2016: The Year in Review, Part One: The Hateful Eight to Batman v Superman

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As many people will tell you, often, everywhere, all over the internet, all the time, 2016 has been a brutal year. We’ve lost many great actors, artists and musicians, we decided to fuck off out of the EU, and a bumbling, racist idiot has been put in charge of one of the world’s superpowers. It’s also been a year in which pretty much nothing has happened on this blog, and for that you can blame muggins here’s futile skirmishes with motivation (or, more appropriately, lack thereof).

It can’t all be bad though, right? Even when we’re in the shit, there’s always entertainment to keep us chipper… right? Until recently, the pervasive doom and gloom of the year had me thinking that 2016 has been kind of a dud for films. Now though, the more I think back on the films I’ve seen over the past 12 months, the more I realise how great some of them have been.

I’ve faced the pitchforks for defending two of the most hated releases of the year, found a modern horror film that actually scared me, and had the pleasure of watching what is, I fully believe, the best sci-fi since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps most significantly, it was at the beginning of this year that I fully discovered my love for the films of Studio Ghibli, and getting to see their latest on the big screen, as well as going on a Ghibli adventure of my own, are memories I will keep with me for a long time. How are those for teasers?

Lo and behold, it’s time for me to crawl out of hiding and commence my annual tradition of reviewing every film I’ve seen in a cinema from January to December. Writing over 30 reviews in one go is a mammoth undertaking, and once again I regret not starting this earlier as it can be incredibly hard to remember a mediocre film seen almost a whole year ago. No battle is easily won, of course, and I shall power on for all that remains good in the world. There will inevitably be sacrifices, mostly the time that I could be spending playing Overwatch or watching One Piece, but I will write for what is right, and become legend.

As King Theoden once said:

Arise! Arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day… a red day… ‘ere the sun rises! Ride now! Ride now! Ride! Ride to ruin and the world’s ending! Death! Death! DEATH!

Forth, Eorlingas!

THE HATEFUL EIGHT, 17/01/2016

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It must be hard to follow up a film as good as Django Unchained, especially with another Western, but with The Hateful Eight Quentin Tarantino pulled it off with aplomb.

Taking place almost entirely in a stagecoach lodge, held at the mercy of a deadly blizzard, the film plays out like a piece of theatre, as we explore its central characters through a number of chapters. The lodge’s patrons are a colourful and dangerous bunch, from Kurt Russell’s impressively moustachioed bounty hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth, to Walton Goggins, who steals the show as brash prospective sheriff Chris Mannix. It soon becomes clear that each of them has something to hide, and it appears that at least one of them is planning to sabotage the operation by freeing Ruth’s bounty – Jennifer Jason Leigh’s comically unfortunate criminal, Daisy Domergue. Inevitably, everything starts falling apart, people start dying, and it all leads up to the bloody conclusion to end all bloody conclusions.

At nearly three hours long, and not afraid to take its time, H8ful could have been a chore, but I found it easy to become completely engrossed in the confined world of Minnie’s Haberdashery. The set detail is outstanding, and the very manner in which scenes are staged make them a joy to watch. Tarantino is on top form here, giving his players snappy, captivating dialogue that slowly builds tension before exploding into sudden and shocking acts of violence. Topping it all off is Ennio Morricone’s brilliantly brooding score, which features one of the most menacing themes since John Williams’ Jaws.

It’s a long old trip, but it’s a coach well worth taking. Show the Hateful some love.

Soundtrack Pick: ‘L’Ultima Diligenza di Red Rock’ by Ennio Morricone, from The Hateful Eight.

THE REVENANT, 17/01/2016

You’ve all heard about how Leonardo DiCaprio licked bear shit and put pine cones up his bum for his role in The Revenant, and to be fair, anyone putting themselves through all that deserves an award for their efforts. It is a shame then, that I never felt fully invested in the plight of Hugh Glass, whose unsuccessful antics with a grizzly bear lead him to fight for his very survival so he may enact animalistic revenge on the man who left him for dead.

While Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is certainly exquisite, and we get a real sense of the savage power of nature, the film is overbearingly grim, and a really tough watch because of it. This would be fine if the viewer had a strong connection with the central character, but I didn’t feel like I was ever given enough of a reason to care whether he lived or died. The final showdown is visceral and wince-inducing, with Glass and his target becoming more ferocious and bestial than the grizzly itself, but the ending left me as cold as the film’s harsh locale.

I understand and respect that director Alejandro G. Iñárritu wanted to go all-out with The Revenant’s bleakness, but I still wanted more to latch on to. Think of The Road – a tremendously depressing film which portrays a father and son’s journey through a forlorn and hopeless apocalyptic world. It’s utterly horrible, but it’s a journey we wholeheartedly care about, thanks to the warm and loving relationship between the leads. As for The Revenant, it is just horrible, and while it is a visually striking and sometimes awe-inspiring experience, I don’t think I could bear to watch it again.

For an alternative (and, I daresay, better) tale of man vs wild, check out The Grey with Liam Neeson. Swap the bears for wolves, put on your existentialist cap, and you’re in the right ballpark. It’s beautifully melancholic, heartrendingly powerful, and its finale moved me to tears. Recommended.

BRIDGE OF SPIES, 18/01/2016

This Cold War-era thriller, inspired by true events, is directed by Steven Spielberg AND stars Tom Hanks.

Yes, it’s as good as you want it to be.

DEADPOOL, 10/02/2016

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Proving that cinema does indeed have a place for superheroes of the extreme variety, Deadpool broke box office records with its mix of slice ‘n’ dice combat action and the sort of jokes which, if said by Captain America, little Timmy wouldn’t understand for a long time.

From very early on, it was toted as the film that would rupture superhero cliches, and Ryan Reynolds’ potty-mouthed, spandex-clad antihero does a great job of doing just that. Straight out of the comics, ‘Pool frequently breaks the fourth wall, talking to and even touching the camera as he swearily blasts apart Marvel movie tropes. Structurally it’s pretty interesting too, certainly more so than the samey origin stories it lambasts, and the story hops, skips and jumps around with its unhinged narrator. It all seems cool and fresh and new, but, rather disappointingly, this spicy cleverness is not consistent, and the film culminates in a pretty standard superhero smash-up with a villain less interesting than the back of a detergent bottle.

Deadpool’s humour I found to be somewhat hit and miss. I don’t particularly like how the vast majority of comedies these days rely heavily on vulgarity, and indeed a large proportion of the funnies in Deadpool concern bodily extremities. Now, I appreciate a good testicle joke as much as the next man, but so much of the comedy in the film felt like it was vulgar for the sake of being vulgar. God-awful lines like “your face looks like an avocado hate-fucked another, older avocado” felt at odds with the shining wit on offer elsewhere, and came off as lazy writing intended to impress audiences through simple crassness.

Scrotum puns aside, the jokes come so thick and fast (ayy) that the hits more than make up for the misses. Revolutionary? Eh, not really. Fun? You bet.

THE BIG SHORT, 01/02/2016

The Big Short is by all accounts a great film. The cast is top, the script is sharp; tick, tick, zing, zing.

I hated it.

I would consider myself to be a fairly intelligent person, but while my brain is full to the brim with Dark Souls lore and pirate factoids, it is sadly lacking in the economics department. 2013’s runaway hit The Wolf of Wall Street did a fantastic job of explaining itself to incompetents like myself, but watching The Big Short was like being strapped to a chair as a flock of screaming mathematicians hurled algebra at my face.

I furtively sought the smallest amount of pleasure in the ordeal, but the pain of the blazing assault was soon replaced by a kind of vegetative trance state. The film started to wash over me, and as the drone of housing prices was reluctantly invited inside by my capitulating ear drums (only to be refused entry by my tortured cranium), I began to imagine that I could feel my body simultaneously wasting away and forging itself anew, using my depleting life energy to form cells that in turn would wither and die.

Still I endured, pressing onwards as if leading an ill-fated odyssey into a dusty, incomprehensible 1970s textbook, my brain decaying further and further until it seemed l1ke ev3ry 07her 1ett3r of d1alo9ue w4s a num6er. It was almost like seeing the code of The Matrix, except it didn’t let me do slow motion back flips or pull off a leather coat.

I didn’t get it, I didn’t enjoy it, and the only thing I learned about the financial crisis of 2007–2008 is that I absolutely hate the financial crisis of 2007–2008. There’s some common ground there, at least.

GOOSEBUMPS, 12/02/2016

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I do like a zany family comedy, and fronted by a madcap Jack Black, Goosebumps is about as weird as they come. In one of the very few PG films with a terrifying ventriloquist dummy, Black plays R. L. Stine, the real life author of the Goosebumps book series, who, one must presume is unlike real life, creates actual real monsters that are locked away in his manuscripts.

When an inconvenient series of events sees the creatures escape from the pages of their magical prisons, Goosebumps has our heroes battling to save their town from a whole menagerie of nasties, in what plays out like a Halloween version of Jumanji. As a bit of light entertainment it’s relatively satisfying, and watching Jack Black’s oddball author was a genuine joy, but for its entire run time I sat willing it to be funnier than it was. As it is, it’s kind of like a trusty pack of ready salted crisps. You could do a lot worse, but you could also do a lot better.

HAIL, CAESAR!, 06/03/2016

It’s hard to know what to say about the Coen brothers’ take on 1950s Hollywood. Hail, Caesar! has a couple of elaborate musical numbers, which I enjoyed thoroughly, and more than a few moments of hilarity, which I laughed at profusely. The film as a whole?

Well, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Story threads go nowhere, characters are brief and purposeless, and there isn’t really any point to anything at all. Then, to cap it all off, it just ends. No build up to a worthwhile conclusion, no moment of revelation that makes everything click, nothing. It simply saunters on for a bit, the camera points up to the sky, and it stops.

Hail, Caesar! left me speechless and, to be honest, I still am. Speechless not in a good way I might add, like you may feel after seeing a mind-expanding epic, but because there really is nothing to speak about. It’s 106 minutes of some loosely connected things happening, and then they are not happening any more. I wish I had more to say, but I’ve been trying to write this review for almost an hour and there’s just nothing. Watch Hail, Caesar! or don’t. Both options are pretty much the same.

THE BOY, 19/03/2016

Spooky dolls are a sure-fire success in the horror genre, Chucky taught us that, and following on from 2014’s ploddingly boring Annabelle, studios decided that we needed even more. Enter The Boy, a spooky doll film that’s actually not half bad, in which Greta, played by Lauren Cohen, is employed by an elderly couple to babysit their ‘son’, the porcelain Brahms.

Initially, The Boy seems to be going the way of so many others of its ilk: a doll seemingly possessed by some kind of entity is going bump in the night, and apparently causing no end of mischief. Naturally enough, Greta starts to investigate and, as she begins to buy into Brahms’ supernatural machinations, the viewer is left to speculate whether all of this is real, or the creation of a mind unraveling through solitude. It’s a nice little extra where usually there would be none, and as you’re still trying to work things out you’re slapped upside the head with the borderline ridiculous last act, a surprise which had me both grinning and grimacing until the credits started to roll.

It’s not a game changer, but it’s a moderately intriguing and thoroughly enjoyable affair, and in such a stagnating genre, that itself is an achievement.

THE WITCH, 19/03/2016

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Following in the chilling footsteps of 2014’s The Babadook and 2015’s It Follows, Robert Eggers’ 17th-century scarefest The Witch: A New-England Folktale is the rarest of beasts – a modern horror film worthy of the title ‘masterpiece’. Following a puritanical family exiled to the outskirts of an imposing forest, the film deals with superstition, religious paranoia, and good old-fashioned fear of the unknown to create an almost unbearable atmosphere of pure dread. I’m pretty seasoned when it comes to horrors, but watching The Witch is a truly troubling experience, and its frankly magnificent ending left me physically trembling in fright as if I’d gazed upon the works of Satan himself.

With nary a jump scare in sight, it was of course derided by the ‘horror’ audiences of today, who think that horror films are all about loud noises and spooky faces popping up every few minutes. These people, who had probably just come to the cinema after viewing a DVD of Paranormal Activity 2 they bought/stole from CEX, criticised it for being slow and having no plot. Ha. The irony. American author Brian Keene put it best when he said:

The Witch is a gorgeous, thoughtful, scary horror film that 90% of the people in the theater with you will be too stupid to understand.

With the genre’s change in direction towards far less interesting but multiplex-friendly films, gems are sadly few and far between, but their sparsity only makes us treasure them more. Stunningly shot, with a score like nightmares passed through instruments and featuring the best performance you’ll ever see by a goat, The Witch surely is the greatest horror film of our era.

Now tell me, wouldst thou like to live deliciously?

Soundtrack Pick: ‘Witch’s Coven’ by Mark Korven, from The Witch.

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, 25/03/2016

My opinion on Batman v Superman is rather controversial, so I’m just going to come straight out with it: I absolutely, positively, categorically love it. I’d possibly even go as far as saying it’s the best superhero film this side of the Nolanverse, and is better than anything the Disney Sausage Factory have pumped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Go on, bite me.

Whereas Marvel’s supers are handled like buffed up soldiers (more on this in a later review), BvS:DoJ’s are unequivocally heroes. Flawed they may be, but through a multi-layered and complex tale of nigh biblical proportions, the almost mythical characters of Batman and Superman confront and try to understand what it really means to be heroic. What morals should they live to embody? For what, or who, should they fight, if indeed they should fight at all? What do heroes mean to us, and we to them? The film deals with all of these questions in a mature and sometimes poignant way, and it’s something which I feel has been under-appreciated by critics eager to have another jab at perceived tonal issues.

As a long-time lover of proper superheroes, an arresting scene in which Superman rescues a child from a burning building had me awestruck in teary-eyed veneration. In another universe, Iron Man and his chums are hitting robots.

With a visual flair matched by few others, director Zack Snyder brings a sweeping comic book epic to the screen that never sacrifices its emotional heart for mindless effects and underoos jokes. At the end of the day, past the inevitable destruction and intense battles brought on by the schemes of an eccentric Lex Luthor (played I think quite marvellously by Jesse Eisenberg, to be controversial yet again), it’s really an end to the story of a Kansas farmer’s son learning his place in the world.

With Batman.

Oh, and Wonder Woman is amazing. Cue theme music:

Soundtrack Pick: ‘Is She With You?’ by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Note: while I did not find them too troublesome first time round, many of the problems with Batman v Superman’s editing and plot cohesion are solved by the superior extended cut, available on the Blu-ray release. As much as I adored the original, this is unquestionably the version you should be seeing.

Be sure not to miss Part Two of the year’s review, coming sooner than Half Life 3!

If you liked this, why not check out my reviews of 2014 and 2015? If you didn’t like this, you probably won’t like those either.

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