John Wick (2014) was a hard act to follow. An action film at its finest, the first entry in the series showed audiences across the world that you don’t need grime on the lens and shaky cam to make an action scene. Clean shots, interesting settings and, above all, beautifully choreographed fight sequences are what made John Wick fantastic, and they’re what make its sequel just as good, but not quite better.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) follows John as, after the events of the first film, he attempts to return to his previous retired life, only to be dragged back into the mysterious assassin underworld by an old acquaintance.
Chapter 2 ups the ante with huge fight scenes, dynamic settings and very nearly kills John Wick so many times that I have no idea how he will survive the inevitable sequel. Perhaps he won’t; that would be interesting.
While not quite as lacking in the narrative department as the first film, John Wick: Chapter 2 does little to push the story along other than give John more people to kill. Many might say this is what holds the film, and its predecessor, back from being excellent but I disagree. If you want slow, go watch There Will Be Blood (2007).
However, if you want simple, stark cinematography and fight choreography that feels more like ballet than people shooting lots of other people, then this is the film for you. These are films that know what they do well, and they focus on it. To the point that it’s almost exhausting. In fact, there is so much action packed into John Wick: Chapter 2 that it’s almost a detriment, as the film reaches the point of struggling to find new and interesting ways for John Wick to kill more and more people.
There is more substance to this film, however, and the curtain is pulled back on more of the shadowy underworld of assassins we glimpsed in the first film, with its gold coin currency and secret hotels around the globe. While this doesn’t really add much to the film except filler between excellent fight after excellent fight, it is an interesting world and one I hope to see expanded further in the eventual sequel.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is as much of a thrill ride as the first film and, though it doesn’t quite match up to the relentless brutality of John Wick, it adds enough into the franchise to make it a worthwhile addition and has me excited for a third instalment.
When Rings (2017) opened with a standalone scene on an airplane completely unrelated to the rest of the plot, I had a bad feeling. Unfortunately that feeling came true and the film proceeded to try a dozen different ideas without fulfilling any but the most mediocre.
Rings is the third film in the American series which started with The Ring (2002), based on the Japanese Ringu (1998). Rings is the story of a girl who becomes worried about her suddenly distant boyfriend and head to his college to find out why, only to become tangled up in a cursed video which kills you after seven days.
For all its flaws, Rings does try to expand on the plot of the previous two films, exploring the background of the antagonist and fleshing out the lore of the story. It even introduces new and interesting concepts that work well in a more contemporary environment, like copying video files instead of VHS tapes and an underground research club at a university formed by a professor who is obsessed with the video’s connection to the afterlife through Samara, the terrifying ghost that kills you after seven days.
The film’s biggest problem is that it never fully explores some of its best options. The relationship between the two protagonists is shoved aside to focus on the ‘plot’, and the boyfriend becomes two-dimensional very quickly. The sleazy professor who cares more for his research than his students is discarded for little reason and the underground research club, which I thought was a fantastic idea, is thrown to the winds in favour of going into the countryside to research Samara’s backstory.
There are some solid performances but these are too infrequent to put a dent in the film’s determination to ruin itself. Johnny Galecki (of Big Bang Theory fame) is great as the standoffish professor and Vincent D’Onofrio delivers the best role in the film, but neither are used well enough to make much of a difference.
Rare instances of good practical effects and interesting settings fail to hold up immersion-breakingly bad CGI, poor writing and lack of consistency. Rings managed to grind to a halt with an ending somehow worse than the rest of the film, and I found myself more than ready to leave the cinema. If you find yourself wanting to head out and see Rings, I suggest you find a way to stream the original instead.
It’s not often I find myself, as the credits roll, wondering why I never saw a film when it was released. Whiplash (2014) falls harder under that category than anything I have seen before. A relentless torment of emotion and jazz, this is a film that will light you up from head to toe and make you want to run out of whatever room you’re viewing it in and pursue your passions.
Whiplash is the story of a music student, played by Miles Teller, who catches the eye of a renowned teacher (J.K Simmons) with a reputation for his brutal and anxiety-inducing teaching methods.
The story follows the relationship between the two as the student, Andrew, puts his everything into his drumming and his teacher Fletcher pushes him to the limits, quite literally drawing blood and sweat more than once. Not a film for the faint-hearted, I found myself wondering at times how Andrew could pick up him drumsticks, let alone play each set with blistered and bleeding hands.
It’s this drive and intensity that fuels the plot of the film, pulling the audience behind the protagonist as he desperately tries to make something of himself. It’s a raw emotional power that is handled without any elegance or filter. Rarely letting up from start to finish, if you’re not wired by the end of Whiplash then I have no idea what you’re made of.
Everything in Whiplash is built to serve the almighty message of Andrew’s drive for musical greatness, and this is perhaps the films only weakness. Not much of a weakness, all told. Whiplash is original, unrelenting and intense from start to finish.
La La Land is the story of two ambitious young people in Los Angeles, a classic premise as far as cinema is concerned. The film follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working as a barista, as she meets and begins a relationship with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who wants more than anything to open his own jazz club. John Legend plays a supporting role as Keith, though surprisingly adds little musically, aside from one modern jazz performance.
Split into four seasonal-themed acts as the film progresses through the stages of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship, the audience is bounced from set piece to set piece, each as unique and original as the last, though they draw inspiration heavily from classic cinema and theatre.
And I really do mean bounce. This is a film that doesn’t let up; it allows for quiet, still moments but for the most part relies on a constantly moving camera and physical theatre. Cinematography is a highlight for La La Land, with moments that made my jaw drop thanks to stunning colour and framing. The audience is truly taken for a ride, and each setting and backdrop is meticulously vibrant and full.
Primarily, La La Land is a musical and, while I didn’t find myself coming out of the cinema with a tune stuck in my head, each number was exquisitely orchestrated and layered with emotional weight. From a starlit walk along a road overlooking the city, with a surprising tap dancing routine, to an intimate serenade at the piano in the living room, each song welcomes you into the moment to share an emotional journey with the two lead characters.
La La Land is one of the best films I have seen in a long time, one that utterly swept me off my feet with its emotional weight and beauty. Along with a soundtrack that I will happily listen to on its own, and gorgeous scene after gorgeous scene, this is a must-see.
SPOILERS – While I normally avoid spoilers during a review, this is an exception because I want to explore the film a little more thoroughly than I normally would.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy, taking place shortly before A New Hope, when a plot is hatched to steal the Death Star plans that Princess Leia receives in the opening of the original film.
Despite being announced as a standalone Star Wars film, Rogue One feels as connected to the series as The Force Awakens, and it was definitely meant to be that way, considering just how tightly it ties into the beginning of A New Hope.
Rogue One was originally sold to us as a war film, and this got a lot of people very excited, myself included. Sure, we’ve had a lot of Star Wars but none of the films have much war, at least not in the way that Saving Private Ryan or Platoon do, or any other gritty, unrelenting war film that may spring to mind. Rogue One is this. Relentless from start to finish, it’s a film about facing the all-encompassing might of the Empire with little but grit and determination to help you come out on top. If managing to send a pic-heavy text message before being obliterated by a nuke counts as ‘on top’.
Which brings us to my favourite part of Rogue One. Everyone dies. The film doesn’t do war with a pinch of salt, this is a suicide mission which actually means suicide mission and I did not see it coming. Rogue One simultaneously fixed Star Wars‘ problems and then erased itself to keep the continuity without feeling forced. This can get a bit emotionally heavy-handed at times, but it feels right. Star Wars has always been a bit cheesy, and so it feels like the right tone even in the grittiest moments.
Alongside being a proper war film, what Rogue One does best is be a Star Wars film. At some points, I felt a literal pang of nostalgia for the original trilogy. From the red and gold leaders calling out radio signals from oddly shadowed cockpits, to the most ominous and terrifying Darth Vader scenes in the entire series, this film nailed the feel of Star Wars more than the entire prequel trilogy combined, and I won’t be able to watch the original three films from now on without loading this up first.
This is particularly so because the film fixes possibly the biggest problem of the original trilogy (aside from Chewbacca not getting a medal); the flaw in the Death Star. The theme of defiance against an overwhelming threat is woven throughout Rogue One, and this is the crescendo as well as answering a long-unanswered question.
Now we’ve mentioned him, let’s talk about Darth Vader. Aside from a single bizarre pun in one scene, Vader is horrifying. All suspense and quiet rage, he commands each scene he is in with brutal presence. Most notably a scene toward the end where he boards an Alliance ship and mercilessly cuts down rebel after rebel to get to the Death Star plans. Luckily, he doesn’t make it and we get to see a surprisingly well-rendered CGI scene of Princess Leia receiving the Death Star plans to calm us down a bit. This CGI, while not bad, pales in comparison to that of Peter Cushing, who plays Grand Moff Tarkin or would have done if he hadn’t died in 1994.
Visually, this is probably the best Star Wars film so far. From visceral battle scenes that stun you with fast-paced but clearly shot combat to wide-ranging shots of planets full of detail, you definitely can’t look away. There’s a little too much going on at times in Rogue One, as we jump between locations what feels like every few minutes, but each one looks stunning and different.
The character design is equally interesting and, while it can be pretty hit and miss, most of the new characters introduced in Rogue One are good. The brooding and angst-filled Jyn Erso is a character we can get behind as she wrestles with the ‘right thing to do’ throughout, while I absolutely loved the blind almost-Jedi Chirrut Îmwe, which Donnie Yen delivers a standout performance for. However, Forrest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera is a bit too over-the-top and I definitely could have done without sitting through Rogue One‘s Jar Jar, the sarcastic ex-Imperial droid K-2SO. For the most part though, every character is compelling, old and new.
While The Force Awakens appeared to want to copy A New Hope to pander to fans of the series, Rogue One is a love note to those same fans. The film has references and ties to the entire series woven throughout without forsaking an original plot with new and interesting characters that genuinely add something to a series that so many people aren’t sure can be added to. It gives me genuine hope for the future of Star Wars films.
The Accountant (2016) stars Ben Affleck as Christian Woolf, a high-functioning autistic accountant who fixes books for bad people around the globe and protects himself with a range of skills honed thanks to a near-abusive military father and a childhood of globe-trotting and training.
This felt like two films to me. On the one hand, The Accountant is a story of a high-functioning autistic man who has managed to function in society but desires companionship despite his difficulty with social situations and connecting with other people. When he meets Dana, played by Anna Kendrick, he finds a chance to make a genuine connection with another person.
On the other hand, it is also a film about an accountant with elite military skills, who fixes books for some of the most dangerous people on the planet and protects himself by moving from place to place, along with a plentiful arsenal of weapons at his disposal.
These should not be two things that work, but they do. Not always, but there are plenty of moments in The Accountant where the two halves of this film meet beautifully. There are also great moments for each. Accountancy scenes and interactions between the two main characters feel genuine throughout, despite the obvious difficulties inherent in properly representing someone with Autism.
Likewise, the action scenes are fantastic. Affleck’s character allows for precise, brutal action sequences appropriate for a man whose life is based around total order as a necessity. There’s also some good comedy at times, and this is a film that knows how to be lighthearted without disrespecting the very sensitive issues at its core.
Unfortunately, The Accountant does have several issues that keep it from being enjoyable at times. J.K Simmons is good, but unnecessary, appearing several times throughout the film to monologue exposition and then immediately move on. This is easily the most disappointing part of this film, and really takes you out just as character interactions and action sequences pull you in.
What could have been a subtle and meaningful merging of two very different ideas is shoved down the audience’s throat enough times to be annoying. I enjoyed The Accountant for its unique ideas, Ben Affleck’s fantastic, and accurate performance of a high-functioning autistic man, as well as a foreseeable but nonetheless satisfying twist. However, glaring flaws kept me from getting into it entirely and I walked away a bit irritated.
After alien ships land around the globe, a linguistics expert is taken to the US site to help the government translate the alien language and discover what their intentions are.
Arrival (2016) is a film I walked into expecting to dislike, but which ended up one of my favourite films of the year. Alien films have a history of being too heavy-handed, too action-focused or plain ridiculous. This is none of the above. Arrival is a slow, methodical film where every scene and moment is crafted for a purpose. By the end I found myself looking back over the film and realising what I had missed with the knowledge I now had, seeing even more beauty than I had while it played out.
This is a slow, dialogue-heavy film with a good amount of technical talk and suspense built through emotion. This may put off some viewers but for those who enjoy a slow film, Arrival is a treat. I was impressed with how the film treated the response to an advanced race landing on Earth, as tensions built around the planet and apprehension created an atmosphere of visible, sometimes violent stress. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner did a great job in the lead roles, though Renner a little weak at times if only because Adams delivers such a powerful character.
Adams stands out with a nuanced performance that gripped me from start to finish whether it was investment in her stress or sudden breakthroughs and desperation to find a positive outcome. By the end of the film, I felt a real attachment to the character and this is testament to Adams’ performance.
While none of the effects are madly beautiful, the cinematography is. Wide shots of the spacecraft are stunning, and when the film is at its quietest and slowest, it is also at its most beautiful. Flashbacks and dream sequences are cleverly separated from the film stylistically, and tie in well with the plot by the conclusion.
Director Denis Villeneuve, who previously directed similarly tense films such as Enemy (2013) and Prisoners (2013). links every moment in this film together and makes every second count, without confusing the audience but while also not giving anything away.
Arrival is a beautiful, clever film that will grip a patient viewer throughout, with what may be Amy Adams’ best performance so far and a final twist that blew me away. Likely one of my top of films of 2016, and one I can’t wait to watch again.