Monthly Archives: December 2019

My Top 10 TV shows of 2019

Here’s my annual top ten list of the shows which have most impressed and captivated me this year. As is becoming increasingly common, a lot of them come from Netflix, but not all.

As usual, I will keep the spoilers to a minimum – only oblique references to events, no details included.

10: His Dark Materials, Series 1: With a fantastic cast, His Dark Materials succeeded where the Golden Compass failed and did justice to the first book of Philip Pullman’s renowned trilogy. Dafne Keen proved, just like she did in Logan, that she’s arguably the best young actress out there at the moment (perhaps only rivalled by Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown). Backed up by great turns from Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy and Lin-Manuel Miranda, His Dark Materials takes a few episodes to get going but eventually starts delivering great hours of TV, particularly episodes ‘the daemon-cages’ and ‘betrayal’ which was one of the best series finale’s I’ve seen in a while. It’s decision to bring forward elements of book 2 does slow things down a bit too much, but ultimately means that series 2 should hit the ground running. Can’t wait for it!

Rating: 4 out of 5

9: The Grand Tour, Series 3: The Grand Tour’s third outing (and final one – only specials from this point onwards) is by far its best. Its standout episodes involve Clarkson, Hammond and May building their own RV’s in America, going Wildlife Photographing in Colombia and, most memorably, building an off-road vehicle and driving across the great empty expanse of Mongolia. While not flawless, the series made several positive steps, including better use of test driver Abby, more reliance on natural rather than scripted humour and more diverse topics during episodes. There’s the occasional bit of naff banter or an overly scripted segment, but overall i’d happily rewatch most of these episodes again, which I couldn’t necessarily say about series 1 and 2. As the last run which will feature power tests, studio audiences, and the studio setup itself, it feels like Clarkson, Hammond and May ended things on a high. I’ll check out future specials, but if this was indeed the last full series for the trio, it was a fitting one.

Rating: 4 out of 5

8: Killing Eve: Series 2: Killing Eve might be the next spy drama I get hooked on, now that the Americans has finished and Homeland is winding down. Its superb leads Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are very compelling, flawed characters who its easy to root for. Their increasingly will they, won’t they relationship and mutual obsession makes for great television, even if series 2 perhaps gets a bit too bogged down by the emotional side of things – the plot isn’t as good as series 1’s, even if the characters are just as gripping. Quality varies between episodes, but overall series 2 was a good follow up, if a slight step back in quality, but with a new showrunner taking the reins in series 3, I’m definitely excited to see where Villanelle and Eve go from here… assuming they survive each other’s company that is…

Rating: 4 out of 5

7: Orange is the New Black, Season 7: Orange is the New Black may have increasingly split fan opinion since Season 5, but I’ve always found it to be an enjoyable, consistent Netflix series. Focusing on some issues we haven’t seen before (dealing with such difficult topics as FGM, treatment of illegal immigrants in the US, dementia etc.) it remains a hard hitting drama. There were plenty of lighter moments to balance out the seriousness, and new characters to complement the old. Ultimately I can’t say this season was a perfect send-off, but it was a good one which did justice to its characters and tied things up well, and didn’t cop out and give everyone an unrealistic happy ending (3 things a far more high profile TV show failed to do this year…). Orange is the New Black has always had one of the best ensemble casts on Netflix, and remains one of the best female-led shows you’re likely to have seen, with particularly good work from Taylor Schilling, Taryn Manning and Natasha Lyonne – though if you asked, I wouldn’t pick out a single weak link amongst the wider cast. The highest compliment I can give this show is that I’ll miss it now that its gone, but I’m glad it ended on a relative high.

Rating: 4 out of 5

6: Black Mirror, Season 5: Despite only having a three episode run this year, Black Mirror remained a highlight, as all three episodes were of very high quality, if not the very best that the series is capable of producing. Starring such talent as Anthony Mackie, Andrew Scott and, bizarrely, Miley Cyrus, all three have a star quality feel to them, but remain grounded as lesser known talents round out the casts in all three cases. All touch on different issues, from the possibilities of advanced VR to the tragic side effects of social media to auto-tuning and exploitation in the music industry. Striking Vipers and Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too are quite easy to watch despite a couple of darker scenes, while those after the classic Black Mirror tension and sting in the tail should check out Smithereens – which features a masterclass in acting from a mentally tortured Andrew Scott. After the disappointing Bandersnatch, this was a timely return to form for Black Mirror, and I can’t wait to see what season 6 has in store, whether it comes with 3 episodes or 6. Hopefully Netflix doesn’t make us wait too long.

Rating: 4 out of 5

5: Swamp Thing, Season 1: Swamp Thing was unjustly cancelled before episode 2 had even aired, which is both baffling and a crying shame, as its pilot was the best I’ve ever seen from DC, and the first season as a whole was a cut above the arrowverse’s recent efforts. Crystal Reed is excellent as lead character Dr. Abby Arcane, who gets drawn back to her hometown to investigate a viral outbreak, only to become increasingly tangled in local criminal machinations and the supernatural events occurring in the swamp, where she encounters the titular character. Swamp Thing himself is wonderfully realised onscreen and while the action scenes aren’t as common as you might expect, they are very strong when they occur. A darker tale than most superhero shows, this is definitely geared more towards adults rather than CW’s shows are, while its shorter episode count works wonders – there’s very little padding here, though perhaps 1 or 2 subplots could have been streamlined slightly. Overall I was very impressed, and disappointed that we probably won’t get a resolution to some of the cliffhangers the show ended on. But if you have Amazon Prime, I’d highly recommend checking it out anyway!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

4: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season 3: The third and final season was leaps and bounds ahead of the first two. Freed from the need to play a different version of Count Olaf in disguise every story, Neil Patrick Harris is better than ever here, while Esme and Carmelita are fabulous supporting villains. The episodes reduced runtimes also do the show a massive favour – whereas some installments in seasons 1 and 2 felt padded and stretched, everything feels tight and pacey here. Given the plots of books 10-13 all vary far more than 1-9, it feels like every story is its own special – not just variations on a recurring theme like the stories in the first two seasons. The show also adds flashbacks which fill in some of the gaps in the books narrative and show some of the events leading to VFD’s schism, which I found utterly enthralling. Overall, the show ended on a real high, which given its slow start, was quite impressive.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5:

3: Jessica Jones, Season 3: Jessica Jones’ third season is arguably the best of the three, with a stronger villain than season 2 and better pacing than season 1. The new characters are interesting, Jessica’s development goes in a different direction than before and Trish, Malcolm and Jeri get good material for their individual arcs. The direction and writing are as good as ever and while the main villain is less flamboyant than David Tennant’s Kilgrave, he’s far creepier and challenges Jessica in different ways. Trish arc’s is what the season hinges on, as her conflict with Jessica varies between reluctant cooperation and open hostility between the two, with the series good at keeping you guessing which way things will go till the last 3 episodes. Overall, it’s my favourite superhero show from this year, just edging out Swamp Thing.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

2. The Crown, Season 3: The latest series of the Crown switches out most of the main cast, but remains as compelling as ever. Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter nail the roles of Elizabeth, Philip and Margaret just as well as their predecessors. It has a very strong run of episodes in the early part of the season, until ‘Moondust’ which is quite dull, but the only damp squib in the 10 episode runtime. The new cast-members playing Charles, Anne and Prime Minister Harold Wilson are all superb additions and steal the show at times, and left me eager to see how the show will handle Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom will have key roles in Season 4. The show visually looks as good as ever, with excellent direction, location filming and editing. The new composer perhaps isn’t quite as good as his predecessor, but still does a solid job. Series Highlights include the Margaret’s visit to America, the Royal Family and the Government reacting to the Aberfan tragedy (which I must admit I knew nothing about previously) and Charles being sent to study in Wales and learn the language and history. This might just be the best of the three seasons so far. Keep it up!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

1: Fleabag, Series 2: I wasn’t hugely enthralled by Fleabag’s first series, which started well but had an underwhelming second half. Nevertheless I decided to give S2 a go, and the premiere blew my socks off. Andrew Scott’s sweary, charismatic (and according to most women who’ve seen it, extremely hot) priest was just the addition needed to bring the best out of the existing cast, who all perform extremely well. Funnier and a touch more upbeat than series 1, this was great from start to finish, mostly due to Waller-Bridge’s performance and excellent writing. At a time when classic BBC series like Doctor Who and Top Gear have completely lost their appeal, it’s nice to know the national broadcaster can still sometimes produce the goods. Though that may just be because Waller-Bridge is working with them. For god’s sake BBC, don’t you dare lose her! Or the licence fee might as well be scrapped. But, thinking positively, this is the first time since 2015 that a British TV show has topped this list, so that’s an encouraging sign. Hopefully Waller-Bridge’s input reaps similar rewards for the upcoming James Bond film…

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Shows which narrowly missed out on this list included Big Mouth (lacked cohesion), Stranger Things (too light hearted), Game of Thrones (too divisive + weak finale), The Witcher (confusing timelines + boring Ciri plotline), Gotham (inconsistent) and iZombie (could’ve ended more strongly).

Best Actor: Henry Cavill (Geralt of Rivia – The Witcher)

Best Actress: Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones)

Best Supporting Actor: Andrew Scott (The Priest – Fleabag)

Best Supporting Actress: Jodie Comer (Villanelle – Killing Eve)

Best Young Actor:  Lewin Lloyd (Roger – His Dark Materials)

Best Young Actress: Dafne Keen (Lyra – His Dark Materials)

Best Ensemble Cast: The Crown

Best Hero: Jessica Jones (Played by Krysten Ritter)

Best Villain: Lex Luthor (Played by Jon Cryer)

Best Direction: The Crown

Best Writer: Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag)

Best Special Effects: Game of Thrones

Best Composer: Lorne Balfe (His Dark Materials)

Best Soundtrack: The Long Night (Ramin Dwajadi – Game of Thrones)

Best New Theme Tune: His Dark Materials (Lorne Balfe)

Best Animated Show: Big Mouth

Best Episode: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (Bryan Cogman – Game of Thrones)

Best Scene: The Hound vs. The Mountain (Game of Thrones – The Bells)

Best Finale: Fleabag – Episode 6:

Next Up: You’ve had my film, video games and TV picks for the year, now it time for my thoughts on the best the past decade has had to offer…

Starting with my top ten films of the decade! Featuring Superhero smackdowns, cerebral character studies and fierce competition between the hits of DC and Marvel, hope you all check it out. Should be up in the next 3 days, depending on hangover status.

 

 

My Favourite Video Games of 2019

As people familiar with my end of year blogs will know, my top video games list always features a mix of games from the year in question and the couple of years preceding it. My reasoning? No one can play every game the year its released – even if you had the money, you’d probably lack the time and vice versa. All gamers buy releases and don’t get round to them for a while, myself included. So I always highlight recent games that have had as large an impression on me as current ones this year.

Hope you enjoy my highlights of the best games I’ve been playing this year. Most are releases from the previous couple of years, but that’s mainly due to my sustained (if futile) attempts to get through my backlog of games.

6: The Council (2018): The Council is an odd one. Its a story led game which sees you interacting with famous historical figures such as George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte, all of whom are part of a mysterious ‘council’ secretly manipulating the direction of Western society in the late 18th century. Set on an isolated island owned by the mysterious Lord Mortimer, you’re tasked with not only navigating political intrigue, but also finding your missing mother and deducing the identity of a murderer at large. Playing main character as Louis de Richet, you gain experience which can help you unravel clues, decode ciphers, persuade others to assist you or enable you to retrieve items from hard to reach areas. You can develop Louis as an Occultist, Diplomat or Detective style character, each with their own benefits and drawbacks i.e. detectives will notice things other styles won’t, but might be unable to persuade important figures to reveal crucial information the way a diplomat can. You can mix and match talents, but this will often leave you struggling to maximise your abilities. The game is a mix of mystery, puzzles, diplomacy and, especially later on, supernatural elements which really turn things on their head in episode 4 of 5. While initially an episodic release, its all available as one now, and has considerable replay value. If you love story-driven games, I would whole-heartedly recommend this. Some puzzles can get frustrating, but persevere. And try not to screw up, lest Louis loses a hand. Or worse.

Rating: 4 out of 5

5: GreedFall (2019): GreedFall was a conspicuous attempt to fill in for the lack of Mass Effect/Dragon Age games at the moment. With Bioware’s star diminished after the mixed response to Andromeda, the critical mauling of Anthem and the seemingly never ending wait for Dragon Age 4, Spiders bravely stepped into the breach with this back to basics, pseudo-colonial fantasy RPG. Colonial era settings are somewhat rarer than medieval inspired ones in RPG’s, but Spiders did a good job here of imagining a plausible fantasy world where gun-wielding colonists come into conflict with magically skilled natives. You have complete freedom in how you approach things – you can side with the natives, the colonial powers or try to build some kind of accord between the various factions. While the game is geared towards finding diplomatic solutions to things, there’s no clear cut best way to handle things, with extremist factions amongst the natives and family ties to the colonists blurring the lines between where your loyalties should lie. Combat isn’t hugely in depth: you have choice about whether you play as a magic user, expert swordsman/woman, or gun-wielding trap expert, or indeed a combination, but there are only 6 or so abilities per style. Enemies do present a welcome challenge even on normal (I would not recommend Hard difficulty on first playthrough, that’s for sure) with a mix of humans, natives and creatures providing different problems to deal with. There are some limitations due to the small size of the company producing the game (invisible barriers, area exploration rather than open world environments etc.) but it has more to offer in terms of content than say the base version of fallout 4. Overall this is kind of a barebones Bioware game – you get 5 companions, 4 of which are romanceable – but it gets more right than wrong. You can craft and upgrade gear, choose between using stealth, diplomacy and combat and resolve missions in a variety of ways. A bit slow and talky for some people, but overall, a good first effort from a company with way, way less resources than the companies its trying to emulate.

Rating: 4 out of 5

4: F1 2019: F1 games have now made this list 4 years running, mainly because they have been slowly refining what was already a very good game in F1 2016. The 2019 version makes the interview mechanic more bearable, wet weather more challenging and enables AI driver swaps between teams to make it feel more immersive and ensure you aren’t constantly competing with the same 2 drivers over multiple seasons. Its main additions however, are a Formula 2 mode, where the cars feel slower but are much easier to control, and two invented drivers who serve as rivals to your one in campaign mode – both of which help make career mode feel like more of a journey rather than just a co-ordinated set of races. As usual, it isn’t worth a full price upgrade from 2018, but if its on sale, it adds enough that you should check it out.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

3: Modern Warfare Remastered (2016): It’s very rare for me to go 3 years back on this list, but since Modern Warfare Remastered came out free on PS PLUS in March, I checked it out. While the multiplayer has been slightly revamped with classes and new modes, the single-player and maps are all the same, just with better graphics. The campaign still ranks as one of the best in the Call of Duty Pantheon (and I’ve played through 4 this year with Black Ops 3, Infinite Warfare and the new Modern Warfare – none came close to this original) with famous highlights like the stealth mission in Pripyat, the AC-130 gunner sim, the cargo ship raid more vivid than ever in HD. But the main draw for downloading this was the multiplayer, which crushes games like COD:WW2 into the dirt. The maps, including classics like Shipment, Vacant and Showdown are very good and allow most playstyles to have a pretty even difficulty (snipers can’t dominate too easily, while campers are easy to flush out or outflank). The old-school killstreaks, limited to UAV, airstrike and helicopters, leave things way more balanced than in more recent COD games, and being on the worse team isn’t always a death sentence for strong players. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend getting this now, as the player base is likely to fall off a cliff with the rebooted Modern Warfare’s release, but its good enough to make my games of the year nonetheless.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

2: Total War: Warhammer II (2017): Now I finally have a PC capable of running it, I’ve put some serious hours into Warhammer 2, and I can safely say that its the best Total War game of the past decade – perhaps the first since Medieval 2 that I can see myself putting hundreds of hours into. With 4 main races you get to play as Elves, Dark Elves, Lizardmen and Skaven (sneaky, untrustworthy ratmen with a genius for artillery) while DLC adds the pirate factions of the Vampire Coast and the Egyptian inspired Undead hordes of the Tomb Kings. The sheer variety of units, artillery, magic users and monsters make this, like its predecessor, immensely fun during battles, while the campaign design has been greatly improved, making this both easier to get into that Warhammer 1, and more involving during the middle part of the game: whether you’re scouting ruins for treasure, performing rituals or fighting quest battles, you’ll rarely just be spamming the end turn button. The Mortal Empires campaign, available for people who own both Warhammer 1 and 2, is a great addition, as many of the original factions have been revamped in the sequel and play better than ever. Overall, its still perhaps not the best TW game for newcomers, but for series veterans its a must have. Be sure to get the Tomb Kings DLC – they are one of the coolest factions I can remember playing as!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

1: Spyro: Reignited Trilogy (2018): The Spyro trilogy was originally released on PS1, hence remastering it to play and look as good as modern games was a Herculean task. Fortunately, the developers proved equal to it – all three games are brilliantly recreated. Whether you’ve played the originals or not, this will be entertaining – every level and enemy has been lovingly remade, with a host of collectables to find, and platforming and combat challenges aplenty. Difficulty varies from level to level and boss fight to boss fight – you might initially think its a cakewalk geared at kids – halfway through you won’t think that – getting to 100% completion will take serious work, as will earning all the skill points and trophies – these games really reward full exploration. All 3 games bring something different to the table too, with different mini-games, enemies and mechanics – it’s hard to pick which ones best to be honest – 2 was the hardest to get into but had a superb 2nd half. As someone who never played the originals, I was pleasantly surprised by how well this remaster works and the trilogy – sold as one item (which is a great deal as you’re getting tons of hours for not much money) – was very high quality. Overall, while some elements are a bit frustrating or simple, its easy the most fun I’ve had gaming this year, so tops my list.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Feel free to comment your own lists – there’s plenty that could have been here – I’ve elaborated on some glaring omissions below for those who are curious.

There are plenty of games I’ve played from this year (Man of Medan, The Outer Worlds, Catherine Full Body) that I felt weren’t quite good enough to get on this list.

There were also some I’ve started playing but haven’t put enough hours into to recommend yet, such as Control, Borderlands 3, Modern Warfare and Rage 2 – expect to see some of them on next years list (particularly Control and Rage 2).

There’s also plenty I still haven’t got round to, like Devil May Cry V, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Jedi Fallen Order – again, you’ll probably see them on a future list if they live up to their reputation.

If you enjoyed this, keep an eye out for my upcoming post: My Top 20 games of the decade – featuring my favourite games from 2010-2019 on PS3, PS4 and PC, which i’ll upload in the next few days, along with similar lists for Film and TV.

But before that: tomorrow will see my Top 10 TV shows of 2019 – which features some shows I’ve never put on that list before – see you all then.

My Best and Worst Films of 2019

First of my annual end of year posts – my thoughts on the films that have come out this year. I should note I haven’t seen as many as I’d hoped – Shazam and Toy Story 4 being the main omissions – but here’s my take on the rest of the years best – and worst – offerings in cinema.

No Major Spoilers. Some minor ones.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: If this was just any old Star Wars film, both me and other reviewers may have been kinder to it. In many ways it suffered because of bad decisions Disney made during Force Awakens production (i.e. not setting out a clear plan of where the series was going or focusing on innovation and decent world-building). As a result this overstuffed mess tries to do far too much in 2h 30, with leads to the first hour being a confusing garble of ideas and set-up likely to leave its audience with whiplash, so quickly does it jump from scene to scene and planet to planet. It jettisons most of what Last Jedi accomplished and will doubtless annoy most fans of that film (particularly its needless marginalisation of Rose and its dull revelations/retcons of Snoke and Rey’s origins). The score by John Williams is surprisingly lacklustre, and while several of the new and returning characters shine, none get the kind of screen time they deserve. The film emerges with some credit for Leia and Kylo Ren’s arcs, but ultimately fails on too many levels. Too generic by far, it plays out like a limp rehash of Episode VI, with boring fetch-quest taking up much of the first half, silly death fake outs punctuating the second and a conclusion which is a insult to both any audience goers with intelligence and the character and gravitas of Emperor Palpatine, who’s return goes unexplained. As the end of a trilogy and something meant to cap off the entire Skywalker Saga, this needed to be good. It isn’t even close. Come back George, all is forgiven… even the prequels had far more cohesion, imagination and spectacle than this mess.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Spiderman: Far from Home: The seconding most disappointing film of the year, Far from Home has echoes of Iron Man 3 – i.e. good first half, misguided plot twist, terrible second half. Like the Mandarin twist, Mysterio’s predictable (to literally anyone who knows 1 thing about the character) mid-film revelation derails things and they never recover. Some things are positive – Jon Favreau is at his best here as Happy, Peter and MJ’s relationship is nicely done and Ned’s romance with Betty is hilarious. But the problems are far more numerous – first off, you should never make the villain’s real plot less interesting than their fake plan the heroes expect to deal with. Samuel L. Jackson puts in one of the worst performances of his career here, but that’s due to how badly the script writes Nick Fury. The main problem is this film completely misses what Spiderman should be about – he isn’t an Avenger, he’s his own hero protecting his own city, who works with the Avengers when needed to stop cataclysmic threats. He’s certainly not Tony Stark mark 2, so please stop trying to make him so. Great final scene though – its about time that a certain character returned to the Spiderman films – and what a way to do it.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Zombieland 2: Double Tap: On a more positive note, Zombieland 2 was a fun, amusing follow-up to its predecessor. The cast, including Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin and — are as good as ever, and the interplay between them is once again, the core of the movie. The best jokes involve Columbus’ new love interest Zoey Deutch, the categories of zombies (ranging from fast, smart killing machines to the dumb, virtually harmless Homers) and various hilarious zombie kill methods – most memorably involving a monster truck. Not as good as its predecessor, some jokes don’t land and the finale isn’t as memorable, but still a good effort and something you’ll enjoy.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

How to train your Dragon: The Hidden World: The only animated film I’ve seen in cinema this year, The Hidden World capped off a very consistent trilogy of HTTYD movies. All have been entertaining, heartfelt and lovingly designed, and while they aren’t a patch on stuff like the Incredibles or Toy Story, they’re very enjoyable. The story of this one is less dark than film 2 and feels like a good way to end things. Given how other, far more important, films have shown how easy it is to muck up the third film in a trilogy, The Hidden World should be commended for providing a satisfying conclusion to Hiccup and Toothless’ story. It’s probably my favourite of the three.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Captain Marvel: Samuel L. Jackson gets his best role in an MCU film here – as a digitally de-aged version of him plays sidekick/guide to Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel – one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. Her powers make for some great action sequences, Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos is a superb supporting character and the story is one of Marvel’s better origin stories (only Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man are better). The humour is on point throughout, with some laugh out loud moments, mainly involving Nick Fury and the Flerkin. There’s a good soundtrack and a touching tribute to Stan Lee too. The only drawbacks are some 2 dimensional alien characters, lack of development for lead Carol Danvers and predictable plot lines. Its a very fun Marvel film, but isn’t quite up there with their best.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Avengers Endgame: Now this is how you conclude a saga. Avengers Endgame gives its characters room to breath and commits a lot of screen time to its set pieces and key events, and comes out all the better for it. The special effects, direction and acting come together to form an epic conclusion to the third phase of the MCU, and gives central characters like Iron Man and Captain America fitting ends to their arcs. There’s lashings of humour but its far more restrained than normal, to the films credit (though a few crap jokes – i.e. America’s ass – probably should have been cut). It succeeds in its quieter moments, such as Cap’s regret over a missed life with Peggy or Tony spending some time with his father. It has a few flaws – Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack and Thanos reduced screentime among them – but frankly who cares – the film nails its final act and produces one of the best onscreen battles in cinematic history – its up there with Pelennor Fields in Lord of the Rings. Any other year, this might have topped my list… but not this year…

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Joker: Joker has to come out on top. With interesting themes, an intelligent, focused script, no CGI or effects to distract you, its a full-blooded character exploration of one of the most interesting DC comics characters, as you’ve never seen him before. With a heavy, almost oppressively intense soundtrack and masterful direction by Todd Philips, everything comes together to form one of the best films I can remember in a long time – if not one you’ll what to watch too frequently – its too damn draining. While there’s sterling work from the likes of Robert de Niro and Zazie Beetz in the supporting cast, the film hinges on its lead: Joaquin Phoenix. If he doesn’t get an Oscar for this then its a serious miscarriage of justice. The man owns and inhabits the role in a way even Heath Ledger didn’t, and is possibly the only live action portrayal that can hold a candle to Ledger’s take on the character. To say too much would spoil it, but this film will have you gripped, horrified and delighted throughout its entire runtime. Its that good. Even the spectacle infused Avengers Endgame isn’t on this level of film making – if anyone wants to argue that film is a medium of art… Joker is exhibit A. You may not like it, it may not be your kind of film – but you need to see it and decide for yourself.

Rating: 5 out of 5!

My film awards 2019:

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Best Actress: Scarlet Johannson (Avengers: Endgame)

Best Supporting Actor: Robert de Niro (Joker)

Best Supporting Actress: Zoey Deutch (Zombieland 2)

Best Director: Todd Phillips (Joker)

Best Script: Joker

Best Soundtrack: Joker

Best Special Effects: Avenger Endgame

And the less deserving..

Worst Actor: Oscar Isaac (The Rise of Skywalker)

Worst Supporting Actor: Samuel L. Jackson (Spiderman Far from Home)

Worst Director: JJ Abrams (The Rise of Skywalker)

Worst Script: The Rise of Skywalker

Worst Soundtrack: The Rise of Skywalker (even John Williams didn’t bring his best)

There you have it, my view on some of the year’s biggest releases. I’m sure some of you will disagree, but that’s the good thing about cinema – there’s something for everyone.

Next Up: My Top Video Games of 2019

 

The Rise of Skywalker Review

As I always do for reviews of films that have just come out, the first half will be spoiler-free and i’ll insert a warning before the spoiler-filled second half so fans who haven’t seen the film yet can back out.

Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams and Ian McDiarmid.

The Rise of Skywalker had an AWFUL lot to do. It had to provide a satisfying conclusion to the Sequel trilogy, tie up a multitude of loose ends and character arcs and act as a fitting finale to the entire 9 movie saga. An additional challenge was to try and reunite a fanbase deeply divided by Force Awakens and Last Jedi.

For those who don’t know, I like both of them, despite their flaws – though I suspect after this, I may look back on Force Awakens a lot less fondly, because a lot of the problems here stem from how little set up and world-building Abrams managed in Force Awakens.

Anyway, sad to say, Rise of Skywalker ultimately fails to meet its objectives – it doesn’t even get close to being something the fanbase can reunite over. The fact that its critical review score is actually LOWER than Phantom Menace’s was a bad sign, and while I don’t always agree with critics, here my only issue with them is that they arguably didn’t go far enough.

First, the positives, because the film itself isn’t all bad. The way it handles the late Carrie Fisher’s role as Leia is commendable and gives the character a fitting send-off, if not one as grand as was probably planned. Billy Dee Williams shines in his limited role as Lando, perhaps even giving his best performance in the role. Richard E. Grant and Keri Russell make for superb additions to the cast as a First Order General and one of Poe’s smuggling comrades respectively. Kylo Ren’s arc is well done, even if it may not have been exactly what you expected (or indeed wanted) done with the character. The Kylo/Rey connection established in Last Jedi is very well used here, and one of the few ways that Abrams adds to the previous film rather than detracting from it. John Boyega, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley all do well with what they are given.

Other than that… um, well the opening crawl sets things up well… C3PO is less annoying than usual… John Williams score is okay if a bit bland…Ian McDiarmid clearly relishes his return as the Emperor (that isn’t a spoiler – its in the damn opening crawl). Okay, sod it, I just ran out of positives.

The film has a litany of problems. For starters, it needs to be about an hour longer. It tries to cram WAAAAYYYY too much in. We cut from scene to scene and planet to planet so rapidly in the first half it legitimately gave me a headache. Moments that could have worked with more time to take them in or would have been tenser with a slower pace simply fall flat. Think of the classic scenes in Star Wars history – Han and Luke rescuing Leia from the Detention block, the X-Wing assault on the Death Star, Luke’s duel with Vader on Bespin, the Speeder Chase on Endor, Darth Maul fighting Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, Order 66, Anakin vs. Obi-Wan, the Battle of Scarif in Rogue One…. all of them take time to build up to a crescendo. All have a good amount of screen time and are centrepieces or conclusions to their films. By comparison, the first third of Rise of Skywalker is rushed, confusing and frankly, poorly edited. Good special effects are meaningless when the action sequences chop and change and last all of two minutes before the scene changes to another plot strand.

It’s clear that Disney and Abrams had no idea what they wanted the final chapter to look like when they made Force Awakens or let Rian Johnson take over for Last Jedi. Nothing in the first two really set the stage for this one – leaving the film to fall over itself trying to retroactively fit everything together. The frantic rush to set this film up in the first hour is terrible cinema (particularly as the plot is driven by little more than a fetch quest – yeah, and not a memorable one either). Compared to say, Avengers Infinity War, which had far more to do in its first hour but managed it far better, Rise of Skywalker’s efforts in its opening hour are uninspired, convoluted and show up the weakness of the rest of the trilogy. We finally get answers to some key questions, but the answers either aren’t satisfying or are delivering in such an underwhelming way they might as well not have bothered. If you are in the part of the fanbase who like Last Jedi, i’ll warn you, you’re in for a rough ride – the film either ignores or overwrites a lot of what it brought to the table.

The second act is far better than the first, granted, but your enjoyment of this film will hinge entirely on its third act as Rey and the Resistance confront the First Order and Palpatine in a massively against the odds final battle. Sound familiar? Yeah it should – its a half-baked version of Return of the Jedi’s finale, involving characters you care much less about than Han, Luke, Leia and Vader, and features some very uninspired twists and generally lacks imagination. The climatic spaceship battle is very disappointing – even Phantom Menace’s assault on the droid control ship is better devised. But ultimately, whether you approve of the choices the film makes about Rey, Kylo and the Emperor’s plotlines will probably be the key factor in whether you like it or, like me, consider it to be a massive disappointment.

Overall the film has decent acting, good special effects and is entertaining enough in places, particularly its middle act. If you’re a mainstream cinemagoer only in it for entertainment value, you may like it. But if you’re a hardcore Star Wars fan or like the films you watch to have some semblance of intelligence? Brace yourself.

Rating: 2 out of 5. The last film I rated this lowly was Suicide Squad. I’ll just let that sink in.

I could go on, but everything else I want to say requires spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, bail out now!!

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!!

First up, how many wasted characters have we had this trilogy? Captain Phasma was criminally underused, Benicio del Toro’s conman DJ goes unmentioned here, Hux has to be the least interesting character in the whole franchise (despite having two more films than Darth Maul got – I mean somethings wrong there), Rose gets sidelined unfairly (good job JJ, you basically let the trolls win) and the film introduces so many new characters, you suspect mainly to augment Disney’s toy sales, that none of them get the chance to make a lasting impression, which is a shame, because Zori, Jannah and General Pryde are all quite good characters, and had they been introduced in films 1 or 2 in this trilogy, they could have added a lot to it.

Lando and The Emperor at least get some screentime, but only about 5 or 10 mins each respectively. Instead most of the journey is spent with the leading trio and Kylo Ren, but the problem is, they lack the memorable nature of the original leads or even Obi Wan, Padme and Anakin in the prequels. Its not John Boyega’s fault, he gets nothing to work with here. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver do well, but are arguably the only two characters who are well served by the script. The biggest failing is Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron – the guy was originally designed to only be in the first 30 minutes of force awakens, and it shows. His history is poorly expanded upon and attempts to portray him as a han-esque rogue or leia-esque leader have never been merited by the material he’s got. Ultimately, I think Isaac may have been miscast, he’s a fine actor but has never seemed a natural fit (except when acting opposite BB8 or blowing stuff up in an X-Wing, then and only then has Poe worked as a character).

But, character problems aside, this film creates so many problems for the wider Star Wars universe. If Rey and Kylo’s force healing abilities are so strong, how come Obi-Wan couldn’t save Qui-Gon in Phantom Menace? Why couldn’t Anakin use it to save Padme in Revenge of the Sith, rather than selling his soul to the Emperor in panic? Why couldn’t Luke revive Vader? If Force Healing is a Jedi ability, it really should’ve been used before now – it makes no sense for far more well-trained Jedi to be unaware of it.

More unforgiveably, the film gives no explanation for Palpatine’s survival. All those theories about whether he was a clone, a force ghost or got resurrected – a complete waste of time. Just like all the speculation about how the White Walkers would be defeated in game of thrones – the actual answer is far less interesting than the ones the fans came up with in their imaginations and knowledge of the lore.

Also, Snoke was just some generic evil force user Palpatine created? That really isn’t satisfying. Rey being a Palpatine DOES make sense, but it would have hit far harder if Snoke had told her that last movie – Kylo doing so here was very undramatic. Other questions raised by Force Awakens go completely unanswered. How did Maz get Luke’s old lightsaber? No. How did the First Order become so powerful compared to the Republic? No. Why did C3PO have a random red arm in Force Awakens? No. Put all this disappointment and rubbish world-building together and you can see why i’m annoyed.

Had Rian Johnson or JJ. Abrams done the whole trilogy themselves, it might have been more coherent. But Abrams has proved yet again, just like with Star Trek, he utterly lacks creativity and while his films are always entertaining, they consistently lack depth. Say what you like about the prequels, at least they were well structured and built to a clear conclusion. Lucas’s vision is sorely missed here. The Star Wars Legends novels created a convincing, vibrant and believable universe post-Return of the Jedi. Disney hasn’t.

Some ideas here are good ones – Luke training Leia but her giving up to avoid her destiny is interesting, but needed some build-up or foreshadowing that it never got. Kylo’s turn to the light is done well, but like everything else in the film, its rushed and his about turn is far less convincing than say, Vader’s.

Finally (because i’m near 2000 words and don’t want this to turn into a dissertation – although I could probably go on that long) the last act just doesn’t work for me. Ben Solo survives a fatal fall then dies for no clear reason. The spaceship battle is mediocre – we know the reinforcements will save the day, and the scene carries little conviction – its hardly an epic helms deep or knights of the vale type rescue. Palpatine’s motives change with the wind – its hard to know if he was just manipulating Rey and Kylo the whole time and lucked out or merely took advantage of an unseen opportunity. But the biggest problem is how the Emperor is beaten. One thing I’ve said ever since I knew he was returning was that Rey and Ben couldn’t beat him, even together. Only one person in the entire Star Wars canon (Mace Windu) has beaten the Emperor in a straight fight. Even Yoda could only manage a draw. The whole idea of Rey being the vessel for all the Jedi’s power is ludicrous – had she summoned the force ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, Luke, Anakin, Qui-Gon, Leia and Mace etc., and the group of them combined powers to defeat the Emperor, that might have worked. Her just blasting him away with his own lightning? That sucks and is lazy writing. The Emperor deserved better.

So there you are. I’m sure some of you will vehemently disagree with all this. Good for you. But for me, there’s no doubt – this is the worst Star Wars film ever made.

In the words of Yoda:

Failed, Disney has. A clusterfuck, this is.