Friday, 24 June 2016

So i guess now we leave.....

So in the time since vote leave won, Farage has already distanced himself from the £350m for the NHS claim and used the sentence "without a bullet being fired" in his victory speech. An insult to Jo Cox's memory and a testament to how truly despicable a human being he is. It was not a sentence he needed to use or an image he needed to conjure, he chose that line and in doing so managed the seemingly impossible, he made me loathe him even more viscerally than before. And because he’s not even an MP he’s under no obligation to deliver on a single promise, there were never going to be any consequences for him, win or lose, so he was free to lie with impunity.

Meanwhile Daniel Hannan MEP has said immigration won't fall. The pound has fallen to the lowest level in my lifetime (would you look at that, maybe we should have paid a bit more attention to those experts Michael Gove was so quick to dismiss) and nationalist parties in Ireland and Scotland are, somewhat understandably, gearing up their exit strategies from the United Kingdom.

It's almost as if a bunch of right wing arseholes decided to throw the rest of us under the bus for short term political gain and had no issue spouting lie after lie to do so. And what's worse is people lapped it up, caught up on a wave of cheap soundbites and jingoism that occasionally revealed itself for the full blown racism it usually conceals. 52% of people nationally, 51% in Sheffield, my home and a city I love dearly.

Throughout this referendum I’ve kept telling myself we are better than this, that people would act rationally and not sabotage our own economy and our international reputation just to stick two fingers up at the rest of Europe.

Once I’ve finished this post, once I’ve got out at least a portion of the anger and disappointment I’m feeling right now, the work begins on avoiding this becoming a permanent me or us v them scenario, of letting today’s decision change my fundamentally optimistic view of this nation and democracy as a whole. But right now there’s a bitter, angry part of me that feels that when the economic impacts of this decision are felt in places like the north east and jobs are lost and families forced into poverty, that they voted for this. They wilfully chose to ignore the evidence in front of them and trust that the very people who destroyed the working class in the first place would suddenly have their best interests at heart. Similarly the portion of the population over 50 who voted to leave, saddling the younger generations who emphatically voted to stay with the consequences of their actions, will get a little less sympathy from me right now as their saving are hit and the value of their houses collapses.

That’s never been the nature of my politics or my personality and it reeks of the kind of snobbery and lack of empathy with other’s opinions that I despise. So excuse me this rant, this uncharacteristic break from my usual love of diplomacy and respect, it’s a release valve for the deep well of anger, fear and frustration that set up shop in my stomach around midnight last night and refuses to leave.

I’m sick of watching so many Brits repeatedly prove themselves all too willing to accept the lies of The Daily Mail and The Sun at face value. I’m sick of us choosing fear over facts and hate over hope. I’m sick of having to keep telling myself that we’re better than this when faced with so much evidence that we get precisely the politics and press we deserve.

I’m going to pick myself up in a bit and start the process of reconciliation, of making the best of the situation we find ourselves in. Of finding ways to speak to the fears that drove so many voters into the arms of UKIP and Vote Leave, without ever compromising on my belief that immigration is a force for good and that pandering to racism and xenophobia even a little is a dangerous precedent to set.

This is the most crushed I’ve ever felt the morning after a vote. When the Conservatives won in 2010 and 2015 I comforted myself with the fact that there will be another election and we can come back from this. That’s not the case here.

We’re stuck with the decision that was made yesterday, a decision based seemingly on equal parts lies and prejudice, and it’s my belief that we are a lesser nation because of it. The economy will stabilise eventually and we’ll figure out our place in Europe and the world, but we are forever worse for abandoning the union, however imperfect.

So for now I’ll indulge my anger ever so slightly, if only to feel something other than despair. The next job is finding some hope for our politics and our people again.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Films of the Year 2015: The Top Three

So here we are, top 3 time. 

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I can’t review this film objectively. I grew up re-watching VHS copies of the original trilogy over and over again. I got the toys and video games as birthday and Christmas presents throughout my childhood. I dealt with the disappointment of the prequels in the same way I’ve dealt with being raised as a Forest fan long after the glory days have passed; cherish the past, pretend the present is just a temporary blip.

The Star Wars franchise holds a special place in my heart, the kind that can possibly only be created by childish enthusiasm. When I first heard they were going to reboot the franchise I was cynical (fool me once etc.) and even as the cast and crew came together promisingly told myself not to get excited.

Then the first trailer showed up online and as the John Williams score kicked in and the Millennium Falcon took to the skies, I was 8 years old again. The hairs on my arms stood on end and I had the stupidest grin plastered over my face.

There hasn’t been a film this year I’ve been more excited to see, or more scared to be disappointed by. The fact that it comes in at number 3 on this list makes it pretty clear that it didn’t disappoint. In fact that idiotic grin returned again and again as I watched.

The Force Awakens is in some ways similar to Skyfall; it’s a film that embraces the history of the franchise by packing the film with references and themes familiar to the fans while finding a fresh and modern approach. I’ll concede that it is possibly too referential at times to the original trilogy, with a number of plot points feeling a little too familiar, but I suspect that was a deliberate choice as a way to return the fan’s confidence in the series.

This is a film determined to make it clear to audiences that the magic of the original trilogy is back and to encourage us to trust in where they plan to take the franchise. The actors that return from the original trilogy all seem to love getting the chance to rediscover these roles, Harrison Ford’s Solo in particular, but the film never feels like it is trapped in a prison of nostalgia because the 3 key new additions are so damn good.

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver are all excellent, packing their characters with complexity and potential. Who knows they may one day be as iconic as Luke, Leia and Han are for most Star Wars fans. Ridley takes a little while to warm to the role, hampered by some classically stilted Star Wars scripting, but does brilliantly to combine the confusion and excitement that Rey feels as she is dragged into a world so far beyond her fringe planet, scavenging to survive existence. Driver is superb as Kylo Ren, creating a distinctive villain, inspired by but not a copy of Vader or any of the other villains in the series. Anyone who has seen Attack the Block won’t be surprised to hear that Boyega sells the action and the comedy of his role with aplomb.

Some characters feel a little underused with Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron sadly failing to be developed beyond being the perfect Resistance pilot. Given the quality of the actor I suspect he signed on with a view to greater involvement in the next films, but he feels a little one dimensional here.

If I was trying to make an objective list of the best films of the year I honestly don’t know if I could justify The Force Awakens making top 3. I’ve seen a number of good critiques of the film, especially this from VOX, that make the fair accusation that it spends too much time rehashing elements of the original trilogy. I would defend it by saying that it is establishing the world for a new trilogy and I expect the next two to be much more original, but can I honestly say I’d consider that a sound defence for the majority of films I see? Probably not.

But this is a list of my favourite films of the year precisely because I don’t want to pretend to be objective. I want to write about the films I loved and I undoubtedly loved this. I’ve wanted to talk about it constantly (not that me talking constantly is a huge shift from the norm) and I’ve caught myself humming various bits of Star Wars score more times than I can count since leaving the screening (John Williams nails the score yet again but given that he was probably the best thing about the prequels I never really doubted that he would).

The magic is back. Star Wars is back. Adult me and child me are both ecstatic about that.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road
I’m not going to spend too long on this one as I’ve reviewed it more fully already here, but it’s worth noting that several months and two re-watchings later I’m even more certain of my love for the film.

I listen to Junkie XX’s score on a regular basis, adoring the range he manages to achieve while making it all feel consistent to the world of the film. Brothers in Arms and Many Mothers stand out in particular for the emotion they evoke, but it’s great throughout and without a doubt my score of the year (sorry John Williams).

The sand storm sequence is also probably my scene of the year and it’s a credit to the composition of the scene that arguably the biggest, most CGI reliant set piece in the film works so damn well on an average sized TV. That had actually been one of my biggest concerns about the film’s staying power: I saw it twice in IMAX and I wasn’t sure home viewing would be able to capture the same scale and intensity.

And perhaps it didn’t fully. But stripping away a three storey tall screen and a sound system that shakes the seat on the deep bass notes, I was able to see just how tightly executed an action movie Mad Max really was. It is a film of glorious spectacle but the momentum of the story telling and the framing of the action mean that it works on the small screen just as well.

It’s refreshing to see Mad Max in the early conversations about the Best Picture Oscar, because it is one of the best made films of the year but it doesn’t fall in a genre the Academy usually pays attention to.

It was a pretty arbitrary decision that found Mad Max coming second this year. Part of me still wants to make it number one, but in the end it just fell slightly short. I didn’t quite end up flipping a coin but it wasn’t far off being that close. So it comes second but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call it my joint top film of the year.

1. Inside Out
As I suspect is clear now, it took a pretty special film to pip Mad Max to my Film of the Year title. Inside Out is beyond special, it’s magnificent. It’s not just my film of the year, it’s possibly my favourite Pixar film ever.

It’s certainly up there with the best the studio has produced, previously my top 3 for them was Toy Story 3, Wall-E and Monsters Inc., but Inside Out probably tops Monsters Inc. for me and is close to the others if not better than them.

A stunningly realised exploration of a pre-teen girls emotions, Inside Out is fantastically ambitious, ridiculously clever and most importantly phenomenally fun. I was intrigued from the first press release, if anyone could deliver on the idea of physical manifestations of emotions and the way they interact to make us the people we are, it is Pixar.

It’s delivered with such skill, visual ingenuity and emotional intelligence that children and adults alike will find much to love about the film. It’s something Pixar have repeatedly proved themselves brilliant at, providing entertainment regardless of the audience’s age.

We’re introduced to the five key emotions in a sleek and futuristic control room as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust guide Riley through daily life. Practiced stability for Riley and her emotions is thrown into disarray by her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco. In the ensuing chaos Joy (Amy Poehler bringing plenty of Leslie Knope to the role) and Sadness are ejected from the control room and are forced to travel through various areas of Riley’s mind to try and find their way back.

It’s from this point that the film becomes utterly genius with some incredible manifestations of the way our brains work. Endlessly inventive and gloriously realized, this is Pixar at their best. Some of it will be lost on younger viewers but there are so many ideas on display here that the momentum never drops enough for attention to wane.

Pixar films carrying an emotional punch is nothing new but this one got me as powerfully as Toy Story 3 and that’s saying something. I’d grown up with the Toy Story films so to see the representation of growing up, letting go and life-long friendships is still powerful no matter how many times I see it. I have markedly less experience of being a pre-pubescent teenage girl but the way the film explores how your emotions being out of balance can leave you feeling lost is something I’ve spent a lot of time considering.

Inside Out is my film of the year because it, rather fittingly, inspired some of the most intense emotional responses of anything released in 2015. I laughed more, marvelled more and cried more than any other film managed to trigger in me and that’s surely why I go to the cinema. To be engaged for a couple of hours and lose myself in a world and a story that makes me feel something real and important.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Films of the Year 2015: Part Two (10-4)

So now onto the top 10 and the films that really stood out for me this year. It’s a great top 10 and reasonably diverse in terms of genres. The top 3 will be close behind and you can probably take a good guess at which films will make the cut, but I didn’t want any of these posts to stray beyond the 3000 word mark. We’re all busy people and have a lot of drinking to fit in over the next few weeks so I figured split the top 20 into three parts so you can have a read while you hide from your relatives or wait for dinner to be served.

10. Bridge of Spies
To return to the theme of expectations, when I first got wind of this film I assumed it would be a nailed on top 5 contender. Spielberg directing Tom Hanks in a Cold War thriller, with a script pepped up by the Coen Brothers, it sounded like a dream come true for me. Throw in a bittersweet romance and they’d have nailed almost all of my “perfect film” criteria.

So it’s a little disappointing that I can’t put it higher than 10th.

In a lot of ways the film is great. There is no one better at keeping the focus on the individuals at the centre of massive events than Spielberg and no one more suited to playing the honest, put upon everyman than Tom Hanks. Both are on fine form here, as they tell the tale of James Donovan, an insurance lawyer dragged into the uncertain world of the Cold War when he’s “asked” to defend a captured Soviet spy.

Mark Rylance steals every scene he’s in as the man accused. He plays Rudolf Abel as calm and intelligent but avoids making him seem too calculating, doing an excellent job of clouding the audiences allegiances when compared to a number of the representatives of the American justice and security services. A wonderfully nonchalant response to Donovan’s confusion about his calm might end up being overused but has the Coen Brother’s touch all over it.

In the end though it is a film that feels like less than the sum of its parts. The tension never really builds as it should and I kept waiting for something truly unexpected to happen. It seems unfair to complain that a film based on a true story plays it too safe with the way the plot develops, but the film suffers from a predictability throughout.

It is probably also true that I take for granted Spielberg and Hank’s excellence, so the bar is set a little higher for them than it might be for most other people.

Bridge of Spies is an excellent film but I couldn’t put it any higher than 10th because I walked out of that screening with an unmistakable sense of disappointment. Fairly or not, I expected and hoped for more given all the ingredients that went into making it.

9. The Theory of Everything
I’d almost forgotten this was a 2015 release as, like Birdman and Whiplash, the Oscar contenders always feel a long time ago when it’s time to write these reviews, but once I’d confirmed it really did come out this year it had to make the top 10.

It’s a subtle, loving biopic that resists the temptation to treat one of the most respected figures in modern society with rose tinted glasses. Every one of the central characters feels painfully but wonderfully genuine, flawed to various degrees but complex and human.

Eddie Redmayne’s transformation throughout the film is one of the most staggering physical performances I can think of. It’s a cliché of reviewing biopics but I’m not going to pretend I didn’t think exactly these four words as I left the film: he becomes Stephen Hawking. He portrays the character with a heart breaking combination of inner strength and physical fragility, of someone fighting every day not to be limited by the circumstances of his everyday life.

Rightly he won the Oscar for Best Actor but the film wouldn’t work even half as effectively as it does without the performance of Felicity Jones as his wife Jane Hawking. Jones doesn’t get a physical transformation to showcase the characters arc; she communicates a lifetime of love, pain, jealousy and insecurity through the subtlest of changes. She gives Jane a stubborn strength, someone who deserves but would never ask for sympathy.  Jones’ career so far has been a bit hit and miss but I suspect there’s an Oscar win in her future and if you want to see her at her best check out Like Crazy.

8. It Follows
As I touched upon in part one it’s rare I really love a horror film, it’s a genre I enjoy but rarely adore. It Follows is a wonderful exception to that trend.

Largely avoiding jump shocks in favour of a growing, inescapable sense of dread it is the story of a girl, played by the brilliant Maika Monroe, threatened by a STD (Sexually Transmitted Demon in this case). From the moment she does the deed with a seemingly decent guy she is being pursued, always at walking pace, by a creature determined to kill her.

The sexual element feels both relevant to modern concerns over the dangers of promiscuity and the age old horror obsession with sex and virginity. A part of the films brilliance is that despite the premise of the threat it never feels preachy about sex. It manages to be a film about a girl being haunted because she had sex without ever feeling judgemental towards her for the fact she did and that’s a balancing act most horror films would utterly fail to achieve.

Monroe was great in The Guest (check it out if you haven’t yet, a fantastic thriller that feels simultaneously modern and a throwback to 80’s horror/thrillers) and she is superb throughout It Follows. The film wouldn’t work without her ability to combine tough and terrified in almost every scene. She’s certainly another actress destined for great things.

It’s also refreshing to watch a horror film where the protagonist’s friends actually help rather than being utter twats, so it has that going for it.

7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
I’ve always been a sucker for American teen indie movies. At least one makes it into my top 10 every year and 2015 is no different.

It isn’t a huge surprise in hindsight that this one stands out. Greg is a self-conscious, overly analytical teen who is obsessed with film partly as a way of hiding from real life, who is reluctant to truly trust anyone as a friend and has an awkward relationship with a girl that toes the line between platonic and romantic. Yeah can’t possibly think why I connected with this.

The film centres around Greg and his friend Earl, whose superficially unlikely friendship is driven by a shared love for films, producing their own wonderfully immaturely titled parody efforts (A Sockwork Orange and Raging Bullshit being personal favourites). Greg’s world is complicated by his mum’s insistence that he spends time with Rachel, a girl diagnosed with Leukaemia.

What follows is a refreshingly honest, awkward exploration of teenage relationships that largely manages to avoid the melodramatic pitfalls that the film’s title might make many people think of. A healthy dose of sarcasm and cynicism keeps the film just the right side of the emotionally manipulative line and gives the moments of honest emotion real power because they feel earned.

Funny and sweet in equal measure, if you want a subtler and more emotional evening I can’t recommend this highly enough.

6. The Martian
This film was a glorious surprise (here we are again with expectations, it’s almost like I planned it this way), delivering so far beyond the level I thought it might when I saw the trailers.

Ridley Scott has directed enough truly great films that I will watch anything he’s attached to at least once but there’s no point pretending that it hasn’t been a while since he delivered something really special (Black Hawk Down or Gladiator arguably, so nearly 15 years either way).

The Martian is a return to form for Scott, a film that crosses genres freely as it combines comedy, thriller, sci-fi and drama with real glee. I tend to love films that resist being pigeon holed and The Martian is no exception. It had more moments that made me laugh out loud in the cinema than the majority of outright comedy films in recent memory, had space travel sequences as thrilling as anything Interstellar offered and delivered some great sit and talk argument scenes where some of the best of the current character actor crop (Daniels, Ejiofor, Wiig & Wong) argued about the next move. Plus it’s great to see Sean Bean in a different type of role than I’ve become used to but keeping his accent.

The characters stuck on earth are great and those travelling between Mars and Earth do as much as they can with the arguably short end of the stick they’re given (not that it stops Jessica Chastain from being one of the best things about the movie because I’m starting to doubt there’s anything that could) but the question of whether this film works or not hinges entirely on Matt Damon’s Mark Watney.

The titular Martian, Damon spends the majority of the film on his own and I’m not sure he’s ever been better. Bringing every bit of his likable, homespun American charm to the role he provides the heart of the film. He’s a winningly believable combination of stubbornly hopeful and brutally realistic.

The other key strength of the film is that it manages to capture some of the optimism about human exploration of space (we’ll find a way to make it work against all the odds) without straying into Interstellar style pseudo-intellectualism. In many ways The Martian works in the same way that a film like Everest does in that it’s about human beings surviving somewhere they have absolutely no right to do so, but unlike those films that are all about individual human’s capabilities, The Martian offers a much more optimistic view of what we as a species might be capable of if we came together.

Naïve and simplistic sure, but I’m all for more films trying to remind us that we should aim to achieve more together rather than compete against each other. Especially when the story is told this damn well.

5. Sicario
A crime thriller that delights in living in the grey areas of morality, Sicario is a wonderfully tight action film, with several stand out set pieces and excellent performances across the board.
Villeneuve’s films so far have been promising but mixed. Prisoners is great but not quite as clever as I feel he wanted us to think. Enemy is a glorious concept that comes too close to being swallowed by its own ambition.

Sicario is all the promise of those films delivered without the flaws. The pace is deliberately relentless as Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate is thrown into a world where her certainty in the rule of law will be constantly questioned.

The fact that the cinematographer is Roger Deakins plays a big part in why this makes top 5. If you know me well I’ve probably rambled on at some point about how Deakins is a guarantee of quality. The go to cinematographer for the Coen brothers (and the advisor on the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, which counts for a lot in my book), Deakins delivers yet another gorgeous film here.
The composition and framing of shots is both beautiful and pointed. Whether it is shots that take in both sides of the US/Mexico border or ones that emphasise the increasing descent into darkness that the main characters face, nothing is wasted or accidental.

Blunt is superb throughout as our way into the murky world of the drugs trade, and she’s complimented throughout by the ridiculously good performances of Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. The latter two delight in operating in the realm of moral ambiguity that dominates the “war on drugs” and bring weight and subtlety to the roles.

Only It Follows eclipses it this year for the dread laden tension that dominates the mood of the film as it becomes increasingly hard to believe anyone will come out the other side of these events better off.

4. Ex Machina
Alex Garland had already established himself as a great screenwriter (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Dredd), but this is his directorial debut and it’s one that should have everyone paying full attention.

Ex Machina is a brilliantly low key exploration of consciousness and humanity. Played out as an extended take on the Turing test, designed to test whether an A.I can pass for human, it’s a film that revels in the subtleties of conversations and insecurities.

For the majority of the film there are only 3 characters. Domhnall Gleeson is excellent as Caleb, the geeky office worker that wins an employee lottery and gets to travel to reclusive billionaire Nathan’s woodland home. Nathan is played by the consistently brilliant Oscar Isaac and the interactions between him and Gleeson are showcases for two of the best actors of the current generation. Questions of intelligence, trust and ambition drive all their scenes, as both characters size each other up, machismo and machinations go hand in hand.

But for all that I love both actors, they are working in the shadows of one of my favourite performances of the year. I’d never heard of Alicia Vikander before 2015, but she has arrived in a big way now and it’s hard to see anything other than a long and successful career ahead of her. She is utterly brilliant in Ex Machina, giving her character of Ava, the android being tested by Nathan and Caleb, a wonderful complexity.

Given that the film is framed by an extended Turing test, it is essential that the audience can’t easily make up their mind any more than the characters can and Vikander plays the role with such subtlety and intelligence that I was kept guessing throughout as to how developed her A.I was. The design of the character, all plastic surfaces and whirling mechanics other than her face, serves as a constant reminder of her robotic nature, so it’s a testament to the expressive performance of Vikander that you keep being drawn in to such a degree that it’s the more robotic moments that jar rather than the human ones.

So that’s numbers 20 to 4, next up the top 3.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Films of the Year 2015: Part One (20 -11)

So it’s that time of year again, when I ramble on for far too long about the films I loved, liked or endured this year. I wrote a similar blog last year but a combination of excessive ambition and predictable insecurities mean that the 8,000 word (not even joking there) sprawling account of 2014 in film will never see the light of day.

I’ve limited myself to a top 20 this time and I’m only going to talk about the top 10 in any detail. Hopefully this will save me from producing a dissertation length text that would only ever be read by me as some sort of weird self-flagellation (is there a normal kind really?)

I’m also going to split it into three separate blogs for the sake of readability, so this will be numbers 20-11, the next one will be 10 – 4 and I’ll finish off with the top 3.

I’ve seen more than 40 films at the cinema this year (thank you Cineworld Unlimited card) and my glass half full approach to film means I’ve enjoyed most of them. Only two real stinkers stand out looking back. Taken 3 was one of the most pathetic action movies I’ve ever seen, where much like Robocop last year the 12A-ification takes all the impact out of the action and I just felt sad that actors of the calibre of Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker were wasting their time with such a lazy thriller. Then there was The Visit, an M. Night Shyamalan horror movie that we only saw because we underestimated how popular Legend (underwhelming when we did see it) would be one night. Cripplingly unsure of its tone and utterly lacking in meaningful tension, The Visit was hailed by some as a return to form for the director but I’m honestly stumped for a reason why. In a rare year where a horror film makes my top 10 this stood out as a prime example of the genre done terribly.

Disappointing in a very different way was Birdman, which obviously was a huge hit with critics and awards shows. I suspect it is a victim of the effect of expectation, where us Brits getting the Oscar contenders late means those films have already been built up to often unsustainable levels of hype. Birdman was a superbly well-made film and the long single take scenes will rightly be used in film schools as a teaching tool for the next 50 years probably. But it left me utterly cold. I wanted to see what everyone else saw in it but I just couldn’t connect. It’s probably the most noticeable omission from my top 20 but I can’t honestly say I’m interested in seeing it again and given how many films I loved this year that’s enough to see it miss out. It’s worth noting that the technical excellence of Inarritu and Lubezki means I’m still really excited for The Revenant, where I suspect the setting and plot will connect with me much more.

A number of films were very close to making the top 20 and deserve a quick mention here as I would recommend people give them a try: Song of the Sea, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Voices, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Selma, Suffragette and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 2.  All have a lot going for them and it’s only my desire to actually finish this blog before Xmas 2016 that sees them passed over so quickly.

A Most Violent Year was stubbornly clinging to the 20th spot right up until Thursday, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens forced me to shift the majority of my list down one space. You’ll have to read on (or scroll but that’d be cheating) to find out quite where the latest Star Wars finds itself in my countdown.

There’s also a number of films I haven’t yet had the chance to see that I suspect might have complicated these decisions further: Cartel Land, Dear White People, Girlhood, While We’re Young, West, Macbeth, Brooklyn, Dope, Crimson Peak, Trainwreck and Love is Strange.

But I had to draw the line somewhere and this is the top 20 I settled on as of December 19th 2015. 

Here we go.

20. Whiplash
Rhythm and control are inevitably central to this film and the amount of tension they manage to create through a series of jazz concerts is truly remarkable. Miles Teller is good as the lead but it’s no secret that the Oscar winning “Supporting” performance by J. K. Simmons is what most viewers will take away. It has many of the trappings of a sports movie, but I suspect it sits alone as the first Oscar winning competitive Jazz band movie.

19. Amy
The documentary of the year, for me this manages to avoid being either an apology or a condemnation of her flaws. It carefully and sensitively portrays a girl who never really wanted to be famous and clearly wasn’t equipped for it. The soundtrack is obviously gorgeous but every track has an additional level of melancholy as you are presented with the pain and uncertainty that drove both her creativity and her self-destruction.

18. Spectre
It hasn’t been an overly great year for blockbusters and Spectre is a prime example of the way in which a number of the most anticipated films fell short. It’s actually a really enjoyable film and the sequences in Mexico City and on the train are Bond at its best, with style and tension coming together. But the twists are predictable, the majority of the action forgettable and, for me, the tone straying dangerously close to Bond of old. Skyfall set the bar high and Spectre didn’t even come close to challenging it, in fact I think that the question of how to follow the most successful Bond film ever is the root of a lot of the films problems. Where Skyfall was a brilliant mix of old and new Bond, this seems oddly unsure of where it should aim to fit within the Bond universe. And the franchise still doesn’t have a clue as how to write engaging romantic interests for Bond.

17. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
A film that delights in the impossibility of fitting it into just one genre. It’s a gothic-western-morality tale-Iranian-hipster-social commentary-gangster-drama and it’s that ambiguity that gives the film its power. Mystery and uncertainty are central throughout and while the lines are delivered in Persian and the girl in question wears a chador, it has a wonderfully timeless & placeless feel. The girl is one of the characters of the year but to explain why would be to ruin much of the joy to be found in losing yourself in this wonderfully unique tale. Plus a key scene uses Death by White Lies and I love that song.

16. John Wick
This could so easily have been just one more entry in the veteran-actioner trend that’s been so prevalent for the past few years. An action star whose defining role is looking increasingly distant in the rear view mirror and a revenge plotline looked all too familiar. Honestly John Wick doesn’t do anything hugely new but it does what it does so much better that its competitors. The action is tightly executed with a convincing mix of grace and brutality. It’s an action film that actually shows you the action rather than cutting away, which acknowledges the limits of magazine sizes and makes you feel the punches during fights. So action cinema as it should be done but far too rarely is. 

Keanu Reeves is superb as the, until recently, retired hitman and the film touches on a secret underworld of assassins without spelling out every detail. The now greenlit sequel will probably spoil much of the efficiency and mystique of this film but for once we got an old school action movie that was full of adrenaline and entertaining set pieces. And a lot of the time when I sit down to watch a film that’s all I ask for.

15. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Despite sharing a remarkably similar plot to Spectre and not doing anything hugely new with the franchise, I enjoyed the latest instalment in Ethan Hunt’s efforts to keep the world safe immensely. Part of the difference is that the MI series clearly has confidence in its formula and wants to build on its success by moving forward while the latest Bond felt like an overly cautious backwards step.

Cruise as an individual may have his issues but he makes for a fine action lead and the ensemble cast are excellent across the board. Relative newcomer Rebecca Ferguson steals nearly every scene she is in and reminds the Bond franchise that a woman can be a well-rounded character, action hero and ridiculously attractive all at the same time.

The action sequences are as good as they’ve ever been in the franchise with the section set during an opera in Vienna rightly getting praise as one of the scenes of the year. It is crafted brilliantly, knowing that the key to a great pay-off is the tension you build before it.

14. Carol
Carol is the type of drama we don’t see all that often anymore. Crucial plot points are delivered through a pointed silence, a raised eyebrow or the slightest hint of a smile. The impact of the era of Lean and Coward’s Brief Encounter is unmistakable, this is an emotional drama all about the ways we repress out feelings and those moments where something so powerful happens that we can’t or won’t pretend anymore.

Blanchett is mesmerising as a socialite dealing with the repercussions of following her heart in 1950’s America and Mara manages to be naïve but complex as the younger woman trying to understand a whole host of new emotions while facing the impact of her choices. Mara is clearly destined for great things (I remember being blown away by her in Soderbegh’s Side Effects a couple of years ago) but in the end this film is all about the lead character.

It lives and dies on the seductive but complicated character of Carol. I’m not convinced Blanchett has ever been better and it is without question one of the performances of the year. She’s been widely tipped for the Best Actress Oscar and despite the film not making my top 10 I think I’d vote for her given the choice.

13. Big Hero 6
I’ve already mentioned that a few films fell short my expectations for them this year. Big Hero 6 is the absolute opposite of them. I’d seen the trailer and not given it much thought, but a spontaneous choice at the cinema one night thankfully meant that I got to enjoy a film that could easily have passed me by.

A genuine contender for funniest film of the year, Big Hero 6 delivered the heart and inventiveness that Disney has always been known for in spades. I suspect Baymax will go down as one of the great animated characters, eminently marketable but also genuinely lovable. A scene involving a low on power Baymax made me laugh harder than almost any other scene in any other film.

Before I’d seen it I’d actually dismissed the film as Disney’s response to Cars, a film driven more by the toys it might sell than the plot, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Charming and genuine throughout, with a wonderfully realised American-Japanese hybrid city, there’s a strong argument to give Big Hero 6 the crown of surprise hit of the year.

12. Avengers: Age of Ultron
The theme of expectation resulting in disappointment continued with the latest Avengers film. I saw it twice at the cinema and have since watched it again at home and loved it, hence the respectable place on my list. But honestly I expected, or at least hoped, that this film would be comfortable top 10 material.

I loved the first Avengers film and I’m a staunch fan of Joss Whedon after being raised on a diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer so perhaps it was always doomed to fall short of what I hoped for it, but I can only judge a film on how I viewed it and it felt a little underwhelming.

The dynamics between the group were superb, but the plot strayed too close to convoluted for my liking and Ultron was a disappointingly bland villain. Similarly the action sequences were packed with great moments, but were often compromised by shots that seemed designed solely to pander to comic book fans without any justification in the plot. 

I enjoyed the film immensely and the entire section of the story set in Africa was superb, full of witty dialogue and well-crafted action notes. The purely hypothetical question of “what would I have thought of this film if I’d gone in absolutely neutral?” has never intrigued me more. Would I have benefitted from the lack of expectation to enjoy a superbly well put together action adventure film? Or would it’s limitations have damaged it more if I didn’t approach it with a massive disposition to love anything Whedon does?

Those questions will play a big part in the discussion of one of my top 10 films (absolutely no prizes for guessing which one).

It’s near impossible to know for certain but the very fact that those questions are circling in my mind provides a justification for why Age of Ultron didn’t make the top 10.

11. Slow West
The opposite of the latest Avengers film, I went into this film largely on a whim, intrigued by a review in Empire and tempted by the desire to visit the Showroom (a local, independent cinema that I’ve always loved).

I’m not a big fan of westerns, one of the few genres that dominated Saturday afternoon TV when I was growing up that I never really got into. Honestly I suspect that I wouldn’t have liked this film either back then though, but for different reasons.

Slow West is the directorial debut of John Maclean and stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay, a lovelorn, naïve Scottish boy travelling across the plains of North America in pursuit of his lost love. Assisted by Michael Fassbender’s morally ambiguous traveller Silas, what follows is an often dreamlike road movie (on horseback), packed with comic, dark and most often darkly comic encounters along the way.

It is shot beautifully throughout, but the shot choice jumps up a level during the final act as one of the most gloriously staged, entertainingly deranged finales arrives. 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Oh what a day! What a lovely day! Taking a trip with Mad Max down Fury Road

George Miller returning to the world of Mad Max has something of the action story to it; the old gunslinger, almost forgotten, returns to fight once more and show the younger generation how it’s done.

He may recently have focussed on dancing penguins (Happy Feet) rather than the high octane carnage that he made his name with, but with Mad Max: Fury Road Miller doesn’t just recapture the old magic, he creates something better than anything he’s achieved before and in doing so hands out a warning to other action directors out there that they need to step up their game.

The original trilogy is iconic rather than truly classic in my mind, introducing audiences to a world on the brink of absolute collapse, ravaged by environmental decline and man made disaster. Over the course of the three films we watch Max, a police officer in the first film, suffer and fight just to survive at great personal cost as the world falls apart around him. Part classic western, part dystopia fuelled by ‘80s fear of oil crisis and nuclear war, they build one of the more intriguing post apocalyptic worlds film has offered. The films themselves had plenty of weaknesses and they haven’t aged as well as some of their contemporaries (Terminator, Aliens, etc), but Miller’s skill for action, mood and world building are all on display.

The latest film starts with Max, now played with taciturn aplomb by Tom Hardy, being captured by the War Boys, a collection of young men who serve Immortan Joe, a warlord who made himself into a demi-god with the control of what little water there is in the area. The opening act races by, almost a little too fast it seems, but as the film develops you realise the frenetic pace and often slightly sped up action is all designed to keep you unsettled and immerse yourself in a world where life is short and death is often brutally quick.

The central plot kicks in when Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a trusted driver/warrior for Joe, steals an oil tanker as part of an escape plan for her and several young girls who had been kept as wives/breeders for Joe to create a dynasty.

All the War Boys from Joe’s citadel and the neighbouring fuel and bullet towns set off in pursuit, with Max strapped to the front of one of the lead cars and so one of the longest, most brilliantly inventive car chases in film history is launched.

Eventually Max is able to escape the War Boys and forms a reluctant bond with Furiosa and the girls, haunted throughout by memories of those he hadn’t managed to save.

The film cavorts from one beautifully executed, metal smashing, bone crashing set piece to another, held together by some solid character work from all involved despite the potentially one dimensional character types on display, excellent cinematography and one of my favourite scores in recent years.

It is a wide ranging score which involves at various points a mobile heavy metal rig, tribal drumming and soaring orchestral music. Like so much of this film, shifts in pace, tone and approach that could so easily have been jarring are handled with delicate skill.

It is also a much smarter film than I expected going in, packed with subtle moments and nice character moments. Miller understands that most crucial rule of film making - show, don’t tell - in a way that many action films seem to forget. Little looks, minimal dialogue and beautifully framed backdrops build characters and hint at the history of this world. Fury Road is a film directed with real confidence in itself and the story it is choosing to tell.

Amusingly Miller seems to have angered some “men’s rights activists” by having the audacity to have strong female characters and explosive car chases in the same film, and there is a measure of recommendation for me in their anger. While the film is certainly never heavy handed in its politics or agenda, it is refreshing to see an action movie that understands that female characters should absolutely cover a range of roles, motives and approaches in the film, rather than the usual narrow spectrum of wives/mothers or prize. To a number of the characters the women of this film are exactly that, but they are never just that to the audience and George Miller certainly deserves praise for delivering a more rounded central group of characters than we’re perhaps used to seeing. Plus as a general rule if you’re making bigots like them angry then you’re doing something right.

While the film does have one or two flaws, for example Max’s visions of those he believes he failed could have been handled with a little more subtlety, it feels like the height of bad manners to complain about a film which absolutely knows its targets and hits every one of them.

This is an action film that embraces insanity and intensity in a way few have, whether it’s the suicidal tactics used by the War Boys, the scale of the storms that wreck the country or the cult that’s developed around ‘daddy’ Immortan Joe.

Exhilarating in the extreme, Mad Max recaptures an epic tone and ambition that feels somehow nostalgic. This is very much a 21st century blockbuster, with all the technical expertise and grand scale that modern budgets allow, but the fact that George Miller insisted that every car used should be genuinely drivable hints at the old school director at its heart. While I’m sure plenty of CGI was used (the death count amongst the stunt men would have led to some sort of industry wide strike otherwise) it rarely feels that way. Every impact counts, every clash of metal on metal feels intensely real and this saves the film from the CGI fatigue that can afflict the majority of blockbusters these days.

There’d been rumours of a new Mad Max film for several years, but casting or costing always seemed to get in the way, and I’m glad they did. Because in the end we got the perfect cast; Hardy and Theron are superb, Nicholas Hoult, as an eager to please War Boy named Nux, continues to steal scenes in every film he’s in and the Five Wives each get moments to shine - Huntington Whitely especially shows that Transformers 3 was misleading and she really can act. We got the perfect score from Junkie XL and cinematography by John Seale. We got several of the best action sequences any film has served up in recent years with the final act providing some truly jaw dropping sequences. And we got a brilliantly twisted, dystopian world full of little touches that hinted at a whole host of stories just waiting to be told.

Most importantly we got the right director, a man who showed that experience and a desire to tell a fresh story in a familiar world could tie all the insanity and excitement together into the sharpest action film of the year. 


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A Good Start

Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty damn happy with the season so far. It’s been a dramatic shift in mood since March, when I sat in the pub wanting to cry into my steak and chips as Derby demolished us and the bar staff laughed at me.

A lot of that shift has to do with the man in the dugout; we are no longer hostage to Davies’ one man war against anyone who looks at him funny and the painfully inconsistent performances that characterised both his spells in charge. Instead we have Stuart Pearce at the helm, a man who is so iconic to Forest fans that fans of my generation and younger who never got to see him play in the Garibaldi in person are raised to understand that he is THE legendary player.

His track record in management is not the most illustrious (if he was available Martin O’Neill would be the former Forest player I’d most want in charge on that basis), but his commitment to the club and affinity with the fans is hard to underestimate. The noise when he walked out at a full City Ground before the Blackpool game was up there with the most incredible atmosphere’s I’ve ever been a part of, genuinely rivalling the dramatic promotion from league one on the final day of the 2007-2008 season. He’s a man who captained the club for the best part of a decade, scored 92 goals from left back and famously said he’d rather go on the dole than manage Derby.

He’s also a man who prides himself on honesty and humility, a quality present in his interviews since taking over the job. This was highlighted in the wake of the sales of Darlow and Lascelles to Newcastle (they’ve since been loaned back and now the dust has settled it looks like a good bit of business for the club). Pearce was scheduled to answer fan’s questions for an hour on BBC radio Nottingham that evening. Some managers would have made excuses and declined to show up for the interview, others might have turned up but answered very guardedly, giving away little and leaving the fans nervous and uncertain. Davies and managers of his ilk might have come out with an ill-considered attack on Fawaz that would have doomed the relationship.

Instead Pearce answered questions honestly for the entire hour, explaining what had happened from his perspective, expressing disappointment with how the deal was handled, but making great efforts to reaffirm his commitment to the club and otherwise strong relationship with the chairman. It was such a refreshing experience after the paranoia and aggression that characterised so much of Davies’ interactions with fans and the media, to hear Pearce come out and answer questions openly and calmly. How he handled it certainly left room for the details of the deal to become clear and Fawaz’s to explain his side of the story, which seems to have allowed both to move on and continue a promising relationship between them.

The passion that earned him the nickname Psycho is still there, bubbling under the surface (as an unfortunate linesman at Hillsborough found out the hard way after a dodgy offside decision), but for all the joy it brings to see Pearce’s iconic clenched fist punch the air after a goal, it’s the calmness with which he has handled his return to the club that is encouraging. Hopefully that controlled passion will rub off on the players.

Pearce’s interview brings me onto the other man central to Forest’s strong start to the season, Fawaz Al Hasawi, chairman and owner of the club since 2012. It’s not been a smooth road between then and now; there’ve been numerous incidents, before the Lascelles/Darlow incident, that have been indicative of the fact that this is his first experience of running a football club. The harsh sacking of Sean O’Driscoll with Forest in the play off positions at Christmas 2012, the seemingly doomed from the start hiring of McLeish and then his eagerness to support Davies allowing him to create a toxic atmosphere around the club were all misjudgements in my eyes, but made with good intentions.

This latest incident, with the full details available now, is suggestive of a man understandably used to being the final decision man when it comes to the business, a situation that is more complicated in football because of the importance of the manager. There needed to be better communication between him and Pearce, something that will hopefully be helped in the future by the appointment of the experienced Paul Faulkner as Chief Executive.

One thing that has been clear from the start, even amidst his worst decisions, is the good intentions of Fawaz. He is clearly passionate about the club and his interactions with the fans show a desire not just to be an effective chairman but a popular one as well; someone who keeps the fans informed and is one of them rather than a straight forward moneyman. At several games last year the City Ground reverberated to chants of “We love you Fawaz, we do”, not the kind of chant many chairmen get to enjoy.

He has backed each of his managers in the transfer market, breaking the club’s previous record fee to sign Britt Assombalonga (whose 4 goals in August suggest that could prove to be a wise investment) and building a squad that can truly challenge for promotion to the Premiership. This is the first year I can remember that I spent August transfer deadline day genuinely believing we didn’t need any signings. It looks likely that in the near future we might have to consider something like a change to the stadium name in order to attract the big money sponsorship deals that can help us meet FFP restrictions, but I’m reasonably confident that Fawaz won’t consider doing anything like Tan has done at Cardiff or Alam plans at Hull. It would be out of character from what he’s shown us so far.

So we’ve got good people in charge that are passionate about getting Forest out of the Championship and are loved by fans. But good intentions and popularity don’t win football matches, we’re unbeaten because the players have fed off the optimism around the club and delivered a series of passionate, disciplined and frequently entertaining displays. The most promising thing perhaps is that we’ve made it through August unbeaten despite never playing to our full potential for 90 minutes. The first half against Blackpool was strong, as was the second against Reading. We showed a spine and fight against Bournemouth and Sheffield Wednesday that saw us come away from two tough away trips with 6 points when we could easily had 2 or less.

Another element of our start that has pleased me is the nature of most of our goals. Last season, partly due to the lack of in-form strikers, we relied heavily on goals from the midfield trio of Lansbury, Reid and Paterson, which though entertaining and frequently spectacular, highlighted a weakness in the set up. This season the majority of our goals have come from wingers or wing backs getting near the box and whipping in a dangerous cross for a striker or midfielder to tap in. It’s a pleasingly straight forward, almost old fashioned, approach and its reaping great rewards so far. We still have the same potential for wonder goals but the partnership of Assombalonga and Fryatt looks like it has the potential to be a reliable source of goals throughout the season, something we clearly lacked previously. It’s incredible to me that Paterson can’t get into the first 11, considering he was arguably the best player of last season, but Antonio and Burke have started so well it’s hard to argue with Pearce’s selections so far.

We also look like we’re getting gradually more solid at the back as players come back from injury. On the displays so far, my first choice back four would be (from left to right), Cohen, Hobbs, Mancienne and Lichaj, but the fact we have strong cover in each of those positions is encouraging after so many seasons where we seemed to be constantly running out of square pegs.

After the international break we play Derby at home, looking to confirm our promotion potential and maybe get a little bit of revenge on our fiercest rivals. It’ll be a close game and our toughest test so far, but hopefully we will go into it with a fully fit squad, something we rarely had last season. We’ve also got an exciting game against Tottenham to look forward to in the League Cup; a game where there’s no shame in losing but a good chance to build momentum with a cup shock.

All in all, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more optimistic about Forest after the first month of the season and though there will inevitably be rocky patches I’m confident we will be around the play off pack this year and who knows maybe we can sneak an automatic spot. 

It’s a strong Championship this year definitely and it’s been a dramatic opening month for a lot of clubs.

My thoughts on the start for a few other clubs

It’s getting to the point where I can’t bring myself to laugh at Leeds anymore, it just feels cruel, as the club’s fans are the victims of yet another terrible owner. The appointment of Dave Hockaday seemed bizarre when it happened and his dismissal, while arguably not a shock, only adds to the chaos at the club. They’re a big enough club that surely eventually someone fit to run the club will arrive, but for the time being it’s hard to see this being a happy season for them.

Just down the M1 it’s a different story as Wednesday, despite some takeover uncertainty, have started the season looking stable and threatening. I’m sure a lot of Wednesday fans felt frustrated they didn’t get anything out of the game against us at the weekend and on the basis of what I saw I imagine very few clubs will get an easy game at Hillsborough this year. Nuhiu looks more dangerous than last year and Stuart Gray has them well organised.

Watford have made a great start on the pitch, but manager Sanino’s sudden departure suggests that behind the scenes not everything is going so well. They’ve held onto Troy Deeney which is important and the appointment of Oscar Garcia is a solid, if not exciting choice. If the new manager can settle in reasonably quickly and there’s no more backroom drama, then they have a good chance for at least the play offs.

My pre-season favourites for promotion of Wigan, Derby and Norwich, are all starting to show some real form while Rotherham, Brentford and Wolves have proven they won’t be pushovers to go back down.

Fulham have started poorly and Magath needs to turn things round quickly or he’ll be out of a job, but I can’t see them going down. Similarly Ipswich will improve over the season, McCarthy’s a good boss at this level. I doubt Millwall will keep pace with the play off pack over the course of the season, but plenty would have said that about Holloway’s Blackpool, so who knows. Jose Riga’s Blackpool are a different question entirely and I’d be amazed if he’s still in the post by Christmas.

So from my perspective it’s been a great start and I’m feeling positive about the season, but the beauty/nerve shredding cruelty of both this league has a tendency to make anyone who puts too much faith in predictions look very stupid indeed.

Friday, 29 August 2014

A Great Summer of Film

It’s been very widely reported that 2015 has the potential to be the greatest year in blockbuster film history. Joss Whedon returns with a second Avengers film, J.J. Abrams serves up the first in an already lengthy list of new Star Wars films. The Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises are both getting reboots/sequels, there’ll be a new Bond film with Mendes at the helm again after the triumph that was Skyfall, and the Hunger Games quadrilogy of films will come to a hopefully fitting end. Mission Impossible 5 and Fast and Furious 7 will almost certainly rake in impressive box office figures. Ant Man and Fantastic Four have the potential to prove as wise a gamble as Guardians of the Galaxy was this year. The Wachowski siblings will bring us the delayed Jupiter Ascending, which looks absolutely barmy but potentially great fun. There’s the adaptation of Assassin’s Creed which might provide a rare videogame-to-film adaptation worth watching. Michael Fassbender is in that one and will also be lining up opposite Marion Cotillard in a promising looking version of Macbeth.

I could go on and on, but the promise of next year is not what I wanted to write about right now. It’s the fact that the much less heralded summer of 2014 is one of the best I can remember in a long time. There’ve been disappointments along the way; The Amazing Spiderman 2 had great moments and the chemistry of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield going for it but wasn’t the triumph I was hoping for. Transformers by all accounts delivered exactly what you might have expected, and the less said about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the better.

For me there were 6 great summer movies this year.
  • ·         Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • ·         X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • ·         Edge of Tomorrow
  • ·         How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • ·         Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the names might not get any less clumsy but the films get better)
  • ·         Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’ve written reviews of Captain America and Guardians so I won’t go into too much depth about them here, but it is a sign of why Marvel are as dominant as they are right now, that two of their less high profile projects, which could easily have felt like placeholders to tide us over until Avengers 2, were as good as anything they’ve produced so far. The Winter Soldier is possibly my favourite Marvel film apart from The Avengers, and the new Star Wars will do well to capture the gloriously fun, space opera, joy of Guardians.
So onto the other four films that made this summer so memorable for me:

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)

This film is a definite contender for greatest cast list of all time, but even with such talent assembled, the time travel plot and ambition could easily have resulted in a muddled and underwhelming mess of a film. I loved First Class and McAvoy and Fassbender were the perfect choices for young Charles and Eric but I was a little worried that this film might end up trying to do too much, getting bogged down in its own complicated macguffin (I’m looking at you Luc Besson’s Lucy) and failing to develop any characters enough (Amazing Spiderman 2’s villains suffered from this).

I needn’t have worried because Days of Future Past delivered on my hopes and more. Smart, funny and well controlled throughout it was an absolute triumph. The time travel elements were well handled (and some of the ret-conning of previous X-Men films will be for the best in the long run), and for a film with such potential to become cluttered it feels remarkably clear throughout. Magneto (whether Fassbender or McKellen) remains one of the most interesting villains in superhero history, his motivations understandable if not condonable. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine continues to be one of the best things in any film he’s in (whether or not he saves his individual films is up for debate) and Jennifer Lawrence is great as the angry and confused Mystique.

It is a film that focuses more on the newer 70s based cast than the old guard, but most of the familiar faces get a good amount to work with. There are a few characters I suspect will feature more in deleted scenes (and it’s been confirmed that Rogue, who doesn’t make it into the theatrical cut, will feature in an extended addition as plenty was filmed for her storyline) but overall the balance is well maintained.

It will be interesting to see how Avengers 2 approaches the character of Quicksilver, who through some sort of contract loophole is available to both the X-Men and Avengers films, though the latter can’t call him a mutant. Quicksilver in DoFP steals nearly every scene that he is, a rebellious and comedic element in a film that has a number of intense, dramatic scenes (Magneto and Xavier’s conversation on a plane a particular highlight).

The action is well staged throughout with Blink’s portal opening power a particular highlight, delivering a fresh type of action sequence as she and a number of other mutants combat the chillingly unstoppable sentinels.

I chose to cover Days of Future Past first in this blog because it is perhaps the best example of what made this summer great. Films which were not guaranteed successes taking risks and showing ambition, and precisely because they did so, delivering a great end product.

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

It’s a damn shame that this film wasn’t more of a success than it was. It didn’t even break $100m in the U.S and only made $364m worldwide, off of a $178m budget. It’s not hard to pinpoint some of the reasons; it’s a film based on a little known in the west manga called All You Need Is Kill, with the Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers plot making it a challenge to market and it is the only film of the 6 I’ve highlighted that isn’t a sequel or adaptation.

The problem is there are so many reasons it should have been more popular.

There’s the central cast of Tom Cruise, delivering an entertainingly comic take on his action hero persona, starting off as a much more cowardly character than most he plays and Emily Blunt, clearly enjoying a fully fledged action role. Both are convincing in the action sequences while delivering reasonably complex, not always likable characters. I’m not a massive fan of Cruise, he’s delivered some great performances and films (Collateral, Minority Report and Interview with a Vampire standing out), but there’s also been a lot of generic action hero performances along the way. I am however a huge fan of Blunt, whether she’s in an action thriller (Adjustment Bureau) or low key drama (Your Sister’s Sister). Both are excellent in this and fully committed to the role so it’s a shame the film didn’t get the attention it deserved for them.

There’s the original concept, of an alien attack experienced over and over until Cruise’s character Lt. Col. Cage gets it right, an experience familiar to gamers everywhere. He has to learn when to fight, when to run and when to duck. The director Doug Liman has great fun with this element, adding a darkly comedic streak to otherwise excellently delivered action sequences. I have my issues with some of the decisions made by Liman, which I’d need a spoiler section to go into, but overall he does an excellent job of making an alien invasion movie feel fresh and original.

There’s some entertaining supporting work from the likes of Bill Paxton (who get’s arguably the best line of the whole film when he responds to an escape attempt from Cage), Brendon Gleeson and Noah Taylor.
The alien grunts themselves remind me of the Sentinels from the Matrix, refreshingly un-humanoid and are entirely believable as a species that would have the human races combined military power on the ropes.

It’s not one of the greatest films of all time by any stretch, but it deserved so much better than it got from the box office. It was a smarter, funnier and more exciting action thriller than most and it’s a damn shame that the studio will probably look at the return on their investment and lump for safer, established options in the future. It’s originality was perhaps it’s biggest asset and crippling flaw, which is not a promising indication for blockbusters in the future. Hopefully it will do well on home cinema options, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois)

For me, the first How To Train Your Dragon is the best non-Pixar animation of the last 20 years (I acknowledge that I need to give Miyazaki’s films a fair go before that statement carries a lot of weight). It had the heart, wonder and emotional clout that all the best animated films can capture. There was also a maturity to it, a sense of consequence sometimes lacking from all but the best films of the genre.

The sequel manages to capture much of the same sense of wonder and emotion while also feeling like a fitting progression. It’s darker (numerous interviews with DeBlois have touched upon the comparison between this and The Empire Strikes Back, for its potential thematic place in a trilogy) but remains kid friendly.

The influence of Roger Deakins as a consulting cinematographer is felt as much here as in the original, Dragons continues to be one of the most beautifully staged animations ever, with the flight sequences a particular delight. Disney defined how to do animated films well, Pixar embraced their approach and developed it, delivering more emotional depth and animated complexity, but with the Dragons series DreamWorks have set the standard for the epic within animation.

Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship develops naturally as both begin to mature and look outside of their own friendship. It’s a dynamic rarely realised more effectively and it’s complimented well throughout by themes of parenthood, responsibility and ambition.

I grew up with the Toy Story franchise and its growing maturity; I hope a lot of children are growing up dreaming of a dragon for a best friend.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)

Out of all the films I’ve featured in this post, it’s a testament to the achievement of Reeves and the team he’s assembled that a film which heavily focuses on a group of apes who primarily communicate via sign language are motion captured imagery, delivered perhaps the most intense, emotional performances of any of them. As a side note I’m trying to think of any big budget summer film that relied as heavily on subtitles as this does.

If Dawn’s success was purely down to the technical achievement in the realisation of the apes and their interactions it would still deserve a lot of credit. I’m not sure I’ve ever had to put so little effort in suspending disbelief for this kind of film and the initially staggering C.G.I is quickly accepted because it’s so incredibly executed. I’m fairly sure several of the key apes have more naturally expressive faces than I do.

The film is so much more than the technical though. It’s a top level action thriller, full of entertaining set pieces (a 360 degree spin on the top of a tank is up there with the best action sequences in recent years) and complex characters. The performances from the human cast are strong with Jason Clarke (who will appear as John Connor in next year’s Terminator film) and Gary Oldman presenting convincing, flawed individuals. The questions about the desire for survival and the uncomfortable truths it reveals about us are well handled, mirrored with great control between ape and human society.

It’s probably the most morally complex film out of the 6, because it takes the time to give even the villains of the piece solid motivations (“Human work” is one of the great lines of the year, delivered and animated with impressive conviction and complexity). Similar to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, it endorses the idea of peaceful collaboration without taking a simplistic view on the reality of that. I’m all for summer blockbusters venturing into the morally grey, the most interesting stories often reside there.

It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here, both in terms of plot and titles (Battle for the Planet of the Apes perhaps?), but the first two efforts have managed to largely erase memories of Burton and Wahlberg’s attempt.


Basically it’s been a great year in film for blockbusters and I’m practically giddy at the thought that next year could be even better.