Today is the 31st of January, a date I’ll always remember when I think back on my university life. On this day, two years ago, when I was still a fresh-faced first year, I started The Student Film Review, to further my passion for films, and to hopefully inform and entertain with my writing.
I’m now in my final semester of my final year, 164 reviews in, and at just over 7000 views, I have decided it’s time to bid farewell. Alas, I’m not going to be a student for much longer and we all must move on to bigger and better things. I thought to ceremonially “close” the site on its anniversary was a nice, poetic end to one of the most inspiring and fun things I’ve ever done.
I’m eternally grateful for each and every one of you, whether you liked the review you read or not. The reaction was a positive drive to watch and write more, especially in those times when I would burn out after watching so many films in class and then in my spare time.
I’ve met and talked with so many people through my work, some of them half way around the world. Some highlights being swapping film recommendations with Ken Levine (creator of Bioshock), having my work reposted on other sites (like sci-fi-central) and being nominated as one of the Top Student Blogs Of 2016. I’ve also watched some truly excellent films (just look at the 53 choices on the Must-Watch List!), ones that I would never have seen unless I hadn’t been driven to review more and more. These are the memories that I’ll be taking with me.
The site will stay up, so you can re-read back through your favourite reviews or browse through some that you haven’t seen yet without the threat of it being wiped from the internet. My second site, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One will become my new primary writing space (whenever I get around to writing something I feel could be posted), so I’ll still be somewhere on the internet.
When Mel Gibson releases a film people sit up and pay attention. Ever since Braveheart back in 1995, which he directed, starred and produced, Gibson has been one whose films are shocking and controversial while also receiving high critical acclaim. Does his new film Hacksaw Ridge follow the great string of films before it?
Hacksaw Ridge stars Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington and Teresa Palmer and is directed by Mel Gibson. The film follows the true story of Desmond Doss (Garfield) a contentious objector during the Second World War. He volunteers as an army medic instead and is sent out during the battle of Okinawa, in which he saved the lives of seventy-five men.
If Mel Gibson’s films are known for anything is their almost pornographic depictions of gore and violence and the sometimes heavy-handed religious metaphors and aggrandising of the main character. In terms of the former, Hacksaw Ridge has the blood and bodies turned up to eleven. This isn’t the bloodless fights of Marvel or the rather scaled-back violence in Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge paints the screen red with blood. It’s an odd balance of sickening and gratuitous; a solider picks up the corpse of a comrade and uses him as a shield, we get several body pans focusing in on missing legs and the Japanese soldiers use samurai swords when finishing off the barely surviving soldiers. The start of the film is an almost Nicholas Sparks-style romance film, with Garfield’s Doss falling in love with a nurse. When it comes time for the battle to start the switch to dismemberment is a tonal whiplash, leaving you completely open to the vile amount of gore on stage.
Garfield is near perfect in his role as Desmond Doss. Most people only really know Garfield as the second Spiderman, a character known for being quiet and unassuming. He brings that along with a childhood innocence and naiveté to the role, leading to a main character that you root for and understand his motivations. His religion is not over-played, it’s just another layer to the character. My only flaw would be his “aw-shucks” accent, which makes him sound like he’s talking with a mouth full of food. The rest of the cast are good even if most of his fellow soldiers are one-word stereotypes. And who knew that Vince Vaughn, the guy from Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball, would do a good job in an action role? Or that Sam Worthington could actually emote?
The accompanying score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is an excellent addition to the film. It has the hallmarks of a war movie; the marching drums and the bold brass for the action heavy second half, but evens it out with some beautiful string and woodwind solos during the beginning and the downtime in between the fights on the battlefield. It is easily one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time, not since Bridge of Spies have I been blown away by the score of a film.
The film does have some minor faults. While it was important to establish Garfield’s character’s optimism and innocence, the first half feels both overlong and cut short at the same time. It’s pretty much the first hour, but most of the scenes that are a good few weeks apart are shunted together like they are happening in the same day. As I said before the romance sometimes comes off a little corny with cheesy one-liners being most of Garfield and Teresa Palmer’s dialogue together. The film also ends with actual interview footage with Doss and his fellow soldiers, which feels a bit at odds since we’ve just got done watching a dramatisation of the events. Maybe it was to show that some things depicted in the film actually did happen, but I got that from the “this is a true story” at the beginning.
In the end, Hacksaw Ridge completely blew me away. While it may not reach the cultural heights of Braveheart (everyone knows the “they may take out lives” quote), it is still a bombastic, violent depiction of the Second World War. It’s definitely not one for the squeamish.
Score: 8/10 A cinematic tour-de-force on the brutality of war and the power of the human spirit.
The first xXx came out back in 2002. I vaguely remember it; explosions, stunts and Vin Diesel in a fantastic fur coat. I know even less about the sequel xXx: State of The Union, save for that Xander Cage (Vin Diesel’s character) had apparently been killed off so instead Ice Cube was brought in to fill the gap. Now, fifteen years after he first starred in the role, Vin Diesel comes back for more extreme stunts.
xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage stars Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose and Samuel L. Jackson and is directed by D.J. Caruso. The film follows extreme sports star Xander Cage (Diesel) as he is brought out of the retirement by the CIA to stop a rogue faction from destroying the world.
I’ve given the most blandest of synopsis I can because this a film without a story. Oh sure, there is a lot of nonsense about crashing satellites and covert-government types, all interchangeable and doesn’t do much apart from set up to some crazy stunts. And really, I’m okay with that. So many films nowadays take themselves too seriously, it’s good now and again for a film that just leans right into the madness and has some fun to it.
Vin Diesel does his usual grumble-mumble and cute one-liners, no different from the fifty other Vin Diesel roles he has. It’s the newcomers that are the most interesting characters. Ruby Rose gets to show off her action chops while flipping the table of what an “action heroine” should be, Donnie Yen get’s to kick ass in his style but has an actual backstory and motivations, Deepika Padukone is a freedom fighter who is conflicted over how to achieve liberty, this is all cool stuff in an industry that just labels characters as “the Asian One”, “The Girl” and “The Other Girl.” Granted, the other actors; Tony Jaa, Rory McCann, Kris Wu and Michael Bisping don’t have much to them apart from a name and a one-line backstory, but it’s still an improvement over Hollywood.
The other major point I want to show off is how diverse the cast is. It’s cool to see these big actors from Chinese, Thai and Indian cinema get some major roles and screen time in an American blockbuster.
I was drawn to xXx 3 because I was promised action, and damn if it isn’t filled to brim with stunts. While there is noticeable instances of green screen, most of the action seems to be done for real. Even with the use of handheld cam, the action is bone-crunching and visceral. This is why you get Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa in; these guys know how to fight, how to pull off stunts and make it look good. The plot enables these top notch performers to just let loose, with Jaa having an excellent parkour-infused chase on a freeway, while Yen get’s to show off his martial arts in a six-on-one fight in the finale. The finale ratchets up the ridiculous to eleven, with zero-gravity plane rides and robot boxing gloves, but is it still filmed relatively well, not obscuring any of the over-the-top action.
The film has downsides. I’ve talked about the plot, it has so many holes and loops that there is no point trying to figure out how and why things happen. This is one of those “plot armour” situations, just go with it. The film does start pretty slow with at least an hour before it becomes a full-on action fest, with only minor action sequences to tide us over. Also, near the beginning of the film there are so many navel shots and full-body pans, it’s just tasteless. Refreshingly the main female characters aren’t sexualised in any way, but there is still a romance sub-plot that comes out of nowhere.
In the end, I left xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage with a huge grin on my face. For those looking for some good action and fun characters, but zero plot, this is one for you. I wouldn’t mind seeing this one again.
Damien Chazelle blew onto the mainstream circuit with Whiplash two years ago, an excellent film about the passion of musicians, with great performances from Miles Teller and JK Simmons. After writing the script for the lauded 10 Cloverfield Lane in 2016, all eyes were on him for what he would produce this year.
La La Land stars Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend and Rosemarie DeWitt and is directed by Damien Chazelle. The film follows an aspiring actress (Stone) and a jazz musician (Gosling) in Los Angeles who meet one day and fall in love.
You don’t see many musicals these days. After a certain Golden Period in Hollywood, musicals were quickly picked up by Disney. But seeing as the House Of Mouse are now aiming for more standard animation (along with remaking their classics) it falls to new talent to bring back the musical. And Damien Chazelle has made La La Land a smash hit.
The film starts with a song and dance number along the LA freeway, setting the stage for the old-school romance that is going to unfold. It’s an excellent opening, with hundreds of extras dancing on the roofs of cars. And due to some excellent cinematography by Linus Sandgren and editing by Tom Cross it all looks like it’s done in one sweeping shot. All the dance numbers are done in a similar way, all being performed in a couple or sometimes one long take with the performers dancing around the entire set. It’s the sort of performance that makes you want to give the film a standing ovation.
The songs and music were all done by Justin Hurwitz (who worked previously with Chazelle on Whiplash) and certainly deserve the high praise it has been given. Jumping from the melancholic piano solos to upbeat trumpets and saxophones to a full orchestra in the final act, it’s a film that needs not only to be seen, but to be heard in the cinema.
The two leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, are perfectly cast in the film. We see Stone get shunted from audition to audition, showing the brutality of casting directors. Her soliloquy that we see her practising early on the film is performed in one take and is masterful show-off of her acting ability. Gosling is his usual quiet but passionate self and their chemistry is electric. When they perform together you get this sense that they are channelling the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they are perfectly in sync and react well to each other.
La La Land is set in the present, but its whole shtick is an affinity for the yesteryear of Los Angeles. The film name-checks and references a lot of the films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Stone and Gosling talk about Casablanca and go watch Rebel Without a Cause, their dance numbers have inflections of Singin’ In The Rain, and they obviously pay homage to the previously mentioned Astaire and Rogers with their tap-dancing duet. It never feels like they overshadow the actual film though. The references are there for those who know them and don’t distract or make the film seem like it is showing off (much like how I thought Hail, Caesar or Café Society did).
If there were any misgivings I had they would be the age rating. The film has a 12A for infrequent strong language. It’s so sporadic that it seems a bit jarring when it’s used and it’s annoying that the film has been bumped up to a 12A when it could easily be a U and fun for all the family with its great song and dance numbers. Another small nit-pick, the second half takes a little time going, but that maybe due to the fantastic dance number that precedes it, knocking a bit of the wind out of the film’s sails for the second act.
In the end, La La Land deserves all the praise you’ve been hearing about it. Everything from the cast, to the songs, to the choreography to the cinematography and the overall vibe is astounding. This is definitely not one to miss.
Score: 10/10 A superb, swinging, sexy dream of a film.
I get asked a lot why I chose the name The Student Film Review. For me it was a simple choice; I was a student and I was reviewing films, it was a perfect fit. I wasn’t reviewing films from a student perspective, it was just the period of time in my life when I was reviewing movies. But this collection, I’m reviewing films which are very much tied in with my studies, these are the films that I’m researching for my dissertation.
Satoshi Kon was a visionary director. Over ten years he made four films, each unique and outstanding in their own rights. He pushed animation and anime in new directions, focussing on much more adult and mature stories than his contemporaries. If Hayao Miyazaki (the head of Studio Ghibli) is the Walt Disney of anime, Satoshi Kon would be the Alfred Hitchcock or Terry Gilliam. His films became some of my favourites, so I chose him to focus on for my final university work. And now onto reviews.
The first of Kon’s four films, the story focuses on pop singer Mima who takes a drastic career turn to become a risqué actress. She starts to receive death threats from a fanatical fan/stalker and hallucinates monstrous visions and nightmares.
This was both my first Kon film and my introduction to anime, which was an odd experience to say the least. The animation is a bit low budget, with some definition on large sections of crowds missing, but it holds up enough for the film. And while the English dub was a bit jarring at the beginning, it actually added to the weirdness of the film. What got me hooked was the clever and mind-bending story. We go from dream sequences to rooftop chases, song and dance numbers to viscous and bloody murder with a screwdriver, before landing on not one but two rape sequences. It was definitely a jarring film to be introduced to, but a memorable one. Fans of Darren Aronofsky, this is a film to check out. The latter director bought the rights just to restage a number of scenes in his film Requiem For A Dream, and the whole film is the basis for Black Swan. For anyone thinking that anime or animation is for children, this is one to change your mind.
Score: 9/10 Dark, twisted and baffling, but entertaining.
This was Kon’s second film and it shows how versatile a director he was. While Perfect Blue focused on dark and warped versions of celebrity, MillenniumActress is much more light-hearted, with a love for Japanese history, both real and cinematic. The film follows a documentary filmmaker and his assistant, who are interviewing a famous actress from the Golden Age of Cinema. As she tells them the story of her life, the group are transported back through time and relive the important moments of her life.
The time-travel gimmick can sometimes make this film even harder to follow than Perfect Blue with its dream-within-visions sequences. We’ll be in a train in the 1930s, but the characters will get off and the film will be back in the 1500s, without even a mention that we are in a new time period. The story though isn’t as interesting as Kon’s first film. The film is about a woman trying to find her first love amid all the time travel, but it isn’t that compelling. We don’t get any time to know with the man that she is chasing, which is kind of the point, but it leaves the film with nothing to aspire to. He’s an empty vessel, purely there to move the story on. And after the first couple of time swaps, the story potters about for a while until the big reveals start happening near the end.
Score: 7/10 One of the history buffs and romance fans, but not one of the best.
Probably Kon’s most accessible film, as it features none of the trippy mind-bending weirdness or the adult themes of his larger body of work. The story follows three homeless people in the middle of Tokyo, who find a baby dumped in the street on Christmas Eve. The three band together to go find the child’s parents just in time for Christmas.
While the film is the most “normal” of Kon’s, it’s still deals with big ideas. The main theme is family; our three leads have each been thrown out or left their families for different reasons, and over the course of the film they seek to resolve and contact their families. The most interesting of the three is Hana, a transgender nightclub singer, whose desire to be female leads her to running away with the baby so that she can feel “motherly”.
The film is the most comedic of Kon’s four, but the humour can sometimes come off as forced. Take in the meandering story and very contrived plot (people meeting over and over again in one of the largest cities in Japan), it requires you to leave plausibility at the door. Kon’s fantastic camerawork and editing though make it still enjoyable to watch from a technical aspect. And it’s a Christmas film, so why not watch it next year rather than Die Hard for your alternative Christmas movie night?
Score: 6/10 Probably the weakest of the bunch, but still a good watch.
Kons’ last film before he died in 2010, Paprika is his most well-received film. The story is about a machine called the DC Mini, which allows people to enter other people’s dreams. Its purpose is for psychotherapy, but a group of criminals steal it for nefarious ends. A group of scientists have to band together to find the DC Mini and save the world from total destruction.
The set-up of Paprika might seem familiar. That’s because, just like how Perfect Blue was remade into Black Swan, Paprika was remade into Inception. It’s not just in the vague story beats either; the rotating hallway, the shattering glass wall, the dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams idea (Inception went three dreams deep, Paprika goes five deep), it’s been lifted from Kon’s magnum opus.
The film is ten years old, but the animation is superb. Crystal clear and meticulously detailed, Madhouse, the studio behind it, outdid many similar animation at the time and works being done today. The crazy dream sequences and editing quirks (such as jumping through paintings and billboards and into another scene) are feats to be admired. It’s a film that is also in love with filmmaking as an art, with sections detailing Filmmaking 101 such as the “180 Line” and recreating famous films within characters dreams. With the addition of the darker themes and intriguing story of Perfect Blue but the brighter colours and cheery aspect of Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, this is the culmination of Kon’s work and is surely his best.
Score: 10/10 Will blow you away with its fantastical approach.
The YouTube channel Every Frame A Painting did a fascinating breakdown of Kon’s editing and visual style. It’s a great watch, even if you don’t know his work.
I’ve been waiting for this film for well over a year. After last year’s Macbeth (which had all the same technical crew and actors), I was super excited for Assassin’s Creed. Could it shake the video game-curse or is it another one to throw on the pile?
Assassin’s Creed stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Ariane Labed and Charlotte Rampling and is directed by Justin Kurzel. The film follows Callum Lynch (Fassbender) who after being saved from death row by a mysterious company has to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar (also Fassbender) from the Spanish Inquisition.
When I first heard about the Assassin’s Creed movie, I was excited when I heard they were moving away from the story of the games. This is what the film does right, it moves away from the story gamers would know and creates its own Assassin and setting, but leaves little hints for the eagle-eyed fans. Kenway’s flintlocks, Connor’s bow, Baptiste’s descendants, they make the world feel rich with history and lore that could be explored in sequels.
Sadly the film also takes the modern day approach to the story. Instead of it just being about the Spanish Assassin’s the film splits itself between that and the modern day wider narrative. We spend more time in modern day than in the Animus (the machine that allows Callum to relieve his memories), which for me was a problem. I came to see 1500s Spain not Michael Fassbender walk around minimalistic settings. The film only goes back to Spain three times, each only lasting around twenty minutes at the most. There is a reason Desmond Miles (the modern day character from the game) is never on the front cover, because we shouldn’t be focussing on him so why are we focussing on Callum rather than Aguilar?
The actors aren’t doing their best work either. Michael Fassbender flits from cracking jokes and madness to being stoic and brooding with no reasoning behind it. Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons look vacant for most of the film with Cotillard only getting some character development near the end. The most interesting character is Maria (played by Ariane Labed), an Assassin that works with Aguilar. Through subtle looks and gestures, it feels like there was a relationship building up between her and Aguilar, but it never builds to anything. Credit to Fassbender and Labed though for learning Spanish for the sections in the past.
The part that annoyed the most was the camerawork. I do not for a second believe that Adam Arkapaw, the man that was responsible for the beauty of Macbeth, True Detective, and The Light Between Oceans, signed off on these shots. The trailer showed off long extended shots and excellent cinematography, but there is none of that in the actual film. Fight scenes are incomprehensible, parkour chases lack cohesion, and everything is shrouded in fog. Every time the Animus is booted up, we have a long sweep of the area from above, but it’s hardly visible due to the fog and clouds. The best shot is the one of Maria killing two guards, but it was in the trailer. The fight scenes also cut between the action unfolding in the past and then Callum doing the action in the Animus. Cutting between two plains of action is just confusing and takes away from what we actually want to see.
It really is a shame. With Fassbender, Cotillard, The Kurzel brothers, and Arkapaw all working together again on a film, it shouldn’t be bad. But there is none of that spark from their earlier films here. I will say, it’s a film that gets better as it goes on. It’s only in the final third where true character development happens and we get some of those action scenes we were promised, but it’s too little too late. I do wish for a sequel though. Hopefully they will take heed of the criticism and develop the film based on the feedback of both fans and critics (of which I am both).
Score: 4/10 Not truly terrible, but not great by any stretch.
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;
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).
I don’t really want to rememberIndependence 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.
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.
WhileJason 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
Ten is a tie because I couldn’t pick between them, Room andThe 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.
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.
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).
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.
At number six, the Master Of Ultra-Violence, Nicolas Winding-Refn, is back withThe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’sKubo 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.
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!
And it starts. With a Star Wars film being promised every year until the foreseeable future, there will come a time when Star Wars will start losing audiences and eventually stop. But as we are just at the beginning of this saga, I guess these first ones will be good? Let’s go see.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, with Riz Ahmed and Forest Whitaker and is directed by Gareth Edwards. The film follows a band of fighters from the Rebel Alliance as they track down the plans for the newly developed Death Star, hoping to find a weakness in its design.
Rogue One had many things I liked. Rogue One builds on one of my main gripes with Ep. VII, it extends the universe and giving us some diverse planets. Episode VII gave us the same look as the others; desert planet, snow planet, and forest planet. Rogue One has rolling green hills, island resorts, LV-426 and Mordor. It keeps the visuals fresh and pretty, even if we do go to ANOTHER BLOODY DESERT PLANET near the beginning, one that looks exactly the same as Tatooine and Jakku. They even have the same backstreets and architecture of previous planet settlements, give it a rest.
Another good thing were the fight sequences. Director Gareth Edwards said this would be a war film and the extended running battles are excellently filmed. The final battle, set on that previously mentioned island resort is a highlight of the series with Stormtroopers and Rebels running through the undergrowth, across beaches, and through shallow water, blasting anyone in their way. The inclusion of Donnie Yen as a fighter was perfect and he used Kung Fu to defeat his enemies. I was extremely annoyed at the waste of The Raid stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian in Ep. VII, but Donnie Yen using wushu was enough to make me forgive the complete waste of talented actors in previous films.
Now onto things I didn’t like. While I was a fan of the story, the characters were boring. The film is full of questionable actions with good guys doing bad things “for the rebellion”, but these feel like trappings. It is a known fact that Rogue One went into reshoots for being in Disney’s words “too dark”, and it feels that the characters were meant to go through a bit more of a story arc before the film ended. Diego Luna’s character flits from being able to kill allies to craving the sanctity of life with no explanation in between. Torture is used on one character, but its after-effects aren’t dwelled upon at all. It feels like it’s on the cusp of something, but doesn’t have the will to see it through.
With Rogue One being set in between Episode III-IV, the film is full of little references to the larger series. To me these were awful additions and really drag the film down. (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Evazan and Ponda bumping into our heroes, Red and Gold Leader appearing for no reason, Bail Organa talking about how he must return to Alderaan to warn them of the Death Star, they are put in as a nudge and a wink to the audience, killing all dramatic tension or build-up for a one-second gag. There were multiple guffaws from my audience when these characters turned up, cementing the fact that these were put in for a “oh, I know them!” from the hardcore crowd.
Rogue One tries its hand at a few jokes, most of them landing flat. Even Darth Vader gets a zinger in with it coming off more like a Schwarzenegger one-liner than anything the famous Sith Lord would say. Grand Moff Tarkin is recreated with CGI and while it looks uncannily like Peter Cushing, you can tell it’s fake. It might be his eyes or the faint rubbery-ness of is skin, but something is off.
Finally, the film ret-cons integral parts of the series. It’s a small complaint and one that uber-fans will probably skip over, but the film starts messing over established points of the Originals and Prequels, which really annoyed me.
In the end, Rogue One has left me in two camps. While I enjoy the explosive set-pieces and the extension of the universe, I have to criticise the poorly written dialogue and the “keeping it safe” approach. While Ep. VII was a good re-introduction for the newbies, Rogue One feels like one for the hardcore fanbase.
Score: 6/10 Good moments let down by a script and characters that aren’t involving.
Last year Inside Out blew everyone away with its stunning effects and inventive premise. Then The Good Dinosaur came out in the second half of 2015 and did not live up to the high standards set before it. This year Zootropolis wowed the audience and received praise for its narrative and story elements. Now Moana is stepping into the void left by The Good Dinosaur. Does it fail like last time or does it continue a good year for Disney?
Moana stars Auli’i Cravahlo, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rachael House and Temuera Morrison and is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. The film follows Moana (Cravahlo), a chieftains daughter, who must set off across the ocean to find demigod Maui (Johnson) and help recover the “heart of the sea”.
The animation and design, like all Disney films, is superb. The film is set on a chain of Polynesian islands with Moana and Maui sailing between them. The islands look superb with the water being a highlight. I know it sounds odd to praise the water, but it’s one of the hardest things to animate and here it’s almost photorealistic. Polynesian culture has been heavily researched and is used throughout the film with artwork, tattoos, and traditional dances in almost every frame. It’s a setting that’s underused in films (it has only small similarities to Lilo and Stich) and it looks beautiful.
Moana as a Disney “princess” is also quite a developed character. Voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravahlo (say it how you spell it), she breaks the mould for women in the Disney pantheon despite rehashing elements of Mulan’s and Pocahontas’ character. Moana’s not the omni-competent badass of Brave or the ditzy, naïve damsel of Tangled. She makes mistakes, learns from people around her, and eventually saves the day, with not a prince figure ever gracing the screen to marry her and whisk her off into the sunset. She’s not even a princess, which the film comments upon with a series of meta-jokes. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does his usual thing as Maui, a demigod who Moana must enlist to help her quest. He’s oafish and workshy, wanting to just rest on his title of demigod rather than do anything heroic. His body is covered in tattoos, some of which come alive and argue with him throughout the film. They soon become a reoccurring sight gag as they run from one side of his body to the other, trying to keep his attention.
The music is a mixed bag. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i (the former of Hamilton fame) some songs are absolute belters while others are forgettable or boring. Moana’s main theme is an excellent powerful ballad in the same vein as “Just Around The Riverbend” or “Let it Go”. It may not reach the huge popularity of Frozen‘s hit wonder, but you will definitely hear it in the coming months. The two final songs are quiet and emotional and give a nice change after the Broadway-style of the others. The rest are not going to be classics in my opinion, with the worst involving a cringe-worthy song by a giant crab. All the songs continue the Polynesian feel with chanting, pipes, and drums backing up the powerful voices and is a refreshing change from Disney’s usual musical tastes.
The only real fault I can find with Moana is the script. The story is a standard Disney adventure, but the interactions between the characters aren’t up to par. With lines like, “I will tell you my story…in song format,” it seems that the script needed to go through a few more rewrites before filming started. Plot points arrive quick and are dismissed even quicker, sometimes just for a one-off joke. Most of it seems a bit rushed.
In the end, Moana is a middle of the road offering. The animation, characters and (half of) the music are well worth the trip to the cinema, but a weak story and script don’t make it any better than passable.
Score: 6/10 Flourishes of brilliance with some minor faults.