The 2016 Top Three

We’ll keep it simple this year, with my favourite films of 2016, starting with…

arr11. Arrival – Yes its an unusually intelligent science fiction film with adult themes, terrific acting and direction, wonderful cinematography and a novel and disturbing score. But its my number one film from this year simply because it was such a gut-wrenching emotional experience for me. The film will not connect with everyone the same way, but I’m certain anybody who has loved and lost and experienced the pain of that, will find something oddly cathartic about the central question behind this film. If you knew ahead how things will turn out,  how much pain and tragedy your life and the choices you make will bring, would you still go through with it, still make those same choices? Its a profound and soulful question with a profound and soulful answer for many. And all this from a science fiction film depicting alien contact, the same central plot so abused by Independance Day and Transformers and so many other silly spectacles .Arrival is a special film, and for me a special cinematic experience. Film Of The Year, no question.

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2. The Revenant– Back when I saw this at the start of the year in early January, I figured this was it, I’ve just seen the Film Of The Year already. For several months,it clearly was, as it was on a different level to everything else I saw. The Revenant looks utterly gorgeous, has a haunting score, some great performances… I came out of the cinema feeling rather shell-shocked. It’s an example of what Doug Trumbull used to call Pure Cinema, a visual and aural feast, and incredibly powerful on the big screen. It isn’t quite so amazing on the small screen but its still certainly the second-best film I’ve seen this year. Most years it indeed would have been Film Of The Year, it just got ambushed by Arrival from out of nowhere.

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3. Rogue One– It has occurred to me that Rogue One may be a case of diminished expectations following The Force Awakens resulting in my enjoying this film far more than I might ordinarily have, but it remains a great Star Wars film (my third favourite in fact).  Its not perfect but you have to applaud the audacity of putting a cgi Peter Cushing onscreen with a bigger role than he actually had in Episode 4, and the sheer ambition of making such a love-letter to the 1977 film in the guise of a Disney blockbuster. The fan-service may have been a little overcooked but to me it all feels more natural and less calculated than The Force Awakens (the latter film doesn’t ever ‘earn’ the death of Han Solo, it simply dumps it onscreen to apparently fulfill contractual obligations to get Harrison Ford back). I’d much rather a Star Wars take chances like Rogue One does (and The Empire Strikes Back decades before it) than strike such a safe path as The Force Awakens (and Return Of The Jedi and all) did. I rather think the standalone ‘Anthology’ films might prove more rewarding than the main saga entries if only because they have more freedom to take those chances. In anycase, it’s my third favourite film of 2016, not what I would have expected after The Force Awakens rather disappointed me.

And there you have it, my favorite three films of 2016.

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The 100 and 2017

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Hey, I got there. With that last review, for The Secret Life of Pets, I’ve managed to hit my 100 target for 2016. While it may seem easy for some (Richard has somehow managed over 180 this year) its been a down-to-the-wire odyssey for me, mostly due to missing a whole month back around June when we lost our dog, but a few other trials and tribulations through this rather horrible year haven’t helped either.

I used to think 100 would be easy. I seemed to watch loads of stuff during a year. Maybe trying to keep up a quality-level, being picky what I sit down to watch, is what makes it tricky; lord knows there’s plenty of junk I could have watched to make up the numbers (some would argue I already did, judging from some of the films I watched over the past twelve months). Of course, the real trick isn’t watching them, its writing about them.

And who knows? There’s a few days left of this deeply unpleasant 2016 so you never know, I may yet add to the list with one or two others for good measure, but at any rate, the 100 target was eventually met. Job done. It’s certainly been my busiest and most prolific year of blogging ever, and as always I’d like to express my appreciation for all those of you who have read it and care to comment on it. We’ve never met, but I consider all of you to be good friends.

About that; I have the digital footprint of a gnat. I’m not currently on twitter or facebook or anything. Other than my wife (and she doesn’t even read it), none of my family or friends or work colleagues even know of this blog or how long I’ve been writing it. The Ghost of 82 really is almost like an alter-ego. So anyway, this brings me to my plans for 2017.

For a start, I don’t think I’ll try for 100 again (and no, that doesn’t mean I’m going to try for a darn fool target like 150 instead). I think I may keep a running total as I go, just incase, but I’ll just see how that goes. Instead, I have the rather more troublesome intent to perhaps try posting something everyday. Reviews are all very well, but in my original blog Musings of the Ghost of 82 a long time ago, I pretty much concentrated on writing down observations, memories and thoughts/opinions etc, and I used to enjoy that. So I thought I’d try it again but on a rather more regular basis. Not necessarily long posts, sometimes they might amount to  something like a tweet whenever something occurs to me. I know I’m likely making a rod for my own back and a daily blog is hardly realistic with life pressures etc but we’ll see. It might be boring and if so I’ll stop and go back to just the reviews, but you never know. At the very least it might mean some more stories/pics of young Eddie (he’s doing pretty well, by the way).

As for 2017… We have a new Ridley Scott Alien movie (caught that new trailer? Wasn’t that a weird Christmas Day present?) and something called Blade Runner 2049 which is going to loom a rather exciting/worrying shadow over my year. Back in 1982… well, the thought that I’d be seeing a sequel 35 years later after Blade Runner disappeared into obscurity and box-office failure… my impossibly young self would have been astonished, amazed. Right now? Well, 1982 seems both a long time ago and only yesterday, and I’m pretty appalled at this Twilight Zone I’ve fallen into. Lets see what happens, eh?

 

RIP Carrie Fisher

carrieSome awfully sad news; it has just been announced that Carrie Fisher has died aged 60. For boys of my generation, who grew up with Star Wars, Carrie and her Princess Leia made something of an impression- I was twelve at the time, and I’m pretty sure she was my first crush. Of course her sassy and confident, daring and heroic princess made a different impression on girls everywhere.

Its impossible to quantify the cultural impact Carrie and that character had. If you were around in 1977, 1978, when Star Wars hit- it is hard to explain now, in this era of the internet and social media and celebrity culture, people are almost immune to it, but back then, Star Wars was something wholly new, a global event that even Jaws a few years earlier could not equal. Surely that was something of a weight for her to carry. Although she had a ‘Hollywood Royalty’ background, fame such as that which Star Wars threw on her is of a scale that few people could be prepared for or able to handle. Her personal life following Star Wars was somewhat blighted by failed relationships. drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems. She was only human.

She played other roles and wrote a number of books, but to me and many others she will always be Princess Leia from Star Wars.

1977 isn’t really all that long ago, and 60 is no age at all. Its been quite a shocking year for losing our icons. I’m sure stats can mean anything, and this is just an inevitable outcome of this generation and the one before it just running out of time, but really, Bowie, Prince, Rickman, so many others this year- Kenny Baker, the man inside R2D2, was another Star Wars actor who passed away this year. Part of me hopes that once 2016 is over, things might return to normal, whatever ‘normal’ is regards losing our icons, but the other part of me fears that this is just me getting older and those actors, writers and singers who I grew up with just getting older too- and that 2017 will just continue this sad and troubling trend.

A few months ago I started a list of all the authors I used to read, the actors I grew up watching on television and in movies, the singers whose music I listened to and bought, the artists whose artwork in comics and books I admired. When I looked at how many of them have passed since, well, I stopped making the list. It was like seeing all my life passing into shadow, all those people who had an impact on me all gone. There doesn’t really seem that many of them left. It was such a sobering and depressing observation.

 

The Secret Life Of Pets (2016)

pet12016.100: The Secret Life of Pets

There’s maybe too many of these cgi-animated films out there now. Okay- there simply ARE too many of them. Like with superhero films, it seems mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, because its getting to the point at which they all start to look the same or follow a familiar formula. There’s certainly reminders of earlier (and better)  films like Bolt here, or so many Pixar films like the Toy Story series. Its fun. Its even funny. But I wouldn’t dream of describing any of this as original or ground-breaking. Its okay, but it always feels rather generic.

It does, however, raise an issue that is starting to arise with these films, and some may well argue that its been here a long time already. It took them a few films to get there, but once Pixar established the formula for its family-comedy animated films with the ‘buddy-quest picture’ template, and continued to pursue it in successive films, it set a precedent and practically wrote a ‘how-to’ guidebook that so many studios have followed since. Unfortunately its so routine that the scripts for these films almost seem to have been all written by the same team, and viewers can predict every turn, to the degree that no matter the finesse in the animation or art design, the mold being used desperately needs to be broken. I guess Hollywood would argue, if it aint broke, why fix it, as the box-office returns on these films appears to be pretty reliable.

Its getting to the point though where even the character designs and mannerisms/animation is all starting to look the same. They almost look interchangeable between films, and the voice-work sounds pretty familiar too. At least in the old days you could tell a Disney film from any other animated film, and a Pixar film too, but the homogeneity of the cgi-animation behind these films is all making it more a general animated landscape of, well, conformity and over-familiarity.

Sadly, its rather like so many superhero films, in just the same way that Marvel have settled upon such a winning formula for making their films that DC have felt the need to adopt it with their own (and consequently impacted their BvS film, for example, by awkwardly putting in unnecessary seeds for later DC films in just the same way as Marvel has seeded their various superhero franchises in individual films).

The Secret Life of Pets isn’t a bad film. In fact it was something of a hit in my household, with my in-laws citing it as the best film they have seen over the Holidays. So it’s clearly doing something right. I’m perhaps being unfair to it, complaining it isn’t anything particularly new or demanding anything of its audience. It simply is what it it is. But there are too many films like this before it and no doubt many like it due in the future, and eventually, over-familiarity breeds contempt. It’d be a shame if it was a Pixar film that caught a hit over it, or maybe that would be poetic justice?

Jason Bourne (2016)

jason12016.99: Jason Bourne

I’m rather a fan of the Bourne films- certainly the first three, and the fourth (and first non-Matt Damon outing) The Bourne Legacy had its moments, but it’s now clear that the problems with that flawed fourth entry in the franchise were not unique to itself. This latest film, simply titled Jason Bourne, sees the welcome return of both Matt Damon in the title role and also celebrated director Paul Greengrass, but alas it carries many of the problems of that fourth film which at the time were perhaps shrugged aside as simply being the by-product of not having Damon or Greengrass involved.

Sadly, this film has none of the energy and freshness of the first three films, with few surprises (and some of those unwelcome). Instead its a tired and surprisingly unimaginative retread of so much that has gone before, to the degree that it almost feels like a reboot rather than a continuation of the saga. Perhaps thats simply another indication of safety-concious Hollywood and its unwillingness sometimes to really stretch a franchise away from the familiar – a criticism that could well be laid at the feet of the rival series of James Bond films.

Perhaps its due to the length of time between the previous Greenhouse-helmed and Damon-starring entry, but  there’s certainly an element of doubt and lack of conviction about this effort. Dare I say it almost feels like a cash-grab? To fans such as myself, that’s the worst thing of all regards this film- in anycase, its woefully overfamiliar: Jason Bourne is living a life ‘under the radar’ until he is again brought under the gaze of the CIA and factions within it that need Bourne silenced/terminated, an ensuing chase around the world with Bourne at odds with elaborate high-tech surveillance tech in his search for a hidden truth about his past (in this case, the particularly awkward introduction of his dead father and Bourne’s search for justice/revenge).  It almost feels like a ‘Greatest Hits’ package of elements from each of first three films: Bourne resurfaces, he’s abetted by ‘honest’ CIA staff, he has to avenge the death of his wife (father here), the head of the CIA is corrupt, the odds are against him but Bourne stays one step ahead, the tech fails in the face of the human element, Bourne goes back under the radar. I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything- you really have seen it all before.

Worse, the execution itself feels rather uninspired, with action scenes and stunts all sadly inferior to those of the first three films. Its a frankly disappointing effort and while some fans will enjoy the familiarity of the returning characters and themes, I’m sure that most, like me, will feel rather let-down by the distinct lack of originality. The Bourne films have been a welcome alternative (and some would argue a needed kick in the teeth) to the Bond films, and it’s odd to see the Bourne films in something of a creative crisis at the same time as the Bond films seem to be suffering from one.Maybe its a general issue with the spy-thriller genre in the wake of the spectacles of the superhero films that dominate the screen these days. Or maybe the recent Mission: Impossible films are having an impact on Bourne as clearly as they are the Bond films. I do hope the Bourne films can continue, particularly with Damon as he’s clearly a great action hero in these, but perhaps with the next film a fresh approach can revitalise it. It certainly needs something.

 

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

rogue12016.98: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story  (Cinema)

Frak me, this film was terrible. Awful.

Nah. I’m kidding.

Now, this is how to make a Star Wars movie. It isn’t perfect, there’s a few missteps that mean it’s some way short of greatness, but its a hell of a Star Wars movie. Infact, I haven’t seen one as good as this since 1980- it’s the Star Wars film we’ve been waiting for since The Empire Strikes Back. Its the film that Return of the Jedi deliberately wasn’t, that the prequels weren’t, and The Force Awakens failed to be. What I’m trying to get at is that, well, Rogue One feels authentic. Genuinely ‘Star Wars’ in a way that only the 1977 and 1980 films really were.

Instantly all my gripes about The Force Awakens being a contrived and nervous attempt at rebooting a franchise that doesn’t need rebooting rather than simply continuing, are simply forgotten with this beauty. I came out of the screening buzzing like a twelve year old back in 1978. I knew it wasn’t perfect but man, I’ll forgive every misstep because what a great Star Wars film it is. Genuine Star Wars. Surely there’s no better praise than that. It even possibly revitalises watching Star Wars: A New Hope in future- a hell of an achievement. What a great two-parter/double-bill these two films will make on Blu-ray someday.The writers even managed to put to rest the old joke about how lousy the Empire’s engineers were for building a space station with a dodgy exhaust port. After near-forty years that old joke is finally done.

As usual, I’ll leave spoilers out of this so will keep details vague. I’ll turn to spoilerific details in a few weeks maybe, as it’s best that people see this film knowing as little as possible. I must point out that I deliberately avoided the last few trailers as each successive trailer was clearly revealing too much- what is it with the marketing boys these days, can’t they just tease anymore? As I have already pointed out, the film isn’t perfect, but it nails the look and sound of Star Wars, has so many nods and treats for Star Wars fans, particularly of the original trilogy, that it feels like the perfect Christmas present for someone like me. Fan service isn’t always a bad thing. I didn’t even really mind the rather contentious (apparently) issue of bringing back a Star Wars character (or two) using cgi. It just felt right, and even if it isn’t quite a resounding success (the tech clearly isn’t quite there yet) the kid inside me just reveled at the sheer audacity of it. In a narrative sense it works and its dynamic is one of those things that likely will add to rewatching A New Hope.

Rogue One is a great Star Wars film- the Star Wars film I had given up on ever seeing (especially after The Force Awakens). Wow-  Disney, you turned me around. Keep the anthology films as good as this and the Star Wars franchise will run and run and that $4 billion will seem like small change.

Yep. I really liked it.

 

 

 

Blade Runner 2 teaser

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I won’t post a link here as its easy to find posted on Youtube, but the first official teaser for Blade Runner 2049 has just been released. It ain’t bad. It even looks rather cool and, yes, genuinely ‘Blade Runner.’ Its like I just got an early Christmas prezzie. This film could be good. Roll on next October…

The Jungle Book (2016)

jungle12016.97: The Jungle Book

I’ve never seen Walt Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book, other than the clips they would endlessly re-run every Easter on Disneytime (anybody else remember those?), so in some ways I came into this one in a rather unique (I would imagine) poston of not knowing what to expect. These live-action remakes that Disney are doing are quite clever really, rather like the remakes/reboots that Hollywood in general is so keen on these days. They seem to be working quite well too, on the evidence of this one; such a pity that The Black Hole remake seems to have stalled- if ever a Disney film deserved a (better) remake, its that one. In anycase,  this film benefits greatly from modern technology giving it a fresh angle, in just the same way as the recent Apes reboots have for Fox.

Its also ironic, that speaking as someone who bemoans the amount of cgi trickery and how it mucks about with quality film-making, it must be said that the 2016 Jungle Book (inspired no doubt by some chap watching Life of Pi a few years back) would have been quite impossible without cgi. The technology can be responsible for some pretty remarkable film-making, such as Pi and stuff like Gravity. Indeed most films -and particularly much television too- benefits hugely by cgi; like any tool, it just has to be used well. Its just too easy to miss-use it I guess. Its funny, I remember much the same argument being made about those ILM effects back in the original Star Wars era.

Is it the fault of cgi that screen-writing seems to have suffered so greatly over the past twenty years or so? I mean, it has to be partly to blame, mustn’t it. Its too easy to replace drama and carefully orchestrated plots and character arcs with loud explosions and flashy spectacle, and that’s such a shame as films -particularly blockbusters- seem to have degenerated into amusement rides rather than ‘proper’ (as I would call it) epic storytelling like the 1959 Ben Hur.

But that sounds like an old bugger whingeing about the disrespectful masses who wouldn’t dream of watching anything from the pre-Spielberg era of motion pictures and film-makers who have no intention of educating them.We are where we are.

So anyway, Jon Favreau’s rather remarkable new Jungle Book is quite the wonder. As someone who grew up in the ILM bluescreen era, for whom these cgi wonders are still eye-popping so long since Jurassic Park changed the movie landscape, much of the imagery and trickery on show is utterly astonishing. It looks quite ravishing, and I always watch this kind of stuff wondering what Hitchcock or Kubrick would have made of it (sorcery, maybe, but what wizards they might have been handling a toolset such as this in their movies?).

Newcomer Neel Sethi is something of a particular wonder as Mowgli, though, a mote of humanity in a cgi landscape whose bubbly personality and sense of pure innocent wonder is quite charming and steals the show from the effects boys.  His performance is a wonder when one considers what the live-action shooting of this film likely entailed (i.e. nothing at all like what the finished film looks like). Vocal casting of the animated characters is pretty spot-on too, with Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, and particularly Idris Elba as the villainous Shere Khan all very impressive and largely equal to the cgi visuals. The jungle feels real, although it most likely is utterly virtual. I have the impression that, like Avatar and Gravity before it, this new Jungle Book is a stepping-stone to something; I’m not sure exactly what, but there is something up ahead, a particular film in ten years time maybe, that when it hits will blow people away and people will trace its lineage backwards to stuff like those films, in just the same way that the Flash Gordon serials led to Star Wars. In anycase, this new Jungle Book is fine entertainment, one of the real achievements of 2016.

In A Lonely Place (1950)

lonely22016.96: In A Lonely Place (Blu-ray)

One of the pleasures  of being a film-fan is discovering old films that you haven’t seen before and simply falling in love with them. Its like they’ve been waiting all those years just for you. In the case of Nicholas Ray’s film noir masterpiece In A Lonely Place it’s been 66 long years- it’s in like those movies where a character asks “where have you been all these years?”, it seems incredible that this film has been out there and I’d been ignorant of it. Thanks to Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release of this classic noir, and subsequent rave reviews that got my attention, I’ve finally fallen under its spell.

(Its the ‘magic’ of disc releases of catalogue titles; many of them don’t seem to appear on tv anymore and its only through these releases, like so many by Warner Archive and Arrow Films, Eureka etc., that these older films get my attention. It’d be such a shame if disc releases get replaced by streaming and downloads, as I’m sure these older films will suffer. You can’t rely on late-night television screenings anymore (they just don’t seem to happen these days)).

lonely3The genius of In A Lonely Place is that while its film noir, its really a story of a doomed romance, a tragic love story. Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a washed-up screenwriter with a vicious temper. He becomes the prime suspect in a Hollywood murder, and his alibi proves to be his seductive, beautiful new neighbour  Laurel (Gloria Grahame). The two of them are lonely, broken souls and they start a passionate affair while the police continue to try to pin the murder on Steele. As the film continues, the romance is clearly good for Steele- he gets back to writing again, and gets a whole new zest for life, but Laurel’s happiness starts to unravel as she begins to witness Steel’s temper and his hair-trigger for violence. Doubts start to form in her mind -and in the audience- regards Steel’s innocence. Are the police right after all?

Its all very dark and complex, with elements that would later surface in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo a few years later. Indeed it very much feels like a film noir Vertigo, and in some ways In A Lonely Place seems actually superior to that classic, concluding with a similar dark and tragic inevitability. Of course, as Vertigo is one of my very favourite ‘Top Ten’ movies, it’s inevitable that I would fall in love with this noir masterpiece that shares so many of that film’s themes.

lonely1Bogart delivers a brilliant, complex and subtle performance, displaying both a vulnerability and a simmering darkness. Grahame is equal to Bogart with a sultry swagger that slowly becomes something more tender and then fragile. Both are phenomenal, both are perfect- its one of those films where you cannot possibly imagine any other actor inhabiting the roles they take. Bogart is not an actor I ever had much interest in when growing up; other than his early  gangster roles I was pretty much ignorant of his films- I only finally caught up with Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon this year. I think I’ve been missing out on something. I think thats something I will have to rectify.

In anycase, In A Lonely Place may be 66 years old, but its one of the very best films that I have seen all year. Its one of those films that lingers in your head for days- “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Dialogue and sentiments like that, in tragedies like this, it’s pure Hollywood magic. If  you are as ignorant of this film as I was a little while ago, really, this film is not to be missed. Its simply brilliant, and I can hardly wait to watch it, live it, all over again.