TOP TEN TV SHOWS OF 2016

Top 10

2016 delivered some of the most stunning, poignant, thought-provoking, and downright hilarious moments of TV that I could remember in a long time. We are truly lucky to be in another golden age of television (the early 2000s being the first).  As a viewer, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep up with the quality of television (quality for some networks being $100 million quality) that is now being churned out. Every week I end up reading somewhere in the papers or on the internet “<INSERT SHOW NAME> is your next TV-obsession”. Being the curious guy I am, it gets added to the already long list of things to watch I know I’ll never get around to watching. Either I compromise sleep, watch it when I’m ill, or put aside a day to binge watch it and end up either feeling really proud or question what I’m doing with my life (that’s for a future post). Saying that, the ten below that I’ve chosen as my best of 2016 were worthy of binge watching and sleep deprivation. Some are veteran shows, others are newbies, but the common theme between them all: they hooked me from episode 1. As always, these are spoiler free for your reading pleasure. Leave in the comments section below on what your favourite TV shows of 2016 were, and any you feel should’ve made it in my list!

Honourable Mentions: The Great British Bake Off, Love, Mr Robot, Daredevil

10. Silicon Valleysilicon-valley-s3-1280jpg-652c3a_1280w.jpg

A show about a tech start-up trying to make it big in the cutthroat ecosystem of Silicon Valley, it follows five highly-intelligent nerds being very unintelligent to hilarious effect. Mike Judge’s (creator of Beavis and Butt-Head, King of The Hill, Office Space) satirical take on the uncompromising world of technology we live in now, and the gigantic egos that surround it’s creation is at times relevant, shocking, but oh so funny. In its third season now, it still hasn’t lost its cringe worthy moments and incredible one-liners which made me fall in love with it the first time I watched it.

Favourite Quote From This Season: “At least the actual Judas had the courtesy to kill himself after betraying his leader, Jesus Christ. He’s the CEO of the world. Ever heard of him?”
Where Can You Watch It: Sky Atlantic

9. Veep

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Like he did with the brilliant satirical comedy “The Thick Of It” conquering British politics, Armando Iannucci take on US politics is even better and now in its fifth season, it’s hands down the sharpest and funniest comedy on TV. The show follows Selina Meyer, the vice-president (Veep) of the United States of America trying to make a mark outside of the shadow of the current president (with the help of her team). Compromising of one the best comic casts on TV led by comedy queen Julia Louis-Dreyfus (she has won five consecutive Emmys for her portrayal of Selina), it’s a brutal behind-the-scenes look at the ruthless world of US politics. I don’t think even Iannucci and his team of writers ever realised how the show itself has turned into the reflection of modern day US politics, most notably with this year’s US elections. Also, there’s no other show that does insults and swearing in a way that is downright poetic like Veep does.

Favourite Quote From This Season: “General George Washington could climb out of his grave right now and I would rather eat out his zombified wooden a**hole twice a day than be his vice f**king – f**king anything!”
Where Can You Watch It: Sky Atlantic

8. The Night Of

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Crime dramas can be a hit-and-miss at times but this year I got to have the pleasure of watching two of the finest murder mysteries the medium had to offer, with both of them being the only two miniseries in my top 10. The first is an adaptation of a British drama series and a passion project of the late great James Gandolfini. It’s about a Muslim Pakistani-American student  (a vulnerable Riz Ahmed) who ends up having a night of sex/alcohol/drugs with a girl from a chance encounter, waking up to find her murdered and having no recollection of what had happened the night before. It is at times a truthful look at racial stereotyping, discrimination, and the justice system in the US. It’s also one of those shows that brilliantly keeps you guessing throughout the eight episodes on whether our protagonist is as innocent as he seems.

Favourite Quote From This Season: “Do you ever lie Mr Khan?”. “I try not to”
Where Can You Watch It: Sky Atlantic

7. Atlanta

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 I’ve been a supporter of Donald Glover’s work since seeing him in one of my all time favourite comedies “Community”. He is what I like to call a renaissance man: He’s an actor, a writer, a producer, a singer, and a successful rapper (Childish Gambino FTW!) so I was pretty excited to watch the future Lando Calrissian’s latest creation “Atlanta” (with a team of black writers, unheard of in American TV landscape). The show is about two cousins, Earn (Glover) and Paper Boi (a scene stealing Brian Tyree Henry), trying to make it big in the rap music industry in Atlanta. It’s at times a social commentary of what it’s like being a black American in America, and an inside look into trying to make it big in the music industry. It’s very funny when it wants to be but also powerful and moving when it needs to be. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I was invested in all of the characters from scene one and recommend everyone in taking the journey.

Favourite Quote From This Season: “I like Flo Rida. Moms need to be able to enjoy rap too”
Where Can You Watch It: Fox UK

6. The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

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 The second of the crime miniseries on my list is one that most people already know the outcome to. I was pretty young when the infamous trial of O.J Simpson had happened, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, but as I grew up I got to know how significant it was (given its title of “Trial of the Century”). I knew the ending but I was gripped every second and at times bewildered, not fathoming that some of the things portrayed actually DID happen. To me the show wasn’t really about the trial, but it was about how unrelenting the media can be (and still is). The cast in this show was perfectly casted, most notably Sarah Paulson’s portrayal of Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in this case. The treatment the bullying media put Miss Clark through is disgusting and unashamedly sexist, and Paulson shows that harrowingly.

Favourite Quote From This Season: “I have no idea what that means, but you know what? It shouldn’t matter. He got away with beating her, but he is not going to get away with killing her!”
Where Can You Watch It: Fox UK

5. Planet Earth II

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Ten years ago when I was the ripe old age of 16, I got to witness the greatest nature documentary ever created, “Planet Earth”. It’s pretty special to me because it’s one of those shows that my whole family would sit down and watch together week after week, where we would just marvel at the beautifully strange world that we live in. It was also my first exposure to the living legend that is Sir David Attenborough. Ten years later and when BBC announced they are releasing “Planet Earth II”, I could not hold my excitement but also feared it won’t live up to my expectations. Oh how wrong was I! My family and I would once again sit down together and watch with open jaws the beauty that is the planet that we live in. Hands down the best shot show this year, it has some of the greatest scenes ever to behold high definition TV (YouTube Iguanas Vs Snakes!), with a breathtaking score composed by Hans Zimmer, and the irreplaceable voice of Sir David, it’s also a timely reminder of what we are seeing can be lost very soon due to dangers of climate change.

Favourite Quote From This Season: “Looking down at this great metropolis the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking, but its also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend on. ”
Where Can You Watch It: BBC One

4. Stranger Things

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 It’s a show that came out of nowhere. It’s a show that has binge watching written all over it. It’s a show that pays homage to some of my favourite 80s films (E.T, The Goonies, Stand By Me), and has the best child cast you’ll find anywhere in any show this year (with an added bonus of the resurrection of Winona Ryder). Already a cult-phenomenon and Halloween costume obsession, “Stranger Things” is about a young boy disappearing and the people trying to find him, with the help of a telekinetic girl. It’s old school science fiction and horror, with kids you hoped would’ve been friends with you when you were a child. It was one of the few times that I enjoyed staying in bed for 8 hours straight on a Saturday. Thank you Netflix. Bring on Season 2!

Favourite Quote From This Season: “Mornings are for coffee and contemplation”
Where Can You Watch It: Netflix

3. Black Mirror

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 When it came out in 2011, it was something that fell under my radar. It should’ve been something I watched right back then but I think I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much as I do now. Charlie Brooker’s anthology series around the consequences of how we could abuse (or as a matter of fact already are) the technological advances we humans are experiencing on a daily basis, is scary and thought-provoking. I binge watched season 3, and then Season 2, and then Season 1 (due to each episode being a completely new story) all over a weekend and nothing have I ever watched in my life has made me feel, at times, terrified with the world we are living in currently and what it could become. No wonder I loved the standout episode “San Junipero” in Season 3, as it not only is the most hopeful but the most beautiful love story you’ll see this year.  Be prepared to watch this in the right mindset if you haven’t already.

 Favourite Quote From This Season: “It was like having a whole weather system turn against me. Just hate message after hate message, around the clock, all piling on. It’s hard to describe what that does to your head. Suddenly there’s a million invisible people, all talking about how they despise you. It’s like a mental illness.”
Where Can You Watch It: Netflix

2. Westworld

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 It’s a $100 million gamble from HBO. A show that’s supposed to carry on the mantle once a another little show (see below) eventually finishes. Based on the 1973 film of the same name, “Westworld” is a technologically advanced, Western-themed theme park, with androids roaming around acting out stories that their creators have written for them. Wealthy visitors can only get to experience the “wonders” of the park and abuse it in anyway they want, with no worries of the androids retaliating. It’s a show that looks at artificial intelligence in a psychological and philosophical way. It questions human morality and what we would do if we could do anything we want without any repercussions. Not since the end of “Lost” has a show reignited by obsessions with researching theories after every episode, with the second half of the season just mind-blowing with all the revelations being thrown at you. No show in 2016 has an assemble of the highest calibre of actors and actresses like Westworld has. It really is a masterclass in how to act, led by four incredible individuals: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Welcome to your new obsession for the next decade.

Favourite Quote From This Season: “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty. To believe there is an order to our days. A purpose”
Where Can You Watch It: Sky Atlantic

1. Game of Thrones

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Was it really gonna be anything else? If you haven’t watched it yet, what hell are you doing? Seriously? Game of Thrones has not only become one of my favourite TV shows of all time, it’s a religion to me. I’m the guy who wakes up at 2am in the morning (thank you Sky Atlantic) to watch it at the same time the US are broadcasting it so no dick will spoil it for me on social media, and then watch it again at 9pm with the rest of the UK. This is the only thing I would be talking about for the 10 weeks it is on and it always is the best thing on television during that period of time. Now in its sixth season, it has officially surpassed the books, so fans of the novels are now in the same pain and anguish that us mere TV viewers have been suffering these last six seasons. Game of Thrones has never failed to shock and amaze me, and this season was no different, with some of the most rewarding and heartbreaking moments you will ever watch on television. With only 13 episodes now remaining (split over two seasons), season six has officially ended act two of the story of Westeros, setting up what will be a jaw-dropping final act. In my top ten films of 2016 article, I made the point that some argue the quality of television is surpassing what is being released in cinemas. No other episodes could make that case this year other than the final two episodes of Game of Thrones season six, most notably being “Battle of the Bastards”: The best hour of television this year…PERIOD.

Favourite Quote From This Season: “Hold The Door”
Where Can You Watch It: Sky Atlantic

Victoria

Netflix Flim of the Week

“Mabs Does Movies” wants to bring you a recommendation from the two most popular streaming platforms every week (Netflix and Amazon Video) to indulge your binge watching ways. Here’s this week’s “Netflix Flim of the Week”.

Black screen. House music plays in the background. Open shot of our protagonist Victoria, a young, beautiful Spanish woman in a nightclub in Berlin. Its 4am, she’s alone and she’s dancing by herself. The music is the drug she needs to feel alive. She takes a break and goes to the bar to order a shot. A good looking bartender serves her. She tries to chat him up but he doesn’t care. She looks disappointed, has the shot, and goes to the ladies bathroom. There’s a massive queue and she can’t be bothered to wait to use the stall. She’s tired, calls it a night and grabs her coat. She needs to open the café in a few hours time and she needs some sleep. She gets interrupted by four German guys being kicked out of the club. One of them, Sonne, starts talking to her but the bouncer tells him and his friends to leave before he gets the chance to know anything about Victoria. She giggles, walks out of the club, and walks towards her bicycle. She sees the four guys again and Sonne goes straight up to her and starts charming her off her feet. He introduces her to his three friends and tells her that she needs to join them for one beer as its one of his friends’ birthday. Reluctant at first, she joins these four strangers for that drink…

And so begins the story of “Victoria”, a lonely Spanish girl ( played by the amazing Laia Costa) living in a city very alien to her, whos life changes one very early morning after a chance meeting with four strangers. I heard about this a year ago but never got the chance to see it when it was on limited release here in the UK. How great it was to stumble upon it on Netflix a few weeks ago while scrolling through the endless amount of content the platform has to offer. A stunning, tense thriller which twists and turns throughout its two-hour running time. What’s really special about it though is that the whole film is one single take (a technological achievement in itself), meaning the camera does not cut at anytime during the whole film; you are the 6th stranger with these characters on their night out. You feel like you’re having a drink with them or being the awkward 3rd wheel whenever there is an intimate scene. There’s not many films like it out there and its one I recommend you experiencing.

Top Ten Films Of 2016

Top 10

2016 did not disappoint with films this year. With the age of binge-watching in full swing, studios are finding it tough to get people into cinema seats as the content, storytelling and originality that is becoming available in platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, and premium channels such as HBO and AMC, is surpassing the level of highly-promoted films released in cinemas. We’re even seeing big Hollywood stars venturing more and more into doing a mini series than they would have ten years ago. Yet we are still getting gems released and 2016 had an abundance of them. Here are my top 10 films of 2016 which I can’t stop thinking about. Leave in the comments section below on what your favourite films of 2016 were, and any you feel should’ve made it in my list!
Note: Some of these are yet to be released in the UK but I was fortunate enough to catch them at special screenings this year.

Honourable Mentions: The Revenant, Creed

10. The Nice Guys

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The second best buddy comedy of the year (No. 3 takes the title) is also Shane Black’s best work since 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (sorry guys but Iron Man 3 was average at best). Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play Healy and March, two private investigators looking into the death of a pornstar, and a missing teenage girl in 1970s sun-soaked, drug-fuelled Los Angeles. Set to an amazing soundtrack, Black’s writing is funny and sharp, delivered perfectly by Crowe’s punch-first-talk-later enforcer, and Gosling’s dim-witted private eye. Who knew they could do comedy? Also, where else will you see Crowe and Gosling having a conversation with a human-sized bumble bee?

Favourite Quote: “So you’re telling me you made a porno where the plot is the point?”

9. Kubo and the Two Strings

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2016 was a “meh” year for animation, with okay sequels in Kung Fu Panda 3 and Finding Dory, and mediocre/watchable releases from DreamWorks and Illumination such as “Trolls” and “The Secret Life of Pets”. But two stood out from the rest. Disney’s “Zootopia” tackled the subject of discrimination and prejudice in the form of animated animals. But it was “Kubo and the Two Strings”, the story of a young Japanese boy on a quest to find a magical suit of armour (with the help of Monkey and Beetle) to defeat The Moon King, which left a longer lasting effect on me. With the right balance of love and darkness, it’s ultimately a tale about what lengths a mother would go to to protect her child. With stellar voice work from Art Parkinson (Kubo), Charlize Theron (Monkey), and Matthew McConaughey (Beetle – standout), Laika studios’ stop-motion animation is a beauty to behold and unlike anything else you’ll see this year.

Favourite Quote: “He looked into my eyes and uttered four simple words. These words changed everything… You are my quest”

8. Captain America: Civil War

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In the last decade alone we’ve had OVER FIFTY superhero movies, with a fifth of them being from the juggernaut that is Marvel Studios. The once formulaic superhero movie plot has become a lot more meatier in terms of character studies, making you as a viewer invest more in these “super” beings but also question the ideals they hold, and there wasn’t any other superhero drama this year that did it better than Civil War (its really Avengers 3). Based loosely on the incredible comic book series, Captain America (Chris Evans) is at odds with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), as Stark believes that The Avengers should be put in check under government law due to the unnecessary human whiplash that occurs whenever they go saving the day. Thus a division occurs within The Avengers. Not as great as The Winter Soldier (still my favourite Marvel movie), but still has moments of pure spectacle (with a scene-stealing Tom Holland as Spider-Man) that fulfils any superhero fans’ heart. The airport scene alone is worth the price of the cinema ticket!

Favourite Quote: “It’s your conscience. We don’t talk a lot these days.”

7. The Hateful Eight

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Ah Mr Tarantino. I have been your follower ever since I first watched “Pulp Fiction” all those years ago. Whenever you release a movie, there isn’t any other way to describe it other than an event and boy was “The Hateful Eight” worth the wait. It was close to not being made at all, as the original script was leaked in 2014 before it went into production. But after doing a live theatre reading of the script with actors who most would end up in the final film, QT changed his mind (thank the lord!) and ended up making this cold, tension filled, three-hour long, western epic. The story of eight shady characters holed up in a cabin whilst a blizzard is happening outside is told in classic Tarantino fashion: non-linear chapters, rhythmic dialogue, a stellar cast, an incredible score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone (his first in 35 years), and blood. A…lot…of…blood.

Favourite Quote: “Move a little strange, you’re gonna get a bullet. Not a warning, not a question…a bullet”

6. The Big Short

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In the months between 2011 and 2012, I did my Masters degree on Global Banking and Finance. Of course, a major chunk of it was dedicated to the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the subprime mortgage crisis, a fascinating insight into the arrogance of banks which led to affecting millions of people all around the world. So when I heard the director of Anchorman was adapting a best-selling book about this subject, with a perfect cast that consisted of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, OH GREAT ODIN’S RAVEN did it grab my attention. The subject its dealing with is complex, but Adam McKay makes sure his audience don’t drown in finance jargon, with well-placed cues to explain it to us in the form of celebrities. It is very funny but it also makes sure that the viewers understand that this is no laughing matter, as millions of people did lose their homes because of big banks becoming too greedy for their own good.

Favourite Quote: “If we’re right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. You know what I hate about f**king banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number – every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?”

5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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In my glowing review of “Rogue One” which you can read here, I called this “…the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back” and I still support that statement. The journey of Jyn Erso (a perfectly cast Felicity Jones) and a group of rebels who go on to steal the plans to the Death Star is brought to epic, pulse-racing life by director Gareth Edwards. The characters are compelling, with Chirrut and K-2SO as standouts, and the CGI is a technological achievement. But its the final 45 miunte long battle which takes place in both the planet Scarif and space which will be remembered as one of the greatest war sequences shot in film history. Its brutal and relentless, echoing Saving Private Ryan and Platoon. Have I also not mentioned the terrifying return of Darth Vader to our screens as well?

Favourite Quote: “I’m one with the Force. The Force is with me”

4. Arrival

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At the beginning of 2016, I predicted “Rogue One” will definitely be my favourite science fiction film this year. Nine months later, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a few gala screenings at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, and “Arrival” was one of them. Two hours later and an ending that blew my tiny mind, I said to myself “This may be one of the best science fiction films I’ve ever seen”. Based on the novella “Story of your Life” by Ted Chiang, it tells the story of 12 extraterrestrial spaceships (or “shells”) suddenly appearing in random cities around the world. The world doesn’t understand why they are here and whether they are a threat to human kind. The US army hire a professor of linguistics, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, to find a way of communicating with these beings and to help answer these questions. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (who also directed “Sicario” & “Prisoners”, and is quickly becoming one of my favourite directors right now), Villeneuve has created a subtle,  nuanced thinking-man sci-fi film which isn’t really about an alien invasion, but about the power of language and how communication is the most powerful form of action. No wonder I’m so excited to see his Blade Runner sequel next year! But this film wouldn’t have truly reached its heights without Amy Adams. The FIVE-TIME (!) Oscar nominated actress will surely become the SIX-TIME Oscar nominated actress next year, as she is the soul of this film and this really is her most vulnerable performance yet.

Favourite Quote: “If you could see your life from start to finish, would you change things?”

3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Meet Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a 12-year old Tupac Shakur loving juvenile and orphan, who gets forced by child services to live with his aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hector (Sam Neill). As the film unravels, Ricky and Uncle Hec find themselves going on the run in the wild New Zealand bush and become part of a national manhunt. This is not only the funniest film of the year, its the best comedy in the last decade. There are endless jokes and quotes in this film that will make you cry with laughter, delivered by the amazing Sam Neill and the revelation that is Julian Dennison. The quick back-and-forth between Ricky and Hector is so wonderful, I can imagine both the actors must’ve found it so hard to keep a straight face when delivering their lines. And man that script. Written and directed by Taika Waititi, with a budget of only $2.5 million, it would be an absolute shame if his screenplay isn’t nominated come Oscar time. No wonder its become the highest grossing New Zealand film ever!

Favourite Quote: “Faulkner is cauc-asian” – well, they got that wrong because you’re obviously white”

2. Manchester by the Sea

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The second of the three films that I attended gala screenings for in this year’s London BFI Film Festival is also the film that made my brother and I, two fully grown adults in three-piece suits cry like babies…i mean cry man tears in a dark cinema. Being released here in the UK on 13th January 2017 (look out for my review around that time), Manchester is a tale about a man who’s brother dies from a long-standing illness and is now forced to take care of his nephew in Manchester, Massachusetts. Whats so striking about this film is how natural the conversations feel between the characters, making you feel so much more empathetic towards them, and adds more depth to the wounds these characters have in them. Beautiful writing and direction from playwright Kenneth Lonergan, with perfect performances from Michelle Williams, who is flawless like she is in all her films, and in his first ever role, Lucas Hedges has stapled himself as a future actor to look out for. But its Casey Affleck’s film, and it is the best performance I have seen all year by any actor or actress. It is moving, nuanaced, subtle and heartbreaking. Affleck wears an armour of pain throughout the film. Pain that I could feel as it was fully subjected to me throughout the running time, and not many actors could do that. Get ready to take tissues with you to watch this film come January.

Favourite Quote: “I said a lot of terrible things to you. My heart was broken, and I know yours is broken, too”

1. La La Land

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Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” was my favourite movie of 2014. I went to its UK premiere at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival and it was something that had captured me by the throat the moment I heard the drum beat in the opening credits. I love that film so much, when the film was released on Blu-ray, I bought a copy for myself and I watched it once everyday for the next seven days. When I first heard Chazelle’s next project was a musical based in LA about an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and a struggling jazz musician (Ryan Gosling), all the way back in 2015, I was counting down the days till the moment I could watch it. How poetic it was that I was able to nab a ticket to the UK premiere at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, two years after seeing Whiplash. I had already heard and read great things about it in other film festivals this was unveiled at so my expectations were high. They were so high, that sense of “Oh God what if this turns out to be terrible?!” was lingering like a leech on my skin. The lights turn down in the cinema hall…the sun-drenched view of LA appears on the gigantic screen…the opening song kicks in and explodes like beautiful fireworks. From that moment on and for the next two hours, I had only one expression on my face: a wide-eyed smile. This film is the definition of joy. The definition of what it feels like to be a dreamer. Anyone can grab their dreams, have their true calling if they never give up. Its a musical masterpiece and a film so needed in a year of so many shocking events that have occurred in 2016. Its a film you want to watch again and again and again. It comes out here in the UK on January 13th 2017, and I can’t wait to write a full review for you and for this definite Best Film winner in next years’ Oscars.

Favourite Quote: “Maybe I’m not good enough!”

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 9/10

Synopsis

From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.

The Review

If you’re a Star Wars fan like I am, you already knew the ending to Rogue One before you had gone to the cinema to watch it. It was in the second paragraph of the opening crawl to “A New Hope”: During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR. Director Gareth Edwards, with a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and screenplay from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, set out to show how a brave few from the Rebel Alliance went on a mission to successfully steal the plans of the Death Star, which ended up fuelling the story of Episode 4 which came out 39 years ago. With such sacred ground to tread on, Disney/Lucasfilm definitely require this to be a success, as it is the first of three spin-off Star Wars films ( or “Star Wars Anthology” to give the correct term) which are away from the core saga story fuelling this series. Is this “experiment” a success? Did the much-publicised re-shoots after the film originally completed show gaping holes? Well…welcome to the best Star Wars film since “The Empire Strikes Back”.

The film sees our hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), not a Rebel Alliance member but a criminal, held captive in an Imperial prison. She is quickly broken out and rescued by Rebels and taken to the rebel base where Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), the Rebel Leader, asks her help to track down her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) in exchange for her freedom. Galen Erso is a renowned scientist who has been forced by the Imperial Army into working on building a super weapon, a planet-killer which must be stopped from completing. And so begins Jyn’s journey. With the help of intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a re-programmed Imperial Droid in the name of K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), they will go on to meet the rest of their crew (Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed)) who will ultimately define the future of the galaxy.

Like all the films that had preceded it, it opens with “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” and you already feel you’re gonna be watching a Star Wars film. But that relaxed consistent feel you have from one of these movies is taken away from you straight away during the opening of the film. This isn’t your “standard” Star Wars film. There is no opening crawl, which the series has become famous for. You go straight into a view of space, a space ship, a planet, and the film is set. There are flashbacks and flash forwards, never before seen in the seven films that came before it. The Storm Troopers feel like the ruthless soldiers they should be. The Death Star has never been such a threat as it has in this film. The force is more of a tool of faith, hope, and religion than cool Jedi tricks. This is a dark, gritty, unforgiving Star Wars world we’ve never seen on the big screen. A welcome change to what we’re used to as a viewer but on the flip side, makes this a bigger threat to our heroes.

The journey they take is violent and dangerous, and with Gareth Edwards’ direction it truly is astonishing to watch. Rogue One was originally pitched as a heist movie when it was first announced a few years ago. This is not a heist movie, this is a war movie. This is a world where our heroes will have to do questionable things if they want to gain the upper hand over the Imperial Empire. This is a world where none of the main characters is safe. The film has a running time of over 2 hours but it never feels like that. Yes it is slow at the beginning, but it’s needed if you’re having to introduce so many new characters, give them back stories, and make the viewers like them all in the space of the first 45 minutes. If we look at Rogue One in three acts, the first two acts do tremendously well with those introductions, setting up the story, and why we should really care about the mission. When the third act begins in the planet Scarif, the last 45 minutes is the most awe-inspiring thing you will see on screen this whole year; a proper “war” within Star Wars and ranking up there as one of the best war sequences period. Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who has made this film beautiful to look at) have definitely taken inspirations from other films to show the merciless acts within wars of the past shown on screen, such as the beach invading sequence in Saving Private Ryan as an example. The camera work is guerrilla-style, making you feel like a soldier on the ground with the rest of the characters on the tropical beaches of Scarif, a member of the public caught within a fight between the two factions on the dirty streets of Jedha, or a passenger on the X-Wing fighting above the skies and in space against Tie-Fighters. Its dizzying and wonderful, and you just can’t help but smile like a little kid at times. To top that, we have the most jaw-dropping two minute sequence near the end of the film which in my opinion should be equally ranked as the greatest Star Wars scene with the Vader/Luke moment from Empire.

Felicity Jones has the added-on pressure of carrying this stand alone film on her shoulders. I mean her face is the most prominent feature on the posters of this film. Even though the Star Wars universe is male-dominated, what it can do well is provide strong female characters like Princess Leia and Rey. Well, Jones can definitely have that sigh of relief because she makes Jyn Erso so fascinating to watch. She made me root for her from the moment she was on screen. Jones makes Jyn strong, lethal, someone who will not take s**t from anyone, but at the same time so vulnerable and lost in deciding her true calling. Luna is charismatic as Cassian and a great male lead to bounce off of Jones, and Wen is great as a no-nonsense mercenary. But the true standouts and the characters which I see will become fan favourites in the future are Chirrut and K-2SO, played by Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk respectively. Chirrut is a blind warrior who is the most Jedi-like character within the film because of his strong devotion of the force and the way he can fend for himself. He is the most rational and human of all our heroes and Yen delivers that presence with ease. Tudyk is down-right hilarious as the motion-captured K-2SO, making his blunt deliveries so funny and instantly quotable. Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, the villain of the film, owns it as a classic Star Wars Imperial villain: hungry for power and will do anything to climb the ranks in the fleet. The other biggie, the much talked about return of Darth Vader (voiced with gravitas again by James Earl Jones) has very little screen time, but the screen time he is given is so effective and shocking, there is no questioning on why he is the greatest screen villain of all time.

Rogue One isn’t by all means perfect. Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi is not fully fleshed out on why he defected from the Imperial ranks which made it hard to fully invest in him. Forrest Whitaker’s very over-the-top acting as Clone Wars veteran-turned-extremist Saw Gerrera is extremely annoying to the point its laughable. After watching the film twice now and listening to the score on Spotify, Michael Giacchino’s score is not memorable at all. In every Star Wars film, there is a stand-out piece, whether its “Duel of the Fates” in Episode One, or “The Imperial March” from Episode Five, or even Rey’s Theme from last year’s Force Awakens, but there really isn’t one here at all. But kudos has to be given to him for a) trying to followup John Williams’ masterful pieces, and b) creating a score within four weeks after the original composer of the film was let go.

ILM should be given every technical plaudit there is come awards season because the work they do in this film is stunning. There are times where I am questioning what is practical and what is CGI, especially with K-2SO. And there are a few moments within this film, which I will not spoil here, that truly astounds you on how far the world has come with computer generated effects. As a side note, I’ve watched this in both 2D and 3D, and the 3D brings nothing to the table other than the standard unwelcome dark filter once you put on those glasses.

Final Word

The big question before the film was released was whether any casual film goer can watch this, or whether it’s solely aimed for the fans? To me, it has the right balance. The fan service in here is so pleasing, hardcore fans will be smiling with joy with the amazing easter eggs laid out throughout the film (many from “A New Hope” and surprisingly, the cartoon series Star Wars Rebels). But for anyone wanting to see a film with the right balance of joy and heartbreak, wonder and spectacle, Rogue One does it well…really well, and gives me faith with the other spin-offs planned, justifying why we are getting a Star Wars film every year now for the next four years. What a way to end 2016!