Movie Reviews – 2016

From the Vault #16: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from Dec 19th, 2016, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

For a while, let’s be honest, we didn’t know if the Force was with Rogue One, did we?

The first in Disney/LucasFilm’s attempt to build an extended Star Wars universe, in the vein of Marvel Studios, was for many an anthology story we didn’t need telling – specifically how the Death Star plans came not to be in the main computer at the very beginning of George Lucas’ opus in 1977’s A New Hope. Would it launch a brand new approach to the revived Star Wars franchise or would it be a pointless, bloated stain to sit alongside the painful prequels? All the news of Gareth Edwards being locked out of the editing suite, Tony Gilroy coming in to film extensive reshoots, they all suggested a misconceived project which many would have considered a mistake.

Here’s the great news: Rogue One isn’t just the prequel you never knew you wanted, the kind of prequel which makes the official episodic prequels look increasingly paltry, but it’s also quite possibly almost almost as good as A New Hope itself.


The Third One is Always the Worst: X-Men – Apocalypse (2016)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s 2016 sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse

Perhaps the best way to describe X-Men: Apocalypse is as the film X-Men: The Last Stand wanted to be, which is a significant amount of damning with faint praise.

Apocalypse is a clear and visible step down from X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is, easily, the weakest X-Men movie since X-Men: Origins Wolverine. It is also the most cleanly and directly an X-Men film since The Last Stand, and to an extent the more logical sequel that we could have been given after First Class had Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner and the rest of the team had gone in a different direction. First Class introduced the idea of the X-Men as a functional unit but, in order to facilitate the darker, multi-generational, time-spanning narrative of Days of Future Past, chose to roll back on their development in order to provide an origin story for Charles Xavier as Professor X. First Class placed everyone where the needed to be for Apocalypse to happen but this film benefits from the depth of characterisation given to characters such as Xavier, Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr and Raven ‘Mystique’ Darkholme.

Where Apocalypse stumbles is how it attempts to start re-creating the conditions of the first two X-Men movies while lacking their depth of subtlety or clear dramatic through-lines. X-Men had the X/Magneto conflict fully formed at the turn of the millennium whereas, in Apocalypse, X is still building Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters into the functional X-Men team we saw in the 2000 film, and Erik has attempted to abandon the Magneto persona after the events of Days of Future Past instead of becoming the ideological, anti-human uber-villain he was in Singer’s first film. Apocalypse wants to be both a First Class-style groundwork-laying origin story *and* a functional, standard X-Men film—a counterpoint to how offbeat and format-breaking DOFP was—all in one go, and as a result it ends up a busy, silly, often unfulfilling concoction recalling the heady vacuousness of The Last Stand. The fact it also wants to be meta and subversive at the same time just adds to the cluttered mix.

Apocalypse *is* a better film than The Last Stand. It is not, however, the sequel that either First Class or especially Days of Future Past deserved.

The Neon Demon (2016)

The Neon Demon is about the deadliness of artifice, the predatory nature of corporate industry built on facades, on what lies without rather than within, and in a literal, horrific sense, what such artifice can do to you. Yet the message, ultimately, is defiantly obtuse.

Nicolas Winding Refn remains a director distant to me, having not seen any of his back catalogue before watching The Neon Demon, but his reputation for slick style has divided plenty of people over multiple films. Are his movies visually striking and profound or is there no substance behind the colourful, vibrant thrills? That question definitely remains open by the end of The Neon Demon, perhaps more than films such as Bronson or Drive on which he built his name, and growing reputation as an auteur. This is a picture capable of providing as much revulsion as appreciation.

For me, the feeling was fascination. The Neon Demon comes across as very self-referential and self-aware, even while being deliberately enigmatic and metaphorical. In a way, the very construct and context of the film parallels the lead character, Jesse (played with knowing, entrancing guile by Elle Fanning). She begins as a fresh-faced, orphaned, quiet upstart in the fashion industry of Los Angeles and ends up a vampish, abused, self-destroyed victim plunged into an arthouse horror picture by the conclusion. Refn’s film takes the same path: it knows how beautiful it is but increasingly becomes consumed by the horror lurking behind the mirror.

The Girl on the Train (2016)

Adaptations of novels to film are notorious in having two schools of thought once the picture is released – those who read the novel, and those who didn’t. Mine is the second camp, though my fiancee did, and she assures me The Girl on the Train hasn’t survived the transition from page to celluloid well.

A bestseller list hit from debut novelist Paula Hawkins in 2015, The Girl on the Train was fast-tracked into production once the rights were snapped up by Hollywood. They thought they had another Gone Girl on their hands, David Fincher’s well constructed adaptation of Gillian Flynn twisted mirror on the trauma of marriage in 2014 being both a critical and commercial hit. Hawkins’ work has, on paper, plenty of the same psycho-sexual thriller elements which pitch these kind of novels as modern day versions of 80’s or 90’s sex-based thrillers that Joe Eszterhas would pen and Paul Verhoeven might direct.

Would that the film version of The Girl on the Train be so visceral. Tate Taylor, best known for emotional American drama The Help, has neither the perverted, steaming fantasy of Verhoeven or the slick, poised understanding of Hitchcockian thrills of Fincher. What could have been a modern Rear Window meets Fatal Attraction ends up being a damp squib, a plodding, leaden and un-focused film which at just 110 minutes feels more like 180. You have to wonder if it takes skill to direct and edit such a slog of a picture from source material known by many to move with far more impetus and grace.

The Girl With All the Gifts (2016)

Intentionally moving away from many of the familiar tropes of the modern zombie movie, The Girl With All the Gifts makes its own statement as a horror picture all about children, nature and the dehumanisation of humanity.

Unusually for the production of a film based on source material, the book director Colm McCarthy adapts his movie from was written in tandem by novelist M.R. Carey, who also penned the screenplay to his adaptation. These circumstances allow for the picture to not only remain very faithful to the source material but have the fresh confidence to adapt and chart its own course, with the full involvement of the creative mind behind the project. How often do adaptations fall short because they miss the point or stray too far from the book? The Girl With All the Gifts is quite the opposite, and hits as a result.

What strikes you immediately about McCarthy’s film is how it treats the wider situation the world finds itself in. If you know the basic elements of the story going in, you know Britain at least has been overcome by a fungus strain of virus, which can infect humans via blood or fluid transmission, and turns them instantaneously into ‘hungries’; zombies, effectively, monstrous creatures who devour anything in their path and can move at speed. Only pockets of humans appear to be left, including the military officers inside the countryside British base where Carey’s story begins.

Headshot (2016)

Headshot is a direct consequence of two distinct elements: the growing, exciting Indonesian film industry and the existence of The Raid and its even better sequel.

Exploding onto Western screens in 2011, The Raid: Redemption was both a career launching picture for star Iko Uwais and director Gareth Evans, but felt like an adrenaline-fuelled shot in the arm to a genre which, if not stale, perhaps needed the window opening. Evans and Uwais essentially trademarked the use on screen of Pencak Silat, a traditional Indonesian martial art which, according to Wikipedia, is “a full-body fighting form incorporating strikes, grappling and throwing in addition to weaponry.” In short, every part of the body is both susceptible to and used for, attack. This made The Raid a wanton fury of intense close-quarter combat sequences, packed into a tight, contained, building under siege story.

In continuing the narrative, after The Raid’s surprise hailing as a modern action classic by Western audiences excited for more, Evans with The Raid 2 switched gears to deliver what to many is considered ‘The Godfather of action movies’. Perhaps praise too high, but as with any great sequel it takes the composite blocks and builds on them, with shades of Michael Mann crime world complexity until Uwais is let completely off the chain for a barnstorming final succession of action sequences as his character Rama, quite literally, fights big boss after big boss in a video-game stylee. It’s as bravura as it is ridiculous, but both The Raid movies made their mark on modern action cinema and cemented Indonesia as a player to rival Hong Kong when it comes to slick, thrilling action pictures.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

A response to austerity, poverty and class, Don’t Breathe bludgeons the senses with a taut, brooding eighty five minutes of home invasion horror.

Not horror in the traditional sense of schlock and gore. Fede Alvarez, hot off the commercially successful Evil Dead remake, wanted to very specifically avoid blood, guts and copious claret spilling with Don’t Breathe and deal in suspense. The horror of suspense is a very different animal than the kind of horror Sam Raimi popularised in his original Evil Dead (taking nothing away from that seminal franchise). Indeed the biggest compliment you can give Don’t Breathe is that were Alfred Hitchcock alive today, he may at least have approved of Alvarez’s picture, even if it’s a cliched stretch to suggest he would have directed something similar himself.

Home invasion horror has become a sub-genre all of its own in recent years, much like found footage or ‘torture porn’ (is that still a thing?). As an entity its been around for decades, from George Romero’s legendary Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Straw Dogs (1971) which has resonated through cinema even to the point it dug its roots, remarkably, into the James Bond franchise.

The sub-genre has enjoyed a real renaissance in recent years, with films such as Michael Haneke’s profoundly disturbing Funny Games (1997) or his American remake ten years later, The Strangers (2008), The Purge (2013) which may have blossomed into a franchise all of its own but very much started as a claustrophobic home invasion thriller, or Knock Knock (2015), Eli Roth’s absurdist cautionary tale with a Shatner-esque hammy turn from Keanu Reeves. Lately, home invasion is everywhere.

Lights Out (2016)

Birthed from a short film that went viral, Lights Out has enjoyed a fascinating journey from YouTube curio to the launchpad of an unknown talent. The brainchild of Swedish writer/director David F. Sandberg, Lights Out is a deconstruction of mental illness wrapped around the trappings of, ostensibly, a B-movie spooky horror feature.

You wouldn’t have credited this as the direction following the original piece Sandberg directed for the Who’s There? short film competition (which he didn’t win). Made in 2013, with Sandberg’s muse and indeed wife Lotta Losten in the frame, Lights Out was a three-minute exercise in near silent, pared back terror. A simple premise; a woman on her way to bed, turning out the light in the hall, only to see the creeping visage of someone illuminated in shadow. Repeatedly turning the light on and off, she sees the same shadow looking at her until, finally, the mottled, decayed body of a straggly, naked woman is standing inches from her when the light goes off.


Hard to describe, visceral to watch. There’s something primal about the fear that, intentionally or not, evokes the Weeping Angels from British TV series Doctor Who, creatures which of course moved closer to someone the more you blinked, the more you stopped fixing them into the stone creatures, Medusa-style, they were. It’s that terror of missing something, the terror of being invaded almost. The Lights Out short achieved that so brilliantly in such a short space of time, building to a climax where Losten hides under the bed covers as, in the darkness, she hears the invader creep into her bedroom before… well, that would be telling. It’s worth enjoying for the terrifying last shot alone.