Assassin’s Creed

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendon Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writers: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage


Video games are unique in that filmmakers seem utterly incapable of making great movies based on them. The most successful recent adaptation that I can think of is Warcraft, a film that I personally enjoyed and felt was very faithful to its source material but which many justifiably criticised for being too cluttered and underwhelming. After decades of trying (and in many cases failing miserably) no one has yet been able to pull off an all-out successful marriage between the two mediums. Maybe its because some of the filmmakers don’t respect the source material and are simply looking to cash in on its popularity. Maybe it’s because video games are often so heavily action-driven and so light on story that they don’t easily lend themselves towards adaptation. Maybe it’s because some genres, like the FPS, tend to place such little emphasis on the characters that the films end up having little to work with. And yet Assassin’s Creed is a popular, acclaimed franchise that provides both a story and characters for the film to work, modify and expand on. So why is this film such an abject failure?

In 2016, Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death but is rescued from his execution by the Abstergo Foundation. The CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), also a leading Templar, is searching for the Apple, which holds the genetic code for free will, and believes that Cal is the key to his search. His daughter and head scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard) reveals that Cal is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), a 15th century assassin. By persuading him to use the animus, a machine that reads the genetic memory of its host, it is hoped that Cal’s ancestor will lead them to the Apple. Thus the film is taken to Spain in 1492 where the Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is caught up in the Grenada War. There Aguilar and his partner Maria (Ariane Labed) must combat the Templars and locate the Apple in order to keep its secrets safe from those who would misuse it.

Sometimes when a video game movie fails, it’s because the filmmakers just don’t get what it was about the game that attracted people in the first place. It may look the part and sound like it too, but without that vital ingredient it will inevitably disappoint and feel flat. Case in point: a considerable portion of the film’s story is focused on the events of the present, which was literally no one’s favourite part of the game. Yes, I get that the film wants to explore questions and ideas about free will, but the game itself was able to do that well enough without bogging itself down in exposition and presenting subplots about the death of the main character’s mother or the bureaucracy of the Templar’s organisation. Desmond Miles wasn’t the character that all the gamers loved, it was Altaïr and Ezio and all the other assassins in the franchise. In this film we barely get to know Aguilar or his compatriots because we don’t get to spend enough time with them. Maybe that would’ve been fine if the present’s story was more interesting than the past’s, but it wasn’t.

The film reunites Fassbender and Cotillard with Justin Kurzel and Michael Lesslie, with whom they worked on a stunning adaptation of Macbeth. This film holds itself with a similar level of seriousness but is often too dull or ridiculous for the tone to work. The characters are all too busy dispensing overblown, nonsensical exposition for them to display any semblance of a personality. The film trudges along so slowly with such a ceaseless array of conversations spouting vaguely important sounding dialogue that even Shyamalan would find it convoluted. Honestly, a time travelling movie about assassins does not need to be this solemn or serious (the games certainly weren’t). There are a few instances of what I suppose ought to be called fight scenes except that they’re so tediously choreographed, I’m not sure whether the term should apply. With its drab colour palette and tiresome action, there is nothing visually engaging about this film.

This film has made the same mistake that countless others have made whenever they’ve struggled to have something childish or ridiculous taken seriously. They overcompensated and made it pretentious, hollow and boring. There is no life in this film; no colour, no personality, no energy, no anything. The Assassin’s Creed games were often ridiculous, but they were also engaging, lively and fun. As a film lover I found this movie to be without merit; there was nothing compelling about its story or characters, there was nothing spectacular about its action or production, and after it was done I found nothing memorable or worthwhile to take away. As someone who has played and enjoyed the games, I was greatly disappointed that the same property could produce something so critically lacking in inspiration, imagination and animation. Whatever this X factor is that makes video game adaptations immune to great cinema is anybody’s guess, but it’s definitely had its effect on this attempt.

Silence

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese


Although this is just the third time in his illustrious career, after The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, that Scorsese has depicted a centrally religious story, one need only look at his other movies to see how strongly the themes and symbols of Silence resonate in his filmography. In the many gangster films and thrillers that he is best known for directing, Scorsese has depicted such themes as sin, perdition, weakness, hypocrisy, reckoning and deliverance and has done so with great artistry and conviction. In Silence however, a film that was decades in the making and clearly a passion project of his, these themes are confronted in a challenging, relentless, punishing way unlike anything he has made before. Scorsese has basically made a career out of displaying the dark side of people and the violence they inflict, but this is a film that cuts on an entirely deeper, more emotional level. This picture is ruthless, demanding and excruciating and it is one of the director’s greatest masterpieces. If Scorsese could be regarded as the American Kurosawa (in terms of prestige and significance to cinema), then Silence is his Ran.

Two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) leave Portugal for feudal Japan in search of their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). It is believed that Ferreira has forsaken his vows after being tortured at the hands of the Japanese, a rumour that the two priests desperately hope will prove to be unfounded. They reach the island with the help of the drunken fisherman Kichijiro (Yösuke Kubozuka), a Japanese Christian undergoing a crisis of faith, and find the village of Tomogi where the townsfolk worship the Christian faith in secret. The arrival of the priests proves to be both a blessing and a curse to the villagers as they are now able to receive sacraments but are also now in danger of being discovered by the Japanese authorities who have been tasked with purging Christianity from their land. As the Japanese Christians suffer torment and death at the hands of the samurais, the two priests can only watch helplessly in silence until they too are finally captured. As captives of the Japanese governor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), the priests are subjected to unimaginable pain as their faith is put to the ultimate test.

As these two priests are tortured and bear witness to the torture of others they are forced to ask themselves painful questions, only to find themselves woefully without answers. How much suffering can a man endure to preserve his faith and how much should he have to endure in the name of his merciful, benevolent God? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others continue to suffer or to renounce one’s faith so that they might be spared? However brutal and barbaric the Japanese people’s methods are, are they right to view this Western religion as a corrosive influence on their own culture? Scorsese doesn’t have the answers to any of these questions nor does he ever try to provide one. There is no secret answer to the tests these priests are forced to go through, there is no divine inspiration or enlightened resolve; there is only helpless screaming and futile protest, followed by silence. The film does not condemn or condone, it doesn’t judge or absolve, and it doesn’t vilify or idolise. It creates a severely authentic and mesmerising experience for the audience that allows them to understand the thoughts and emotions behind these questions. The point isn’t to provide viewers with the answers; it’s to fuel their contemplation.

It takes a master director to create this kind of cinematic experience and there are few, living or dead, who deserve that title more than Scorsese. Another director might have opted to display the violent content of this film graphically, loudly and up close in order to try and create a more visceral experience, the way Mel Gibson did for instance in his own tale of religious violence, The Passion of the Christ. Scorsese however shows that some scenes can be even more emotionally devastating and unbearable when exercising restraint. Distance is used to emphasise helplessness and the absence of a divine presence. A slow pace is used to heighten the tension and prolong the agony. Silence is used to drive home the cruel finality of death and the unfeeling indifference of the world these characters inhabit. Scorsese goes beyond spectacle to create an engrossing, authentic, emotional experience. This isn’t a movie that the viewer watches; it is one that they endure and are affected by.

Silence is certainly a difficult film to watch which is why it likely won’t get the same level of popularity as Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Still, if time is kind to this film and it gets hailed as a classic years from now, maybe it will earn the same level of esteem and commemoration as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It definitely deserves to. The film is utterly gut wrenching and truly profound. It certainly feels like more of a personal film for Scorsese than many of his most recent projects, as if he himself has been undergoing a deeply intense crisis of faith in the decades it has taken him to complete this film. With all of the horrific trials, tribulations and atrocities he portrays and the tortuously confounding nature of the questions raised, I can only imagine the amount of soul searching Scorsese must have gone through while making this picture. The result is one of the most magnificent and enigmatic films of his prolific career and certainly one of the best films of 2016.

★★★★★

Hell or High Water

Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


Hell or High Water is a modern Western. It is set in a rustic Texan landscape made up of small, washed-up towns scattered around an endless desert where most of the inhabitants live an unassuming, rural lifestyle. The age of the cowboy is long gone and so is the sense of romance and mythology that came with it. There are some of the trademarks in this film that we would associate with the classic John Wayne cowboy movies like bank robberies, shootouts and men with badges, but it doesn’t have that same classical feel to it. Much like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, this film harkens towards a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore (and maybe never even existed in the first place) where men lived by a code and where justice and honour always won over cowardice and infamy. Now the world is older, the morality is greyer and the people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to the modern way of things have been left behind. This is the setting for Mackenzie’s brilliant, elegiac film.

Two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a divorced father of two, and Tanner (Ben Foster), just released from prison, have begun a campaign of bank robberies, focusing on the branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. Although these robberies have been carefully planned, the executions tend to go awry due to Tanner’s reckless, changeable nature. Still, they get away with the money and proceed to a casino in Oklahoma where it can be laundered. The case for these robberies is handed to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled, veteran Ranger on the verge of retirement, and his Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). As he pursues their leads, Hamilton focuses his investigation on determining the brothers’ methods and personalities in order to anticipate their next move.

What I really liked about this film was how natural and organic everything felt. The film was in no rush to get through the slow parts so that we could enjoy the more thrilling chapters in the story, it all unfolded over a steady, even pace. Moments were allowed to play out, the atmosphere was allowed to sink in and the characters were allowed to breathe. Some of the most memorable scenes in this film have absolutely no bearing on the plot, such as when Hamilton and Parker are greeted in a restaurant by an unsmiling, jaded waitress who, instead of asking, informs the men what they will be having for lunch. It is a wonderfully low-key moment that perfectly encapsulates the antiquated, melancholic nature of the world that these characters live in. That moment and the others like it are why the film is able to be deep and insightful without being pretentious. They are raw, subtle and utterly authentic.

As the two brothers Pine and Foster have never been better. Pine, who some might underestimate as another Hollywood pretty face, plays against type here and shows himself to be as much of an actor as he is a star. As Toby he plays a quiet and unassuming man, someone who isn’t a saint but who also wouldn’t get himself involved in this kind of activity unless he had a good reason. Meanwhile Tanner, played by the chameleonic Foster, is a loose cannon. His reason for robbing these banks is the same as his brother and he’s smart enough to know that their best shot is to stick to the plan but, while Toby is apprehensive about what they are doing, Tanner is clearly enjoying himself way too much. Bridges is predictably perfect for the role of the ageing lawman, but what is surprising is how well he and Birmingham play off each other. The banter between them is often unflattering and, in Bridges case, politically incorrect, but it comes from a place of mutual respect and perhaps even affection. The two are like an old married couple, they can barely stand each other but there’s no one they’d rather be partnered with.

Those are just the main performances. One of this film’s best qualities is that every character, from the main to the side to the one-liners (including the aforementioned waitress), is impeccably cast and memorable. That, I think, is one of the reasons why this film feels as fresh as it does. Even though this film takes a familiar concept from an established genre with a long and rich cinematic history, it never feels like the film is just going through the motions. Through strong acting, compelling storytelling and beautiful cinematography, the film is able to take some of the hallmarks of this genre and make them feel fresh and natural. Anyone who has seen a Western before will probably anticipate the climatic shootout that will inevitably take place, but the film exists so strongly in its own world that it doesn’t feel like an obligatory convention of its genre, it feels like an intrinsic part of the story.

★★★★★

Passengers

Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Jon Spaihts


Space is a great setting for making movies about isolation. It is a vast, empty void where, as Alien observed, no one can hear you scream. Small wonder then that there is a great range of superb sci-fi films depicting this very idea from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity. Passengers seeks to take the idea even further with its story of a forlorn man who is driven by his inconsolable loneliness and obsessive desperation to commit a terrible act. There is a compelling premise here that could have made for a fascinating film, sort of like a cross between The Shining and Vertigo set in space. The problem is that this film is more interested in portraying a fashionable Hollywood romance between its two attractive, likeable leads than it is in properly confronting the themes that have been set up. Thus we are instead treated to manipulated emotions, contrived storytelling and weak characterisations, all of which serve to enable Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to enjoy their dark, insane, unhealthy relationship.

The starship Avalon is undergoing a 120-year journey with its 5,000 passengers to inhabit a new planet when it suffers damage passing through an asteroid field. As a result of this accident Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up 90 years too early on a ship with no other conscious people and no way of going back to sleep. In the year that he spends alone on the ship his only companion is the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). In a moment of despair Jim happens upon a pod belonging to Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is enamoured with her. After learning everything he can about her and (somewhat) struggling with his own conscience, Jim decides to wake her up so that he finally won’t be alone any more. He and Aurora (who is unaware of his action) meet and fall in love, but their love is threatened by the truth of their meeting, which will inevitably be revealed to her, as well as by the sustained damage suffered by the ship.

This is a dark, some might even say sadistic, premise for a film. The film however decides that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence must be allowed to fall in love and end up together because… well, because they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Even if there was a believable way to spin their relationship into a positive one, the chemistry they share isn’t potent or alluring enough to justify it despite both of them being charming and attractive actors. There is a sense here that we are supposed to buy into their union based on the strength of their individual personas (because, for heaven’s sake, they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence!) but the characters and dialogue they are given are just too bland and conventional for them to have any real kind of a spark. It gets worse when the inevitable revelation is made and Aurora correctly denounces Jim as a murderer because then the movie has to somehow make them get back together. The way they accomplish this is all at once cheap, forced, predictable, misguided and sexist.

I suppose there are some technically good aspects in this film that ought to be praised. Michael Sheen for instance gives a terrific performance in a role that he clearly had a great time playing. The film looks good in terms of its visual effects and production design, especially in the scene where Aurora’s swimming routine is interrupted by a malfunction in the ship’s gravity, but it isn’t exactly something to behold. The designs, such as that of the double-helix-shaped ship, are serviceable in giving the film the sci-fi look it wants but they never startle or astonish. I can also say that Tyldum’s direction is quite competent, but isn’t nearly as inspired or inventive as the films he clearly drew inspiration from (the most obvious of which were both made by Kubrick). At times the flow and composition of the film looks and feels so plain and unsurprising that I suspect the spaceship’s autopilot could probably have directed it.

D.H. Lawrence once called Jane Eyre a pornographic novel, criticising the way he felt Brontë had to manipulate her characters’ emotions and circumstances in order for them to end up together. That is basically how I feel about Passengers. There is no thought, no depth and no feeling to this film. The movie cares only about one thing and that is getting Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to lock lips and look good doing it. The grim desolation that drove Jim to commit his crime, the heavy toll that the guilt takes on his soul, the rage, devastation and probably even violation that Aurora feels upon learning the truth; all of that is secondary. So great is the crime of trying to pass off such a disturbing concept as a positive love story that it outshines the crime of bringing together these two likeable, talented stars and not using them to their full potential. This movie is not a romance, it is wish-fulfilment; plain, stupid, unintentionally disturbing wish-fulfilment.

★★

Rogue One

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker

Director: Gareth Edwards,

Writers: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy


The Star Wars prequels are more than bad movies, they are a profoundly disappointing missed opportunity. The idea was to expand on the story and the universe that we all loved and knew so well by turning the clock back and looking at where it all started. The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness, the truth of Obi-Wan’s greatest failure, the terrible war that led to the destruction of the Jedi Order, the fall of the Republic and the ascent of the Galactic Empire; these were stories that we couldn’t wait to see unfold. Instead we got three poorly written, emotionally hollow, excessively CG’d movies complete with midichlorians, sand flirting and Jar Jar. Rogue One succeeds where these films failed, not just because it’s actually a half-decent flick, but because it actually brought something new to Star Wars and made the franchise as a whole better than it was before.

Set immediately before the events of A New Hope the film follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as she is pulled into the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance after being freed from prison by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). He needs her help to find her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the lead architect of the newly-completed Death Star, so that they might learn about the weapon he has created. Aiding them is a team of rebels including the sassy reprogrammed droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), the cynical mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the turncoat Imperial soldier Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Overseeing the completion of the Death Star is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), whose position is threatened when a security leak threatens to compromise all that he has worked for. From this leak Jyn learns of the existence of a design flaw hidden within the plans of the Death Star. What follows is a race against time as Jyn and her team try to uncover the nature of this weakness before the Empire can use their weapon to impose their will on the Galaxy.

There is a smaller story being told here than in any of the other Star Wars films which Edwards and Weitz try to make work by playing up the emotional stakes. The setup is not unlike The Magnificent Seven (or perhaps Seven Samurai, directed by one of George Lucas’ greatest influences, is the more appropriate comparison) where a team of ragtag individuals are driven by ideals of nobility, duty and morality to take on a perilous mission against impossible odds, along the way accepting that they will not all live to see it through. To this end the film works well for the most part. There is, for starters, a number of enjoyable, colourful characters to root for such as Chirrut, a man of faith whose actions (he believes) are driven by the Force, and K-2SO, who is basically C-3PO if he could also break Stormtroopers’ necks. Some of the motivations and personalities of these characters do leave something to be desired but there is just enough in there to make the film worthwhile. Jyn and Cassian are not exactly Leia and Han when it comes to likeability and memorability but I was happy to follow them for this one movie.

The first two thirds of the film do drag a bit as we jump from generic planet to generic planet waiting for our heroes to kick off the movie’s climax but, once they do, it is every bit worth the wait and is everything a Star Wars fan could possibly want from a climax. An epic space battle: check. The infiltration of an Imperial base: check. The greatest Darth Vader action scene in history: double check! That the film never quite found the time to truly define its characters the way A New Hope did does work against them as our emotional investment isn’t quite as strong as they probably wanted. While we do get to see their story-arcs fulfilled in some very good character moments, it is more affective than it is moving. You’ll be invested enough that the events will register with you, but they won’t really leave any sort of a lasting impact. Still, with that said, the spectacle of this climax is more than strong enough to be worthy of the Star Wars name.

As well as an astounding third act, Rogue One is also worth watching for the ways in which it ties in to A New Hope. By setting out to fix what is probably one of the most famous and often-debated plot holes in cinema, the story at large has become stronger for it. The Death Star’s Achilles Heel is no longer a deus ex machina, it is now an entirely justified plot device that adds a greater context and weight to Luke Skywalker’s fateful assault. Other tie-ins include the glorious return of Vader as well as Grand Moff Tarkin, recreated in the image of the late Peter Cushing. I’m ambivalent on his inclusion. While a part of me does feel uneasy about digitally manipulating a dead man’s image to make a movie, I can’t deny that another part of me was overjoyed to see him again as the marvellously sinister villain that he had played so well. Personally, I think that I can accept this choice as long as Disney and Lucasfilm agree not to make a habit out of it (especially in light of the tragic and untimely death of Carrie Fisher).

The strengths and weaknesses of Rogue One are interesting to look at when comparing it to The Force Awakens. While that film did have misgivings in terms of plot, it made up for those misgivings (for me at least) by virtue of its new, wonderfully engaging characters such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and BB-8. Rogue One has a more individual, better-told story in its favour, but the emotional resonance is not as strong because the characters are not as compelling. They’re fine in that they serve their roles, have a few good moments and keep you invested for the duration of the story, but they don’t have that strong sense of identity or the enduring quality that has made the original characters or their successors as celebrated as they are. Rogue One is, all in all, a very decent film and a creditable addition to the Star Wars canon. By taking us away from the Skywalker story for a little bit, this film has more than any other Star Wars movie shown us how big this universe truly is and how much life there is in its history and civilisations. I look forward to learning more in their future spin-off instalments.

★★★★

Snowden

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage

Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone


After depicting such controversial episodes in the USA’s recent history as Kennedy’s assassination, the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War, it makes perfect sense for Oliver Stone to tackle the story of Edward Snowden. Indeed, the story of the celebrated whistle-blower who exposed the true depths and scope of the government’s post-9/11 surveillance capabilities seems almost tailor-made to suit Stone’s taste. There is conspiracy and corruption, an idealist who loses faith in the institution he dedicated his life towards serving, and a complex social and political debate at its core about the conflict between privacy and security. The question is whether the Platoon and JFK director could revive the energy and inspiration that allowed him to make such remarkable films all those years ago and channel them into his latest project. The answer is somewhat. Although Snowden is not Stone at his best, there is certainly a drive to this film that has been lacking in his work in recent years.

The film opens in 2013 with the documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) going to Hong Kong in secret to meet with a government agent. There they are met by Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former CIA employee in possession of stolen files detailing the NSA’s illegal mass surveillance programme. We’re then treated to a chronology of Snowden’s career in intelligence starting with his discharge from the army for health reasons and his recruitment into the CIA. After getting the attention of Deputy Director Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) through his proficiency with computers, Snowden is taken to The Hill where he receives his first glimpse into the CIA’s surveillance operations. At this time he starts dating Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who subsequently follows him to Geneva, Japan and Hawaii. With each placement Snowden becomes more disillusioned with the unchecked disregard for privacy taking place in his own government until finally he resolves to let the truth be revealed to the world.

The story and its revelations are familiar to anyone who was watching the news at that time or who has seen the great Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. What this film sought to do was examine the human element of that story. Who is Edward Snowden and what drove him to do what he did? The film’s version of him, portrayed strongly by Gordon-Levitt, is shown to be very much conflicted throughout the film. On one hand he feels a strong sense of duty towards his country and wants to do his part to keep it safe. However he cannot abide the limitless, intrusive measures his government is able to take to ensure that security and their indiscriminative use of those measures. What’s worse, in his view, is the total lack of transparency and awareness. It’s one thing for the government to be able to access someone’s webcam even when their computer is switched off, but the people have no idea that such a method is even possible. There is a clear sense of Snowden’s inner turmoil being conveyed as he struggles with the moral dilemma between national security and personal freedom and it is gripping.

The parts where I felt the film struggled the most were during the more ‘human’ aspects of Snowden’s story. His relationship with Lindsay for instance did not feel like an organic part of the story. It felt more tacked on to me, as if the film decided to throw in some relationship drama because this is the kind of story that’s supposed to have some relationship drama. It feels too much like these scenes belonged to another film; whenever they appeared they interrupted the rhythm and stole away from whatever momentum the film had managed to build. I also felt that there was too much hero-worshipping on Stone’s part. The debate on whether Snowden is a criminal or a patriot is an important one and it is Stone’s prerogative as an artist to let the audience know which side he agrees with. However it felt too much like Stone was more interested in celebrating Snowden than he was in humanising him, which simply made for a less thought-provoking and compelling film.

This is a story that Stone was destined to tell and it is a crying shame that he couldn’t have made it back when he was at the peak of his ability and ambition. He does a great job of depicting the bigger story taking place; the disconcerting conspiracy that took place and its foreboding Orwellian implications, the betrayed values and corrupted ideals, and the vitally difficult and challenging debate that is still taking place today. In the middle of it all however Stone loses track of the human element that was so essential to his earlier work, even with the advantage of a highly capable actor delivering a formidable performance. The story definitely revitalised a part of Stone, allowing Snowden to display a level of passion that has been missing from his films for far too long, so it is possible that we may be seeing the beginning of a comeback for the director. I certainly hope that’s the case because we could really use an Oliver Stone right about now.

★★★

The Birth of a Nation

Cast: Nate Parker, Arnie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union

Director: Nate Parker

Writers: Nate Parker, Jean McGianni Celestin


To say that Nate Parker’s film has attracted some controversy would be a gross understatement. The last couple of years have seen a dramatic intensification of racial issues in the USA, from the augmented outcries of racial attitudes inspired by Trump’s campaign to the prevalent police brutalities that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, so a movie about Nat Turner’s famous slave rebellion was certainly going to grab people’s attention. The title itself, the same used for D.W. Griffith’s technically magnificent but despicably racist silent epic, shows how intent Parker is on making a loud, provocative statement. Then there’s the negative publicity that Parker himself and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin have received with the resurfacing of a rape charge made against them both in 1999. When a film is engulfed by such a critical and emotional storm as this, it can be difficult to look past the controversy and see the film itself for what it is. When I tried, what I found was that the film, while having some very admirable qualities, was ultimately not worth defending.

The film tells the real-life story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), the leader of the most famous slave rebellion in American history. As a child Nat was taught how to read using the Bible and grew to become a preacher. After displaying a natural charisma and an uncanny power of influence over his fellow slaves, Nat’s owner Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer) agrees to lend Nat to the other plantations so that he might preach and spread a message of submission and compliance to their slaves. Nat however starts to question the virtue of the gospel he is ordered to spread as he witnesses countless atrocities at the hands of the white slave owners, including the beating and raping of his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Instead Nat finds inspiration in the Christian teachings which foretell a day of divine justice for the enslaved against the masters and becomes a prophet for the slaves. This results in a revolt led by Nat against the white slave owners in an attempt to seize their freedom and salvation.

By portraying Nat Turner as a Christ-like figure it’s clear that Parker’s chosen approach is to mythologise his story, a fair approach that we’ve seen before in cinema (it’s the same approach that Parker’s friend and advisor Mel Gibson used in Braveheart). The trouble is that Parker idolises his hero to the extent that he fundamentally undermines the very cause he was fighting for. The film portrays Turner as an enigmatic figure, a man destined for greatness and whose own personal suffering, rather than that of his contemporaries, serves as the film’s dramatic crux. When the two major crimes which ultimately trigger the violent climax are perpetrated, that is the rapes of Cherry Turner and of Esther (Gabrielle Union), Parker places the emotional emphasis not on those two women or even their families but solely on Nat. His outrage is what sparks the rebellion. The individual thoughts, hopes and fears of his followers as well as the institutional offences of slavery and the national, political connotations of their mutiny are swept to the side; this rebellion is all about Nat. The other characters don’t exist except to reflect Nat’s greatness.

It’s clear that Parker identifies strongly with Nat Turner and he portrays him confidently and, at times, powerfully. When Nat is taken to the other plantations to deliver his sermons, he witnesses several atrocious crimes carried out by the slave owners and feels the silent judgement of those slaves who regard him as he stands in his position of favour with the whites, serving as a tool for suppression. Here Parker conveys a wonderful mixture of emotions: shame, guilt, empathy, compassion, betrayal, impotence. It is however difficult, and probably wrong, to separate the art from the artist when, like Parker, they have directed, produced, written the picture and cast themselves in the starring role. Thus, when Parker emphasises Turner’s torment and outrage even at the detriment of the story he’s trying to tell, it betrays a vanity on his part. There is a desire here to portray Nat as an almost superhuman figure in his campaign against slavery and it is this emphasis which creates a great disparity between his character’s motivation and the symbol he is supposed to represent.

There is a great story here that is trying to be told but the film ultimately falls victim to Parker’s ambitions. The film seems more concerned with glorifying Nat Turner (and, in turn, Nate Parker) than it is with understanding its subject. It is certainly directed with the conviction of an artist with a powerful story to tell and is hardly ever dull, nor is it without moments of brilliance. However, unlike such recent films as 12 Years a Slave, Parker got so caught up with his own vision and artistry that he ultimately lost sight of that story and the terrible tragedy surrounding it. When a film depicts such a notorious historical episode as slavery, signifying such vital themes as intolerance, prejudice, oppression, subjugation and hatred, there is often a sense that praise for the film is almost compulsory by virtue of it portraying such an important and powerful subject. The Birth of a Nation however is unworthy of its subject. It takes a story of indignation and bloody retribution set during a shameful chapter of history that still haunts people to this day, and reduces it to a vanity project.

★★

Top 10 Films of 2016

Now that January has ended and I’ve had a chance to see some of the USA’s awards contenders, I’m ready to publish my Top 10 list. The sad truth is that I haven’t had a chance to watch every film I wanted to see this year and there are some, like Moonlight, that haven’t even had a nation-wide release in the UK yet. Still, I’ve seen enough great films this year to make a list with which I’m happy. One trend I’ve noticed with these films is that many of them display an element of nostalgia, harkening back to lost eras and happier, simpler times. Many of these films also carry messages of hope and inspiration, entreating people to try harder and to dream bigger and to believe in greater possibilities. Still, there are some dark and brutal movies in there as well; the kind which remind us that life isn’t some fairy-tale musical. 2016 was a frightful and terrible year for many people and it’s just as important for art to reflect that as it is to counteract it. So, without further ado, here are my ten favourite (and five least favourite) films of 2016.

10. Paterson – Jim Jarmusch

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Paterson is a film that feels both authentic and fantastic at once. Like the poetry that inspired it, Paterson isn’t trying to tell a story, it’s trying to capture a tone, a feeling. It is a subdued and contemplative film that finds beauty and profundity in the ordinary and mundane. Like poetry, Paterson is shaped less by its plot and characters than it is by its mood and structure. The film flows beautifully and there is a remarkable air of tranquillity that is seldom seen in movies. There is no obstacle that must be overcome, no foe to be defeated and no arc that must be fulfilled. It’s just a glimpse of life in a small town with a rich history and culture and an observation of the everyday things that become the subjects of Paterson’s poems. The poems are simple, plainspoken and honest, and so is this film. Review here.

9. Hell or High Water – David Mackenzie

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Like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, Hell or High Water is a Western set a long, long time after the Western era came to an end. It has the usual tropes of the classic cowboy films, the bank robberies, the shootouts, the men with badges, but none of the romance or mythos. The age of the cowboy is long gone and the old Texan way of life is either dead or dying. What we have here is just a couple of brothers trying to steal just enough to pay off their late-mother’s mortgage and a grizzled ranger getting one last job done before settling down to a dull, aimless life of retirement. Each character, from the main roles to the background players, is memorable. The rustic landscape is shot beautifully. The screenplay brings a wealth of life and colour to an otherwise familiar concept and amounts to a thoroughly enjoyable and invigorating film. Review here.

8. Jackie – Pablo Lerraín

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This film is both a compelling character study of a brave, remarkable woman going through an unimaginable crisis and a moving portrait of grief, loneliness and loss. The First Lady must confront the sorrow, anguish and pain she feels over the trauma that has been inflicted upon her and must reconcile her own private feelings towards her husband with that of the nation. After dedicating her entire life towards her husband’s work and calling, Jackie has no idea who she is supposed to be now that he’s gone. Even without him in her life, she cannot be her own person. She has a duty to perform, a promise to keep and a legacy to define and preserve. This complicated mixture of sorrow, anger, ambivalence, shock, uncertainty, isolation and endurance is captured by Portman in an exceptionally heartbreaking performance. After a life of being defined by her husband, Jackie is a film that seeks to view Jacqueline Kennedy on her own terms and it does an excellent job of doing so. Review here.

7. La La Land – Damien Chazelle

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Made in the vein of the classic Hollywood musicals, La La Land is a film that captures that same sensation previously encapsulated by the likes of Gene Kelly and Astaire & Rogers. The look of the film is gorgeous, the style is irresistible and the musical numbers are spectacular. The movie is a fantasy set in a whimsical city of dreamers where two romantic idealists find love. There is so much charm, glamour and bravado to this film that it isn’t hard to understand why it has become the smash hit that it is. Much of this is creditable to Chazelle whose inventive and dynamic direction gave the film its fervent energy and masterful command over different styles and genres. Also essential were Gosling and Stone who, despite not being particularly great singers, brought so much heart to their performances that their voices didn’t really matter all that much. It isn’t my favourite film (or even musical) of the year but, if it does sweep the Oscars like it almost certainly will, it won’t be unearned. Review here.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings – Travis Knight

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2016 was a strong year for animation but, for me, Kubo and the Two Strings was easily the best of them. The animation is stupendous (as confirmed by a well-deserved Oscar nomination for visual effects), the characters are wonderful and the story is both exciting and affective. Like all the best children’s films, Kubo takes it audience seriously and seeks to both challenge and astound them. The movie is dark, scary and complex, but it is also silly, moving and thrilling. At its heart is the most classic of all stories, the hero’s journey, that unfolds into an epic tale of love, loss, melancholy, courage, resilience and salvation. It is a film that believes in the power of stories to move, commemorate and redeem and ends on a staggeringly profound note. This film is a landmark achievement not just for Laika but for animation as a genre. Review here.

5. Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford

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No other film this year has confounded me the way Nocturnal Animals has. It is sinister, yet beautiful. It is unbearable, yet captivating. It is a difficult film to categorise because it has no clear resolution and is constantly jumping between different stories and genres. At times it is a melancholic tale of misery and regret. Sometimes it is twisted fable of vengeance with elements of the Western mixed in. At other times it is a melodramatic story of an idealistic but doomed romance. The film is meticulously crafted and exquisitely shot, making expert use of its colours, staging and music. The film also makes excellent use of its ensemble, featuring particularly great performances from Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon and an unrecognisable Taylor-Johnson. Nocturnal Animals is a gut-wrenching and at times downright unpleasant film to watch, but not once does it cease to be fascinating. Review here.

4. Sing Street – John Carney

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Sing Street does not have the incredible production value, the gorgeous style or the frantic energy of La La Land, and yet it is still my favourite movie musical of the year. This is because, for me at least, Sing Street had more heart to it. It shares similar ideas of love, dreams and fantasy, but it also has a layer of kitchen-sink realism that I feel lends it more authenticity. This coming-of-age story about an Irish lad starting his own band to win the heart of a pretty, young model is just teeming with tenderness, sorrow and humour. The moments of sadness hit hard, which means that the moments of joy and triumph are all the more elated and earned. The film also boasts of a marvellous soundtrack and that it wasn’t even nominated in the Oscar category for Best Song is a crime. Review here.

3. Silence – Martin Scorsese

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Few directors, especially living directors, can claim to have crafted a body of work as consistent, as influential and as brilliant as Martin Scorsese and Silence is one of his finest. Decades in the making and quite clearly a passion project for him; the film underscores many of the themes featured throughout Scorsese’s filmography such as sin, perdition and deliverance. Two Jesuit priests come to feudal Japan in search of their lost mentor and are subjected to unendurable forms of pain, anguish and despair. One could suspect that Scorsese did some soul-searching in the making of this film as he raises challenging questions that cannot possibly be answered. How much suffering can a man endure for his faith and how much should he have to endure? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others suffer or to renounce it to save them? However cruel and brutal their methods, are the Japanese right to view Christianity as corruptive to their culture? Silence is an utterly gut-wrenching yet profoundly enigmatic work of cinema crafted by one of the great masters of our time. Review here.

2. I, Daniel Blake – Ken Loach

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Ken Loach has demonstrated better than any other British filmmaker film’s power as a political and social vehicle. With I, Daniel Blake he has continued his crusade for the downtrodden and forgotten underdogs of the UK by highlighting a system of “conscious cruelty” in action. Daniel Blake, a man who has been deemed physically unfit to work, is forced to meet a series of inane, superfluous regulations in order to qualify for a benefit, only to be confounded at every turn by a pitiless system that cares only for the bottom line. Whether or not you agree with Loach’s politics or whether the benefits system really is as cruel as it portrayed is inconsequential. This is a great film because it succeeds brilliantly in conveying the desperation and frustration of Daniel’s dilemma, as well as the misery and helplessness of Katie’s situation, to the extent that it feels gut-wrenchingly authentic. Review here.

1. Arrival – Denis Villeneuve

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For me, this was the most stimulating, fulfilling and moving film of the year. The characters of Arrival are faced with an ambiguous and potentially foreboding situation that could spell doom if handled negligently or indelicately. And yet, with the threat of global war hanging in the balance, it is thought, empathy and cooperation that triumph. It is a masterfully crafted film with an astounding, thought-provoking story that raises compelling questions about time, language and humanity. Villeneuve’s wonderfully skilled and subtle direction is matched only by Adams’ stunning performance as a linguist seeking to form a connection with an alien people and finding that her very perception of reality has been altered. No other film this year has captivated, astounded and inspired me the way this one has. I hope to see more films in the future that can match Arrival in its sophistication, depth and optimism. Review here.

Now here are my five least favourite films of the year.

5. Mother’s Day – Another entry in the series of holiday films characterised by weak jokes, cheap morals and wasted talent. The movie is bland, forgettable and has absolutely nothing of value to offer on the subject of motherhood. Review here.

4. Independence Day: Resurgence – There is no reason for this film to exist. It had no momentum, no pull and no purpose. Just another stale attempt to cash in on an old favourite. Review here.

3. The Huntsman: Winter’s War – This film has even less reason to exist because its predecessor wasn’t even that popular to begin with. This was a film without appeal or focus; it had absolutely nothing to offer whatsoever. Review here.

2. Alice Through the Looking Glass – The continuation of a butchering of a classic. This film, just like the one before it, misses everything that was strange and wonderful about the Lewis Carroll books and instead turned in something banal and dull. Review here.

1. Dirty Grandpa – It wasn’t even close. This is one of the vilest, most hateful films I’ve ever had the displeasure to see. The mere thought of its despicable humour, vile characters and debasement of a cinematic legend still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Review here.

Sully

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Todd Komarnicki


In his work Clint Eastwood has shown great admiration for the everyday hero, the ones who are motivated not by glory but by duty and who go beyond what is expected of them. In his last feature, American Sniper, he dramatized the life of a Navy SEAL who served four tours abroad and amassed the greatest body count of any marksman in U.S. military history but was traumatised not by the lives he claimed but by the lives he failed to save. Here he tells the tale of a figure who performs an extraordinary feat and is then similarly haunted by how badly it all could have gone if things had happened only slightly differently. Like Chris Kyle, Sully rejects the label of ‘hero’, insisting that he was simply doing his job, as was everyone else involved in the landing and rescue that took place. In Captain Sully Eastwood has found a champion for the traits he admires (professionalism, selflessness and humility) and he uses this film to celebrate those qualities.

On January 15 2009 Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) stunned the world when, upon losing both engines on his plane immediately after take off, made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Later, after Sully has been hailed as a hero by the world, an inquiry is made looking into his actions. When preliminary data reveals that the port engine may have still been active, and thus would have allowed the plane to reach either of the two nearby airports, Sully’s judgement is brought into question. Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), Sully’s co-pilot, staunchly defends his colleague’s actions every step of the way as the committee led by Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley) and Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn) contend that Sully’s actions may very well have placed over a hundred people’s lives needlessly at risk. Also lending support to Sully through this inquisition is his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney). Despite what the data and findings seem to suggest, Sully maintains that, after 40 years of flying airliners, every instinct in his body told him that landing in the Hudson was the only option available to him and seeks to prove that.

Tom Hanks is the natural choice for the role of a heroic everyman and delivers a worthy performance. The film’s version of Sully is plain-spoken, straightforward, and is able to maintain a calm composure at the critical moment of the story. Hanks plays him with conviction and dignity as a man who takes immense pride in his work and who treats the responsibility of his job with the seriousness that it deserves. When his decision is brought into question, he conveys his clear disapproval at the Safety Board’s reliance on preliminary data and computerised simulations over his decades of experience and highly-practiced instinct. Eastwood places much emphasis on the critical 208 seconds when Sully and Skiles had to assess what exactly had happened and how to respond with the lives of 155 people at stake. No type of training or simulation, Eastwood concludes, can ever account or compensate for human instinct, especially that of a veteran pilot with a long and distinguished career.

The film’s weakness is that, upon deciding that it couldn’t build its drama around an event where the audience already knew the happy outcome, tries to build its drama around the inquiry that took place afterwards instead. The central conflict thus ends up being pretty black and white with the suits of the NTSB taking a clearly antagonistic role against the idealistically heroic Captain Sully. It’s compelling, to be sure, but it doesn’t make for great drama. A point the film does convey very well is how the Miracle on the Hudson was not the accomplishment of one man but rather of everyone involved doing their jobs at the moment when it mattered most. We see the incident from many different perspectives: the co-pilot, the stewardesses, the passengers, the airline control, the coastguard, and through these varying viewpoints we see the truly miraculous part of this astonishing episode. In their moment of peril, a situation that no airline had ever anticipated before, everyone did exactly what they had to do and they all got out safely in the 24-minute rescue that followed.

Sully is an idealistic film, overly so at some points. The characters that the film wants us to like, like the passengers for instance, are a little too benevolent to come across as real people. Some of the admirations that Sully receives are also a little too on-the-nose, as with the taxi driver who saw Sully as a symbol of hope against all the other bad stuff that happened in the past few months (which he was considerate enough to list). Still, it would be difficult not to be idealistic when faced with such an extraordinary story about such an ordinary man. The film is a celebration of the men and women who perform heroic feats every day in the course of doing their jobs. Sully contemplates at one point how, after such a long and successful career, this is the flight that the world would judge him for, as if 40 years of safely transporting millions of people all over the world should count for nothing. It’s the reason why he doesn’t see himself as a hero, he is a simply a man who did his duty just like he’s always done. Sully did his job, and so have Eastwood and Hanks by making a decent film that succeeds in showcasing exactly what this story means to them.

★★★★

Moana

Cast: (voiced by) Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker

Writer: Jared Bush


Whenever Disney makes a fairy tale, they have a formula they like to follow. It’s one that’s been around since Snow White was first made and it’s one that they’ve consistently used because (a) it’s recognisable and (b) it works. The protagonist is usually a heroine (often a princess) who is unsure about her place in the world and is searching for something. She will have an animal sidekick who helps out along the way while providing some laughs. The adventure she embarks upon will involve music and magic and oftentimes she will find love along the way. At the end there will be an evil that must be overcome or defeated and then the characters will live happily ever after. The formula is always there, but Disney’s genius is in its ability to introduce a spin or some new elements to their stories that distract us from the formula. Moana is a good, enjoyable film with likeable characters, great music and superb animation, but it is also one of Disney’s more formulaic films.

Moana is the daughter of Chief Tua Waialiki of the Polynesian island of Motunui and is destined to become the tribe’s first female chief. As an infant she was bestowed with an ancient artefact by the ocean, a sign that she had been chosen to fulfil some great destiny. Moana thus grows up with a thirst for adventure and yearns to explore the ocean and see what is out there. Her people however believe that the island provides them with everything that they need and so they are forbidden to venture beyond the reef, even when the sudden scarcity of fish and failure of the crops threatens to famish them. Moana learns that this blight is the result of an ancient darkness released by the mythical hero Maui when he stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. It is up to her to take the heart that was given to her by the ocean and find Maui so that he might return it to where it belongs. To do this she must sail the depths the ocean, as her ancestors had long before her, and venture into the unknown.

The film, to its credit, does not exactly follow the Disney formula beat for beat. There is, for example, no love interest. Also Moana, strictly speaking, is not a princess (even though, as Maui points out, she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick). Most of the formulaic elements that are present, (the spirited heroine, the closed-minded father, the comedic sidekick, the obnoxious but loveable hero, the moment of doubt and failure that comes before the moment of triumph) the film does well. The issue is that I was thinking about this formula the entire time I was watching this film because there weren’t any substantial departures or twists to make me feel like Disney was really trying something new. Frozen did this by placing its main focus on the relationship between the two sisters. The Lion King did it by departing the familiar children’s fables and instead adapting a Shakespearian tale of madness, deceit and revenge. Moana has a new setting and some new characters, but the story is one Disney has told before. Even though I enjoyed the film a good deal, I was acutely aware that the film was going through the motions much of the time.

That said, there is a lot to enjoy. Moana, portrayed convincingly by newcomer and native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho, is a likeable protagonist and is certainly one of Disney’s most active princesses. Dwayne Johnson brings a wealth of charisma and swagger to the role of Maui. The animation, as always, is stunning, especially at the beginning when Moana first discovers the ocean and at the end after the great evil is defeated. The music composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (whose Hamilton soundtrack has recently become an obsession of mine) is both memorable and distinctive from what Disney has done before. Much praise has been given to ‘How Far I’ll Go’, which some have predicted will become the next ‘Let It Go’, but my favourite track was ‘We Know the Way’, which plays when Moana learns about her ancestry. The story itself flows well for the most part, but there is one very strange scene involving a giant crab that kind of comes out of nowhere. I wouldn’t exactly call it a bad scene or anything; it’s just… strange.

Those who watch this film looking for a fun, exciting, amusing, pleasant Disney film that the entire family can enjoy will get exactly that. Personally though, with the standard that Disney has set in the last few years, I’d have liked to see a film that took a few more risks and held a few more surprises like Zootropolis. I think that most people who watch this film will be able to predict how exactly it will play out, but whether or not that’s a bad thing will depend on the viewer. There is little in this film that I can fault, my only real grievance is that I don’t think there was enough introduced to the story that could allow it to stand on its own amongst the other movies that Disney has produced. Still, it is to be sure a wonderfully animated, well told, characteristically Disney film that will please kids, grown-ups and die-hard Disney fans.

★★★★