11 January 2017

La La Land review

Despite having been looking forward to La La Land, the latest film from Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle, for some time now, the first two musical numbers had me more than a little worried that I wasn't going to enjoy it. The opening to the movie, a colourful, well-choreographed sequence on a gridlocked highway, felt entirely incidental even while it was happening; the follow-up to that, which sees Emma Stone's character Mia and her friends getting ready for and then attending a Hollywood party, was far too reminiscent of something like Hairspray or Grease for my tastes. It wasn't until the third number, a truly old-school song and dance titled "A Lovely Night", that La La Land really clicked with me - at which point I was completely hooked by a film every bit as good as you've probably already heard.

La La Land is a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a romantic musical that disproves the empty-headed sentiment of "they don't make them like they used to" with ease thanks not just to the songs, dances, structure and tone that makes La La Land completely unique in modern cinema, but also the sheer sense of craft on display throughout. There isn't an aspect of La La Land that isn't highly polished, from Justin Hurwitz's wonderful score to the dance choreography to the vivid cinematography, all of which help La La Land pop from the screen in a way few films manage to do even once, never mind multiple times.

6 January 2017

Assassin's Creed review

At this point, I can only conclude that there is an actual, honest-to-God curse on those who attempt to adapt video games into films. It's not a shock that there have been a lot of bad video game movies - most of them are relatively low-budget flicks designed to take advantage of the brand name and nothing more - but Assassin's Creed, much like last year's Warcraft: The Beginning, had real potential. Director Justin Kurzel had previously worked with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard on his very well thought of Macbeth, so seeing the three of them reunite for this felt like something of a statement, a declaration of intent - and yet somehow, Assassin's Creed has still ended up being an entirely terrible movie, one lacking even a single redeeming feature.

Based on the video game series of the same name, Assassin's Creed follows Callum Lynch, a death-row inmate who is the last descendant of 15th Century Spanish assassin Aguilar de Nerha. Following a fake execution, Callum is held against his will by the Abstergo Foundation and used as a test subject in a machine that allows people to tap into their "genetic memories" and relive the lives of their ancestors - something that the Abstergo Foundation hope will lead them to the Apple of Eden, an ancient artefact that would allow them to control free will and "cure violence".

30 December 2016

The Must See Films of 2016

2016 may have been a shit year for a vast number of reasons, but the sheer number of high quality films released means that by and large, cinema wasn't one of them. Sure, there have been a few quite high-profile disappointments (I'm looking at you, Warner Bros), but on the whole there have been an awful lot of really great films released this year, to the point where this list became surprisingly hard to narrow down to a reasonable number.

But narrow it down I did. Below are a list of the films released this year in the UK that I would consider to be "Must See" movies - not necessarily the most "worthy" or the most important, just ones that I personally think any fan of cinema owes it to themselves to see.

So, in release date order;

The Hateful Eight

Has there ever been a film from Quentin Tarantino that doesn't deserve to end up on that year's respective "Must See" list? I don't think so, and The Hateful Eight - a contemporary Western that sees some truly despicable people trapped in a snowy mountain lodge together - refuses to buck the trend. The claustrophobic setting (very much reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs) offers a refreshingly intimate movie in comparison to the director's last few projects, which when combined with a razor sharp script helps deliver the most quintessentially Tarantino film to date.

You can read my full review of The Hateful Eight here.

22 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story review

As the first in what Disney/Lucasfilm hope will be a long line of spin-off films set in this universe, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story finds itself in something of an uneviable position. All eyes are on this movie to prove that these spin-offs will be worthy of the Star Wars name, and it has to do that under the extra scrutiny of being a prequel in a franchise with a less than stellar reputation when it comes prequels, to say the least. Far more than most other films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is tasked with justifying its own existence - and it does, if only by the skin of its teeth.

Set in the days leading up to the opening of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (curse this franchise and its irrationally long naming conventions) follows Jyn Erso, daughter of Death Star designer Galen Erso, as she and a group of other rebels attempt to steal the plans for the Death Star in order to give the Rebel Alliance a chance of destroying it.

18 December 2016

The Birth of a Nation review

If any film should be able to elicit a strong emotional reaction from an audience, it's a film about the slave trade, one of the largest injustices in human history and one that happened a depressingly short time ago. Our default reaction to seeing this era realised on-screen is quite rightly one of disgust, horror and shame, and there have been a number of movies in recent years that have effectively harnassed those emotions in order to deliver truly powerful, moving films. Unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation is neither of those things, completely failing to engage its audience on emotional level despite it's inflammatory nature - and that's very telling about how much of The Birth of a Nation does (or more accurately, doesn't) work.

Deliberately using the same title as the 1915 Ku Klux Klan propaganda film, The Birth of a Nation tells the real life story of slave Nat Turner, who in 1831 led a violent rebellion against the slave owners of Southampton County, Virginia. We follow the deeply religious Nat as he is taken from plantation to plantation in order to preach to word of God to slaves at risk of revolting - but in seeing the horrors other slaves face on a daily basis, instead begins working to inspire that revolution.

10 December 2016

Moana review

Moana can't have been an easy film to make. Three years on and it has become all the more clear the kind of impact that Frozen really had - not only was it something of a cultural phenomenon, it was also a surprisingly subversive film that pretty much rebutted the very notion of the princess movie. Anything attempting to get away with a "one true love's kiss" is going to seem trite and old-fashioned after Frozen went about deconstructing many of the tropes most closely associated with these kind of films, and that puts Moana in a very odd position indeed. As a swansong to the genre at large, Frozen is hard to fault - but how on Earth does a princess movie follow up the film that killed the princess movie?

Moana's answer to that difficult question is a simple but effective one - move with the times. The cliches so expertly refuted by Frozen are instead ignored entirely by Moana, making it feel like just as much of an evolution of the princess movie as Frozen does, albeit in a quieter, less obvious way. Our main character is a princess in status only, and there isn't a romantic subplot or a damsel in distress to be found within throwing distance of the film - in fact, she may well be the single most capable female heroine Disney have ever created, a natural leader right from the start of the movie played perfectly by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho.

24 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them review

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was always going to face something of an uphill struggle. The Harry Potter franchise is one of the most successful of the 21st century so far, beloved by millions all over the world - a spin-off from that was always going to seem like something of a cash grab, regardless of J. K. Rowling's level of involvement. I'm pretty much as big a Harry Potter fan as you are likely to meet, and yet the possibility of a totally unnecessary spin-off coming along and damaging the property's well-earned reputation had me more than a little worried.

I shouldn't have been. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is by no means the perfect movie, but it still offers a good enough reason to revisit the magical world that J. K. Rowling created - and that's all it ever really need to do.

21 November 2016

Arrival review

Like all forms of entertainment, films matter. They may seem inconsequential at times, but they help inform how we think and what we think about, defining us as people even if we aren't always aware of the way they do that. 2016 has been a terrible year for a number of reasons (you know the ones), but Arrival's message of unity over division and the importance of international co-operation acts as a vital reminder that humanity is at its best when it puts the bullshit aside and strives for a common goal. Arrival is a really well-made film, one that was always going to be worth watching regardless of when it was released - but in coming out now, Arrival is transformed into something that feels like a downright necessity.

After 12 identical ships touch down in seemingly random locations over Earth, we follow linguist Louise Banks as she is hired by the US Army to communicate with the aliens, known as Heptapods for their seven legs. Deciding early on to focus on written communication over verbal, it's up to her to ensure that they have enough knowledge of the Heptapods' language to ask and understand the answer to "What is your purpose on Earth?" before one of the other nations - or even their own - allows their fear of the aliens to overcome them.

14 November 2016

Nocturnal Animals review

Nocturnal Animals, the second film from fashion designer/film-maker Tom Ford, isn't exactly an easy film to describe. An adaptation of Austin Wright's novel "Tony and Susan", it uses two distinct plots to tell one story, a narrative within a narrative in which information from one abstractly informs the other. Following the unexpected delivery of a manuscript, we follow art gallery owner Susan Morrow as she is drawn into the fictional story of Tony Hastings, whose traumatic experience forces her to recall painful memories of her past relationship with the manuscript's author.

1 November 2016

Doctor Strange review

As we neared the finale of Doctor Strange, I suddenly realised that I was more interested in seeing the after-credits scenes than I was in watching the film perform its conclusion. My investment in this movie rested more in seeing how this story and these character would go on to interact with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe than it did in the story and characters themselves, and although that's fantastic news as far as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is concerned - a testament to how well these 14 movies have come together in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts - it's also a fairly good indication that Doctor Strange itself simply isn't all that engaging a movie.

Following a career-ending car crash, we follow talented ex-neurosurgeon Stephen Strange as he attempts to master the mystical arts in order to heal his hands back into the condition they once were. Travelling to a place called Kamar-Taj in Nepal, Strange starts to study and train under the guidance of The Ancient One, who eventually reveals to Strange that he now has a responsibility to protect the Earth from the kind of mystical threats that the Avengers cannot.