Get Out (2017)

Jordan Peele is annoyingly talented.

Not only does he, in his first film, try to blend together three genres (horror, comedy, social commentary) - any two of which are normally enough to cause a film to fall on its face - but he's doing it without any big name stars to lean on. And, of course, this is 'Black' cinema: no-one wants to watch that. So Hollywood thinks.

Well, this theoretical train-wreck is already the most successful film of all time based on an original screenplay by a debut writer/director.

Because it's really good.

All the bits work: this is important. If you set out to make a horror-comedy about white liberal racism, then it needs to be as properly scary and funny as it is disturbing. And Get Out is very disturbing.

Fine performances all round too. Daniel Kaluuya is extremely watchable, despite Samuel L. Jackson's objections, and Allison Williams and the great Catherine Keener are especially sinister as mother and daughter monsters hiding beneath a veneer of wealthy respectability.

In a funny way the film it most reminded me of was 2009's underrated genre gem Black Dynamite. Star and co-writer Michael Jai White (between one-liners and head-kicks) similarly explored the culturally sensitive idea that the only black people that white people find acceptable are those whose minds and bodies have been mangled, to fit a white mould.

I also enjoyed the Itchy & Scratchy Land reference.

Batgirl - the Marvel slayer?

The news that Joss Whedon will helm a forthcoming DC universe Batgirl film at first seemed to come out of an alternate universe of its own.

Joss is a Marvel guy, right? He made those two Avengers movies. There was a time when it seemed like he was destined to be the *saviour* of the cinematic adventures of Iron Man, Captain America and the rest.

And so, it came to pass: The Avengers (2012) was a triumph that was most definitely Whedon-verse first, Marvel second. However, the follow-up, 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron was too heavy for even Joss's mighty shoulders to bear. Indeed, the filmmaker seemed physically and mentally drained by the effort.

It would surely be his last superhero film.

So why, after a moment's consideration, does Batgirl now make complete sense as his next project?

Well, Joss's had a break, recharged his Arc Reactor, and returns to the genre with the knowledge and experience to bend it to his will. Another comic-book universe needs saving.

This time though, he doesn't have to wrestle the biggest beast of all - a huge ensemble movie - and expectations are also reversed. It's not "Can he possibly pull it off and not ruin the franchise?", instead it's "Watch him inject some life into this mess".

Unlike the Avengers - crown jewels of the MCU - Batgirl doesn't come with the same pressures, and yet is a character with much more potential than Black Widow - the buffy-esque Avenger Joss seemed most interested in.

Most importantly, he essentially gets the chance to have another go at that first, failed, Buffy movie.

Beauty and the Beast of Uncanny Valley

The latest of Disney's 'live-action', loving remakes of its animated back catalogue seems even less real than 2016's almost entirely computer generated The Jungle Book, which is saying something.

'Loving' is the word. Bill Condon is trying to pull off a magic trick here: to recapture the look and feel of the Best Film Oscar-nominated animation from 1991, while injecting enough freshness and energy to justify the remake's existence.

On the first point he succeeds (reusing songs, dialogue, settings, camera movements and dancing teacups will do that), but the question of why anyone should watch this instead of the original is never satisfactorily answered.

On the plus side, Emma Watson is terrific and her level-headed intellect shines through in her performance, while Luke Evans' enthusiastically crotch-thrusting Gaston is a real highlight.

Disney's cartoon Beast also bounds triumphantly out of the animator's cell (with Dan Stevens' help), and looks and sounds utterly convincing.

Rather, it is the landscape itself: the trees; the castle; the village and the cosplay costumes which always seem unreal, and fall far short of Jon Favreau's lush jungles of India.

Having said all that, the audience I saw it with spontaneously applauded. Twice.

Logan (2017): Well, that was violent

After 572 X-Men films, Fox has finally struck gold with Logan.

Ever since Marvel birthed a decade of superhero movies with Iron Man in 2008, the other major studios have faced a dilemma: to copy their technicolor action-comedy formula, or do something different.

Of course, most copied, and of course they couldn't get the recipe quite right, with predictably bland results: Fox's interminable X-Men sequels; Sony's redundant Spider-Man reboot. Warner Bros/DC tried to build its Justice League universe by going Dark and Serious. Unfortunately the films themselves were anything but.

The question got asked: is there a way to tell superhero/comic book stories without following the patented Marvel Technique?

The answer is Logan. Hugh Jackman literally fills the screen as Logan/Wolverine/James Howlett, finally appearing as a fully rounded character with depth and pathos. And rage.

The sense of release is palpable: finally the film and the character have been let off the leash. It's impossible not to wince when his claws tear flesh. Wounds (both physical and emotional) hurt. Age has taken its toll.

Ironically, even if Jackman, Stewart et al are done, there is a cinematic way forward here for Fox. Director James Mangold has cracked the code.

Or was the code cracked long ago, without anyone realising? The superhero story this bears most resemblance to is M. Night Shyamalan's underrated gem from 2000, Unbreakable.

Has an actor ever reinvented a role as successfully as Ryan Reynolds - with the same character?

Reynolds' first attempt at portraying Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine was disastrous. Fans hated his version of the character as much as the movie itself. That all seems like a distant memory now. His second try at filling the red spandex in Deadpool's own movie in 2016 was definitive. Wade Wilson is Ryan Reynolds as much as Christopher Reeve still absolutely embodies Superman.

Other superheroes have barely been improved upon by different actors - unless you count Michael Keaton's realignment of Bruce Wayne/Batman as he made the jump from tv to the cinema screen.

Since then I'd argue that the various actors taking over the role (Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, Affleck) have only portrayed minor variations on the standard set by Keaton, and have not displaced him in the public consciousness. Same goes for all the new Clark Kents.

And while I enjoy Mark Ruffalo's Dr Banner/Hulk, I suspect Bill Bixby owns that role forever; likewise Noomi Repace with Lisbeth Salander.

As for James Bond, Daniel Craig's muscular, mean Bond resuscitated the franchise from life support, but I think most people still hear Bond and think Connery.

Strangely enough, I'd say William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk might be the next best contender. Frankly, you can thank Shatner for Star Trek's very existence. In 1966 the show was in big trouble, and it hadn't even aired yet: it just wasn't working with Jeffrey Hunter's bland Captain Pike. Then The Shat donned the gold shirt, bounded onto the bridge of the Enterprise, and the rest is history. Miraculously, Chris Pine's Kirk is pretty great too.

Moonlight (2016)

"Devastating drama...of black gay masculinity" is The Guardian's headline review of this year's Best Picture Oscar winner. I don't disagree, although a slightly different thought struck me as the credits rolled.

Drama. Every review I've seen seems to start by wanting to jam the film into this category. But, had the intense yearning felt by Chiron at the heart of the story been for a girl, instead of Kevin, would the movie have been viewed rather more as a tragic, soulful romance? I wonder.

The truth is that Barry Jenkins' masterpiece defies genre or easy classification; Moonlight is too ambitious to be contained.

It is simultaneously subdued and radical: you won't see car chases or shootouts here (the script in fact makes a point of resisting such cliches), instead, the images Jenkins presents are even more striking - of affection, tenderness and love between black men. Specifically black men.

In some ways it is sad that seeing black masculinity depicted like this seems so jarring. Several times I braced for an explosion of violence and barbarity, only to find a scene of profound lyrical beauty in its place.

Originally conceived as a play, make no mistake this is pure cinema, acted and directed masterfully.

Incredibly, the Oscars got it right.

The La La Land backlash, or 'How a white guy saved jazz and the Oscars humiliation serves them right'

Admitting to liking La La Land gets you dirty looks in some quarters these days. 'Oh, you're one of those kinds of people'. Mental calculations are done, Venn circles seem to draw you closer to Trump supporters, Fox News watchers and Moonlight-deniers.

So, I went back for a second look at Mr Chazelle's attempt at bottling pure joy - maybe I missed something the first time. I'm glad I did because my opinion of it shifted quite a bit.

I realised I don't like La La Land, I absolutely love it. Fallen for it big time. It has shimmied its way into my ever-fluid personal list of 'The Best Films Ever Made'. It really is that good. It's delirious, it's mesmerising, it is flamboyantly creative. It's better than Singing In The Rain.

Can it be all these things and still rightly come second to Moonlight?

Yep.

It is possible for two all-time greats to come out at the same time, and the appropriate response is to love them both.

Now please, just stop it.

There be whales here!

As a counterpoint to my last post, I was thinking about some fine trilogies that instead dip in the middle.

Good examples are Die Hard (1-3) and Star Trek (II-IV). In both cases I think what's going on is that the first film is a surprise hit, causing the followup to want to replicate the same 'feel', tone and/or plot.

Die Hard 2 is basically a (pale) imitation of the first, with the skyscraper setting swapped for Dulles airport. However, it must be said that compared to Die Hard 4 and 5, the first sequel looks like Citizen Kane.

Returning director John McTiernan rounds off the trilogy with Die Hard: With A Vengeance, which was a reworking of an original script called 'Simon Says'. The limiting cop-trapped-in-a-building formula was swapped for a fun buddy-movie setup with Samuel L. Jackson in fine form as John McClane's reluctant partner Zeus.

Similarly, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock stumbles by trying to recreate the tense, moody feel of Wrath of Khan.

With the reset button pressed and Spock restored to his body, The Voyage Home is free to lighten up and have a sense of humour. Eschewing any forehead-makeup aliens, starship battles or treknobabble it's as close as Star Trek has ever gotten to a straightforward comedy. And it has whales.

Why is the last film in a great trilogy often a let down?

Some examples:

  • Star Wars (original trilogy
  • (contentiously!) Lord of the Rings
  • Spider-Man trilogy
  • The Godfather trilogy
  • Alien 1-3
  • The Dark Knight trilogy

Usually people will say their favourite part of a story is the ending, which is natural - the denouement is where characters typically achieve some sort of positive resolution.

Why then do many trilogies excel at putting characters through the wringer in the first and second acts, only to fluff it at the finish line? Who would say the last film in any of these trilogies was the best?

In the case of Return of the Jedi, it is clear that George Lucas lost his nerve and abandoned the originally proposed, darker resolution. Return of the King seemed to not want to end at all and was generally rather pleased with itself (I must admit, I checked out when the green ghost army appeared).

The failures of Spider-Man 3 and Alien 3 are largely due to their respective directors' visions becoming compromised by studio meddling (after the successes of earlier instalments).

The Godfather part III smacks of unnecessary-sequel-itis, because it's just so tempting to want to make two great movies into the holy grail 'perfect trilogy'.

As for The Dark Knight Rises, I actually think it is under-appreciated, while Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight are held in too high esteem.

Or perhaps it Is human nature that we are inherently unsatisfied by happy-ever-afters. It is the struggle itself that we find most compelling, and it draws us back again and again. Maybe we have a primal urge to see challenges overcome; happy endings we can figure out for ourselves.

I'm so glad Logan isn't an X-Men movie, because I can't stand them

There are 4 things about the X-men franchise I just can't get past:

  1. For every cool mutant (like Wolverine or Mystique) there are dozens of frankly ridiculous (and ridiculously garbed) others: butterfly-girl, toad-boy, weather-woman, angel-winged-bloke. Give me a break.
  2. Too many superpeople. My favourite superhero stories are those in which the superperson mostly interacts with us normals. When they stand alone, as in Christopher Reeve's Superman: The Movie, the film has the chance to explore how he or she relates to the rest of humanity.
  3. The only good team-up movie I can think of is The Avengers - and I'm convinced this is down to the fun of seeing the established characters bounce off each other. Characters, not powers.
  4. The science. The X-men films get a lot of mileage out of them being 'mutants'; the 'next step in human evolution'. Sorry, but it's bollocks, and it drives me crazy. A real genetic mutation causes a cell to construct proteins differently/erroneously - it doesn't allow a person to control the weather. The explanation for Thor is that he's 'a magical interdimensional Norse god being... or something'. Fine, a bit of hand-waving and let's get on with it. 

As for Logan, it's light on cgi, very few 'mutants', and as grounded as one could hope for. It's about as far from an X-Men film as you could get, thankfully.

It Follows (2014)

Promiscuous teens being hunted by a stony-faced killer - sounds like a fairly hackneyed horror trope, doesn't it?

What makes It Follows stand out is the tiny wrinkle in the formula, which allows the film to explore new territory: what if you are being stalked by a stranger only you can see?

Here, a malevolent shape-shifting presence inhabits the bodies of random individuals, and relentlessly pursues its victims on foot. Like the classic zombies of old, you can easily escape, but it is relentless. However far you run, it will get you in the end.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell's film effectively evokes feelings of paranoia and dread, and leaves you involuntarily scanning your surroundings for strangers making a beeline toward you.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

While it feels fast paced to the point of frenzy at times, the film is consistently funny throughout, with great vocal performances from the Arrested Development-infused cast, and has a surprisingly well formed narrative.

While director Chris McKay keeps proceedings light, often joyously silly, it is never campy like the awful Joel Schumacher entries that very nearly killed the character's cinematic adventures. Indeed, McKay accomplishes a feat that only Tim Burton before him managed - to make Bruce Wayne interesting. However, unlike Burton (who was more interested in the Dark Knight's rogue's gallery of villains), Batman is very much the focus here. His attempts to bond with Dick Grayson/Robin are both hilarious and touching.

It doesn't have the depths of the original Lord/Miller Lego Movie, and doesn't have the 'wow this Lego movie thing is really good!' surprise factor. This time there is expectation, which it meets based on the volume of gags alone.

Warner Bros/DC has been struggling to find a unique hook to differentiate its cinematic universe from Marvel's. Snyder eschewed the winning action-comedy formula of The Avengers et al., but by trying so hard to make his Batman vs Superman DEEP and IMPORTANT, it unfortunately tipped over into self-parody. Very, very boring parody.

Maybe the answer is simpler than they realise: dump the Batfleck and embrace Bluth Wayne.

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.