The Lion King (2019)

2019 #103
Jon Favreau | 118 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Lion King

The Lion King might be the best Disney film. It’s that or Beauty and the Beast. (I’m sure many classicists would plump for something older, but sorry, I’m a ‘90s kid.) (Also, by “Disney film” I mean their animated output. Obviously Disney release tonnes of other stuff, and have for a long time, but by “Disney film” we really mean the animations, don’t we? Not “any film that happens to be released by Disney”. I do, anyway. Especially in this context.)

Sorry, let me start again: The Lion King might be the best Disney film. So when they started down this road of live-action remakes of their beloved classics, it was inevitable their attention would turn to it. Of course, you can’t really do a live-action version of a film whose characters are all lions and hyenas and warthogs and stuff — not without going down the puppetry/costumes route of the stage version, anyhow, which apparently is gangbusters in the flesh (I’ve never seen it; that’s changing in August, Coronavirus permitting) but I can’t envisage working for the mass moviegoing audience. So instead they did the obvious thing and went for photo-real. CGI. Heck, most “live-action” blockbusters nowadays are 50%+ CGI anyway, especially Disney ones (they didn’t even design the Avengers’ costumes for Endgame until post-production, ffs). But, at the end of the day, “photo-real CGI” is just another kind of animation. So what Disney have done is remake the animated Lion King in the totally different form of… animation.

Yeah, you probably knew all that already, and maybe had similar rants in your own mind / reviews / Twitter feeds / in Wendy’s / shouted at tea, Sue (delete as culturally appropriate). But it remains a relevant perspective on this film, because it indicates the essential question one keeps coming back to when watching it:

Why does this exist?

The cub who would be king

Obviously, the simple and true answer is “to make money”. These Disney live-action remakes have been financial successes, otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing them. The more popular the original animated movie, the more successful the remake. The Lion King is one of the most popular of them all, ergo it was a safe bet to be big hit. The biggest risk was that “why bother?” question — audiences might’ve felt it was pointless and stayed away — but that didn’t happen: it made $1.656 billion worldwide, making it the 7th highest-grossing film of all time. The original film is down at a lowly 47th. If you were the kind of person who thought box office numbers were the be-all and end-all, you might conclude that this film is even better than the already-classic original. It is not. That it did well at the box office is no surprise — I think there’s a massive curiosity factor involved in these remakes (how faithful will they be; what will they have added or taken away; how will this familiar tale look and feel in a new medium) — but that would only get it so far, and most of it would come from opening weekend. Something obviously worked for audiences, because they must’ve kept coming back.

Well, I can’t explain that one for you. On my first viewing, I didn’t think it was a particularly good film. I rewatched it last night, this time in 3D, and enjoyed it a little more second time round. In part that was because it has really good 3D. Indeed, the praise I’d read for that version was the only reason I was tempted to give the film a second look, and it didn’t disappoint in that department. Whatever you make of the rest of the movie, the photo-real CGI is undeniably a phenomenal technical achievement, and it’s only improved by the life-like dimensionality brought by 3D. With a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio, it really is like looking through a window. Beyond that, though, I liked the film itself a little more. That’s probably down to expectations — not that I was expecting great things on my first viewing, but knowing exactly what was coming, being fully aware of all the disappointments in store, mitigated them somewhat, and so I was able to enjoy the bits it did well.

Be prepared for disappointment

Nonetheless, I think the best way to sum up the experience is to say it’s like a cover song from a TV talent show: a reasonable approximation of the original, although clearly not as good, with unnecessarily added riffs and tricks as the cover artist struggles in vain to “make it their own” while not fundamentally deviating from what made the original so beloved. The trailers made it look like a shot-for-shot remake (possibly deliberately), but director Jon Favreau insisted it wasn’t. He’s right, but it might be better if he had been slavishly faithful, because when he strikes out in a different direction it undermines some of the best bits of the original. At least two songs are rendered as damp squibs by less-imaginative staging, while Can You Feel the Love Tonight is for some reason staged in the afternoon. But even more poorly handled is Be Prepared. It’s perhaps the greatest villain’s song in the Disney canon. You might’ve thought it was impossible to ruin a song so inherently fantastic. I certainly did. Sadly, Favreau has proven us wrong.

The voice cast are uniformly adequate, with a couple of standouts. The major one is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a suitably menacing and conniving performance as the treacherous Scar. It’s at least the equal of the original, which considering that was performed by villain par excellence Jeremy Irons is saying something. (Be Prepared is obviously a black mark against this interpretation, but it’s not Ejiofor’s fault he was lumbered with an underpowered rewrite.) James Earl Jones reprises his commanding performance as Mufasa from the original movie. Actually, I don’t know whether he performed it anew or they just recycled his original recordings. You assume the former, but the film is so faithful that the latter may have sufficed. Elsewise, it’s the comedy parts that are given room to shine, with a nice double act from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, and John Oliver nabbing the lion’s share of the best lines as Zazu (pun very much intended).

The box office king

This remake has enough residual quality leftover from the original film to tip the scales into the “didn’t hate it” category. More critical viewers may not be so kind — indeed, they haven’t been. Conversely, those who are less demanding may find the result reasonably likeable (I first saw it with my mum, who thought it was a pleasant couple of hours at the cinema). Still, even with all the technical prowess on show, it can’t replicate either the magic or the majesty of the original animation.

3 out of 5

The not-live-action live-action Lion King is on Sky Cinema from today.

Doctor Strange (2016)

2016 #169
Scott Derrickson | 115 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Doctor StrangeThe latest from Marvel (or Marvel Studios, as they’re now branded, presumably in a bid to differentiate themselves from the properties owned by other studios that have been only too keen to use the Marvel logo and blur the line for the casual moviegoer) opens the door on a new facet of their shared cinematic universe, though does so in a movie whose plot follows the familiar “superhero origin story” rulebook. On the bright side, Doctor Strange has several other qualities to recommend it.

It’s the story of Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but cocky New York neurosurgeon, whose hands are ruined in an accident, taking his career — the sole focus of his life — with them. In search of groundbreaking healing, he travels to Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) — not a doctor, but a mystic, who introduces him to the world of magic. Which in this case is real and not just, like, some Derren Brown stuff, because that wouldn’t make a very good superhero movie. Then there’s some stuff about evil sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

So yes, the story is familiar — but you can say that about most superhero movies, especially origin films. It’s only a problem if you think movies are entirely about their plot. What Strange offers to accompany this through-the-motions narrative is its visuals, and oh, what visuals they are. You’ve likely seen some of it in the trailers — the folding cities, which look like Inception run through a kaleidoscope. Certainly, their complicated detail and intricacy leaves Nolan’s movie in the shade. The old idea of “an effects movie” — Wowzerswhere the incredible effects are half the point — seemed dead in an era where every movie has CGI and every blockbuster has its share of once-impossible visuals. Strange demonstrates the form can be alive and well. The way the effects are created — with green screen and pixels — is the same as any other movie, but the designs and the visual imagination are exciting.

The action scenes that are choreographed around and through these effects are suitably imaginative also, making use of the concepts and ideas of the magic, rather than just having people punch each other in front of swirly backgrounds. To say too much would be to spoil the movie, but the Inception-y stuff is not the film’s climax — it has several other tricks up its sleeve. There’s one bit where time flows backwards, which I specifically mention because at that point the music does a bit too, which is primarily notable because the rest of the score is your typical bland, generic, forgettable Marvel music. On the other hand, I’ve read others praise the music for being more memorable than Marvel’s usual temp-tracked output, so maybe I’m wrong.

When the film isn’t tickling your adrenal glands, it at least has the courtesy to sweeten the pill of its Superhero 101 storyline. For one thing it’s very funny, though in a way that doesn’t steal from the drama. This lightness of touch has become Marvel’s forte, and Strange handles it as well as any, without going all-out like Guardians of the Galaxy or half of anything starring Tony Stark.

Practical magicThen there’s the cast. Obviously keen to avoid being typecast after playing an arrogant British genius in both Sherlock and The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch here plays an arrogant American genius. Strange doesn’t have the charm of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, nor of some of his Marvel stablemates, like Tony Stark or Peter Quill, but his character arc takes that arrogance and transforms it into a kind of caring aloofness that, with flashes of dry wit, makes him an appealing character — even if it may take further films for that appeal to be fully realised.

Mads Mikkelsen is somewhat wasted as Marvel’s typically lightweight villain, though his inherent skill as an actor allows him to flesh out the few speeches he is given. You could expand that assessment out to most of the cast: they’re all above this — four of them are Oscar nominees or winners (clearly Mikkelsen has been overlooked by the Academy) — but the fact that quality flows through their veins helps elevate some of the material. You could argue their talent is wasted with this stuff, but what do you expect? It’s an action-adventure blockbuster from a company known for their consistently light tone — that’s never going to dig into proper emotive character drama. Suffice to say that such top-tier actors effortlessly add resonance to their roles, however little they had to work with on the page.

More controversial was Tilda Swinton’s casting. You could see it as whitewashing, or you could see it as dodging a racial stereotype — there’s a visual gag to that effect, in fact. “Oscar winners get bigger parts than Oscar nominees, okay?”Besides, one of the film’s best characters is of Asian ethnicity, so it kinda balances out. That’s Benedict Wong as the sorcerers’ librarian, who’s likely to emerge as the film’s most popular character. It helps that viewers aren’t likely to expect much of him. Conversely, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams are seriously underserved, perhaps hoping for more meat in the no-doubt-intended sequel(s).

Actually, that’s an understatement, isn’t it? This is a Marvel movie, and one that’s garnered positive reviews thus far to boot — it’s going to be a box office success, and sequels will inevitably follow. Nonetheless, some reviews have been bizarrely keen to frame Strange as “Marvel’s greatest risk yet” and “a radical departure for the studio”. That’s all empty hyperbole at this point and I don’t know why they do it. Guardians of the Galaxy already proved that no change of genre is a risk for the studio — and Guardians was a much bigger change of form for Marvel than Strange is. Plus, the way Strange handles magic is no more out-there than the way it handled gods ‘n’ that in two Thor films. Indeed, if anything Strange should look like a moderately safe bet: it’s following in Thor’s footsteps with the whole magic/other worlds/dimensions thing, but married to a fairly standard superhero origin arc. It’s no riskier a proposition for Marvel than any other new property. Nonetheless, it does open up some tantalising possibilities, especially when it comes to teaming Strange with the Avengers… though they’ll have to find a way to remove some of his abilities, otherwise he’ll be far too powerful.

To further those connections, there are two end credits scenes. I shan’t spoil their contents, of course, but in my opinion they’re the wrong way round. One is basically Magic toucha teaser for another Marvel film, the other relates to the plot of the movie we’ve just seen. The former is first (and about 10% of my screening walked out before it came on) and the latter is, obviously, second (by which time about 90% had left). Those percentages ‘matter’ because, a) how do people not know Marvel’s rep for these scenes by this point?, and b) I think the scene related to the film you’ve just watched is the one that should be more attached to it, with the ‘teaser trailer’ being a fun bonus for those dedicated to stick around to the bitter end. But maybe that’s just me.

Much earlier in the movie, shortly after encountering the Ancient One, Strange is offered tea. He drinks it, then something amazing happens, and he asks what was in the tea. The Ancient One answers, “Just tea. With honey.” That line struck me because it rather sums up Doctor Strange as a movie. In its well-rehearsed superhero-origin-story-ness, it’s just tea; but the quality cast, the genuine laughs, the imaginatively choreographed action, and, most of all, the mind-bending visuals add a very pleasurable sweetness.

4 out of 5

Doctor Strange is in UK cinemas now, and is released in the US next month.

Serenity (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #82

They aim to misbehave.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 29th September 2005 (Australia)
US Release: 30th September 2005
UK Release: 7th October 2005
First Seen: cinema, 7th October 2005

Stars
Nathan Fillion (Waitress, Super)
Summer Glau (The Initiation of Sarah, Knights of Badassdom)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, 12 Years a Slave)

Director
Joss Whedon (Avengers Assemble, Much Ado About Nothing)

Screenwriter
Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Toy Story)

Based on
Firefly, a TV series created by Joss Whedon.

The Story
In the far future, a crew of renegades harbour a fugitive who knows a terrible secret about the totalitarian rulers. When a ruthless assassin comes for them, their only hope becomes to seek out the truth behind one of the regime’s darkest acts…

Our Heroes
The crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity. Led by Captain Mal Reynolds, they’re a gang of rogues and thieves, but are also honourable sorts (well, mostly) forced into that life by a harsh universe. They’ve recently taken onboard Dr Simon Tam and his mysterious sister, River, who has certain skills…

Our Villains
The Operative, an efficient and moral assassin sent by the Alliance, the universe’s ruling body, to retrieve River — at any cost. But if he’s the rock then there’s also a hard place: Reavers, bloodthirsty perverted cannibals who stalk the uncharted regions our heroes will need to venture into.

Best Supporting Character
Shepherd Book, a preacher and former member of Serenity’s crew, now living on the appropriately-named planet of Haven. Has some very insightful words of advice for Mal.

Memorable Quote
“I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.” — Shepherd Book

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Shiny” — as a synonym of “great”.

Quote Most Likely To Be Found on a T-Shirt
“I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar.” — Wash

Memorable Scene
After the history-lesson-within-a-dream-within-a-hologram-within-a-scene pre-titles, Whedon introduces us to the crew and their titular ship with a four-and-a-half-minute unbroken tracking shot. I do love a long single take, and this one excels by introducing us to all the main heroes, their personalities, their situations, their relationships — all at the same time — while also establishing the geography of the ship; and, by extension, the incredible set, which featured the entire interior of the ship built across just two sections (there’s an invisible cut in the middle of the shot to transition between sets).

Technical Wizardry
I created this category to highlight any elements of production that were especially striking — things like cinematography, editing, design, costumes… No offence to any of them (and considering the film was produced for a slight-for-a-sci-fi-blockbuster $40 million, they all do a super job), but the real star is Whedon’s screenplay. Packed to the gills with the literate, witty dialogue he’s famed for, it also manages to be emotionally affecting, make points about governments and their power, engage with themes of belief and the importance of freedom, and weave in a subtext that reflects the real-life story of Firefly’s death and rebirth — though Whedon claims that last one was an accident.

Letting the Side Down
The public. It didn’t gross enough; there weren’t any sequels. Damn you, mankind!

Making of
Talking of the impressive Serenity set (see: Memorable Scene), it was built in the same way for Firefly, but the blueprints were lost between Fox destroying the series’ sets and production on the movie beginning. When Nathan Fillion learnt this at a production meeting, he was able to supply the blueprints himself — he’d been so excited to be on the show, he’d taken photos of all the pre-production material he’d seen, including the set blueprints.

Previously on…
Serenity continues and, to an extent, concludes Joss Whedon’s criminally short-lived TV series Firefly. Mismarketed by US network Fox, the series wasn’t a success on original broadcast, leading to cancellation after just 11 episodes had aired. Thanks to word-of-mouth and availability on DVD, it has developed a massive following since.

Next time…
Despite the distinct and disappointing dearth of sequels, the Firefly/Serenity franchise has continued on, mostly in the form of various comic books, which have plugged gaps in continuity, revealed long-awaited character histories, and even continued the story after the movie.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Supporting Actress (Summer Glau))
1 Saturn nomination (Science Fiction Film)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“With its Hawksian attention to group dynamics and its skilful definition of character through action, this supremely entertaining hybrid-movie plays like Rio Bravo in space. The textured narrative is peopled by precisely delineated characters who employ a salty retro-future-speak, in which twenty-fifth century slang is morphed with frontier Western archaisms (‘take umbrage’, ‘confound these bungers’). The settings and tone are hyper-real, yet the human behaviour is grounded and credible, the moral conflicts complex and involving. Shiny, intelligent fun.” — Nick Funnell, Time Out London

Score: 82%

What the Public Say
“We get a decent story, providing lots of action, a huge amount of wit and plenty of suspense. It’s extremely entertaining. It’s well written too, with information smartly hidden beneath breezy dialogue, and looks very cinematic. (The camerawork is often expressive and classy.) Maybe what’s most impressive is the economy. Many scenes are doing double-duty, servicing plot and character, action and exposition, drama and comedy… There’s just a sharpness to everything, which means the film rattles along and is never boring.” — Ian Farrington

Verdict

Regular readers may have picked up that I don’t re-watch films much (I can’t identify at all with people who claim to have seen the same film dozens or hundreds of times). Despite that, I saw Serenity in the cinema four times, two of them back-to-back. Such is the genius of writer-director Joss Whedon, and the quality of the Firefly universe — it’s a situation where every element just clicked to make a perfect result. (Well, every element except the original TV network, anyway.) No doubt Serenity is best viewed as a capper to the fourteen-hour TV series — that extra investment in the characters and universe makes the film’s best bits sing — but it’s accessible to newcomers also, being so cleverly structured and packed with all the information you’d need.

It was named “Film of the Year” by the BBC’s Film programme; it topped an SFX poll for the best science-fiction film of all time; and its DVD is a permanent resident on the International Space Station to entertain the crews. Cào nǐ, Fox.

#83 will… get busy living or get busy dying.

Amistad (1997)

2016 #16
Steven Spielberg | 155 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English, Mende & Spanish | 15 / R

Feeling in need of more intellectual fare after helming The Lost World, Spielberg turned to a project already in development at Dreamworks: an adaptation of a non-fiction book about the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad, and the ensuing legal battle. Although not poorly received by critics, there’s a sense that the consensus view dubbed it “black Schindler’s List”, the implication being that by aping the earlier film it was inevitably inferior. I don’t think that’s a watertight chain of logic, but, nonetheless, Amistad is clearly a ‘minor Spielberg’.

Despite being “a slavery drama”, most of the film functions as a legal drama: though it begins with the slave uprising, and later has an extended flashback showing their kidnap and transportation, the thrust of the film lies in the courtroom arguments about who owns the ship’s ‘cargo’ and consequently what should be done with them. This is a period when capturing Africans into slavery, and by extension their subsequent transportation, was illegal by international agreement, but actually owning slaves was not yet banned (at least in the US). It’s before the American Civil War too, so there’s a political dimension: if these ‘slaves’ are freed, what tension might that spark between the north and south?

Though Spielberg is certainly not immune to the Africans’ plight — the depiction of life on a slave ship is appropriately harrowing — it’s clear from early on which side he expects us to identify with, in terms of cultural background if not shared morality: as survivors of the mutiny talk the next day, the slavers’ Spanish dialogue is subtitled but the slaves’ African dialect is not. It’s a simple but effective technique to align us with one side — as I say, not morally (in no regard is Spielberg trying to apologise for the slavers), but socially. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable: later, when we need to understand the Africans to follow a scene’s point, their dialogue is suddenly subtitled, and from then it’s sporadically translated as needed. I can see why that choice was made, but it makes the unsubtitled bits feel like a cheat.

In most other regards, it’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. In a few ways that works: it’s got classical cinematography, both the use of film (obviously, this being well before mainstream adoption of digital) and the framing, the pace, the editing. In other respects… well, it feels very late ’90s now, the overall style of the screenplay and the treatment of the story reminding you that it’s not actually a moderately-recent film (which I guess I’d personally filed it away as, being the most recent of Spielberg’s pre-2010s films that I’d not seen), but is now nearly 20 years old. And, though I may be damned for criticising him twice in as many weeks, John Williams’ score is a little heavy-handed.

This can be said of Spielberg’s approach to the drama, too. Some of the courtroom stuff is suitably mired in legal technicalities and argument, but by film’s end it gets a little bit too… what’s the word? Not “preachy”. Not “sentimental”, exactly, though it’s born of that old criticism of Spielberg. “Melodramatic” may be on the money, though. It doesn’t help that everything reaches a climax — not only narratively, but also in the way it’s written, shot, acted, and scored — only for it to be revealed that it’s just the end of act two. Okay, that’s the truth of what happened (or near enough, for the purposes of this dramatisation), and by adapting it in that way it emulates the emotions the characters experienced; but from the audience’s perspective, you feel like you’ve reached the end… only to be served up another half-hour of movie. And it’s a long film too, so you feel that. It gets by because it’s fundamentally a good film, with strong performances and technical merits, but it’s a little bumpy for a bit.

There also seem to be a startling array of factual inaccuracies to level at the film. As ever with fictional adaptations of real life, it’s a difficult line. No fact-based fiction is 100% like reality, especially when you factor in unavoidable variances in people’s memories and opinions. However, the more serious or famous the events being depicted, or the more they’re being used to indicate some wider point about their setting, the greater the responsibility to present something that is at least passably accurate. I think some would contend that Amistad is not that. I’m no expert, but this section on Wikipedia, which is bolstered by multiple citations to suggest its accuracy, indicates the extent of the issue.

It’s easy to criticise Amistad, because Spielberg makes the production of very good movies look effortless, so the missteps stand out all the more. The story of La Amistad and its ‘cargo’ is a powerful one, and Spielberg has — naturally — turned it into a good film; but by remixing history to over-egg the message, it loses a little something. A valiant effort, but a film like 12 Years a Slave makes many of the same points in a less grandiose manner.

4 out of 5

12 Years a Slave (2013)

2016 #3
Steve McQueen | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
9 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design.



As we know, the Oscars are racist and always have been, especially recently. Like two years ago, when they didn’t give a load of nominations and several awards to a film about slavery from a black director and black screenwriter.

Oh, wait…

That film was, obviously, 12 Years a Slave, the true account of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was kidnapped from his New York home and sold into slavery in the South. His story provides an overview, of sorts, of the experience of working as a plantation slave, both for a relatively decent master (Benedict Cumberbatch) and an evil SOB (Michael Fassbender).

One person who didn’t win an Oscar was Ejiofor (he lost to Matthew McConaughey, but he did win the BAFTA). His nomination was certainly deserved, though, because it’s an incredible lead performance — restrained most of the time, evoking Solomon’s internal life subtly rather than showily, but with carefully executed break-outs of emotion. Indeed, I’m slightly baffled by online commenters who felt the film was cold and lacking emotion or character. At the risk of getting on a high horse, I wonder if it was just too subtle for some? Ejiofor isn’t sat there tearing his heart out, but I thought there was considerably more to his performance than “looks happy in flashbacks, looks miserable in slavery”.

Nonetheless, the supporting performances are uniformly excellent, too. Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt may be mere cameos, the presence of such actors highlighting their roles more than their function within the narrative does, but there are very strong turns from Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, and in particular Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o, who will break your heart, and Michael Fassbender, who is overdue the gong for his many varied and accomplished performances. (I doubt his forthcoming triple of X-Men 6, video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed, and prequel-sequel Alien: Covenant will do anything for him in that regard, but he’s not yet 40, and that’s the prime part of a man’s life for Oscar winning, apparently.)

Steve McQueen’s direction is classical but effective, rarely drawing attention to itself when it has more important things to convey. That’s not to sell it short, though. A scene in which Fassbender’s plantation owner forces Solomon to do something unthinkable is achieved in a single roaming take that lasts nearly five minutes; a tour de force of camerawork, performance, and behind-the-scenes choreography, which only serves to heighten the tension and horror of the experience by never cutting.

Unsurprisingly, 12 Years a Slave is not an easily digestible film — it’s about a disgusting part of human history, and doesn’t shy away from some of its horrors. That said, it’s watchable thanks to the top tier performances, consummate direction, and moving storytelling.

5 out of 5

12 Years a Slave was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

The Martian (2015)

2016 #25
Ridley Scott | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
7 nominations

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.



Ridley Scott’s latest arrives on Blu-ray in the UK today, with a disappointing dearth of special features (disliked Exodus gets a 2½-hour making-of, four hours of additional features, plus a commentary; award-winning The Martian gets 24 minutes plus a few in-universe documentaries — what?!) Never mind that, though: how good is the film deemed the best comedy or musical of 2015? (If you somehow missed that news, you’ll appreciate the addition of a “seriously” here.)

In the relatively near future, mankind is on its third manned mission to Mars. When a colossal storm rolls in, the decision to made to evacuate the Mars base. During the escape, biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and apparently killed, and his crew mates are forced to leave him for dead. He isn’t dead, though, but he is injured and alone on a planet 140 million miles from home, with no way to communicate with Earth, and not enough energy, oxygen, or food to see him through the four years until the next Mars mission is scheduled to arrive. Refusing to give in to inevitable death, Watney only has one choice: science the shit out of this.

That sounds like a laugh-a-minute premise, right? And there’s a major subplot about disco music, so it’s practically a musical too!

No, the HFPA are just idiots — The Martian is neither a comedy nor a musical. It is the latest in a growing subgenre of serious-minded near-future sci-fi adventures, though, following in the footsteps of 2013 Oscar winner Gravity and 2014 Oscar washout Interstellar. Where The Martian differs is in the element that tricked Golden Globes voters into thinking they could get away with giving it a comedy nomination (and win): rather than being stuffed to bursting with po-faced peril, it has a lightness of touch and regular doses of humour, making it probably the most feel-good serious sci-fi movie since ever.

Whether that’s appropriate or not is another matter. A well-argued review by the ghost of 82 assesses that the film has none of the darkness or loneliness you should expect of a man stranded alone on an alien world with a slim chance of survival or rescue. I don’t disagree that the film doesn’t contain much of that feeling, nor would I argue that such a tone isn’t a viable way to frame this narrative, but I don’t think that’s what Scott was aiming to convey. This telling of the story (I haven’t read the original novel, so can’t say how it compares tonally) is an adventure; a feel-good tale of hope and survival against the odds. The film doesn’t offer us despair because Watney doesn’t despair — he just gets on with trying to fix it. On the couple of occasions when his fixes go wrong, his chirpiness breaks down, his frustration comes out, and in some respects it’s all the more effective for being limited to those handful of occasions — we’re suddenly reminded that, in spite of his optimism and his success and all the fun we’re having watching it, he’s stranded 140 million miles away and even the slightest mistake can spell total disaster.

Matt Damon is a talented enough actor to lead us through all of this. Best remembered in recent years for serious fare like the Bourne films (“serious” in the sense of “not comedic” as opposed to “realistic”), Damon has done his fair share of comedies before now, and skits for TV shows and the like too. This is perhaps his first film to bring those two sides together as equally necessary parts of the whole — serious when he’s struggling with science problems or facing the reality of his situation, funny when he’s taking it all as light-heartedly as he can. Sometimes, such as in emotional conversations with friends or colleagues stuck millions of miles away, he even has to do both at once.

While Damon is stuck on Mars by himself, a starry supporting cast actually get to interact with each other. This is a quality ensemble and, short of writing an epic essay of a review where I just praise them all one by one, there’s little to do but list their names. That said, Jessica Chastain gets the most brazenly emotional beats as the commander who chose to leave Watney behind and has to face the consequences of her decision; Jeff Daniels treads a line between being an evil bureaucrat and just a regular bureaucrat (apparently consideration was given to turning him into a full-blown villain; thank goodness they swerved that bullet); Chiwetel Ejiofor brings easy gravitas to NASA’s director of Mars missions; Michael Peña provides some additional comic relief, if not as strikingly as he did in Ant-Man then at least as effectively; and Sean Bean doesn’t die. No offence to Sean Bean, but let’s be honest, at this point in his career that is the most notable facet of his appearance here. That and the Lord of the Rings reference.

It would be too damning to describe Ridley Scott’s direction as unremarkable, but at the same time it feels lacking in distinctiveness. Apparently there was some interview where he commented on how easy he found directing The Martian, I think with intended reference to the use of digital photography, but I think you get a sense of that from the film as a whole. That stops it from being over-directed, at least, and it’s certainly not poorly made, but if you didn’t know then you wouldn’t be nodding along going, “oh yes, this is definitely a Ridley Scott movie.” I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Considering his fiddling is what scuppered the promising screenplays that initiated both Robin Hood and Prometheus, and his other works this decade (The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings) haven’t exactly met with great acclaim, maybe his dropping in almost as a director-for-hire (screenwriter Drew Goddard was attached to direct, but got sidetracked into the now-cancelled Sinister Six Amazing Spider-Man spin-off), and helming the film in a kind of directorial autopilot, is part of what saved it from a similar fate.

I’ve read at least one review that described The Martian as “an instant sci-fi classic”, and at least one other that described it as “no sci-fi classic”. I’m going to sit on the fence of that debate for the time being. What I will say is that it is undoubtedly an accomplished piece of entertainment. For a film that primarily concerns itself with a man applying scientific principles to tasks like “growing potatoes”, that’s surely some kind of achievement. In our current climate (both in society in general and in the “more explosions less talking, please” state of blockbuster cinema), to make space travel — and science in general — seem fun and appealing to the masses is no bad thing whatsoever.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, The Martian is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

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…