Monday, 26 December 2016

Best and Worst of 2016 - Best Five Films

Well, we've covered the bad stuff already, so before another year comes to an end, let's have a look at some of the best movies the past 12 months had to offer...

#5 - Doctor Strange

The first MCU film to introduce a new character since Ant-Man, Doctor Strange features Bennedict Cumberbatch in the lead role doing an impressive American accent for a start, though I'm sure it's not too difficult for a star of his calliber. I digress; focusing on the main hero and his eventual exploration of the supernatural to cure his lifelong injuries, Doctor Strange is made more enjoyable thanks to a welcome change in tone and style from other recent MCU installments, and thankfully doesn't try and spend too much of it's time forcing other MCU references into the narrative in order to make it naught but an advertisement for the next Avengers ensemble.

Doctor Strange has the story to match it's compelling action sequences, and whilst is starts off at a pace that may seem a bit too fast and occasionally abrupt, this is a short lived issue and soon the film becomes just as focused on it's characters as it does it's stunning visual effects. The later acts of the film are where said visual effects truly evolve into something that's not only beautifully designed and rendered, but also unique in terms of style and variation. Mads Mikkelsen also shines as a threatening and likeable yet unlikeable villain - essential for such a major film of the genre, and this adds up to an exciting rivalry between him and our leading protagonist, and thus a story that's more and more exciting as it continues to unfold with new twists and turns.

#4 - Finding Dory

Finding Nemo was perhaps the Pixar film that, alongside The Incredibles, people have longed to see a sequel to the most - and upon it's announcement in 2014, hype for Finding Dory was as big as expected. The film now ranks as the highest grossing animated film in the US (before adjusting for inflation) and one of the highest earning worldwide. The story of course follows the origins of Dory, not only providing more info on her entry into the original film but also leading a new narrative to find her long lost family, whilst getting stranded in an aquarium on the way that turns out closer to home than initially thought.

Alongside trademark beautiful animation that you expect from Pixar, Finding Dory also has a clever and touching story that shows genuine effort went into crafting this sequel as far more than just fan service or a quick attempt to generate some easy profit. The newly developed backstory may slightly retcon events from the original film, but this doesn't feel forced or weaken the narrative of either this or the original, and what we get is a solid focus on Dory's history and a new adventure for her that develops her already loveable character in a thoughtful way. The new supporting characters are equally as entertaining, and whilst Marlyn and Nemo aren't as much in starring roles this time round, they're thankfully not shunted to one side and awkwardly ignored for the majority of the film, still playing important roles and feeling naturally integrated into the overall plot. Consequently, this again doesn't feel like cheap moneymaking tactics or mediocre fan service, but the thoughtful, passionate, and hilarious sequel that the original deserves.

#3 - Deadpool

Deadpool became quite possibly the most surprisingly successful film of the year with all expenses accounted for, earning over $700 million globally on a budget of just $58 million; not even it's adult certification and the fact that Deadpool isn't exactly the most well known superhero could prevent it from earning a gargantuan profit for Fox. With Ryan Reynolds in the lead role, Deadpool achieves a perfect balance of being an epic superhero flick and an equally hilarious fourth wall breaking comedy that doesn't hold back when it comes to many controversial jokes.

The story isn't too complex or overly obsessed with establishing more shared universe stuff, which is a refreshing change from recent films of the genre. Whilst it of course refers to it's neighbouring X-Men franchise and will contribute to it's development, it still focuses on the eponymous hero in a consistent and well paced manner, developing him as a likeable and, surprisingly, occasionally relatable hero that Reynolds handles with a fantastic performance. Alongside said humour, the film is also home to a number of exciting set pieces and some impressive effects considering it's significantly lower budget compared to most modern blockbusters, equating to a fast paced, exciting, and hilariously profane superhero experience.

#2 - Zootopia

Another surprising hit of the year, Zootopia topped $1 billion worldwide as it neared the end of it's theatrical run despite not being an adaptation or sequel of any sort; something that even animated films require a lot of the time to acquire such takings. The film takes place in the titular city inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, focusing on newly appointed police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and experienced con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and their unlikely partnership to overcome a mysterious criminal case.

To comment on the animation is, again, a samey sort of deal, as you expect nothing less from Disney these days - aside from the quality of the finished graphics and fludity of the character movements, what makes this film such a compelling visual treat is it's overall art design. Zootopia uses it's unique premise to create a world which is vibrant and witty when it comes to visual gags, but doesn't overdo it to the point where we simply watch modern technology references and nothing else. At it's core, the film boasts a clever and well paced story, unveiling a number of interesting twists that Disney have been known for in their recent animated hits. Such a story is further brought to life by some fantastic voicework, particularly from our aforementioned stars, and their equally well developed and relatable characters - adding up to another modern Disney classic that's entertaining for audiences of all ages.

#1 - The Jungle Book

This film was one of my highest reviewed back in April and my favourite when revising my 2016 anticipated list, and even now I have to keep it as my favourite film of the entire year. Once again, it turns out so good that it makes it hard for me to go back and enjoy the 1967 animated original - the story and many of the characters are reimagined with a new modern perspective, and one that manages to achieve the balance between being enjoyable for all demographics whilst also carrying some deeper themes and displaying some darker, more intense moments that the original never came close to having.

Of course, one of it's most compelling factors is the outstanding usage of CGI used to craft the main animal characters - this, again, isn't good just because of it's realistic appearance but also because of how much energy and personality these characters show, being more than just animals with moving mouths. Such an accolade is also achieved through the masterful vocal performances, prominently Ben Kingsley and Bill Murray in starring roles, and especially Idris Elba as villain Shere Kahn. Easily Disney's best live action effort by far, and quite possibly one of my favourite films of all time.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: This post has now been adapted into a video for the gaming channel ProjectFalconPunch! Check it out here!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Movie Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

With the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, the Star Wars franchise has launched to global fame even further (if possible) with new records set and new audiences reached - and this is only due to continue during the growth of the gargantuan franchise thanks to a wave of new stories based on the classic hits and the lesser appreciated yet still somewhat popular prequels. This time round, we jump back to a time between prequel Revenge of the Sith and it's narrative sequel, 1977's A New Hope, to explore the formation and crucial mission of the titular squadron and how it then influences the key plot elements of the main series.

Directed by the increasingly famous Gareth Edwards, known for work on 2014's Godzilla, the film focuses primarily on the fugitive Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who finds herself bargained into assistance for the Rebels due to her knowledge of the criminals they pursue and how to bring them in. During her quest, primarily joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), she finds herself discovering more sinister plans than initially expected and works hard alongside the newly dubbed Rogue One squadron to conquer them before lasting damage is done.

As a prequel made so late after the films surrounding it, Rogue One has to achieve the careful balance of nicely intertwining the characters and existing plot elements without adding unnecessary twists or manipulating the beloved storylines in a way that dismisses their original design from the original films - and thankfully this is achieved greatly for the most part. The story flows nicely and is simple enough to follow at times even for those who aren't serious fans of the franchise - this opens it up to a wider range of viewers and demonstrates stronger effort from the writing/directing side of things as a whole. The story is also brought to life by some great performances - whilst Jones is a little bland sometimes in her lead role, the character is still interesting to watch, which can be said as well for Luna as Cassian Andor. However, perhaps the key performers are Ben Mendelsohn as key antagonist Orson Krennic and Alan Tudky as brilliantly charming comic relief K-S20.

With the usual big budget and, well, being a Star Wars film, you can't expect bad special effects - and that's proven correct from the get go. The CGI visuals craft some fantastic set pieces and alien characters, and is especially impressive when generating the likeness of Peter Cushing on stunt actors to recreate the classic villain Governor Tarkin - it's of course quite noticeable at times next to actual people, but still incredibly well composed when it comes to the level of detail in almost every aspect. Perhaps the key flaw is the initial pacing, where the film jumps between locations at a very rapid pace and seems more keen at times on showing storm troopers getting knocked down more than in bringing more story elements to fruition; similarly, the final set piece finds itself being a whee bit too long. Whilst it's epic and full of some amazing moments, all brought to life with stunning visuals, it ends up becoming a little repetitive and dragged out for no solid purpose other than to shove action in your face - which does get tiresome. That aside, Rogue One finds itself being another impressive entry to Disney's reintroduced Star Wars series, and should this level of quality keep up, some more good stuff will be on the way.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Best and Worst of 2016 - Worst Five Films

Another year, another lineup of great movies and some equally crappy ones. I found myself underwhelmed with many of my most anticipated films this year and devastated beyond comprehension over ones that I knew would be bad, but not as bad as they truly turned out to be. Before we review the good stuff, let's have a glance over the worst that cinema had to offer this year.

...of course there's probably a lot worse overall than what follows, but I'm not gonna waste my time seeing laughable nonsense like Norm of the North, so bear (haha) that in mind...

#5 - The BFG

One of the biggest box office flops of the year, The BFG grossed little over $178 million on a colossal $140 million budget, despite being an adaptation of a fairly popular kids story and being directed by filmmaking legend Steven Spielberg. Perhaps a crowded summer schedule and dwindling interest in said popular tale contributed to such a failure, but I have to say despite generally positive feedback from critics, it doesn't quite offer the same fun, heartwarming experience of the animated original - mainly due to it's bloated run time, lack of depth to it's characters, and extremely abrupt ending. I found myself literally almost falling asleep during certain scenes out of pure boredom and losing interest in the plot the more it went on, begging for it to stop stalling and just wrap up. While not offensively terrible in any way, and certainly admirable when it comes to it's CGI effects and Mark Rylance's decent performance in the leading role, the main issue is that it's just so overlong and sluggish that watching it feels like a true challenge at times.

#4 - Suicide Squad

An interesting superhero flick from DC that features their most popular villains in the starring roles, Suicide Squad was one of my most anticipated films of the year, despite me not being a very big fan of DC overall. This wasn't just down to an interesting concept but also some great looking performances from a talented cast and amazing aesthetics. Sadly, the end result, as I've said several times before, was nothing short of a letdown. Suicide Squad is a poorly directed mess for the most part, thanks to a general inability to focus on any key characters from it's ensemble lineup and balance their impact within the overall narrative - as a result, the story jumps between them at sporadic moments, leaves some completely unattended to and thus forgotten in many scenes, and the less said about Jared Leto's performance as the Joker the better. Whilst he looked pretty cool in the various trailers and marketing material, he simply finds himself shoved to one side with no real purpose aside from showing up occasionally to act crazy - with fairly irritating results. Despite some great box office earnings, the film ends up being a mediocre disappointment at very best.

#3 - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Man of Steel was released to generally solid feedback from fans and some promising albeit frontloaded box office takings, meaning a sequel was always bound to happen - not only that, but the film marked the debut of DC's shared comicbook movie universe, similar to the evergrowing MCU. This anticipated sequel marks the first time Superman and Batman have appeared together in their own movie, and despite some good looking trailers among other things, the eventual release didn't fulfill expectations - thanks to poor reviews from critics and fans and fairly mediocre box office results considering it's enormous debut, with it's opening weekend in the US accounting for literally 50% of it's entire domestic gross.

I've waffled on about this movie so many times, both in my review and my retrospect of this year's most anticipated movies, so I can only really regurgitate the same points - it's bloated, boring, overwhelmed with too many daft plot threads and strange contrivances, and clearly rushed from start to finish in every respect outside of production design. It's got some superb special effects, and I was quite fond of Ben Affleck's performance as Batman considering the poor material to work with, but this can't make up for the ludicrously bad plot and the fact that Cavill's performance as Superman is much weaker than in Man of Steel - this only covers a fraction of the film's flaws. The DC universe is poised to fail if these movies continue being pumped out without proper effort put into them.

#2 - The Neon Demon

Yawn...wait, what the hell? Omg wtf. Ugh god. Ugh...boring...wait, jesus. That's messed up.

Sums up my thoughts during this movie. As boring as it is weird, The Neon Demon is a film that's not for the faint of heart - featuring some sporadic violence, bizarre sexual content, and a rather disturbing final act. This intensity, however, fails to truly grab audience attention in a positive manner, instead just making us wish we were watching something that wasn't endlessly trying to freak us out without crafting it's strange obsessions into a decent overall narrative. Whilst Elle Fanning gives a solid albeit occasionally bland performance in the lead role, and Jena Malone particularly shines as deuteragonist Ruby at times, it's not enough to redeem the messy storyline which, again, is more keen on displaying unsettling content rather than conveying any emotional impact or interesting ideas. What we're left with is a film that's hard to truly discuss in depth without spoiling - but rest assured, I found myself only prevented from dozing off due to the unwanted intensity of it's freaky moments; thus I then felt nothing but a strong desire to forget what I just saw and never bother with it again.

#1 - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Not just the worst film of 2016 but easily one of the worst films I've ever seen, this sequel to 2014's fairly shitty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is nothing more than a passionless cash grab that lacks a human touch and genuine interest when it comes to direction and writing. The story is not only formulaic but ravaged with plot holes and insulting oversights which further prove that this was all pieced together brainlessly so that it could be rushed into cinemas as soon as possible. It's obsessed with rude gags that are painfully unfunny, many of which stem from the idiotic villains who, despite their great reputation in the original franchise, are rendered as naught but complete imbeciles - it's evident the creators had even less appreciation for the source material this time round and the final result is a film that's offensive, boring, and incredibly painful to watch for both passionate fans of the series and general audiences who know little about it.

And with a weak $245 million in worldwide earnings on a $135 million budget, this is another fine example of why pumping out sequels as soon as you can is seldom a good idea.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Movie Review - Moana

Disney's ongoing modern renaissance reached new heights once more with the release of Zootopia earlier this year, and while it's opening box office figures may not be as colossal as the studio's biggest hits, the fantasy adventure Moana looks poised to continue such success without difficulty. Directed by Disney icons John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules), this latest animated hit tells the story of the eponymous princess (Auli'i Cravalho) and her journey across the ocean alongside the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), after being chosen for an important mission by the sea itself before the incoming darkness dominates her homeland and everywhere around it.

Moana feels like a traditional Disney film from the get go but with the addition of modern animated trademarks - mainly in terms of it's humour and visual style, the latter of course is most evident as a key highlight. The animation is truly beautiful throughout, displaying a number of remarkable lighting techniques in the oceanic sequences, both in the night and day, which yields some truly stunning end results. Characters remain as fluently animated and lively designed as ever - you'd expect nothing less from Disney at this stage, and they certainly stay true to their reputation here. The same impact is also felt when it comes to music - the songs we'll get to later, but it has to be said that the score by Mark Mancina (Tarzan, Brother Bear) among other snippits of music by other contributors (namely the short intro by Olivia Foa'i) help further cement viewers in the atmosphere of this beautifully crafted setting.

When it comes to the overall story, Moana is generally exciting and engaging, and it's admirable that it manages to keep us hooked throughout despite some limitations within it's setting and cast. Moana herself is one of Disney's most well fleshed out protagonists, and it's clear plenty of effort was made to make her more diverse from past Disney princesses - she's funny, courageous, relatable in some ways, and her chemistry with Maui is generally well developed; the two not only share a number of hilarious comedic sequences but also form a visible emotional bond as the story goes on that feels natural and realistic, in spite of some contrivances and random moments. While Dwayne Johnson's vocal performance is without a doubt funny, passionate, and very entertaining, it's the performance from 16 year old Auli'i Cravalho that will win over most audiences - not only when it comes to general acting but especially her singing. The majority of the songs themselves are just as memorable as they are enjoyable, but the singing performance by Cravalho are most notably vibrant and incredibly passionate, making the primary How Far I'll Go the movie's best song by a mile for sure. 

Whilst the narrative is great for the most part, it of course can't be without flaws - these occur when it comes to moments of pacing and general plot development, and are mainly linked to Maui himself. Whilst he is likeable to watch and brilliantly voiced by Dwayne Johnson once again, his backstory isn't as fleshed out as it should be, thus making certain revelations about his overall character arc a little underwhelming and somewhat generic - similar things can be said for some last minute contrivances as we near the film's climax, though these don't have so much of a negative impact. In spite of this, there is much to enjoy in Disney's latest release when it comes to all the key categories - from visuals to music to humour to overall storytelling. Said disappointing flaws can be frustrating given the potential they have stripped away in some sections, but Moana remains another thoroughly enjoyable hit from the house of mouse that once again proves they have still not lost any of their magic.

Monday, 5 December 2016

RETROSPECT - Most Anticipated Films of 2016

You know the drill - I started the year with a list of my most anticipated movies, and now having seen the final one on the list (Fantastic Beasts) just over a week ago, it's time to go back and rank the movies in again in terms of their overall quality - and see how it compares to my initial expectations...

#5 - Suicide Squad

The second highest on my list at the beginning of the year, Suicide Squad seemed like it had loads of potential for a great outcome based on the concept itself, let alone the promising trailers. Many highlighted Jared Leto as the Joker which, even if it couldn't surpass Ledger's performance, seemed equally promising and interesting for one of the central villains in antihero based narrative.

Sadly, much like this year's DC Universe hit Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad turned out to be an overlong, boring, and incredibly underwritten misery from beginning to end. Whilst it's cast was promising and it's visual effects as impressive as ever, the main weaknesses, as detailed in my review, is simply how it's script lacks a complex enough story to justify it's bloated run time; consequently, we're burdened by many dull scenes that have no real purpose aside from trying to extend the film's length or trying (and failing) to generate some excitement without any narrative context. Leto's main role, while seemingly promising in the trailers, turned out to be naught but him acting crazy now and then with little development to his overall character, and thus the result was incredibly forgettable - which can be said about the entire film itself. And that's putting it nicely.

#4 - Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

The near bottom of my most anticipated list but still a film I was eager to see, Fantastic Beasts initially looked like a desperate attempt to harvest more profit from the concluded Harry Potter series, with it's source material having no storyline whatsoever and thus being an odd choice for a blockbuster adaptation. However, with Rowling herself penning the script, a great cast, and some very promising trailers, the film looked more and more exciting and refreshing as it's release date came ever closer.

But, much like Suicide Squad in some ways, Fantastic Beasts cannot generate a narrative meaningful enough to justify it's 2+ hour run time - as a result, we're once again overwhelmed by many scenes that feel wholly unnecessary. The same can be said for some the supporting characters (and weak villain), several of which are largely uninteresting and experience strange shifts in their overall motivations to the convenience of the plot, often making them hard to engage with or even find likeable. Rowling is also grossly obsessed with injecting more and more political nonsense into her story which, while great for making the world as believable and genuine as possible, starts to tempt you into sleepiness when all you hear is political jargon in such a promising fantasy setting. Good in terms of aesthetics, but I was won over by little else, and left majorly disappointed.

#3 - The BFG

In hindsight, I'm not sure why this one was on my list - because with all the other big movies coming out in 2016, I think there were plenty of other choices that could've outmatched it. Still, Disney's live action retellings of not only their famous animated hits but also classic fairy tales in general have impressed audiences greatly for the most part, and so this one looked like it could be another contribution to such success - especially with the acclaimed Steven Spielberg appointed as director.

But The BFG is...jesus, ONCE AGAIN, a movie that is far too long for it's own good. It's storyline suits a much shorter, leaner project, but this film drags it out with simple scenes that are stretched uncomfortably long and some which serve no purpose whatsoever. The characters are fairly thin for the most part, even the eponymous giant played reasonably well by Mark Rylance, and especially the generic giant villains. The ending also feels incredibly abrupt, though perhaps I didn't complain much when the boredom finally came to a much needed conclusion - as things went on and on, I could literally feel my eyes closing, and endured an ongoing struggle to pay attention. Definitely one of Spielberg's worst, and again, a saddening letdown.

#2 - Zootopia

It's only now we've started to get to the good movies at last. Originally at number 3 on the list, Zootopia impressed me greatly upon release, and I'm not the only one who would make such a claim - for it became an even bigger hit than anticipated, with over $1 billion in box office revenue and critical acclaim from reviewers all around. Disney have definitely used this brilliantly unique concept in the best way possible, making a film that's funny and heartwarming, and not one just obsessed with making modern technical pop culture gags - something I was very anxious about at first glance.

The film's themes of acceptance and prejudice are well conveyed without being patronising, and it's story remains appealing and engaging for all ages. The focus on solving a mystery keeps us hooked throughout, pieced together in a way that makes it's development and outcome not too obvious yet never too complex, once again making the film approachable for all kinds of audiences. There's of course a great lineup of talents in the cast, namely Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin in their starring roles, but also the likes of Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons in small but highly entertaining supporting roles, among many others. The animation is just what you'd expect from Disney in their recent resurgence - clean, colourful, and incredibly energetic, making for a film's that as lovely to look as it is engaging to follow.

#1 - The Jungle Book

The film that garnered the top spot of my most anticipated list finds itself untouched - for this year's The Jungle Book is easily one of Disney's finest live action films to date, and a masterful retelling of the 1967 animated original. Featuring all the beloved characters but bringing them into a plot far more complex and exciting than it's animated source material, this live action remake becomes an engaging and emotionally resonant watch from start to finish, and one that is upheaved even further by it's absolutely outstanding CGI effects.

Said effects used to craft the animal characters are more than just aesthetically convincing - they still manage to make these realistic animals appear lively and capture their emotions with beautiful attention to detail. This allows them to be far more than bears or tigers with moving mouths, but characters who are highly entertaining to watch and believable across many aspects. The cast, as I've said many times, is just as amazing - featuring the likes of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, and Christopher Walken - all of whom play their roles brilliantly, even if some are less impactful than others, and it must be said Neel Sethi does an equally impressive job with Mowlgi when one considers he essentially had to pretend to talk to all of these characters during initial filming. The reimaginings of the classic songs are all here to and, while some may find them a little out of sync with the context of some scenes, they remain thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. Definitely one of the best films of the year - so good it makes it hard for me to go back and truly enjoy the original in comparison.

Thanks for reading!