2015 – A Lookback on the Past Year (part one)

Another year has passed us by, and it seems every movie critic and website is posting top/bottom 10 lists. Now, I’ve stated before (back at HERE  for example) I don’t truck with that ‘top list’ mentality. So, like last year, I’m going to go for a general look back at the year in films in some kind of loose groupings – some serious, some silly.

2015 promised much, but delivered little. The so called “amazing year of film” turned out to be a tad average overall, but in amongst it all there were some gems that stood out. Let’s kick off with my pick for:

Film of the Year

WHIPLASH

Now, let me clear something up. I know I don’t do top lists, but some folk have asked me how I can therefore have a ‘film of the year’ (which they, understandably, think means ‘best film of the year’). Well, let me clarify – my ‘film of the year’ always goes to the film which struck me, and impacted on me the most. It may not be better than other films, but something in the film resonated with me, and thus it is classed as a film which I believe everyone should see. There were a host of really strong contenders for this spot this year, especially from The Martian, Steve Jobs, and from Birdman, but Whiplash is just such a powerful tour de force that it is the film that, to me, defines 2015.

Not my tempo!

“Okay, after me, one two three… Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum!”

At the base level, Whiplash is a film about a drummer and his battle of wills with his tutor. On paper, that basic description sounds like one of the most boring concepts ever, but the skill with which the film draws you in, and makes you care very early on is staggering. The performances by Miles Teller (who shall resurface later in this article for totally different reasons) and the ever stellar JK Simmons crackle with electric intensity, aided by a well written script, and some dark humour. Whether or not this film is ‘your tempo’ it is hard to deny that all the elements involved are well realised.

Bridman would be a close second choice for the stylistic manner in which the film was presented. A fake single-take element to make the film feel like a stage play about a film about a stage play (if you have seen it, you will know what I mean) makes for a remarkable viewing experience, and Michael Keaton is on fine form in the lead role.

The ‘What the hell went wrong’ Award

Okay, let’s get the Miles Teller mention out the way early on. How on earth did Fantastic Four go so wrong (and I’d like to point out that I’m not going to go the childish route that some folk have gone and mock the Fant4stic logo, claiming it isn’t something Marvel would have done, becasue…well…look at the pic of one of the issues of the comics from a few years back).

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Wow! Look at how Marvel would never do anything so silly with the title of the comic!

I know it is cool to mock the previous FF films (by Tim Story), but I’ve got a soft spot for them. Whilst both films are flawed, they have the tone of the comics right, with a cosmic whimsy and family dynamic that works. The first film suffered by being an origin story with multiple characters, whilst the second suffered by not having a strong payoff in the final act (I don’t have a problem with ‘Galactus-cloud’ but more in the way the world devourer didn’t feel much of a threat overall). However when Josh Trank was attached to the reboot, I was excited. Having seen what he could do with a small budget on Chronicle, I was optimistic to see what he would make of the FF, which I must make clear that I have adored in comics since I was a wee little boy (it was the first Marvel comic bought for me as a kid, and what introduced me to my love of superheroes). The cast were announced, and there were some damn good names in there. Yes, they were ‘young’ but I understood this was a film inspired by Mark Miller’s Ultimate Fantastic Four series (which the initial trailers confirmed), so was happy to see decent actors attached (I’m not going to even bother tackling the race issue – it wasn’t an issue). When the film came out, Trank was quick to disown it on Twitter.

The film started off promising, with the first 20 minutes being a decent introduction to the characters, especially the friendship between Ben and Reed. The cast show their strengths early on, and Miles Teller and Jamie Bell convince as long time friends. But then they get their powers, the film flips ahead in time, and it all goes so…erm…studio controlled. You can genuinely see the point at which the studio lost the faith in the director, and made copious changes. Stories of on set struggles, and re-shoots without Trank add fuel to the fire, and the end result is a film which rapidly descends into a garbled mess by the final act – one which, I may add, seems tacked on and doesn’t seem to match any of the trailers or promo materials.

Making the FF a ‘dark film’ in the vein of Fox’s X-Men franchise was a serious mis-step. The FF have adventures in space, and in the microverse, as well as through time. They should never be ‘dark’ in nature. After the film came out, Fox were insistent that they were still making sequels, but everything has gone quiet on that front now.

Bubbling under in this category would be Terminator Genysis, but let’s be honest, that was always going to suck.
star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterBest Blockbuster of the Year

What else could it be, other than Star Wars: The Force Awakens? If I need to explain further, then you seriously can’t have seen the film yet (and so I won’t post any spoilers). Fair enough, a lot of the blockbusters have been major disappointments this year, so it didn’t have much competition, but what this film did have was a decade and a half of disappointment to erase the memory of, and prove that there is life in the franchise yet. Whilst the marketing played around the buzz of the old cast returning (and the secrecy of the story), the true surprise was not only that the film was good, but that the old cast weren’t really needed as the new faces were so immensely enjoyable to watch. Yes, the film is pretty much a retread of the original film (in the same manner that Singer’s Superman Returns followed the beats of Donner’s film), isn’t that what we needed to kick-start the franchise? A reminder of what made it so much fun in the first place, and proof that it can still work now.

Since the film came out, Lucas has been whining and moaning about it wherever he can (his most recent moan is that he was kept out of the creative process, and that the film is not original at all – clearly he thinks his Hero’s Journey tale inspired by old Flash Gordon serials was somehow ‘original’). Who cares what he thinks? After all, he wasn’t even responsible for the best of the original trilogy (and he also disliked that film too).

Bubbling under is Mad Max: Fury Road, which leads me to…
The ‘Holy Crap that was Awesome’ Award

Look, Fury Road may be just one long chase scene, and one which sums up as ‘Max Furiosa goes to one place, runs off to another, then goes back the way he she came’ but, wow, what a ride. Two hours of glorious carnage with a plethora of practical effects (and a smattering of CGI, but well positioned), and a cast that, in among the carnage, you get to care about. If you haven’t yet enjoyed the thrill of the film, just stop reading here and go watch it, then come back and be happy that you just sat through two hours of fun.

This was the underdog blockbuster that showed up the big-boys of the Summer. Max may have been a minor character in his own film, but the world in which he rides was fleshed out so well that you didn’t care.

Look, for this character alone, the film kicks ass!

Look, for this character alone, the film kicks ass!

On the flipside…

Biggest Disappointment of 2015

Age of Ultron had a lot to live up to, but we had no reason to doubt that it would be anything other than great. Marvel’s train has been rolling for a few years now, and each time they go for something, people get skeptical, only to be proven wrong when the film arrives. Here we have a great villain from the comic, and the team all re-unite with Joss as director again. But the end result felt too much like it was forced out just to get everyone back together, and unlike the first film was less of an end-act to the ‘phase’ of movies, and more of an extended trailer of the next phase. The menace of Ultron in the trailers was lost

as he became a snark-throwing bland villain. The action set pieces felt too familiar, and the spark was just lost somewhere along the way. It is telling that Ant-Man (which was basically just a rehash of Iron Man) was considered the best Marvel film by many this year – not that Ant-Man isn’t good, quite the opposite, but the point is that something with a new character was better than something with characters we are told we have come to love.

"I've got no script...to hold me down..."

“I’ve got no script…to hold me down…”

Still, it doesn’t stop the excitement for Phase 3 and Black Panther and Doctor Strange, along with Civil War. The Marvel engine may have stumbled a bit, but it hasn’t derailed yet.

The ‘Did I watch the same film as everyone else’ Award

Jurassic World isn’t a bad film, but it seems that everyone saw a different film than me as many herald it as one of the best films of the year! Personally I’d rank it just alongside Jurassic Park 3 as ‘entertaining fodder’ and nothing more. The biggest issue I have with the film is that it relies on your memories of the original film in order to enjoy it. Throughout the film is nods and references the first film, in an attempt to cover up the lacklustre script. “Yeah, but so does Force Awakens, and you liked that!” I hear some of you cry. The difference is, Force Awakens had characters you care about. Here’s a simple test – quickly name 4 new characters from Jurassic World. Okay, make it three. Okay, just tell me the name of one of the kids. Nope? Right, now name 4 new characters from the new Star Wars film. Oh, you reeled off 5 names right off the bat! How come? Oh yeah, because they were well realised characters that you cared about – heck we knew the names of them before the film landed and already cared.

"Hey can we expand that Pratt guy's role out more now he's a big name?  Maybe force a love story in there with Bryce?  Who cares if they have no chemistry?"

“Hey can we expand that Pratt guy’s role out more now he’s a big name? Maybe force a love story in there with Bryce? Who cares if they have no chemistry?”

Jurassic World is just a mess of action sequences thrown together, but actually fails to utilise the peril that it promised. Here we have a fully functioning theme park, packed with guests (despite the film trying to tell us that it is struggling), yet the peril only affects a handful of people until toward the end when one sequence sees random folk being attacked…only for minutes later everyone to be sat at the docks waiting for boats, with no sign of anyone in distress at having seen their loved one killed! Heck, one minor character gets attacked, dropped, and eaten in a manner which you feel is supposed to make you cheer (like audiences did at the accountant on the toilet in the original), despite the only bad thing this character did was try to babysit two annoying brats of kids! Yeah, someone who was assigned to watch over kids is considered a character to ‘hate-kill’.

Nope, Jurassic World isn’t a great film. It’s not as bad as Terminator Genysis (no, seriously, that film was garbage), but it ain’t the amazing return of the franchise many claim it to be.

 
Phew – that’s a fair bit covered already, and I still feel I have more to cover. So, consider this ‘Part One’ of my lookback on 2015, and watch out for ‘Part Two’ soon (where I will look at animations, comedies, pleasant surprises, and the films I am ashamed to have missed).

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Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

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Given the much maligned production from day one on this project, with the collective Internet and press moaning about pretty much every aspect of the production from casting, director, and stories of on set troubles, it is no shock at the response to it. The knives were out even before any screening of the film was run, and it’s pretty safe to say a few critics at least went in with the desire to tear the film to shreds. However, even within the wave of bad reviews, some of the poor reviews did touch on some glimmers of hope within the film, rather than just ripping the whole film to shreds in an attempt to gain some clicks and likes.

But is the film really as bad as the low score of Rotten Tomatoes suggests?  Well, let me set off by mentioning tat I have been a fan of the Fantastic Four since childhood – it was the first Marvel comic book I read, and I have collected it ever since I was 7.  The cosmic adventures of the team have thrilled me and excited me through the decades.  I have laughed, cried, and had my heart broken at their personal lives, whilst embraced the dimension hopping, time travelling, micro-verse exploring elements of even their most crazy of stories.  The love I have for the Four left me with mixed emotions on the Tim Story directed films – the banter and playful nature was there, but the film lacked something to make it really work.  I have been intrigued about the new film, having enjoyed Chronicle, and am accepting of the ‘Ultimate’ approach the film is taking.  So, as a fan, did it pay off?

The answer is no, it didn’t. But not to the negative degree that the consensus would suggest.

First things first, this is the Ultimate Fantastic Four version, with a young team building a dimension gate, and their experiences through it result in changes to their genetics to grant them powers. In addition Victor Von Doom, a young scientist from Latveria (not Domishev the hacker as was erroneously reported early into production) works with the team on the project and undergoes changes himself. We’ve seen this origin before, only last time it was a bit more fun, and had its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. In this new version it is all a lot more serious toned, with some po faced lines of dialogue being recited with utter seriousness, and lots of frowns and serious stares. Much like the manner in which Man of Steel took the super away from Superman, here the four are less than fantastic.
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Getting the bad out the way first, the middle act is a sombre mess of body horror (which really doesn’t belong in a Fantastic Four movie, even if it looks good) followed by a swift jump ahead in time as though the writers didn’t really know how to handle the team adjusting to their new powers, and so just skipped ahead to avoid tackling it. It feel like a huge, interesting chunk of story was just dropped in order to speed toward a climactic resolution against Doom. That, itself, is such a poor mess of a fight that is over pretty much as soon as it begins, with no build-up or any sense of threat.

But it’s not a total disaster. The start of the film is really well presented. A look at how Reed and Ben became friends as kids gives some heart to the start of the film, and the introduction of the cast to each other works well, even though they don’t quite gel at that point. As a fan of the comics I loved these earlier moments of getting to know the personalities of the characters. Miles Teller is an adequate Reed, Michael B Jordan has the cocky attitude of Johnny Storm just right, Kate Mara is pretty much spot on as Sue Storm in both looks and her scientific nature, whilst Jamie Bell is perfectly affable as Ben Grimm. Toby Kebbell’s introduction as Doom is a little weak, but his interplay with Reed as they work on the dimensional travel machine is lifted straight from the comics. Josh Trank (director) plays these earlier moments of the film well, and has a good eye for the right shot. Gone is his amateur camera style of Chronicle, and here is a more confident manner on which to follow characters as they grow on screen. However, it is once the machine is activated that the film goes dreadfully wrong. The initial character relationships are dropped, and there is barely any chemistry between any of the team from that point onward. The direction becomes drab, and the focus on the horrific aspects of the powers is uncomfortable and unnecessary.

At the closing moments of the film, we get a glimmer of hope of what we could see should a sequel be greenlit, as the banter starts to come into play. But why should it take this long to get the fun banter into play? If the film didn’t take itself so serious throughout, and delivered the same lines of dialogue with a wry smile instead of sombre expression it would have worked a lot better. Yes, editing faults would still hinder it, but at least it would be a lot more fun to sit through.

The film has been compared to a pilot episode of a TV series, and that comparison is spot on. The effects vary from great (Ben Grimm in rock form as The Thing) to ropey (Doctor Doom’s altered form looks like it was ripped straight from 80s era Doctor Who). The characters don’t quite work, but show promise for further episodes. The whole endeavour feels like a forced way to get the origin out the way before the fun can be had. If this was a TV pilot I’d be intrigued enough to see a second episode, to see if the bad would be dropped and the potential would come out (much as I did with the TV series of Constantine). But as film, it’s an unbalanced mess, and you can see the production problems and behind the scenes disagreements in ever scene from the mid point onward.

Tim Story’s films may not have been great, but they at least we’re as bright, colourful, and infused with a sense of fun as the FF deserve. This new FF, whilst not a total disaster, is just an unnecessary retread of a story we already know when they could have just jumped right in to the FF as a team.

Not Quite Fantastic (but definitely not terrible)

So, the first trailer for Josh Trank’s reboot of Fantastic Four has arrived, and before I go further let me first express my admiration for the secrecy around this film.  There’s been very little in the way of shots and teases from the set, which means that this first trailer is actually the first real taste we get of the film (in addition there wasn’t a tease trailer for the tease trailer, which is quite refreshing these days).  Here’s the trailer for you to enjoy…

As quite a big fan of the comics, having been my first foray into Marvel tales when I was 8 years old, and still being a regular joy of mine to read, you could argue that I am a bit of a fanboy.  So, when others who dismiss the trailer as rubbish (some quite seemingly without actually watching it) decide to say that fans like me will all hate it, I wonder where they get that idea from.  My first impression was quite positive.  My second viewing was even better as I took time to absorb the small details such as the joyous wonder on Reed’s face as he enters the military science lab.  If I have one gripe so far it is that there is no sense of fun in this first trailer.  Some people have decided that this means the whole film will be dark and depressing, but that’s not the case.  Josh Trank has commented in interviews that things such as the family dynamic of the team is what he loves about the characters, and if we look at his breakthrough film, Chronicle, that was somewhat dark but did have great lighter moments.

On the subject of Chronicle (great film by the way), remember last year when a quote from someone was taken out of context and suddenly all the so called experts on comic book movies were reporting that FF would be a ‘found footage’ movie?  Now, I always say that too many sites churn out this nonsense for click-bait, and out of fear of being the last to report something.  Personally I prefer to await confirmation before breaking ‘news’ to the world.  Hence I don’t race to post 14 articles per day (heck, 14 per quarter would be a lot for me), and why I ignore most sites that spout random nonsense (hey, Latino Review, how did Ben Affleck being dropped from playing Batman turn out for you after your exclusive reveal last year?)  As the trailer shows, found footage it certainly isn’t. Still, haters are going to hate, and some folk will stretch for any excuse to dump on the film.  I’ve seen people moaning that the title being Fant4stic has ruined it.  Yeah, because Marvel would never do that themselves, would they?  image Others still harp on about the changes to characters (Johnny is black) or story, and like to say Marvel would do it better.  What? Change the characters and story better?  Or do you casually forget them plethora of liberties Marvel themselves have taken with their characters when putting them on film?  Don’t believe me?  Go check out the comic book origins of all the Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, then get back to me for your next homework assignment.  This is why Marvel have a ‘multiverse’ to explain different versions of their characters.  Heck, the FF have travelled and visited versions of themselves that include a black Reed, zombies, or an all female team.  Not forgetting a little comic called Ultimate Fantastic Four which had a young team working in a military science lab…kind of like…oh, yeah.

So, stop stubbornly wanting to hate the film just because you want it to revert back to Marvel.  Heck, I’d love for the characters to mix it up with the Avengers too, but why should that stop me from looking forward to seeing a representation of my favourite super family on the big screen?  After all, Fox seem to be getting the X Men films right (at last), so why not let them play with other Marvel characters a bit more?