La La Land (2016)

Of all the films that could be considered divisive, you would think that a film like La La Land would be the last one could expect to draw any sort of backlash, but it’s inevitable for popular films to attract pushback, and believe it or not, we live in such divisive times that some people managed to find a way to put people into two basic camps over this. Some people say it’s fantastic and it should have one the Best Picture award, and some think of it as the cinematic equivalent of a Trump rally (trust me, sites like Salon and Newsweek actually wrote reviews of that kind). I meanwhile would prefer not to insert my political agenda and judge this fluffy, light-hearted musical for its merits, being that some critics have completely abdicated that role.

The film is essentially a story about a struggling jazz pianist named Sebastian, whose career was going nowhere until he meets an aspiring actress and playwright named Mia. They meet and fall in love soon after, and they have the habit of affecting each other’s careers, all of set to abundant song and dance numbers.

Musicals seem to baffle me in a bit of an irksome way. They’re always to campy and over-the-top, and let’s not forget to address the fundamental question about the genre. When in real life would you see people randomly breaking into song and dance, and then everyone joins in, and they somehow know the rest of the song? The idea seems to me like of the so-called “golden age of Hollywood”, but with La La Land, I suppose that’s the idea, and if that’s true then the film is a bit sharper than you might think. After all, the film’s title is a rather apt description of the nonsensical song and dance world the writers have constructed.

The acting was quite good, but I personally can’t connect with any of the characters, probably because they are typically unrealistic Hollywood characters, perhaps facets of Damien Chazelle’s fantasy. It would be insane for me to try and argue that the characters have no personality. They certainly do, and the people playing them are certainly capable actors (except for John Legend, who I think was hired for the sake of hiring a contemporary singer), but they don’t have much charm. I do however think there was a good attempt at creating chemistry between the two main characters.

Honestly, the film’s main strength is the way it presents itself. It opens with old style title sequence, and although that’s as close to truly retro as it gets, the rest of the film looked and sounded pretty good. The musical numbers are surprisingly well done, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like musicals. Even though I’ve heard time and again that the film is a call back to early 20th century musicals, there are a few nods to the 80’s, and I found myself enjoying the scene with the 80’s cover band.

All in all, I don’t think La La Land is a bad film. I don’t normally watch “normie films” as I call them, but this is what happens when some people in the media make too much of a big deal over it. The film is basically inoffensive entertainment, and that’s the point. In times where people are tired of hearing about how we’re “more divided” and how everything is supposedly going to hell, you kind of need films like this, and in that regard La La Land certainly succeeds as light entertainment, but it doesn’t get much better than that.

  • Score: 67%
  • Grade: C
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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

Oh Tim Burton, I grew up with your movies when they used to be good, and now I find you languishing in typical Hollywood fantasy fare. Not that this was a particularly bad film. In truth it was quite decent, and the premise was certainly original, but in practice it ended up as a sort of paint-by-numbers affair, showing once again that Hollywood always tends to squander any squint of potential.

The film revolves around a young boy named Jake Portman, who after witnessing his grandfather’s death at the hands of a monster that only he can see, is given permission by his psychiatrist to go to the Welsh island of Cairnholm in order to find an old home for children with certain magical abilities. He finds that they live in a time loop, and winds up upending their fragile equilibrium in order to help save them from the crazy scheme of a mad scientist wanting to gave himself eternal life.

I have probably oversimplified this to a vast degree, but that’s essentially what happens. Anyway, the story itself isn’t bad, but from the beginning I find that the producers put in a bunch of often cringeworthy scenes that seem to have been written in just to pad length in a film that already straddles a somewhat convoluted plot. Honestly, it seemed to me that this could have been much better as an anime film, not that the Hollywood elite would ever entertain such an idea. Also, full disclosure, I know this is based on a book, probably another one that you won’t have read prior to watching the film, and I don’t care, the reason being that a film should be able to stand on its own (this is why I was so critical of the Harry Potter films, which tended to ride on the coattails of J.K. Rowling’s novels), and this film just barely does that.

The characters aren’t bad, but they’re hindered by the typical Hollywood practice of having them overact nearly every line, and even Samuel L. Jackson, arguably the best actor in the whole film, couldn’t escape this trend. The film presents itself decently, but I can’t be the only one who’s tired of every Hollywood film having such an overly polished look, to the point that it’s barely real anymore. However, the film’s special effects make for decent fireworks, and the film’s saving grace can be found in the climactic showdown, although the ending showed that the writers were content with some good old-fashioned schmaltzy closer.

Again, this wasn’t a bad film, but it’s fairly indistinguishable from an average 2010’s-era dark fantasy film (never mind that most if not all films made in the genre are pretty much the same now anyway), and it could have done much better if Tim Burton were at least more willing to think outside the box. With this film, he looks more like a lazy hack than the artist of his prime, having undergone a similarly ghastly transformation as several other Hollywood directors from his era.

  • Score: 60%
  • Grade: C

Rogue One (2016)

rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_posterI’m absolutely certain that Star Wars premieres at around Christmas time are going to become a yearly occasion, starting off with the previous Star Wars film. With Rogue One, which I think is very much on par with The Force Awakens, Disney proves that they can take great care of the franchise, much more so than George Lucas ever could. I think Rogue One represents an amazing amount potential for future standalone Star Wars films in the foreseeable future.

Rather than the obvious throwback plot of The Force Awakens, this film essentially carves its own niche between episodes III and IV, with a cast comprises almost entirely of new characters. The plot of this film concerns a new character named Jyn Erso, who bands together with a group of unlikely heroes with one goal – stealing the plans for the Death Star, the empire’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

Right off the bat I knew that Rogue One was going to be a different kind of Star Wars film, and I got that impression from the opening scenes. I expected the Star Wars title crawl, but instead we get the film’s prologue, which, if I must be honest, was a great way to start the film, and certainly quite a shake-up to say the least. I think the writing definitely improved, and I say this because the last film overtly attempted to recapture the spirit of the older films. Rogue One, meanwhile, even though it is replete with throwbacks, takes a rather surprising character-oriented approach, and I say this because I didn’t know anything about the newer characters, nor did I expect them to have any sort of chemistry.

I honestly thought that Jyn was going to be written as an overpowered Wonder Woman type character, but instead she’s kind of like a Han Solo type of character, and as that character she sort of outclasses Rey from the last film. However, I like the other characters much better, especially the film’s villain, Orson Krennic. To be honest, all the characters worked very well, with stellar performances across the board, and it was an even bigger treat to see Darth Vader once again.

As I would undoubtedly expect, the film is a special effects bonanza, and the film looks extremely well-polished. I also noticed that the film seems to have dedicated itself to recreating the look and feel of the original trilogy. Aside from the sound effects, many scenes look as if they’ve been lifted straight from the 70’s, and I think it’s amazing that Disney is apparently capable of producing this effect. Maybe we’ll see this in episode VIII and possibly in other films. I also noticed that two characters that appear here have had their likenesses from A New Hope digitally recreated and used for their appearance in Rogue One (for a moment I honestly thought that Grand Moff Tarkin was being portrayed by Charles Dance). That’s very impressive, though I kind of wonder to what extent this will be used in later films.

On the whole, Rogue One was a terrific cinematic experience, and I think it’s a great way of showing what Star Wars is capable of in the coming years. I predict that in a decade or two we’ll be looking back on Rogue One and last year’s film the same way we look back on the original trilogy today, with awe and enthusiasm.

  • Score: 94%
  • Grade: A

Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterWhen I first heard of this film and saw the trailer, I honestly had very low expectations, mainly because I didn’t like the lead actors, but also because I felt that, in the end, this would very much be another repetitive superhero film. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but the film itself was definitely better than I might have thought. I ultimately decided to go and see it after it was maligned by mainstream critics (the very same who sung praises of last month’s terrible Ghostbusters remake), and though the film wasn’t necessarily great, it was a decently good comic book film, and my experience with it essentially proved that the critics, long the self-appointed judges of cinematic taste, no longer hold any weight.

Anyway, the film could be considered a “justice league” film for the bad guys, though that would be oversimplifying things a bit too much. The plot of the film revolves around a group of convicted criminals with special abilities who are recruited by the government for one mission – to eliminate a mysterious and enigmatic threat that is wreaking havoc on Midway City, and soon the rest of the world. If they succeed, they will receive lighter prison sentences, but if they fail, they will die and possibly be used as scapegoats.

Compared to most superhero films (certainly most DC superhero films), this film seems to be aiming for a less serious and more irreverent tone, and the characters certainly reflect that. However, the story is somewhat unfocused, and the film ultimately falls into line with the conventional superhero formula. While it is rather formulaic in its approach, it’s not without its charm, and there’s often a humorous touch in places you don’t expect. Personally, it’s the plot that concerns me, but rather the fact that they squeezed in a lot of characters, but without putting much thought into most of them. Many of them come across as filler characters, and that is particularly true of the characters who are introduced well after the first act.

Even if the story isn’t that good, the characters themselves are an interesting bunch. I’ll start by talking about Jared Leto, who I didn’t like very much before I saw this film. After the film, however, I’m convinced that Jared got the character just right. He captures the Joker as the deranged psycho that he ought to be, and he does such a good job at it that I’m disappointed with how little a role he has in the entire film, taking a backseat to an altogether more conventional and less convincing villain. Still, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if they had cast Marilyn Manson instead? Nonetheless, if Jared Leto gets his way and we get a standalone Joker film, I’d go and see it.

Another standout character is Harley Quinn, a character who benefited greatly from the liveliness that Margot Robbie injected into the character. Most of the time, she’s a delightfully quirky character, and her performance is pretty much the highlight of the movie. I’d say she’s done a great job at reinventing the character, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Will Smith’s character. I’m quite surprised at how far removed he is from the boorish urban caricature he played in the 1990’s, because as Deadshot, he plays an earnest antihero – a multi-faceted character with hopes, dreams and weaknesses that make him more human than the rest of them. Sure, he sometimes comes across as a typical Will Smith character, but at least here, he can pull more than his own weight.

The main problem I see is that a lot of the humour is forced, and only occasionally works. I’m aware that they changed Suicide Squad to be more humorous in response to the critics who thought Batman v. Superman was too serious, but they didn’t put much thought into it, and so the jokes and up ruining the serious parts. Another problem is the lack of detail a number of the characters get. Killer Croc, for example, is a completely ancillary character who only gets a few lines in the entire film, and it seems like they put him in for the sake of it.

I can only assume that the vast majority of the film’s $175 million budget went into special effects, because this film has it in spades. From the opening to the credits, the film basically bombards you with pastel colours and special effects that, I admit make the film look quite nice, but in all honesty, I think they used way too much special effects, to the point of it being overkill, and since the action scenes are injected with as much CGI as possible, it sort of translates into yet another bombastic CGI-fest. It doesn’t help that a lot of the music consists of popular songs that don’t seem to fit well into the film, and sometimes are just there because they’re loud and because the producers thought it represented the attitude of the characters.

Suicide Squad certainly has its flaws, but it’s certainly not as bad as the critics will have you believe, though neither is it as good as its fans think it is. It doesn’t completely live up to the way it was advertised, and I’m disappointed by certain choices the writers and producers made, but in the end, it was decently enjoyable film, and the ending at least hints that there may be more yet to come. Let’s just hope that the inevitable sequel is even better than this.

  • Score: 66%
  • Grade: C

Deadpool (2016)

Deadpool_posterIt took me long enough, but I finally got around to see Deadpool. I wasn’t able to see it in cinemas when it was new due to an enormously tight work schedule (and the fact that by the time I finished, Vue Cinemas Carmarthen stopped showing it entirely), but after finally getting the DVD, I can safely say that the wait was completely worth it. Many other superhero films try too hard to be serious films, and the result is that many of them are shallow, repetitive, excessive, and ludicrously expensive toy commercials. Not Deadpool though, perhaps one of the few films of the genre with anything remotely resembling personality, and this wonderfully subversive attitude is what defines Deadpool.

The story is simple enough, and should be familiar by now. Deadpool (a.k.a. Wade Wilson) is the self-styled “merc with the mouth”, who in a bid to treat his terminal cancer, gains vastly accelerated recovery abilities, but his body is visibly scarred, and so he goes on a quest to hunt down the man who gave him the treatment.

This is essentially an origin story for Deadpool, as if the superhero genre doesn’t have enough of those already. Of course, it’s rather formulaic, but Deadpool is uniquely self-aware, and the story itself has been written as a kind of self-parody on Marvel’s part. I guess they know by know that the Marvel formula is too familiar to the cinema-going public, so they figured that the best approach would be that of an irreverent comedy (complete with the demolition of the fourth wall), and it worked.

The main reason why it worked is perhaps because Ryan Reynolds is so good at playing Deadpool. The part was almost made for him at this point, and it might just be the thing that makes Reynolds’ career. He delivers his performance with the kind of confident, gleeful irreverence that makes the whole film a barrel of laughs. The other characters perform quite well, but in terms of substance and acting, they all take a backseat to Deadpool’s show-stealing charisma.

Given that this is Marvel’s one can expect highest-quality production values, and indeed, Deadpool looks and sounds fantastic. On thing that separates Deadpool from other superhero flicks is that there isn’t as much CGI as one could expect from the likes of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, or the latest in Marvel’s vaunted line-up, with only one character in the whole film being composed entirely out of special effects. Indeed, the main strength of the film’s style is its deliciously violent choreography. Deadpool makes for a terrific action hero, but presentation isn’t the film’s strength.

Above all else, Deadpool is essentially the comic foil to all other Marvel heroes. Whenever it seems like the story is going in a typical superhero direction, Deadpool finds a way of subverting it, right down to the end. The script, though heavily profane, is cleverly written enough that the jokes are consistently funny. Rude, irreverent, and certainly not family-friendly, Deadpool is one of the few superhero movies that dares to break the mould, taking on the often pretentious clichés of a genre that is still going stale.

  • Score: 83%
  • Grade: B

Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters_2016_film_posterFor the past two decades, the idea of a third Ghostbusters movie was the dream of everyone who loved the original, then that film went through development hell, after several rewrites and delays, and after a while, it got to a point where I’m surprised anyone wanted it anymore, but somebody apparently decided to make it anyway. Of course, when this film finally was announced, I was pretty worried about the direction the film would go in, and then I finally went to see it, and seeing it only confirmed my suspicions about the film’s quality as I subject myself to a film that tries its best it meet the expectations of the first film, but ends up collapsing under the weight of its own impotence.

For me, the first problem is the story. They essentially attempted a reboot of the original film, wherein you have four ghostbusters trying to prove that ghosts are real, and they’re the people you should call. I understand why they might want to call back to the original. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was essentially a call back to the original Star Wars, but the difference is that film was great, but this film is just lazy. The writers were basically just riding on the coattails of the original classic film, while adding nothing of worth to the table.

A number of aspects of the plot feel like they were just shoehorned into the movie. For instance, there was a scene set in a heavy metal concert, but the way it was written just indicates to me that it was just an excuse to get a cheap, cringeworthy Ozzy Osborne cameo. If nothing else, it feels as if the writers blatantly copied the first film to the point that, aside from the change of scenery, it basically felt like the same film, but significantly less entertaining. I feel like they should have made a film where catching ghosts is a legitimate career, and the main characters are trainee Ghostbusters with Peter Venkman or Egon Ray as their teacher. That would have worked excellently, but instead they went with a lazy reboot that misses the mark in terms of writing.

Let’s talk about the characters, because I have a lot to say in this regard. When there’s something strange, who are you gonna call? Certainly not these Ghostbusters, in fact they’re probably the last people I’d call for help. Let’s make one thing clear, I didn’t care that the Ghostbusters were female. In fact, I think it could have worked, but the problem is that they were bad actors. How Melissa McCarthy is supposed to be funny seems to elude me, because it turns out I live on a planet where she isn’t funny. None of the Ghostbusters were likeable characters, and it seemed to me that the producers were trying desperately to pass them off as badass action heroes, but I wasn’t convinced that they were badass. I wasn’t even convinced that they were funny. It feels like most of the jokes could have been written for any flash-in-the-pan sitcom coming out of Los Angeles.

The worst character in the whole film is Kevin. Before I saw the film, I thought it was going to be Chris Hemsworth playing an insufferable white knight, but it turns out that his character is a lot worse. Apparently Kevin is a handsome yet dim-witted goof who can barely use the telephone, and yet the Ghostbusters hire him as their receptionist because they think he’s hot. Indeed, Kevin basically spends most of the film fulfilling the stereotype that man are oafish buffoons while the Ghostbusters waste no time ogling him at every turn. His character is basically little more than sexy furniture, the film does a terrible job at hiding it. This is exactly the kind of blatant objectification that feminists claim happens to women on a daily basis, but somehow it’s okay when men are being objectified. Am I the only one who questions the logic here? If Kevin were a woman, and the Ghostbusters were men, the producers would be up to their asses in angry tweets.

The film also features cameos from the three original Ghostbusters who are still alive. I find it ironic that Bill Murray (who played Peter Venkman) is now playing the role of a man famous for debunking the paranormal. It was nice to see him again, but the irony is so stunning that it’s funnier than nearly all the jokes in this film. Meanwhile, the film’s main villain comes across as a badly recycled version of Janosz Poha from Ghostbusters II, but with all the funny parts of his character sucked out of him. He acts like an excessively angsty kid with an entitlement complex, and I get that he’s supposed to be a miserable character, but the end result is a badly written villain.

In terms of writing and acting, the whole film was a disgraceful display. I’ll admit that the film had some nice quality ghost effects, but all those high production values seems like a typical Hollywood façade in this film. The film frequently gets bogged down in nice-looking CGI, but the whole film looks much too polished, as if the producers want to make it look nice in order to compensate for bad writing and even worse acting. The CGI is perhaps most prominent in the scenes towards the end of the film, where the Ghostbusters are fighting their way through the ghoul-ridden streets of Manhattan. It looks incredibly flashy to a fault, but it doesn’t make up for much.

All in all, my immediate conclusion is that Hollywood, in its propensity to shamelessly reboot older films rather than coming up with new ideas, has ruined one of the most beloved films of all time. It’s as if somebody had taken Ghostbusters, chopped off its manhood, and offered it as a sacrifice. While it may appease the goddesses of third-wave feminism, it certainly doesn’t appease me, nor the average moviegoer.

Even if it isn’t the worst film of all time, it certainly embodies all that I find despicable about Hollywood, and if nothing else, it made a hollow mockery of the original. The original Ghostbusters was classic, but this film is just a worthless excuse for a comedy, and riding on the coattails of the original made it worse.

  • Score: 45%
  • Grade: D