bobby Dorman (Eisenberg) who engages in the high society of both Hollywood and New York during the 1930s.

As the film is set during the early 1930s, the golden age of Hollywood, Café Society is in love with its time period, similar to The Coen Brother’s Hail, Caesar! earlier this year. Many references are made to Hollywood actors, actresses and directors, so if you’re not clued up on your Busby Berkeley’s and Greta Garbo’s you might not get as much enjoyment as I did from it. It’s not like Allen’s Midnight In Paris, with actors taking the place of the Era’s stars, most of them are just name-dropped, a shallow attempt for the characters to boast how many famous people they are friends with.

The 30s setting though gives us two great things, the music and the costumes. Our main character Bobby is a huge fan of jazz, constantly playing records while he potters around his house. Through the story he becomes owner of a club, with smooth jazz being played every night. The many parties he goes to show off the latter, with classic suits and elegant dresses. Everyone is wearing double-breasted jackets with wide lapels, bow ties, suspenders, it at least deserves a nomination for the both at when Oscar season rolls around.

The film is shot mainly in long takes. It isn’t the pretentious long takes of The Revenant, it’s more controlled, used when it fits the mood. In that fact, it feels more like a play rather than a film, with focus squarely on the actors, rather than lavish sets. The sets are subdued, mainly people’s back gardens and small parties, not the sprawling excess of films of the era.

After his mincing, over-the-top portrayal of Lex Luthor in Batman Vs Superman, Jesse Eisenberg seems to be redeeming himself by turning around from comic books to indie darlings. He is good as Bobby, moving from adorably geeky at the start to a high-flying socialite by the end. Kristen Stewart is perfect as Vonnie, the 30s version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl that Bobby is infatuated with. Sure, it was easy to ridicule her during her Twilight days with her wooden acting, but she’s really grown as an actress since then. The show is stolen though by Corey Stoll in a small role as Bobby’s big brother Ben. A kingpin in the NYC underworld, his technique of getting rid of competition by giving them “cranial ventilation” (in his words) before burying them in concrete drew many laughs from the audience and fits into Allen’s recurring theme about the ethics of murder. Many other Allen motifs turn up, the eternally anxious main character, love and relationships (usually forbidden), classic cinema and of course, lots of Jewish-based humour.

The points that I didn’t really like were mainly story-based. The story is pretty predictable, nothing really new or different on-screen. The mood shifts wildly from light comedy to melancholy and back again, leaving me wondering whether I was meant to be laughing or feeling sympathetic for the characters. And even being a 96 minute film, it feels rather slow. The film dallies about, with events happening but no real story to speak of. It doesn’t build too much, ending rather abruptly.

In the end, Café Society will suit those who enjoy the vibe of the 30s with small dashes of comedy and melancholy. It will be more one for the indie crowd, but you should have a good time with it.

Score: 7/10 Brief fun and glamour in Classic Hollywood.