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The list is in reverse order down to number 20. Then I decided to add more films.
How effing stupid.
This list features films with one, maybe two, F-bombs which add nothing to the film except causing offence. This is not to say that the films are kids' films - they're not - but they are mostly targetted towards an audience on the young side and/or with an expectation of family viewing (albeit not young children)
I have tried to leave out films where a central character simply isn't funny (nearly every Jack Black film, for instance).
Good kids' film
When the joyful Trolls are threatened with destruction (the monstrous Bergens eat them in order to gain momentary happiness), it is up to the relentlessly cheerful Princess Poppy and the morose Branch to come to the rescue.
I'm sure you remember those ugly little toys with the massive sticky-up hair from your childhood: well, they take centre stage in this romp through a confrontation with their mythic ages-old foes, the Bergens. The source of the conflict is the simplest of things - happiness - and this plays a major part in the motivations of all the principal characters.
Given that Trolls are - well, Trolls, there is inevitably a similarity of appearance among them, but the character designers have done a good job in making each character well differentiated so that they are easily recognisable. Similarly, the Bergens have strong individual hideousnesses (is "hideousnesses" even a word?). And the voice cast, headed by Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake, does sterling work, with the singing being as good as the acting.
Given the trend for movies to look drab, dark, dull and desaturated, it was a pleasure to see a film which positively pulsates with prismatic polychromaticism. Some of the musical routines are the modern equivalent of the spectacular Busby Berkeley mass dance routines from Hollywood musicals of the 1940s, only bursting with colour.
The story is primarily functional, but it carries a moderate amount of emotional payoff as the main characters all have decent character arcs. The resolution might be accused of being glib if this was not primarily a kids' film. Even so, there is a lot here for adults to enjoy.
And I've always enjoyed Cyndi Lauper's True Colours (despite its overuse in UK TV advertising): the routine in which it is used here is exquisite and moving. It might have been written expressly for this movie.
The Girl on the Train (2016)
Masterclass in Storytelling
If you watch the trailer you will be shown that this film is about a woman who sees certain events from a train and is possibly implicated in a mysterious disappearance. And I'm not going to tell you any more than the trailer does.
I tend to open my reviews with a synopsis of the film in question. In the case of The Girl On A Train (adapted from a bestseller which I haven't read) I'm not going to do that, because I wouldn't want to deprive anyone of the experience I enjoyed, namely the unusual and well-crafted way in which this story was told. Providing a synopsis would damage that experience because it would inevitably entail revealing details which would ruin the way those details are revealed in the film.
I have a fascination with storytelling. Most stories have some form of exposition dump in their early stages, whereby the reader/viewer is provided with information they need before the plot can get under way. The plot then unfolds before arriving at a resolution of some sort. In this film, however, we are initially provided with character studies of the main characters. These include expository details, of course but this is almost secondary. The film appears more concerned with creating mood and atmosphere, much of which is calculated to make us ask questions rather than simply supplying us with information. Information is provided, of course, but subtly, and in dribs and drabs.
The characters are all well conceived to discharge their functions in the plot (the plot proper doesn't really start until nearly halfway through the film) yet the character traits and the connections between the characters are all natural and believable. For instance, each of the three principal characters has issues concerning childbirth: all are appropriate, relevant and credible, and all drive the plot.
Thinking about this film as Story reveals how well-crafted it is, but you don't have to do that. Just enjoying the experience of having the story gradually reveal itself is perfectly sufficient.
I don't normally care much for Emily Blunt, but she is wonderful in this. The rest of the cast is good, but she is exceptional.
A Street Cat Named Bob (2016)
Decent, if anodyne
As James struggles to escape heroin addiction, busking in Covent Garden doesn't prove successful. When a ginger tom cat adopts him (and vice versa), he finds that having it perch on his shoulders becomes a strong selling point, and his growing relationship with the cat and mounting local celebrity status help his escape from the depths of addiction.
This true-life story is nicely, if undemandingly, realised. Given a family-friendly certificate in the UK, James' addiction and weaning off methadone is shown perhaps a little more gently than might actually have been the case, but that doesn't matter: the story is inspirational and merits a little de-sensationalising in order to deliver it to an audience which might benefit from the message it contains.
Luke Treadaway delivers a sympathetic James (I was so glad when he washed his hair at the end), Joanne Froggatt is good as his social worker, Ruta Gedmintas is appealing as neighbour and possible future love interest Be''y (it says "Betty" in the cast list, but glottal stops are substituted for t's on the soundtrack), but lets talk about Bob.
David Head wasn't given a great deal to do as James' estranged father but, by gum, he was good.
I saw this in a cinema where the audience contained quite a lot of cat lovers. I could tell this, because whenever Bob got a closeup, which was quite frequently, there was a communal "Aah" from the selection of, mostly, ladies. I've got to be honest, I found this irritating. I mean, I wouldn't kick a cat (well, not deliberately), but come on!
So my verdict on this is that it is a moderately heartwarming and uplifting true-life saga, a bonus if you like cats, but do try not to see it in a cinema full of moggyphiles.
Is it as deep as it appears to be?
After a brief but devastating flashback prologue, spaceships arrive in stationary positions at a dozen locations across the world, and language specialist Louise is recruited by the military to try to communicate with the aliens within. Verbal communication turns out to be impossible, and Louise concentrates on visual communication: the aliens use symbols which look like the stains coffee cups leave. Meanwhile, some of the countries hosting the other ships are getting jittery about their guests...
Arrival is, I think, going to be the new Matrix. Like The Matrix, I fancy Arrival is going to have a lot of people thinking that it is a masterpiece of cerebral science fiction and, like The Matrix, I think it will turn out to contain a good deal less than meets the eye.
Don't let me talk it down too much, though, because it certainly contains some food for thought. The best notion for further examination is that the language you learn in infancy influences the way your thought processes develop, notwithstanding that this was a key concept in Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land back in 1961.
I felt that this idea (which drives the concept of the perception of time which, in turn, enables the resolution) was never coherently developed, though, and needed to be spelled out a little more clearly, especially as regards how it tied in with the prologue.
The international paranoia and local xenophobia angles are far more straightforward, albeit straight out of The Day The Earth Stood Still. The cast are all very good in a film which takes its time to tell a story which, ultimately, is fairly simple. Amy Adams holds centre stage effectively, and Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker provide excellent support. And the visuals are interesting: not especially flashy, but always in service to the story. Denis Villneuve's direction is excellent - I liked this a great deal more than Sicario - and is one of the reasons why people are going to think there is more to this film than there is.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that this film is an example of The Emperor's New Clothes, but it may well be a case of The Emperor's New Underpants. It's definitely worth seeing, though.
The Accountant (2016)
Pretty good, and unusual
Christian Wolff - who, we already know, is somewhere on the autism scale - is a small-town tax accountant with a secret: he solves large-scale financial problems for unpleasant people who may have money-laundering issues. He starts working to unravel false accounting at a prosthetics/electronics firm just as the FBI start to intensify looking for the mysterious Accountant who works under the aliases of various mathematicians.
This film is a bit difficult to classify. It has a bit of action, some mystery and suspense, and even a touch of comedy. It is a thriller and a character study. If you're an accountant (koff koff), there's even a bit of accountancy in there for you to slaver over. And you often don't know where it's going while it shows you multiple story threads until, towards the end, they begin to come together.
But the journey through this mystifying confusion of seemingly disparate narrative strands is never less than entertaining, for a number of reasons. And the main one of these is Ben Affleck's performance as Christian.
We see him initially as a child, full of OCD, with a rift between him and the rest of society, and an inability to cope with things like a task left incomplete. Only his brother is able to calm him at such times. Meeting him as an adult, he has clearly developed strategies which enable him to cope in society, but he still remains seemingly emotionless, able to imitate some element of emotional connection but not really experiencing it.
Affleck, who seemed to lose his way as an actor, has found it again here: he is first-rate, and an Oscar nomination looks likely (Oscar does seem to like characters with handicaps). The rest of the cast is also excellent.
The action and direction are very good and the story is immensely satisfying, albeit you are left with unanswered questions (who is the mysterious woman on the other end of the phone, an intermittent dea ex machina?) and, perhaps, an idea that not everything makes as much sense as it ought to.
Nonetheless, this film merits strong recommendation.
Not above criticism
Tulip was left undelivered when Cornerstone ( a delivery service run by storks) cancelled the baby delivery side of its business. She now works for Cornerstone but Junior, delegated to fire her, cannot bring himself to do so. The two of them embark on delivering a new baby to an eagerly awaiting family while sneaky *rse-lickerToady seeks to scupper them in order to curry favour with heartless boss Hunter.
This CGI feature gives us two loveable protagonists: Junior, would-be heartless boss but with a heart, and Tulip, well-meaning but klutzy, and a little lost soul. We also have two villains: big boss Hunter (beautifully voiced by Kelsey Grammer) and odious, treacherous sycophant Toady, a desperately unfunny "humorous" character with the worst vocal characterisation since Steve Martin in Looney Tunes: Back In Action.
My concern about this movie is that it is not very friendly towards kids who are, presumably, its main target. The story, while not over-complex, is fairly dense and may lose younger viewers, and much of the dialogue is rapid-fire with references which are aimed at adults more than youngsters.
Having said that, there is a lot of humour, especially visual slapstick humour, and the emotional payoffs - and there are a fair number of them - are broadly presented so that all ages should be able to register them.
With the exception of Toady, character design is good, set/location design is excellent (albeit the baby-making machinery, while dazzling, is extremely busy - just because you can use CGI to achieve complexity doesn't always mean that you should: less can often be more effective than more).
The babies, of which there are literally thousands, and especially the featured baby, are unbearably cute, and thankfully avoid "so sweet they may make you puke" status.
I did like this - I preferred it to the recent Trolls by a small margin - but I think older kids will enjoy it more than younger ones.
The Light Between Oceans (2016)
Badly paced, unlikely characters, mechanical plot
Tom Sherbourne, traumatised on the western front, takes a job as lighthouse keeper on an island off a remote part of the Australian coast. Local young woman Isabel marries him, joins him on his island, but has two miscarriages. Immediately after the second, a dinghy containing a dead man and a live baby washes up on the lighthouse island: Isabel persuades Tom not to report it and to pass off the baby as their own, so he buries the body. At the baby's christening back on the mainland he encounters the child's real mother and finds himself vastly conflicted.
I usually start by considering the things I liked about a film: here I have to start with what I didn't like and, what I disliked most was the story. There is an expression in British theatre called "plonking" - when the script introduces an element which is obviously solely for the purpose of justifying something which will happen later, it has been "plonked" down in front of the audience. This story is full of plonks. The lighthouse being on an island, the dinghy arriving at the same time as the second miscarriage, the baby's father being German, the mother being at the church at the same time as the christening, the rattle a) being seen by a visitor to the island and b) being small enough to fit in an envelope, her father being wealthy enough to fund a reward about the rattle - all these, and others, are clumsy mechanisms which exist only in order to fit the story together. The reasons for them existing are so obvious that the story appears gracelessly cobbled together rather than organically grown.
Added to which, the two main characters, their motivations and actions, are hugely improbable. It may be that the novel does a better job of filling in detail here, but it seems that (for instance) Isabel falls in love with Tom because he took her for a picnic and has an air of melancholy about him. Well, I suppose people have got married for less, but still... These two individuals are more story contrivance than characters.
The pacing is all wrong, too. Starting out as a romance, it turns out that it is no such thing: the first hour is all set-up for the actual drama of the second half, and could - and should - have been trimmed.
Turning to more positive aspects, Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are both wonderful actors, and they do an exemplary job - better than the story deserves - of fleshing out these two cardboard cut-outs into living, breathing, halfway-credible people. Rachel Weisz is adequate as the mother.
The look of the film is good: the desolate beauty of the isolated lighthouse island is beautifully photographed, and the direction is broadly good, too, albeit the pacing issues can be laid at the feet of writer/director Derek Cianfrance.
The mature ladies in the audience who were there because they'd read the book all snuffled dutifully at the end of two hours of blatant emotional manipulation: I fear I remained resolutely unmoved.
Looking on the bright side, Fassbender and Vikander became an Item during the filming: think on that as your attention wanders.
Bad Santa 2 (2016)
Just plain unpleasant
Alcoholic disaster Willie Soke, saved from suicide by loveable man-child Thurman Merman, moves to Chicago where he runs up against his old deeply unpleasant dwarf sidekick Marcus Skidmore and his even more deeply unpleasant mother Sunny. Together, the 3 of them plan to rob a charity which hires down-and-outs to be - yes, you guessed it - Santas under the guidance of dodgy philanthropist Regent and his big-breasted sex-starved wife Diane. Crime and sex ensues.
I never saw the original, but I get the joke: wouldn't it be funny if there was a Santa whose every quality was diametrically opposed to everything Santa stood for? Well, apparently, it was such a good joke that it merits a sequel, albeit it had to wait for 13 years.
This film has an ugly start - the fundamentally unlikeable Wille Soke, bemoaning his life, tries (and fails) to commit suicide. It then moves through a series of unpleasant events in which unlikeable people do unlikeable things (the most likeable of these being when Christina Hendricks repeatedly yells "F*ck me!", in the throes of a knee-termbler with a fully-Santa-clothed Billy Bob Thornton against a dumpster down a scuzzy back street alley.
The only likeable character is Thurman Merman, 8 years old in the original movie and now 21 but acting in every respect as if he was still 8: a nice character, but not even slightly believable.
The film contains profanity on an industrial pollution scale (not unexpected, but not very edifying either) and is profoundly unpleasant in almost every respect.
Yet I laughed. Not constantly, and not that deeply, but it did raise chuckles fairly frequently. I suspect that this makes me a bad person, but I take comfort from the fact that I am no worse than the people who made this horrible film.
I am ashamed to say that my lower lip trembled during the Silent Night sequence.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Susan, despite her art gallery business, is an unhappy woman in an unhappy second marriage. Then Edward, her first husband, sends her the manuscript of his forthcoming novel - a tale of a family who fall foul of three intimidating young men on a remote Texas highway - and she is soon tied up in the narrative and its parallels with her life.
I don't normally have much time for art-house films, and this is clearly an art-house film. But it tells two stories, and tells both of them brilliantly. The events of the novel are delivered as a suspense thriller, and are cross-edited with Susan's story and experience of reading the manuscript. The editing is superb: it is as artistic, in its own way, as the film itself, where sound and image are carefully considered and crafted throughout.
The crime thriller aspect is a story we have probably seen before, but we care - as does Susan - about its resolution. I found myself caring less about Susan's own story, the "real" story, if you will, although this gradually changed as the parallels between Edward's novel and his marriage to Susan became clearer. And this was not least due to the brilliant stroke of having Jake Gyllenhaal play both Edward and the protagonist of his novel.
The performances are first class. Gyllenhaal, in particular, impresses enormously in both roles, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as chief tough is unrecognisable.
It is rare to see a film which is so obviously an art-house film but which also entertains and impresses as a mainstream piece of cinema, but Nocturnal Animals manages it, and I recommend it accordingly.
Mum's List (2016)
Moving and worthwhile
Kate and Singe fall in love as teenagers. Their idyllic life is challenged when their older son has cancer. He is in remission when Kate also gets cancer. Knowing her time is limited, she leaves multiple instructions for Singe and the boys for when she is gone.
Mum's List stars Emilia Fox as Kate and Rafe Spall as Singe (Singe is short for St John, what were his parents thinking?). This film is based on the real-life Singe's best-selling book, and takes a non-linear approach: we dart back and forth between life after Kate, the two of them as lovelorn teens, and their lives as young newlyweds coping with their son's cancer.
Filmed in Clevedon, using the actual locations of Kate and Singe's life and featuring family friends as extras, a strong sense of reality is generated. The film is thoughtful, emotional, tearful and, ultimately, uplifting and hopeful.
There have been a number of films in recent years centred around cancer sufferers, and I have some reservations about cancer as the basis for entertainment. Having said that, cancer exists and I see no reason to exclude anything as a subject for a film. And this one is compassionate, realistic and worthwhile: it doesn't pretty things up, but neither does it plumb the deepest depths of despair. It strikes a fair balance.
And, importantly, it features wonderful performances from both Emilia Fox and Rafe Spall, both of whom have moments which utterly wrecked me: Fox delivers an enormously moving monologue to camera, and Spall has a moment at a bar when he turns to ask Kate what she wants to drink and, of course, she isn't there.
So, while observing that this might not be everyone's cup of tea, I give it a guarded recommendation.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Really? I mean, really?
17-year old Nadine has felt out of place since she was small. When her best friend since childhood, Krista, takes up with her hated older brother Darian, Nadine feels even more isolated than usual, and her Drama Queen antics lead in an even more negative direction than usual.
Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, and I have rather liked this young woman's performances since she first exploded in the Coen Brothers' True Grit. In this movie, she plays Nadine brilliantly.
The trouble is that Nadine is not very likeable and not very believable. She actually has quite a nice life, being well provided for by her single-parent mother, and also enjoying the fact that her brother takes on various parental roles, notwithstanding normal sibling antagonism.
So when she utterly selfishly forces her best friend to make the choice of her brother or her, she loses any audience sympathy she may have had, and it wasn't much to start with. And the sequence where she accidentally sends a sexually explicit text to a boy she fancies, goes out with him when he responds, and is then horrified when he expects her to deliver on the text - well, words failed me, notwithstanding "No" means "no.".
Perhaps it's an accurate reflection of teenage angst, but it's quite different to the teenage angst I went through.
And the resolution of the film was glib beyond belief - here is a youngster, who on the basis of what the film shows us, has been somewhat socially inept, or worse, since childhood, and all of a sudden she develops a sunny disposition towards others simply because of some home truths and a new friendship? I don't buy it. She should be in counselling.
If it's not obvious, let me spell it out: the trailer sells this as a teen comedy, but it's not. It's a character-driven drama, albeit with some amusing moments. A slight and everyday drama, to be sure, but a drama nevertheless. The trailer deceives.
It's not all negative. As well as Steinfeld's undoubted skill in selling her character, the film also benefits from Woody Harrelson as a humorously cynical teacher, and the luminously lovely Haley Lu Richardson as Krista, some decent support work among the rest of the cast, and sufficient interest in the characters to keep your attention throughout.
Flawed in the writing
Max Vatan falls in love with Marianne Beausejour on an assassination mission behind enemy line during World War II and invites her back to London where they marry and have a child. But a secretive security officer tells Max that they suspect Marianne is a spy. They will feed her false information via Max and, if this proves her guilt, then Max will have to execute her, or face being hanged himself.
That much you will know from the trailer, and the issue of whether Marianne is guilty or not, and what Max gets up to in pursuit of the truth, are not matters which I propose to spoiler in this review.
What I will say is that as soon as security man Simon McBurney (who really does do slimey and obnoxious better than almost anyone else) tells Max about their suspicions and what the protocol was for dealing with them, the film lost me.
A huge question exploded in my head. It was "Why are you telling him?" The protocol could be applied just as effectively without Max ever knowing until Marianne's guilt was proved, so why would you tell him before he needs to know, and run the risk of him going off the rails and following his own course of action? Which, of course, is exactly what he does. A midnight trip to a police station in occupied France in order to interview a drunk, followed by breaking into a pub for a bit of patriotic piano-playing? Whoa, Nellie.
I understand that the threat of having to execute your own wife is a terrific engine with which to drive a story, but the major flaw in its execution stalled it for me - a flaw which could have been easily solved with better writing, by the way.
The film looks very authentic, and there are some good action sequences and pleasing and touching performances (and Pitt gets to do his Paltrow's head performance again), But it should have tried harder to stay on the rails, in my view.
A United Kingdom (2016)
Well worth a watch
Seretse Khama, studying law in England as preparation for assuming his role as hereditary tribal chief in 1947 Bechuanaland, falls in love and marries a white English woman. This causes massive diplomatic problems, leading to the British government exiling him from his own country.
This is a fairly straightforward dramatisation of a true story, set in post-war England and Africa. At a time when racial prejudice was still rife, mixed marriages were frowned upon generally and, given Khama's regal status in Bechuanaland (now Botswana), his marriage to a white commoner was unfavourably received in his own country.
Yet this was almost insignificant next to the British reaction, where Ruth was more or less ordered by the government not to marry Seretse. And Ruth's father disowned her.
The romance angle is more or less underplayed here. David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike have sufficient chemistry for us to believe they are marrying for love, even though this seems to be entirely on the basis of two or three dances and Seretse having a punch-up with some racist thugs.
And when they arrive in Africa they encounter more of the same, only in reverse. This leads to a schism between Seretse and his uncle which, in turns, provides grounds for the British government (Bechuanaland was a British protectorate at the time) to exile him.
The film is very good at evoking the 1950-ish era, especially in England, and the sense of time and location work effectively.
Oyelowo and Pike do well as the fraught lovers, Tom Felton continues to impress in character parts, and Jack Davenport is brilliant as a supremely confident civil servant. Nicholas Lyndhurst is very un-Rodney-ish as Ruth's father.
Very often, this sort of film is so concerned with the significance of the points it is making that it forgets to be entertaining (Idris Elba's Mandela movie comes to mind). But director Amma Asante follows up her previous movie Belle with a film which has something important to say, and which says it in an engaging, and sometimes moving, way.
This left me feeling uplifted even though it, very conspicuously, did not leave me feeling proud to be British.
The sea has called to Moana since she was small but Chief Tui, her father, has banned the tribe from venturing beyond the reef. When the coconuts rot and the fish disappear, Moana follows her destiny by going to sea in search of trickster demi-god Maui. She seeks to make him rectify a misguided act many years ago, which led to the current problems.
This film dazzled me from start to finish, starting with Moana. Enchanting as a child, and engaging as a curious, wilful, and downright feisty teen, the character features great visual design and wonderful voice work from Hawai'ian teen Auli'i Cravalho. Demi-god Maui is also a visual treat, especially the tattoos which offer their own commentary on his actions. And it is a delight to hear Dwayne Johnson taking such pleasure in voicing a character which pays homage to his own Polynesian heritage.
The story, while not holding any great surprises, has an unusual setting and is a satisfying tale - the set-up in Act 1 is interesting, the action in Act 2 works well, and the pay-off in Act 3 is both gripping and emotional.
The overall design and animation are simply breathtaking. The land locations are vibrant and detailed, the oceanic locations are epic, and the animation, particularly of hair, water and lava, had me open-mouthed with wonder at how beautiful the film is (the 3D has some great moments but shouldn't be considered essential). And there are a handful of points in the movie when story, emotion, and visual delivery come together and grip your throat and bring tears to your eyes.
It's not perfect. The comedy pig thankfully doesn't go on the voyage with Moana but, regrettably, the comedy rooster does. Neither is essential, and the film would have been better without them. But it's Disney so, hey, comedy animals.
And the songs are not necessary either. They are pretty enough, but the melodies are a little shapeless so there is no immediate show-stopper. But they are well staged and I suspect they will grow on me with repeat viewings.
And there will be many of those, because I loved this film!
Good but padded
In January 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenbeger, aka Sully, successfully ditches a powerless jet airliner in the Hudson River, resulting in the full complement of 155 passengers and crew surviving. The event happens in full view of numerous cameras, and becomes known as Miracle On The Hudson: Sully is a hero. But the subsequent enquiry seeks to establish the landing as pilot error by proving that Sully could have successfully landed back at La Guardia.
This dramatisation of real-life events is not unsuccessful, but is nonetheless a little odd.
Director Clint Eastwood reconstructs the moment from the bird striking the jet engine to the ditching extremely well. The trouble is that, as in real-life, this took only a few minutes (it was less than half an hour until everyone was safely on boats), so we get to see it twice from start to finish, several more times in fragments, and from a variety of angles.
And there is no suspense to it: we already know everyone survived.
So the thrust of this movie is the enquiry. Popular opinion has, to his embarrassment, labelled the self-effacing Sully as a hero, whereas the enquiry seeks to blame him for endangering lives, which will end his career.
There is actually some decent drama here: one, I didn't know how the enquiry had gone so, for me, the outcome was in doubt and, two, the public hearing at the conclusion of the enquiry is an excellent bit of theatre.
Tom Hanks is, as usual, a class act, especially playing an ordinary man displaying extraordinary qualities, but Aaron Eckhart as his co-pilot is as good. Laura Linney as Mrs Sullenberger is wasted, her role being simply to take part in distressed telephone calls.
If there is a problem here it is that the only real drama is the hearing, and there is perhaps insufficient meat on those particular bones to sustain a feature without adding a fair amount of inconsequential padding.
I'm still glad to have seen it, though.
I think I detect an agenda...
Edward Snowden works for various clandestine elements of the US government machinery. While writing software to shut down Chinese hackers, he discovers that the US is carrying out illegal surveillance over billions of emails from US citizens. What should he do?
Well, we know what he did, he blew the whistle. And despite the fact that he was proved right, and measures were taken to stop the illegal collection of uncountable emails, his copybook is so comprehensively blotted that he remains an exile in Moscow.
Oliver Stone takes things very seriously indeed, and this can sometimes result in two things: one, his personal agenda overtakes the story he is telling and, two, the issues he is raising overpower the entertainment value of the movie. Both these flaws are at work here.
Stone clearly regards Snowden as a hero, a martyr. Maybe this is justified, but it is a little difficult to tell because Stone only ever gives us one side of the picture.
And, unforgiveably, the movie is somewhat on the dull side. Snowden's story is interesting and has built in suspense but, at 134 minutes, the telling of it drags noticeably at times.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a good performance as Snowden, as does Shailene Woodley as his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. For me, the best performance was Rhys Ifans, almost unrecognisable as CIA Deputy Director Corbin O'Brian.
I came out of this better informed I think, though it was difficult to tell how much of what I was being fed was fact, and how much was Stone's overheated agenda at work. But I can't honestly say I was entertained that much.
Office Christmas Party (2016)
Josh works for a software company, supervising hot Tracey, and answerable to idiot boss Clay who is, in turn, answerable to iron lady older sister Carol. Carol's threat to shut the branch down pivots on getting an important order from Walter Davis which they determine to achieve via reinstating the office Christmas party which Carol cancelled.
What can I say? If I add that the office is populated by weirdos and cranks, then you can probably fill in the rest of the movie yourself. Suffice it to say that everyone plays exactly the character you expect them to: Jason Bateman is the easygoing everyman schmuck Josh, TJ Miller is the profoundly irritating idiot Clay, Jennifer Aniston turns in another lazy cookiecutter performance as Carol and, as she did in Ghostbusters, Kate McKinnon completely steals the show.
It's not without chuckles, but it has an undeserved air of likeability to it which is almost entirely due to Bateman.
The happy ending derives from Aniston's character having an unbelievable and dramatically unjustified 180-degree personality change as the end of the movie approaches (see also: Christina Applegate in Bad Moms, Melissa McCarthy in The Boss etc.).
In short, the entire movie is lacking in credibility even allowing for the hyperbolic personalities demanded by movie comedies.
And it's very sweary. Some is OK - funny, appropriate to the situation - but much of it adds nothing apart from gratuitous offence.
Quite good, if a bit girly
Orphan Felicie lives for dancing, which doesn't always ender her to the nuns who run the orphanage. She runs away to Paris and manages to join the Paris Opera Ballet, making an enemy of Camille and, especially, Camille's mother. With the lead role in The Nutcracker at stake, Felicie has to pick her steps very carefully.
This French-Canadian CGI feature proceeds exactly as you would expect it to, with Felicie meeting jeopardy at every turn yet, somehow, overcoming all obstacles through her own endeavours and with the help of friends. At no point was there a single moment where I thought "Well, I wasn't expecting that."
But this is not a fair criticism. As a solo male cinemagoer of mature years, I have sat among audiences where I did not belong - raunchy middle-aged matrons in Magic Mike, knicker-wetting teenage girls in Twilight - but I have seldom felt more out of place than among a cinema full of pree-teen little girls from ballet schools. Yet they are the audience at whom this film is aimed.
And, on that basis, it is very good. Voiced in the English language version by Elle Fanning, Felicie is a nicely realised audience-identification figure: likeable, a little bit naughty at times, bags of pluck and application, she is so well presented that I identified with her, and I am as far outside the target demographic as it is possible to be!
The dancing is also nicely done and takes advantage of being animation in order to push it beyond reality, not to the extent that it becomes outlandishly realistic, but enough to give it a "Wow!" factor.
Camille's mother is a psychopathic attempted murderer, but we'll gloss over that, shall we?
This is a very effective - and enjoyable - movie for little ballet-dancing girls, and I enjoyed it quite a bit myself. I'm not sure what that says about me, though....
Not bad, but a bit glib
The trailer for this film tells us that a man and a woman have been woken from suspended animation 30 years into a 120-year journey to a colony planet. With no prospect of returning to deep sleep, they appear to be doomed to spend the rest of their lives together (apart from a robot bartender). But maybe they will fall in love. And maybe they were woken for a reason...
...and the trailer is perfectly fair as far as it goes. But this film does something I love: it introduces something in its early stages which isn't in the trailer, and I can't say what because that really would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that it is a major unforeseen - though not unforeseeable - influence on the dramatic dynamics of the story, and I loved it, even though I felt that it wasn't fully developed within the confines of the movie.
It is fair to say that the hints in the trailer all develop during the movie, some as expected, some not, and they do so satisfyingly. Lawrence and Pratt are both very good, as are the underused Laurence Fishburne and Michael Sheen in a prize of a part as robot barman Arthur, programmed with a small amount of artificial intelligence, a slick line in bartender smalltalk, and a lamentable absence of discretion. I can imagine him jumping for joy when the script arrived.
The special effects are excellent and the "hardware" side of the movie is good, with the spaceship itself well designed, both outside and - especially - within: the sets are hugely impressive. Science purists will be a little irritated to discover that the ship has a "Gravity on/off" switch, but this does result in one of the film's most effective action set pieces.
But this is essentially a dramatic two-hander, and works very well as such for the most part, although I did find the ending to be a bit of an easy option in order to provide the audience with a happy ending which I didn't believe for a second, for a variety of reasons.
Should I mention that Jennifer Lawrence in a swimming costume adds what was, for me, a further reason for seeing the film? I think I should.
Monster Trucks (2016)
Likeable and entertaining
Loner teen Tripp wants to leave the small North Dakota town where he lives: he has issues with his mother's cop boyfriend, and has very few friends. Meanwhile, the local oil drilling company drills through to a subterranean lake, only to find that something is living down there. And that something comes to the surface, and suddenly a boy and his (engineless) truck have a motive power they never expected.
This film is made up of bits and pieces taken from other, higher profile films, and nailed together. It is a high-school movie with the disaffected teen who doesn't fit in at school or at home. There is the budding teen romance between two characters who never expected it. We have heartless ecological vandalism on the part of big business. We have a security operative who is quite prepared to kill. James Cameron's The Abyss has been rifled for key moments. You will spot other movies which have "donated" assorted elements.
Yet the bits fit together quite well, helped by three main things. One, the scenery (British Columbia standing in for North Dakota) is attractive and gives a sense of production value. Two, the monsters are very well realised, often funny, and hugely sympathetic. There is a strong sense of character and communication, which is commendable given that there is no spoken word from them: the CGI is excellent.
And, three, the main characters are all likeable, If a film is average, the fact that you take pleasure in being in the company of the characters can make a big difference to how enjoyable the film is, and this movie is a case in point.
Monster Trucks isn't going to hold many surprises for the average adult filmgoer, but it is amiable with a certain goofy charm to it, and there were a couple of moments - entirely daft, to be sure - where I felt like punching the air and shouting "Yes!"
I left the cinema with a smile on my face and, in my world, that is a recommendation.
Collateral Beauty (2016)
Much to recommend it
Howard (Will Smith) is a high-powered and committed ad executive, driven by the interaction between Love, Time and Death. When his daughter dies, there is nothing left in Howard's life. He writes letters to Love, Time and Death, but doesn't function at work any more, leaving his three partners at a loss as to how to save the business crashing. When Death, Time and Love turn up in person and respond to Howard's letters, will this provide him with a way out of his grief?
The first thing to mention is that this is another film which leaves a key plot element out of the trailer - indeed, in some respects, the trailer is downright misleading - and the developments from this element are one of the joys of this movie. Parallels are drawn between the personifications of Death (Helen Mirren), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Love (Keira Knightley) and the circumstances of Howard's partners (Michael Pena, Kate Winslet and Edward Norton), who have personal issues with Death, Time and Love at their hearts.
But even without that wrinkle, the movie is highly engaging. The script is good. It may not ring with resounding wordplay, but it is constantly thoughtful and thought-provoking and - surprisingly given that the film's overpowering theme is bereavement - it is often quite amusing.
Naomie Harris plays the leader of a Child Bereavement self-help group which Howard eventually attends after loitering outside on numerous occasions, and maybe she will be able to help him make sense of these meetings with individuals who may - or may not - be figments of his imagination. The movie plays with fantastic elements while never losing site of the raw reality of bereavement which lies at its core.
It's not fair to say that the film resolves Howard's issues - that would indeed be glib - but the film does resolve itself, and there is a degree of glibness in how it does so.
Even so, the film tackles a difficult subject and does so in an engaging and compassionate way, entertains throughout its length, and leaves you with much to mull over in quiet contemplation or in empassioned conversation.
An unusually thoughtful and intelligent movie.
Why Him? (2016)
Comedy with sputtering laughs
Stephanie prevails upon her parents, Ned and Barb, to travel with her younger brother from Michigan to California, to spend Christmas at her (newly disclosed to her parents) boyfriend Laird's place. Laird turns out to be unable to utter a sentence without the word "f*ck" or one of its derivatives appearing in it at least once, usually more often. He also wears fewer clothes than conservative Ned is comfortable with. It also turns out that he is very wealthy, and that there are a number of other important issues which Stephanie has been less than frank about.
Comedies based on generation gaps or, more usually, attitude gaps are not rarities, so the chasm between rather prim and conservative Ned, and the extravagantly unexpurgated Laird is familiar territory, ripe to be mined for comedy. It is surprising, then, that this film isn't funnier than it is.
The characters might have been drawn more broadly, but Cranston reins Ned back to the extent that he is a person rather than a caricature and, surprisingly, so does Franco, albeit less so. And so we get two real people both struggling with their own conflicting mindsets in the best interests of Stephanie who isn't always co-operating with them. Among the large brushstrokes of Laird's crassness and ridiculous works of art, and Ned's kneejerk horror, we have a genuine drama of real people trying to make real accommodations and, while it may be dramatically credible, it's not particularly funny.
Which is why we have the daftly hilarious Gustav (Keegan Michael-Key) as Laird's preposterous estate manager, and a short but comical routine with a rather baked Barb coming on to a husband whose mind is elsewhere. Less amusing are the hacking, paperless toilet, and moose p!ss sequences.
As a comedy this came across rather unsuccessfully to me, although I quite liked it because I quite liked the characters in it, even Laird.
A Monster Calls (2016)
Conor is having a bad time. Bullied at school, suffering a recurrent nightmare, and trying to cope with his mother's progressive illness, he is visited at night by a monster tree-man from the yew tree in the local churchyard who tells him three stories, and expects the true story of Conor's nightmare in return.
This film takes Conor's real-life problems - very real, and all centred around his mother's illness - and smashes them face-first into the fantasy figure of the tree monster and his stories, fearsome and compassionate at the same time. This may not sound terribly convincing, but it works extremely well.
The story came from a writer who died of the cancer which inspired her story before she was able to write the book: the author who worked her idea into a (childrens) book has also written the screenplay, and the stories-within-the-story are animated in the style of the watercolour illustrations in the original book. And this is some of the most beautiful animation you will see anywhere. Coupled with the CGI tree-man, there are some exquisite visuals on show here, interwoven seamlessly with the rather shabbily picturesque locations.
Felicity Jones is good as the stricken mother, Sigourney Weaver does a brilliant job as the unsympathetic grandmother rather gracelessly making plans to take care of Conor afterwards, while dealing with her daughter's imminent death, a death which Conor is having such difficulty facing. Liam Neeson as the voice of the monster is amazingly good, and Lewis McDougal as Conor is stunning.
All of which contributes to the emotional impact of this film, which is brutal.
There is no niceness about what happens here, but it is dealt with compassionately and kindly as well as painfully. I sat in the darkness weeping as Grandma and Conor finally find a way to meet each other in a car stopped at traffic lights, and also as the Monster finally rips the truth of Conor's nightmare out of him. And as for the photograph of Mum and her father...
This film hurt like hell, and I loved it.
Two young Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe. secretly arrive in Japan on the very cold trail of Father Ferreira. Japan has been seeking to abolish Christianity by way of mass executions, but there are still pockets of secret Christians. Father Ferreira, it is rumoured, has denied his faith and turned native Japanese - could this deeply disturbing suggestion be true, or is it just a rumour to serve Japanese political ends?
I have never before seen a film with the word "apostatised" used once, let alone the number of times it is used in this film. But since apostasy is at the heart of the matter, I suppose that is fair enough.
Martin Scorsese sets out to dramatise a true(ish) episode towards the end of the Jesuit priesthood's attempted conversion of Japan, at the point where the Japanese establishment is taking a hard line to stamp it out, and the main method they are using is barbaric physical punishment of the native Christian population as pressure to force the priesthood into publicly denying their faith. This is solid drama material, but Scorsese fails to make a satisfying film of it: large sections are boring and repetitive as the two young priests, admirably played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, beat themselves up endlessly about how horrible it all is (and, to be fair, they are right) and how God isn't listening to them. The Almighty does chip in a few words towards the end, but they are not terribly helpful.
The dramatisation could have been better. The Japanese character Kichijiro repeatedly denies his faith then seeks confession and forgiveness, to the extent that Rodrigues quietly loses any sympathy for him. I kept waiting for this to have a dramatic payoff, but it never did.
In fact, for a film which ran for nearly 3 hours, the dramatic heart could have been condensed into half the running time: as it was, I felt nearly as punished as the two priests.
The barbarity of punishment is shown but, thankfully, not dwelled upon. But we really didn't need as much footage of the two priests in a bamboo hut with dirty fingernails, bemoaning their lot, as we got.
There is a good film in here somewhere, but it badly needed to shed some weight before it went out in public.
Assassin's Creed (2016)
Disappointing and muddled tosh
Young Callum Lynch's father kills his mother. As an adult, Cal is executed for murder, following which a secret organisation recruits/kidnaps him because he is a genetic descendant of Aguilar, a Spanish assassin from the 16th century. The Assassins' Guild has been at war with the Templars for centuries over the Eden Apple - the Templars want to use it to remove free will to stop violence, the Assassins want to stop the Templars, and Cal can be regressed to Aguilar who was the last person known to have been in possession of the Eden Apple.
That is actually a halfway decent concept on which to base a story. So it's a shame that the film delivers it in a fairly muddled and inconsequential fashion. The action sequences, whether in the present-day facility where Cal finds himself, or in medieval Spain, are well staged if not always completely clear - the special effect which shows Cal fighting while attached to the Animus (the doodad which facilitates the regression) interfaced with the actual combat involving Aguilar is more distracting than effective.
The colour palette, as is the fashion, is drab and desaturated, dull and shadowy. Coupled with the tendency for characters to wear the same thing - pale pastel bodysuits in present-day, hoodies in Spain - it isn't always easy to tell who is who. And, even when you can tell, so what? Aguilar does a great deal of running, jumping, and fighting with a young woman who he obviously cares about but, as we never find out who she is or what their relationship is (other than that they are both Assassins), why should we care?
Cal is given little by way of background, the nature of the Eden Apple and how it works is vague - it turns out that it emits a greenish light and vapour which doesn't appear to have any immediate effect, which is puzzling given that it is supposedly a DNA map - the identities and driving forces for a lot of the characters are touched on fleetingly at best and, as the film finishes, you are left with a bucketful of unanswered questions (was Callum actually executed or not. for one).
The excellent cast is given little to do which a considerably less excellent cast couldn't have done just as well. I suppose their names on the posters put bums on seats.
Unless your shopping list has only one thing on it - "Chase/combat action" - you are better off watching someone play through the game. As a film, this is a deeply unsatisfying experience.
And don't bother with the 3D.