First of all, an apology: this blog is pretty much dead. Retrospectively, all of the posts I ended with the promise of a return to glory are much akin to the apocalyptic ravings of Harold Camping (RIP). Nothing happened, but then nothing was lost either, so we continue living our lives as normal albeit with the faint sadness of expecting another Malteser only to find that they’re all gone. I’m not saying I’m disappointed the Rapture didn’t happen, but in a world in which our leaders include a woman who runs through wheat and at least two man-children with missiles, it might have been the kick in the arse we all need.
Of course, one year ago when I made those false prophecies, I did fully believe that the blog would be reignited. 2017 however has been a whopper for me, not least because I now work in Japan, and am busier than a busy bee that has started his or her own business.
Living in the Land of the Rising Sun is great (heated toilet seats in convenience stores being a winter highlight) but unfortunately it’s kind of killed my cinematic momentum. Going from a job in the UK that let me see as many new films as I like, for free, to a country which either doesn’t get the films I want or gets them 2-3 months late has been tough. There’s an awful lot I regret not getting the chance to watch, but that’s not going to stop me from stepping up to continue my annual tradition: reviewing every new film I have seen this year (‘new’ meaning a UK release date in 2017). Despite spending half the year in Japan, that’s still THIRTY NINE FILMS.
Yes, folks. For a short, beautiful moment, like a butterfly from a cocoon, this blog is alive.
ASSASSIN’S CREED, 01/01/2017 (release date; seen on a plane)
I’m not a huge fan of the AC games, but I really liked a few of the older titles, and I loved director Justin Kurzel’s previous film – the phenomenal Macbeth. Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed turned out to be nothing more than a big pile of wet towels. Don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff to like in it. It has some fine actors, impressive visuals (as expected from Kurzel), and the present-day scenes in the Abstergo laboratory were quite intriguing. The rest however, was just a bit poo.
The historical story arc felt largely unimportant, and the overall plotline was a deliberately confusing mess. To cap it off, the climax comes rather like a disappointing, airy parp from a cheap whoopee cushion, ending in such unspectacular fashion that I struggled to believe it had actually ended. Maybe further films will give this one a little more validity, but as it stands it’s not really worth your time.
Taking place in 17th Century Japan, Scorsese’s monumental epic Silence tells the troubling story of Christian missionaries trying to spread ‘the good word’ in a country that largely doesn’t want to hear it. It’s long, slow and gruelling, but the exemplary cinematography and acting led me through like tour guides to a mass grave, playing on my morbid curiosity.
Its central debate about religion and faith is a fascinating one, and I think everyone will take something different away from it. It worked equally well for me, a hardcore atheist, as I expect it would for a devout Christian. You can read my thoughts about Silence in further detail here.
If you watched Lion, you almost certainly cried, and if you didn’t you’re a dirty liar. This true story of a young man, Saroo, searching for the family and home he lost as a child couldn’t be more of an emotional rollercoaster if it had an inverse helix, a loop-the-loop, and a more-than-vertical drop. In the first half, set in India, astounding child actor Sunny Pawar perfectly portrays the terror of being lost and alone in a strange and faraway place. The second half sees Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, now living in Australia, using new mapping technology in an incredibly moving quest to find out who he really is.
Equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking, Lion is a stunning film with an ending that hits you in the heart with a sledgehammer made of feelings. You’ll cry, yes, but this is one feels train you should definitely catch.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, 24/01/2017
Awards bait or not, I really liked Manchester by the Sea. There was no obvious message peddling that I picked up on, or a solid goal that the plot was leading towards, but I enjoyed watching the events of the drama unfold.
Everyone and their mums has heard how excellent Casey Affleck is in this, and it’s true that the performances are the best thing about the film. I bought into the characters right off the bat, and it really felt like the cinema screen was a window through which I was watching real people live their lives. There were people I liked, people I didn’t, and people I was unsure about, and I don’t think the film was trying to guide me towards any of those thoughts. Just as in life, we can only observe, forming our own objective opinions and assigning our own meaning (or lack thereof) to the things that happen.
Films often show us a glimpse into fantasy, but the reality is that life is hard, and there is no obvious point to it besides what we bring to it ourselves. Manchester embodies this principle, and while it’s possible that I missed the ‘point’ of it all, I’m inclined to believe there isn’t one.
LA LA LAND, 16/01/2017
La La Land is glorious. I love everything about it, from the performances (both acting and musical) of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who are just so darn loveable and fantastic in every sense, to its intoxicating, sun-drenched atmosphere, the insanely good soundtrack and the fact that it’s all just so bloody nice. I liked the film so much in fact, that I made efforts to see a number of its locations when I visited the USA later in the year (and got catastrophically sunburned on my cycle to the ‘City of Stars’ pier).
Personally, I don’t understand how people can so strongly dislike this film. Sure, there are some who just don’t get on with musicals, but La La Land is such a joyous and good-intentioned film about striving for and realising your dreams that it’s hard to believe there were others who weren’t swept along with it. This kind of story may not be realistic for all of us, and the problems of a struggling actor in LA might seem trivial to many, but I think LLL’s messages of perseverance and helping each other work towards our goals are relevant to everyone.
With endlessly listenable songs, a colourful visual style and electric direction by Damien Chazelle, La La Land is completely charming and so much fun to watch, and it’s one I can see myself coming back to again and again for a long time. In 50 years it will be remembered as a classic. It’s that good.
GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995; cinema re-release), 25/01/2017
Ghost in the Shell is often considered one of the greatest and most influential anime movies of all time, so when my cinema screened it in anticipation of this year’s live action version, I jumped at the opportunity*.
As a first-time viewer, two things jumped out at me. First was the plot, which was so intensely obscure that I had no hope of understanding it fully. Instead I could only tag along for the ride, soaking in the extraordinary animation and attempting – with no form of success – to answer the plethora of brain-straining questions it raises about A.I. and humankind. Then the ending comes and it’s not even an ending, it’s just weird and what? and I DON’T KNOW.
The second thing that struck me was the music, which is so uniquely odd and haunting that it added an additional enigmatic filter to the experience. For that’s what Ghost in the Shell is – an experience. It’s not a conventional story to be watched, understood and enjoyed; it’s a cyber-spiritual journey for your mind. On the other hand, it does also have a wicked scene with a tank.
*Actually, two people in my screening thought this was the live action version, hurriedly exiting when they heard the Japanese dialogue and loudly exclaiming “what a bunch of shit”. I got a good laugh out of that.
YU-GI-OH! THE DARK SIDE OF DIMENSIONS, 01/02/2017
My childhood was Yu-Gi-Oh!. This anime about kids very dramatically playing a trading card game quickly spawned a physical product, and the combination of television show and card game became my first major obsession. I would probably go as far as saying it was a formative experience for me, defining the kinds of entertainment I would enjoy over the next 15 years, helping me make a couple of lifelong friends, and shaping me into the proud nerd I am today. It’s pretty special to me, and even re-watching the show recently and realising how terrible some of it is can’t change that.
With the franchise such an important part of my being, it was with great joy that I heard about Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Dark Side of Dimensions, a film that continues the storyline of the very first Yu-Gi-Oh! series. Spending 2 hours with beloved characters from my childhood [read: Kaiba] was an offer too good to refuse.
Walking into the cinema screen and seeing almost every seat occupied made me so happy. Nearly the whole audience was made up of young adults around my age, and I liked to imagine they all had the same connection to the material that I did. I smiled as I took my seat, overhearing people everywhere talking excitedly about this moment or that in the original series, or discussing the card game which is now more popular than ever.
It brings me the greatest pleasure that the film was just as terrific as the atmosphere in the cinema. The returning voice cast did a great job straddling the line between delivering good performances and honouring the fact that they were shit 15 years ago. My favourite character from the original was Seto Kaiba, a character who can effectively be described as ‘rich asshole with a dragon fetish’. Here he steals every scene he’s in, and the whole audience laughed riotously at every zinger of a line. A personal highlight comes when Kaiba locates main character Yugi, who asks “how did you know I was here”? Kaiba simply replies “I know everything” and no further explanation is given. No further explanation is necessary when Kaiba is involved.
The card battles, or ‘duels’, were exciting and as OTT as ever, enhanced by impressive CGI that made the most of the big screen and felt awesome to watch. The story was quite good too, considering the original wasn’t exactly Shakespeare, and it rollicked along nicely for the whole of its surprisingly long run time. If anything, some of the duels felt rather rushed, and I would have happily spent even longer in the world that was so evocative to my younger self. A world that I still love to bits.
My favourite moment was when, during a pivotal moment, a key Yu-Gi-Oh! character makes a spectacular reappearance accompanied by a flourish of the old TV show’s theme music. It brought with it a surge of nostalgia that felt simultaneously like a big, warm hug and a reassurance that all was well in the world.
Pretty special indeed.
T2 TRAINSPOTTING, 09/02/2017
Somehow, by some miracle, Danny Boyle followed up his defining British classic with a sequel that more than lives up to its name (though let’s be honest, they probably should have just called it ‘Trainspotting 2’).
The way in which footage from the original Trainspotting is masterfully and seamlessly spliced into T2 is a stroke of Danny Boyle genius, resulting in a rather beautiful ode to memory and getting older. Whereas that first film centred on self-destruction, this new one is about fulfilment. By choosing to focus on the efforts of recovering junkie Spud (Ewen Bremner), T2 is far more optimistic than its predecessor, exploring the desire we all feel to make something of our lives. This striking duality between the two films is most brilliantly epitomised by the magnificent final scene, which I’d go as far as saying is Boyle’s best ending yet (and there’s some bloody strong competition)..
I also want to mention T2’s rather wonderful update of the famous ‘Choose Life’ monologue. Renton’s no-holds-barred reflection on the insanity of life in a social media era is strangely poignant, and Ewan McGregor’s stirring performance damn near made me cry.
Being a Danny Boyle fanboy (a DanBoy?), I was confident that I would like T2 Trainspotting, but I was surprised at just how affecting it was. If you watched and loved the original, I can’t recommend this enough.
HACKSAW RIDGE, 14/02/2017
Hacksaw Ridge is one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, and it’s a true story. Desmond Doss doesn’t have any powers, but his unbelievable bravery and heroism on the most brutal of battlefields is tremendously inspiring, and it made my heart soar.
Just like Full Metal Jacket, Hacksaw Ridge is a film of two halves; here, the first half gets us to know and understand the pacifist Doss as someone we can all aspire to, before throwing him into the fires of hell. The battle scene at Okinawa is the most shocking and horrific of its kind that I have ever seen, rivalling the famous opening to Saving Private Ryan. It’s tough to watch and had me constantly flinching as bullets ripped through bodies, but it makes Doss’ subsequent, triumphant rescue of 75 soldiers on the Ridge all the more powerful
In the immortal words of Electric Youth from the soundtrack to Drive, Desmond Doss is ‘a real human being and a real hero’. Move over, Captain America.
THE FOUNDER, 17/02/2017
Led by a stellar performance from Michael Keaton, The Founder is far from an advert for Maccy D’s. The film starts out optimistic, with the good-intentioned Ray Kroc promising to turn family-owned restaurant McDonald’s into a nationwide phenomenon. The story, however, is no Happy Meal.
As Kroc succeeds in his enterprise, things gradually become more and more sinister, and the McDonald brothers become the victims of their own rapidly-expanding empire. Keaton delivers a tour de force as Kroc, whose transition into a self-centred predator who will do anything to achieve his goal is masterly. Ba da ba ba baa, I loved it.
HIDDEN FIGURES, 22/02/2017
Hidden Figures tells the true story of the human ‘computers’ who crunched numbers for NASA during the space race of the 1960s. They are super smart, and maybe even able to unlock the mysteries of space travel. However, they are also both black and female, and back then the world was a shit place for both.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its balance. It treats the subject of racial segregation with the gravitas it deserves, while also being a rousing, feel-good flick thanks to the charismatic performances of its central cast and the toe-tapping music by Pharrell Williams.
Seeing what these strong women achieved within a society that shunned them is invigorating, especially considering that racial hatred and sexism are still very much present today. In a world where people vote to mess up a country’s future because of immigration fears, where a Ghostbusters movie gets hate for having a female cast, and where the most powerful man in the world quite literally said “grab them by the pussy”, stories like this are more important than ever.
As much as I was momentarily outraged by the 2017 Oscars debacle, being firmly in #TeamLaLa, Moonlight was definitely a worthy Best Picture winner. Tragic and turbulent, the film shows the life of its protagonist Chiron at three ages – child, teenager and adult – as he struggles to define himself in a society where black males feel like they must conform to a certain archetype.
There’s scant happiness to be found in Moonlight, but it’s an important and resonant story that’s powerfully acted across the board. It looks and sounds amazing too. Ravishing cinematography seems to belie its humble $4 million budget, and the heart-wrenching score almost gives it the feel of an epic classical symphony.
The understated ending cleverly gives its characters personal closure while leaving its narrative open to speculation. It’s not an expressly sad ending per se, but it leaves the viewer with a lingering feeling of melancholy with which to ponder what it all meant.
The main problem with Moonlight, of course, is that there is far too little singing and dancing. What can you do?
I’d argue that Logan is the first properly adult superhero film. Deadpool doesn’t count, because all that did was chuck in a bucket load of sex jokes, and if anything that makes it more childish. With a level of visceral violence that finally reflects its fan-favourite protagonist, Logan is a mature, thoughtful film not afraid to take its time and treat the audience like… well, adults.
Set some time in the future of the X-Men film universe (which timeline? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), Logan is notable for its almost complete lack of exposition. Mutants have largely disappeared, but why? There are a couple of clues here and there, but it’s mostly left ambiguous, which I think is a brave move in a mainstream superhero film.
Equally brave is the film’s lengthy run time and slow, meandering pace, which gives it ample time to explore its complex characters. Now older and with pasts wrought with tragedy, Wolverine and Professor X are richer and more flawed than they ever have been, and the dynamic between them is the absolute heart of the film. Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give career-best performances, channeling raw emotion that shook me to the core (don’t even get me started on that ending…). Succeeding first and foremost as a character study, Logan is a diamond in a stagnating genre. More please!
Don’t miss Part Two of the year’s review, coming faster than you can say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch!