The Vigesimal Monthly Update for January 2016

A new year means the monthly update format is… exactly the same as last year, because it works. (Well, I think it does.)

For any newcomers, or people in need of a refresher, here you’ll find: everything I watched in January 2016, with some observations and analysis too; all the reviews and 100 Favourites entries I posted last month; and The Arbies, my monthly awards. Plus, this month, a few snippets of site news.

Without further ado:


#1 Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016)
#2 Snatch. (2000)
#3 12 Years a Slave (2013)
#4 Funny Games (1997)
#5 Lady of Burlesque (1943)
#6 The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), aka Shao Lin san shi liu fang
#7 Super 8 (2011)
#8 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
#9 The Five Venoms (1978), aka Five Deadly Venoms
#10 Hercules (Extended Cut) (2014)
#11 White God (2014), aka Fehér Isten
#12 King Boxer (1972), aka Five Fingers of Death
#13 Return to the 36th Chamber (1980), aka Shao Lin da peng da shi
#14 Starman (1984)
#15 The Two Faces of January (2014)
#16 Amistad (1997)
#17 The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
#18 47 Ronin (2013)
#19 A Boy and His Dog (1975)
#20 Adam (2009)


  • For the first time, I’ve opened up my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen selections beyond my DVD and Blu-ray collection to include stuff I have access to on streaming services, etc. Due to my inattentiveness, I included a film that was to be removed the day after I posted that list. Fortunately I did notice, and 12 Years a Slave was squeezed in on its last evening on Amazon Prime.
  • I also caught Snatch before I cancelled my Netflix subscription (I hadn’t meant to keep it so long, what with also having Amazon Prime, but golly, there’s so much to watch!) That’s two checked off already, meaning WDYMYHS 2016 is off to a flying start. Considering I usually end up playing catch up (and, two times out of three, failing), that’s a Good Thing.
  • A few other instances of pairs and repetitions this month:
  • 2x Guy Ritchie movies. As mentioned, one was the first check off WDYMYHS 2016; the other was the first check off my list of 50 Unseen from 2015.
  • 2x slavery-related movies. The aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Both feature Chiwetel Ejiofor, donchaknow.
  • Lots of kung fu movies! Two reasons: Film4’s first Martial Arts Gold season (there’s another in March/April), and that loads are available on Netflix UK, including several well-regarded ones.


January is always the most awkward month to analyse. In so many ways the start of a new year is a false new start — it’s an arbitrary marker imposed on Time by humanity, not any kind of empirical new beginning. (Sorry to get glumly philosophical.) A goal like watching 100 films is different though, because January bumps you right back to #1; and this year, that was from the lofty heights of #200. My point being: here, January is a new beginning, not just “the next month”, and can set a tone or pace for the year to come.

Probably not this year though, because — in spite of my stated aim to watch fewer films in 2016 — I made it to 20 in January. That makes it only the fourth month to pass into the 20s, and also my fourth-highest month ever — and as I’ve been doing this for 109 months now, being fourth is (in relative terms) an achievement. It’s the best January ever too, exceeding last year’s tally of 16, and the 20th month in a row with a double-figure total. That is something I aim to maintain this year. If I achieve it, it will see me reach 10+ films per month for two consecutive years, and a total of 31 consecutive months. Just 11 months to go…

So what else can we forecast for 2016? If I keep this up, it’s looking at another record-obliterating final total, this time of 240. I won’t keep it up, though. Historically, January averages 8.08% of a year’s final tally (the actual percentages ranging from 2008’s 5% to 2011’s 12%), which would peg 2016’s total at an even higher level: 248. Which, I say again, it won’t be. What it should be, though, is over 130 — which would still position it as my third best year ever. Considering I intend to spend February and/or March getting value-for-money out of a streaming service or two (as I did in January), besting 2014’s 136 is certainly not out of the question.



A new series for 2016, tracking my 100 favourite movies (that I saw before starting 100 Films). This month: a fuller introduction than that one-sentence summary (though that is the gist of it) and the first seven entries. The full list of all 100 will continue to be updated here throughout the year.



The 8th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Looking back over this month’s viewing, it feels a bit “good but not great” — a lot of films I liked very much, but nothing that really jumps out at me as a dead-cert contender for this category. While it’s more of a Quality movie than a favourite per se, then, the best film this month was its only five-stars-er, 12 Years a Slave.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Conversely, not many films I didn’t enjoy this month either. However, for disappointment value — expecting the greatest martial arts movie ever made and getting a mess — the loser is The Five Venoms.

Best Opening Sequence of the Month
If you haven’t seen White God then it can be a tough experience (especially for dog lovers), but the opening is fantastic: our young heroine cycles through deserted city streets, percussion-heavy classical music dramatic on the soundtrack, pursued by a pack of hundreds of dogs. There’s a reason they used it for the poster.

Most Surprising #1 at the Chinese Box Office
I know I’m meant to choose these awards, rather than let the Chinese public do it for me, but surely it’s worthy of note that the cinema release of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride saw it top the box office in China, as well as post strong figures in South Korea and other countries. No, really. And that was just the start of it: according to Box Office Mojo, it wound up taking $20.5 million in China and $7.5 million in South Korea, where it bested The Force Awakens (seriously), while other reports peg it as earning $2.7 million in the US. Full figures aren’t easy to come by, but it seems to have a worldwide gross somewhere north of $34 million. Not bad for a TV episode produced for a couple of million quid.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Outpacing popular posts from just inside the New Year, like Sherlock and my statisticstastic 2015 list, was fun backstage murder mystery — and, significant to its success in this category, blogathon entry — Lady of Burlesque.


Normally I refresh my directors page header image somewhere around August to October, but I was busy watching a shedload of films back then, so it’s been pushed to now. January’s a better time for it anyway, after a full year of film viewing — and next January could make a big change, with my 100 Favourites factored in. The header features the 20 directors who have the most films reviewed on here, and some will get multiple additions thanks to that favourites list. For now, it’s based on how things were on January 1st. I completely rebuilt it, so it’s all spiffy.

Also, I’ve modified the “list of reviews” header. I think that’s the first time I’ve changed it since it went live a couple of years ago. Of the 27 pictures, ten were replaced and four refreshed with higher-quality versions, so it looks a lot spiffier too.

Finally, I decided to re-write the “About” page, for the first time in 3½ years. I re-read the old one and found myself intensely irritating, so hopefully the new version is… less bad.


My viewing selections will be mainly dictated by “what’s on Sky Movies”, in the run up to the Oscars…

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The Grandmaster (2013)

aka Yi dai zong shi

2015 #160
Wong Kar Wai | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hong Kong & China / Mandarin & Cantonese | 15 / PG-13

As a Western viewer, if you know anything about Ip Man beyond “he’s the chap who trained Bruce Lee”, it’s probably thanks to the pair of eponymous biopics starring Donnie Yen (soon to become a trilogy). Heck, if you know that much there’s a fair chance it’s due to those films. This take on the man, directed and co-written by Wong Kar Wai and starring Tony Leung as Ip, is tonally very different.

Some of the facts remain the same, naturally: Ip is a master of Wing Chung in Foshan, China, until the Japanese occupation ruins everyone’s lives. Post-war, he moves to Hong Kong and sets up a school there. Concurrently, there’s something about being the grandmaster of martial arts in all of China, or somesuch. When the previous incumbent is murdered by his disciple, the old man’s daughter, Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), has revenge in mind.

The Grandmaster is very much more an arthouse version of the story than the Ip Mans’ accessible action-movie stylistics, with elliptical storytelling and a carefully-measured pace, even in the action sequences. I’ve seen at least one review criticise Wong for leaning too heavily into ‘genre’ pictures — I guess that critic doesn’t actually watch too many genre pictures, because a good number of genre fans criticise this for being too arty. It is more “arty” than “genre”, even given its inclusion of numerous fantastic fight scenes. The duels are stunning, though pure adrenaline-junkie viewers seem to find even those a disappointment. Well, they’re wrong.

It helps that it’s gorgeously shot. Ultra-crisp blue-black rain-soaked night time duels; rich golden hues in pre-occupation Foshan; cold bright-white snowy landscapes; a train platform fight that’s almost sepia-like. Between the photography and the ever-excellent action choreography of Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill, et al), the film is immensely satisfying on a visual level.

One factor that may — or, as we will see, may not — have an effect on how the film fares beyond the purely visual is that there are at least three different cuts: a 130-minute original cut, a 122-minute international cut, and the 108-minute version released in the US by the Weinsten Company. “Ah,” you might think, “yet another Weinstein hack job.” Well, Wong himself says otherwise:

As a filmmaker, let me say that the luxury of creating a new cut for U.S. audiences was the opportunity to reshape it into something different than what I began with — a chance one doesn’t always get as a director and an undertaking much more meaningful than simply making something shorter or longer. The original version of The Grandmaster is about 2 hours, 10 minutes. Why not 2 hours, 9 minutes or 2 hours, 11 minutes? To me, the structure of a movie is like a clock or a prized watch — it’s about precision and perfect balance.

We always knew that we wanted to have a U.S. version that was a bit tighter and that helped clarify the complex historical context of this particular era in Chinese history, focusing further on the journeys of Ip Man and Gong Er. While the previous version was more chronological, adding narration and captions to explain certain plot points gave us the freedom to bring more life to moments in the characters’ stories. I also aimed to enhance the audience’s understanding of the challenges faced between North and South, especially during the Japanese invasion.

Well, the narration and explanatory title cards are at times useful, but at others feel heavy-handed. I guess that’s the result of them being added retroactively as an explanatory device — if Wong had felt that information needed to be in the film throughout production, I’m sure it could’ve been better integrated into the storytelling.

However you look at it, the other Ip Man films are undoubtedly more palatable to a mainstream audience. Does that mean they’re worse? No. Better? Not necessarily. But I don’t think The Grandmaster is all it could’ve been. It seems to run out of story and lose its way as it gets towards the end. The focus shifts entirely to Gong Er, and it feels less clear what it’s meant to about as a whole film. It becomes a movie of great moments, and maybe even scenes, but an unsatisfying whole. But oh, the images…

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Man of Tai Chi (2013)

2015 #49
Keanu Reeves | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | China, Hong Kong & USA / Cantonese, English & Mandarin | 15 / R

Man of Tai ChiMatrix star Keanu Reeves makes his directorial debut with this thoroughly entertaining martial arts actioner.

Tiger Chen is the last student of his master’s Tai Chi fighting style, though while Tiger excels at combat, his hotheadedness means his master struggles to instil the associated philosophical values. That makes Tiger easy prey for Mark Donaka (Keanu Reeves), a businessman who runs underworld fight clubs and lures our financially-troubled hero into his world. Meanwhile, police inspector Suen Jing Si (Karen Mok), long struggling to prove Donaka’s illegal activities, spies the fundamentally-good Tiger as a way in…

(Before we go on: no, Tai Chi isn’t secretly an awesome fighting style that you mistakenly thought was genteel exercise — part of the film’s plot is that Tiger is the only practitioner who uses it for combat, and everyone is surprised and amazed by it.)

Shot on location in China and Hong Kong, produced through local production companies and performed by native actors, with most of the dialogue in Cantonese and Mandarin, there’s an air of authenticity to Man of Tai Chi’s proceedings that often goes awry in such American-helmed endeavours. That sense may be aided by the familiar-feeling storyline. However, while the film is not exactly innovative or groundbreaking, the plot and characters are gripping enough, the plentiful fights are performed and filmed with aplomb, and Reeves’ direction lends a sense of style to proceedings that isn’t overpowering but is somewhat classy.

Everybody was kung fu fightingSome have opined that it’s over-edited. Early on I thought it was a mite too chopped up (during a plain old dialogue scene, funnily enough), but for most of the film it’s fine. Fast at times, sure, but so’s the fighting. There’s a style and rhythm to it all — some near-montage-like sequences are surely meant to be exactly that — and the fighting is never needlessly obscured, because (unlike in so many Hollywood action movies) these guys can actually do it and Reeves wants to show us that. He really focuses on them, too. These aren’t fights as part of elaborate chase sequences, or action interludes whose drama is reliant on the sheer volume of competitors being offed. Nearly every bout is one-on-one (there’s a single instance of two-on-one), all executed in nondescript rooms or arenas. It’s the straight-up fight choreography that does the talking here.

Most engaging outside of the action is, perhaps, the arc our hero goes on. Tiger is notable for being a flawed protagonist. He’s being led down a path where we believe the possibility that his rashness and anger issues might actually make him into the thing the villain wants him to be. It makes for a more interesting journey for the hero than most films offer these days. As that villain, Reeves is as wooden as ever, but at least here his character is a cold, mysterious businessman — an actor/role marriage not exactly made in heaven, but certainly in acceptability.

PlankA mention also for the score by Kwong Wing Chan. Apparently it’s made up of “Techno-styled, bass-heavy beats” or something (I got that from another review). Not the kind of music I normally listen to for pleasure, but its pounding electronic rhythms fit here, making their presence felt while never crossing into the over-dominance that kind of music is wont to do.

Man of Tai Chi should probably feel derivative and lightweight. Instead, it feels fun, exciting, stylish, and, if not deep, then at least more complex than you might have expected. If you like action movies where people who can actually fight do that, and quite a lot of it too, then this is a really enjoyable experience.

4 out of 5

Empire of the Sun (1987)

2015 #44
Steven Spielberg | 146 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Empire of the SunSteven Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel stars a 13-year-old Christian Bale as Jim, the son of British ex-pats in China when the Japanese invade during World War II. Separated from his family as they try to flee, Jim encounters born survivor Basie (John Malkovich) and, when they wind up in an internment camp for the rest of the war, a cross-section of the rest of the left-behind. To Jim, a somewhat naïve but capable, confident and determined endurer, the whole thing is a big adventure; we can see the truth, though: that it’s a grim slog of life and death, and most succumb to the latter. The reality of the situation gets to Jim in the end, too… but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

At two-and-a-half hours and with a plot that spans a good chunk of the war, Spielberg crafted a certifiable epic here — not his first, and most certainly not his last. Even then, swathes of material reportedly ended up on the cutting room floor, with top-billed cast members like Miranda Richardson reduced to extended cameos. Paul McGann got an early taster of how he’d be treated on Alien³ a few years later: his part is reduced to literally a single shot.

Nonetheless, some still consider the film to be overlong. It’s a criticism not without basis, even if the material included — and the intrigue of what was lost — remains fruitful. In truth, perhaps the scope and scale of the story leave it better suited to a TV miniseries, where the distinct sections of the narrative (life before the invasion; Jim alone after occupation; life in the internment camp; the free-for-all at the end of the war) could be parcelled off into individual episodes, rather than having to coexist in a single sitting.

Born survivorsAs it stands, the film is a fascinating insight into a less-often-covered aspect of the war. Even in small roles, the quality cast keep it watchable and relatable. Bale’s performance comes in just the right side of annoying — quite an achievement for a character who seems inherently brattish and prone to irritate.

On balance, Empire of the Sun isn’t among Spielberg’s finest achievements. There’s an element of je ne sais quoi in trying to work out why that’s the case — it’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it, but at no point does it fully come together in the way his greatest movies do. Still, my theory that there’s no such thing as a bad Spielberg movie is upheld.

4 out of 5

Transformers: Age of Extinction is new to Sky Movies today but I haven’t seen it and I don’t intend to

2015 #—
Michael Bay | 165 mins | — | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: Age of ExtinctionAs my Now TV Sky Movies subscription winds down, and I find myself with limited time left to watch the abundance of worthwhile films available there, I very nearly spent a little over two and a half of my precious hours watching the fourth Transformers movie (made available via Sky Movies on demand a week before its TV premiere, which is today).

And then I remembered that the last two Transformers films were rubbish, and that Age of Extinction had met with an even worse reception upon its theatrical debut last July, so why would I want to waste so much of my time on something I was sure to think was dross?

Maybe one day I will cave and check out this renowned piece of cinematic excrement, because I am a completist and having seen three of the films I feel compelled to watch every new entry that turns up, even if it takes me a while to get round to it. For now, though, I have better things to do. [Edit: I got round to it eventually. My review.]

Lest you came here hoping for some thoughts on Transformers 4 from someone who had actually endured it, here are some choice quotes from (and links to) other pieces that I have appreciated:

The loyal fans – and they are legion – will trot out clichés like, “Leave your brain at the door,” and defend Age Of Extinction’s right to be nothing but a succession of varoom! and kersmash! sequences. For those who aren’t still blindly faithful to something they liked when they were nine, despite the colossal scale, there’s little to see here.

— Owen Williams, Empire

Colossal scale

audiences love it. I saw this in a packed theatre. They CHEER when innocents were threatened/killed. I can loathe Bay for making it, but he’s…right? This crowd, they love hate. They love revenge. Selfishness. Cruelty. The sexism? They shrug it off. The nonsensical story and people? Ditto. But the cruelty is an active joy. They applaud. I’m not exaggerating. This (American) crowd applauded at the end of the film.

— Andrew Ellard, Tweetnotes

The cruelty is an active joy

Oh man that Mike Bay fella must be the greatest moviemaker alive he even manages to throw in Robot-Dinosaurs too! And they’re on OUR SIDE! Well, to be honest I think they are actually Chinese, but fairs fair, they see Optimus in trouble and they step up, yes sir. Optimus rides in like John Wayne, bless him, sorting out the bad robots in this huge battle that’s so realistic I have to admit I lost track of what was going on, but that’s what war is like, man, its hell and you never know where the next bullet is coming from (or in this case flying robot lizard).

Robot-Dinosaurs!

Where most movies have a beginning, middle and an end, Age of Extinction has a beginning, then AHHHHH! for another two hours or so. […] an adult-themed Transformers movie seemingly written by a thirteen-year old boy and directed by his walking erection

— Neil Miller, Film School Rejects

Mark Wahlberg carrying a sword that is also a gun

Bay keeps the movie in a state of perpetual climax. Everything is epic, even when it isn’t. […] Don’t ask questions, the movie insists. If you persist, the answer is always “because it looks cool.” Why is Mark Wahlberg carrying a sword that is also a gun? Because it looks cool. Why are that CIA team wearing heavy black outfits in what looks like a pretty scorching day in Texas? Because it looks cool. Why does Lockdown’s head transform into a gun rather than his arm or something? Because it looks cool. Why is Optimus Prime riding a dinosaur? Because it looks cool.

— Darren Mooney, the m0vie blog

Why is Optimus Prime riding a dinosaur?

Bay is a film-making anomaly. Even the worst of his Hollywood peers are merely hacks. Bay is no hack. A hack is someone who understands their craft but fails to apply any artistry to it. Bay doesn’t even understand his craft.

— Eric Hillis, The Movie Waffler

There are other humans in this film

There’s nothing wrong with filmmakers either lionizing or lampooning U.S. institutions. That’s what freedom of speech is all about. In Age of Extinction, though, satire ends at the water’s edge. As soon as the action shifts to Hong Kong, the outbreak of alien-engendered chaos is met by a sea captain ordering a call to “the central government” for help, and later China’s defense minister does a walk-and-talk, sternly and seriously vowing to defend Hong Kong. America’s government is portrayed either ridiculous or diabolical, but China’s is assured and effective.

Not coincidentally, Age of Extinction is considered an “officially assisted production” […] No such deal gets struck in China without the consent and approval of the Beijing government and the Chinese Communist Party, and in this case, Paramount is in business with the Beijing regime directly

— David S. Cohen, Variety
(Though, much of Cohen’s piece is a little too “it should be pro-American! It’s unpatriotic!”)

Paramount is in business with the Beijing regime directly

I can show you invention in all 3 past movies. Rich ideas, however dumbly incorporated. Not here. Everything is an echo or repeat, or else so offensive or boring as to negate any quality. But mostly it just SITS there. […] I want to be clear. Don’t see it. Ever.

— Andrew Ellard, Tweetnotes

Transformers: Age of Extinction debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 1:20pm and 8pm.

Inseparable (2011)

2014 #68
Dayyan Eng | 97 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | China / English & Mandarin | 15 / PG-13

InseparableI’m a great advocate of tonally-mismatched films. When others are moaning that there’s too much darkness mixed in with their light fluffy film, I’m the one saying, “um, guys, have you ever lived in, y’know, real life?” Which probably explains why most of the internet reacts with anything between ambivalence and hatred towards Inseparable, whereas I really enjoyed it.

The film opens with office drone Li (Daniel Wu) trying to hang himself, when he’s interrupted by his new American neighbour (Kevin Spacey). From there the pair form a strange friendship, with Spacey encouraging his conservative new friend to open up and be a bit freer — which, eventually, leads them to don funny outfits and set out to fight crime.

Yep, this is a “real-life superhero” movie… but only a little bit. If you’re searching for a comparison, it’s more Super than Kick-Ass; but even then it’s only a small part of the movie, just an element that sells well, hence its prominence on posters. At the risk of spoilers, a closer comparison would be A Beautiful Mind. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unfair to summarise the tone and content as “A Beautiful Mind meets Super”.

Pre-superClearly this will not be to everyone’s taste. Even at just over an hour-and-a-half it’s sometimes a little draggy, and the mishmash of kooky comedy with serious themes — not only suicide, but Li’s faltering marriage and the reasons for that — will turn some off. Anyone who likes their superhero entertainments to be more po-faced won’t be best pleased, either.

All those things actively work for me, though. Inseparable may be imperfect, and has possibly only got Western attention as the first Chinese film to count an American star among its leads, but I’m glad it made that transition. It’s entertaining, perhaps thought-provoking, and if not a noteworthy entry into the “real-life superhero” subgenre (due to the minimising of that element), it is a worthwhile presence in a subgenre that can’t be named because it gives away the twist that’s a defining feature of that subgenre. It’s certainly less glum than A Beautiful Mind, anyway.

4 out of 5