Cinema in the summer of 2017

Cinema in the summer of 2017 has taken us in many different directions. We’ve had not one but two Vietnam War-themed simian features. Wonder Woman dispelled an age-old Hollywood prejudice against women fronting blockbusters. And the biggest box office smash of the summer (in the UK at least) was set in a time when your grandfather was just a youth. As always, there were more sequels than true originals, as with so much money invested into their biggest movies, studios are aware that they cannot afford to have a box office flop on their hands. They feel, and not entirely irrationally, that audiences want the comfort of familiarity rather than the thrill of originality. But while totally new ideas are still in short supply, we have at least moved into an era in which sequels add something to stories whilst developing characters, and the films are not just tacked-on franchise fillers.



Just before summer kicked off, Logan threw down a steel-clawed gauntlet to the movies that would follow, with an unusually gritty take on the superhero movie. This was less a film about heroics, and more a film about pain, punishment and withering strength. It was a much needed reality check for an X-men series which had become ludicrously overblown after last year’s X-Men Apocalypse; although this had more in common with an apocalyptic Western than a comic book-based blockbuster. The rules had changed: superheroes could get hurt. With that came a thrilling sense of vulnerability to house-hold heroes like Wolverine and Professor X. Deadpool made adult-themed superheroes commercially viable; the visceral and extremely dark Logan has now set a new template for the superhero movie. Watch your backs, superheroes, you may be in for a world of pain.


King Kong Skull Island

King Kong has had many different incarnations in his eighty year cinematic history, but he has never been depicted as a metaphor for the struggles in the Vietnam conflict – until this summer. He has always been one of the most sympathetic movie monsters, since he is a great beast attacked in his homeland by invading forces who want to exploit him. This time the invading forces were American soldiers of fortune and mercenaries returning after the end of the Vietnam War. Both thematically and metaphorically, Kong Skull island found a lot of inspiration from this conflict, or more accurately, the great body of work made about the Vietnam War – most noticeably Apocalypse Now. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts tips his hat to Coppola’s masterpiece so many times – even borrowing that iconic ‘helicopters at sunset shot’. It is such strange territory for the great ape god to be in, that it actually feels radically different to the generic Kong remake expected. There isn’t really justification for the American military antagonizing Kong with their technology, so the scene in which Kong swats away heavily armed helicopters like you would bat away annoying insects, frames him as rightfully sympathetic. You want to bang the armrest with a kong worthy display of emotion in reaction to the scene. It’s a thrilling set-piece, one of many in the film. It would appear that the American military with all their technology had underestimated the force of nature that is Kong, and thus a clever metaphor for the struggles of the Vietnamese against invading American forces was born: Viet Kong – indeed.


Alien Covenant

Ridley Scott re-invented the B movie creature feature with Alien; he then went on to totally transform how we perceived A.I with Blade Runner. A lot of people cannot fathom why he has shown a desire this century to revisit his masterpieces and expand the world with Alien prequels and a Blade Runner sequel. Yes, an argument could be made as to why adding new chapters to his films jeopardizes the legacy of the originals – just look at what has happened to the Terminator series for a case study of the risks of re-opening seemingly completed film sagas. Ridley Scott has risked his reputation on his decision to revisit Alien territory; and the backlash he received might be one of the reasons why he only takes an executive producer role in the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel. I believe though that his motives are not financially driven and are more to do with the fact that we are now 17 years into the 21st century; we are closer than ever before to the timelines in which the Alien films and Blade Runner are set.

From a creature feature standpoint, there isn’t much that the new Alien movie can do visually with the monster that doesn’t diminish the threat of Dan O’Bannon’s original terrifying designs. However, there was always a lot more going on in the Alien movies than B movie monster threats. The films also explored man’s desire to colonize more than one planet and future A.I’s potential ability to blend with humanity and how a man made life-form would perceive humans after achieving superior consciousness. Both Alien and Blade Runner have shown that Ridley’s key theme has always been about how A.I could evolve. Since we now live in a world in which A.I is beginning to get closer to the level predicting in sci-fi, particularly, Scott’s sci-fi, it is understandable that Ridley would want to reboot his visions. In terms of it’s depiction of A.I and the overall central quest to colonize space, this second Alien prequel adds a great deal. In the original Alien, the mystery of where the Xenomorph came from was never dealt with, which is one of the reasons why it was so terrifying. Purists will claim that any attempt to flesh out their origins will detract from the mystery and some people will hate Alien Covenant for what it does. Personally, I think it adds even more threat and intent to the creature, whilst tying two different themes in the Alien universe together quite cleverly. This feels less like a scripted afterthought and more like a film that provides the lost strand of DNA. The explanation given for where the Xenomorphs came from makes more narrative sense than anything else that would attempt to fill in the murky lack of explanation in the Alien origin story. Ridley’s decision to make the story about Michael Fassbender’s David, was the best directorial decision he made here. In the originals, the A.I played a supporting role; in Covenant, A.I is in the narrative driving seat. David is a mesmerising character and his attitude towards creativity makes for a fascinating sci-fi. The many detractors of the film have allowed anger to blind them from seeing the inventiveness of some of the scenes. The scene in which David eerily communicates the importance of the creative mindset to a character, whilst making a penny-whistle threatening, is both creepy and poetic. In the seventies and eighties, sci-fi was asking questions like: could A.I pass as human? Could it be capable of emotion or reasoned thought? Would it threaten us? Now sci-fi is asking questions that reach to answer how much more intellectually sophisticated, artistically superior, socially advanced and cerebral powerful AI could become. Alien Covenant can be added to a list of films, including, Her and Ex-Machina, in making a rebooted statement about where A.I could be going now the science is beginning to erode the fiction of Artificial Intelligence.


Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2

Guardians of the Galaxy delighted audiences a few summers ago with it’s kooky charm and spirited comedy. The sequel was at a disadvantage to the original though, as the first’s colorful adventure was a Galaxy apart from anything else around. This time people new what to expect, but that allowed director James Gunn to be even more off the wall with his story-telling. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 was like a vibrant, kaleidoscopic seventies album cover come to life. For more evidence, take a look at that outrageously offbeat opening set-piece that saw the lovable heroes fighting a monster on the front of what looked like the UFO off ELO’s into the blue LP. It was a sequence that was even sound-tracked by ELO’s Mr Blue Sky – a track of course that features on that very album. As this is a franchise that is firstly playing for laughs and comedic absurdity, with an aim to tell a story, with it’s tongue firmly in its cheek, it has a lot more license to be playful and fun. The more absurd the story became, the more far-out an alien it all seemed. The comic interplay was parred with some surprising character development as certain aliens became likeably more human. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 delivered another refreshing dose of mad-cap cosmic comedy.


Wonder Woman

For years, Hollywood had silently displayed its prejudice against women by being too afraid to allow a female superhero to front a blockbuster. You can blame Catwoman for this prejudice solidifying, as the Halle Berry-fronted feline-themed theatrics in that film did not exactly have either audiences or critics purring. Consequently, Hollywood assumed that this was due to a female lead and not due to a shoddily-constructed story and a cruddier script than three month old cat litter. The box office success of Wonder Woman, a female directed and fronted blockbuster, has sent the studios a strong message that their prejudice was unfounded. Wonder Woman has made studio chiefs eat a considerable amount of humble pie. This summer, Wonder Woman may have also saved D.C from getting a knock-out punch from Marvel. She tagged in when both Batman and Superman were brought to their knees by each other via the leaden Batman Versus Superman. She was an utterly likable superhero, with a feisty spirit, a strong sense of ethics and a charming innocence. The opening, set in a Xena Warrior Princess-like fantasy world, was like nothing in the modern D.C or Marvel world. D.C films, which have veered from turgid and dull to vapid and inconsequential of late, came up with a story that didn’t just entertain, but contained a charming screenplay that managed to have a social commentary mocking the chauvinistic attitudes of a male-dominated world. The comedy, which saw stuffy, middle-aged white men consistently try to put Wonder Woman in the same restrictive little box they put over women, could even be read as a satire of a similar attitude that stops female superheroes breaking out into their own films in Hollywood.

The period setting of World War 2 added lots of bold new directions for a comic book movie too. Since Wonder Woman could not know about the destructive, self-defeating wars of men, her incredulity at what she saw captured something of the senselessness of war. Watching feeble little white men try to patronise a character closer to a god than a mortal was very amusing. When she burst out of her disguise and literally broke across no man’s land in a scene that gleefully undermined the threat of Nazi barracks, the film felt genuinely euphoric as we willed her to show what she could do. Yes, the film’s third act was majorly flawed with the film gravitating back to the same path of fiery destruction that defines the ending of all, Zack Snyder styled D.C films, a formula that numbs more than thrills. You would have expected Ares, the Greek God of War to be a worthy adversary to Wonder Woman, but here he was comically miscast. Wonder Woman by then had done enough to win over audiences. The film had box office stamina and since Hollywood will always allow money to erase long time prejudice, we can suspect Wonder Woman has broken down the barricades for other female superheroes to follow.


Spider-Man Homecoming

When Sony announced that they wanted to re-brand and recast Spider-Man for a third time this century, the movie world groaned. It was almost as if Sony raised its hand in anticipation of the outrage and said, ‘well hear us out. What if we do it without the spider bite backstory? What if we drop the emotional baggage from Uncle Ben’s inevitable demise? What if we subvert Spider-Man’s mantra with great power comes great responsibility? How about irresponsibility?’ We all went; ‘let’s see what that would look like’. As it turned out, those creative decisions are what turned one of the seemingly most creatively bankrupt decisions in comic book history, to a film that was more fun, breezy, entertaining and closer to the comics than Spidey had ever been before. Taking a leaf out of the Josh Trank Chronicle, this was a depiction of an ordinary teen, who wasn’t sure if he could handle all the extra power and thrillingly let it get out of control on more than one occasion. Having the narrative start shortly after Spider-Man’s exploits in the last Avengers saga, was one of many inspired story directions. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was buzzing with the same enthusiasm and energy that we might have had we gotten to swing out and fight alongside Ironman and company. That youthful exuberance freshened up than web-slingers adventures, and allowed for a film that fizzed with wit and humour.




War for the Planet of the Apes

It is one of the greatest twist endings of all time – an ending that shakes your world in the most literal way possible, but the thing about The original Planet of the Apes finale is that it creates more questions than it answers. Questions like: (Original Apes spolier alert)…. If this isn’t on a parallel planet, then how exactly did Apes evolve to speak? Why did humans lose both the power of intelligence and speech?

It’s because of questions like these that this modern apes franchise is one of the most justifiable trilogies in cinema history. With the question of how the apes evolved covered in the earlier films, this concluder was free to offer explanation as to how humans lost control to such a spectacular degree. It offers a believable and credible answer to decades-old lingering questions in a film that really broke the cinema trend of weaker third installments. We’ve been comfortable enough with the science-fiction of talking apes in this franchise thanks in part to some revolutionary effects work and also some underrated acting by an actor who has made simian behavior method acting: Andy Serkis. It is no longer wondrous for us to see fully believable talking apes; this is a good thing as it allows us to immerse ourselves in the characters and the compelling dynamics between the leading ape figures, without distracting thoughts like: oh aren’t the effects marvelous? As a result, this film took us deeper into the question of the Apes films have explored: ‘would apes be better equipped to live in harmony with each other than humans? The idea of talking, socially connected apes has been given such credulity over this franchise that the film stylistically was allowed to move from the realm of science-fiction into that of a character-driven Western. The frost-bitten environment and sweeping photography gave the film a really believable western feel, whilst the central theme was about how the unquenchable thirst for revenge corrupts the soul.

It is somewhat bizarre that there have been not one but two Apocalypse Now-themed Apes movies. I thought the influence of Coppola’s War opus, added interesting dimensions to both Kong: Skull Island and War for the Planet of the Apes. Woody Harrelson, playing a colonel character who seems to be an absolute descendant of Kurtz, was a divisive character. I thought it gave Serkis’ Caesar a focal point and personality to spectacularly clash with. The always excellent Harrelson provided an interesting character that balanced out his genocidal power trip with a philosophy on the future of humanity that made some sense. There was a lot more depth to his character than one-dimensional evil. The film had a good sense of humour too to balance out the weighty drama. Steve Zhan’s Bad Ape may have had an impossible back-story but he sure did provide some great comic moments. It also had a really satisfying conclusion that provided the err, missing link to the seventies original.



Young people in the UK grow up with at least a vague sense that our freedom and existence can be attributed to all the young men who put their lives on the line in WW2. The events of Dunkirk represent a time when those men were at their most vulnerable. The compelling true story of Dunkirk is extremely unappealing from a Hollywood perspective, as it doesn’t have the potential for a focal point of individual heroism. The men stranded on Dunkirk beach were all in a state of heightened fear and anxiety – in which survival rather than heroism was the defining mindset. It is a tremendous tribute to Christopher Nolan that he could get a very British war story on screen done with a very British sense of humility, but with the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster. In the UK, it has had considerable staying power at the box office as it has crossed generations who have been brought emotionally closer to the stories that were previously handed down through the word of those who lived through the Nazi threat. But the greatest endorsement that the film has received, is that it has moved to tears some of the now elderly veterans who experienced Dunkirk first hand.

Since the story has been done with the greatest sense of authenticity and realism, it is as close as cinema has ever come to taking audiences to the front-line in World War 2. Dunkirk is an unconventional war film since the majority of men depicted were in enemy territory, but without weapons. The heightened sense of danger and looming catastrophe run all the way through the film, intensified by Hans Zimmer’s pulsating, and gut-churning score. The film was a technical marvel – a film that simultaneously gave you the perspective from land, sea and air –suggesting how all three fronts were united in an up hill battle. Yet the film felt entirely grounded in reality and genuine human perspective on a seemingly doomed scenario.

It feels like a living piece of history, but one that strategically provides more questions than answers. You either bring the historical knowledge to it, or you take Nolan up on the homework assignment he sets audiences unaware of the events of Dunkirk. Nolan strategically doesn’t provide any context for why exactly so many British and French forces were stranded without the means to defend themselves against Nazi bombers – this actually heightens the sense of peril and threat since audiences are not fully aware of what scale of Nazi threat these men are currently facing as, for large parts, Nazi threat remains terrifyingly anonymous.

It brings the emotional and psychological reality of what the men faced and Nolan has done it in a way where those unaware of the historical context will definitely feel compelled to pick up a history book and fill in the blanks that are deliberately left in mystery. Dunkirk is the cinematic experience of the summer a brilliantly realistic war film that leaves its audience suitably drained and shaken up, while reflecting on this particular chapter of the second world war from a renewed perspective of understanding of what the men faced.



The Emoji Movie

It seemed that the critics were sharpening their knives ready to sacrifice The Emoji Movie to represent all that is wrong with modern cinema, way before the film had even been released. Few films this summer have been savagely torn apart as much as this one. It is easy to find fault with the film. It does shamelessly rip-off many inventive family films of the last few years: Inside Out and Wreck-it Ralph are practically mined for inspiration. Plus, since the film took place entirely in a smart phone, there were some horribly crass product placements for apps that do not need any extra promotion. However, there is some much needed attempt in the film to satirize the whole culture of emoticons. It seemed to me that a lot of critics allowed themselves to be swayed by the anger they had built up about something as silly as emoticons being used to sustain a film. The film had quite a nice involving little plot-line about a character labelled meh against his will who yearns to express himself and show the world how much passion he has inside. Be less meh is quite a useful message to direct at teenagers who think the height of cool is total indifference. I thought the little yellow guy was one of the most sympathetic characters in a film this summer; his journey was quite charming, amusing and even kind of moving. Break out of your little box is always a great message – plus it counterbalanced the vibes elsewhere in the film that seem to endorse staying in a box of another kind – the smartphone.

So, critics – come on, since it’s based on emoticons, they got quite a lot of plot out of something for something as seemingly unsupportive of cinematic narrative. A lot of what you are saying about this film is churlish and unfair. Yes, there are poo gags in the film and usually poo gags are clear signs of scraping the bottom of the barrel – critics love to criticize a bit of toilet humour. But the poo character in this was suave and well-spoken – it is played by Patrick Stewart after all – and as a result the poo gags were funny. Plus, the film had an absolutely laugh out loud gag about what emoticons have done to punctuation; that joke has made me chuckle every time I have thought about it. Critics of all people should hail such a gag.

Overall, summer 2017 in cinema was not the best ever, but pretty colorful and it provided hours of spectacular entertainment and at least one film that will be topping end of year best of lists and challenging for accolades come awards season. Cinema in summer 2017 was way above meh then.


Kong: Skull Island

KongKong: Skull Island

If you’ve seen the poster for this latest return to the big screen for cinema’s most famous simian, you will have probably noted that it has more than a passing resemblance to scenes from Apocalypse Now. While watching Kong: Skull Island, you will need a tally system to record just how many times director Jordan Vogt-Roberts tips his hat to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. He clearly has a lot of affection for the cinematic stylings of other Vietnam war movies too. The question is, what’s King Kong doing in a film that looks more like a Vietnam War movie than a big blockbuster? Did the director misinterpret what the studio meant when they asked him to make a movie about the Viet Cong? Yep, this is Viet Kong country -like we have never seen it before.

What is surprising is that it’s a bold genre splice that strangely works. As the cinematic styles are so unlikely for a big creature feature, you are inclined to go along with it. Director Vogt-Roberts made a great little film called Kings of Summer about a group of children who yearn to escape into nature; this might seem a huge step up from his debut, but he retains the spirit of his original film. This has the same sense of wonder at the natural world and a similar sense of adventure to his organic debut. We have a young enthusiastic director here who is trying to create that old Jules Verne storybook sense of imagining Lost Worlds with gargantuan prehistoric creatures – there is something about that that is always going to be infectious.

The opening of the story clearly takes its cue from Gareth Edwards recent Godzilla makeover. We meet a crack-pot scientist, (John Goodman) trying to secure funding for an exhibition to a mysterious island shrouded in allegedly impenetrable, perpetual storm systems. He claims there may be something undiscovered within. He rounds up a motley crew of mainly soldiers returning from the Vietnam War and heads to the island. He was right, there is something there on Skull Island; King Kong lives there and he doesn’t live there alone….

If we must have all the old movie monsters paraded out for a special effects make-overs, then it’s good that we can have them made by young directors, who are cine-literate and are eager to prove that they can retain the magic of their small features when directing massive studio event movies. I’m sure Vogt-Roberts was fighting creativity-hampering studio execs like Kong fights a plethora of monsters. He must have won a lot of his battles though, as Kong: Skull Island leaves an impression.

First up, he displays his knowledge of seventies cinema with an opening that sees an American and a Japanese soldier crash land on an island in a sequence straight out of John Boorman’s excellent alternative Second World War movie Hell and the Pacific. It typifies the film’s uncanny knack of using old film references to tell a familiar story, but in a very different fashion.

The director seems to favour a cinematic style that allows the audience to savour the beauty of the world within and you are allowed to soak up the action. It has a sense of awe in regard to its creatures that is reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The usually frenzied editing style of blockbusters is pleasingly absent – the director instead takes a more refreshing approach: long takes that circulate around the action and focus on the detail help make the set-pieces enthralling.

As helicopters approach the island basked in an orange sunset, the excitement the director must have had about making his own tribute to the flight of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now is palpable. It’s done with such a hypnotic beauty that when King Kong makes his startling appearance it is almost a big surprise.

The set-pieces are excellent and there is time to breathe between each one. It isn’t just a long chain of unrelenting action. The film settles down frequently, allowing mood and suspense to build, as a group venture through the jungle with a sense of trepidation about what could be lurking within the trees.

King Kong always had a lot more character than most movie monsters. There was always another side to his personality than just sheer brute strength. As Vogt-Roberts is not afraid to show Kong, we get to see little touches that bring him to life. The original stop-motion puppeteers who slaved away to make the original King Kong the beguiling masterpiece that it remains to be today, would smile in approval if they got to see how Kong has been realized here.

The main reason why Kong Kong works in the style of a Vietnam War movie is because they have found an allegorical connection between the fiction and the non-fiction. Kong’s territory is invaded by the U.S military who are reckless and willing to use all sorts of destructive methods in the natural world, whilst underestimating their opponent; there’s no doubt who the real aggressor is. It’s a metaphor that really works. The script is peppered with clever references to the Vietnam War; underground tunnels and mass graves are referenced as plot-points, but we really know what the director means under the surface. We also get not one but two versions of Dennis Hopper’s war photographer from Apocalypse Now. Brie Larson represents the more conventional side of Hopper’s character, a war photographer who is snap happy in the heat of action, and John C. Reilly represents the more crazed eccentric side of Hooper’s persona. Reilly brings the comic relief, but seems a plausible Robinson Crusoe type character rather than a crazed wacko, with a backstory that works surprisingly well. Oh, and if there was any doubt as to the Apocalypse Now influence then Tom Hiddleston’s character should clear that up: he’s called Conrad as in Heart of Darkness author, Joseph Conrad.

There are missteps of course. The director wants to create a tribal mythology around Kong, but doesn’t really know how to make it believable; Peter Jackson’s Kong remake did this aspect of the story far more vividly. The director again takes his influence from Apocalypse Now here, with vacant-looking tribes people who do nothing more than passively stare. The film is reaching for a spiritualism but it comes across as superficial. The lizard monsters are a bit silly too; their unnaturalness leaves you yearning for a good Kong versus T-Rex showdown, but I guess Peter Jackson gobbled them up in his version. The story also engineers less than convincing plot-points to keep the crew in the heart of the jungle, with characters coming up with tenuous reasons to head towards danger – looking at you, Samuel L. Jackson’s character.

It’s not a good Vietnam War movie without a popping seventies rock and roll soundtrack; Kong: Skull Island gets the jukebox pumping on this front. For some though, the references to Vietnam War movies may reach overkill, landing the film in pastiche.

If you’ve ever wondered what a Vietnam War movie would look like with monsters then Kong Skull Island is the blockbuster for you. 6.9/10

The Top 10 Films of 2016

anomalisa10. Anomalisa

Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had screenplays that were so refreshingly imaginative that they threatened to make their screenwriter Charlie Kaufman something of a indie deity, a position that would make him uncomfortable considering the somewhat autobiographical themes of isolation, insecurity and uncertainty within his films.

He returned a few years ago with Sydechode New York, an ambitious but intentionally flawed film which saw Kaufman clearly deliberately set out to highlight the limitations of art to capture the truth of life. It’s a truth he continues to pursue with Anomalisa. Even though it is a stop-motion feature with puppets, it has some of the most naturalistic and honest depictions of human frailty seen in a film all year. The misanthropic central character was trapped in an almost Kafkaesque nightmare in which all the people he encountered had exactly the same voice. It was the most inspired device yet that Kaufman has created to convey the deep sense of alienation and detachment his characters and probably he feels himself. It proved to be a divisive film due to the unlikeable and despairing nature of the character; but if you connected with his unenviable situation, the moment Lisa, the subject of his affections spoke (wonderfully voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), you could relate to the transfomative effect it had on him, and what ensued was one of the most pure and heartfelt romances of the year. The bittersweet nature of the relationship was absolutely compelling. This was a film about a character totally disconnected from everyone, no character in his life understood the depth of his internal neuroses, the only people who could relate to him were those who saw the film and understood the tragic nature of his condition, those whose different voices he will never get to hear. Anomolisa, was dry-witted, inspiring and beautifully melancholy. Kaufman continues to be one of the most distinctive voices working in the left-field of cinema.

sully9. Sully

Veteran Director Clint Eastwood moved from a film about a solider celebrated as a hero for killing 175 people (American Sniper), to a man portrayed as on trial, despite saving the lives of 254 people. The result was something with heart-pounding drama and considerable emotional heft.

We all know the story of ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’ – the flight that lasted just a few minutes thanks to an encounter with a flock of geese – as it is etched onto the minds of all those who saw the rescue mission on the rolling news channels back in 2009. What surprised about Eastwood’s gripping drama was just how suspenseful he made this familiar story. The investigation into whether or not Sully’s decision to land on the Hudson rather than fly to a nearby airport was the right move, is scrutinized in a way that made the audience cast doubt as to whether Sully would emerge as a true hero or have his reputation and career destroyed. ‘I have flown millions of flights but in the end I am going to be judged on just two and a half minutes’, says Tom Hanks as Sully, regretfully. It may have just been a brief time but the level of genuinely nail-biting, edge of the seat, emotionally involving drama Eastwood wrung out of the situation was extraordinary. Tom Hanks on Oscar worthy form, brought heart and a quiet confidence to the role of Sully; and the vulnerability he brought to the character was really compelling. On screen he has an inherent sense of decency and integrity, so seeing a good man on trial against an inquiry panel eager to pin the blame on human failure rather than technical malfunctions, moved audiences in a Frank Capra sort of way. Hanks is the closest thing modern cinema has to James Stewart. The story of that doomed flight was portrayed in a way that made audiences feel like they were a fly on the wall in both the stomach-churning landing and the troubling court room scenes. Sully was a powerful portrayal of an extraordinary story, made in a classic Hollywood style.

hail-caesar-quad8. Hail, Caesar!

While their trademark is dark crimes going spectacularly awry, the Coen brothers like to apply their wry humour to matters of faith (A Serious Man) and classic Hollywood satire (Barton Fink). Hail, Caesar! saw them on fine playful form, with a satire that found some delightful comic riffs on religion or more specifically, the fifties biblical epic and also some light-hearted affectionate fun-poking at the fifties Hollywood studio system. The Coen’s latest offering delighted fans of Barton Fink as it was essentially an extension on the ‘Wally Pfister wrestler picture’ humour from that Coen masterpiece – there is even a direct line that puts the two films on the same timeline. If there was a funnier comic scene this year than the opener of this, in which a rabbi a priest and other members of faith sit-down and discuss appropriate use of Christ’s image in a film, then I didn’t see it. It didn’t matter that the film felt more like a Monty phythonesque sketch-gag train than a full story as the humour was so sharply observed and laugh-out-loud funny that the film delighted and actually seemed funnier on repeat viewings. George Clooney in his goofiest, most unconscious performance yet gave one of the comic turns of the year as a clueless A-list star who is abducted by a mysterious group whose philosophy starts making sense to him. Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Scarlet Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, and Alden Ehrenreich got the measure of the tone too, all gave great comedy performances. It was easily the comedy ensemble of the year.

The Coen brothers have been making films in the system for a long time and you can’t help but strongly suspect from watching Barton Fink and now Hail, Ceasar! that they were channeling some of what they’ve seen and anecdotes they’ve heard from contact with so many behind the scenes movie types, in this hilarious screenplay. Hail, Hail, Caesar!

the-revenant7.The Revenant

To really appreciate the experience of this punishing but extremely rewarding wintry Western, you had to get into a similar mindset to that of Di Caprio and the crew. The shoot was grueling, painstaking and extremely tough, and those who braced themselves for a film that naturally brought the dogged days of a lost era of American settlers, planting the first seeds of capitalism, got the most out of the film. The cast and crew had to suffer for their art so why shouldn’t you watching in the relative comfort of your seat? Di Caprio set himself up for an endurance test of method acting, winning his long-awaited best actor Oscar for his troubles. He showed he was prepared to go to any limit required – including eating a raw bison liver – for authenticity. Although sparse on plot – it was essentially a long drawn out revenge drama – the film had such a breathtaking level of natural beauty. It was an unsettling vision into a past era of America, in which the native Americans and white settlers relationship had begun to fracture; the former concerned that their lands may come to be exploited by greed. It was also a drama paying tribute to the motivational power of vengeance to keep the spirit alive in hope of justice.

Director Alejandro G Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki showed their sheer commitment to realism by insisting on filming at only dusk hours, which extended the shoot considerably. Few filmmakers went as far as they did this year to deliver cinematic authenticity.

embrace-of-the-serpent6. Embrace of the Serpent

The exploitation of Amazonian tribes at the hands of European invaders is an under-explored subject in cinema. This independent Colombian film, based on the diaries of a 19th Century German explorer, delved into the period, with a natural journey into the beginning of troubled times for the natives as the machinery of colonialism has begun it’s devastation of their culture. The film revolved around a richly observed, beautifully complex dynamic between two intrepid Western travellers and a Shamen who possessed an understandable disdain for the Western mentality. The naturalness of the relationships, was what made the film so compelling. Through inventive and impeccably observed characterization a rare voice for an indigenous tribe emerged: The white man won’t stop until he eats everything he said…. He will turn the whole world into death and hell’. The character, was based on writings from a 1909 diary, but just last year, a never before seen tribe came out of the jungle in a desperate last ditch attempt to save their disappearing lands and tribe leaders have put on trousers to go before Brazilian governments, tearfully pleading with them to protect the Amazon. Over a hundred years on from the period, the tribes are still dealing with the slow holocaust that the character in this correctly forsees as the cause for the demise of his people.

Shot in black and white, the film had a wonderfully effective archival feel. It often felt like a lost anthropology documentary. It was closer to a real journey into the heart of the Amazonian, than a contrived story; the pace of the film meandered along deep into the jungle in a natrual style mirroring the Amazonian river on which the story was set. It had the look and feel of an early Werner Herzog film, cira Fitzccaraldo or Agguire: Wrath of God. It also seemed to be a spiritual companion piece to both versions of the heart of darkness, both Joseph Conrad’s novel and Copolla’s Apocalypse Now: as the men drift up the river witnessing ‘the horrors’ and madness of colonialism, in a style reminiscent of the aforementioned works. Framed against a tribesmen agonizing at the destruction of his people’s way of life, the film was one of the most powerful and poignant stories of the year. Spiritual, soulful, meditative and insightful, Embrace of the Serpent had an unshakeable power that haunted those who discovered it. The last cry out of a voice that may soon become silenced forever.

room.jpeg5. Room

The creatively brilliant thing about Room was it took a subject that has been deeply disturbing to hear about in news stories in the last ten years, and looked at it through a child’s innocent imagination, a child unaware of the unimaginable horror his mother must have had to endure at the hands of her capture.

The Room of the title was a small cell like enclosure that clearly the mother and child had been in for sometime, in the child’s case, all his life. This small, seemingly claustrophobic enclosure was an entire universe to the child (a mesmerizing Jacob Trembolore) though and watching him explore his world and talk about it with a sense of childlike whimsy and fantasy, was enthralling. It was a film that captured a child’s unique power to alleviate the darkness of a situation through the power of imagination.This illustrated the peerless power of cinema to transform a story you would imagine to have rather a different tone if done as a documentary. The film immersed us so deeply in the way he saw the world that when there was a tonal shift and a renewed sense of peril the film was unbearably tense. The depiction of the bond forged between the Mother (a suburb deservedly Oscar winning performance by Brie Larson) and her child was so intimate and naturally rendered that it was equally as compelling in both the first and second sections. Poignant powerful and easily one of the year’s most original films.

hell-in-high-water4. Hell or High Water

‘It seems kind of foolish to me…robbing a bank and expecting to live long enough to spend the money…. those days are gone, so says a Stetson wearing old-timer musing in a Texan diner. It’s a sentiment that frames the unlikeliness of a bank heist drama set in the modern era. In a digital age in which hard currency in banks has been replaced with numbers on a screen, pulling off a bank raid seems more like a task designed for the mouse clickers than the gun-totters. There’s a reason why this film has been considered ‘one that they just don’t make anymore’, bank raids are a near impossibility in the modern era. Director David Mackenzie, tense and taut Western found a way around it via a shrewd plan, to aim for the small dough and a scheme brainstormed by a desperate but savvy character played superbly by Chris Pine. While stylistically it was a Western, appealingly old-fashioned, thematically it was contentious, focusing not on how the West once was but how the West now stands. Modern social pressures facing dusty Westerns towns were explored; Chris Pine – and his brother a rather more unhinged character – were in an outlaw state of mind, but there was no doubt who the real outlaws of the film were: the banks. The ominous spectre of foreclosure cast a gloomy atmosphere on the film, if there was a sense that the curtain was coming down on the one-horse western town, there could be no doubt who was operating the strings. Whenever banks have wreaked this much havoc in society, the bank robber becomes almost heroic, call it the John Dillinger or Robin Hood effect. There can be no doubt that audiences were willing Pine’s character to a modest success, a symbolic victory for the little guy, which is why Jeff Bridges in probable Oscar winning form, as the sheriff in pursuit, was a fantastic character. Politically incorrect in nature, his casually racist patter with his Native American deputy, was wryly amusing . Here was a character that if he were to really exist, would no doubt be encouraged by the Trump victory, yet underneath the spiky sparring you could see he was a good man trying to do what he felt was right. The unorthodox, unpc nature of the character and his edgy tone of banter, allowed the film to put a different spin on racial tension. How fully rounded the two law officials relationship was is one of the many reasons why Hell or High Water is one of the most important films of the year.

spotlight3. Spotlight

Considering journalistic freedom seems to be in danger of being compromised by corporate interests, it was great to see a film that captured the power of a free independent media to expose shocking corruption, sweep in from no where to take the Best Picture Oscar. It was a film that looked for inspiration from the seventies golden age of journalism films, with All The President’s Men clearly being the biggest influence on director Tom McCarthy’s powerful film. McCarthy did the seemingly impossible by making un-flashy mundane tasks like painstaking, diligent research, seem earth-shatteringly dramatic. Special Effects teams can try all they want but they are not going to come close to matching the drama of the moment in Spotlight when Mark Ruffalo’s character was running to use a photocopier. People answering phones and searching through phone-directories, provided absolutely nerve-shredding drama. Few films this year created the rising drama and tension resulting from the Catholic Church being subjected to an ever more damming wide-reaching inquiry, in the none more Catholic area in America of Boston. The Boston Globe Versus The Catholic Church was the David V Goliath battle of the century. Frankly there was no image more poignant in any film this year than the post film credits sequence that listed just how many cities world wide have suffered at the hands of Catholic priests sexually abusing young children. The evidence the film revealed was haunting. The message was so hard-hitting it was honestly surprising The Catholic Church didn’t suffer even more damage to their image.

the-witch2. The Witch

Outside of children’s fairytales, there have been very few credible films that captured the threat of witches. Those that have taken on the subject, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspira, The Blair Witch Project, were potent horror films because they alluded to witchcraft rather than put witches in the spotlight. Don’t show the witch seemed to be the rule of horror; The Witch spectacularly subverted the rule in the early stages by showing scenes of a witch that were deeply unsettling. That became a game-changer for a horror film that found so many new ways to unnerve. Set in the early days of the American settlers, a time in which puritan values rule the minds and the communities, the film, focused on a family cast out of their gated village and forced to live off the land next to a strange forest, alone. Whenever storytellers twist historical time periods and lace in horror fantasy the results are frequently enthralling.

Everything about this film was eerie and threatening, just the idea of going off into an unexplored American wilderness, where no English settlers have gone before was foreboding as it’s clearly an environment that could be a stage for horror to happen. Director Robert Eggers pulled off something very unique with this film: he managed to simultaneously make a frightening horror film about a witch as well as a film that perfectly captured how religious dogmatism can tear minds, souls and families apart. Superstitions and fear of evil caused the family in this film to doubt themselves and each other, resulting in shocking drama that carried a potent message considering the religious fanaticism growing around the world. Stylistically, the film contained eerie imagery clearly influenced by the witchcraft paintings of Goya, which created a thrillingly cinematic and unsettling effect. It was a great year for alternative art-house horror – Goodnight Mommy and Under the Shadow were also really interesting alternative takes a horror, but The Witch was easily the scariest film of the year in my book.

rogueone-astarwarsstory1. Rogue One: A Star Wars story

The Star Wars film we have been waiting for for over thirty years finally arrived late in 2016. Director Gareth Edwards realized that this film series is not about the Stars, but about the Wars. With a refreshing absence of so many of the main iconic characters, Edwards was free to tell a story far more true to the politics and rules of war than the Star Wars series has ever done before. Bucking the hype trend spectacularly, Disney played a blinder in regards to marketing, by stating the film was a one-time spin-off movie in the Star Wars Universe, separate from the original; it was much, much more than a side-story spin-off movie. It felt far more essential to the overall original story than any of the other modern Star Wars films. Thrillingly, it felt like the missing piece of the puzzle, a film that finally gave context and detail to Leia’s message to Obi Wan Kinobi. Cast your mind back to a New Hope and focus on the scene in which Leia witnessed that destruction on her home planet at the hands of the Death Star. There is an emotional wallop in that scene that is absenct elsewhere in the Star Wars films. Rogue One seemed to have bottled that emotion and distilled it into every scene, every character exchange and every frame of this film. The result was something with far more raw emotion, intensity and gripping drama than the franchise had ever produced before.By focusing on so many characters who are coming to terms with the idea that the Imperialists have a planet-destroying weapon, the film was so emotionally involving. It was so sobering and real that it made you contemplate the horror of being on a planet that might be marked for annihilation. The characters had more weight and more resonance due to the graveness of their situation. It seemed like someone had actually sat down and figured out the logistics of how the battles would work, the dialogue ringing true to being in battle. The focus on the strategy of war from both the rebel alliances and the Empire made the battles all seem spectacular due to the thrilling authenticity. The commitment to realism meant that the kookiness of the alien designs was pleasingly toned down, the alien characters that are in the film, seem as hard-edged as everything else. The new droid provided a levity to counterbalance the considerable weight of the drama, with a brilliantly droll sense of humour. Everyone one of his dry sarcastic one-liners landed – he was a brilliantly written creation. A total upgrade on C3P0’s prissy humour. Darth Vader made an a brilliant appearance but it was entirely justified rather than a gratuitous cameo, he seemed even more threatening than he did in the originals.

The Force Awakens, was a solid Star Wars film with an emphasis on nostalgia, but it didn’t really tell a new story. Rogue One however tells a story that provides the entire basis for why the Rebels had a new hope in the first place. It felt like a film that simultaneously told the past and the future of the Star Wars saga, by an absolute galaxy, Rogue One was the film of 2016.

The Top Films of 2016 (Part 1: 11-25)

Was 2016 a good year for cinema or a bad one? Your answer may depend on how deeply you jumped down the rabbit hole. Everyone gets to hear about the major blockbuster releases months in advance as their marketing campaigns become bigger and more ubiquitous each year, but there are always so many films for which you have to do research to discover.

Cinema has become like a giant cake: on the surface you have all the brightly coloured visual decorations enticing you in; they are enjoyable but you wouldn’t want to make them your full diet, just like the blockbusters. Underneath the surface is the substance, the cake itself, not as well advertised but (arguably) more satisfying than the stuff on the surface.

In any given year, there is an eclectic array of films released from all the over world. Given the fast-paced, work orientated, leisure time-light lifestyles we are all living now, there are more (potentially) excellent films released in a year than days available to watch them. Considering the fast turnover of films in cinemas – the less mainstream only get a few weeks release, sometimes in selected cinemas – the films might have finished their run before people have found the time to seek them out. Still, hearing about them is half the battle. To stay in touch with quality cinema, you have to do some research. Read the magazines, listen to podcasts, and of course, read the blogs.

2016 had some great films, you just had to do your homework to find some of them. The end of year lists always help. The great thing about these lists is that like the films, they all reflect rather different tastes. Shuffling and reshuffling them into an acceptable order gave me such a headache as ranking films is a flawed system.  All I can be certain of is, these are some of the films that left a distinct impression on me in 2016. I hope it was a good year in cinema for you too.

25.midnight.jpegMidnight Special

Director Jeff Nichols took an inventive approach to the idea of superpowers, portraying the idea of being born with extra supernatural abilities as more of a burden than a gift. The film explored the age-old familiar comic book story arc in an entirely new way, as a boy with powers he cannot control was chaperoned across country by his father, (another great performance by Michael Shannon) as the government try to track down his son.  Such a fresh approach to the idea of powers created a lively plot that retained mysteries right up until the unorthodox and entirely unforeseeable finale. The lack of heroism of the boy and considerable vulnerability left director Jeff Nichols to explore alternative plot strands, particularly how a boy with supernatural capabilities may begin to develop a religious following in those awaiting a new prophet. The film had an old-school, seventies style use of special effects which was pleasing. The ending may have proven divisive and anti-climatic for some but for others, it was a bold idea way ahead of its time.



Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford handled the complex ‘story within a story’ narrative of Austin Wright’s 1993 story, Tony and Susan, really well in this unusual and thought-provoking thriller. The film from the very start pulsated with tension aided by a really effective score. Moody and atmospheric, the film had a focal point for the uneasy emotional tone through Amy Adams’ superb performance. Amy played Susan, an upper class Manhattan artist, who is compelled to do some reflection and soul-searching when she reads the visceral novel delivered by her ex-husband, whom she coldly ditched some years prior. Both elements of the story – the physical violence of the novel Susan is reading, along with the emotional trauma stirred by the novel within – were completely mesmerizing and involving. The film had a lot to say about how dormant feelings for long-finished relationships can be stirred up years later. Nocturnal Animals was emotionally provocative and creatively presented.



train-to-busan23.Train to Busan

The South Koreans jumped on the unstoppable zombie train, with a story about unstoppable zombies, err, on a train. What it lacked in originality it made up for in character development as a range of social types, who seemed thinly sketched out at the start, slowly grew into characters who seemed so real and well-developed that you couldn’t help but will them to an unlikely survival. The depiction of the zombies upped the ante, considerably – the fluidity of movement, as thousands of zombies hurtled towards the characters, created the impression of a tsunami of the racing dead. It was so visceral, ferocious and intense, that it made crowds of shuffling zombies from classic zombie films look almost as quaint as old ladies shuffling around a tea room by comparison. There was depth to the narrative too, with an engaging socio-political commentary riffing on capitalist politics, Asian class hierarchies and how setting yourself up with ruthless self-survival instincts may not be preferable to group un-dead combat, when faced with the zombie apocalypse. The class politics stuff gave it more in common with Snowpiercer than just an unstoppable train.

22. Deadpool

As DC badlDeadpool_poster.jpgy stumbled with the turgid Batman V Superman, Deadpool breezed in with a likable, snarky energy, setting himself up as the comic book answer to a detached anarchist. Ryan Rynolds relished
the role, delivering more quick-witted one-liners in a few minutes than you would get in an entire mainstream Marvel movie. The film was absolutely brimming with wry humour and invention, the title sequence alone raised a movie’s worth of belly-laughs as the film made a claim to be a much-needed satirist of the conventions of the comic book movie. Director Tim Miller delivered wild R-rated fun, with a colorful screenplay that was deliriously enjoyable. Deadpool was deadpan, dead-on, dead dry and dead good.

neon-demon21. The Neon Demon

Blood and glitter made for a heady and intoxicating mix in this scabrous LA-set thriller. Promising indie director Nicolas Winding Refn found a new way to satirize the soulless and callous nature of the fashion industry, twisting the glitz and the glam until it resembled something really quite sinister. His use of shiny bright colours in one of the most darkly enchanting films of the year, was nothing short of mesmerising. His style lent a great debt to Dario Argento. The Italian horror auteur always found a way of assaulting the senses with vivid colors; Refyn brought the style into the 21st century, disorientating and unsettling the audiences with an effectively garish visual style. The palpable atmosphere of the film was so terrifically over-stylized that it began to take on a ethereal fairy tale quality. Some of the characters, so all-consumed by their own perception of beauty, were so twisted that they almost resembled monsters in fairy tales. If the Evil Queen from Snow White had granddaughters, they may look something like those in The Neon Demon. Vapidity has rarely been this threatening.

eddie20. Eddie the Eagle

Eddie the Eagle became a household name in the UK after his legendary heroics at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. People of Britain love a trier as much as a champion, but it was good to see that filmmaker Dexter Fletcher understood that mentality and stayed true to Eddie’s story, with a film that captured the spirit and tenacity of the character, but didn’t shy away from the reality of his ambition. For those who don’t know, Eddie the Eagle harboured a dream to become a Winter Olympian, in the daunting event of ski-jumping. However, he seemingly didn’t possess any natural athleticism and the British Olympic organisation were reluctant to let him compete due to fear of international humiliation. The film captured the heart and determination that Eddie had to allow him to work on his dream. Taron Egerton, had clearly studied his subject – he nailed the mannerisms, the jutting chin, the West country accent, it was all uncanny. To the approval of Eddie himself, he infused him with a likable charm and earnest will to succeed. Despite being a fictional character, Hugh Jackman’s mentor was a great addition to the story. It was Jackman’s expressive face that provided the drama and intensity as Eddie – in hair-raising, dramatic scenes – flew down the slopes. It was wonderful to see one of Britain’s most talked about Olympians become one of the feel-good films of the year. Nearly thirty years after he won the hearts of Britain, it was uplifting to see The Eddie the Eagle story take flight again.


19. The Nice Guys

The marketing posters featuring the film’s stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe made Shane Black’s new film look as if it was in the mold of his Leathal Weapon series. Actually, The Nice Guys was much closer to his sharply scripted, inventive noir thrillers like The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Darkly comic in tone, Shane Black’s latest was a creative seventies styled Hollywood set crime drama with a memorable story and a witty script. Exploring the seedy crime underbelly of L.A’s Hollywood glamour industries is something that Shane Black has always done well, and in The Nice Guys he had another thrilling, gripping and riotously funny crime drama that subverted the image of show business and had some wrly comic crime drama play out in Hollywood parties. Ryan Gosling, in one of his most comedic and charismatic roles to date, gave a funny and expressive performance that seemed to be partly inspired by the antics of Hollywood’s silent comedians. Crowe proved to be a good sparring partner for Gosling in one of the most inventive, funniest and criminally underrated films of the year.

captain-america-civil-war18. Captain America: Civil War

Superheroes fighting each other was a running comic book movie theme in 2016, but Marvel’s attempt to engineer conflict between their most heroic icons was a lot more convincing than DC’s. What made the conflict so engrossing and believable in this film was that it captured how a difference of opinion can escalate into a full blown stand-off and eventual war. That gave the film a message that far transcended the limited fantasy world of the Marvel Universe, giving it real relevance to the political and domestic issues of the day. This wasn’t the forced punch-up designed to cynically generate box office revenue that it initially appeared to be. Nor was it the standard good versus megalomaniac bad guy, as seen in other blockbusters this year, most notably the archaic X-Men movie. There was a complexity in the narrative that addressed how the wanton destruction of the previous Avengers’ outings, had led them to be as big a threat to world security as the foes they claim to be protecting humanity from. The fracturing of the relationship between Iron Man and Captain America was essentially very political in nature. In an ironic shift in perspective, technology mogul Tony Stark approved of government monitoring of The Avengers. Meanwhile, former super soldier Captain America, was believably distrustful of authority given his experiences in previous episodes, his anti-government stance was understandable. Polarizing the two chief characters’ perspectives, was fascinating, as neither of them were wrong, which made the conflict all the more edgy. Essentially, directors Anthony and Joe Russo managed to distill an age old political debate between the public and private sector into a terrific action movie, without the kids even suspecting anything. The film earned the right to its mouth-watering smackdown. It was like an Avengers-themed Royal of Rumble with a quick-witted Spiderman and equally sharp Antman, keeping things breezy and fun. Captain America: Civil War managed to simultaneously be one of the most politically stimulating films and enjoyable action movies of the year, that was quite the achievement. As for the bigger fight in 2016, DC are face down on the canvas, and Marvel are rocking around the ring, punching the air like Rocky Balboa.



son-of-saul17. Son of Saul

Haunting, hard-hitting and utterly harrowing Son of Saul told a holocaust story from a new perspective resulting in an utterly devastating piece of cinema. Set in a Nazi death camp in Auschwitz in 1944, the film was seen almost entirely from the vantage point of Saul, a Hungarian Jew who is part of a group granted special status as workers in the death camps. The group labelled Sonderkommando by the Nazis were given an extra few months to live in order to complete the daily tasks of cleaning up the death camps after industrial scale mass murder had been routinely carried out. Mass scale chamber death became blurred out background noise as the workers who kept this hellish system running had become so accustomed to death on a daily basis that it had become totally devoid of drama to them. Their lack of reaction, and the lack of drama was what made the film so unsettling. In Son of Saul, mass murder became an efficient industrial machine; the characters’ detachment was all the more horrifying to us watching afresh from the relative comfort of our chairs. There was almost no ray of hope to emerge from the oppressive grimness; the only shred coming from Saul’s secret quest, not to save his son from his fate, but to give him a dignified burial. It would be way too upsetting for most people’s tastes as it features at least two of the most shocking scenes of the year, and a tone of unrelenting misery, but, this is a film about what the Nazis did to the Jews, so it needs to be bleak. Few films have captured the unspeakable horror of the holocaust quite as powerfully as Son of Saul. It had the power to haunt all those who saw it for days after viewing.


kubo16. Kubo and the two Strings

Laika, The animation studio who brought us Coraline, A Corpse Bride, Paranorman and Box Trolls, made it five excellent features out of five, delivering their most immersive cinematic world to date. Japanese mythology is so vibrant that it works spectacularly well in animated form, but it was unusual to see a film made about Japanese customs that wasn’t made by one of their big studios. Kubo and the Two Strings told an enchanting story that paid reverent homage to Japanese culture and folklore in a yarn that was kooky, fun and spiritual. The level of beauty in the animation was nothing short of breath-taking, but the tone was quite dramatically dark and unnerving in places. What’s so refreshing about this studio is that they seem to be actively trying to create a niche for themselves as an alternative family option. As a result, they are giving their filmmakers a creative licence to be as weird, strange and off-beat as they want to. The characters in Kubo were memorably unconventional, from Kubo, a hero with just one eye, to an amnesia-suffering Samurai beetle, the characters were all brilliantly imaginative. The boldly imagined story had the bewitching dark magic seemingly inspired by the old-school Disney films, think the evil queen from Snow White. The combination of a story which was a beautifully romantic celebration of the ancestor worship prevalent in Asian cultures as well a lucid nightmarish fantasy, made Kubo and the Two Strings one of the best animated features of the year.

victoria15. Victoria

In modern films, frequently the editor is the unsung hero of the production; for the production of Victoria, the editor must have found themselves with very little to do, as extraordinarily, this two-hour and twenty minute production was shot in one uninterrupted, continuous take. However, audiences who saw it become so quickly immersed in the natural vibe between a female Spanish cafe worker living in Berlin and a group of male German clubbers, that the film’s audacious stunt soon had the desired effect of making you forget that you were actually watching a film at all. The first hour drifted by in a leisurely, free-wheeling style as the group moved from clubs to bars on a night out in Berlin. It worked because the two leads had chemistry and rapport and it all felt natural because it was unfolding in real time, in an improvised style. The transition to crime drama was all the more thrilling because of just how innocuously the film shifted into an entirely different genre. Suddenly, our group of likeable party-goers seemed way out of their depth to deal with the challenges ahead as they seemed more like real everyday people rather than crime players. The shocking third act gained all the more intensity for the one take strategy meant that the actors were going through the motions in real time. How they managed to cue up the enthralling third act, which shifts to several locations is mind-boggling. You won’t see a more realistic heist because they actually did it virtually for real in this audacious film.

your-name14. Your Name

Japanese director revitalized a well-worn Western plot device (body-swapping) in Your Name, telling a tale that started out playful and later built into a story that was deep, meaningful and heart-warming. For reasons that adhere to the laws of magic, two teens, a boy in Tokyo and a country girl in a tranquil little town, started to wonder whether the dream they were both having involving being in the other’s body, wasn’t a dream at all. The first section had some lovely playful observational humour which discovered more detail about the emotional effect that such a switch would have on your and your friends’ reactions than the body-switching device had mustered before. As the story progressed, it began to take on some mind-bending, unexpected dimensions that drew it closer to something like Donnie Darko than a generic body switch movie. It’s this dimension that draws you back into a film that became richer, and even more emotionally involving with repeat viewings. Perhaps that’s why it compelled Japanese audiences for so long, who kept the film top of the Japanese box office for an impressive three months. Hanging over the story was a comet which gave the animators such a vivid focal point for some awe-inspiring animation. The way the story shifted to bring the comet into play with the plot was ingeniously executed. There was a quintessentially Japanese sense of romanticism and the musical interludes that just wouldn’t work in a Western film provided a genuinely touching dimension to the story. Japanese animators continue to find new ways to tell stories that are simultaneously cutesy but intelligent, emotionally rich, but light-hearted, spiritual but dark. Your Name had all of these factors and is another Japanese animated classic.

sing-street13. Sing Street

Coming on like an Irish John Hughes movie, this crowd-pleasing film sent spirits soaring as audiences who had the pleasure of seeing Sing Street watched a young Irish teenager unlock his talent and musical potential via a love of eighties pop music and a romance with the object of his affection, a glamourous but troubled young girl. It was like The Commitments, if the characters in that had less tension, more understanding and original songs. Yes, the songs, some of which were penned for the film itself were so authentic, melodic and soaked in positively energized eighties styling that the film absolutely demanded a second viewing just to appreciate how well-crafted the music was. The film was an ode to the transformative effect that music and a sense of connection can have on someone. It was a genuinely delightful coming of age story, as a put upon, young teenager found his calling and morphed into a confident and assured young star. Sing Street perfectly captured how music can provide colour and life to previously dreary and downtrodden settings, offering a way out to those who choose a musical pathway, which echoed the story of practically every British band ever.

a-monster-calls12. A Monster Calls

Sentient, talking trees have become something of a familiar sight in fantasy after Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot and, prior to that, the Tree Ents from The Lord of the Rings. Spanish director J.A Boyona took the concept of a talking tree monster and re-imagined it as something entirely different in a film that found as compelling a blend between stark social drama and riveting fantasy horror as his masterful previous film, The Orphanage. Liam Neeson lent his commanding and intimidating vocal tones to The Tree Monster, a simultaneously menacing and reassuring presence, a character with a similar ambivalent paternal instinct as the faun from Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that this owes a great debt to but it is worthy of comparison, to Guillermaro Del Toro’s Spanish masterpiece. The Tree appeared to a troubled young boy struggling to come to terms with his mum’s weakening condition after a battle with cancer and declared that he will return to tell him three stories. Those three stories were beautifully rendered in artfully abstract animated sequences which illustrated the power of ambivalence in fairy tales. The stories’ ambivalence are emblematic of the film itself. The story was a wonderful metaphor for the pathos generated from dealing with traumatic events as well as providing an insight to the therapeutic qualities of fairy tales. Beguiling, enchanting and hard-hitting, perilous and poignant, A Monster Calls worked on a beautifully allegorical level of story-telling.

deep11. Deepwater Horizon

The BP oil disaster of 2010 is such a recent tragedy that the damage inflicted on both the people involved and the environment itself is still painfully raw. Therefore, any attempt to turn it into a Hollywood action film had to be handled with care, to avoid turning a terrible tragedy into an exploitative blockbuster. Director Peter Berg avoided decries of it being too soon to make a film of the worst oil disaster in U.S history, by establishing a tone of seriousness and sincerity with the film and bringing an industrial, tactile and extremely realistic lived-in feel to the action. The reason why the action had an extraordinary visceral intensity is because Berg was forced to commit fully to the project and make the decision to build an oil rig from scratch. Reading the story of the production is as gripping as watching the film itself. Within the film, BP came under extraordinary scrutiny given they are a part of the untouchable oil industry, the film goes as far as to portray their reckless erroneous negligence as villainous. What’s interesting is they were just as much of a threat to the film itself. The reason why Berg had to make the decision to build a rig is because BP released an army of lawyers in an attempt to stop the director getting any access to an oil rig or experts in the field. BP clearly failed and instead improved the quality of the film as the director had to walk such a fine legal line that the attention had to be shifted to a detailed and accurate explanation of what happened. The fact that Berg made technical exchanges about engineering so engaging is something of an achievement in itself. Even the usual portrayal of brave American heroism seemed believable via Mark Whalberg’s most human performance in years. His character’s actions provided considerable emotional impact. The film tapped into a well of anti-corporate sentiment and illustrated a point that needs to be made right now: how corporate hunger for profit blinds their experts to potential catastrophe and environmental costs that could be prevented with more consideration for their workers. It earns the right to be considered one of the most realistic disaster films of all time. ‘This is the film that BP didn’t want you to see’, – that would have made one helluva poster quote. Damn you lawyers.





Our 25 year wait for Welsh football success

Wales v Northern Ireland - EURO 2016 - Round of 16

Football Soccer – Wales v Northern Ireland – EURO 2016 – Round of 16 – Parc des Princes, Paris, France – 25/6/16 Wales celebrate at the end of the match REUTERS/Christian Hartmann Livepic

June 5th 1991. A nine-year-old boy is taken by his dad to his first ever football game in the grandiose setting of the Cardiff Arms Park. The Game is Wales V Germany, a qualifier game for Euro 92. The boy has never seen such a crowd of people before and absorbs the atmosphere, in awe of the occasion. Sixty six minutes pass in a cagey game and then… suddenly a ball is hit passed the German defense, Liverpool’s prolific goalscorer Ian Rush runs on and hits it beyond the German keeper. Wales 1- 0 Germany. At this moment the crowd around the little boy absolutely explodes with excitement; thousands of men leap to their feet to cheer the goal, the little boy, who was contently chomping on a hot dog before the advance in play, is almost knocked off his chair by the excited crowd around him. The hot dog falls to the ground. The boy no longer cares about the hot dog and joins the grown men around him dancing and singing and going absolutely crazy with excitement; this crowd are making the loudest noise the little boy has ever heard. Remarkably, Wales hold out against a barrage of German attacks to win the game 1-0. At the final whistle, the crowd erupts in a scene of the kind of all out jubilation you can only ever see when an underdog triumphs against a champion.

ian rush

That boy was of course me and this is one of my earliest memories in life. Wales had beaten a team that had been declared the best in the world at the World cup that was held in Italy just one year before. It was one of the greatest results in Welsh football history and I was there for my first ever taste of international sport. Wales had a remarkable qualifying campaign that year, going on to beat Belgium and finishing the group in second place, just one point behind Germany. Unfortunately, this wasn’t good enough to qualify in those days though as there were only eight teams in the competition, so only the number one placed team progressed to Sweden in Euro 1992. In order for Wales to qualify back then, we would have had to finish ahead of a German team that had just been strengthened due to the reunified of East and West Germany. Plus West Germany, who provided the bulk of the team, were the current world cup holders. That German team got to the final and were beaten by Denmark, a team who only qualified due to a civil war excluding their group winners Yugoslavia. Denmark wrote their own fairytale football story back then; it’s a chapter that Wales are on track to emulate in Euro 2016.


Two years later, the same team which featured Welsh legends like goalkeeper Neville Southall and goalscorer Dean Saunders had a great world cup qualifying campaign. It came down to our final game against Romania. If we had won it, we would have made it to the U.S.A world cup, the first time we would have competed in an international football competition since 1958. Noticeably, this was a year that England had failed to qualify for the tournament. This is a night that any Welsh football fan over the age of 25 can recall with painful memories; hearts were broken all around the country as a great campaign ended in a loss that was hard to endure. The game was poised at 1-1 and then Wales were awarded a penalty. A nervous looking Paul Bodin stepped up. If he scored, he would have surely sent Wales to World Cup 94. The crunch as the ball hit the bar was a poleaxing blow to both the fans and the team. Minutes later, Romania went on to run up the other end and score, sending themselves through. Romania went on to become one of the stand-out teams of U.S. 94 and a few years later, Romanian players could be seen in many premier league teams. As for Welsh fans, young and old, we were taught a painful lesson about just how tragic a sporting loss could feel. That night in ’93 taught me a harsh lesson in loss. We were left to wonder about what ifs for years after that.


The Welsh manager Terry Yorath, who had brought the national team to the brink of qualification for two major tournaments, was harshly sacked, much to the anger of the Welsh crowd who had enjoyed the valiant spirit of the team in his tenure. The next decade or so saw Wales go through a footballing dark age as managers like John Toshak, Mike Smith and Bobby Gould, all took charge and failed to steer the national side back in the right direction. Our golden generation of players, who so deserved to go to a tournament, had to retire without their international dreams ever being fulfilled.

Embarrassing defeats against Moldova and Georgia, extinguished any hope that we had of ever getting to a major international football tournament.

Wales as an emerging football force had well and truly been dismantled. With confidence low, we lost badly to the Netherlands and Italy and dropped further and further down the Fifa rankings.

After about a decade in the football wilderness, the reign of Mark Hughes started to show promise. We had some top quality players like Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy and we started a rebuilding process. This group of players had an excellent qualifying campaign for Euro 2004. We had led all the way and in anticipation of getting to Portugal in 2004, some of my friends had already booked their tickets to go, it seemed that certain. Alas, we struggled in the second half of the campaign and we had to settle for 2nd place. This was still enough to land us a two leg qualifier with Russia. Hopes were kept alive with a solid 0-0 in Moscow, but Hughes’ picked a defensive minded team and we lost the return leg in Cardiff 1-0. This was another sucker-punch ending to a Welsh campaign, which left me and the whole city of Cardiff in a depressive slump and yet another campaign that saw us so near but so far away. After that our Welsh hero Ryan Giggs decided to hang up his international boots.


Mark Hughes then left the national team for a post at Blackburn. A popular figure in the Welsh football pantheon then took charge, Gary Speed. Speed gave players like Aaron Ramsey their first taste of international football. He started a rebuilding process that saw us pick up some wins against Switzerland, Norway and Bulgaria, and Wales started to get some respect back. We climbed to 45th in the Fifa world rankings and were named Fifa’s’ biggest climber. Hopes were high that Speed could take Wales to the next level and then suddenly, we were all left in shock when news broke that he had committed suicide. His close friend Chris Coleman took over, in time for the World Cup 2014 qualifiers but Wales, seemingly haunted by the death of their promising manager, had some disastrous results, the worst being a terrible 6-1 defeat by Serbia. A few wins over Scotland gave us hope of qualifying; hope that was finally extinguished by a 2-1 home defeat to Croatia. And Coleman hung on to the job by a thread.

By now, Welsh fans had been hardened by decades of near misses, so this latest chapter in failure to qualify didn’t upset us as much as some of the others.

Nations in the group stages of the current Euro 2016 campaign were boosted by FIFA’s decision to expand the amount of teams competing from 16 to 24. Wales were also boasted by a vote of confidence in the team from FIFA which – somewhat bizarrely – saw us moved up to 10th in the FIFA world rankings. We went on to have a brilliant campaign that saw us beat a great Belgium side. We lost our last game against Bosnia but we had all ready won four games and drawn two, so we progressed as Cyprus beat Israel to help us go through.


We had done it! Wales had finally made it to a major competition after decades of heart-breaking near misses.

After finally breaking onto the big stage, I think we were just hoping that Wales could do the nation proud and get out of the group. History had taught us to air on the side of caution when it comes to the Welsh team. But with superstars like Gareth Bale and excellent Arsenal midfielder in Aaron Ramsey, as well as a squad featuring players like Ashley Williams, Chris Gunther and Ben Davies, to name just a few, all players who play week in week out for Premier League teams, we were quietly confident that we could at least give some top teams a good game.

The performance of the Welsh team at Euro 2016 is beyond our wildest boyhood dreams. As children, we just dreamed of one day getting to these competitions. We had faint feelings that if we did get there, we could impress. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see that this has been the case.

I think the way Wales took on the Slovakian’s in our first match of Euro 2016, surprised us all though. They played like a team who had experience in the biggest arena in international football. We took on the opposition. Bale showed his composure with a great free-kick that ignited a sense of belief. Ramsey and Allen ran the midfield and Robson-Kanu popped up for a massive goal. We won the game 2-1 and anyone of Welsh origin felt immense pride. In the England game we were pushed back and pinned in our own half for a lot of the game. Our explosive counter-attack had been nullified. Bale made us delirious with hope that we could beat our old football neighbour England. That hope was snuffed out by a late goal from Daniel Sturridge in an eventual 2-1 loss.

The way we responded in the Russia game absolutely surprised us all. The force of Wales’ Ramsey and Bale-led explosive counter-attack, was finally revealed. We took the game to the Russians, with wave upon wave of positive football. We lit up the tournament with our exciting attacking football earning a deserved 3-0 win. Wales were finally on the international map and the rest of the nations applauded with respect. England had beaten us, but we topped the group ahead of them, which is much better really.

Northern Ireland in the round of 16 was always going to be a difficult opponent from a Welsh perspective. Wales prefer to be the underdog and that game saw us the favourites. Northern Ireland were very difficult to break down, and their decision to sit back, killed any chance of our counter-attack. It was great that pressure resulted in a 1-0 win and we were progressed to the biggest game in our nations history: a quarter final against Belgium.

Wales v Belgium

This was a Belgium side that made the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2014. It was Belgium’s golden generation. In the previous game they had finally looked like they were going to live up to their potential. But Wales enjoy playing against Belgium. We have a history of lifting out game against this nation and this again proved to be the case. After going 1-0 down, we weathered the Belgium attacks, showed no fear, responded positively and went on to equalize through a determined Ashley Williams header. And then Robson-Kanu left three members of the Belgium defense doing passable impressions of statues, with a Cruyff tribute of a turn that gave him a point blank shot on goal that he slotted away with ease. A Vokes header late on wrapped up an amazing win in the biggest game in Welsh football history. Most of us who remember the last few decades of Welsh football history have not stopped smiling ever since.

The line ‘biggest game in Welsh football history’ became redundant a few rounds back now though. It goes without saying. Wales have broken record after record at Euro 2016. We are the smallest nation to ever qualify for a semi-final in a major tournament. The pressure is off Wales as unlike with England, there has been no expectation to succeed. Debilitating pressure has not hampered the psychology of the Welsh team. We have played in a way that has won us friends around the world. We have a manager with a plan and a team determined to play for him. They have extra determination in wishing to honour their departed mentor, the late Gary Speed.

By contrast our opponents Portugal, finished third in the group; a position that would have rendered them out in any other competition. They have somehow progressed to the semi-final despite not winning a single match in 90 minutes in the whole competition. But in a way, they have nothing to lose either and will be relishing a semi-final game against a small nation like Wales, instead of the usual football powerhouse nation that get to this stage of the competition. They also have a big game player in Ronaldo, so you can never discount Portugal. Plus this is their seventh semi-final, so they are experienced at this stage of the tournament.


This might be the start of a football revolution in Wales, or it might be our one tournament in the limelight. We may never be here in this stage of a competition again. We have enjoyed every minute of it and we as Welsh fans will remember the best chapter in our football history for the rest of our lives. Who knows what emotions we will be feeling tomorrow. But as of right now, Wales are just one game away from a European Championship final. Prior to this tournament, no Welsh person I have ever met thought that was possible. Will our football fairy-tale continue? We are feeling confident, but you just never know with Wales. We have had too many false dawns. We do have a feeling that in Euro 2016 we have a belief and determination unmatched by any other Welsh side. This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to a final. Who knows if we can get over this big hurdle. But for now lets get motivated with a chant you will hear all across Wales today. C’Mon Wales! C’mon Wales!!

My score prediction. Wales 1 – 1 Portugal (Wales to win 2-1 after extra time).






Oscars 2016 preview

Oscars 2016 -16

The build up to the Oscars 2016 has of course been overshadowed by a racial row started by Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, who both drew attention to the lack of black nominations in a list they re-dubbed the ‘Lilly White Oscars’. The Academy had left themselves open to criticism last year after failing to nominate Ava DuVernay for her excellent direction in the powerful Selma and David Oyelowa, who gave as astonishing a portrayal of Martin Luther King as you could have hoped to have achieved. This year, you could argue that black actors Idris Alba (for his performance in Beasts of No Nation), Michael B Jordan (for his compelling performance in Creed) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (for his uncanny portrayal of Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton) were all worthy of nominations. Perhaps the argument being made is justified, however the people making the argument are not exactly the people who should be. Spike Lee has not made anything that is going to trouble the Oscars for a long time – he’s actually gained more publicity for starting this row than he has for his recent films. Jada Pinkett Smith and now her husband Will Smith are obviously using the race row to vent their personal frustration that Will Smith didn’t get a nomination for his role in Concussion. Given that Will Smith has already been nominated twice – for his performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness – he is hardly in a position to launch a prejudice argument, so he has done what is considered a faux pas around actors: he has shown frustration at a lack of personal recognition. The Smiths would have been better off voicing their disapproval in a year Will didn’t have a big worthy-looking film in contention.

The Academy make many mistakes of course, but they don’t set out to deliberately exclude people of colour despite what appearances over the last two years may suggest. In the last fifteen years, black actresses who have won Oscars include: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Monique (Precious), Ocatvia Spencer (The Help) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave). And in 2008, two black actresses were nominated – Viola Davis (The Help) and Taraji P Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). There were also nominations for Queen Latifah (Chicago) and Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) going back a bit further. In the male category since 2001, Denzel Washington (Training Day), Jamie Foxx (Ray), and Forest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland) have all won the best male actor award and there were nominations for Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), Morgan Freeman (Invictus), Denzel Washington (Flight), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). It’s worth pointing out that the first black person to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel way back in 1939 for her role in Gone With the Wind. Still, all this said, there should definitely be a shake-up in the infrastructure of Hollywood, with more racial and gender diversity involved in the directing, writing and producing roles within the industry. I’m sure the race row will have given Oscar host Chris Rock an endless amount of material to satirize come the ceremony.

Moving onto the films that have been nominated, whilst there are clearly some glaring omissions, it is an excellent collection of films. I would have really liked to have seen Inside Out break down the stigma against animated features and make it onto the Best Picture list since it was such an all-round outstanding piece of work. It would have also been nice to have seen the nail-biting Sicario land a nomination, the thought-provoking Ex-Machina and the really compelling Love and Mercy – a film that doesn’t seem to have made it onto the Academy’s radar this year.

The Best Picture


The Big Short

The more films that can raise awareness about the ridiculously unscrupulous financial dealings that led to the subprime mortgage crisis, the better. That said, there was something duplicitous about The Big Short since it was directed in the style of a seventies investigative journalist film, with characters who seem to have an air of concern about the market, but really were as concerned with self-interest as those who created the crisis in the first place. It all made for a film that was too arch to really generate the moralistic outrage at the actions of the financial industry that you might expect from a film covering this terrain. The film is about betting, but it is a brave man who’d bet his house on this winning the Oscar as it’s an outside bet rather than a sure thing. For full review click here:


Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg’s 30th film is a cautionary tale of why it is of the utmost importance that fear, hatred and bigotry are not allowed to influence the path to justice within the democratic system. It focuses on a tense stand-off between America and Russia during the Cold War over a spy exchange, but the the parallels between the politics of the period in which the film is set and the climate of fear that is currently being cooked up around politics in America, is rather striking. The great thing about Steven Spielberg when he is wearing his political director hat is that he is a very even-handed and balanced filmmaker. Both the Americans and the Russians are shown to be operating using similar tactics, and Spielberg is a Hollywood filmmaker who can show all the grey areas involved with a portrayal. He avoids demonizing the perceived communist enemy and because of this delivers a compelling, informative and consummately crafted film. Considering he hasn’t gotten a directing nomination this year, it seems that Spielberg and his film are somewhat rank outsiders this time, but I would be quite pleased if Bridge of Spies won, since it is one of the most expertly made films on the list and has a sobering political message that speaks volumes in these fear-driven times.



What was so compelling about this story about a quiet Irish girl moving to New York in 1952 in search of a better life, was that it really seemed to understand the thought process and feelings involved when you decide to uproot and move to the other side of the world, away from everything you have ever known. Anyone who has done this for real could relate to the turbulent emotions one experiences when committing to such a radical life change. For the many who haven’t, Brooklyn gave a naturalistic insight to how you change as a person when you decide to leave home. It gave an even account, capturing all the positives and benefits that come with such a move and all the negatives too. It’s a small film that seemed to have really broken out of its niche and compelled a wider audience, but Oscar glory seems a journey too far for this little film.


Mad Max

Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s lively fourth installment of his petrol-driven dystopia has proven to have had the fuel for a year-long run at the Oscars and is perhaps a surprise inclusion in the list. While it definitely is a distinctive-looking film with memorable action sequences, it was very light on plot and for large periods of the film was little more than a long extended car chase that had a striking resemblance to an episode of eighties cartoon The Wacky Races. In favour of the film, you could argue that the tyrannical rule of the imposing and menacing character was an inventive advancement of the Max Universe. If you look deep enough too, you could say the oppression of the masses at the hands of a elite, ruthlessly powerful resource-hording cartel, is even more slyly satirical of our own gap between the have and the have-nots than The Big Short is. On the other hand, you could say that all the politics involved around the importance of oil that was so stark and thought-provoking in Miller’s earlier Mad Max films, was entirely lost in a film in which oil was so wantonly used within the never-ending car chase sequences. In terms of best picture success, Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t exactly look in pole position to win the best picture race. A victory would probably even surprise fans of the film.


The Martian

Despite its subject matter of an astronaut tragically stranded on The Red Planet, The Martian is probably the most all-out entertaining film on the list. Ridley Scott managed to capture on film all the wit and science-driven comedy that made Andy Weir’s novel so enjoyable. Fans of the book breathed a huge sigh of relief as director Ridley Scott (never renowned for his levity) managed to find a mirthful tone that totally captured the vibrancy of the central character Matt Watney’s infectiously positive attitude to his own survival. However, in terms of Oscar glory, the amusing tone which made the film so charming may count against it since The Academy usually favours something with a more serious and worthy tone. Plus the fact Ridley Scott is not nominated as Best Director when he gave the film such bounce, is a telling sign that The Martian will remain stranded on the list.


The Revenant

The bold production choices involved with this punishing and powerful revenge-driven survival film made it such a unique cinematic experience with all the right criteria for Oscar glory. Usually films that have a shoot that goes way passed the due end date run into major problems, but in the case of The Revenant, the extension to what was a grueling filmmaking process added to the suffering of the cast and crew and therefore the extraordinary sense of realism to the film. What it lacked in story depth, it made up for in natural atmosphere, tough drama, and a believable recreation of an early America that is usually lost to the history books. The commitment to the recreation of time and place was commendable by Mexican director Gonjalez Innaritu and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki. Few films this year have managed to bring to the screen such a vision of a lost world. Like The Martian, it is essentially a one man survival story, but contrasting The Martian it has a serious tone that will definitely strike a chord with Oscar voters. Unlike the cast and crew, The Revenant won’t be left out in the cold. It has to be the favourite for best picture 2016. For full review click here:



Director Lenny Abrahamson’s film took a very dark subject matter that has been in the news a number of times in the last decade and absolutely transformed it tonally into a film that gave a strangely life-affirming insight into the bond forged between a mother and child. Read the synopsis of Room and you would expect a dubiously toned exploitative drama to unfold. I don’t want to elaborate any further on why the story should seem so sinister because to really experience the full impact of Room it is better to see it completely in the dark about why a mother and a child are living in an entire existence in small confines. As the magnitude of what is actually happening in Room begins to dawn on the viewer, you realize that the film has worked because of the deceiving naturalness of the interactions between Brie Larson as the mother and Jack the little boy – wonderfully played by Jacob Tremblay. I think it would have been a justifiable inclusion on the Best Supporting Actor list since the entire film is made by his childlike innocent interpretation of events in a similar way to the way a child’s imagination was used to perceive events events in Beasts of the Southern Wild a few years back. And imagination proves to be the keyword as the film stands as a tribute to the power of a child’s imagination to transform the grimmest and most mundane of settings into a place full of wonder and intrigue. It’s definitely the most original film on the list, but originality is rarely the main criteria to guarantee Oscar success.



Journalists in film often come across as pesky self-serving irritants that characters usually offer just one line to: that being, no comment. There was a golden era of journalism films (the seventies), when films like All the President’s Men captured the power of journalism when taking on corrupt power structures. Tom McCarthy’s film owes a great debt to seventies films of that ilk and has the same natural style direction. The scandal Spotlight (a team of investigative journalists who work as a sub-sect of the Boston Globe) begin to uncover is so shocking, heartbreaking and damning for the Catholic church that the story requires no tricks or melodrama to bring it to life, it is rendered more powerful by the focus being on the committed interaction of the team who are determined to overcome every obstacle to bring the truth to light. In the hands of McCarthy, such mundane office tasks as people flicking through directories and running to use photocopiers become such lively and suspenseful moments when you realize the significance of them. In a time when journalists face tremendous pressure to put stories out quickly rather than accurately, it was really commendable to see a film focus on a team of journalists who realize the importance of painstaking attention to detail over a long period rather than a rush for a fast, sensational story. The film brought such gravitas and insight to the process of journalism and the story was deeply involving. It is an underdog story, and considering it has such a low-key, no thrills approach to filmmaking, the film is something of an underdog in this category too. A win would secure it a wider audience, which would ensure that more people are reminded of the horrifying wrongdoing that has been going on within the Catholic church.

Personally I would like Spotlight to win the Oscar, since it has the most compelling and involving story which has a much wider significance. If it can’t win, my second favourite would be Bridge of Spies since it is a reminder of why fear and hatred should never be allowed to blind political judgement, rather timely in regards to the modern political pathway we appear to be going down. It seems, however, that the momentum is firmly with The Revenant.

Best Director Nominees:
Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”)
Adam McKay (“The Big Short”)
George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”)
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“The Revenant”)

Lenny Abrahamson, “Room”


Considering it is his first Oscar nomination at the age of seventy, George Miller would be the romantic choice for Best Director. I would personally like to see Lenny Abrahamson win as he took a subject that was really quite sinister and completely transformed it into something with an entirely different tone to that expected, so it is a tribute to the power of direction get audiences to see something from a different perspective. The Academy have proven themselves to not be against a split win between Best Director and Best Picture in the past, but this time I think they will go for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for The Revenant, to give the film the top two awards. It would also mean the Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu would be the second ever director to win back to back Best Director awards as he won it for Birdman last year. Given the controversy around the lack of ethnic diversity in the nominations, it would probably help to award the Best Director statue to a Mexican filmmaker over a white counterpart.

Best Supporting Actor Nominees:


Christian Bale (“The Big Short”)
Tom Hardy (“The Revenant”)
Mark Ruffalo (“Spotlight”)
Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”)

Sylvester Stallone (“Creed”

This is a category that is wide open. It would be a remarkable story if Sylvester Stallone won for Creed, forty years after being nominated for his performance as the same character in Rocky. He is very tortured in the film and it is one of his best ever performances, he could very well win. Mark Ruffalo has been consistently excellent and the determination he infused to his character with in Spotlight gave the film such spirit. However, the film is much more of a ensemble piece with uniformly excellent performances. I would like to see theatre actor turned film actor Mark Rylance win for his beautifully restrained performance in Bridge of Spies. He nailed the Scottish accent and created such a memorable character which demonstrated the importance of silence in the acting process. I would like to see Mark Rylance win, but Mark Ruffalo will take it and you can’t argue with that.


Best Supporting Actress Nominees:

Jennifer Jason Leigh (“The Hateful Eight”)
Rooney Mara (“Carol”)
Rachel McAdams (“Spotlight”)
Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”)

Kate Winslet (“Steve Jobs”)


Jennifer Jason Leigh has been an excellent actress, but her character in The Hateful Eight is too much of a caricature to be a justifiable winner, plus Tarantino’s film was horribly misogynistic and Leigh was something of a human punchbag in the film. Rooney Mara in Carol gave a performance that was all longing gazes and sexual awakening. Rachel McAdams captured just how troubled her character was when exposing the Catholic church scandal. Kate Winslet was very commanding holding her own on screen with Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, but her Eastern European accent was a little inconsistent. Alicia Vikander’s star continues to rise. What a year she has had. She should have been nominated in this category for her intelligent performance as the sophisticated AI in Ex-Machina, I haven’t seen The Danish Girl yet, so I can’t comment on whether she should win. It seems like a two horse race between Winslet and Vikander and on a hunch, I tip Vikander to win.

Best Actress Nominees:
Cate Blanchett (“Carol”)
Brie Larson (“Room”)
Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”)
Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”)

Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”)


Cate Blanchett is the life and soul of Carol, giving a performance suggesting a woman who has sexually blossomed in a world of repressed emotion. She is mesmerizing and if she took home her third Oscar, (she won for Blue Jasmine a few years ago and Best Supporting Actress for her role in the Aviator) it would be a fair result. She is an actress with such screen presence with the class of Katharine Hepburn, an actress she played and won an Oscar for in Aviator. Jennifer Lawrence in Joy gave quite a devoted performance to the character. Charlotte Rampling was the surprise inclusion, but her turn in 45 Years had garnered considerable acclaim among UK critics.  Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn created a character who grew in confidence as the film progressed. Brie Larson’s powerful turn in Room captured the array of emotions that one would experience in the situation her character was in. Larson is a safe bet to take the award and she will be a worthy winner.

Best Actor Nominees:

Bryan Cranston (“Trumbo”)
Matt Damon (“The Martian”)
Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Revenant”)
Michael Fassbender (“Steve Jobs”)

Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”)

Bryan Cranston continues his complete career transformation playing Trumbo, a blacklisted writer in 40’s Hollywood. It is another big charismatic performance by Cranston, an actor who now seems to have far more gravitas. Matt Damon is an actor who can mold himself to any role he plays. It is a career best from him; he’s never been able to lead a film like this. Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance is all agony and tortured masculinity. The Academy has always liked someone committed enough to go that extra mile to bring realism to the performance. Di Caprio has come such a long way as an actor. He’s been nominated countless times and if he loses again, it will be rather awkward. He should have won for his performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, but he will win for The Revenant. Michael Fassbender had a hard acting challenge with Steve Jobs as Aaron Sorkin’s script required him to be as prickly and socially alienating as humanly possible. Fassbender’s performance allowed us to see a sinister side to Jobs that we hadn’t seen before and like Di Caprio, Fassbender has been consistently excellent in the last decade. Is Eddie Redmayne really in the category of actors good enough to win back to back Best Actor victories? I’ll leave people who have seen The Danish Girl to answer that question. I think if he wins, even Redmayne himself will feel somewhat conflicted that the award didn’t go to one of the other actors in the list who have been outstanding over a wider selection of films than Redmayne.  Fassbender would be a worthy winner, but the momentum is with Leo and The Revenant will prove to be the big winner on the night.

Original Screenplay Nominees:


Matt Charman, Joel & Ethan Coen (“Bridge of Spies”)
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley (“Inside Out”)
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer (“Spotlight”)
Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”)

 Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus (“Straight Outta Compton”)


There are a great selection of screenplays here. It’s really nice to see Alex Garland get some recognition for Ex-Machina, but Inside Out on many levels had the most original story. I suspect the Academy will go for Spotlight as it will likely miss out in the Best Picture category.

Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees:

Emma Donoghue (“Room”)
Drew Goddard (“The Martian”)
Nick Hornby (“Brooklyn”)

Adam McKay and Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”)
Phyllis Nagy (“Carol”)

I would like to see Drew Goddard take this one for The Martian was effortlessly transformed into a screenplay. I suspect it will go to Emma Donoghue for Room, which would be a good choice too.

Best Animated Film Nominees:


“Boy and the World”
“Inside Out”
“When Marnie Was There”
“Shaun the Sheep”


This is probably the most certain award of the night. Nothing will trouble Inside Out and as I made it my film of last year, I totally agree that it should win.










The Big Short – film review


Unravel the horrible mess that caused the 2008 financial crisis and you will find a tangled web of various strands of corruption, lies, fraud and – if it wasn’t for deregulation – corporate crime attached at the end. It stands to reason then that filmmakers are going to be pulling at the threads for years, uncovering interesting dramatic and provocative stories to help us understand just how the Western financial system tied itself up in so many knots that it almost permanently strangled the world economy.

In 2011, Margin Call was the first film to reveal that the power-players in the financial sector were not in control of the monster they had created. Then last year’s 99 Homes showed us how banks put a wreaking ball to the hard working person’s livelihood with little regard for the emotional impact it would take. Those two films successfully turned the crumbling economy into powerhouse economic thrillers. Adam McKay’s The Big Short – adapted from the novel penned by Moneyball scribe Michael Lewis –  has rather less heft than those two films, partly due to its overly arch (and rather patronising) style and partly due to just how difficult it is to connect with characters who appear to be looking for the solution but are really part of the problem themselves.

The main players are Michael Burry (Christian Bale) as an assured to the point of arrogant financial expert who bets on the failure on the U.S economy. At least appearing to have slightly more of a moral conscientiousness is Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) who gives the impression of holding angst in the pit of his stomach in regard to the impending economic catastrophe that will cripple the American economy. However, he undermines his suggested moral outrage by being eager to profit on its failure. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), is the social salesman of the piece – a guy who has had such a loss of faith in the integrity of the subprime mortgage system that he likens it to a Jenga game. He might be relatable were it not for the fact that he’s motivated only by the thought of his bonus check. There are a range of other characters equally as money-driven. Tellingly, the only character who seems at least a little bit concerned for the fate of the average person, (played by Brad Pitt) is marginalized to the point of having just a cameo. So what you get is a wry, weightless film that seems somewhat confused about its aims. Is it a statement that the new American dream is to just leech off a dying system? Or is it a film attempting to evoke a sense of moral outrage in an audience possibly unaware at just how insidious the financial system has become? The film at different times appears to switch between those two conflicting themes, leaving it uncertain in tone.

How you react to the film may well depend on just how much you know about the causes of the 2008 subprime-mortgage crisis that brought catastrophic failure to a banking establishment previously deemed too big to fail. If you know absolutely nothing about the details of the crisis, then the arch, glib, and highly simplified visual metaphors that the director uses to explain confounding financial terms like CDO, subprime mortgages, and derivatives may well inform you of what you need to know. In which case, you may get a side helping of anger with your entertainment. However, if you know quite a bit about what caused all the problems, then you may feel that the film entirely cops out from giving the banking industry the grilling that it so severely deserves. This is a film that falls well short of providing us with the answers anyone who has bought a mortgage in the last ten years deserves.

Financial jargon is of course very boring, so McKay tries to liven it up with quick-edits and meaningless visuals to bring a whip-pan flashy style to the proceedings. The hope is to present numbers for a generation fed on MTV-style edits. McKay wants to bring a Martin Scorsese sense of pace and verve to the film. It will definitely have the desired effect with some people. Quite frankly though, this idea that everything has to be jazzed up to be cool and interesting is part of the reason why we allowed the financial system to get away with what should essentially be criminal activity in the first place. Watching a scene that sees popstar Selena Gomez explain how a derivative works may be amusing but really it hints at everything that is wrong with the world: that we have to have celebrities explain everything to us or we don’t care. To be fair though, McKay is in on the joke, but it would be nice to see something avoid hiding behind the detached irony that seems to define the age we live in. It all feels a lot like the way day time television commercials try to explain things to the watching masses.

This all captures the main point of the film; it is entirely fixated with style and sacrifices substance because of this. if you are aware of the facts surrounding just how morally bankrupt the financial system was pre-2008 then, you realize there is a much more interesting story here in this world that the film isn’t bold enough to deliver. The characters are perceptive and opportunistic due to the fact that they bet on failure. They are portrayed as the ‘Davids’ against an army of nefarious ‘Goliaths’ and we are supposed to side with them as they are the lesser of the evils. But really they are just leeches, so it’s hard to will them to success, which nullifies the crusader vibe the film tries to create for them.

The film could be re-dubbed The Vultures of Wall Street; but there is a Wolf of Wall Street and maddeningly that wolf appears in the film, bewilderingly portrayed as some sort of naïve lamb, unaware of what is about to happen. That wolf is of course Goldman Sachs. This is a film that champions a bunch of financial experts betting on the failure of the American banking system. The film is based on real financial figures who are framed as being the only ones aware, but the truth is a lot more people knew and profited from the situation; these characters were just riding on the coat tails of the major players – chiefly Goldman Sachs.

Goldman Sachs didn’t just make billions of dollars betting on the same failure the characters do in the film. No, they did something far worse: they pressurized the U.S government into deregulating the banking industry; then their greedy investments led to all the toxic sub prime mortgage problems. After that they said nothing, sold them in the millions to other banks, totally abusing their power in the process. Then they took out the kind of insurance policies that the ‘betsters’ in the film take out, ensuring they would make money in the advent of the failure they had brazenly engineered. Just to finish off, they lied about it in the judicial system, got caught and still received billions of tax payers money during the crisis and all they get is a few passing mentions in the film. If you are privy to this information, you cannot help but be outraged that the film fails to mention this. As a result it feels like someone made a film focusing on parasites feeding on a monster that we are never allowed to glimpse. If you can’t go after Goldman Sachs in a film allegedly exposing the problems with the U.S banking system, then when can you?

If you want to read more about just how Goldman Sachs were the real architects and prospers of the real Big Short, click on this link to a well-informed Rolling Stone article.

As a result of going after the minnows instead of the sharks, the film feels rather phony. What’s more, it has a feel to it as though it wants to be a seventies investigative journalist piece in the style of All the President’s Men; at one point a ‘betster’ actually likens himself to Redford’s character in that film. It’s all rather duplicitous though as it tries to hook people in on the idea there is a flicker of moral concern, but really the director is very pleased with the minor achievements of his central characters. It’s more of a con-caper movie than a legitimate expose of the system we so desperately need. It’s the Ocean’s Eleven of financial economic thrillers then. The Big Short is maddeningly trite for those in the know, but will provide some easily digestible insight to the crisis if you are not. Overall though, Mckay’s film doesn’t measure up to other films that have taken on the financial catastrophe of 2008.  6.2 /10