Sunday, 27 November 2016

Black Mirror - Season by Season (Collaboration Review)

If you haven't been following the collaborative series between myself and Ryan (MorrisMovie) Black Mirror, where have you been? Similarly, you must have been living under a rock if you haven't caught at least an episode of two of the show, which recently debuted its extended third season via Netflix. Following our episode-by-episode review over on Ryan's blog (you can find season one and two's discussion here and our analysis of season three's episodes here), we decided to have an overarching look at the seasons as a whole, deciding which season, if any, reaches the pinnacle of what the show has to offer, with a few shout outs to must see episodes and those that left the season down. Check out below and be sure to let us know your opinion of the three seasons.

Season One:

Nathan: The best way to describe Black Mirror's first season is sporadic. It sporadically bursts with the excitement that we come to expect in later seasons. It sporadically hints at the even greater things to come - the darkness in The National Anthem, the emphasis on technology in Fifteen Million Merits and the emotional in The Entire History of You. It sporadically drags it heels and makes the urge to surge through the episodes a little taxing, but on the whole it is a solid introduction to the show, with the best still to come. What really works is how different the episodes are, sampling the range the show offers in the way of tone and themes, as well as serving rather engaging television with no other comparable on television, with some terrific ideas and performances. That said, it never feels like it tries hard enough to be anything other than 'good', perhaps opening episode aside, which really opens with a kick and a punch. This first season is very possibly the most consistent to date, with each episode floating around a 'B' grade, with different suffixes (which you can see by popping over to Ryan's blog, as linked above).  In essence, it's strong enough to make you want to continue on with the series by hinting at some of the greatness to come, but never enough to truly illuminate why exactly you should continue into the worlds.
Grade: B

Ryan: When it first launched, Black Mirror was unlike any other show on air. It was deeply committed to its dark nature and its political subtext, tackling dangerous subject matter with the kind of conviction and determination British TV hadn't seen in a long time. Episodically, though, it was uneven. We begin with The National Anthem, an episode that kicks things off in all the right ways. Primarily, though, The National Anthem stands out due to the way it tells a story bound by social aspects and ties it to a story focused on politicians. It tackles both political and social issues simultaneously but in ways that blend into each other. Fifteen Million Merits continues this to some extent, but the first season loses its way substantially in its third and final episode. The first two episodes feel focused on their characters and their lives, but The Entire History of You just doesn't. Somehow the episode with the smallest cast and the smallest scale feels the most unfocused, arguably down to the fact that it's too amazed by its own ideas to fully commit to them. Black Mirror's first season would benefit more if it stuck to a consistent theme across the three episode run, allowing for a finale that ties in nicely with its predecessors even if its story is something completely new. 
Grade: B

Season Two:

Nathan: Black Mirror's excellence lies in its ability to shock and surprise, with season two producing three very different episodes. Be Right Back surprises by opening the season on a disconcertingly quiet footing, pouring a tremendous amount of emotion into the two-parter than handles themes and tones stunningly. White Bear shocks in its ability to unforgivably pierce its nails into you and refuse to let go, only before ripping it out with a mid-point twist that leaves jaws firmly dropped. The Waldo Moment surprises in its inability to do all the things Black Mirror usually succeeds with, usually without thought, and the fact that it can stand and wither right next to two of Black Mirror's strongest episodes. Despite the anthology nature and set up of the series, season two  seems to be more obviously unified with an on-running themes - setting the worlds within the realm of possibility, to varying degrees. Season two, on the whole, feels like a considerable improvement over the first set of episodes, with Christmas special White Christmas placing the cherry on the top of a more well-rounded and consistent cake and ending Channel 4's run with the show on a high note.
Grade: B+

Ryan: With viewers now accustomed to its unique approach to storytelling, Black Mirror now had the chance to do pretty much whatever the hell it liked. Surprisingly, its first decision in season two was to dive head first into the show's most emotional episode thus far, Be Right Back is a powerful story with superb performances, and it felt tonally like a version The Entire History of You that was handled correctly. The thing is, three episodes seasons are tricky. It's too short a time to analyse an overarching theme and having three tonally different episodes feels jarring. So when the show leaps immediately into White Bear, its bizarre. White Bear in itself doesn't work as an episode due mostly to the direction it takes in its final few minutes, which are handled poorly enough to dislodge all that came before it, resulting in something incredibly uneven. And, well, the less said about the disaster of The Waldo Moment, the better. Black Mirror's second season is undeniably ambitious, and what it sets its sights on is golden, but the short season proved again to be its undoing. Rather than feel versatile, the show feels uneven - as if it cant make up its mind on what it wants to be. 
Grade: B-

Season Three:

Nathan: As Ryan says, Black Mirror's third season often touches the very heights of what the show has to offer and, while struggling with consistency once again, is the show's best yet. Netflix's confidence in the show is clear and each episode in the anthology crafts the individual universes with more clarity (and a bigger budget) than before; this is no clearer than in season opener, Nosedive, in which the picture-perfect utopia-come-dystopia is vividly captured through nuanced performances, an excellent script and a terrific central concept. Shut Up and Dance, Black Mirror's pinnacle, puts the human story above the technological core, resulting in a dark and twisted episode that is even more disturbing because of how closely it wanders to real life; the next episode, San Junipero, takes the exact same notion (human story at the heart) with markedly different results - an uplifting, inspiring slice of television, excellently demonstrating the season's scale and range, continuing to push the show's now non-existent boundaries. However, two episodes - Playtest, Hated in the Nation and particularly Man Against Fire - let it down, failing to engage and excite as Black Mirror can and ultimately should, becoming season's three achilles' heel. Now let's imagine for a second, the same episodes were produced in the same three episode run the show experienced on Channel 4: the show would achieve total greatness with a season of Nosedive, Shut Up and Dance and San Junipero but would quiver and - in all honesty - lose my backing with the likes of Playtest, Man Against Fire and arguably Hated in the Nation populating a three episode run. In other words, we have so much to be thankful for with Netflix picking up this series and giving it a larger playing field, scale and focus. Here's to a terrific season four.
Grade: A-

Ryan: Quite simply, Black Mirror hit its stride in its third season. The increased budget helped initially, but there's a storytelling focus here that was lacking in the first two seasons. Shut Up and Dance is unlike any other episode to date in the ways it looks at contemporary society, Nosedive takes something we all know and appreciate and turns it drastically against us, Hated in the Nation tells a story fit for the big screen in a surprisingly intimate manner, never losing sight of its characters amid the scale. The season - and the show, for that matter - hit its true peal with San Junipero, a stunningly emotional episode that turned expectations on their heads with its uplifting and deeply moving conclusion. Sure there are misfires - Playtest doesn't work as well as it should due to a sloppy conslusion, and Men Against Fire is pretty messy throughout - but the elongated season length gives the show more flexibility. The misfires are easier to overlook, but the peaks are so high that they still stand out within the longer episode run. Like all anthology seasons it's uneven, but for the first time Black Mirror felt like it was firing on all cylinders with something truly special in its grasp. 
Grade: B+

Myself and Ryan would love to hear your own opinions of the show - what episodes are your favourite? Which season is the strongest? Was the Netflix move the right one to make? Come and chat with us all things Black Mirror!

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them (3D) (2016) (Review)

The Harry Potter franchise (mini reviews and ranking over here) was a scorching franchise that set the pace for other Young Adult adaptations to follow and still remains one of the most defining cinematic series in history. Five years on from the franchise finale, J.K. Rowling revives the Wizarding World with the first in a set of five prequel films detailing a 1920s America in which the very idea of magic is still a hidden, unfathomable entity. How does the return to the Wizarding World hold up against the first trip with Mr Potter and Co?

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) visits New York with a suitcase full with magical beasts. After a scuffle and he realises he is no longer in possession of the creatures, he must track them down across New York with former Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and ditzy Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol). With more hostility growing after unexplained occurrences and the fear of witches and wizards intensifies, The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) does its best to keep the existence of magic a secret, led by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) who colludes with the troubled Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) to uncover Obscures, a dark force manifesting as children and leading to the death of many. Despite its 1920s setting, beneath the surface of the film features a multitude of allegorical and parable themes that allows the film to resonate more clearly - but how well does the film handle these themes?

Terrific performances are given by the entire ensemble, with the cast all committed and dedicated to their roles in the Harry Potter series - no one more so than Eddie Redmayne; Newt Scamander is instantly likeable and charming, playing on the same vulnerability as Potter when we first met him, but making him unique enough to ensure that Fantastic Beats is not a complete rehash, and to ensure the character is indispensable and compelling enough to conjure the need to spend a future four films with him in the leading role. He largely succeeds in doing this, with help from Porpentina and Queen Goldstein as his magical counterparts and Kowalski as his muggle friend. They create a rather formidable team and promise that moving forward with these central characters will be a solid base to build the world upon. Ezra Miller is also a mighty addition to the cast, even if he doesn't spread his wings entirely until the third act and Farrell is a domineering presence in the picture too.

Visually, Fantastic Beasts is as spectacular as you imagine, with this second trip into the Wizarding World continuing the magical effects we have come to know and love. The beasts themselves are excellently well-realised and imagined, coming to life on the screen with their individual quirks, traits and colours, enhanced only further by the sensational use of 3D, which feels very tight in its usage. The New York backdrop is a refreshing change from the franchise, allowing the prequels to take a step away from the franchise as a whole and form its own identity, with such extravagance and richness towards the world it is creating. J.K. Rowling crafts the screenplay with detail in abundance, deepening the mythology of the world beyond that of what we already know, ensuring it is reminiscent of Potter without becoming a rehash. This, matched with David Yates' impressive direction ensures everything slots back into place rather efficiently, while standing the test of being unique and worthy enough of continuing the Wizarding journey. On the whole, its a very successful new venture.

However, one thing felt rather disconcerting - it too often felt like two very different films playing at the same time, and while each were solid, they failed to merge together cohesively. That's not to say they didn't fit, but I struggled to accept the opposing tones in each plot strand and it didn't quite sit right that they were playing out in the same film, without some middle ground or compromise. It also struggles with expectations - not that of its Harry Potter roots, but more of whats to come; the film ends on a rather definitive note and acts better as a standalone story than a franchise beginner, almost as if future sequels will be forced, rather than occurring naturally. Now, any extra time spent in Rowling's world is time well spent, but I do worry about the standard of the sequels if it is delivered for the sake of delivering a franchise. We will tell soon enough (chapter two is penciled in for the time in two years) but it was enough to pique my anxiety for this franchise moving forward. In other words, announcing a five-film franchise so early on into the game works more to the film's detriment than to its benefit.

Fantastic Beasts isn't as bad as you feared, and while its not quite as incredible as you want to believe it could be, it continues J.K.Rowling's Wizarding World with a series containing enough magic of its own to feel worthy of its place alongside Potter. Strong cast performances - particularly from Eddie Redmayne as the charming lead - and some solid work from Rowling as screenwriter and Yates as director work in the films favour, helping to craft the fun, whimsical and joyful adventure it takes you on, as well as hinting at some darker themes it doesn't yet have the conviction and confidence to champion at the film's forefront. It struggles in its overall ability to settle on a tone, plumping for two opposing narrative strands that struggle to co-exist in the same film, but ultimately do manage to end up in a place that combines the two for something a little more digestible. On the whole, it is undeniably fun and enjoyable, hinting at some interesting ideas and thematic work that could be incredibly effective by ironing out some of the niggling issues. A solid return for the
Wizarding World.


Summary: Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them delivers enough of its own magic to be a success, being reminiscent of the Harry Potter series without being a direct rip-off, with terrific performances and effects distracting from a narrative that doesn't always feel tonally consistent.

Highlight: Returning to J.K. Rowling's world is an absolute treat in itself.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Hunger Games (Worst to Best Ranking)

The Hunger Games is easily my favourite cinematic franchise ever. Today marks the one year anniversary of the release of the series finale, Mockingjay - Part Two. To celebrate, I'm taking a look back at the four film run, all of which were adapted from Suzanne Collins' trilogy, and attempting the impossible - putting them in order of worst to best! Be sure to let me know how you rank the four films and tell me all the reasons you love Katniss Everdeen's rise to the Young Adult elite.

4. The Hunger Games (2012)

Starting it all back in 2012, The Hunger Games is an absolutely solid film in its own right and only takes the bottom slot on this list in comparison to the more well-rounded and realised later instalments. It wonderfully builds the world and mythology of the dystopian future in which it is set, introducing some terrific characters played out by one of the strongest casts to grace a YA franchise, exquisitely lead by Jennifer Lawrence as rebellion leader Katniss. The film is, quite literally, a little shaky, with Gary Ross' decision to go handheld a little disconcerting, affecting the thrill of the action a little. These are only minor complaints though and it does enhance the realism of the film, with the audience feeling like they are right beside Katniss during the games, rather than watching as sensitised members of the Capitol do. In essence, its a smart decision that is not executed completely effectively.  However, the rest of the film works perfectly in setting up a playing ground for the franchise to continue on without feeling heavy handed, introducing some of the series' big themes and suggesting that it is a the new franchise of our times.


 Summary: The Hunger Games brilliantly sets the themes, tones and incredible standard of performances to expect from the next big franchise, that follows in the genre-defining footsteps of Harry Potter.

3. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One (2014)

Mockingjay - Part One seemed to (unfairly) garner the biggest complaints of the series, with a purposefully slower pace building more defined character arcs and stories misunderstood by those with a higher demand for high-energy, bells, whistles, explosions and bangs at every turn, having overindulged in that through the tentpole society we live in. Arguably the quietest film of the series but equally as powerful, Mockingjay - Part One is one part war film, one part drama and one part dystopian action, with a far more complex focus on its themes (such as PTSD and paranoia) in comparison to other similarly-targeted franchises, and it handles them with ease. Once again in big thanks to a dedicated and committed performance by Lawrence and the expanded supporting cast, it proves that just because a film is targeted at a younger demographic, it doesn't mean it needs to dilute its themes or only half-heartedly explore them. Despite a big risk to split the novel in two films (as the Divergent series discovered earlier this year), it results in a very effective and thorough two part release that comes up trumps over what would be one watered-down, longer film. It features one of my favourite moments of the franchise - Everdeen's big 'if we burn, you burn' speech, which sends shivers down my spine thanks to her perfect delivery.


Summary: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One's decision to focus on character development so closely to the finale greatly pays off, working with some darker themes and tones - all of which are championed by some of Lawrence's best work yet.

2. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part Two (2015)

Deciding the top two positions could come down to a flip of the coin, but Mockingjay - Part Two falls into second place through no fault of its own. Despite the heavy weight on its shoulders to live up to the critically celebrated and beloved franchise, the film refuses to sink under the pressure, offering an emotional, powerful and intense showdown with brilliant set pieces and a number of major themes right at the forefront. And, please stop me if I am beginning to sound like a broken record as I fear I am, but J-Law is absolutely the magnetic heart and soul of the picture, with a large portion of the success of the franchise down to her star-turn, as well as the crafting of her almost-hero, Katniss Everdeen. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part Two is a sensational finale defined by its sombre, bittersweet ending that executes its stray from the formula with conviction, delivering a powerful swan song for the franchise that always felt one step in front of the competition.


Summary: The Hunger Games Mockingjay - Part Two is a triumphant finale to an almost-faultless series, delving into the darkest and bleakest corners of the narrative of Katniss' final swan song, performed seamlessly by Jennifer Lawrence, sparking a more than satisfactory ending to the dystopian phenomenon.

For more of my ramblings on this excellent film, check out my FULL REVIEW, which was one of my earliest posts - as I'm very sure you can tell!

1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

 Very possibly my favourite film ever (and at the very least tied with Mockingjay - Part Two and David Fincher's Gone Girl in an unwavering top three),  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a demonstration of how to successfully translate already solid material on to screen, develop on the weaknesses of a predecessor into unequivocal successes, amp up all the intensity and nail-biting and craft a picture that offers heart, soul, care and thrills in equal measures. A number of thought-provoking themes pull into the central frame, all of which are expertly accomplished with Francis Lawrence's help - taking the director reigns with a smoother execution and a broader vision than his predecessor. A three-act structure feeds into the success and even with a solid two hour-plus runtime, the film is constantly engaging, relentless and gripping. *Insert speech praising Jennifer Lawrence*. The only reason Catching Fire edges Mockingjay - Part Two is one particular scene; when Katniss is lifted out of the arena by the crane, as it sets on fire around and below her, every single detail is lushly crafted with such beauty and clarity and, in all honesty, it is my favourite ever scene from a film. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is as sharp as Katniss' arrow.


Summary: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an absolute masterpiece, with incredible performances (particularly from Jennifer Lawrence as the inspiring Katniss Everdeen), a smooth and lush direction from Francis Lawrence, a gripping and thrilling narrative anchored by a solid three-act structure 

And there we have it! My definitive (well, for today anyway) ranking of the four films that form The Hunger Games franchise, my favourite cinematic franchise ever. How do you rank the four films and, if possible, do you love it as much as I do? Let me know!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Glory Days (Album) (2016)

Pop lovers, rejoice! Little Mix have made a glorious Q4 comeback just in time to save us from the otherwise lacklustre year for pop music. After their last offering, Get Weird (check out my review of that here) became their biggest and best release to date, all eyes turned to album number four to continue that (black) magic. In a relatively quick turn around (not only does it feel like 10 minutes ago that Black Magic was joyfully ringing in our eyes, it also followed a drought of over two years since Salute, their second album making this wait feel all the quicker), Glory Days on the back of the sensational Shout Out To My Ex which became the biggest number one, based on sales alone, of the year.

Take a look at this track-by-track review of the fifteen tracks form the deluxe edition of the album, which is released alongside the phenomenal live DVD of the Get Weird tour filmed earlier this year. Seriously, treat yourself to the deluxe edition. Each will be ranked in order of how much I love them (at this very early juncture), with a short description. Be sure to let me know your ranking too!

1. Shout Out to My Ex

Seriously, pop music does not get better than this. Shout Out to My Ex is a slice of pop perfection that is an infectious and it is fun, and it is not sorry for being so. It's sassy, empowering and encompasses many of the album's themes. It will lodge itself firmly in your head for days and will very probably stay cemented at the top of my music list for 2016.

2.  Nobody Like You

Nobody Like You is a rousing power ballad that Little Mix absolutely always nail. It slots in rather perfectly with the likes of Towers, These Four Walls, Good Enough, Love Me Or Leave Me and Secret Love Song, all of which have been signature hits and firm fan favourites from the past albums by the girls. It's powerful, fragile and profoundly rich in emotion. I'll be belting this out in the shower, I'll tell you that for nothing.

3. Your Love

Mid-tempo and uplifting, it makes a beautiful partner to Nobody Like You which heavenly showcases the girls vocals superbly. It will be a brilliant one to see live on the girls' upcoming Glory Days tour at the end of next year, so keep your eyes open for that. Digital Spy described it as a "warm paradise island of joy" and I'd absolutely agree.

4. Oops (feat. Charlie Puth)

With a finger-snapping fifties vibe sprinkled all over this one, it is another infectious and anthemic hit that easily becomes an album stand out. It includes a guest appearance from US star Charlie Puth, who also helped pen the track. It feels like an upgrade to 'Marvin Gaye' from earlier this year/late last year, oozing with charisma and pure soul.

5. Nothing Else Matters

Closing out the standard edition of the album and offered as a promotional track for the album, Nothing Else Matters seems to have been crafted as perfect 'encore' material. Similar to Your Love in vibe and sound, it is once again uplifting and deeply powerful and the perfect album closer.

6. Touch (Acoustic)

Stripping back this track is the perfect strategy and is superior to the ordinary version of the track, as it puts as stronger focus on the heavenly vocals and beautiful lyrics. In fact, I'd do as far as suggesting it entirely changes the meaning of the song for the better. Controversial?

7.  F.U.

Another early album sampler, F.U. seems to evoke a similar reaction and sound to Get Weird's Love Me Like You, with a 70s vibe that you cannot help but hum along to, but this time with a sharp girl power bite. It's another track I am dying to hear live.

8. Power

Touted as an early fan favourite and likely to be made a single at some point down the line, Power mixes aggressive vocals in its opening with Jade's typical beauty shining through in the chorus. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the verses, but the bridge and chorus are particularly exciting.

9. Touch

While I do love the acoustic version a lot more, this is undeniably going to be a smash when its released as a single and its very easy to see why it is a fan favourite. It feels more mature than previous albums and will go down well live, particularly during the chorus.

10.  Beep Beep

The people that complained about their risque outfits during The X Factor premiere of Shout To My Ex should turn off about now. It's smutty, confident and (once again) incredibly infectious. Think A.D.I.D.A.S from Get Weird.

11. Private Show

With glitz and glamour to spare, complete with a finger snapping middle eight, Private Show is a very exciting and energetic trac that feels early Britney (think Circus-era)/Christina (again, her earlier stuff). It's a little heavier on the pop side, which I love, but it never really takes off as I hope it would.

12. No More Sad Songs

Seemingly made for the clubs with a booming baseline and drop, No More Sad Songs feels like it would be brilliant in a live setting but doesn't translate as well listening through headphones. It's certainly defiant and powerful and I do think it will probably grow on me with a few more listens, so check back this ranking in a few weeks time!

13. Down and Dirty

In a similar vein to Beep Beep, it's a filthy electronic-inspired track with overt sexual themes that builds as it continues. I imagine this will be the track that splits people the most and I'm not completely sold just yet. Does it remind anyone else, even slightly, of Dark Horse by KP?

14. Freak

It hasn't connected quite yet. It doesn't sound like Little Mix, unfortunately. It would simply work better for someone else.

15. You Gotta Not

In the words of co-writer Meghan Trainor, "no". The first Little Mix song I have genuinely disliked/hated.

Glory Days is, on the whole, a fantastic effort from Jade, Jesy, Leigh-Anne and Perrie. It continues the successful strides they made with Get Weird, even if it doesn't quite live up to it. It experiments with some more mature and sophisticated sounds, including trap pop and electronica, while straying into the mainstream more so than previous albums. The vocals and lyrics are stellar while the production very occasionally lets them down but this is still one of the best pop albums of the year. I'd expect nothing less from the world's biggest and best girlband.


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Harry Potter (Worst to Best Film Ranking)

The Harry Potter franchise may just be one of the most influential franchises of all time. Not only was each chapter and entry into the series commercially and critically successful, it tapped into a cultural zeitgeist that ensured each film was as relevant as the last and provided the franchise with a growing fanbase, despite being set in the fantastical world of witches and wizards. With the first big screen comeback, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (set years before the Harry Potter franchise) just a few hours away now, I take a look back at the franchise and rank them from worst to best, as anticipation builds for the new world from J.K. Rowling.

A quick disclaimer - I love this franchise and each film on this list is solid, and does has more than a few redeeming factors. In fact, I probably wouldn't rate any of them below a 6/10, which says an awful lot about the series. This list has changed order on a number occasions, including during the write-up itself, and will continue to do so. Maybe I'll do another one in a couple of years, to see how it has all changed. But, without further ado, check out my ranking and be sure to let me know your own!

8. Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Pretty much a staple at the bottom of everybody's Harry Potter list, the franchises' second film - The Chamber of Secrets - lacks the magic (no pun intended) in what makes Harry Potter such an incredible film series. It feels unnecessarily padded and wasteful with its runtime, while occasionally feeling like a rehash of plot points and ideas from the first film - instead of expanding the film series, it simply extends the first film which results in an uninspired second feature. Some of the acting is at its shoddiest and the plot arc with the spiders feels uneventful and unneeded in the whole scheme of things. It doesn't help that the idea of a serpent living under a school freaks me the hell out. Essentially a whodunnit, Harry Potter is a better franchise than this, as they prove with the other seven films.

Summary: By no means a bad film, The Chamber of Secrets lacks the magic of other instalments and feels simply an extension of the first film, rather than an expansion of the series.

7. Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone (2001)

The film that started it all isn't bad - in fact, it's really quite good - but for a franchise starter feels surprisingly inconsequential. It does absolutely marvellous work in world-building and character-setting and the introduction to the Great Hall has to be one of the series' most defining moments, with a heap of superb production values to help convey that, but it struggles with creating much of a story beyond that of creating a universe for the characters to live in. It feels very sanitised and light and, although aligned to be family-entertainment, is insufficient in even hinting at the darker themes that should be at the forefront of the picture. It often lacks an emotional pull (admittedly though, it's difficult to compare chapter one to latter chapters, with emotion more easily conjured the deeper we go into a story and the longer we spend with the characters). It also struggles in its conviction; one is never convinced the school or characters are actually engaged, despite being set against a backdrop that would imply otherwise. If it sounds like I'm being harsh, I probably loved this film on first viewing - but it doesn't carry the same gravitas as later films in the franchise.

Summary: Philosopher's Stone is a good introduction to the wizarding world of Harry Potter with fantastic production values attached, but it lacks an emotional pull and conviction, and feels weaker only in comparison to the other films of the series.

6. Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Other than the film's final twist which, although absolutely heartbreaking and shocking, feels unearned, Half-Blood Prince feels like a stepping stone between the middle and the finale, which is always a difficult place to find yourself, reflected in the film's own overdrawn middle act. Looking for a reason and a drive to advance the story to the show-stopping conclusion, it ponders a little too much and considers little else, feeling more like a waiting game than anything else. It does have its moments, like Bellatrix Lestrange's attack on the Wesley Burrow on Christmas Eve, the Death Eaters assault on Millennium Bridge and the third act's death that sets in motion the further two films to come, but the overwhelming feeling of 'filler, not killer' pushes the sixth film into the bottom half of the list.

Summary: The Half-Blood Prince features some terrific set pieces and sets the finale up well, but ultimately feels too much of a stepping stone and not an individual chapter in its own right.

5. Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

A firm favourite among other fans of the franchise, Prisoner of Azkaban is pushed into fifth place because on this list because it feels wholly unconnected. While a change in director is never a bad thing (it worked wonders for The Hunger Games franchise - keep your eyes peeled for a similar list to this in the coming weeks) and Alfonso Cuaron's work here is undeniable effective, it doesn't seem to gel with the other seven films. As with Half-Blood Prince, Azkaban needs to handle the transition from the beginning to middle and does so remarkably well, if it didn't feel more standalone than it does. It's notable change in tone and visual is arresting but overwhelming and really feels like the franchises' outlier because it tries so hard to strive from the first two (all too similar) chapters. Its deep focus on character building and world enhancing is respectful and generally well-executed, even if it creates many plot holes regarding the time-turning plot device. Everything steps up its game with this third instalments, but it also takes too much of a step away from what we've familiarised ourselves with.

Summary: Prisoner of Azkaban represents a turning point in the Harry Potter franchise and taking on a darker tone more suitable to the franchise, it strives for something too far away that it ultimately feels unconnected. 

4. Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire (2005)

The Goblet of Fire clocking in at only number four is entirely my own fault. Its been over-watched by my own admission and I find little enjoyment in it nowadays - although I do recognise that this is one of the strongest films of the franchise. The Triwizard Tournament that is at the centre of the film is a superb idea that plays out terrifically well, with a genuine level of intensity and danger that the series has only hinted at before. It sets the middle section of the franchise in motion particularly well, with the introduction of the reborn Lord Voldermort representing another turning point - everything steps up a level and begins to feel a little more consequential. Furthermore, the acting feels a lot more sophisticated in this fourth chapter, with more subtlety found in the both lead and supporting roles, leading to a more mature and significant chapter. Is it bad to admit I still find the graveyard sequence at the end of the film completely terrifying? It's deeply powerful and the whole Triwizard tournament allows for a whole range of technical skills to be demonstrated to the best of their ability on screen. It's a brilliant film and I hope to one day to be able to watch it with the same level of fondness as I do now.

Summary: The Goblet of Fire takes on a whole new maturity, darkness and sophistication, suggesting that Harry Potter franchise is well underway and racing towards a whole new era for the series.

3. Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix (2007)

I have an absolute soft spot for The Order of the Phoenix. Not only was it my first experience of IMAX 3D, it was also the first Harry Potter film I saw on the big screen, making the experience all the more special. Whether its my sentimentality to the film getting in the way, The Order of the Phoenix feels the most exciting film of the collection, bar the finale of course, and carries on the maturity and sophistication found in the Goblet of Fire. From the introduction of Bellatrix Lestrange to her terrible dead at the conclusion, or the formation of Dumbledore's Army to the entire Ministry of Magic set piece at the conclusion, it is relentless in excitement with a number of defining points that make the story so enjoyable. It may not feel as crafted and rounded as a number of other chapters but it moves the story on swiftly and enthusiastically with vigour. Plus, Imelda Staunton's Dolores Umbridge is loathsome and rivals Voldemort's villainy, in one of the franchises' best performances.

Summary: Order of the Phoenix continues the Harry Potter story with excitement and vigour, competing for the series' 'most stunning' title with excellent set pieces and production values, including the spectacular and powerful Ministry of Magic third act.

2. Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows - Part One (2010)

The Deathly Hallows - Part One became one of the first in a growing trend to split its final source material into two films and I truly believe it works out. Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent and Avengers (very soon) are other examples that followed suit with varying degrees of success. As with Mockingjay - Part One (of The Hunger Games franchise, which is considered by many as its weak point), Deathly Hallows - Part One works superbly in its ability to build on its characters, even at such a late point in the game. It may not be the most action-packed of the franchise, or even the most exciting, but it is a welcome break from the 'ready, set, go' mentality that has continued pretty much since Azkaban. To readjust and deeply focus on the three central characters specifically so close to the final battle is a smart move that feels very under-appreciated. Furthermore, and I don't even need to name names, but the heartbreakingly finale and character death has to be one of the most devastating in a loooooonngg time. I'm still not over it. And finally, lets not forget Hermoine's telling of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, completed with such gorgeous imagery and animation, which very well may be my favourite moment of the entire series.

Summary: The Deathly Hallows - Part One makes the decision to focus largely on the characters at the heart of the story and it largely works, ensuring Part Two works even more powerfully and profoundly.

1. Harry Potter & The Death Hallows - Part Two (2011)

'Saving the best till last' is a phrase created regarding the Harry Potter franchise, right? Deathly Hallows - Part Two, being the chapter the whole series has worked towards, ensures the pay off is superbly executed, with a certain weight and power attached to it. Cinematic and stupendous, everything comes together  - with a huge thanks to the streamlined and focused Part One - in an almost faultless way, with the film infamous for its ruthless approach and conclusion feeling incredible cathartic. Each performance is solid and convincing, particularly that of the late Alan Rickman, and although I can't say I agree with every decision J.K. Rowling made regarding character end-point, I can understand them, which demonstrates a great talent on her behalf in encouraging the story to unfurl naturally, rather than forced or unrewarding. It is with a great sense of relief that the conclusion feels like such a successful pay off, rewarding fans and causal viewers alike for sticking with it through the journey, which was almost always entertaining, but rarely as powerful as chapter 7.5. To put it simply, Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows - Part Two is pure magic. 

Summary: Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows - Part Two is a thrilling, exciting and magical conclusion to the franchise, with terrific visuals, themes and performances playing out against a story that feels powerful and worthy of the ten year build up. It may just be one of the strongest finales in cinematic history.

Well, that's that. Do you agree with my ranking or have I got it all terribly, horribly, unforgivably wrong - either way, be sure to let me know! Keep an eye out for more of these in the future, as I had such a cracking time ranking these, and be ready for my Fantastic Beasts review in the coming days. Until next time!

Monday, 14 November 2016

The Accountant (2016) (Review)

The Accountant continues a sustained run of adult-skewing dramas, right in the sweet spot of the heating-up Award season. We've had Arrival, The Girl on the Train, Nocturnal Animals, The Light Between OceansDeepwater Horizon, Inferno and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back - to name just a few - all of which greatly vary in quality and success. Continuing that line of work, and his own, is Ben Affleck's The Accountant, a brutal action-thriller film directed by Gavin O'Connor.

Christian Wolff (Affleck), a small-town certified public accountant who makes his money uncooking the books for dangerous criminal organisations. When given a case by a co-orporation that quickly begins to unravel and expose the business, Wolff and Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) are forced to expose those resposible, while also being pursued by Raymond King (J.K. Simmons), the director of financial crimes for the Treasury Department, and analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) who must try to identify and arrest him for a previous crime. With Wolff considered a 'highly-functioning autistic', he must overcome the limitations of his syndrome in solving the case. It takes a similar action template to other genre offerings like Jason Bourne and Reacher, while putting a twist on the lead character-come-hero.

Ben Affleck delivers a nuanced and detailed performance of a man suffering with autism, even though the script doesn't reward him with the same careful consideration for its sensitive content. J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson also give solid performances in a supporting capacity, making the most out of a weaker, exposition-laden script, but is is Anna Kendrick who really shines; despite being criminally underused, she brings a hearty amount of power with her glorified cameos sprinkled throughout the two hour and eight minute runtime, allowing Kendrick's own quirkiness to shine through and inject a much needed change of tone to the script when it's severely required. In spite of these committed performances, the characters are rather thinly-written, with little in the way of crafting character arcs and journeys to ensure they are compelling and interesting enough for an audience to be willing to spend more time with them, especially with rumours of a franchise buzzing around.

Admittedly, the action in The Accountant is pretty impressive, with the film standing out for its higher age rating, in comparison to its more infamous watered-down stablemates. When these scenes kick in - for example, the farmyard fight and Dana's apartment setting - they really do thrill, with everything slickly choreographed and performed efficiently. O'Connor's direction, while not spectacular, is decent enough to keep audience's focused on the characters when the script begins to let up, with the high-intensity lighting scenes creating a sinister tease in a place in the script where we do not really know who to place our trust and belief in. Honestly, if you can suspend your disbelief long enough, and tie your head around the unnecessarily complex plot, you can find a decent amount of enjoyment. I'd call it "an unfulfilling blast".

Scattershot and convoluted, the narrative and script leave a lot to be desired. From the slow and sometime tedious opening act to the exposition-fuelled final act which races to tie everything up, The Accountant is overly long with blatant issues with pacing; the second act does liven everything up, only for it to fizzle out as the third act is beginning. The more blaring problem, and my biggest complaint in regards to the script, is its lack of attention to its central notion - an autistic anti-hero. It seems little to no research has been undertaken in order to deliver a realistic character role, and appears to have been included only for the thrill of having and showing something different on screen. It's incredibly frustrating to see an interesting idea fail because nobody wanted to take (even) a glance over a Wikipedia page to educate themselves. It is not nearly as smart as it thinks it is (with the final twist both preposterous and predictable, summing up the general feel for the film), takes itself too seriously and is woefully mishandled and problematic.

Ben Affleck, in the space of a couple of years, have given us films ranging in quality from the breath-taking and immersive Gone Girl - a masterclass in tension, power and intensity - to Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice which stands as one of my least favourite films of the year so far. The Accountant very firmly stands in the middle-lower section of that spectrum, flirting with either ends but essentially plumping for something more middling. It's ambitious (it has the intentions of a franchise written all over it), well-acted with a decent direction, but the biggest problems lie in its lazy and offensive script and uneven pacing.


Summary: The Accountant is enjoyable enough if through sheer force of will and lack of comparative action-flicks this year, but its problematic and convoluted script uncooks any of the handwork put in by stars Affleck and Kendrick.

Highlight: Anna Kendrick's performance is strong - she needs more serious roles!

Friday, 11 November 2016

Arrival (2016) (Review)

Arrival is the film the world needs at the minute. Its heady and rousing themes of overcoming differences and bridging divides act as the perfect antidote to the darkness the world is facing and it comes at the most opportune time imaginable. With the risk of sci-fi becoming convoluted and unnecessarily complex, there is a beautiful simplicity to Arrival that strikes a stunning balance between the two species it presents and what they can do together, as well as the risk of what prejudice and fear play in defining our race. Arrival is easily one of the best films of the year. 

When twelve mysterious extraterrestrial spaceships touch down across the globe, an elite team is assembled to investigate what lies inside and what they are here for. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) lead the mission to understand the true meaning and intentions of the aliens, along with US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). On the brink of a global war with everyone scrambling for answers to the survival of humanity, they must answer the question: why are they here? It's the next in the line of Autumn/Winter sci-fi offerings, following on from Interstellar, Gravity and The Martian but Arrival manages to exceed almost every genre entry before it, crafting some astoundingly unique and powerful. 

While 'aliens coming to earth' is by no means a new story, not one of them has injected so much humanity into the story it tells: Arrival pushes the boundaries of what sci-fi can say or do, while setting up a whole new goalpost for those that try to follow it, truly becoming the sci-fi film of a generation. Eric Heisserer's screenplay (adapted from Story of My Life, a short story written by Ted Chiang) is downright incredible in delivering both spectacle and brain, crafting an entirely compelling and absorbing story that truly feels like it is taking you on a journey; that may sound cliched, but nothing about this story is - just when you think you have worked out the direction the story is heading, a new narrative strand or emotional core is introduced that paves a new course for audiences to be swept along with. It feels original and revolutionary, expertly unfurling at a steady pace and avoiding the 'blockbuster pressure' of pushing perfunctory set piece after set piece into play, letting it unravel naturally and organically and it's all the stronger for it. 

The performances, all round, are breathtakingly powerful, even though it's a quieter picture than you would believe.  Amy Adams absolutely steals the show as linguistic expert Louise Banks, who is troubled by the loss of her daughter in a heartbreaking opening montage and narration. Poised and controlled, her character is written and performed as the film's emotional magnet; from teaching aliens English and highlighting the importance of communication, to delivering the heart-wrenching yet bittersweet finale exposition, she commands your attention at every given moment without overpowering the story that is being told.  Jeremy Renner, while impressive, is very much utilised as a supporting character to Adams' lead, offering a more scientific and mathematic view to her focus on language and humanity. Whitaker's character needs work and feels very much like an authoritative figure between the two 'teams' but serves his purpose well enough. Outside the cast and screenwriter, two more very important players are responsible for this masterpiece; director Denis Villeneuve (responsible for the brilliant Prisoners and Sicario) keeps a tight focus on both the humans and aliens of the story with such care and understanding for the story. Awe-inspiring imagery, while beautiful and elegant, never detracts from the thematic work at play and go hand in hand with the luscious score created by Johann Johannsson - both soft and sudden - that encourages a building momentum to the heart-stopping final act. 

So many elements fall into place and work wonders in Arrival, but it is the pure and genuine emotion infused into the story from the first frame until the last that makes it so remarkable. This is a film that has such an understanding and care for the themes it plays with, the characters it handles and the story it has to tell that allows the audience to invest so profoundly in the picture. It's enlightening, melancholy and immersive often all at once, with a stunning character arc for Adams' Louise and mid-point twist that changes our whole understanding of the story; often, the yearn for something to change path for the simple reason of keep the audience suspended comes off as conceited and frustrating, but this feels so earned and natural and inspiring and true to the story that you are only engrossed further. When the realisation of time comes two thirds of the way into the story, you feel that the film cannot consider bigger themes such as this, and then delivers an emotional cathartic and resonating twist that profoundly pulls every heart string - leaving you both jaw-dropped and broken. It's perfect consideration of a multitude of themes and tones are incredible, but none of them triumph as much as it's consideration and care for the human emotion running through the film's centre. 

Complaining for the sake of complaining feels redundant when Arrival does so much right, and truly feels like the genre's defining entry for decades to come. I can suggest that the middle section features a scene that feels planted for the sake of planting an additional few minutes, as well as my issue with the film not perhaps considering the impacts these extraterrestrial objects have, and my encouragement in pushing its allegorical resonance a little further, but all of this is down to my personal 'wants' from the film and not something it did wrong as such, in any stretch of the imagination. 

Arrival is a profoundly affecting, deeply philosophical love note to humanity and all of its strengths when the word needs to hear it. It uncovers the difficulties of communication and the importance of language in building an important rhetoric regarding with ideas, concepts and beings we don't understand.  It resonates emotionally because of the compassionate script, stunning acting, tight direction and magical score that feels enchanting when they all work to the very best of their ability - particularly in the film's first and final acts - which renders the film as an entirely emotional, compelling cinematic experience. I cannot speak highly enough of this film and, if like myself, your faith in humanity is beginning to waver, take the time to remind yourself of what we can do when we work together and fight to understand. 


Summary: Arrival is the sci-fi film of a generation, with deeply affecting and philosophical themes shining in a script written with care and understanding, sensational performances that refuse to overpower and a tight direction that puts the film's most powerful theme at the forefront - humanity. 

Highlight: The feeling I had leaving the cinema, knowing I'd found a new favourite film.