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).

wpid-fantastic_four_vol_5_1

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: Jurassic World

In a year of supposed blockbusters, where most so far are proving to be pretty disappointing experiences, along comes another much hyped, and much anticipated event movie which fails to buck the trend.  My anticipation for this film was quite high last year, but as the trailer campaign progressed I grew less interested as it looked to be more Jurassic Park 3 than 1 or 2 (yes, even 2 has some redeeming features).  The ropey CGI seen in the trailers didn’t worry me too much as surely they would refine that in post production…surely?

Jurassic World, as many will tell you, is the spiritual successor to the first film.  Ignoring the side stories of the different islands of the previous sequels, this film is set decades after the events of the first film, and a fully operational dinosaur park has been established.  However, bizarrely it didn’t take the population of the planet too long to tire of dinosaurs (even though the packed streets and attractions of the park that we keep seeing kind of contradict that contrived plot element), and so the park works at not only extracting more DNA from fossils, but also mixing up their own new brand of dinosaur.  Enter the deadly Indominus Rex, a genetically bred mix of mysterious origins (although the twist of where the DNA came from isn’t although clever although so it thinks, being easy to work out in the first lines of dialogue introducing the beast).  Cue Rex escaping and rampaging over the island, putting park guests and exhibits in danger.  Included in them are the nephews of the park controller, the generic military madman who wants to use dinosaurs as weapons, the nerdy worker in the control room, and Chris Pratt in a role that seems like an afterthought which was expanded when Guardians of the Galaxy proved popular.

Let me first of all get off my chest that this is yet another film  in which unnecessary conversion to 3D actually helps damage the experience thanks to some genuinely poor composting of multiple images.  In crowd scenes, the live action characters are mapped poorly among CGI constructs, resulting in moments where they seem to be mapped ahead of other people when they should be behind.  Shots in motion result in a bending of scenery (and in some cases limbs) as the forced perspective struggles to keep up with the changing visual perspective.  The jarring effect of such poor rendering snaps you out of the film, and you end up unable to really immerse yourself in the events on screen.  In addition, this is yet another action film where converting to 3D makes it so that too much is going on in some moments for your eyes to follow, and I had to close one eye on occasion just to keep up with the visuals on screen.  When combined with some sloppy CGI which quite clearly wasn’t improved after the trailers, it doesn’t make for a great experience.  The dinosaurs look great, however, but it is the many CGI park shots that fail spectacularly.

But even without the 3D and ropey CGI, the film is nothing more than an average experience, marginally better than the third film was, but nothing more.  The characters are dull, generic drones, with Pratt suffering the most from a part that (as mentioned) seems to have been expanded once his popularity exploded last year.  The story setting – a packed theme park – should have led to more peril than we had seen in previous films, but instead we only really have a small number of people in peril, aside from one small moment when crowds (who mysteriously vanish minutes later) are attacked.  A few half baked forced nods to the original film (and seriously, how long do batteries last in equipment that is decades old?) make it seem that the director desperately wants you to love his film as much ands that old one.  Continuity between shots suffered at times, and I get the feeling there are some late re shoots and additions forced in which account for the problems (especially as most involve Pratt and Howard’s characters, which further highlight the expanded minor role previously mentioned).

image

But, hey, maybe I’m being too picky.  After all, surely all that people want from the film is dinosaurs?  Well, if so then the film does deliver.  The effects for the dinosaurs are great, with all the favourites in the mix, and the new Rex being a gloriously terrifying creation (although also an inconsistent one in the tracking abilities it is said to have).  The roar chills, the skin detail is disturbingly real, and the creations all fit well into the scenes.  It’s just a shame that the human elements are so weak, as instead of us being thrilled at the peril on screen, we are nought but visitors to a theme park ourselves,  watching the dinosaurs with a modicum of interest, but internally feeling a bit tired of seeing things we have seen 3 times before.

Jurassic World will no doubt thrill the easily pleased who just want dinosaurs fighting dinosaurs, but to those of us who prefer there to be some semblance of plot, characters, or drama (you know…human element) in our films, then it is nothing more than forgettable eye candy destined to be looked back on as just another sequel.