Meadow was a small wolf… A Christmas Short Story

I started the journey with Meadow and her pack as long as November. Trying to map out this journey was difficult as the environment that they lived in, as I was writing from a perspective I have never written from before: a young wolf on the cusp of finding her own identity, feeling and seeing from her perspective, joining her on her journey to decide her future path. This year, I wrote a fable that hopefully talks about courage to speak, to find yourself and the complexity of family ties. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Meadow was a small wolf…. she wasn’t the smallest or the smartest wolf. She wasn’t even the heart of her pack. Meadow was a small wolf.

It was day. The fir trees were frozen from the cold, bare to the elements and the marks of bears that have long gone to sleep. The pack had just stopped moving, their breaths flowing into the white of the sky, and in their forest, they decided to lie down and camp. Their forest was cold, the ground even more so, that even without the snow was hard and chilled their fur, their paws. They were on the outskirts of the wolf-lands, but since Samson died, they’ve been without a champion in their traditional grounds, a champion that could stand against the other packs in the forest. Food was scarce around these parts, particularly in this season, but their parents, their leaders all the same, wanted to make one of those pups into the next champion. The one that would take care of them, of the ones that they had taken care of.

They lay all together, keeping tight and making a chain of warmth, keeping in rank as much as they could. They would change the rotation every night, making sure that each one of the pack had a fair share every night. Warmth was something to be respected, and you had to give back what you take. On the other hand, Meadow usually didn’t get enough of the warmth, as the others would forget where she was and when it was her turn, and no one wanted to argue just in case the parents would get involved. She always thought it was an unfair situation, but she never really complained, or at least openly. She rested on the idea that she would get there soon enough. The pack had their favourites, but Meadow was a small wolf, and wasn’t their champion.

Soon they all fell asleep as the sun started creeping up, while Meadow, attempted to sleep under the white sky. She was aware of the rustling of the leaves, the feel of the pine needles, and the sounds of the breaking wood. While they were all asleep, and in their sleeping minds still at play, Meadow’s eyes would be open.

This winter was tougher than the most. They felt the bite a lot harder and the bark at night was deafening. They felt alone together, and for them it was something they had become used to, but they were truly isolated in the light of day.

The day before, the hunt had been disastrous. With only a few small, boney mice for the lucky ones, and a smattering of red berries where they could get them, they didn’t know who would survive the winter. If any would survive at all, if things were going to continue in this way. They felt a collective guilt, shared liberally amongst them for failing to find what they needed. If there were any more new-borns, winter would grip them and not let go, their mother would be glad enough, but danger would still be around whether it had a face or not.

They only had enough food to pull around and sedate their sore stomachs and their pride, but not a lot to share around. So they were going to prepare to dream of food of all kinds: the different deer they could try; the rabbits that they couldn’t spare; the weasels caught in their jaws; teeth into flesh and the taste of blood on the tongue, eating and drinking, eating and drinking ‘til twilight.

Meadow usually dreamt of running, always of running. She didn’t wonder about the future as much as the others, she wasn’t obsessed with the next victorious kill, or to practice for the day an enemy would creep up behind them. She would always be running. Sometimes she would be running for a reason, but she sometimes she simply ran for fun of it. She would run when she was awake, it made her feel alive, and when she dreamt she could go even further, even deeper into the forest, into lands unknown to them. The amount of running in her sleep made her legs jitter and kick, sometimes leaving bruises on the rest of her kin. She was always apologetic, but they did not return the favour. Running is something you do, not what you are. She kept it to herself.

Running is something you do, not something you do for fun. You are evading capture, you are the hunter, you are keeping toe to toe with your prey and you’ve got them when they make that fatal mistake, and then you enjoy the victory. You are avoiding the edges of the cliffs, and the trees falling and then killing you. You can play and practice and run and chase but running is not your life, it is survival.

You spot the deer, you can smell its wet fur, you can hear it casually chewing away as you hide, maintaining the perfect distance. You tell your brothers and sisters, you tell them that you’ve found their next meal. You are looking forward to the pursuit, and looking forward to the first bite, you see the steps in the ground and smell the scent on the bushes nearby. ‘You run with intent’, Meadow’s mother used to say to her.

Her mother was her harshest critic. While she was hard on them all, on their foibles and in the moments they weren’t thinking straight, she would always look over to Meadow and the rest of her pups, it was a hard love that allowed them to survive, her love. She forbad them from pointless dithering, and she could see every time Meadow’s mind wondered. She regretted much of what she had to do and what she had to say, but it had been for the right reasons. If one wrong turn meant death, as one wrong turn could in this forest, she would rather inflict temporary pain or discomfort than learning of death too early. She made sure to teach them all she knew, what her mother and father had taught her and the lessons she had personally grabbed along the way. Their father was the leader, but their mother had the vision. She didn’t foresee Samson’s death.

As they were resting, they hungered all the more, and they also feared privately. All needed strength for all, and apprehension was never permitted. The pack works for one and one for all, Meadow tried to remind herself. Meadow did not fear often, but it was hard for her hide her fretting, she had to hide her hopes and her dreams. The pack were more important.

Small flakes touched their wet noses, their breaths were steady, their eyes aflutter as they drifted into sleep. All except Meadow. She struggled to lie down, to rest, tossing and turning, making her coat more ragged and unkempt, covering it with lines of mud warmed by her body, but did nothing to help her. Her mind was running at a thousand miles per hour, she couldn’t settle down.

Was it the hunger? Was it the cold? She didn’t want to think about it, but there it was, the true question coming to her like a thief in the night; is she right for this pack? What would happen if she was gone? Would it matter? She stood up and looked over her family, tiptoeing and seeing not only their breath rising, but their warmth seemed to be as steam exuded by their bodies, rising from them into the bright white sky, mostly hidden by the deep canopy of pine and spruce.

She saw her father, his deep scar notably marking his kind face; her mother’s sharp teeth struggling to be kept behind her lips; Ajax, shivering in his impressive white and black coat; Apple curled up and bored to be asleep; Lake lying on her back with her tongue out; Pine lying still.

Did she belong? She loved them, but did she belong to this rabble? This collection of schemers and jokesters? She experienced great joy with them, but she felt belittled and picked upon, especially when questioned as to why she didn’t have enough blood on her fur… that her kills of small rabbits who had been too fast and lacked the fat on their cheeks… that they had wanted her to guard, but she would end up searching for phantoms, that…

She decided to walk away, just walk away, to see what would happen.

She got up and moved around the sleeping wolves, and make it into the woods. The snow started falling heavier, making each of her steps deeper as she crushed the stone underfoot, leaving a trail behind her which quickly got covered over of where she had wandered.

As she wandered down the valleys, and wandered up the hills, she saw the berries, winter and mistletoe, building up lashes of snow and cold, and saw everything was still and at peace.

As she approached a hillside, she started climbing up, forgetting that it was a mountain that she was about to face. She ran up, climbing over some rocks, making sure to not slip down below. She got farther and farther and looking back, the world started looking small to her. She climbed and climbed, and soon the rocks turned into hills and the hills into a mountain. She made sure to not slip down below, she had no fear of the world that was growing small beneath her. She was far away, but she turned to look back.

She stopped in her tracks, staring at her land, her territory, the land of her pack. She didn’t finish climbing to the top of the mountain, but she saw home.

Home to her was extended as far as the end of the valley basin, white and green for miles and miles, surrounded by peaks and the cold. The air was fresh up there, and after so much wandering, she felt, for the first time in a long while, content. She knew that the world down there was different from the world up here. She promised herself that she would never forget this place.

She took in the view for longer, thinking of her family and what they’d make of this, being beyond where they’d ever been and of telling them of what she had just seen. Another thought came quickly, another shock to her, she thought that she could leave them. She could find out what it was like on the other side of the mountain, that she could find pastures with countless deer, sheep and goodness knows what else? She looked up to the tallest peak covered in snow, and also thought that there might be death up there. She hadn’t known of a wolf, a bear or a man that had come back from the other side of that mountain, so whether it was paradise or hell on the other side, the mystery remained yet to be solved. Dying to be wrong, dying to be right, the mountain still felt cold and alone in its beauty.

On the other side, was her home. There may be other packs, sure, but not like hers, they were not hers. Her pack made her laugh, make her look forward to life, so different now from the big hulking rocks and ice that stood behind her.

She never saw the valley this way before; the snow, the stream that broke through the miles and miles of trees, their land of winter. It might look like the other land farther on with their leaders and their packs, one that sings songs of a saviour and a man in red.

She looked to the right of the basin, and spotted something sinister: a fire and smoke, near to where the pack had made their camp. She already knew what she had to do. No questions this time. She started climbing down the rocks as quickly as she could. As she made it to solid earth, she starting running, running as far and as hard as she could. She could see the smoke rising high, until the canopy completely hid it from view.

By looking up, just to see the smoke disappearing into the immense white, she tumbled forward, separating the snow.  She shook off the mud and snow, and saw bruises on her body. She howled, not only from being in pain but it also helped ease her mind. She then howled as much as she could, trying to call out to her kin. She saw blood on the side, realising that she must have been cut somewhere. A new pain came in, a feeling she had known before, when Samson died….

In her wild running, she had fallen down the steep hill, rolling down violently, screaming in panic and terror. Thud! She was out, lying still, unconscious, specks of snow settling on her fur. There was a silence, but not for the lack of the wind, because it goes where it has to. For only for a moment, she felt more helpless and trapped than she had ever before. She started to recover, but not enough as she struggled to open her eyes, she could only see the red behind her eyelids and fragments of white light.

Meadow picked herself up, and aided by blurred vision, began running through the forest, determination coursing through her body, but it was futile. She only made it through a few trees and shrubs before slamming into some timber. She willingly fell onto her side, lying down, hyperventilating.

She needed to rest, but didn’t want to. She wanted them safe, so she couldn’t have it.

She closed her eyes.

She had left a trail of blood.

––––––––––

She awoke at night. It was dark, still and eerie, but she was embracing the dark as a comfortable blanket. She got up, feeling rough but seemed okay until she realised that she was struggling.

She knew that she hadn’t broken her leg, but she was limping, her leg was swollen. The cut on her face felt fresh and was bleeding. She started making her way, but had to stop occasionally, resting here and there on the bigger trees, fearing that she would do more damage to herself, breaking the smaller branches into sharp spikes.

Her breathing was laboured, heavy. She tried to breathe through her teeth, but she had to breathe through her mouth, allowing the cold in while the breath she had exhaled disappeared into vapour. She had to stop. She closed her eyes, and took in the moment, the smell of pine and the cool of the evening as she steadied herself on the ground.

A twig had snapped in the distance, and her ear twigged. She opened her eyes and turned to face the threat, kneeling down and hunching her back, she struggled to get into position with her injured paw. Her vision was still partially impaired, so she was compelled to rely on her other senses. She steadied herself, growling instinctively. If she had to attack, she would. She howled.

Her opponent howled back; her father. She relaxed and howled again, louder, making sure they knew she was there, and that she was alive. Her pack howled back in jubilation. They rushed over as she howled again, gathering around her, each in turn licking her wounds.

She was still a part of the pack, and they still loved her. They had come to find her together, and that they knew what had to be done, that she had been lost. She had needed their help, that she now knew that she was important to them. Some howled again, some of them jumped for joy and some danced for the first time since the last spring. They said it was a miracle, some were just relieved.

Her mother came over to her, and looked into her eyes. She looked her over, all her injuries and bruises and her cut-up face that made her look like her father. She didn’t want to see her in such pain, but she just saw her daughter, her pup looking back to her with her intense blue eyes, and she proceeded to lick her wounds, telling her that she loved her.

The hunt had to continue, Pine interrupted. He told Meadow that they had found food, but that it was going to be a challenge. It was a big beast, and they were all needed to take it down. The beast, he said, needed their speed, their strength and their all to bring him down. Pine gathered their father, mother and the kin, and invited her to come. They needed Meadow, but Meadow declined, as she was too weak to hunt. Their mother elected to stay with her to take care of her. It was then agreed, Pine was disappointed, but he understood. The group disappeared, one by one, into the night, following Pine’s call.

Meadow and her mother were left alone with each other.

They lay down on the ground, resting between the pine trees, sharing the warm of their bodies. Meadow’s mind was at peace. She was at home, and whilst battered and bruised, they came to her as she would to them. In this state of clarity, she remembered the top of the mountain, the mountain of death and possibility, a memory that will follow her to the end of days.

And it was up to wolves to stand against it’s inevitable madness, against that miserable current. She looked up to the moon, shining through the clear sky and accentuated by the stars. The moonlight surrounded them, and despite all the other parts of the forest, it seemed to encircle them in and they drew comfort in this light.

The smoke. The fire. The memory came back to Meadow. Determined, she got up, shocking her mother. Her mother got up as well, concerned. Meadow told her what she had seen on top of the mountain, and stopped her from interrupting her. There was a fire and smoke, and if this was of the great beast, they don’t know what they were getting into.

Her mother believed Meadow, though she wanted to know why she had gone up that high, she wanted to believe Meadow more. Meadow took the lead and they started to run, but she couldn’t maintain momentum, starting and stopping to catch her breath. She felt tired and ill and all things in-between.

Her mother told her that she would lead, and even though they became separated a bit of distance before Meadow picked up the scent again. Meadow was never going to be alone again.

Her mother led the way, and even Meadow couldn’t see her, she could hear her, as she every so often howled, and Meadow would howl back. They went for miles through the tundra, the fallen trees without leaves and the snow mixed with the rotten vegetation. In short time, Meadow became stronger and stronger, with her mother powering her to continue, to strive, and to live.

‘Are you still there?’ Mother howled.

‘I am’ Meadow replied.

‘Keep going’

‘I will’

‘Where are you?’

‘I am here, I’m not far’

‘I am also here, I’m close by’

‘Follow my voice’

‘I hear your voice’

‘Don’t give up’

‘Never’

‘Only a few miles now’

‘I can feel it, I can feel it’

‘I love you’

‘I love you too’

They made it to a clearing, both silent. As they stood together, Meadow’s mother rested her head on top of Meadow’s.

They took cautious steps into the clearing and could hear themselves walking as they broke the snow piece by piece. And then, the sound of baying wolves, growing louder and louder as they progressed further into the empty field.

They turned a corner, they saw the pack in prime position, surrounding and circling their prey. They were deep into their battle as the pack surrounded the beast: it was a bull, with a temper. The bull was bloody from his wounds, its skin dirtied with a mixture of blood and mud knotted in, as the bites and the nips had punctured parts of his skin. None of the wolves had injuries, their taunts were getting louder and louder.as their hunger intensified.

Meadow told them to stop! She shouted and yelled for them to stop.

She told them of the smoke and the fire, that it was close by and they had to run. Pine dismissed this, seeing that their prize had been almost conquered. They were hungry, and they had to continue. Meadow said that they should wait for their food, they should wait for the deer promised to them. The beast was a trap, it would destroy them.

Her father questioned her, unsure himself about what they should do. The bull charged at him, and he dodged its horns by the skin of his teeth. He said he had to make the decision, and saw reason in both arguments, their convictions bold, but he couldn’t let anyone die that night or the following night.

Apple saw the fire and the smoke, BANG!

She howled for them to run!

They all heard the blast released into the air, smoke rising and sparks of flame.  They had not seen the burly man dressed in red, coming out of a shining cabin hidden under dead branches. He held his shotgun high in one hand and a bright, steel lantern in the other. His shot was a warning into the night sky. The wolves had to go.

Pine relented and he led the pack back into the woods. Running, one by one, they disappeared into the dark. Meadow, who had almost looked into death’s eye, was the last one left. The man walked a toward Meadow, with his face reflected in the moonlight. She stopped see death in his eyes, but a concerned look. She would always remember that, the moment of mercy as she too took off into the dark.  The man let out a sigh of relief, and attended to the bull’s wounds. The champion puffed, and took a breath, still standing.

Her father said he was proud of her, laughed as he noted that the scar resembled his own, and that they were very much alike. Pine apologised to Meadow, but she consoled him, saying he would have been right any other time. They were all still cold and hungry, but knew they would figure something out.

At the stream they drank, in the darkness they had found water. A night wasted, but a night regained. They praised Meadow, they would celebrate with her in a great feast when they had found one; they would run and dance and sing again and all else un-wolf-like. Meadow couldn’t hide her happiness as much as she tried to remain humble.

They lapped the calm flow, letting the gentle noise of the currents seep into them in the hope they would have accompanied them in their dreams in the morning. Meadow knew her pack, her family and that they were hers and they were with her and for her.

She wasn’t a champion, Meadow was a small wolf… but one of their best.

Meadow lifted her head up from the stream and smelt blood in the air. She drifted away from the stream and started to track the animal. Her mother walked to her, asking where she was going, but she just told her to follow her this time.

They went into the deep woods and up a hill. At the bottom of the hill, there was a stag who had fallen from sheer sharp edge, trapped by the weight of a fallen log, asleep and unaware of his fate, as he calmly dreamt and breathed.

Mother and daughter howled.

Meadow was a small wolf… but she was the right wolf for them.

 

Advertisements

Top Films of The Year 2017 (According to UK Release Date)

There were good films, there were bad films, and 2017 was a year that was full of them.

At the beginning of this month I didn’t realise this, but now I do.

This might be my last, offical top ten list round-up!

I could change my mind, but then we’ll only know that later..

My life is changing, and I hope it is for the better. I have never done any personal blogging on here or intended to do so,  as it was originally intended to be an open platform for others to participate in, but the invites got lost in the mail… or did they? No, I just never used the platform, instead keeping my personal feelings to myself (aside from my opinion) .

I have a new, more challenging and rewarding career ahead of me and I am heading towards a more active, healthier lifestyle. I have never felt comfortable to speak out about the things that moved me, that worked within me and certainly I did not feel like I could share it with lots of people, as I felt I was only somewhat of an expert in one thing: cinema. This list was to represent a small aspect, a definitive mark every year of a somewhat personal accomplishment and effort.

I will always love film, but this list, started in 2009 from a Facebook blog (wow, that’s a long time ago, There Will Be Blood – 2008), might cease to exist from this year, 2017. I used to love going to see everything, to have an opinion on everything, and then to have people listening to that opinion and sharing their own.

My duty to this list, at times, was energy consuming, and also could be seen to be incredibly ridiculous (some people have told me so), but I found it enjoyable and challenging,

I realised recently that I wasn’t doing this for the joy of the task any longer, something I felt compelled to do, always knowing it would never be complete but the chase was enough. In some way, it became a placeholder for my own identity. Probably now, as I am focused on my own journey, I realise that I do not need to do this, or if I do, I don’t need to be slavishly devoted to it.

I do not get paid, nor do I get to access to films for free (streaming platforms do not count as free). At some points it did cost me money to see things because other critics were saying it was important, instead of following my own interests. I lost my verve. I lost the sense of urgency.

I used to enjoy writing my reviews, my essays and the many different types of articles, but then after a while, I figured out that for most of the time I was just writing for myself. It is great that I wrote for myself (if you write for yourself that is great too).

But these were not the creative projects that were the things that truly excited me, that truly engaged me. I was looking at the mediocre monuments and achievements dictated by others (and by extension, not embracing my own) instead of watching, listening or living the stuff I could personally explore. There were times I wouldn’t watch what I wanted to watch, just to get the numbers, to get the cultural cache. Then what was the point? What is the point of understanding if you are never going to use that understanding? Certainly the most relaxed I have been has been in the state of watching stuff my friends wanted me to watch with them, in their homes. That reminded me of what I should be doing, to take things slow.

I saw Justice League in November. I wrote a comment on Facebook about it and promised a review. I did start writing it, but then it was a slog to try and write. My metaphor of the Justice League being drop-kicked by Mary Berry for their under-cooked and overdone souffle was all I felt needed to be said. I certainly didn’t have deep conversations with people I know with whom I could actually discuss the film. And then, like that, I did not have anyone clambering to read that review (although I have had requests for others once in a while, I have to admit). Such is the art of reviewing: no one knows you need a review, until you read the review. You get a different perspective on something by reading someone else’s thoughts, their fears and dreams and all else they may put into the subject, and to derive meaning from it. I never wrote my reviews to convince people to either see or not see things, I simply wanted to get out of my head particular discussion points.

I have had some who have claimed to look forward to this list every year, and I really treasure what you have said. I watched new releases, 87 of them, which is approximately seven days and six hours. I haven’t seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, nor have I seen Paddington 2, but so there are countless other films I have not seen.

I have not wasted my time, but I just feel I now have another part of my journey to begin.

In the next couple of weeks I might change my mind, I change my mind about what ranking everything has on my end of year list daily.

So, to start, here’s my worst 3:
  1. Slack Bay (d. Dumont) – Insufferable. It does the things people rightly mock arthouse films for.
  2. The Mummy (d. Kurtzman) – Boring and miscast.
  3. Justice League (d. Snyder) – A tonal, simplistic mess.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Wormwood, Get Out, Blade Runner 2048, Wind River, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, Toni Erdmann, Mudbound, Okja, The Big Sick, Strong Island.

10. The Red Turtle (Dudok de Wit, 2016)

Fusion x64 TIFF File

Michael Dudok de Wit’s animated film is a visual feast, but one of the most emotionally affecting treatises on man’s relationship with nature, as a shipwrecked man learns to love being on an isolated island. In lieu of dialogue, The Red Turtle presents us with an allegorical, fantasy story, going into deep emotions such as love, grief, regret and joy that exist in everyone’s journey through life.

9. Neruda (Larrain, 2016)

neruda

An intriguing, meta-textual biopic, Pablo Larrain takes on the story of Pablo Neruda’s escape from Chile, surmising a lifetime of views and thoughts, interrogating both his politics and his flaws. The film also investigates the myths and storytelling that creates a nation, and survives in spite of destruction, with Gael Garcia Bernal’s bumbling fascist detective being a comic treat.

8. Logan Lucky (Soderbergh, 2017)

logan lucky

Breezy good fun, Logan Lucky is not there to try and reinvent the cinematic wheel, but exists to be a suspenseful, fun heist comedy. It’s deceptively simple, hiding a heartfelt country song inside of its soul. The performances are unilaterally great from Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Daniel Craig, and the film has the best joke of the year.

7. O.J: Made in America (Edelman, 2016)

OJ made in america

(It only got wildly publicised in 2017 when BBC Four broadcast it, as it barely made an impact when it appeared on paid sports provider BT Sport in 2016)

Engaging and insightful, this documentary might be the longest film I have seen this year, but it is right to insist that the main story of OJ Simpson can only be explained in an historical context, situating that story as a story in the heart of a nation. Celebrity culture, racial tension, Los Angeles, ego… it’s the real Great American novel.

6. Cameraperson (Johnson, 2016)

cameraperson

Made from the fragments of different documentaries she had filmed (footage rejected by others, at times), Kirsten Johnson’s eye becomes the subject and it is an interesting, riveting kaleidoscope of bias and experience. Jumping from Sarajevo to Washington DC’s Mall to home movies, Johnson presents a life, whilst absent of her, revealing her point of view and her view of the life of the world around her.

5. A Ghost Story (Lowry, 2017)

a ghost story

Whilst it can be said to be the best film involving a bed-sheet ghost in sometime, the film remains more haunting and affecting than the premise suggested. Loss, regret, longing, David Lowry finds beauty in love gained and love lost. It says ‘A Ghost Story’, but it is our memories that haunt ourselves.

4. Dunkirk (Nolan, 2017)

dunkirk

Suspenseful and exciting, Dunkirk reinvents the war film as a thriller. Working as an experimental art piece, Nolan has decided to remix the concept of the war film into a ride of terror, tightening and tightening, getting us up-close into the concept of war itself  rather than just straight reenactment.

3. Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan, 2016)

Manchester

An acting masterclass, Manchester by the Sea is quietly devastating melodrama, feeling real and intimate as you explore this ‘slice of life’ moment in their lives. Whilst not happy, Lonergan’s film finds pathos and humour in the midst of complete despair, and hope in the minor details.

2. The Work (McLeary, Aldous, 2017)

the work

If there is a documentary that has to be seen this year, it is this. Brutally affecting and heartbreaking, this moving film endeavors to explore, without critical commentary, issues within toxic masculinity and the orphan heart. Startling at first, it is revelatory to see hardened convicts and their outside visitors having more in common than meets the eye. You can’t help feeling empathy as they share their problems, and supporting each other against the darkness.

1. La La Land (Chazelle, 2016)

lalaland

(I’ve taken the first and last paragraphs of my review, I don’t feel I need to say more)

‘It is too rare to find a film so genuinely sincere yet modern, that is so joyous and fun yet self-aware, that cynicism can’t take it down. When you come out of the cinema, it’s hard not to be taken up with this concoction of romantic nostalgia and 2016 neo-stardom, that you will leave the cinema with such an euphoric high (with a touch of melancholy) that will hang onto you longer than most other films. The film is by no means perfect, but what does perfection have to do with it? A dream project of Damien Chazelle, the director/writer of the phenomenal jazz-drummer-thriller Whiplash, has here simply outdone himself and then some.

‘It’s an experiential journey, a feast for the eyes and for the ears as you yearn to be a part of this tough, but candy coloured land.  The story of La La Land seems simple, some would say predictable, but it is more complex than you think. It’s caring but not sentimental, it’s lovely but not insufferable, so that we can believe in all the dreams that the characters follow. You have to be optimistic, take life on the chin when it lets you down, and let the music play on. ‘Another Day of Sun’.’

Have a great 2018!

(Here’s the list without 2016 releases: The Work, Dunkirk, A Ghost Story, Logan Lucky, Okja, The Big Sick, Mudbound, Wormwood, Blade Runner 2048, Get Out)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (d. Gunn, 2017) – Familiar Tunes Aren’t A Bad Thing

Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise. Not that it was a hit that was surprising, but that it was colossal hit across the world for what it was; a relatively, little known Marvel comic is now the third most popular property in the Marvel cinematic arsenal after The Avengers and Iron Man. As such, when you have something as successful as the previous film, a case of sequelitis is even bigger. While you might be asking for more of same, but more of it, it could make you feel disappointed by the outcome that nothing has changed. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may play the same tune as the first, riding the same coattails, but this film decides to root down on everything that made it successful the first time. It might have the same elements, but they looked inward retrospection rather than outward ambition.

Good times, good tunes, and good ol’ fun is promised, but doing the similar again is risky. People can bore easily, and certainly fatigue can make people not want to come back for more.  However, unlike other sequels, this familial tv show-esque sojourn of familial troubles and explosive effects stands on its own merits, with none of the charm missing. It certainly misses that special spark the first film has, as well its focused and crisp plotting, there is enough invention and humour to cover the more drawn out and played out elements in this latest film on the Marvel assembly line.

The film, deciding to follow the direct approach by settling its biggest mystery; uncovering the mystery behind Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill’s (Chris Pratt) parentage. It goes back into the main theme of the first film, the emotional conflicts of being in a family of misfits, and the complications thereof. Emotions, more interesting than dry point A to B plotting (Captain America: Civil War being a victim of this boring curse) does make the film incredibly messy, leaving some of the jokes messy and making you aware of the highs points and low points more apparent in the film. We have Quill, former space pirate being caught by surprise by the materialisation of his alien father Ego (Kurt Russell, the name being on-the-nose symbolic), assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is still having sister trouble with the psychotic Nebula (Karen Gillen), Groot (Vin Diesel), a big tree-like creature who died (sort of) in the last one, has been reborn as Baby Groot, and is dealing with being a child in a violent confusing world, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn), a genetically re-engineered raccoon loner, is now facing issues with being a part of a galactic family… Oh, I forgot Drax (Dave Bautista), a self-serious warrior by appearances, who seems to be along with the ride as the comic relief of all things, either his vengeance is sedated or put on hold for this adventure, where he shares in emotionally stunted banter with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an alien with strong empathetic abilities but none of the social ones.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Vol.2-Official-Teaser-Trailer-10.jpg

These stories, with less focus than the plot for the first film, loses a bit of the thematic depth that ties it into a perfect blockbuster, and has also sacrificed surprising strangeness of the first film by virtue of being a sequel. Is it to say this film has fell short of its mark? Not likely, while probably wasn’t inspiring to be anything different or purely groundbreaking, but rather, it finds worth spending time going deeper into the characters that we know and probably love (I’m personally not a fan of Baby Groot, as his dynamic is played too strongly to edict laughs). At times feeling a bit belabored in its character journey (the second act is strangely stagnant) and some of its jokes don’t hit that hard, but its lows aren’t very low and its highs are very, very high, with Yondu (Michael Rooker), space pirate extraordinaire benefiting from some revisionism in this film compared to the last film.

The best way to view this film is to use a Tarantino coined term, ‘the hang-out movie’. The ‘hang-out movie’ is where the focus, whilst still having a plot, is more relaxed and fun when it is focused on the characters, showing off the weird quirks of the planets and civilizations they visit, and its winning soundtrack (Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra being highlights). Jack Kirby-esque imagery, some hilarious one-liners, and the genteel cast is where the strength of the film lies. That is what people will talk about and remember, whilst they put it on TV on a lazy Sunday to enjoy.

It doesn’t feel as innovative is that we know, the galaxy knows who they are already. They’re winners. It might miss out on becoming a classic of the space opera genre (or superhero if you’re inclined), but for sheer entertainment you’d be wrong to not give this installment a shot. It does not reinvent the wheel, but this strange wheel deserves another spin.

Rating: THREE AND A HALF STARS.

 

La La Land (d. Chazelle, 2016) – Stars in their eyes

A Dreamer Dreams A Dream, They Dreamt.

It is too rare to find a film so genuinely sincere yet modern, that is so joyous and fun yet self-aware, that cynicism can’t take it down. When you come out of the cinema, it’s hard not to be taken up with this concoction of romantic nostalgia and 2016 neo-stardom, that you will leave the cinema with such an euphoric high (with a touch of melancholy) that will hang onto you longer than most other films. This might be overpraise. The film is by no means perfect, but what does perfection got to do with it? A dream project of Damien Chazelle, the director/writer of the phenomenal jazz-drummer-thriller Whiplash, has simply outdone himself and then some.

La La Land, the affection term for Los Angeles and its starry-eyed citizens, who have drunk the kool-aid of possible stardom, is a jazz-infused musical about a struggling actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone), who is a long term veteran of the Hollywood game, already bored by the Hollywood parties and crushed dreams. After her latest rejection, she starts to randomly encounter jazz pianist Seb (Ryan Gosling), a native Angeleno who is struggling to pay the rent, and realise his dream of bringing the back by owning his own Jazz music joint and putting the classics back on. What follows is a romance where they start fall head over heels, with a bit of tap dancing, for each other, but what happens when their ambitions and life circumstances get in the way of their special duet?

The music is the key understanding this film, which is a redundant statement because it is a musical, but let’s continue.  There are many people who are critical of the script (this needs to be pointed out, La La Land is as much about modern jazz as An American in Paris is about 1950s post-WW2 French Art Scene), that its remarkableness isn’t in the narrative but how the film is so totally inspired by music.  There is a real skill in a screenplay to not just callback and revise musicals from the past, but that it is an effective emotional springboard for magnificent sequences of music, colour, dance and acting. The music sets the tune, and Justin Hurwtiz (and the lyrics from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) brings an inventive, memorable score that takes from classic musicals of the 40s/50s, to the French New Wave musicals of Jacques Demy in the 1960s.* The score isn’t afraid to reuse and revise themes, use and discard its homages to the past, to hit a particular moments with a flexibility of emotion, from regret to joy, whether the song is sung or danced to. It might not be jazz, but it feels like it, with a playfulness moving in sync with orchestral heights, and some really inspired jazzy sojourns.

lalaland2

It is a product of supreme craftsmanship, and the score works in tandem with Damien Chazelle’s direction and vision, making it hard to separate how well all talents behind the scenes and how their contributions (with choreographer ‘Not that’ Mandy Moore and costume designers Mary Zophres) work together to make this world come alive, especially in their song, music and dance sequences. From ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’ underscoring the tenderness of the love story throughout, reappearing as romantic, lovely and haunting all at the same time, to the unbridled joy of ‘Another Day of Sun’ (though not unaware of disappointment from dreams, still continuing on as it is a sunny day) where multi-coloured dancers block traffic to open up the show, and make sure that you know this a musical and not ashamed. From the emotional thump of ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’, where Emma Stone gives a deep, impactful solo by way of manifesto to LA’s ‘fools’, and finally, to the keynote track ‘City of Stars’, where the films optimism is rooted in the delicate time between finding love and maybe losing it. The film’s central concerns are very modern, a fairy tale that knows it is one, and therefore doesn’t lose sight of the arrogance and heartache associated with making dreams come into reality. What is truly at risk when you give the La La Land dream all your soul, and what regrets can you live with? Chazelle answers with one of the best finales committed to film in the 21st Century, an accomplishment that still lives in memory with his own spin on Gene Kelly’s dreamscapes.

Damien Chazelle supplies his vision with a virtuoso technical prowess of form, and a fine skill for blocking the actors in the frame, which he uses many, pulsating long-takes to make extravagant sequences… for lack of a better term, sing. If the film lives to music, why can’t the camera and the editing do as well? Working with cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, they make the modern, day-to-day into a grounded dream, the film never breaks its spell on you. Tom Cross (also coming back from Chazelle’s Whiplash, which he won the Best Editing Oscar for) also lends his hand to help craft the journeys of the characters, that in as much singing cuts to the heart of it all, he cuts at the right moments to get the actors maintain the illusion of romance the film puts on you.

lalaland3

Emma Stone (with very much Oscar worthy performance) and Ryan Gosling, a pairing from remarkably entertaining Crazy. Stupid. Love. and lesser effort Gangster Squad, are not the stars of yesteryear as all-round singing, dancing entertainers, but they’ve got joie de vivre and chemistry. If you want to feel love, this film will meet you halfway. They bring out the characters differing sensitivities, desires,  make them individuals first so that the love they share is more vivid. It also refreshing to see a relationship that can exist both in song and in normal dialogue, both within magic hour dance-sequences of purple or conversing under red or green lights of Seb’s apartment is at once normal and magical. It is never hard to feel joy when they feel joy, to feel sad when they feel sad, that they are living humans within a genre that is done badly often, is something to celebrate.

There is so much more to say, but so much that can’t be said. It’s an experiential journey, a feast for the eyes and for the ears as you yearn to be a part of this tough, but candy coloured land.  The story of La La Land seems simple, some would say predictable, but it is more complex than you think. It’s caring but not sentimental, it’s lovely but not insufferable, that we believe in all the dreams that the characters follow. You have to be optimistic, take life on the chin when it lets you down, and let the music play on. ‘Another Day of Sun’.

RATING: FIVE STARS.

*On a personal note, I was already going to love La La Land as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, my joint favourite film of all time with Once Upon A Time In The West, was a significant influence on the film. From Lionsgate’s press release: “Demy’s probably the single biggest influence not just on this movie but on everything I’ve done or wanted to do,” Chazelle admits. “There’s no more formative movie for me than Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. That’s a profound love that I’ve had.”

Silence (d. Scorsese, 2016) – Alone in the Mist

Preaching to the cine-literate.

Religion and Hollywood rarely mix, partly because each has its different sense of morality, that religion is a private thing to many, and hence it’s rarely a money-maker when people want to be entertained and not to be challenged too much, to not proselytise or provoke complex existential questions. They used to be terrified about what happens when it all goes wrong: Martin Scorsese’s first attempt at a religious epic, The Last Temptation of Christ met the ire of many Christian communities, many countries banned it, and even a terror attack in France was committed in opposition, due to its narrative/character experimentation. Things have changed (slightly), even looking past the mega success of the blood-soaked The Passion of the Christ, producers are seeing the potential revenue coming from Christian audiences in the United States and around the world. In one corner, God’s Not Dead and PureFlix’s other, right-leaning Christian films take in audience’s cash whilst working with their audience’s political leanings. Hollywood, instead of treading into the murky political waters that PureFlix works with, decided to be Hallmark-card aspirational within their own Christian bubble, with Sony’s Heaven is for Real and The War Room (Sony’s production company is literally called Affirm Pictures), and Lionsgate’s upcoming The Shack joining the fray, where people can feel spiritual within a safe set of perimeters of experience. However, it must be said that many of these films are catering towards the faithful, and struggle to connect to wider, secular audiences.

Silence, an adaption of Shūsaku Endō’s acclaimed novel, is not one of these films. It will be a struggle to both faithful believer and pragmatic unbeliever, as it is more art-house, and more personal to Scorsese than much of his other work. It aims to challenge anyone who sees it, especially when the subject matter is about Jesuit priests and their experiences of Japanese persecution in the 17th Century. More akin to the European religious film-making tradition of Robert Bresson and Carl Th. Dreyer, with nods and homages to classic Japanese cinema of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, the film is contemplative, slow and action wise, very quiet. Set in the late 1630s, this historical drama’s truest act of endurance is not seeing the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians, tied to crosses in a lagoon and left to be drowned by the high tide, that Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) witness from a high mountain perch, but its two-hour and forty minutes run-time. What Silence is seeking, is to show doubt in action, the cost of belief for both society and the individual. While the film’s premise based on a ‘two man army’, sent to find their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly forsaken the faith and become ‘Japanese’, lost in a secretive land hostile to outsiders (particularly Catholic priests), the film isn’t about trying to save Ferreira’s soul, it is about the search through darkness in our own souls. It is the difference between devotion to a creed and the love of the mystery beyond.

silence2

The whole film participates in the act of destroying preconceived notions of faith, so presents huge questions: where is God, when in the silence we find no answers, and face unending loneliness? Is the conviction of our beliefs that important, when they could be the cause of the pain to others? This dread, this pregnant silence could only be created by Andrew Garfield’s complex and involving performance. We can feel the arrogant walls that he has built around himself being destroyed, as Rodrigues’ trials lead him to the edge of madness. The progress of the film feels like a refining fire, where his Jesuit armour (mental armour and his Western identity) is changed, destroyed and rebuilt continually, also reflected by the elegant costume design by Dante Ferretti. The film does use narration as a crutch, maybe too much at times from Rodrigues’ perspective, Scorsese just needed to focus on Garfield’s face to tell a story, that we know he is searching for God. Some would wish this film to be a simple, a tale of persecution leading to redemption, a tug at the heartstrings, to feel that everything works out at the end. At times you will want to feel that, a transformative experience, that you’ve gone through the pain of seeing very likeable, honourable Japanese peasants like Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) singing a hymn as he slowly dies to absolute silence. We want to have answers. The film shows that there is no beauty in the pain, and a sort of black comedy too, but a transformative experience? This film is doesn’t want to, because to give that to you would be a lie, the film wants to pull you away from vestments, to pull you away from tradition.

In the first act, Rodrigues and Garupe seem to be masters of the universe, who seem bemused and shocked by the absolute attention that the Japanese Christians give them. They give them back their religious sacraments, their mass and confession, which for non-Catholic audiences may seem alien, laughable even as the question of fumie, the act of apostatising your faith by putting your foot on a metal image of Christ, seems like the easiest thing to do to get out of sheer death in today’s world. The film even allows you to have an alternative reading of Garfield’s character ‘going insane.’ However, when Rodrigues gives them pieces of his regalia (breaking his rosary to give people single beads from it), he highlights his concern that they worship the objects instead of God, a concern shared by the film. So, as the run-time continues, their Catholic faith becomes more understandable, more relatable, and when the priests are separated (Adam Driver’s performance is good for a character that seems to not change that much), the trial makes Rodrigues’ faith feel more real, the film more engaging in its simmering slowness, as the desperation becomes a terrible fever pitch in Garfield’s eyes.

The film also works to make Rodrigues’ captors more humane and understanding as the film goes on. This isn’t a simple black and white tale. They’re more reluctant torturers, who chide Rodrigues with their own philosophies, with which some audience members may be able to sympathise. Issey Ogata’s Inquisitor is darkly hilarious, all-knowing but also incredibly petty in his power, that hints at the contemporary socio-political situation, while Tadanobu Asano’s Interpreter almost acts, in Christian terminology, as the accuser, who brings very well-reasoned points against Rodrigues’ beliefs, and seeks to make him accept his point-of-view. This alien country is both understandable, and more and more perplexing to Rodrigues, which is even reflected by the naturalistic photography, blended with chiaroscuro and vertigo zooms. Some of Scorsese’s techniques can be very surprising in the midst of slow-moving scenes, for example, the sound of nature can be overwhelming as it seems to even blur out dialogue, and when Rodrigues is in prison the frame is made to look as restricted as Rodrigues is, that we can’t exactly tell what is coming next. Peaceful scenes of beautiful photography by Rodrigo Prieto, almost contrasts the violence of Christians being burned, drowned and hung in anazuri (people bled upside down and head buried underground). It also demonstrates the two sides of the contrasting philosophies, as the film acts as a strange form of didactic process, showing truest faith or compromise depending on how you view it.

silence3

Scorsese is still a master filmmaker, and with this new film goes further to establish this fact. It isn’t a typical film from him, as the extent of his abilities seem to still be unpredictable and evolving, as he forsakes the flashiness of The Wolf of Wall Street for seemingly the exact opposite: meditativeness. Elliptical to the point it feels like a repeating meditation, we feel that it is slowly growing and growing in its argument, as the truth of Liam Neeson’s character’s fate is revealed and the tension mounts (he threatens to tip-over the film with his star-power, but holds back enough to be crucial to the film). It finally culminates at the finale, with the ultimate moral contrary that will make you think for much longer than the length of the film. These thoughts may be more enjoyable to explore than to view, as it feels more like a cerebral experience than an emotive one.

Silence is best illustrated by the journey the priests have with Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a tragic-comic figure described as a Judas figure in many other reviews, we can also see him as having elements of Peter-esque figure; one that continually comes back and leaves the Lord in spite of his protestations of apology. He tests Rodrigues’ patience as a confessor, from passive superiority and annoyance, but then Silence is about seeing about how a man could love God who doesn’t stop pain, but living the pain with the believer, and who in spite of the silence, to love. To err is human, to love, divine.

RATING: FOUR STARS.

Top Films of The Year 2016 (According to UK Release Date)

UK Release because I don’t play by the rules… but then I do play by some rules…

2016. I could leave that as an introduction of the year, but then that could be a bit too short and arbitrary. It is not a round-up of a politically diversity year nor is it going to talk about celebrities who have died, and trying to tie this up in a nice bow to make a narrative about what film meant this year to me. This is a film list, a personal one that covers what I have viewed this year, and not what I sadly missed out on.

Film is a place to think, a place to dream and a place to experiment. It is a place of experience, of innocence, of nightmares and of dreams. It is the possibility of the future and a look into the past. Film is now.

To copy from myself from my statement last year, this list will never be settled, films will change their places and fall, while others will undoubtedly rise from the Honourable Mentions.

Worst Film: Independence Day: Resurgence. 

Ten Honourable Mentions, in alphabetical order: Dheepan, The End of the Tour,  Embrace of the Serpent, Hail Caesar, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, The Nice Guys, Nocturnal Animals, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The 13th, Zootropolis/Zootopia.

10. Creed

Available on: Netflix UK

creedA marvellous boxing tour-de-force with great performances by Sylvester Stallone and Michael B Jordan, it takes the traditional boxing film and creates a living, breathing, lived-in universe in this quasi-Rocky sequel. Ryan Coogler’s direction is virtuoso as his editing team not just to make the punches hit, but build emotional crescendos from the quiet moments as Adonis Creed (Jordan) takes the tentative steps towards glory, with his trainer Rocky Balboa (Stallone), to become a boxer in spite of the shadow of his deceased champion father gave him. It’s a first-rate traditional underdog story, but it is also delightful remix for a new generation.

9. The Shallows

shallows.jpgWould you have thought a shark movie would be in my top ten this year? Neither did I. It doesn’t mistake itself as pretentious, it is great b-movie schlock that has been made to near perfection. Blake Lively does a career best performance as a wavering medical student on a secluded beach getaway, targeted by a shark possessed by pure evil. Jaume Collet-Serra creates a methodical, tight-gripping thriller as a simple metaphor about how grief can destroy us if we will it to, whether it be by shark, coral bay, or lack of belief. Well-executed popcorn is something we all deserve from time to time, so we can forgive it for not breaking new ground, as it gets more ridiculous as it goes along. Bonus, it has a supporting seagull named Stephen (Stephen Seagull).

8. The Big Short

(Previously written for another piece) Available on: Netflix UK.

THE BIG SHORTA brilliant and successful diatribe, that succeeds in explaining complex economic concepts by throwing every film trick in the books (not limited to breaking the fourth wall, flashback, imagination and celebrity cameos), and making for an exhilarating experience with some richly composed editing, directing and some great performances by Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. The film has a playful blend of anger, laughter and unremitting horror as we come face to face with the system that has destroyed lives (and continuing to do so), and the film is not afraid to make sure you knew that. And then some.

7. Mustang

mustangA powerful Franco-Turkish fable of feminine and youthful exuberance that perfectly balances a light touch with heavy issues, as a group of sisters are put into lockdown in their house, after youthful fun is misinterpreted as deviancy. As these girls collide with the destructive effect of fear and of patriarchal systems, each sister encounters their own journey of discovery and destruction under these harsh rules. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut doesn’t hold the hard punches, but makes sure to remember the tenderness of sisterhood and the exhilaration of freedom.

6. The Measure of a Man

measureofamanWhile I have not seen I, Daniel Blake, it would have to work hard to beat this great French film, as we follow former factory worker Thierry (Vincent Lindon) struggle through at first unemployment, with its tricky ups and downs with his family as he tries to maintain normalcy. in front of belittlement and bureaucracy, and then moral duplicity when he finally gets a job as a security guard in the local supermarket. We follow him like an invisible eye, as the director surrounds the majestic Lindon with real amateurs and pale indoor lights. The film enhances his silent pain of being evaluated for his position and the way he looks, but not for being a loving caring husband and father. It doesn’t try to be polemic, but an honest, heartfelt take on a compromised society .  It doesn’t seek to make an argument, but invites us to be compassionate.

5. Weiner

weinererOne of the most perplexingly candid and startling true tales of the year, it is a Greek comic-tragedy of hubris and deceit, as we witness political car-crash Anthony Weiner try to run for New York Mayor in 2013, coming from controversy when he posted sexually explicit photos on Twitter erroneously. While in the age of Trump it seems small fry, the chaos that Weiner compulsively attracts for Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s extraordinarily intimate account of a man in crisis, and the weaponization of the media, shows how the actions of one man can affect the man, his family, his colleagues and even an entire city.

4. Room

(Previously written for another piece) Available on: Amazon Prime UK.

roomHeartbreakingly brilliant. Lenny Abrahamson creates both a world that is big and small, using the film camera to create a space that has history both physical as well as mental, creating energy even related to the objects around them. With precise editing and camera movements, the filmmakers use the small space to their advantage in the first half of the film, to create a mini-universe, and then in the second half of the film, the isolation within vast space and the alien nature of the world as we know it. This would be for naught if it weren’t for the mighty talents of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, bringing a complex human emotional energy to the screenplay, even when the difficulty of changing the emotional states of the character from one moment to the other.

3. The Assassin

Available on: Amazon Prime UK.

assassin2I must warn you that this film is not for everyone and in spite of the title, there is not a whole lot of action. It is very difficult to explain how the film works or why it works, as it uses visuals to create a mood of mystery, hurt and melancholy in 8th Century China, which will only attract a few (including yours truly). It uses the intricate staging and decors to explore the moods of an assassin (Shu Qi), sent to kill her former betrothed (Chang Chen), a powerful ruler, who he has to deal with his lot as well as the other women in his life. While it’s plot is near incomprehensible, it’s uniquely powerful visual feast as it doesn’t dress up the film with distraction, but uses subtlety to make its point.  The power of a well-placed breeze or multiple candles being distorted by moving silk curtains can build emotions and destroy universes, as women seem to exist in this beautiful world as power players, and trapped in (and outside) of the traditions of others.

2.  Hell or High Water

hellorhigh.jpgWithin the terse, violent but near-comedic Texas milieu, the story of bank robbing brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) and the lawmen tasked to stop them (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) is not just a great cat and mouse action thriller, it is effective myth-making, with real grit. A modern epic of America struggling to come to terms with itself in the face of economic struggle, it takes micro concerns and turns it into the macro problem that everyone can relate to. The film sows disquiet in silence, powerful contemplation happens in small eye movements, and humour to reveal home truths, helped by Taylor Sheridan’s script’s expert voice and David McKenzie’s British outsider direction.

1. Arrival

arrivalThoughtful science fiction that knows how to be intelligent whilst being emotionally intelligent as well. It is about not just the power of language to communicate to each other, but rather the connections that we all have to each other throughout all time and different walks of life. With a quintessentially innovative score from Johann Johnnsson (and a key piece by Max Richter), the film journeys into a mind of a linguist (Amy Adams) trying to maintain world security when she is tasked to try to understand if the alien visitors who’ve landed have good intentions. A journey how love and connection to bridge divides, but there can be a beauty within tragedy, and the journeys we face. Amy Adams deserves an Oscar.

Film Most Sad To Have Missed: Paterson.

So long 2016, 2017 here we come.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (d. Edwards, 2016) – War Costs

Not every film can be ‘The Battle of Algiers’…

Every Star Wars film is an event. Every Star Wars film promises action, adventure, the spirit of 1930s serial with a touch of age old mysticism. Star Wars has become so influential that we can have a debate as to whether Jediism can be a true religion. Star Wars has a lot going for it, both in the past and now with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which last year became one of the biggest films of all time. This new Star Wars film is different (or different enough): Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first in a series of Star Wars films that will tell stories away from the Skywalker Soap Opera and tell the story of the wider Star Wars universe. Disney (via Lucasfilm) has decided to connect to the fans in a different way in this new Marvel landscape: one of invention and one of play. It is the world that we’ve imagined before and after each Episode, a world of pure imagination. This film can play around with concepts created by George Lucas et al, opening up this universe to different tangents.

That’s what we would hope for anyway.

Acting as a direct prequel to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One tells the story of the Rebel Alliance, and how they got the key piece of information to start taking the Empire (a group of intergalactic fascists); the plans for the Death Star, a weapon of such immense power that it can destroy entire planets, envisioned by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendlesohn), but created by head engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). However, Galen, in his plan to subvert the empire, placed a particular flaw in the Death Star in the blueprints. For the alliance to get them, they’ll have to use Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a rough intelligence officer not afraid to kill, to convince Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), estranged daughter of Galen and to the rebel cause to find them, not helped by her extremist rebel foster father Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) standing in the way. They’re soon joined by blind warrior monk Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Îmwe’s machine-gun toting buddy Malbus (Jiang Wen. An aside: the film he directed that I’ve seen, Let the Bullets Fly, still confounds me), a turn-coat Imperial cargo pilot Rook (Riz Ahmed), and K-2SO, a sassy reprogrammed Imperial battle droid (Alan Tudyk). They’re grey characters, fighting evil for the good of us all.

For the many fans of Star Wars, there is a lot to enjoy, like comfortable familiar references, characters you’ve long loved/hated returning, abundance of adventure and action, and for progressive audiences, a nicely diverse cast of characters within this universe (albeit mostly male). And for some fans, it is been the film have been long waiting for, not just to plug a planet shaped plot hole in A New Hope, but a Star Wars film with a difference. It can tell the story of the people on the ground, the people who have been fighting the battle before the name Skywalker appeared. However, what it seems like in director Gareth Edwards’ view (or its myriad of writers and producers who may have played a bigger role than publicly stated), it means to rehash similar tropes from Star Wars and other sci-fi properties. Star Wars always had its hand within classic film genre, and it is the same Rogue One, as it has the key parts for it to be a successful war film (a la the 50s/60s), but it is really the sum of its parts when the feel of the film is more or less insubstantial and more simulated fun/dread. It has a particular great note here and there, but it certainly doesn’t make a substantial emotional image, with its morally dubious characters being undermined by the narrative, their challenges are undercut by circumstances that make them good, or their emotional journeys feeling like meaningless gestures.

For example, Cassian is shown to be an effective operative, bending the rules to complete the mission, but we can never believe he is truly a rough dealer, whether he feels remorse or remains motionless as he can kill friend/comrade or the enemy. We’re never challenged to find the good, when he’s seems just good and not prone to mistakes. Jyn is shown to be rebellious towards authority,but  we never really engage with why she feels that way (we are told though, many times) except through very, very few turgid speeches. Jones’ good performance is used onto a character without a developing arc from rebellious to rebel, so it feels more like a mechanic temper tantrum. While the examples can continue in spoiler-like detail, Forest Whitaker’s character the best symbol of the film’s weakness: his character feels abruptly cut down, we see the scars but not the impact of them, and his relationship to Jyn is not explored deeply. His character (and many others) seem to exist because the creative team wanted them to, not because they should. If we can’t feel the cost or rely on Episode VI then they’re just using up our time, because that’s why we’ve come to see it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is many plus points on paper: it has many jokes that land well, the character of K-2SO feels heartfelt and funny (in spite of it being a cliche, see also: Blind Warrior Monk), the action is well done and dynamic (though X-Wing dogfights never do it for me), and the cinematography is just perfectly beautiful, with the right amount of grit and dirt. Really the film’s main problem is in making us care for the characters, and I mean deeply care for them. We should be feeling the moral ramifications of their decisions, of how important the journey is to them. Much of the original trilogy (and The Force Awakens) is based on the balance of good and evil, that characters act conflicted, making tough decisions and seeing their choices play out, but we never see/feel that. We see gloriously, detailed sets (and locations, the Maldives and Iceland look stunning), of distant and distinct worlds with their own narrative identities, but we see characters rush to and fro without a clear sense of why they’re doing things, outside of hating the Empire. The real kicker is seeing Ben Mendelsohn’s character being undercut at almost every turn by superiors, as it makes makes the film’s central battle feel a bit pointless when we don’t feel a tangible force to be reckoned with. When the narrative is this blurry, it makes A New Hope‘s simplistic narrative almost like the perfect recipe, and its iconography stands as a long shadow over this one (almost literally). Maybe one could be asking too much of something that is mainstream entertainment, but the film presents itself as a fresh take on Star Wars, it doesn’t feel like that.

Rogue One does not feel like a cash in, there is far too much creativity in the set design, filming and direction, as well as some admirable acting for it to be so. Rather, it is a film that struggles to find a point in of itself, it is a war film that still wants to be fun, but avoiding questions isn’t the right answer. The war film genre has had many struggle balancing the need to entertain as well as say ‘war is hell’, but it seems that this film doesn’t want us to judge too closely. We can love the idea of the film, but an idea can only get you this far.

RATING: TWO AND A HALF STARS.