2016: The Year in Review, Part Two: Hardcore Henry to Kubo and the Two Strings

Haven’t read Part One yet? If not, you don’t deserve to be here. This is like a private club for the people who have already read my first ten reviews, and let me tell you, there’s some absolute gold in there if I do say so myself. Want to join this club and have some super fun times with even more tippety-top reviews? Well get back there and read ’em, and come back a changed person. No need to thank me, I’m just that nice a guy.

HARDCORE HENRY, 10/04/2016

HARDCORE HENRY

Shot entirely from a POV perspective, Hardcore Henry may well be the most accurate video game movie to date, and there’s no license to be seen. Taking inspiration directly from the dumb first person shooters that anyone who’s ever held a controller has surely played, the film is like a non-stop 80-minute journey through action game tropes, such as:

– a conveniently silent protagonist
– a villain with questionable motives (and inexplicable telekinesis)
– a series of clearly defined levels
– gameplay tutorials
– objectives marked on a map
– NPC allies
– boss battles
– a turret section
– an escort quest
– a sniper level
– skill-enhancing, self-administered syringes just left lying around
– a final showdown capped off with a quick time event

Reveling in its loud and over-the-top stupidity, Hardcore Henry’s relentless pace and breathless action never once lost my interest. It’s often hilarious too, whether it be the sheer ludicrousness of it all, or the smattering of well-handled comedic moments (one involving a horse and the theme to The Magnificent Seven had me laughing for minutes). Sharlto Copley particularly is a comic revelation in the film, perfectly embodying the video game spirit in the role of super-soldier Henry’s body-swapping guide.

Like The Matrix crossed with Call of Duty, it’s crazy, exciting and tons of fun, and is self-aware enough that its narrative shortcomings can be forgiven. Hardcore Henry is a blast.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, 29/04/2016

Anyone who knows me well will know that I’ve had a bit of a falling out with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe over the past years. I don’t especilally like some of the directions they’ve taken, and to boot some of the films have just been plain uninteresting, not least 2015’s stinker Avengers: Age of Ultron.

After last year’s disappointment, it was a small relief that I actually quite enjoyed Captain America: Civil War, in some regions titled Avengers 3: Cap Got an Attitude. Coming from the Russo brothers, directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it is an exhilarating affair, with some brutal and fantastically choreographed fight scenes that got the blood pumping. It’s unfortunate, then, that the film is a bit of a mess.

For a start, following MCU tradition, the villain is god-awful. I can see what they were trying to do with Baron Zemo, but in trying to be clever, they instead made him boring. When his character’s motivation is revealed to be an issue raised by a different character much earlier in the film, his resolution becomes a complete non-event, and it has no weight at all.

The plot as a whole just doesn’t add up for me either, and I spent nearly the entire film questioning it. It’s like the writers took the successful Civil War graphic novel and stripped it down until was almost unrecognisable, to squeeze it into the framework of the movie universe. It doesn’t work. The huge and consequential war of the book is gone, in favour of an incredibly manufactured 6 v 6 fight scene at an airport which, although fun to watch, is very hard to buy into. The film also removes the core issue of the comic’s conflict – the right to a secret identity, meaning that the cause which jolly old Cap vows to fight for becomes waffley and far less convincing.

I’ve always loved the concept of superheroes living dual lives, and the lack of secret identities in the MCU bothers me. One scene, in which new addition Black Panther removes his mask the instant a news camera is upon him (revealing him to be the king of an African nation) made me actively angry, as it ruined any possibility of such duality in his upcoming movie. At least there’s still hope for Spidey though, whose characterisation in Civil War was pretty much spot on (but of course Marvel had to ruin him a little bit, here by introducing an annoying dependence on fan favourite Tony Stark).

The more I think about it, the less I think of Civil War as a bad film, but rather just one that’s not for me. From growing up on superhero cartoons, as well as the odd game and comic, I have a very personal idea of what superheroes should be, and what they mean to me. I love heroes who are selfless, going out of their way to help people in whatever way they can, acting as an icon of hope to people all across the world. It’s frustrating to me then, that Marvel Studios are painting the Avengers more like soldiers than superheroes, a militarised force that battles armies of aliens, robots and, in this film, each other. Indeed, the opening of Civil War, which has the souped-up warriors chasing and gunning down terrorists, comes off more like Mission: Impossible, or an episode of Spooks, and I find it strange to see this kind of action in a superhero film.

As usual when I’m talking about these things, I appear to have gone on far longer than I’d hoped, and with more than 20 reviews on the horizon, I’d best wrap this one up. I’ll leave you with this one question: if you have seen the film, can you think of a single moment in Captain America: Civil War in which a superhero does something truly heroic? They sure squabble a lot, and that’s prime time to be rescuing cats from trees.

GREEN ROOM, 18/05/2016

GREEN ROOM

After playing a gig in the middle of nowhere, a hapless punk band stumble across a murder backstage, and are promptly taken hostage by a barbaric group of neo-Nazi skinheads led by a chilling Patrick Stewart. This is the setup for Green Room, a tense, claustrophobic and horribly gory thriller that’s really quite a tough watch – and all the better for it. If you’re looking for something to get your heart racing, with some stylish direction and powerful acting by the likes of Stewart and the late Anton Yelchin, look no further. Nazi Punks Fuck Off!

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, 22/05/2016

What’s that? A Marvel Comics film that’s not afraid to be like a comic? Why, it must be X-Men!

After 2014’s Days of Future Past got a bit too serious and contrived for my liking, Apocalypse is a glorious and colourful comic book romp that took me back to watching the classic X-Men cartoon of the 90s. While negatives for some, the flashy action and melodramatic, world-dominating villain really appealed to me, and the new young cast of Jean Grey, Cyclops and Nightcrawler show a promising future for the franchise. After stealing the screen with his brief appearance in DoFP, superfast speedster Quicksilver is back and more brilliant than ever, leading one set piece that had me positively howling with laughter. It’s uncomplicated, vibrant entertainment, and, unsurprisingly, I preferred it to Civil War.

WARCRAFT, 07/06/2016

Where are all the good fantasy films these days? [Checks last year’s post, retches upon sight of Seventh Son] nope, nothing here. [Checks bin, rummages past everything that’s ever been on the Sci-Fi Channel] yuck, nothing in here either. Well guys, I’m running out of ideas. Wait… [Checks Duncan Jones’ filmography] GUYS, WE HAVE SOMETHING.

I’ve probably spent more time in my life playing World of Warcraft than any other game, and though I was never too interested in the game’s lore, I eagerly anticipated Duncan Jones’ follow-up to his excellent science fiction films Moon and Source Code. Thankfully, not only did it turn out to be a stonker of a video game movie, but it’s probably one of the best big budget high fantasy movies since The Lord of the Rings.

Splitting its narrative evenly across characters on both sides of a human-orc war, Warcraft succeeds in delivering a very personal story at the heart of an epic event, in a vast and intriguing world. With the likes of Vikings’ Travis Fimmell and a tremendously believable motion capture performance by Toby Kebbell as the orc Durotan, these are characters we believe in, and despite the weird sorcery zipping about every which way, they never fade to the background.

As a fan of the game I relished Jones’ mighty achievement, and there are as many Easter eggs as I could have hoped for (rwlrwlrwlrwl). If you’ve never sunk time into the world’s number one MMORPG, never run the Deadmines, or farmed Peacebloom, or fallen off the Deeprun Tram, I’d still urge you to give Warcraft a go. You might find a new fantasy to fall in love with.

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE, 12/06/2016

marsh_house

Thanks to a Film4 season over last year’s Christmas period, I fell into the wonderful world of Studio Ghibli at the very start of 2016, and have never looked back. My Neighbour Totoro has since become my favourite film of all time, and treasures like Castle in the SkyPorco Rosso and Kiki’s Delivery Service are films I’ll most likely be watching for the rest of my life. How amazing then that, as the studio’s future is currently uncertain (though it now seems Hayao Miyazaki is coming out of retirement for the 57th time), this year saw the UK release of their latest masterpiece: Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There.

Based on the beloved book by Joan G. Robinson, the film tells the story of lonely 12-year-old Anna Sasaki. To recover from an illness, Anna goes to stay with friends of her foster parents in the Japanese countryside, and is immediately infatuated with a big house across the marsh. There, she meets a mysterious blonde-haired girl called Marnie, with whom she quickly strikes up a loving friendship. Something about her new companion is not quite normal though, and whether Marnie is a ghost or something much more than that, secrets are revealed that change Anna’s life forever.

Simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, When Marnie Was There is a beautifully-animated story about the importance of friends, family, and always looking on the bright side of life. More so than any other Ghibli film, I find that I relate deeply to the themes presented in Marnie, and the plight of the insecure, self-doubting Anna moves me to tears every time. The breathtaking soundtrack too brings up so many emotions, and the poignant theme song ‘Fine On The Outside’, with Priscilla Ahn’s sorrowful voice and moving lyrics, perfectly rounds off a bittersweet ending.

As the credits rolled, and after I had dried my eyes, I stood up and shuffled to the screen door as if waking from a dream. As I said thanks to the usher, my voice broke. It’s a cinema experience I will never forget.

Soundtrack Pick: ‘Fine On The Outside’ by Priscilla Ahn, from When Marnie Was There.

THE NEON DEMON, 12/07/2016

Nicolas Winding Refn is one of my favourite directors, and his most recent offering The Neon Demon is certainly interesting. More Only God Forgives than Drive, the film is a weird and often quite creepy voyage into the dark and dangerous world of Los Angeles models. Visually it’s as cool as you’d expect if you’ve seen Refn’s other work, and Cliff Martinez’ pumping score gets under your skin in a way synonymous with the director, but I feel it’s lacking something to make it really great. Without the drive of Drive and the heady symbolism of Only God ForgivesThe Neon Demon is a beguiling watch, but a tough one to recommend.

GHOSTBUSTERS, 19/07/2016

When the first trailer came out for the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, I had mixed feelings about it. Some would say it’s because I didn’t think the jokes were very funny, others that I’m a raging misogynist. Either or, I suppose.

My expectations middling, I was actually pleasantly surprised by Ghostbusters. The plot isn’t anything to send an email home about, and I think the cameos from the original cast were a misstep, but what astonished me the most was how funny it was. The rapport between the four leads (Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon) allowed a natural flow of witty dialogue, and Chris Hemsworth was hysterical as their (mostly) harmlessly idiotic secretary (whose Mike Hat joke could well be the best of the year).

As with most films these days, Ghostbusters ends with a sequel hook no doubt hoped to launch a franchise. To be honest? I’m up for it.

THE BFG, 25/07/2016

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I can’t recall actually reading Roald Dahl’s story of the Big Friendly Giant. I’m sure I did, but my fondest memories of The BFG come from listening to the cassette audiobook over and over, when I was likely a quarter of my current age. Alternating with other beloved tapes like Paddington and Horrid Henry, I would listen to a bit every night before going to sleep, and I soon became familiar with the titular giant’s bizarre and lyrical manner of speaking.

Casting one’s mind back to childhood is difficult, but Steven Spielberg’s magical new version of The BFG did that for me. In a superb digital performance, Mark Rylance becomes the BFG I imagined all those years ago, and as he talks of crocadowndillies and telly telly bunkum boxes, the memories of that marvelous book came flooding back. Amazingly, I even found that I knew how lines of dialogue would end before I heard them. That’s the mark of a great adaptation, certainly.

It’s not perhaps as accurate a translation as the classic 1989 animated version (darker elements of the book are skipped over here, and the ending is quite different), but Spielberg’s film is an absolute, triumphant joy, retaining the humble heart of the text whilst updating it with whizzpopping special effects that enhance the sense of fantastical wonder. Oh, and it’s also got a soundtrack by John Williams. What more could you want?

Soundtrack Pick: ‘Sophie and The BFG’ by John Williams, from The BFG.

SUICIDE SQUAD, 08/08/2016

I don’t fully understand the beef many people have with DC’s villain party Suicide Squad. Sure, it’s no high-art masterwork, but I had a bloody good couple of hours both times I watched it.

It seems that I couldn’t disagree with critics more, on almost everything, including:

The structure. I thought this was actually one of the film’s stronger points – setting up each one of its characters before launching them headfirst into an extended, brutal infiltration mission that takes up the rest of the film. In a world where most superhero films have the same plot, I really appreciated this interesting take on the format.

The character introductions. Contrary to popular opinion, I thought these were well handled, considering the number of characters we have to meet (they definitely don’t take as long as some would have you believe) and the decision to focus mainly on Deadshot and Harley Quinn was the right call to avoid overcrowding the film. While it would have been nice to learn more about squad members like Killer Croc and Katana, we must remember that the DC Extended Universe is still in its early days, so we’ll me seeing a lot more of these guys in the future.

The songs. I liked the use of songs, and thought the choices were perfect for the relevant characters. Stop comparing it to Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s moronic.

The villain. Similarly to why I loved Apocalypse in the new X-MenSuicide Squad’s villain was colourful, extravagant and undeniably, unapologetically evil. Some are criticising the character for being cliche, but I’d take a powerful, destructive force like this any day over Marvel’s roster of piss-poor antagonists. [Seriously, think of how many great villains there have been in the MCU. I can think of two – Loki and Winter Soldier, and I’m really struggling past those].

Jared Leto’s Joker. I thought he was great. He’s not Heath Ledger, but then Christian Bale wasn’t Adam West. One of the cool things about comics, and movies based upon them, is that we get to see many different takes on characters we know and love, and Leto’s drugged-up mobster is a compelling new addition to the Joker legacy. Also, he shouldn’t have been in it more because it wasn’t his film. Done.

There’s more issues I could address, but I honestly can’t be bothered. I’ve had many a heated discussion about this film over the past months, and usually they don’t go anywhere. Baseline is, it’s nothing like as good as Batman v Superman, but it’s definitely a decent watch, and I enjoyed it immensely. Triggered much?

LIGHTS OUT, 07/09/2016

Lights Out is an average horror film with an above-average gimmick – that of a supernatural creature that can only move in the dark. It adds an interesting dynamic as light becomes a valuable resource for the hapless protagonists, but the rote plot is something we’ve all seen a thousand times before, and ultimately it’s just another ‘meh’ in the genre.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, 13/09/2016

kubo

‘Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem. And please be warned, if you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish…’

With the prevalence of CGI animation these days, it’s a wonderful rarity to see a stop-motion feature, and the team at Laika are doing an amazing job at keeping the form alive. Their latest work, the Japanese folklore-inspired Kubo and the Two Strings, is the most stunning of its kind I have ever seen, and the puppetry on show comes alive with a physicality that truly beggars belief. The action and effects are positively dazzling: in one scene, inventive origami magic flutters and folds itself into the tale of a legendary hero; in another, an electrifying battle plays out atop a ship made of leaves. That it is all handcrafted is nothing short of a phenomenon.

Kubo has a complex story at its heart, dealing with the theme of losing and remembering loved ones in a mature way, but its soul is in its characters. Leading the adventure is the titular Kubo, a one-eyed boy possessing a mystical shamisen, who sets out to defeat the fabled, terrifying Moon King and uncover the truth about his parents. Joining him in his quest are Charlize Theron’s straight-talking snow monkey and Matthew McConaughey’s amnesiac beetle samurai, who shape Kubo’s journey with their lessons and stories. It’s a beautifully-told story with a charming sense of humour (I love you… Monkey?), and the moment in which the relevance of the film’s title becomes clear is astonishingly powerful.

You really owe it to yourself to watch Kubo and the Two Strings – I promise it will blow you away.

If you must blink, do it now.

Don’t miss the final part of the year’s review, including my top films of 2016. Coming sooner than planetary armageddon! Get hyped, lads and ladettes.

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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