Hellboy (2019) review

The latest in the awful trend of reboots with the same title as the original, Hellboy stars Stranger Things’ David Harbour as the titular demon in a new continuity, ignoring Guillermo Del Toro’s semi successful duology from the early naughties. This incarnation boasts all of the subtly of a school nativity, with all the edginess of a teen’s first goth phase.

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The most major of Hellboy’s copious issues, is its writing. The film revels in dropping f bombs at every feasible moment. This, combined with its laughable obsession with absurd levels of gore, and the screenplay ends up feeling like it was written by a fourteen year old, who thinks he’s well hard. Those who felt that Del Toro’s films were too ‘PG 13’ will be thrilled to see the R rating pushed to the absolute limit here. Jaws are smashed, faces are melted, and bodies are ripped in half at least every five minutes. The result is an angry interpretation that fails to achieve any kind of meaningful arc or narrative structure, buckling under the weight of its own insane premise.

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Hellboy has always been a bizarre concept, and the prior film interpretation always gave a knowing wink to the audience, recognising its ridiculousness. This reboot however demands the acceptance of a plot involving (big breath) King Arthur, Nazis, Rasputin, Merlin, the gates of hell, three secret societies, a cheetah man, and a horde of demons attacking St. Pauls. Very few of these threads are allowed to breathe and develop, and there’s a vibe that the writers simply threw everything at the wall, hoping that something would stick. Worse still, the dreadful narrative is matched only by the appalling special effects. Gone are the charmingly effective Pans Labyrinth style practical creatures. Say hello to hideously generic blobs of computer generated brown and crimson, that often resemble an early Playstation 3 game.

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The performances also fail to redeem the incoherence. Harbour is genuinely great, giving the expected smart allelic smirk, in addition to a toughness that Ron Perlman lacked. It’s thus cringe inducing when he delivers one of the many dreadfully unfunny jokes. The rest of the cast, are universally awful. Sasha Lane is the absolute worst, delivering perhaps the most wooden and generic performance this year. Daniel Dae Kim provides only a slightly more believable British accent. Ian McShane is under the impression he’s acting in a pantomime, with his delivery of the embarrassing dialogue being beyond phoned in.

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Are there any redeemable elements of Hellboy? Well, the soundtrack is actually pretty banging, and fits the angry, violent aesthetic. Hits from hard rock greats like Alice Cooper and The Scorpions are effective, but beg to be in a better movie. Besides that and Harbour’s performance, Hellboy is an absolute train wreck. It aspires to emulate the visuals of a Meatloaf album, and the tongue in cheek, violent tone of a Tarantino film, but ultimately presents a juvenile mess, that does nothing but waste two painfully long hours of your life.

After Life (2019) review

Ricky Gervais’ penchant for the macabre side of human nature as long been a focus of his work. From the fame-desperate Andy in Extras, to the witty cynical take on corporate life in The Office, it’s definitely a key part of his modus operandi. After Life is by far his bleakest affair yet, with a story of depression, death, and suicidal thoughts. While that might not sound like a barrel of laughs, the infusion of well written jokes and human observations, compounded with an uplifting final message, make After Life an emotional rollercoaster. It’s by far Gervais’ most dramatic and touching work, and while not as laugh out loud funny as the genius celebrity cameos of Extras, it’s certainly no slouch in the funnies either.

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The cast, are largely impeccable. From regular Gervais contributors like Ashley Jensen, to fantastic newcomers like Tom Basden and Mandeep Dhillon, all deliver realism focused, heartfelt performances. This is a fantastic ensemble cast, with thirteen main or reoccurring characters that all make their stamp, despite some only being afforded minutes of screen time. My reoccurring issue is in the acting of Gervais himself. It’s so difficult to see a character, rather than the comedian himself, particularly as he injects so many personal affectations into Tony (and Brent, and Andy, and Derek). Much like Gervais, he’s an atheist, loves animals, hates loud chewers, and loves the cathartic punishment of morons. The performance is good, but not great. Speaking generously, emotions are delivered subtly, while being realistic, he’s a tad wooden. Some of the super heightened emotional moments are instead delivered with crocodile tears, which is unfortunate. This is by no means a bad performance, but those crucial moments could’ve been more pronounced.

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Where Gervais does not disappoint, however, is in his writing. Put simply, it’s spot on. Any notion that he lacks comedic writing without former co-writer Stephen Merchant is put firmly to bed here. The humour is sharp, but the comment on the progression of depression is as poignantly accurate as it is heartbreaking. After Life’s message is one of hope and it’s ultimately delivered very effectively. There are a few moments that do veer on the obtuse side, and make it difficult to relate to Tony. For the most part, these are addressed within the narrative, though are one or two exceptions, where I feel the character’s reactions are not as genuine as they could’ve been.

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The song choices are also effective. Song choices like Nick Cave’s Into My Arms for a moment of pure despair demonstrate a well thought through soundtrack that drives the hard hitting moments home far more effectively than Gervais’ acting ever does. Equally, the cinematography and editing techniques are both subtle, yet well done. Flashbacks and archive camera footage are used to the full extent to connect us with the deceased  Lisa, and both work wonders.

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In review, I found myself far more engaged with After Life than I ever expected. What starts as a sarcastic, overly dark character study, lacking in comedy, ultimately becomes an emotional uplifting, beautiful piece of television. Though I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan of Ricky Gervais’ acting, his writing remains as razor sharp as it did for The Office, almost twenty years ago. After Life is a gorgeous study of grief that hits hard because of how real it is. These characters feel human, and real, and flawed. I highly recommend it to anyone, especially those feeling disillusioned, or disheartened. It surprisingly delivers a strong message that we sometimes all forget: life is good. And so is this show.

8/10

Fyre (2019) review

Between Leaving Neverland, Abducted in Plain Sight, and the Madeline McCann eight-parter, 2019 is apparently the year of top notch mainstream documentaries. Chris Smith’s Fyre is no exception, presenting the startlingly baffling events of 2017’s Fyre Festival: a douchebag, yuppy, hipster festival appealing to the vainest and wealthiest social media whores that money and self loathing can buy. I’d actually seen a similar documentary, albeit on a much smaller scale by a Youtuber, so was aware of the gist of the event going in. However, that certainly isn’t necessary, as the film goes into great depth explaining how the hell this all happened. The rabbit hole goes deep in this well researched, and simply well made piece of cinema. What it offers on the other hand has to be seen to be believed…

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Fyre tells the tale of Billy McFarland, a young American entrepreneur / scam artist, who, as a promotional tactic for one of his sub companies, decides to organise an uber exclusive festival on a private island in the Bahamas. It does not go to plan. The documentary further explores the aftermath of the event, which is perhaps the most ridiculous element of all. The decisions that this man makes are unfathomable, and he simply seemed to be so engrossed in his own hyperbole, that he refused to make rational decisions, assuming that nothing could go wrong for him. If there’s one message that Fyre attempts to portray, it’s a warning; don’t mistake limited success for untouchability.

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The sheer amount of interviews performed and their profound bluntness is incredibly telling, and makes for a documentary that provides almost every piece of the puzzle, with little left unanswered. Short of the infamous McFarland and Ja Rule themselves,  everyone worth interviewing are able to tell their story. These interviews are so interesting, because they expose the insane level of ignorance and ‘we’ll do it later’ culture, particularly from McFarland, who, from the footage and testimonials, acts like he’s not even from this planet. He lacks any ability to acknowledge the level of trouble he’s in, in favour of ‘solution based responses.’ Most of the staff come off as likeable and / or sympathetic, particularly those with large personal investments lost because of Billy’s incompetence. Though the documentary might be accused of presenting a bias perspective, based on its overwhelming evidence, it’s clear to see that the blame is  firmly placed correctly: it’s McFarland’s fault, alone. Meme culture will also tell you that certain interviewees are more, erm, memorable than others. Enough said until you watch it.

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Putting aside the infuriating festival itself, the documentary is masterfully made. Its pacing is excellent, giving a good level of background to Billy, Ja, the various companies, and all of the interviewees before taking us through the preparation for the festival. This is then followed by a step by step explanation of its descent into chaos, with every conceivable thing that could go wrong, going wrong. The empathetic staff become our avatars, and many of them are figures that we root for, despite knowing that the endgame is one of disaster. The film also has so much raw footage that it doesn’t have to resort to reconstructions, which is nearly always a good decision for better documentarian storytelling. If there’s one thing it misses, it’s a memorable score, which could’ve really elevated it and helped grow tension even further. Also, (and wow, this is petty, but it shows how little is wrong with the film) the small orange text above the interviewees is sometimes difficult to read.

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So, please do watch Fyre. It’s a frankly fantastic documentary that manages to build tension effectively, and will have you throwing your hands in the air in frustration and exasperation every two minutes. It’s an incredibly interesting story that shows how one stupid man’s confidence and bravado can spiral into one of the single greatest PR disasters of all time. Market something well enough and pay social media influencers a quarter of a million to say it’s great, and people will practically beg you to pay £10,000 a ticket. Seriously.

★★★★

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005) – top five episodes

Word of mouth recommendations are always funny.  They can lead you to something that you doesn’t meet the hype of your recommender. However, when literally every friend you’ve ever known telling you to watch something, it’s likely worthwhile. So is the case for Avatar: The Last Airbender, not just one of the greatest kids shows ever made, but one of the greatest television programmes, period. The fact that it’s animated and aimed at children is irrelevant. The characterisation, world building, serialised / episodic blend of storytelling, charming writing, and truly unique premise, make it nothing less than exceptional. But which are the best of the best in terms of its 61 episodes? Let’s find out. Honorary mentions are: The Avatar and the Firelord, The Siege of the North, The Southern Raiders, and The Blue Spirit. 

5. The Puppetmaster

The closest thing that Avatar ever did to horror, The Puppetmaster is a brilliant distraction from the world ending main plot antics with an unusually frightening tone. The gang find a decrepit old lady in the woods, who is revealed to come from the Northern Water Tribe. Here the show introduces simultaneously one of its greatest sub bending skills: blood bending. With the horrendous premise of controlling the actions of others and literally turning them into puppets, the show aptly uses a grey colour palette, dark shadows, and eerie music to create a spooky single episode that ends on a grim note. While Katara may be cursed by her new power, she also receives some fantastic character development.

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4. Zuko Alone

Speaking of character development, this is another episode that, while not filler, doesn’t enhance the overarching fire nation plot, but rather delivers some stunning character development for the absolute best character; Prince Zuko. Perhaps I just like genre specific one off episodes, as this one takes a western style, with a desert town setting, organised crime, and lots of wide shots and long periods with no music. Opening the eyes of Prince Zuko to the true horrors of his father’s war with a small stakes, personal story, was a genius touch, and serves to make the banished prince more conflicted, as well as more likeable to the audience.

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3. The Tales of Ba Sing Se

Yet again, an episode that has nothing to do with the main plot, but everything to do with character development. I just love to watch these characters do what they do and be themselves; they’re that well written. So engaging in fact, that a story of Aang saving a zoo, Toph and Katara getting a makeover, and Sokka losing a medieval rap battle, are all incredibly compelling. However, the real emotional resonance comes from Iroh’s story, which concurrently presents his sorrow for the passing of his son, whilst paying tribute to the real life passing of his voice actor, Mako. It’s heart wrenching stuff, executed beautifully, with a watercolour sunset showing the stunningly designed city, and the grieving father at his son’s grave. Powerful stuff.

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2. Sozin’s Comet

The culmination of this fantastic story could not have been delivered better. Despite years of pressure, somehow the co creators managed to deliver a conclusion that ties up (almost) all of the loose ends, whilst being both incredibly satisfying and visually breathtaking. It’s funny, because the former two episodes of this four part finale feel a little dull, and the Lion Turtles antics almost veer into deus-ex-machina territory. However, the final battle is handled so, so well, with each character’s story feeling earned and impactful, that it doesn’t matter. The music here was also written specifically for these episodes, giving Sozin’s Comet a movie-like production value. The insane elemental bending visuals, the voice acting of Mark Hamill, and the tight bows around every single major player’s character arcs make this perhaps the most satisfying finale of all time.

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1. The Ember Island Players

Let’s just say it; Sozin’s Comet is objectively a better episode than The Ember Island Players. However, it isn’t my favourite. TEIP exemplifies my two favourite elements (ha) of the show; comedic writing and writing that subverts expectations. In no world, should a recap episode deserve to be this good. The framing device of the story being retold through a fire nation propaganda play is just perfect. This episode delivers some of the biggest laughs, while giving self referential nods to fan reactions, such as the hatred of The Great Divide and Jet’s ambiguous, Nickelodeon censored death. The Ember Island Players is so smart because it shows how the characters react to past events too. It is just perfect. Between this and Sozin’s Comet, every element of this phenomenal show are front and centre: frantic, quick paced and epic, grand action, well written arcs, genuinely funny jokes, a fleshed out world and mythology that somehow feels more real than most live action shows, a sensational score, fantastic pacing, mature themes, and of course, well realised characters with real human problems and emotions. Phew. There is so much to love here. Now let’s see if they can match it…on to the next binge watch!

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Oh boy…

Hitchcock (2012) review

Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren star in a 2012 biopic, chronicling a slice of the life of the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. The film somewhat slipped under the radar when it debuted, and was met with mixed reviews, critically. Though there are some questionable directorial decisions by Sacha Gervasi, and a general lack of focus, the quirky tone, delightfully nostalgic filmic reenactments and stellar leading cast make it an enjoyable and mostly positive experience that leaves you with a good feeling.

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The biggest problems come down to the script, which is muddled and unfocused. The writer seems unclear on whether they’re telling the tale of the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma (Mirren), or whether this about the making of Psycho. Scenes are cut together in a bizarre order, and the character motivations aren’t always entirely clear. A particularly strange choice comes from Hitchcock’s objectively shot internal monologues, which feature him speaking to serial killer Ed Gein, for advice. Gein was of course a key influence for the character of Norman Bates, but the film never revolves around Hitchcock’s need to understand the mind of the killer, nor is there any suggestion that he himself is having similar psychotic thoughts. So why include it? I’ve racked my brain considering why and can’t see any reason other than for the stylistic image of the sharply dressed Hitchcock juxtaposed with the filthy, murderous Gein. The addition harms the film far more than it helps and clashes dreadfully with the often humorous, likeable tone of the rest of the movie.

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What isn’t harmful, however, are the inspired casting choices of Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Alfred and Alma respectively. Hopkins delivers an incredibly believable performance, nailing the voice and mannerisms of the master of suspense to a tee. Equally, Mirren exudes a magnetic energy in her often hilarious, yet pathotic interpretation of the exasperated Mrs. Hitchcock. The film explores in great depth, her struggle to cope with living with the arrogant, stubborn, difficult Hitch, but also her own feeling of inadequacy following his huge successes. If there’s one element that the script truly delivers on, it’s the relationship between these two. While it might fanny around with other irrelevant plot points, the degenerating relationship really is the heart and soul, and the most appealing aspect of the film. A shout out should also go to the prosthetics (which won an academy award!) to transform Hopkins into the rotund, bald, and larger than life man himself.

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Despite the lack of coherency within the narrative, however, there is a wonderful charm to the scenes that delve into the creation of Psycho. The casting of Bates, Marion, and Lila is well done and scarily accurate, offering plenty of easter eggs and pieces of intrigue for fans of the film. Equally, the film also explores the shooting of classic scenes, such as the car shots, which are delightfully endearing and somewhat act as a time capsule for the filmmaking of the 50s and 60s. If the script was a little more developed and more attention had been paid to the creation of Psycho, this element could’ve been the biggest draw of the movie. As is, they’re great fun to view as a slice of the history of Hollywood cinema and the archaic and creative methods of making films. More of this and less scenes with Gein would’ve really helped.

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In conclusion, Hitchcock isn’t the best biopic I’ve seen. It’s messy and muddled and contains some bizarre filmic choices that stem from an unpolished script. However, the setting and tone of the film are bright and vibrant, presenting an optimistic take on an often controversial man. Perhaps this film does see him through rose tinted glasses, with a clear adoration for his work, but the compelling lead performances and well written dialogue make what we see on screen believable. Ultimately, it leaves you with a good feeling, and a strong message that nobody, even the greatest masters of their art, does it alone.

★★★

Abducted in Plain Sight (2017) review

I have a confession: I’m completely obsessed with the crime documentary genre. The Imposter, Making a Murderer, Britain’s Darkest Taboos: I’ve seen em’ all. However, bizarrely, the documentary that contains not one act of murder, turns out to be the most completely insane of them all. Abducted in Plain Sight has taken to Netflix this year, despite being released back in 2017, and the internet has exploded with a collective cry of ‘what the hell was that.’

The documentary starts off the way you’d expect this sort of thing to go. It chronicles the titular abduction of Jan Broberg, a young girl in Idaho, whose family friend Robert Berchtold is revealed as a paedophile. Amidst a multitude of sexual assault instances, he kidnaps Jan and takes her to Mexico to marry her and brainwashes her to believe one of the most mental rhetorics you’ve ever heard. It’s about at the 20 minute mark, that the story nosedives into absolute madness. Both parents, Bob and Mary Ann are shown to have incredibly naive and questionable decision making powers, making you wonder why they agreed to have their story made into a movie at all. I shan’t give away any more details, but this story is jaw droppingly baffling, and will have you shouting at the television in frustration more than any work of fiction. Of course, it must also be said that the documentary does put the focus on the party truly at the centre of blame: the monstrous Berchtold.

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Director Skye Borgman has discussed the possibility of a sequel, and potentially even a trilogy using the material. This feels not only insensitive, but also explains the lack of coherency during some scenes. It certainly feels that pieces of the puzzle are missing, as some parts of the film are explored in great depth, while others are skipped over in rushed time jumps. It feels like at least an additional half hour of content would’ve done Abducted in Plain Sight, a great deal of good. As it is, the editing choices make many of the players, particularly parents Bob and Mary Ann, seem not only incompetently bad parents, but deranged sociopaths, who only call the cops after their daughter has been missing for an entire five days. Just like that sink in. FIVE DAYS. 

As a result of this, the sharp, choppy editing style feels a bit misplaced. In a story with such crazy movements, a more restrained style of documentary feels like a more appropriate choice. The choice to not use a narrator also feels a missed opportunity, adhering more to a popular style of modern documentary, rather than an appropriate creative choice. Equally, the reconstructed elements are uncomfortable to watch, and are sometimes cringe worthy, both in their content and performance. I’m not a fan of reconstructions when it comes to sensitive content in general: I feel like we get the picture from the description, but these take it to another level. The music choices work fine, but again, some of the sound design for the reconstructions is heavy handed to the extreme: I don’t feel we need a real child reading Jan’s letters to Robert, for example.

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Overall, Abducted in Plain Sight tells a fascinatingly macabre story, with more plot twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. It’s as deeply disturbing as it is compelling, and will have you considering how you’d act such a situation. Presumably, you’d make better choices than Bob and Mary Ann. Though it’s well made, there are elements of the story that feel missed, which is frustrating as a viewer. That said, I highly recommend you see it for yourself, on Netflix. It truly has to be seen to be believed and you’ll find yourself picking your jaw off the floor with staggering frequency.

★★★

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Les Miserables (2019 miniseries) review

It’s likely a difficult task to undertake an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel, Les Miserables, in the year 2019. The story is so intrinsically tied into representations in other media; most notably, as the longest running musical on the West End. Thus, when you’re trying to make a bare bones, ‘faithful’ adaptation, it’ll inevitably be compared to  the global sensation that is the Les Mis musical.

The six part BBC drama does manage to distance itself and creates a well told and compelling narrative, with good pacing, and characterisation…for the first three parts, at least. Unfortunately, some bizarre decisions around character development, rushed writing, and weak storylines let Les Miserables down, tarnishing any potential to be the definitive version.

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Let’s get this out of the way now: Dominic West gives the greatest performance by far, and simultaneously gives the strongest presentation of Jean Valjean, across any medium. He’s likeable, brash, brutish, and incredibly strong, in every sense. Other solid casting comes (perhaps unsurprisingly) from the first half; Lily Collins as Fantine, Derek Jacobi as the Bishop, and Adeel Akhtar as Thénardier all deliver powerful lead performances. More questionable is David Oyelowo, who seems a good choice on the face of it, but is let down by the aforementioned rushed writing and a strange choice of accent. If there’s one voice I wouldn’t associate with Javert, it’s cockney. The younger ‘grown up’ cast are also flawed: Marius is unlikable and arrogant (in fairness, a closer representation of his book counterpart), Cosette is unlikable and whiney (much closer to her musical counterpart) and Enjolras is unlikable and boring. So pretty unlikable all around. We also have the sensational Olivia Coleman as Mdm. Thénardier, parading around with such campy acting, that she could be mistaken for a pantomime dame.

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The writing is really what lets Les Miserables down, unfortunately. Despite an incredibly emotionally effective opening, the momentum isn’t sustained, and the latter three episodes feel like weak translations of the musical, as they trim about as much character development as it does. The motivations of Javert in particular are laughably muddy; yes, we know he thinks Jean Valjean is the root of all evil, but when he starts fantasising that he’s literally behind every crime in the city, I think its time someone told him to lie down for a bit. Go home Javert, you’re drunk. Similarly, the choice to have Marius as a sex confused puppy, dreaming about bonking literally any girl who smiles at him, while perhaps depressingly realistic, makes him pretty despicable. In fact, he eerily mirrors the cocky swagger of Cosette’s father from episode one. That’s a bit weird when you think about it. Pacing is also a huge issue. This really feels like it should’ve been an eight episode run, as many events are passed over with a line or two of exposition, instead of being given time to properly evolve. In particular, it strangely opts for the time jumps as the musical and novel: Val Jean escaping to becoming Mayor, and Cosette’s upbringing. Both of these could have been explored further, to give the series a unique stamp.

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So, Les Miserables doesn’t stick the landing on the characters, which is a pretty major hit against it. However, the cinematography, set design, costume design, music choices, and editing are all spot on. It takes the classic BBC drama approach, with a very serious, naturalistic tone, trying to make it seem as true to life as possible. Unfortunately, when the writing is at its poorest, this often makes it clash tonally, and it becomes difficult to take seriously. The music is also incredibly subdued, perhaps in an effort to distance itself from its bombastic musical sister even further. This decision works far more effectively, and helps to create the droning sense of dread. Otherwise, the look of period Paris is captured perfectly, to the show’s credit. The wide shots manage to show the huge scope of battles, making them even more impressively epic. There’s a grit to the atmosphere too, particularly during battle scenes that also adds a level of intensity and raw realism, making them more akin to a war drama in some places.

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Overall, Les Miserables is a mixed bag of an adaptation. It’s disappointing to think what could’ve been, had the momentum of the former half been maintained, but what we have isn’t awful, by any means. The acting is strong, with most characters managing to still leave an impactful impression, despite an often tonally dissonant script. You might leave feeling underwhelmed, but there are still many elements to enjoy.

6/10

 

Ranking the ‘Wizarding World’ movies

The Wizarding World series is interesting in that despite commercial success, it lacks a lot of what a great fantasy series like say, Lord of the Rings has in spades: consistency. A director with a vision, using the same composer and cast throughout. Obviously elements like the recasting of Dumbledore were unavoidable, but the mish mash of directors and composers putting their stamp makes the series feel muddled. Perhaps that’s why it has, unlike it’s Tolkien cousin, never achieved academy recognition in addition to commercial reception. That said, the current state of the ‘Fantastic Beasts: I guess we’re still going with that title because we have nothing better’, draws the Hobbit prequels to mind, unfortunately. Both are underwhelming prequels extenuating a smaller, tonally different source book to try to emulate prior successes. Still, it’s fun to throw out what order we’d rank these films in. They’re all a similar level of quality, unlike say, the Pirates of the Carribean series, so no two lists will be the same. So with that: alohamora! Let’s dive in.

10. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald 

Easily the weakest of the series. A non coherent plot, messy character motivations and an uninspiring performance from Johnny Depp as the titular big bad. Though, there are still some great moments; the opening scene, the triumphant return to Hogwarts, complete with John Williams swell, and the fantastic performance of Jude Law as a young Dumbledore. Sadly, most would agree it belongs pretty firmly at the bottom of the list.

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9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 

A nice return to the Wizarding World, but sadly lacking a lot of what makes the earlier films great. Most of this comes down to stakes, and unfortunately, the overcomplicated plot setting the seeds for its own quintology just feels far more bare bones and run of the mill than prior stories. Eddie Redmayne is an excellent choice and a suitably different protagonist to bland and overly perfect Potter, but even he can’t save what ultimately serves to be a pretty underwhelming, un-magical experience.

8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part one 

The slowest paced of the Potter entries is still a fine film, but tends to drag its heels for much of its run time. Despite being the first part of the culmination of years of establishing plot, this one takes its time just a little too much and unfortunately, the pacing suffers. That said, it still has its stand out moments; the dramatic sky chase, the lovely moment between Harry and Hermione in the forest, and of course, the death of the fictional character embodiment of marmite: Dobby the House Elf.

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7. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  

The tonal turning point of the series, the introduction of brilliantly disgusting one shot character Delores Umbridge gives this film much of its appeal. It suffers greatly from missing some wonderful elements from the book (which all the films do to some extent) though here it is most jarring with the cringe worthy, awkward, wooden romance between Harry and Ginny beginning to blossom. The performances from the cast show their greatest improvement yet, with the addition of kooky Luna Lovegood as a particular highlight. A fantastic visual effects battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore towards the end too, sets the standard for all films to come.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

AKA the one where everyone has super long hair for some reason! Seriously though, this one is good, if a little clunky. It again misses some great details from the book, but the introductions of both Barty Crouch Jr and Mad Eye Moody are brilliantly realised for the big screen. It’s also the most action packed yet, yet unfortunately begins the trend of tonal and stylistic dissonance from the previous film. This is particularly notable in the absence of John Williams as composer, which leaves the series like a clumsily brewed polyjuice potion, missing its crucial secret ingredient from here on out.

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5. Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone

The one that started it all still holds up today. That said, it has to be taken on its own merit as a far more child friendly entry that reflects the tone of director Chris Columbus’ other blockbuster hit; Home Alone. The filmmaking on display here though is truly charming, with an ace blend of practical and computer generated effects where later entries would unfortunately favour the latter exclusively. The child performances are obviously pants, which is a bit odd when you consider more recent kid led ventures like Stranger Things, but the adult characters, particularly the gentle soul brought to Richard Harris’ take on Dumbledore in addition to the casting perfection of Alan Rickman as Snape, shine through.

4. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Perhaps a bit of a wild card pick, but this is my personal favourite of the series. It’s the funniest, for one thing, with some surprisingly subtle comic acting from a liquid luck infused Daniel Radcliffe. It also features the most Snape yet, which is more than a contributing factor. It’s perhaps the least ‘Harry Potter-ish’ of the series as it gears up for the epic two part finale, but also creates a great atmosphere that feels more realised than the three films prior. Though totally different to Philosophers and Chamber, it seems to be the most sure of itself entry since those two. We also get the introduction of Jim Broadbent as brilliantly bumbling Professor Slughorn: perhaps the best casting since Harris as Dumbledore.

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3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part two 

Now this is how you end a series. Following a clunky, exposition heavy first part, director David Yates was now finally free to let the plot breathe, with a much better pace and some really nice character moments. Ralph Fiennes chews the scenery as the garishly evil, yet camp, Voldemort and enjoys every second. He’s wonderful. We’re given the most action packed entry yet, with the magical effects absolutely pushed to their limits. The almost lightsaber-esque dual between Voldemort and Harry in the films third act, is a particular highlight. Musically speaking, the callbacks to former films using the Williams score was nice, if bittersweet at the lack of consistency throughout.

2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 

The only one without Voldemort! The first not to be directed by Chris Columbus! A scary old grandad pretending to be Dumbledore! What is this?! While that’s all true, Prisoner of Azkaban is still tight. It acts as a natural springboard into the darker, grim tone of the later films. The acting from the core trio finally starts to see some improvement (note- some – see Harry ‘crying’ at Hogsmeade for a lesson in crocodile tears) and the plot is actually pretty faithfully brought to screen. Professor Lupin actor David Thewlis is a strong addition to the cast and there’s more than a little Snape to love in this one too, which is never a bad thing.

1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Philosophers Stone without the growing pains- Chamber of Secrets is, in my opinion, the peak of the series. It has a brilliant tone that manages to escalate the darkness in a natural way, its soundtrack is littered with distinct leitmotifs that only the masterful Williams can produce and it boasts Kenneth Branagh, Shakesperianly hamming it all the way to hell as the single funniest character in HP history. Additionally, if you’re one of the two people who hadn’t read the book before hand, it also acts as a pretty intriguing mystery, with the titular Chamber which would show a greater significance as the series continued. Personally, I’d have loved to have seen a world where Chris Columbus took on the whole saga and shown how he would’ve approached the darker, later instalments. Imagine a world with Columbus, Williams and Richard Harris throughout…wouldn’t that have been a sight to see. Still, what we have is pretty decent. Let me know below, how you’d order the series.

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Top 5 TV Christmas specials

Unlike festive films, the Christmas special is a different beast entirely. Many shows have one or two episodes set at Christmas time, though surprisingly few acknowledge it, or make it a focal point. There are, however, exceptions, that are so brilliant that they are nearly as charming, heart warming, or unique as their feature length counterparts. So here are my picks, for the top 5 TV Christmas specials.

5. Scrubs– My Own Personal Jesus 

Taking place in the early days of Scrubs, where the Janitor was still a figment of J.D’s imagination and the show was still finding its feet, My Own Personal Jesus was a glimpse at the emotionally hard hitting the moments that the show would become known for. Turk, usually upbeat and happy go lucky, finds a crisis of faith while working on Christmas Eve, failing to understand how a God could allow such misery at such a joyous time of year. The use of a fast montage set to a warped version of the 12 days of Christmas is a particular highlight. Of course it all works out in the end, though I won’t spoil the conclusion. With a play on the Nativity set to a classic J.D voice over about the spirit of the holiday to finish up, you have a wonderful and understated Christmas special.

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4. Black Mirror– White Christmas 

Ok, so this one is obviously a little different. Black Mirror is well known for being hard hitting and soul destroying and nowhere is that better demonstrated than in it’s (to date), only Christmas special. White Christmas is not only devoid of joy, it relishes in being as cruel and emotionally destructive as possible, by layering on twist after twist to torture both the characters and the audience. That said, it’s bloody good at it. White Christmas is a cautionary tale about possessiveness, obsession and, as with all episodes: the mishandling of future technology. This is all brought together in an insanely powerful special that will leave you open mouthed and speechless, as it brings about a festive existential crisis.

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3. Doctor Who– A Christmas Carol 

The Doctor’s foray into the winter season has become a tradition since the 2005 reboot, but most, in my opinion, fail more than they succeed. That is however, with the exception of the truly stellar play on the Dickens classic of the same name during Matt Smith’s run as the Eleventh Doctor. With the brilliant casting of Michael Gambon as a surrogate Ebenezer Scrooge you know you’re geared up for an emotionally effective and enjoyable Christmas special. The use of time travel to emulate the roles of the three ghosts is sheer genius and Smith bounces off the supporting cast, particularly Gambon, with his trademark childish glee. Paired with a brilliantly magical soundtrack and some decent visuals (for TV, anyway) and you have the best Sci-Fi Christmas special going.

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2. The Vicar of Dibley- Winter Special 

It was a hard choice between this and the nearly equally brilliant, Christmas Lunch Incident. However, when it came down to it, the wholesome retelling of the Nativity with a very pregnant Alice as Mary was too good to miss. There are so many memorable moments; Jim’s ‘No parking’ lark, the debate whether the Nativity should hold the title of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ when there are so many good Jackie Collins novels; it’s all great stuff. The trademark wit and heart string tug of Richard Curtis’ writing doesn’t miss a beat here, managing to be both engaging and funny while being appropriate for the whole family. As always, it perfectly captures the feel of a small village community, but this time, manages to do it at exceptionally, at Christmas.

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1. The Office (UK): Christmas Special (Part one and two)

After leaving the ending of season two unresolved, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had to devise a satisfying conclusion to the series that tied everything up. They chose to accomplish this with this brilliant two part Christmas special/series finale and the backdrop of the season makes it all the more emotionally engaging. While the mission to David Brent a date is both funny and heartbreaking, we all know we’re really here for Tim and Dawn. Their conclusion, as with all elements of the office, is organic, feeling earned. It initially seems to head towards a typically brutal, British, depressing ending, before just a taste of festive cheese to take us to its fantastically satisfying outcome. The Office, as always, is cynical, funny and bleakly true to life. However, just this once, and just for Christmas, it ends on a high, with even the deluded and pathetic Brent managing to get a real laugh out of his former staff.

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Honourable mentions:

Blackadder: Blackadder’s Christmas Carol

LOST: The Constant 

South Park: The Woodland Critter Christmas

The Twilight Zone: The Night of the Meek

The Office (US): Christmas Party

Peep Show: Seasonal Beatings

Friends: The One with the Holiday Armadillo 

My top 10 Christmas movies

It’s getting close to that wonderful time of the year again, so here are my picks to get you in the festive mood in 50 words or less per film. Honourable mentions go to Jingle All the Way, Batman Returns, Gremlins, The Santa Clause and most erroneously, The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s my number 11, honest.

  1. The Polar Express (2004, Robert Zemeckis)

The Alan Silvestri score alone puts this on the list. Pair that with a typically awesome performance from Tom Hanks, a touching story about belief and some (admittedly dodgy) motion capture effects and you have a unique Christmas film that the newer generation will never forget.

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  1. The Holiday (2006, Nancy Meyers)

The all-star celebrity cast are incredibly endearing, especially Jude Law and Kate Winslet. A tale of love at Christmas, this is in many ways, America’s answer to Love Actually. Hans Zimmer’s score is beautiful and the mushy moments are just well done enough to not come off as disgustingly cheesy. A beautiful tale of finding love in the most unexpected places. It’s just the custard on the Christmas pudding for us that they opted to set it in December.

  1. Miracle on 34th Street (1994, Les Mayfield)

Ignoring Mara Wilson’s sickeningly sweet persona and forced lisp, this one really is gorgeous. Richard Attenborough steals the show as a man who is convinced that he’s Father Christmas, even having to prove it in a court case. While the narrative may be predictable, the dialogue and themes of belief and childhood make it more than your average festive flick and well worth a look.

  1. Arthur Christmas (2011, Sarah Smith)

How typical of Aardman animations to bring their own sweet, silly, dry brand of British humour and manage to make it both endearing and emotionally impactful for the holidays. Following three generations of Santas’, Arthur Christmas identifies many aspects of Christmas, but also life in general. It shows the perils of getting older and the need to move on and pass the torch onto the best choice for the job. The voice cast is excellent, the jokes bang on, and the ending suitably warm and fuzzy.

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  1. The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992, Brian Henson)

Leave it to Kermit and co to take one of the most famous stories ever, make it over the top and ridiculous and yet still make a classic. Michael Caine proves a great straight man foil as Scrooge and the rest of the Muppets somehow seem born to ‘play’ these roles. Kermit strangely works as down on his luck, kind Bob Cratchit and having Statler and Waldorf as a split in two Jacob Marley was a stroke of genius. Oh, and the songs are pretty great too.

  1. Home Alone (1990, Chris Columbus)

We’re into the big guns now. Before it became a juggernaut franchise, the first Home Alone is a likeable, warm and genuinely funny children’s movie. Yes, its premise is ridiculous and yes, Kevin’s pranks should’ve maimed the sticky bandits a hundred times over, but at its core, it’s a story of family and moreover, family at Christmas. Cliché and cheesy? Hell yes, but that’s why I love it. Throw in the sublime John Williams score and you have a true classic.

  1. Love Actually (2003, Richard Curtis)

A British institution these days and for good reason. The ensemble cast is flawless, with some of the biggest names the U.K has to offer. The intertwining, yet singular tales of love at Christmas may be incredibly superficial and presented through rose tinted glasses, but the characters formed by these talented actors make them so tangible that you won’t notice. It’s quotable, it’s sad, it’s funny; it’s a bit of everything and ends on a massive high, showing that ‘love, really is all around.’

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  1. Die Hard (1989, John McTiernan)

So, a bit of a contrast from the last pick. The quintessential action movie, I doubt I can tell you much about Die Hard that you don’t already know. A tower block is taken over on Christmas Eve and Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has to take down Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman, who would reprise this role in Love Actually) and save the innocent hostages, including his estranged wife, Holly. This may not scream Christmas, but the imagery is everywhere. Champagne bottles, trees, lights and a pretty funky festive jumper pattern the aesthetic. And if you have any doubt as to its status as a Christmas film, the ending credits are set to Let it Snow. I rest my case.

  1. A Christmas Carol (1984, Clive Donner)

The absolute quintessential version of this story (sorry Kermit), what elevates it above other versions is the casting of George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. The man is phenomenal in the role, bringing all of the miserly qualities we expect, while also presenting a plethora of subtext of real loss, regret and bitterness, making him so much more developed than any other version. The ghosts are also great, but the other supporting cast is a little cold, coming off as bitter and angry as Scrooge himself, which seems like an odd directorial decision…At any rate, if you’ve somehow never seen this story, this version will do you know wrong.

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

Of course, It’s a Wonderful Life is number one. Frank Capra’s classic is just that, a classic. A wonderfully made film regardless of its festive setting, the exploration of the life of one truly good man is beautifully developed, with a serious tone, deep characters way ahead of its time and an uplifting finale that will have you beaming from cheek to cheek. See it in colour or black and white, it doesn’t matter; but I implore you, if you’ve never seen this film, give it a watch this Christmas and see how fantastic it is for yourself.

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