Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 in review: Films I saw at the cinema

I've decided to list all the films I watched for the first time in 2015. I've split them into cinema releases and movies I watched on TV or DVD, some of which are a bit older - those follow in another post because otherwise this would be crazily long. FYI, I've listed these films in the order I saw them rather than in order of quality.

Kingsman ~ The Secret Service
Comedic take on spy films based on a comic book. Despite the ludicrously over the top violence, I enjoyed this apart from the controversial brief sexual content right at the end. Although the big names in it were Colin Firth, Samuel L Jackson and Michael Caine, it also offered a rare cinematic outing for Mark Hamill, who didn't have much to do except look surprised.

Big Hero Six
Disney animation based on a comic book. A genius kid inherits his brother's robot nurse (naturally, being a Disney film, family members die) and turns it into a super-hero. It was a good film, but the supporting hero team weren't necessary and the villain's actions didn't really make any sense. So it turned into one of those films with some good central characters and not much of a plot.

Moving drama about the events in Selma, Alabama, during the height of the Civil Rights movement. It really made me aware of how the racism of powerful institutions worked to keep black people subjugated, and the sheer strength of character shown by Dr Martin Luther King and other leaders. I blogged about it here.

South African-set science fiction action drama about a robot programmed to become self-aware. I quite liked this because it seemed quite realistic in portraying how a machine would feel when it came alive - shocked and awkward.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Latest chapter in the Avengers franchise. Didn't really do much for me. Also about machine intelligence, but fell too easily into tropes. Why would a robot decide to create multiple copies of itself when theoretically it could just take over any machine going? Also it passed over spending time with characters in favour of MORE EXPLOSIONS!

Disney live action science fiction story starring George Clooney and Hugh Laurie. It had a surprising theme of hope in the future despite the way the world has been exploited and ruined to the point where it's on the brink of destruction.

Jurassic World
Basically, this is Jurassic Park, except the park and the dinosaurs are bigger. It had a more callous approach to human victims than the original, especially one character, an Executive Assistant, who was marked for death early on because she had a British accent. Chris Pratt starred, continuing his A-list trajectory that started with Guardians of the Galaxy last year.

Melissa McCarthy divides opinion. But this film was funnier than the trailers would have you believe. Also featured Alison Janney (yay) and Miranda Hart ( no, seriously) along with Jude Law as a slimy James Bond-spoofing chick magnet spy. But Jason Statham stole the show for sending up so many of his own films.

Moomins on the Riviera
A slow animated adventure based on an early Moomins story. If you like Moomins then it's one for you. It's European origins are very obvious.

The Despicable Me prequel. Being fair, it had some great set pieces. The first 20 minutes or so were fab. But the point about the Minions is they are knockabout background characters and asking them to carry a movie is a bit much. Although the showing we went to see did have the added bonus of a chap showing up in an adult Minion onesie, much to the embarrassment of his friends.

Terminator Genisys
I really enjoyed this. It took the Terminator mythos and turned it on its head. Arnie was back, which was the big seller, and they incorporated his real-world ageing well into the film. He was also deadpan funny. In many ways every Terminator movie is about the same thing - avoiding the fate that seems unavoidable, and this wasn't too different, but the plot was suitably complex to keep me interested. Matt Smith, former Doctor Who, has a small but important part as well.

I knew very little about this going  in, except that it was Marvel Comics and the trailer looked good. It was very enjoyable, different enough from the main story arc to not feel like a retread of the same old ground (unlike Age of Ultron). In fact, the bit that jarred was the unnecessary attempt to tie in the wider Marvel franchise with an appearance by The Falcon. Although that did lead to a fun on-screen fight. Paul Rudd made a likeable leading man. Michael Douglas is always good value. And the final showdown involves a model train set. Could you ask for anything more?

Inside Out 
The summer's big Pixar movie, starring the emotions inside a little girl's head. As usual for Pixar, this is a top concept and very cleverly done. The basic story is the 'main characters are exiled and need to get back to their home' that worked very well in Toy Story, but didn't work so well here. It does have what I would contend is the cleverest joke to appear in any Pixar movie as a throwaway gag that I think most people missed. My main complaint, however, is the way Pixar allowed their main characters to shill for Sky and Subway, with them appearing in adverts before the film came on screen, That spoiled it for me. There was also an ad for the toys that gave away a key plot point. It would have been a better movie without these commercial spoilers.

Song of the Sea
This is my movie of the year. It's a beautifully drawn animation based on an old Irish legend about a little girl who is a selkie and the last hope of the faerie folk trapped in the human world. The artistry of the animation is gorgeous. The story deals with love and loss and I'm not ashamed to say I was blinking away tears at the end. Thoroughly recommended.

Before seeing this movie I hadn't fully grasped what it meant to be denied the vote and various rights on the basis of what genitals you were born with. I thought the subject matter was well-handled. It didn't glorify acts of terror, but it did made me think about how the boundaries blur. I recognise the sacrifices of the suffragettes, but setting off bombs and destroying property aren't really actions to endorse. Or are they? I've written more about it here.

James Bond does what he does best - following his own orders, killing people mercilessly and exploiting vulnerable women for sex. I've written about glorifying a sexual predator here. On the other hand there was a lovely shot of a train in the North African desert, which if you like trains is worth watching the film for.

The Good Dinosaur
Pixar's first flop? Certainly the first Pixar film that I thought borrowed too heavily on other films. A bit of A Bug's Life as Arlo the dinosaur doesn't fit in and makes a mess of things, a bit of the Lion King (why do parents always die in Disney films?). The similarities to non-Disney franchises like Ice Age were also surprising. This film took ages to get to screen apparently and had been in production almost a decade. And yet, while beautifully animated even by Pixar's high, high standards, it was still let down by the story.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (seen x3)
Also known as Episode VII. This was great. Long review WITH SPOILERS here. My Mum loved it as well. In her words "So good to get away from the awful prequels."

Charlie Brown and Snoopy: The Peanuts Movie
I have to admit I found this a bit slow. It is a very loving tribute to the original TV cartoons but there isn't much of a script. However, Cathy is probably one of the biggest fans of Peanuts there is and she really enjoyed it, so that's all that really matters. I did enjoy Snoopy acting out his dogfights with the Red Baron, prompting phone calls from worried kids all over the neighbourhood to Charlie Brown.

And that's it. 22 trips to the cinema to see 19 different films makes for a very full year of movie-going.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 5 likes, loves and mehs


Seriously. I'm going to talk about the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Still here? OK then. The first paragraph is a bit of waffle just to push any spoilers below the line.

So, some of my predictions were reasonably close to what actually was in the film. I was very nervous going to see it. Star Wars means a lot to me - I have had an emotional connection with it ever since seeing Return of the Jedi. So I wanted The Force Awakens to be good. I had high hopes but was overcome mainly with relief after seeing it for the first time. I've now seen it twice and it was just as good second time around, although it seemed to go faster when I knew what was coming. I plan to see it again at some point. I imagine there will be other people watching it a few times - this probably explains the record-breaking opening weekend take.

So, as a review, here are 5 things I loved about the film, 5 things I liked and 5 things that were a bit 'meh'.

Five things I loved

1) Rey.
She was a great character. Not a princess in need of rescuing. Clever, resourceful, outspoken, independent ("Stop taking my hand," she shouts at one point when Finn does the 'hero' thing and grabs her hand as they run away from bad guys.) Clearly she will be the pivotal lead in the next two planned films. Her "That's lucky" when Finn tells her how he escaped from tentacled alien monsters is probably the best line in the film. And she speaks Wookiee and astromech droid.

2) 'Human' stormtroopers. 
Finn is a stormtrooper affected by the carnage of his first battle and a comrade dying in his arms. After he turns against the First Order, other troopers take it personally as a betrayal. Which they would. The stormtroopers are actually characters here. Again, one of the best moments is when two of them are aware an angry Kylo Ren is smashing up a room and do an about face to patrol in another direction. Comedy, but also showing a bit more smarts than previously.

3) Han and Chewie.
The greatest on-screen partnership of all time? Probably not. But great to see them back in their element (trouble). I liked the idea they had been hunting for the stolen Millennium Falcon. The 'Chewie, we're home' line from the trailer worked well in the film. The pair's conversations - you only ever hear Solo's side, but you know Chewie is correcting his lies - are very funny. As with he original films, Han gets all the best lines.

4) BB-8.
I wasn't sure about BB-8 beforehand. I suspected he might be another Jar-Jar - just an annoying comedy character. Instead he captured the spirit of the original films, which also concentrate on the travails of the droids. His 'thumbs up' to Finn caused plenty of laughter in the screening we were in on the first night. Overall he worked really well as a small droid with big personality.

5) The nod-backs.
There were plenty of these - Finn finds the training remote in a store box on the Millennium Falcon while looking for a first aid kit. Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb get walk-on parts. For the first time a Bothan is shown on-screen. There's a bar full of various scoundrels and low-life with a band playing. It's not Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes, but it's reminiscent.

Five things I liked

1) The continuation of the story.
Most of this is told in minor details dropped into conversations. We get that Luke tried to refound the Jedi order. That Han and Leia's force-sensitive son Ben joined the order, but was corrupted by 'Lord Snowke' and became Kylo, leader of the Knights of Ren. As Kylo Ren he is now seeking to restore the work of his grandfather, Darth Vader. Han and Leia's relationship broke down at some point - possibly because of Ben's fall to the dark side. Luke, meanwhile, blamed himself and set off on a quest to find the first Jedi Temple. It is the search for Luke that provides the 'quest' for this story as he is needed to lead the fight against the First Order.

There isn't a huge amount of detail there. Who are the Knights of Ren? Where did Lord Snowke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order, come from? How did he corrupt Ben Solo? There are lots of unanswered questions, before we even get to the new characters. Although, you don't need the force to know that Rey is somehow also going to be related to the Skywalker family.

2) Battles.
There are several land and space battles, with a conspicuous lack of the CGI that made the prequels look like computer games at times. Obviously the usual tropes apply. Heroes are immune to blaster fire or explosions, while stormtroopers may as well have targets printed on their chests. What is noticeable is that we have a strormtrooper death scene involving blood - a real person has died - but Saving Private Ryan this is not. Anyway, the battle scenes add to the overall action content of the movie, which probably has fewer slow scenes than any of the first six episodes.

3) The humour.
Rey and Finn, Han and Chewie, Han and Rey ("Are you offering me a job?" "I'm thinking about it.") Han and Leia ("And don't say the Death Star") Han and Finn ("Sanitation!?!?") C-3PO popping up as an awkward, dorky interruption during a 'moment'. There are good lines aplenty and sparks between all the main characters. Even the tentacled monsters loose on a spaceship segment is played for laughs. I also liked the bodged escape in a TIE Fighter.

4) The ending.
I predict the jury will be out on this, but I liked the ending. It sets up the next film well and we end with Rey appealing for help with an expression of hope and wonder and fear on her face. Did I mention that I love Rey?

5) The different stormtroopers.
We get different uniforms in the stormtrooper squads, there are flametroopers, snowtroopers, and so on. We even see some different hardware with one stormtrooper using a hand to hand electric hammer thing for close combat.

And five things that left me a bit meh

1) Chewie gets left out again.
So this is really Cathy's comment, but after Chewie and Rey return with an injured Finn and no Han to the Resistance base, Leia hugs Rey and ignores Chewie. Come on. Chewie has been Han's sidekick for 40 years at this point. Surely she should have consoled him first, not some girl she's never met before. I have tried to persaude Cathy (and myself) that this would happen offscreen as Chewie is a private Wookiee and wouldn't want to grieve publicly. But we're not buying it. It's the whole 'Why doesn't Chewie get a medal?' from the end of Star Wars all over again.

2) Captain Phasma
Billed heavily before the film as a key character, she gets a couple of scenes and is then left unused. She is even disposed of off-screen. Hopefully she will be back in Episode VIII with a grudge against Finn. I felt this was a missed opportunity.

3) Kylo Ren's mask.
It was initially hinted at that he wore this to hide some disfigurement. But he doesn't. It just seems to be for effect. And it was a bit crap really.

4) The Supreme Leader / Lord Snowke
Who is this guy? Why is he so badly disfigured? Is he human? Who really cares. At this point, the trope of having a fearsome leader you have to go and cower in front of has been overdone, not least in the Star Wars universe. But the Supreme Leader really reminded me of Thanos in the Marvel Comics films. He sits there being all scary like, but doesn't seem to actually do anything himself.

5) Han's death.
I honestly always felt Han Solo would die in a blaze of glory. Yes, the scene is emotional, even though you know he is doomed as soon as he steps on the bridge. It does feel there is a possibility that Ben will relent and renounce the dark side. But you know it's not going to happen. I heard one comment that this scene is unsatisfying because it feels like Han is suckered in, but I think that's unfair on him really. Ben is caught on the cusp of fully succumbing to the Dark Side and Han is there with him. One note, though, Chewie wings Ben with a bowcaster bolt while Ben is on the bridge. Now, given that previously the bowcaster was blowing stormtrooper up, surely that was a much smaller hit than it should have been. Ben should have at least lost a leg.

6) And a bonus one...
As mentioned throughout this long post, there are lots of unanswered questions. How did Maz get Luke's lightsaber?  (What happened to her by the way? She just seems to disappear.) What's the deal with the map and the missing piece - what kind of cartography is that? Why does Rey go to find Luke at the end and not Leia?

There are also lots of the usual plot holes. Veteran movie critic Roger Ebert has pointed out that given the size of Starkiller Base the way the main characters seem to cross paths so easily, it may as well have been a submarine. I've already mentioned how stormtroopers are easily picked off while heroes can dodge through strafing TIE Fighter attacks. But this is Star Wars. It's always been like that. It's one of the reasons I love it so much. Because it isn't real; it's make-believe. We can suspend the scepticism and suspicion that cloud our days and just enjoy ourselves.

And then, maybe, the force will be with us.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII predictions

I am feeling nervous about Star Wars Episode VII. This time tomorrow night I will have seen it.

Several people have asked me what I think is going to happen. At the risk of SPOILERS I have decided to list my ideas of what might happen here before seeing it so I can either come back and say 'Ha! I'm psychic' or have a good laugh at my own expense at a later date.

Disney have announced all the 'Expanded Universe' lore that has built up is no non-canon, so there's no point looking to that to inform these guesses. This is new. So, here's what we know / have gleaned from trailers and toy packaging. The Empire was not finally defeated at the end of Return of the Jedi. It is now resurgent as the 'First Order'. There is a Resistance who fly X-Wings and fight the First Order. One of the First Order leaders is the lightsaber-wielding Kylo Ren. The  First Order are building a superweapon, probably called the Starkiller Base. The heroes of Episodes IV-VI are back, presumably out of hiding. At one point they are fighting First Order snowtroopers in a snowy place. The lead new characters are called Rey, Finn and Poe. (Really good one syllable naming conventions in the Star Wars universe.) Rey is a scavenger on an old battleground trying to find out what happened to her family...

My thoughts on this.

Is Kylo a name or is Ren a name? Kylo could be a title like Darth or Moff.

Ren and Rey are quite similar names. Could they be brother and sister?

Rey is looking for her family. Could she be Han and Leia's daughter? That would fit the Star Wars trope of all named characters being related. Does that also mean Ren is Han and Leia's son? That would make him Luke Skywalker's nephew. Did Luke try to train him in the ways of the force and he succumb to the Dark Side? Is Ren the person in the trailer holding Vader's melted mask and promising to finish what he started? Is the Starkiller base the updated Death Star?

I've seen some trailer footage that looks like Rey crying behind Chewbacca's body. Will Chewie get killed? Actually, are any of the original heroes going to make it through this? Luke could die in a similar fashion to Obi Wan Kenobi in Episode IV.

So,lots of questions. The upshot is I think Ren and Rey are brother and sister fighting on opposite sides of the re-emergent civil war; a war their parents, Han and Leia, thought they had fought and won. I predict a last-gasp victory for the Resistance and destruction of the Starkiller base. And I don't think the original heroes are going to make it through unscathed.

Those are my predictions. I will find out tomorrow night how right or wrong I was.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Evidence that Wales have finally made it on the international football stage

Wales have qualified for the France 2016 European Championships - their first major tournament of the modern era (they kind of qualified for the Euros in 1976 although they didn't go to the very small final play-offs). It's a wonderful achievement having been nearly men for so long.

But to show they have really arrived, Panini has released a cash-in sticker album chronicling their qualifying campaign. They know how to fleece the suckers.

Says one of the (happy) suckers...

Yes, I succumbed. I love football stickers.
 I couldn't really not buy this.

Doing well on this page...

The one player everyone will want!