Monday, May 1, 2017

Hindsight: A 2016 Cinematic Retrospective

It turns out that in 2016 I saw even more Hollywood films than I did in 2015. Bugger. As is the norm, let's start with my totally fair assessments of films I didn't see.

Eleven Films You Might Have Expected Me To See But I Didn't:

10 Cloverfield Lane
I actually quite liked the original Cloverfield for whatever reason and I've heard this is quite decent. I'm curious. Update: I've seen this now. It's tense and engaging, although the ending's a bit daft. I'd probably recommend it.

Assassin's Creed
I've played the first four games to completion, and the next two a bit, but everyone knew this was going to suck. The thing is, I feel like this could have been good in different circumstances. Maybe it actually is good; I haven't seen it. It's not, though, is it? Poor old Fassbender.

Batman: The Killing Joke
This overrated comic didn't deserve the hype of being adapted into a cartoon, much less one in which they had to make up new material to give it an adequate runtime. I simply don't care.

Blair Witch
I'm not a huge fan of the original Blair Witch film, but it does have some good creepy elements to this day and I feel like I'll probably watch this followup at some point.

Dad's Army
The idea of turning yet another twentieth-century TV series into a modern feature film is fairly repugnant to me, and while I've seen a reasonable amount of the show, I wasn't very interested in seeing a bunch of modern actors pretending to recreate it.

Don't Breathe
I heard this was pretty good. I just haven't seen it. I want to.

Update in 2019: I've seen this now. It was decent, although arguably the "person who can't see but has super-other-senses" gimmick is somewhat played out; it's like what would happen if a bunch of kids robbed an elderly homicidal Daredevil. The bait-and-switches with the law-focused kid seemingly getting killed are a bit silly too, but the whole film is fairly absurd. Unfortunately I saw a review a couple of years ago which spoiled the revelations (I never really expected to watch this at the time) and I remembered them, so a bit of shock value was lost. I enjoyed it for the really disturbing plot and the sense of tension, but the constant false endings grew a bit tiresome after a while. I watched this on the same night as 2018's A Quiet Place and I must admit that this was the "film in which people can't speak" feature I enjoyed more.

Hacksaw Ridge
I only heard this even existed when Oscars time came around. I'm curious, if only because I've heard it's set during the war and is horror-movie-violent. I might look into it at some point.

La La Land
I also only heard that this even existed around Oscar time. Apparently it's good. How come Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone co-star in so many films? I want to see this.

Underworld: Blood Wars
I like the Underworld films for much the same reason as the Resident Evil films (see below). I don't have much patience for trash, but action horror trash I have a little time for. I'll probably see this at some point.


X-Men: Apocalypse
I only watched Days of Future Past last year and enjoyed it more than I expected. I've heard this isn't as good, but I'm sure I'll get around to it at some point. Update: I've seen this now. It's not particularly worthwhile apart from the Wolverine cameo and the fact that Apocalypse was actually Oscar Isaac in a costume and not a motion capture CGI character. It actually feels very retro in this regard, like a film from fifteen years earlier.

Now here's a new category!

Nine Films I Didn't See and You Might Not Have Expected Me to See Anyway, but Feel Like Mentioning or Taking the Piss Out Of:

What Hollywood genius thought it would be a good idea to remake an old film (yeah, I know it was originally a novel) that old people would consider sacrosanct and young people wouldn't know of or care about?

I know this is a kids' film and I'm not the target market, but this was one of those things where when I saw posters I thought "Since when were they making another Roald Dahl film? Well, that marketing campaign missed the bus."

Finding Dory
I actually saw the end credits for this after I went into the cinema early before another film. I've never seen Finding Nemo, so as much as I love some other Pixar properties (Toy Story and The Incredibles), I couldn't give a shit about this.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I've heard that this is good. I wouldn't mind seeing it.
Update: I've seen this now too. It is good. Lots of New Zealand style humour, an inevitable appearance by Rhys Darby, and some very good cinematography capturing the famous landscape. Worth a watch.

The Jungle Book
Still adapting Kipling, are we? I kind of want to argue that he's an extremely outdated relic of nineteenth century imperialism, but Arthur Conan Doyle is too and I love Sherlock Holmes, so I suppose I should shut my mouth.

I saw the trailer for this a couple of times. Heartwarming I'm sure, but didn't look like my cup of tea at all.

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children
I know it's based on a novel, but to me it just looked like a cross between X-Men and Narnia. Maybe it's worth it for Eva Green. I've long felt that Tim Burton is a master of concept and incapable of satisfying execution, and I daresay this is more of the same.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Apparently this adapted elements from the much-loved 80s cartoon show, which is kinda cool, but I don't actually really care about the 80s cartoon show, so it'd be wasted on me.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot
Having binge-watched all of 30 Rock last year I sort of imagined that I'd end up seeing this because of my Tina-Fey-loving friends, but I didn't. Apparently it isn't very good. I daresay I'll see it in a bargain bin some day soon.

This leaves us with...

Fifteen 2016 Films I actually saw:

When I saw this I had no idea what it was going to be about or who directed it going in. Then it became a somewhat simplistic espionage and romance drama set against World War II, and when the mediocrity was over and the words "Directed by Robert Zemeckis" appeared on the screen, I went "ah". I'm pretty sure Zemeckis hasn't done anything of real value since Forrest Gump, and while this film was kind of interesting, in that a man played by Brad Pitt discovers that his wife, played by Marion Cotillard, might be a deep-cover Nazi agent, the first half of the film, which is set in Casablanca and involves actual spying, is far more interesting and atmospheric than the second, which is set in England and mostly involved Brad Pitt feeling sad that his wife might be a spy. The cliché ending, in which Cotillard's character shoots herself, despite being a victim of blackmail, to save her husband's reputation, felt like the film casting about for something interesting to end on, not being able to think of anything, shrugging its shoulders and saying "tragic suicide it is, then." Competent, but far from essential.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders
This is an animated film, reuniting several cast members of the classic 1960s Batman television show voicing themselves in animated form, with Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar reprising their roles as Batman, Robin and Catwoman respectively. It's a little over-long and I think it could have been divided into two "episodes" like the TV show upon which it's based, but it's very charming and captures the feeling of the old show well while simultaneously poking a bit of fun at its more ridiculous elements. West, Ward and Newmar all sound pretty much right after all these years and the absurd storyline has enough changes of focus to prevent things from becoming too dull, with plenty of humour about the ridiculous villain schemes, hideouts and traps, as well as Batman and Robin's personalities, making it enjoyable to watch. It's a bit of fun.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
See my full review of this here and listen to this podcast for views highly comparable to mine. The first of my "Better Than I Expected" films of 2016, this is a bad film, but I liked it enough to buy the blu-ray release of the extended edition, which adds essentially nothing to the film. It's unnecessarily dark and dour with an overcomplicated story, some tiresome CGI and an extremely inept effort to introduce the other Justice League characters, but for me at least it was largely carried by Ben Affleck's portrayal of Batman, which I personally found rather engaging. However, as with Man of Steel, it doesn't do anything very new or interesting with Superman, which largely makes me wish this had just been a Batman film. This isn't a good piece of cinema by any means, and I fully understand the opinions of those who hated it. I just liked Batman, and, if I'm going to be honest, the fight between him and Superman was weirdly cathartic.

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week
This documentary on the Beatles' touring years was, in my opinion, a very interesting insight into the lives led by the Fab Four during their most frantic period of performance activity, from '62 to '66, when they were travelling the world, struggling to hear their own instruments over the voices of screaming teenagers, and being placed under constant scrutiny by a still very skeptical media. The large use of archive footage is extremely effective in providing as close as possible a view of what the time was like, and interview material, both new for the survivors and archival, with the Beatles themselves, is invaluable in enhancing this. Probably my only criticism would be that some of the other "talking heads" in the film, like Richard Curtis, seem pointless and trite. The appending of footage from the '66 Shea Stadium concert was also a very intriguing view of what an actual Beatles concert was like by the end of the period: by the looks of things, rushed, slightly on edge and rather safe in terms of set list. Perhaps it's absurd to suggest that the Beatles, with all their enormous success, had a bad time, but it's still a worthwhile depiction of artists at risk of being trapped by their own fame, and how they avoided it.

Captain America: Civil War
It'd be remiss of me to argue that this isn't as relentlessly adequate as any Marvel film, and it features some reasonably entertaining stuff involving Ant-Man and the new Spider-Man. You can read my extensive review of it here. The thing that bothers me the most about this film is that it's really an Avengers film, or even an Iron Man film, rather than being a Captain America film, as while his actions somewhat drive the plot it's fundamentally more about Iron Man and the Avengers than it is about him. The problem I really have with both Russo brothers Cap films is that they're basically just thrillers that happen to feature Captain America, and as a fan of the character I find that personally frustrating.

The Conjuring 2
I was a big fan of the first Conjuring film, and while this sequel is pretty much more of the same, it lacks the impact of the first one. I think I also struggled with it a bit because I knew a bit more about the Enfield Poltergeist hoax going in, so it was more difficult for me to handle how obviously and wildly divergent the film's narrative is from anything that happened in reality. It's entertaining and horror newbies might find it scary, but it relies more on startles and creating a feeling of helplessness than any strong horror theme. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are both still very watchable as the Warrens but I feel like James Wan's horror stylings are possibly getting a little played out by this point. Nonetheless I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the first film.

Everyone sure loved this film, didn't they? It's okay. My sentiments are the same as those of some other reviews I saw at the time. It's watchable, but the plot is a bit too safe for my liking, as it ultimately comes down to Deadpool trying to save his girlfriend. If this had been subverted a bit I would have appreciated it, but it isn't really. Ryan Reynolds is of course fine as the lead; I'm not a huge Deadpool fan, so I can't say whether this was a satisfactory representation of the character or not. My favourite elements were the use of X-Men characters, in this case Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, which added an element of comic-book camp into the film that was necessary and, in fact, far more engaging than the serious way the X-Men are usually portrayed in their own films. I also enjoyed "Deadpool's" (Reynolds') enthusiastic admission at the end of the film that the sequel would feature Cable. Despite being an unconventional superhero film, with its "mature" elements and self-referentiality, this in many respects felt like a film that was more comfortable actually being a comic book movie than many which have been made over the last fifteen years or so, and I at least respect it for that.

Doctor Strange
Speaking of comfort, Doctor Strange was a film I recently saw which I think more or less showed just how well-worn and comfortable the Marvel Studios formula has become. I wish Benedict Cumberbatch didn't have to put on the American accent, but I got used to it after a while, and the supporting cast of various wizards is all decent, the highlight being of course Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. On the other hand, Rachel McAdams doesn't really need to be in the film and seems largely to exist so Strange can have a sort-of love interest, and Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius could have been more interesting than he ends up being; he's somewhat let down, in a film full of interesting locations and curious outfits, by his rather dull design: just a tunic and some purple eye shadow. I also felt that some of the "reality altering" effects seemed pointless. For instance, I'm not sure what purpose all the "running on opposite sides of a catwalk" stuff achieved in the battle sequence in the mirror dimension. As others have pointed out, Strange defeating Dormammu with trickery rather than force was a nice variation on things. Yes, this was ultimately a pretty safe film for such an unusual character, but I think it maybe did just enough differently to get away with it. I only hope the presumed sequel in which Strange fights Mordo takes this a bit further.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I actually enjoyed this film. The screenplay was by JK Rowling herself, and I think it shows, as the quite distinct main plots and their interconnectedness or possible lack thereof potentially evoke a novel's story rather than a conventional cinematic narrative. The excessive use of CGI for the monsters is of course a problem, and with less engaging characters it would have been dull; Kowalski particularly was well implemented. My biggest problem with the film was having the opponent revealed to be Grindelwald himself rather than just being one of his servants or someone who supported his ideals, as I felt like this compressed the size of the world a lot and made Grindelwald, who is meant to be second only to Voldemort in terms of threat, seem far less dangerous than he should have been. Hopefully the sequel explains why he let himself be so easily captured. Also, Johnny Depp? Really? Anyway, I still found this entertaining and would put it as another of my "Better Than I Expected" films of 2016.

Ghostbusters (2016)
The third "Better Than I Expected" film of 2016, I've already reviewed this here. Putting the idiotic controversy around it aside, I think this film works best when not even viewed as a follow up to or reboot of the original films, because the style of humour is completely different. Personally I found it reasonably funny and liked the cast. Of course, it's got nothing on the original, but in my opinion few American comedy films do (maybe Airplane?). The biggest problem with the film is all the scummery that Sony engaged in behind the scenes, such as threatening to sue Bill Murray if he didn't cameo in it. On the surface I think it was made with a reasonable amount of sincerity. Not much more to say about this one; you either like it or you don't.

Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers at their Coen-Brotheriest, this affectionate tribute to/spoof of the 1950s film industry to me was more "mildly amusing" than particularly entertaining. Nonetheless, Josh Brolin has an interesting role as a studio enforcer, the metatextual sequences are funny and evocative, and the representation of Cold War anti-communist paranoia raises a smirk, with tweed-clad socialists presented, beneath layers of irony, as inserting left-wing political messages into Hollywood scripts, which are represented in the film's imagining of a Ben Hur-alike about Christ. Alden Ehrenreich's "Would that it were so simple" scene is the most memorable of a number of episodic encounters. Probably not essential Coen Brothers, but with some rewatch value.

Lights Out
Based on and with the same director as a viral internet short film, this horror feature about a ghost which only exists in darkness is a competent spooky experience but not much more than that. Probably the most interesting thing about it is that it contrasts to a lot of modern horror films, like the Paranormal Activity series, by having the parent, rather than the child, being the one enabling the creature to terrorise the family. Typically the child is the one who can see or knows about the creature and is manipulated by it, but in this case it's the mother, and it's quite disturbing to see her young son in distress due to her own irrational willingness to let this thing haunt them, and the elder daughter desperately trying to resolve the situation. Nonetheless, the way the problem is resolved is, in my view, a bit cheap, and possibly doesn't convey a terribly good message. It might be worth a watch but it's also not essential unless you want to support a budding director, which perhaps you should.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
I haven't seen all of the Resident Evil films, but the ones I have seen I've enjoyed for their shameless trashiness. While this wasn't a particularly coherent follow up to the previous film, it was enjoyable for dumb grotesque action and a sincere if simplistic effort to resolve the entire plot. Probably what it missed was appearances by more of the series' various supporting protagonists. Recurring villain Wesker is also defeated in a very anticlimactic way. Nonetheless it must be given kudos for the deeply amusing sequence in which Dr Isaacs' cybernetic implants give him a prediction of how he can defeat Alice which ends with him smugly sipping a glass of whisky. The worst thing this daft film could have done was take itself seriously, and it didn't. It's still a stupid film, but it's the kind where I don't care.

Rogue One
I would have dearly loved to have given this my "Worst Film of 2016" award because of how stupendously overrated this was at first release, but that would be dishonest, because it's not badly made, just immensely cynical (perhaps even more than The Force Awakens), thinly written and, its biggest failing, extremely boring. I've already reviewed it as much as I'd care to here. You can also listen to a podcast here (and a follow up here) in which some folks I know express opinions highly comparable to mine on the topic. I'm astonished that people think this is one of the best Star Wars films. Personally I found it dull, with utterly two-dimensional characters and a boring plot. At its core it's just fan-pandering, showing lots and lots of stuff from the original trilogy, up to and including Darth Vader and a creepily-recreated Governor Tarkin. I wish we could see what this would have been before reshoots, as I suspect it would have been a lot better.

Star Trek Beyond
I'm no fan of the reboot Star Trek film series, as can be observed in my scathing review of Star Trek Into Darkness, which I awarded "Worst Film of 2013". As a result I was surprised to discover that I didn't mind Star Trek Beyond. While the plot is still quite boring - the Enterprise goes somewhere, they find a big strong bad dude and at the end Captain Kirk punches him until he falls over - it got me by. I think its biggest strength was that it used the cast as an ensemble, particularly giving greater, deserved screentime to Karl Urban's McCoy, who has always been my favourite in these films, rather than trying to just focus on some angsty relationship between Kirk and Spock. Probably my biggest gripe is that I think it's somewhat badly edited, with some sequences and characters not being set up clearly or coherently, and I don't like the twee way the alien fleet is defeated at the end, but I can live with it, and I think it's almost certainly the best of the reboot films. I wonder if not having JJ Abrams at the helm and/or, more likely, not having those two guys who wrote Transformers and Damon Lindelof penning the script had anything to do with it not sucking as hard...

Yoga Hosers
I know nothing about Kevin Smith films, having only seen most of Clerks one time, which I thought was pretty good. While this film has nothing of the bite of that, in that it only tries to represent the vacuousness of modern youth rather than the hopeless pointless emptiness of modern life, I found it reasonably diverting and I was surprised that it was so unpopular. It reminded me of an Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg feature but less witty. Not sure what to say about this one. The two leads were engaging and Johnny Depp was tolerable. It's stupid and indulgent, but I didn't mind it. 

Thus, of course, my "Worst Film of 2016" Award goes to:

Suicide Squad 
Batman v Superman was one thing, but even I'm not going to try to defend this mess. Frankly, I don't even know why it was made; only nerds like me have heard of pretty much any of the characters in it, and none of them were established in the other DC universe films. Obviously any value it had was wrecked in editing and reshoots, as the cast seems to be introduced twice, there's a subplot about the Joker that doesn't seem to go anywhere, and the main narrative is a "save the world" thing that doesn't explain why they need a team of villains to handle it. Amusingly it won an Academy Award. I liked Affleck's cameo as Batman and I suppose Will Smith and Margot Robbie were okay as Deadshot and Harley Quinn, but the thing I most took away from this was a feeling that no one who was involved in making this really knew what they were doing. While it didn't bore me or annoy me to the same extent as Rogue One, I can't pretend that this wasn't a far bigger disaster. 

Thus, by a process of elimination, my top film of 2016 award goes to:

NO AWARD (yet).

No 2016 film I actually saw deserved "top film", even though some of the better ones, like Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders and The Conjuring 2 kept me entertained; giving any of them "top film" would be going too far. I'll update this when I see a 2016 film that actually deserves it.

Update: Possible Candidate
The Neon Demon
A really weird film by the director of Drive, it stylishly and, in the end, horrifically, examines the superficiality and ruthlessness of the fashion industry. It's most worth it for the long, striking, hypnotic trance sequences and pounding soundtrack, and for the grotesque ending. I believe the film has been criticised for depicting the fashion industry as women victimising each other when the industry itself is still predominantly controlled by men who exploit and manipulate women against each other, which is interesting in itself as something I wasn't aware of before. From a purely visual standpoint, it was probably the most striking 2016 film I've watched in a thematic sense.