La La Land (2017)

With so much hype, how could Damien Chazelle's follow-up to the brilliant Whiplash be anything but a disappointment? Thankfully, the film is a triumph, managing to update the classic MGM Musical while retaining all the best elements.

The big set piece dance sequences are here, and are suitably ravishing in lush technicolor, but they never outstay their welcome. Chazelle's film is tight, and the structure loops back around in delightful and surprising ways.

The end sequence in particular, with the perfectly judged return of the central musical motif, is masterful.

This is filmmaking of the highest quality, and handled with the confidence of an elder statesman with thirty films under his belt. In the years to come I suspect Chazelle's name will be spoken reverentially, in the manner of Spielberg or Scorsese.

I find truly great films to be the hardest to write about - there are no outcropping rocks to find purchase on. Stone and Gosling are magnificent, the cinematography is gorgeous, the score is transportive.

The classic Hollywood musical has pulled off an astonishing comeback and I for one couldn't be happier.

By gosh, I think it's perfect. 

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

One could make a compelling argument that sequels are the hardest cinematic form to get right. They exist because people love the original material so much that they crave more. Most are failures, little more than perfunctory footnotes, while a very rare few chart a bold course of their own.

The latter is definitely not the case with the crushingly disappointing Trainspotting 2. This is the school-reunion variety of sequel: the gang is back together, older, fatter and more tanned and with nothing left to say to each other except to reminisce about old times.

It is on this point that the film really needed to have made a decision: should it try to recapture the magic and set the gang off on a new adventure; or, confront the tougher realisation, that there's nothing left for these characters but their memories. The film never settles that key question and ends up pulling in opposite directions.

One gets the feeling that returning writer/director team John Hodge and Danny Boyle rewatched Trainspotting endlessly in preparation, but perhaps they would've been better off with something else, like Once Upon A Time In America - a melancholy ode to cherished memories and lost friendships.

It's not terrible, it's just not brilliant, and I'm afraid that's the bar. 

Robert Carlyle's spectacular performance as 'Begbie' is still terrifying though.

'71 (2014)

Is this film an attempt to make a modern Western set against the backdrop of the troubles in Northern Ireland — or is it a social commentary about the troubles with a sprinkling of genre elements? After a first viewing I'm not entirely sure, but I kept wanting it to just embrace the former.

An easy comparison to make is to Gareth Evans' superlative The Raid (2011). The Raid has a sliver of a through-line about police corruption in Indonisia, but Evans keeps laser focussed on making the best damn martial arts action movie of all time, from the first second to the last. By contrast, '71 director Yann Demange appears, at times, to want to restrain his film just as it tries to break free and soar.

Don't get me wrong, all the bits work, and the final product is a taut, perfectly suspenseful thriller about a fresh-faced soldier trying to survive the night alone on the IRA-controlled streets of Belfast.

It's just that Demange pulls out two masterfully directed sequences in which the film explodes into life - making me wish that level of intensity had been maintained through the entire running time.

First, when Jack O'Connell's disarmed Private Hook literally runs for his life, IRA gunmen in hot pursuit, across the desolate, unforgiving Belfast backstreets. Then later there is an incredibly tense (and very Raid-like) scene of a barely-conscious Private Hook hiding from assassins in a tower-block.

It's a very fine piece of work, but all the elements were here for a classic.

Sing Street (2016)

If it hadn't had such good word of mouth I would have avoided this little flick like the plague.

Precocious kids, grim-council-estate-itis, school pop-bands: this film has the perfect trifecta of material that I personally find nails-on-a-chalkboard irritating.

However, to my great surprise, it totally won me over. It's actually kinda great.

Catchy songs too.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Remember when Quentin Tarantino knew how to do 'cool'? I miss that guy.

Don't get me wrong, I love long languorous westerns - one of my favourite films of all time is Once Upon A Time In The West - and while his dialogue still fizzes in the ear, his actors are fully committed and his frame is (mostly) beautiful, there is no depth here.

Tarantino's own love for Leone's elegiac masterpiece is evident, not just with the obvious visual homages, but also in the slow, deliberate pacing. But while Leone could hit you over the head with an emotional sledgehammer at the very height of an operatic crescendo, Tarantino has only surface.

But what surface! The snowy 70mm vistas are gorgeous, as are the shadowy interiors of Minnie's Haberdashery and the grizzled faces of Tarantino's troop of players (Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell in particular).

The problems are in the third act. The central mystery is unsatisfying and actually pretty straightforward, and without a Searchers-like revelatory moment or emotional climax of any kind, Quentin must rely once again on his legendary knack for 'cool'. However, the Midas touch seems to be wearing off, and instead we get a disgusting tapestry of blood, shit and gore for a finale - in glorious 70mm.

Under the Shadow (2016)

Mark Kermode's film of 2016 is an apparently atypical British-financed Iranian horror movie that, I have to say, seems to tread fairly familiar ground.

Perhaps the fact that Iranian born writer/director Babak Anvari shot this in Jordan, in Farsi with an Iranian cast gave the production a strong enough exotic flavour that it helped to mask the meat-and-potatoes horror beats.

Narges Rashidi shines as Shideh, who, due to past political activities, is prevented from continuing her medical studies in post revolution Iran. She is frustrated by her home-bound role of wife and mother, and as the threat of war from Iraq draws ever closer, she becomes convinced evil spirits are all around.

So far so good.

Then the clichés start to drop like the literal bombs that fall through her ceiling:

We are treated to a full compliment of 'quiet.. quiet.. Bang!' moments; evil apparitions appear in beds; hands try to drag her under beds and entangle her in covers; her daughter *appears* to have been replaced by a spirit (don't check to make sure!); a creepy doll; talking to people who aren't there; a creepy child who stares a lot and doesn't speak - except to whisper dire warnings; characters frequently make stupid decisions to advance the plot.

It's the last trope that I can't stand - at least twice in the third act I involuntarily cried aloud "Oh come on!".

The writer goes to the trouble of telling us that Shideh can leave the flat at any time, and even has other characters beg her to go. Of course, she refuses, because, uh yeah I don't know why. Because the script says so. Finally (way, way past the point I would have run for the hills) she does leave, and lo-and-behold, everything is fine.

This is a rare example of a film that would have been better with fewer fantastical ideas thrown in (another example is Edgar Wright's muddled The World's End).

Ultimately, the simple but engrossing human drama of the first act is undermined by genre elements that are not nearly as original as Anvari thinks.

Rogue One, hyperspace and those damned prequels

It is often said of George Lucas's Star Wars prequels that they failed to achieve their primary objective, namely: to provide context to and enhance enjoyment of the original trilogy. This is wrong. The true goal of any prequel (or sequel) *should* be, to exceed the original. To be better. See The Empire Strikes Back for how this works.

However, in the history of cinema this feat has only been achieved a handful of times. Therefore the secondary goal should be to make a good film that does nothing to tarnish the original. The original material is, after all, the reason for the whole endeavour. Aspire to top it, but tread carefully.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story succeeds wildly here, in contrast to the hatchet jobs perpetrated by Episodes I, II & III.

The number of golden moments from Lucas's original trilogy that he himself was happy to ruin is staggering, including: the reveal that Vader is Luke's father; the reveal of Yoda; Luke and Leia being siblings; Force lightning; the mystical nature of the Force itself (ugh.. midichlorians).

However, tellingly, there was one red line George refused to blunder over, and it relates to a special effect. That's right. The one thing in the original trilogy Lucas thought was worth preserving is the 'jump to hyperspace' shot (it is found nowhere in the prequels).

We should all get down on our knees and thank Disney for taking Star Wars away from him.

Passengers (2016)

Imperfect films are often as intriguing as they are frustrating. But just making something genuinely intriguing is a higher bar than most people think.

So is the case with this Black-List scripted 'almost' movie. It was almost something really special.

My head was buzzing as I left the cinema: the film was filled to bursting with interesting possibilities. It is clear in hindsight that the juicy premise - a single passenger on an interstellar colony ship wakes up far too early and faces the prospect of living, and dying, entirely alone - could've been brought to the screen a dozen or more different ways.

For example, there's the potential for a sparky romantic comedy: two charismatic passengers simultaneously wake up at opposite ends of the vast ship and discover each other when they meet in the middle; alternatively, imagine a Hitchcockian thriller involving an increasingly disturbed passenger forcing others to wake up, before disposing of them.

If done well I could see myself enjoying either of these movies. Sadly, the filmmakers were unable to choose, and ended up making both.

The end product is a bit like fillet steak with a side of chocolate gateau - intriguing. Unsuccessful, but intriguing.

Correctly anticipating The Last Jedi

No, Episode VIII is not one of the 10 most anticipated sci-fi films of 2017.

Because Star Wars isn't sci-fi. A recent article in The Guardian claimed otherwise. Let's clear this up once and for all.

Most dictionary definitions of 'science fiction' waffle on about 'futuristic technologies', 'space', 'other planets' etc. All this would therefore include Star Wars, so the definitions are wrong.

Here's mine: science fiction is a storytelling form in which the speculative element is critically important to the story; that is, the story could not exist without the speculative element e.g. spaceship, alien race, technology, planet.

To illustrate my point, imagine Star Trek without the Enterprise, Alien without the xenomorph, Planet of the Apes without intelligent chimps or Back to the Future without a time-travelling DeLorean.

Sci-fi is great, but Star Wars ain't it.

So, what is the key element that our beloved, ahem, Space Opera could not do without?

Lightsabers? Swapping them for metal swords wouldn't change much. How about the Death Star? Well there was no planet killing weapon at all in the best movie in the series. The concept of the Force itself? The Force makes Star Wars unique, but Luke Skywalker could still take on Darth Vader and the Empire without it.

So what's left?

The Skywalker family. Shmi, Padme, Anakin, Luke, Leia, Han and Ben (Solo). Ultimately the films are about characters not concepts.

It makes sense that the story of Star Wars was largely lifted from Akira Kurosawa's samurai classic The Hidden Fortress. It would be fairly straightforward to remake Star Wars as a samurai saga... samurai versions of Tron or Babylon 5 would probably be more of a challenge.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Filmmaking is as much about what a writer or director doesn't put on screen as what is there. Decisions, decisions.

What struck me most about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was just how solid Lucas's 1977 original was by comparison; the storytelling lines were incredibly clean for a first foray into the galaxy far, far away.

Rogue One is ultimately a bit of a muddle, with director Gareth Edwards conflating the choas of war with a jumbled narrative.

Too many characters (with unmemorable names), too many planets, too many plot threads. Add to this an array of character motivations that keep shifting like the sands of Jedha, and I'm left yearning for the clarity of the original trilogy. And yet, and yet...

There's good stuff here, and almost every time Edwards swings for the fences he sends the ball into orbit.

I love the idea of the Rebel Alliance trying so hard to kill the architect of the Death Star - without realising that the weapon was already built and ready to go. There is a fantastic arm-prickling moment when they learn just how little time they really have left. I love that they immediately consider surrendering. I loved the Alliance *finally* getting its shit together and the whole fleet showing up for a do-or-die battle.

The problem was that I largely understood the impact of these scenes without truly feeling them like emotional gut punches.*

Frustratingly, Edwards found enough material here to make something that could've rivalled The Empire Strikes Back, but the end product is more comparable to the missed opportunity that is Jedi.

*Except, of course, *that* scene with Vader.

"Now I am the master"

With The Force Awakens, Disney showed George Lucas how to make a Star Wars sequel.

With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, they've shown him how to make a prequel.

Dear Zindagi (2016)

More evidence of progress in Bollywood?

In the years to come I suspect this film will be remembered more for its social ambitions than its dramatic content - which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Here, Alia Bhatt (a performer I've found off-putting in the past) is a junior cinematographer struggling to balance her job, love life and family pressures, while Shah Rukh Khan plays her Dumbledore-like 'brain doctor'.

Thankfully, both stars underplay their roles, reminding you how magnetic each can be (particularly SRK) when given the right direction.

But the real star here is writer/director Gauri Shinde, with the messages she has for the 'Bollywood' film industry and Indian society in general.

As a non-Indian I found both the topics broached here, and the way they are handled (head on, but with sensitivity) incredibly refreshing.

I can't remember the last time a mainstream Indian film talked so positively of gay and lesbian relationships ("No I'm not a lesbian, unfortunately for me"), swept aside taboos around both depression and female promiscuity ("Shouldn't you try many different chairs to find one that feels comfortable?"), and promoted the idea of women not having to sacrifice their careers for marriage.

The fact that a Muslim actor (SRK) is the voice of progress here is no accident, and hugely significant.

It is also noteworthy that since SRK doesn't appear until at least 45 mins into the movie, it is more accurate to describe him as co-star to Bhatt's lead.

Just for a moment I worried the film was going to push the two toward an inappropriate romantic resolution, but happily, the landmine was avoided.

"I've made a huge mistake"

Thinking about movies that have won people round, those films that you absolutely love now but hated on first viewing.

Here my list of shame, (in order of how much I initially took against them):

  1. Blade Runner
  2. Once Upon A Time In The West
  3. Strictly Ballroom
  4. Batman Begins
  5. Once Upon A Time In America

And, hell, I'll just say it... Lawrence of Arabia. Not that I hated it, I just found it long and boring.

Turns out I was kinda wrong about that. Kinda spectacularly wrong. Basically as wrong as it gets.

Changing your mind about something is one of life's greatest pleasures, and I've gone on a wonderful journey with each of these.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

There's no zealot like a convert.

Cards on the table, I loathed this movie first time I saw it.

The constantly swirling camera, the eye-wateringly garish costumes and the unapologetically 'Australian' feel to the whole thing. Ugh.

In hindsight I see that I got it all wrong.

Part of the reason, I'm forced to admit, is that I must not be very observant and/or smart. I completely missed the extremely obvious fact that the film is a romance. I'd actually thought it was just about some dance competition.

When that clicked I started noticing other things. There's a subtext running through it about immigrants in Australia, how the excluded poor get by on the fringes. Ballroom dancing is the perfect medium for exploring how an imported culture can stripped of all substance until only the glitzy surface remains.

During the film 'Just Fran' and her family (who literally live on the other side of the tracks) open Scott's eyes to deeper truths of self expression, of dance as art and emotion.

The best scene is one in which Scott first really notices Fran, while simultaneously director Baz Luhrmann draws her character forward from the background extras. Yes, Fran will go on to transform in appearance from ugly duckling to swan, but that comes later. Scott gets interested in Fran not when she takes off her glasses or puts on a dress, but when she performs the dance step she invented: "it's... something I've been working on... at home".

It's the spark of creativity he sees in her that he finds irresistible not the number of sequins on her gown.

A room as big as the universe

"Room" (2015), director Lenny Abrahamson's master work, tells the story of a mother and son imprisoned for years in a small garden outhouse.

Joy's attempts to transform 'Room' in Jack's infant mind from prison cell to a wonderland as big as the universe itself is both tremendously moving and also thought provoking. Is the size of each of our worlds constrained by physics, or by what we can imagine?

In Roberto Benigni's 1997 masterpiece "Life Is Beautiful" a paternal relationship is the heart of the movie, as Guido Orefice protects his son from the horrors of the holocaust by constructing a make-believe world for them to inhabit.

Whereas Joy, in an attempt to free Jack, risks traumatising him by smashing his tiny universe, Guido dies trying to preserve his own fantasy just a little longer.

Upward trajectory

With 'Fantastic Beasts' continuing the Potter franchise, I got to thinking about films in a series that are better than preceding entries...

I'd say the Potter series peaked with the third film 'Prisoner of Azkaban'.

Arguably 'From Russia With Love' (the second film) was the best of the 'classic' Bonds.

And I'd say 'For A Few Dollars More' was better than 'Fistful', while, remarkably, 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' was better still.

Reappraising Jurassic World (3/3): bonding over a T-Rex

Delightfully, director Colin Trevorrow confirmed that the big bad T-Rex that showed the Indominus Rex who's boss was indeed the very same creature that fought off the raptors at the end of Jurassic Park.

Why does this matter? Aren't we just talking about one big cgi dinosaur fighting another big cgi dinosaur, with the human cast watching helplessly? After all, there's nothing on earth more boring than Michael Bay's wretched cgi transformers battling one another.

The difference is small, but important. When Bryce Dallas Howard opens the enormous gate and unleashes mama T-Rex, Trevorrow is saying to the audience: "Trust me, I get it. I love the same things about Jurassic Park as you."

It's a feeling of shared appreciation, of the director and the fan being of the same mind - of the director *being* the fan.

It's Ripley taping the guns together. It's "Shaken or stirred?" "Do I look like I give a damn?". It's Adonis Creed on the canvas and the split second vision of Apollo. It's Rey pulling the lightsaber out of the snow. It's the T-Rex roaring out of the gate.

Brings a lump to the throat.

Reappraising Jurassic World (2/3): what could've been

I think the biggest reason I disagree with the rampant online backlash for this movie is that where many see a missed opportunity, I see a landmine sensibly stepped over.

Fans wanted new of everything: characters (& character types), dinosaur species, locations, *types* of stories; what we got was very familiar.

Examples of successful sequels that strike out in completely different directions, with different emotional beats *and* entirely new characters are extremely rare. In fact, I can't think of any that attempt all three.

The closest I can come up with are: 'The Empire Strikes Back', which reused existing characters in a completely different type of movie; and 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes', which features new (secondary) characters in a changed setting. Two points here: 'Dawn', while ambitious, is not a great movie; and I'm not sure the Jurassic Park universe is rich enough to support an 'InGen Strikes Back'.

Mess with a successful formula at your peril. There's a reason why 'Creed' follows the same essential beats as 'Rocky', (and arguably 'Rocky II', 'Rocky III', 'Rocky IV' and 'Rocky Balboa').

One of the many (thankfully discarded) JP4 pitches would've had dinosaurs used in military operations, literally having lasers and rockets strapped to their backs. Yeah.

Colin Trevorrow made a lot of great decisions in my opinion: hew close to the feel of the original, show the park finally open, and then explore the logical consequences. What happens when people get bored of dinosaurs? The movie doesn't have to tie itself in knots by stringing an overly complex narrative together. *cough*The Dark Knight Rises*cough*.

'Terminator: Salvation' stands as a cautionary tale of what happens when franchises try too hard. Fans were desperate to see the Future War; turns out there's no movie there, because there's no story. Because that's just not what the series is actually about.

Reappraising Jurassic World (1/3):

It's a *Jurassic Park* movie, people! Dinosaurs n stuff.

I had the opposite initial reaction to Jurassic World that I had to Jurassic Park. During my first viewing of the original film my teenage brow was furrowed... This was the global sensation everyone was talking about? This movie?

It wasn't that I hated it, I just expected more. Much more. I knew it was going to have realistic fx of dinosaurs - but so what, I could see dinosaurs any time I liked in my imagination.

I expected shots of dinosaurs to be the amazing backdrop to the movie, not the movie itself.

Well now I am older, the imagination doesn't conjure herds of terrible lizards on command as it used to, and I have much greater appreciation for the technical wizardry and rock-solid Spielberg craft that went into that first film. I love the shlock, the goofiness, the heart and, well, dinosaurs!

So, I've come full circle on this; while many were disappointed by Jurassic World for just being a big dumb fun dinosaur movie cut from the same cloth as Jurassic Park, that's precisely the reason I enjoyed the heck out of it.

Things the Dollars trilogy got right (15/15):

Save the best for last. If I had to pick the single most distinctive aspect of the 'Dollars' trilogy, the thing that most sets them apart, it has to be the delicious cynicism.

Leone is utterly contemptuous of figures of authority. The dark underbellies of sheriffs, priests, noble townsfolk and anyone with status are exposed by Sergio's eye.

These types of characters had traditionally been portrayed as wholesome, honest and courageous; they represented white civilisation taming the savage country.

By the 1960's these archetypes were so entrenched that it was shocking to audiences when Leone took a machine-gun to them. In *his* West: lawmen are weak or corrupt - or both; townsfolk bay for blood; hoteliers are conniving and duplicitous; soldiers are mutinous; priests are cowardly; and bad men are casually psychotic in a manner that presages Tarantino's deranged killers.

As Monco says in "For A Few Dollars More", before he unpins the sheriff's star and throws it in the mud:

"Tell me, isn't the sheriff supposed to be courageous, loyal, and above all, honest?"

However, Leone's laceration of the bourgeoisie reached its zenith outside of the Dollars movies, in the underrated "Duck You Sucker".

The film features an infamous 'desert banquet' scene of a group of aristocrats stuffing their mouths with food. Their mouths were likened by one critic to the sight of "unwiped bottoms".