Films in July and August

I didn’t post in July because I’d watched so few films that it didn’t seem worth it. I did a bit better in August so it makes a bumper crop. I also powered my way through six Fast and Furious films which was quite a slog and (overlapping) I decided to have a marathon of films with Dwayne Johnson. Now The Rock is one of my favourite people and he’s a fun actor, but good grief he’s been in some really rubbish films! Although we start with his new film in the cinema, which was just a delight.

New Releases
Jungle Cruise (Cinema)
I will watch just about anything The Rock is in and this is a perfect fit for his easy chemistry, charm and light touch with drama. The film isn’t going to set the Academy Awards a flutter, but it’s a lot of fun and perfect for escaping the world for a couple of hours. Yeah, the plot may not make much sense if you look too long and there’s rather more CGI than I like, but the Dwayne Johnson is his usual loveliness, Emily Blunt is practically perfect in every way and Jack Whitehall is slightly surprisingly charming as the third wheel. I laughed and smiled the whole way through, even at the terrible dad jokes lifted straight from the ride and the “did they just say that?” level of innuendo. 8 / 10

Druk (Another Round) (Cinema)
This is a Danish film about a group of male, middle aged teachers who decide to try to re-find their sparks of life by drinking through the day. That relatively simple description makes for a really brilliant film that’s full of layers and emotions. There were loads of laughs to be had, but also a lot of heart and some challenging questions too. I can’t remember the last time I felt so satisfied by a film, it really is just a complete package. 8 / 10

Limbo (Cinema)
This is a film of three parts:
The first part is hilarious, several beautifully crafted scenes of very quiet and understated humour that blend ridiculous situations with dry responses.
The second part the humour fades away and there’s a growing tension and frustration at the titular limbo the characters are in. This goes on a long time.
The third part is emotionally hard, a lot of the held in emotions come out and boil over.
The problem for me is that I would rather the comedy and drama were blended better, I found myself reaching for any tiny piece of humour desperately. The second section drags so that by the time the storylines comes to a head I was a little bored. It’s a good film and the strong sections are very strong, but I don’t think the sum is as good as the parts. 6 / 10

The Tomorrow War (Netflix)
30 years in the future humanity is fighting a war against invading aliens, and they’re losing. So they go back in time to conscript people from today to fight. Chris Pratt, former soldier is drafted and thrown forward on a mission that’s the possible key to winning the war. At that level, it actually makes sense (well as much as anything involving time travel makes sense) but anything further than 2 sentences and it really starts to crumble. It doesn’t even matter about the science and technicalities of time travel just the way that humans behave makes zero sense and I got increasingly frustrated with that as the film went on and everybody doubled down on stupid decisions. It’s a shame because Chris Pratt is as watchable as ever, the supporting cast is good and there’s a lot of good effects and action sequences. But the foundation of stupidity, drawn out by a clumsy structure and too long run time really annoyed me. 6 / 10

Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greeda (Netflix)
I’ve never watched Bob Ross, and am only really aware of him through cultural references, so thought this documentary would be an interesting way to go beyond the parodies an understand the origins. And it was. About half the documentary is about where Ross came from – what motivated him, how his art developed and how he came to be such a cultural icon. There are loads of interviews with friends, family and colleagues and tons of archive footage of his shows, other media appearances and just candid home videos. I got a strong sense of who he was and why people connected to him so much. The second half is the betrayal and greed part of the title and covers Ross’ business partners. The hypothesis of the documentary, and Ross’ son who is heavily involved is that the married couple that Ross worked with in becoming a star were more driven by the money than Ross himself, and particularly as Ross became sick with cancer they made moves to protect their interests and took control of his image and name in a way that means even his own son can’t use it. It does seem very dodgy, but the documentary suffers because a lot of people wouldn’t be involved (reportedly because they’re scared of getting sued) and Ross’ voice was notably absent. I came away feeling that I only had half the picture and everyone was using his name and he had no voice from any of them. It’s a weird documentary where Ross and his art are really uplifting but then there’s a completely sour note that even that joy has misery behind it. 7 / 10

FAST AND FURIOUS SERIES
ITV showed the first six Fast and Furious films and I figured I’d give them a go and see what the fuss was about. It’s astonishing to me that given how crap the first few were the franchise got as far as it did. The films did get better and turned into a passable mindless action series, but I still felt underwhelmed. Also – the naming convention is a nightmare, and the use of scantily clad women in all the racing scenes just made me cross. Are we really still not better than that?

  1. The Fast and Furious – All zoomy cars, over amplified roaring engines and testosterone but lacking in plot, character, humour and coherence. I felt the lead role was miscast, with the undercover cop being a level of bland that comes from bad acting rather than deliberate choice. Vin Diesel does his usual thing of broody machismo very well but as soon as he has to deliver the woefully bad script it falls apart. The ‘plot’ was all over the place and (spoilers) apparently we’re supposed to be fine that the characters are criminals because one of them has a sob story and his sister is attractive? There didn’t even really feel like there were great displays of driving prowess, just over-engineered cars driving fast. 5 / 10
  2. 2 Fast and 2 Furious – even worse. Plot, acting script… all a step poorer than they were the previous time around and without the brooding core of Vin Diesel there’s just no substance or talent to really hang on for. There are a few flashes of personality in the smaller roles but they’re fleeting and overwhelmed by the pure rubbish of the script and (I’m sorry) Paul Walker’s acting. Sometimes things relax a bit and it feels a little more natural but then there’ll be some plot to deliver, emotions to have, or painfully contrived “bro” relationship and it’s just awful again. And by making the car stunts bigger, they’ve made them unbelievable and that just makes everything feel completely fake and stupid. 4 / 10
  3. Toyko Drift – This film commits a classic mistake, it centres on teenagers but casts people completely obviously in their mid-twenties, there’s a constant mental battle to remember that the issues they have and the stupid choices they make are reasonable for teenagers. Mind you, in some ways it doesn’t matter because other than a couple of scenes in classrooms, they are clearly NOT teenagers because they’ve all got loads of money and loads of driving experience. If it were possible to not just switch your brain off, but lock it in a box in another room, then maybe there’s some fun in here. 5 / 10
  4. Fast and Furious – This film appears to be trying to pretend Tokyo Drift never happened (not a bad approach) and jumps backwards in time. It was made 6 years after 2 Fast 2 Furious, Paul Walker has taken some acting lessons and things actually hang together to the point where I can see why this franchise is popular. The plot still makes ZERO sense and the writing has ZERO subtlety, but it’s possible to ignore that and just appreciate the stunt and action. 6 / 10
  5. Fast Five – Much like the previous installment this film delivers well on the action sequences, has a plot and acting that isn’t completely hopeless and doesn’t fall flat on it’s face… but still for me is lacking spark. It just tries to ladle on the feeling too much (yes, yes, family blah blah blah) and the writing and acting just isn’t good enough to deliver that without coming across trite and cheesy. It’s all just engine noise, shiny cars and consequence-less action sequences. 6 / 10
  6. Fast and Furious 6 – like the previous one, mindlessly watchable. They really do seem to have given up any pretense that there’s logic behind the action sequences, I guess that makes things slightly easier and they’re usually energetic enough to not notice, but the plane one at the end went on and on and on which meant even the most ignorant of people will spot that runways aren’t that long, but also it just got boring which is not what you want in your big finale. 6 / 10

Older films
Instant Family
I was really charmed by this film. The story of a couple who for reasons they don’t even fully understand themselves, decide to adopt three siblings and are instantly thrown into all chaos of young children and a teenager. There’s a lot of very real humour from the situation and an equal amount of heart and truth. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was really impressed. 8 / 10

The Decoy Bride
I was browsing Amazon for something easy going and David Tennant’s name drew me in and then Kelly Macdonald’s name completely sold it. She is absolutely the star of the film doing all the big work and is completely charming and wonderful. Tennant was a little underwhelming to be honest, not helped by a non-specific accent and a character that was a bit all over the place, but the two had good chemistry. The nuts and bolts of the story get the job done and the Scottish Island setting is the final piece of the very enjoyable puzzle. 7 / 10

Spider-Man: Far from Home
I like Tom Holland as Spider-Man a lot, it actually feels like he’s a proper teenager thrown into something over his head and this film delivers that very well. It’s a lovely mixture of normal teenage antics, ongoing delight at having super powers, a perfectly judged ongoing freak out about being a superhero with an apparent Destiny, particularly without his mentor around to guide (not that Stark was exactly a role model for that). And the coldly practical thread from Fury and Maria Hill was the perfect contrast to all that high energy. What didn’t work so well for me was the awkward introduction to the villain, I’ll not spoil it but it started out really weird and the eventual explanation didn’t change the fact that the first 1/3 or so of the film was just unsettling. In a way it was clever, but watching it wasn’t quite that satisfying. Jake Gyllenhaal was superb however and slotted right into the multiple threads beautifully. Ignore the plot, focus on the subtext and it’s a really great film. 7 / 10

Space Sweepers
There’s a LOT going on in this full on Korean sci fi film, probably too much to be honest. The set up and core plot are really great, even though they’re not exactly original (about 80% of it is a straight lift from Firefly for a start and that wasn’t exactly original either). A lot of the charm is from the motley collection of characters, and that’s where things went a little off for me. There was just a bit too much going on, too many big back stories, too many complicated relationships and not quite enough chemistry and it just didn’t quite come together. Some of that may be the subtitles, it’s a really busy film and script and it’s hard to read all the subtitles at pace and also keep up with the visuals on screen and trying to read body language etc. I don’t think it’s a great film, but it’s a solid one and well worth a couple of hours. 6 / 10

Journey 2 The Mysterious Island
I found Journey to the Centre of the Earth rather disappointing in that it didn’t feel like it did much with Verne’s material. In fairness having reread the book since then, it’s a better concept than it is actual story and maybe the film was actually being consistent with the number of plot holes. The Mysterious Island doesn’t really bother that much with the source novel and just crafted a film that’s a mash up of all sorts of ideas which, although fairly bonkers, sort of hold together just enough. The characters and performances are big and over the top, again just about working for the film and it’s hard to dislike it, although it’s also hard to love it. 6 / 10

Fantastic Fungi
A random documentary that I picked just because it looked completely un-challenging and uncontroversial, and was both those things. Eighty percent of the visuals are timelapse footage of fungi which is initially beautiful and impressive, but after a while slightly soporific. Voiceover narration is similarly nap inducing, particularly when it drifts into poetry. However the interviews with scientists when they actually start getting into the diversity of fungi, how they work in nature and what they can do for us are absolutely fascinating. A bit more of that would be good because I came away feeling like fungi really were fantastic, but I couldn’t really remember how or why. 6 / 10

Shazam!
I thought this was going to be painful but actually it was kinda sweet, kinda like The Goonies or some 80s kids film like that. The plot is daft but just about hangs together, but the charm comes from the relationships between the kids and Zachary Levi’s ability to perfectly deliver the Freaky Friday body swap of a kid into a superhero body. Good fun. 7 / 10

R.I.P.D
I watched this whole film and it wasn’t until I checked my review database that I realised I’d watched it before. I had absolutely zero memory of it. This so very desperately wanted to be Men in Black, but as usually happens when someone tries to recreate a ‘classic’ all that happens is the audience wants to go back a re-watch the inspiration. The building blocks of R.I.P.D were solid enough, but they were all just too similar to Men in Black and came across as a lower budget version of that, rather than its own thing. Ryan Reynolds was fun, Mary Louise Parker was excellent, and the effects were ok, but it was clearly completely forgettable. 6 / 10

Moana
I have watched this half a dozen times and it never ever fails to leave me laughing, crying and singing the songs for days on end. Moana’s focus on a very different culture from traditional Disney is respectful of traditions while still feeling light and progressive. Like Frozen there are complexities in who the ‘baddie’ is which adds a lot of depth to the story. The animation is stunningly beautiful and natural, and the voice acting is superb – completely integrated with the animation, never feeling like celebrities putting on voices and disjointed. The songs are catchy, and actually grow on me every time I hear them. The strength in the characters, story and messages are incredible, properly inspiring and uplifting and the film just brings me joy every single time. 9 / 10

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
What a brilliant film! First up, the concept of teenagers getting transported into a video game is a solid one – plenty of opportunities for great action sequences, a built in excuse that the plot of the ‘game’ doesn’t need to make sense, and lots of teenage character building to thread through the whole thing. But there are then two important factors that raise the whole thing to another level. First is the script which is witty, charming, respectful and self-aware. The writers clearly know video games and throw in loads of nods to the genres, write teenagers that feel like present day teenagers and deliver character growth that’s honest and relevant. The second thing is the cast who take that script and deliver it pitch perfect. The adult stars all take the piss out of themselves and really feel like teenagers in other people’s bodies The film is absolutely charming, hilarious and a real joy. 9 / 10

Jumanji: The Next Level
I really enjoyed the previous Jumanji film, it was self aware, threw loads of stuff in, poked fun at itself and was just fun. This film does all the same things, and yet somehow fell a little flat. I think maybe the problem started when the older characters who were dragged into Jumanji just didn’t embrace it in the same way as the teenagers in the previous film. They didn’t get it in the same way, and (weirdly) just didn’t seem to have the depth. The jokes just fell a bit flat and lost strength through repetition and that whole side of things just felt like it didn’t spark as well. It’s still a fun film to watch, very well acted by everyone playing multiple characters, and the way new ideas were introduced will feel very familiar to anyone who’s played long running game series desperately throwing in new features. 7 / 10

Crazy Rich Asians
I tend to not like comedies that much, so when I say that this one was absolutely fine, that’s actually pretty good going. There was a pretty good mixture of melodrama and actual drama. There were characters that were comedic, ones that were over the top, and some playing it pretty straight – but also enough twists where comedy characters would cut the truth of a drama, or straight characters would be put into a ridiculous situation. The only thing that I felt let it down slightly was sometimes it felt a little forced – I never quite worked out whether it was clumsy dialogue, or actors that couldn’t quite land the nuance, but it just felt a bit clunky at times. 7 / 10

Suicide Squad
What a pickle. The DC comics movies keep chasing after Marvel and just missing at every step. Before Marvel got to the Avengers they had 5 films that established most of the big players. Suicide Squad rushes to try to establish about a dozen new characters all at once and although the introduction sequence kind of worked, it still felt rushed. Like a “previously on” where you realise you’ve not actually seen the previous season at all.
DC are also starting off on the back foot, because they keep reinventing characters, which leaves me already bored by the characters and slightly confused as to which version is which. Yet another Batman and Joker – how tedious. DC just cannot seem to get its casting right. They keep taking great actors and just slightly missing the mark. Margot Robbie felt like the only one here really comfortable in her role, everyone else felt like they were trying too hard to force the darkness of the characters, endlessly confused about whether they’re heroes or villains.
So it all comes together for a mess of a film and a wasted opportunity. I mean it’s not a disaster like Batman Vs Superman, but it was resoundingly ‘not very good’. The best thing I can say for the film is that the soundtrack is phenomenal. Sequences are incredibly well choreographed and with a thumping tune over the top it’s hard not to smile, but it’s all surface. The best things about this film are the exquisitely edited trailers. In fact I just went and rewatched them, seriously watch this and this and skip the film. 5 / 10

The Nevers – Season 1

neversNot that long ago, a new Joss Whedon television series would have been the most exciting thing in the whole world. These days however it’s tinged with sadness, anger and discomfort that it turns out he’s an asshole. Whedon is heavily involved in this batch of episodes as creator, writer, director and showrunner, but has since stood down and will not be involved in the next batch of episodes (technically the 2nd half of the 1st season). Given his actions (calling them ‘accusations’ would imply a lack of belief) it’s hard to not feel rather uncomfortable getting excited about his work, but in the end, it turns out that The Nevers isn’t really much to get excited about anyway.

The Nevers is set in Victorian London where ‘something’ has happened which has given many individuals (mostly, but not exclusively, women) special powers, some of whom group together to try to understand what’s happened and to support each other against the discrimination they face. It’s like the X-Men but with more corsets.

This is a strong concept that’s familiar ground for Whedon, most obviously the superhero films and comics he’s worked on and many elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (particularly the final season with all the potentials coming together). With HBO funding he has the budget to make steampunk London a beautiful reality and bring various superpowers to life (although there’s still some awkward greenscreen at times which is disappointing).

There are also some talented actors involved and a large number of rich characters. The core group of women are engaging, intriguing and good to spend time with, but they don’t always have the depth that I would hope for. Towards the end we see the backstory of one of the main characters and I’m not sure that it really worked. I couldn’t quite see how the person in the flashback turned into the person in the ‘present’. That leaves me worried that the characters don’t have the depth and roundedness that they need to be fully understandable. Certainly some of the ‘villains’ came across a little pantomime like.

One of the reasons I don’t think the loss of Whedon from the series is a disaster is that it didn’t really feel like a full Whedon series anyway. It just didn’t have the spark that made me fall in love with Buffy or Firefly. There was only the briefest flashes of wit and heart that should have been there in every moment. There were moments of humour, moments of passion, moments of power, moments of insight… but never a unified whole that wove them all together. It seems likely this may be a final note in Whedon’s career (he hasn’t seemed to make any form of apology) and it’s rather a whimper.

Books in May and June 2021

I may not have seen many films in June, or read many books in May, but the book count for June certainly made up for it. It was helped by a dedicated two days sitting in the garden reading, and also a bumper crop of books from Waterstones… including my top pick of the month…

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half
I would never have read this book if not for being able to go into a physical book shop. I was wandering around with three books from the buy-one-get-one-half-price deal and couldn’t find a fourth. A bookseller spotted me and she recommended this book and was so passionate about it that she was willing to add it into the deal. I’m so grateful to her because it was a really wonderful read. The characters leap off the page and the steps through time are perfectly managed to move the characters forwards. It’s a really easy read but with plenty of depth within it and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

T Kingfisher – The Hollow Places and The Twisted Ones
I read back to back T. Kingfisher’s two horror novels, she’s one of my favourite authors, but she normally writes fantasy, so setting both books in our world is a departure for her and I really enjoyed hearing her voice in this setting. The characters are vibrant and incredibly relatable as usual and the setting tangible and immersive. Technically her genre has shifted from fantasy to horror, but frankly I’m not sure of the distinction between the two, it’s almost like horror is just fantastical stuff set in our ‘normal’ world. Weird animals in a fantasy setting are normal, but transplant them into a ‘normal’ world and they become monsters , both genres have magic and weirdness in both, it’s just a matter of how surprised the characters are when they encounter them.
The Hollow Place was the better of the two, managing a more smooth plot that didn’t rely on big chunks of narrative/explanation; while The Twisted Ones had a slightly underwhelming plot that I lost track of towards the end. But both books have Kingfisher’s usual vibrant characters telling the story and their normalness is a great doorway to the weirdness of the situations the books bring up. I’m not entirely sure that I found either book scary (except the description of the hording grandmother’s house), and I found myself occasionally shouting at the characters for some poor or slow thinking. But I enjoyed them nevertheless.

Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen – The Planets
This is the book of a BBC documentary, and I read the paperback version rather than the coffee table one with loads of pictures, this is a normal paperback with just a dozen or so photos in the middle and a few scattered diagrams. And that’s the principle problem with the book, there are so many visual things that the authors are struggling to describe and inspire wonder. I did like the construction of the book (and the TV series) which intertwined the story of the exploration of the planets with the descriptions of the planets and the solar system, science and theories on their history. It was an interesting and informative read, and to be fair, I probably wouldn’t have actually read the words in the coffee table book, just flicked through the photos, so there’s really no winning with me.

Philip Gwynne Jones – The Venetian Legacy
Another great mystery novel set in the wonderfully described Venice. Jones takes us to another island to expand the setting of the Venetian lagoon and open up yet another different aspect of this amazing place. I didn’t massively care for the Venetian Mafia angle of the story, but it was well crafted, twisting past events together with the present to show the long reach and wide impacts of this kind of criminal empire. This is a really great series to drop into, and this is another really satisfying entry.

Laura Purcell – Bone China
There’s some good stuff in here, a couple of different characters and a couple of different time periods that all *sort of* come together in the end but more in a kind of messy granny knot than a really nice plait. It just felt a bit clunky in places. It also suffers from the usual problem with with first person narrators keeping things from the reader, it just feels clumsy for a sub-conscious voice to keep dropping hints about what’s happened. It was an ok read, but nothing to get excited about.

Dale Bailey – In the Night Wood
This book was rather lacking in get up and go. It wasn’t really enough of anything substantial, there was a bit of fantasy, a bit of gothic horror, a bit of modern thriller, but the only thing it did with any real substance was wallow. Literally 75% of the book just kind of wallowed in the depression of the two main characters as they mourned the death of the daughter, while being annoyingly vague about the details of her death. The plot elements of the story felt like a bit of an after thought and nothing really developed satisfyingly. I didn’t hugely enjoy it and read the final third or so of the book at high speed just to get to the end.

Agatha Christie – The Mystery of the Blue Train
A middling-to-good Hercule Poirot. It’s a good collection of characters, and from the very start I was coming up with different ideas and components of the mystery and having them ruled out one by one. The only problem with it was that although I’d got elements of the solution, it felt a bit like a swerve at the last minute for the full answer and so it felt a little unsatisfying. I do think though that between the interesting set of people, the drama of a train setting and then a lot of it being set on the French Riviera it would only take a little polish of the plot to make a great film.

Films in July 2021

This was probably my worst month for film watching in years. I managed one cinema trip and two new releases on digital and then just 2 other random watches. Really quite pathetic.

In the Heights
This is a really joyful film to see in the cinema on a massive screen. The vibrancy of the neighborhood, the characters, the music and the dance routines needs to be as all-encompassing as possible. The plot of the film is a little meandering at times, but it follows a group of inherently good and likeable characters trying to navigate the world around them without malice or ‘bad guys’ so I didn’t mind too much. The music is fun and creative while it’s playing, but nowhere near as catchy as other musicals (incuding Hamilton) and I couldn’t remember a single tune by the time the credits finished. But the dance routines that accompany the songs make up for that with a combination of musical classics and original creativity. I don’t think it will be a film I necessarily remember, but it was a wonderful watch at the time.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Stowaway
Three astronauts set off on a 2 year mission to Mars and they discover they’ve got a stowaway. They can’t turn around, an accident has damaged the life support and there isn’t enough oxygen for all four of them. It’s a combination of psychological drama and some solid sci-fi action, it felt like a high budget episode of the Twilight Zone. There’s no ‘bad guy’, just a group of people in an impossible situation trying to do the right things. The cast is great cast and they do a lot with a script that’s light on words but heavy on content. There are a few plot holes and coincidences that are convenient for the drama, but I’ll forgive them as they get the emotions to the right place.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Luca
A perfectly fine animated film, with a somewhat wacky concept that just about holds together, but really doesn’t do anything particularly remarkable or memorable. I expect too much of Pixar films, but this just felt like the kind of thing many smaller budget studios could produce. It was absolutely NOT bad, the characters worked, the voice cast was solid, the story did the job, and there were enough nice messages and heart to keep things going. But it just felt really generic with no creative innovation, deep emotional impact or anything that I’ll remember in a couple of days time.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Raya and the Last Dragon
I’d been holding out until I could either see this in the cinema or it became free to stream on Disney+, I’m not paying £20 ON TOP of my subscription to see a film. In the end I saw it when it was added into the normal subscription and I’m glad I didn’t pay extra money to see it. It was very mediocre. It was a bad sign when it started with a prologue explaining history, then there was another chunk set in the past before finally jumping forward to the present. Then we set off on a quest to collect doodads and the plot kept getting more convoluted with different magics and skills and sets of people and locations and… it was all just too much. The essence of the film was lost, it wasn’t much fun to watch and with the exception of the roly poly bug and one scene of a dragon exploring, there wasn’t any personality, charm or style to it. Really disappointing.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Godzilla: King of the Monsters
I guess it was fine? I forgot to review it at the time and now two weeks later I have very little memory of it. I think the plot was a bit daft, but then does the plot really matter in these films. It was a bit long, but aren’t all films these days. I suspect I would have been more engaged on the big screen, but it’s a solid enough watch on small screen to hold the attention and then forget about it.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Films in May 2021

A quiet month of film watching, but I watched a fair number of new releases and it even ended with a return to the cinema! It was good to be back, particularly as I went at exactly the right moment for my brain – it wouldn’t shut up worrying and stressing about stuff and two and a half hours of escape to a dark room with a distracting film to focus on was the perfect cure. Now we just need more films to be released and we’ll be off and running.

Cruella
Cruella is a cleverly put together film that’s both classic and original, mixing up lots of familiar ideas and tropes into something that feels fresh and fun. The characters are a lot of fun and brilliantly performed, particularly by Emmas Stone and Thompson but also by the large supporting cast, and even some animals. The film looks absolutely stunning and the costume design is particularly outstanding. My only two criticisms are that it was a little too long at 2.14, and that I don’t think that it joins up to 101 Dalmatians particularly well. Ranking: 8 / 10

Nomadland
I came away from this film feeling a bit… blank. Not really deeply moved, but also not unaffected, just not quite sure of what I was supposed to be taking away from it. Maybe nothing, maybe it was just supposed to be a peek into a community and way of life without coming to any big conclusion, but it felt like I should have a stronger response. The film is very well made, it looks beautiful and holds the attention all the way through. The use of non-actors rarely feels obvious, but maybe that contributes to the lack of direction to it, that makes it feel half like an insight documentary rather than a narrative film. It’s well worth a watch, and maybe the strangeness of it is actually a brave new creation, but I was left wanting a little bit more. Ranking 8/10

Sound of Metal
This is a powerful and really well constructed film that hits all the right notes (pardon the pun) with rich characters and a well paced story with innovative film making that really draws the audience into the main characters experiences. The way sound is used throughout really immerses the audience into the stages of hearing loss that the Ruben is going through, but because it’s not solely from that point of view, when we switch back to the ‘normal’ sound it really heightens what he’s lost. I would say that there were sections of the film that I really didn’t enjoy because of these effects, the muffled or dissonant sounds are quite unpleasant to listen to (I was glad for once to NOT have a cinema sound system) but that discomfort it absolutely a part of the film. Riz Ahmed is miraculous as Ruben, an incredibly complex character going through something utterly life changing, it’s hard to know how anyone would react, but Ahmed’s performance is completely believable and relatable. The only downside is that this focus does mean a lot of potentially interesting supporting characters are quite one-note, they’re all from Ruben’s point of view and felt a little bit ‘used’. However overall, this is a fascinating, impressive and important film that really exemplifies what film can do. Ranking: 9 / 10

The Woman in the Window
There are some sub-genres that can be described in a lot of detail, or you can just refer to the classic film that has spawned dozens of similar offerings. In the case of The Woman in the Window, it’s in the sub-genre of “Vertigo” – someone trapped in their house watches their neighbors and seems to witness a murder, but no one (including the audience) is quite sure if they really did or not. In this case we get the always watchable Amy Adams playing an agoraphobic, separated from her husband and young daughter, watching the family over the street. It’s a reliable set up and it’s very well delivered, it kept me guessing about what had really happened and whether it was a hallucination or drunken mistake. The film is well paced with just enough twists and turns before delivering a satisfying conclusion, all in just 1.40 to make a very solid entry into the sub-genre. Ranking: 8 / 10

Love and Monsters
This is a very knowing film, it’s a monster film where the characters have all seen monster films. However despite the sarcastic and self-aware narration, it doesn’t actually come across dark and bitter. It’s as if it knows what works, and knows that it’s not better than what came before, or trying to dramatically reinvent the genre. On top of the monsters element is the love bit which plays out quite sweetly really without getting nauseating. There are a few bits of CGI that look a little on the low budget side, but even that somehow felt fitting for the film. I really enjoyed it and was both relaxed in how predictable it was and satisfied at the small innovations. Ranking: 8 / 10

Army of the Dead
Good grief this was rubbish. And to add insult to injury it was LONG and rubbish. 2.5 hours of banging and crashing, atrocious dialogue, dull characters, mediocre acting, predictable story and frankly, boredom. The concept was solid enough I guess (a band of mercenaries stage a heist in a zombie-occupied Vegas – Oceans 11 meets Walking Dead) but everything beyond that was poorly done. There was no richness to the characters, too many subplots and relationships all spread too thin to give any satisfaction. I didn’t care and I was bored. Oh, and it lost another mark because of the entirely needless gratuitous nudity at the start. Ranking: 4 / 10

Love, Weddings and Other Disasters
Another film trying to be Love Actually (or similar) and not quite working, but it’s a near miss rather than a complete disaster. Most of the threads are engaging enough with likeable performances, quirky (but not too quirky) characters and some sweet relationships. Surprisingly what let it down for me was the older generation, Jeremy Irons and Diane Keaton hamming it up, alongside the very depressing choice of not casting an actual blind woman in the role, which is just not acceptable. Other than that glaring miss-step though the film is fairly watchable, but not really more than that. Ranking: 6 / 10

Thunder Force
I like Octavia Spencer a lot, and she is worth suffering through this film. The concept is also not terrible – two middle aged women are the only heroes with super powers but have to learn how to use them. But I’m afraid I didn’t really get on with the rest of the film, particularly the brand of humour that tends to come with Melissa McCarthy. She’s a very talented actress and comedian, but the cringy, slightly crude comedy just isn’t my thing. There were a few moments that did make me laugh, so it wasn’t a disaster, but I just didn’t laugh enough. Ranking: 6 / 10

Monster-in-Law
I had exceptionally low expectations of this going in, as I was persuaded to watch it on tv one evening. Astonishingly, it was actually really good. It knows exactly how cheesy it is and embraces it, managing to balance the cheese, funniness and sweetness. My only complaint was that there wasn’t more of the hilarious side-kicks, but then that would take time away from Jane Fonda which would also be a crime. Ranking: 8 / 10

Page Eight
Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz in a British spy drama, a low risk choice you’d think. Wrong, it’s terrible. So bad that I didn’t even finish it, and I ALWAYS finish films. There was no creativity, just cut and paste from various spy dramas set in the cold war and plonked into the 21st century with a bunch of supposed professionals who don’t talk to each other, spend more time playing politics than doing their jobs and generally just being assholes. All of that is then delivered with no creativity or style from the production team, and zero energy from the actors. It just felt like the whole thing was thrown together with no love or effort and I couldn’t be bothered to waste my time on it. Ranking: 5 / 10

Books in April 2021

Lydia Kang is a new author for me, found via Kindle Unlimited and she’s got a number of skills going for her. For a start, she’s a doctor so brings clinical knowledge and detail to the murders and the investigations, she’s also clearly got an interest in history and manages to bring period settings to life. Thirdly, she can write well with vibrant characters and solid plots.
A Beautiful Poison – This is an interesting mystery story with a few different threads going on, some murders, some character puzzles and some historical elements that play out nicely. It gets a little melodramatic at times, but it was satisfying enough that I picked up a second book by the author immediately.

The Impossible Girl – There’s a lot of strands going on in this book and I’m not 100% sure they all come together. It presents as a murder mystery, there are certainly lots of bodies to go around, but it felt a bit like the murders kept getting forgotten, no one was really investigating them, and the plot wasn’t really driven by that. In fact it sometimes felt a little like the plot was just meandering around searching for a thread. It’s not that it wasn’t enjoyable, the characters are interesting and the period setting is rich and detailed (and a jump from the time of her other book I’ve read, demonstrating impressive historical research). But I wasn’t as swept away in the story, I wasn’t so enthused to keep picking it up and I don’t feel as satisfied as I did when reading her other book.

James Clear – Atomic Habits
I don’t tend to read many self-help books like this. Heaven knows I need all the help I can get, but it’s rare that I find a self-help book that actually helps, tells me something I don’t know and doesn’t come across as patronising and smug. This book isn’t without some smugness, but it was also realistic and forgiving. A lot of the stuff the book talks about may already be familiar, and it certainly makes sense, but it’s not necessarily something that individually we can articulate, and I at least find it really helpful to be able to put labels and structures around familiar behaviors and feelings. It’s not got any magic tricks and isn’t going to change your life, but it does a good job highlighting opportunities to make small adjustments that might make things better.

Mark Hayden – The King’s Watch 8: Six Furlongs
As I started reading this book I was a little frustrated by it. Each book in the series adds more characters and complexity to the story’s world which really works if you’re reading a lot at a time, but it’s nearly a year since I read the last one and there’s an ever growing amount of baggage to catch up making the start of the book a bit overwhelming. But I really got into the book as it went on and thoroughly enjoyed it. The way characters have gradually been introduced over the series have made for a diverse group with a range of depths of relationships and understanding of the world of magic bringing even more richness to the world.
I went straight on to read the accompanying novella Fire Games which is a mini story with a subset of the characters who we haven’t seen in a while. It’s an entertaining read and makes a nice change to have a story told by another point of view.

Films in April 2021

It’s been a somewhat light months for films. Normally in Oscar month I’d be desperately seeing as many nominees as possible, but this year I just couldn’t really be bothered. A combination of underwhelming films, trickier availability, and my own mood making me less willing to watch high drama. So I only managed 10 films, and 5 of them were Jurassic Parks. I’ve given you a bonus of Sound of Music which I actually watched on May 1st, but was so good I didn’t want to wait a month to post the review.

Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime)
This is a powerful and really well constructed film that hits all the right notes (pardon the pun) with rich characters and a well paced story with innovative filmmaking that really draws the audience into the main characters experiences. The way sound is used throughout really immerses the audience into the stages of hearing loss that the Ruben is going through, but because it’s not solely from that point of view, when we switch back to the ‘normal’ sound it really heightens what he’s lost. I would say that there were sections of the film that I really didn’t enjoy because of these effects, the muffled or dissonant sounds are quite unpleasant to listen to (I was glad for once to NOT have a cinema sound system) but that discomfort it absolutely a part of the film. Riz Ahmed is miraculous as Ruben, an incredibly complex character going through something utterly life changing, it’s hard to know how anyone would react, but Ahmed’s performance is completely believable and relatable. The only downside is that this focus does mean a lot of potentially interesting supporting characters are quite one-note, they’re all from Ruben’s point of view and felt a little bit ‘used’. However overall, this is a fascinating, impressive and important film that really exemplifies what film can do. Ranking: 9 / 10

Palm Springs (Amazon Prime)
Nyles is trapped at an endless wedding. We’ve all been to weddings that feel that way, but Nyles is in fact trapped in a time loop re-doing the same day over and over attending a wedding that he doesn’t really care about. Rather than join the story at the start though, the writers very cleverly drop us with Nyles after he’s been trapped long enough to have given up trying to escape and is just resigned to his fate. Until someone joins him in the loop. The construction is really clever, bringing new life to the old Groundhog Day trope and playing out mostly as a romcom, but with a vein of quite deep philosophy running through it about. It’s quite a timely question to ask how do you find joy and surprise if you’re just trapped in the same place all the time? At an hour and a half it packs a lot in, leaves a fair amount up to the audience to fill in and is a really satisfying and entertaining package. Ranking: 9 / 10

Minari
I wanted to like this film. I didn’t. I was really really bored. The person I watched it with actually fell asleep. It just felt like there wasn’t enough to sustain the 2 hour run time. What was there was really well done, it looked beautiful, the acting was great and the stories original. But it felt too thin and bitty, missing opportunities to dig deeper, fill in history, or look at more of the relationships and connections. I was just wishing for it to be over. Ranking: 6 / 10

Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon
A lovely, lovely film with plenty of entertainment for absolutely all the family. I particularly loved all the geeky references to science fiction classics and I’m sure that I would continue to spot new things on any number of subsequent watches. The story and humour are gentle but constant, and as the whole thing is wordless it’s a real achievement at how much emotion, laughs and meaning is packed in by the animators and the sound department. Ranking: 8 / 10

An American Werewolf in London
I’ve somehow never seen this before and I found it to be surprisingy low key and charming. I’d been expecting something really silly, and although it had a fairly light touch to it, there was actually a lot more depth and heart to it than I was expecting. The film takes familiar werewolf tropes and doesn’t really muck about with them, just gives the eponymous American a bit of self-awareness and disbelief, the drama is more in him coming to terms with the situation than in the gory rampages (although there’s also a fair bit of that). The effects are a bit laughable in places, although I can see they were impressive in 1981. But although it may look a bit dated sometimes, the story and presentation are timeless. Ranking: 8 / 10

The Lego Movie 2
I wasn’t sure that the bonkers awesomeness of the first movie could be replicated, but they actually do manage it. There’s no way they could redo the twist at the end of the first movie that reveals the multiple levels of the story, but they do manage to continue to evolve the ideas. The concept isn’t quite as strong, but it’s still got a lovely message at its heart that really connects to the core ideas of the Lego brand. It’s a huge amount of fun to watch, there’s so many different things going on, connections to all the different brands that Lego comes with that are charming if you get the references and just add to the weirdness if you don’t and both work well. Ranking: 8 / 10

Jurassic Parks
1 is amazing, 2 is rubbish, 3 is slightly better but still poor, 4 is flawed but fun to watch and 5 is actually pretty good!

Jurassic Park
I can’t believe how old this film is (1993) and how good it still is. The effects still look good, thanks to some very careful direction and editing so that ropey bits are hidden behind lighting and dramatic music. There’s a decent plot behind the running and screaming, but it doesn’t get in the way of the death and maiming and even the small kids aren’t too irritating. The music is possibly the best soundtrack ever, and the moment they first see the dinosaurs and the music swells makes me beam with joy no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Ranking: 8 / 10

Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World
This film should have been good, it would probably have never been as good as the first, but there was more than enough material to play with, a cast and budget to die for and yet it ends up being insulting bad. The biggest issue was the plot. The first half of the film is entirely driven by characters doing stupid things (particularly the lead female unfortunately who loudly proclaims to be an expert on these things and then does absolutely everything wrong. Then the second half when they leave the island is so riddled with plot holes that you can drive a sauropod through them. Then the crappy icing on the rubbish cake is that somehow, 4 years after the original, the special effects are substantially worse. At least the music is still good. Ranking: 5 / 10

Jurassic Park 3
Jurassic Park 3 is not as bad as Jurassic Park 2. While it’s not a high bar to step over, it is something to celebrate. This film keeps things relatively simple, just a small number of people trying to get away from the dinosaurs through a series of set pieces that felt rather less organic than they could have done. Everything about the film is fine – it’s playing up the humour rather more than the first one did, it feels quite light in comparison, I didn’t have any particular emotional investment in any of the characters but the action sequences barreled along. Some cheaper special effects were hidden away behind things being dark rather too often, but at least they were hidden I suppose. It’s fine, but it’s nothing special. Ranking: 7 / 10

Jurassic World
I was particularly harsh about this film the the first time I watched it in the cinema. I felt that they’d over-commercialised the idea and lost the heart and soul of it. I called out the moment early in the film where it lost me – the music swelled into the familiar theme, one that in the first film played as the helicopter swept over the beautiful landscape, eventually coming to a climax as the herd of brontosaurus are revealed to audience and characters for the first time. John Williams’ genius score carried us along with the power of nature, the joy of the paleontologists seeing dinosaurs walking around – the majesty, the surprise, the delight, the wonder. In Jurassic World, it plays as we pass over a sweeping landscape of shops at a theme park. The music automatically made me feel all the old emotions and then made me hate myself because I was connecting them with commercialisation. I acknowledged that this was possibly done deliberately to show us the wonder being turned into a dollar sign, the product placement being ironic… but it just felt hypocritical and smug rather than self-aware.
However. I’ve just watched it straight after watching the original trilogy, and while it isn’t in the same league as the first one, it’s a definite step back in the right direction compared to 2 and 3. At least this film was made with competence and even some heart, where the previous two felt like absolute cash ins that they couldn’t even be bothered to make any effort at all with.
At least the plot and characters make sense here, the action sequences and special effects are really well done (and mostly in the daylight rather than hidden in shadows) and the way some of the ideas have evolved shows thought rather than lazily rehashing the same things. Chris Pratt is rapidly turning into the go-to guy for this kind of charming, slightly insufferable hero. He injects an energy and a heart to the film that is otherwise sadly absent. And Bryce Dallas Howard is a perfect partner for him.
It’s not the original, but it ain’t terrible.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
This film manages to find some of the heart that was missing from the previous films, raising some interesting questions about the dinosaurs and tug at the heart strings. The mixture of actual plot and action sequences is just right, never leaving it too long without some excitement, but also not dragging sequences out until they get dull. Yes, there’s plenty of cheesy moments, and the plot doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but the characters are fun, the cast charismatic and the special effects convincing. There wasn’t a single moment of the film when I was bored or my brain escaped back to the real world. Exactly what I’m looking for in Jurassic Park films. Ranking: 8 / 10

Oscars 2021

The Oscars are a couple of months later than usual, and I’d completely forgotten about them, so this is a rather hastily compiled summary. I did mean to tick off a few more nominated films, but I wasn’t particularly inspired. There are 39 films with at least one nomination, and I’ve seen 19 of them, nearly half. Thanks to a couple of films getting multiple nominations though, I’ve seen 51 out of 97 nominations, which is slightly more than half. Half ain’t great, but then by my searching about a third of them aren’t even available in the UK.
Still, for the sake of not missing a year, here are my thoughts and predictions.

Best Picture

  • Mank – I cynically predicted that this would get a nomination because it was black and white and Hollywood does love a self-referential film. But outside of a couple of good performances (see later) it was baggy, confused, self absorbed and boring.
  • Minari – Interesting idea, good acting, beautiful cinematography but too thin resulting in a film so boring my companion fell asleep.
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Sorkin doing his thing and doing it well
  • Films I haven’t seen – Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Well of the fairly pathetic three that I’ve seen, the only one I liked was Trial of the Chicago 7 so that would be my pick. But I would guess that Nomadland will win.

    Best Director

  • David Fincher – Mank – I didn’t think this film was very well put together
  • Lee Isaac Chung – Minari – I guess a director works with the script they get and if there’s not enough in it there’s not much they can do about it.
  • Films I haven’t seen – Thomas Vinterberg – Another Round, Chloé Zhao – Nomadland, Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman
  • Who do I think should win… I really don’t care, I will randomly guess for Nomadland. Aaron Sorkin for Trial of Chicago 7 could have been here probably.

    Best Actor

  • Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – it’s a stagey film and a stagey performance that isn’t without merit, but it felt rather more like two good monologues rather than an outstanding lead performance
  • Gary Oldman – Mank as Herman J. Mankiewicz – an excellent performance with a lot of range and depth
  • Steven Yeun – Minari as Jacob Yi – it makes me very happy that Glenn from The Walking Dead has an Oscar nomination, but he’s not gonna win.
  • Films I’ve not seen: Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal, Anthony Hopkins – The Father
  • Missing from this list is Paul Bettany for the really lovely Uncle Frank.
    This is a tricky one. I’d vote for Gary Oldman of the ones I’ve seen, but from what I’ve seen and heard, Riz Ahmed sounds like a truly outstanding performance and the trailer for The Father has Anthony Hopkins being amazing – plus at 83 this may be one of the last opportunities. However I think Chadwick Boseman is going to win it, and while he probably doesn’t deserve it for this role, he would have won one eventually and he deserves the mark of respect. Randomly as I’m writing this I’m re-watching Justified from 2011 where he appears in 2 scenes as a thug, he came up fast didn’t he?

    Best Actress

  • Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as Ma Rainey – a big performance that fills the screen and would have filled the stage.
  • Films I’ve not seen: Andra Day – The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman, Frances McDormand – Nomadland, Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman
  • I’m disappointed in myself for not seeing more of these performances because I’ve heard really good things about all of them. If I had to guess, I’d tag Frances McDormand for another win.

    Best Supporting Actor

  • Sacha Baron Cohen – The Trial of the Chicago 7 – he delivers Sorkin’s dialogue perfectly, and he crafts a character that is larger than life and completely credible.
  • Leslie Odom Jr. – One Night in Miami… – another stagey film and performance, but his performance was one of the few bits of the film that I liked.
  • Haven’t seen: Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah, Lakeith Stanfield – Judas and the Black Messiah, Paul Raci – Sound of Metal
  • I am amazed to be saying this, but I think Sacha Baron Cohen should probably win this.

    Best Supporting Actress

  • Amanda Seyfried – Mank as Marion Davies – she manages to be a point of colour and brightness in an otherwise dreary film.
  • Youn Yuh-jung – Minari – there is so much going on with this character, she’s mother/mother-in-law and grandma as well as a character in her own right, and she slots into so many roles in the film – antagonist, comic-relief, and emotional heart. I would be tempted to call it a lead role as she does a lot of the heavy lifting.
  • Glenn Close – Hillbilly Elegy – the whole of this film is so far over done that it turned itself into a parody and Glenn Close is just as bad.
  • Films not seen: Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Olivia Colman – The Father (but it’s Olivia Colman and the trailer looks amazing)
  • I would like to see Youn Yuh-jung win this one, a really wonderful performance, but as long as Glenn Close doesn’t win, I’ll be okay.

    Best Original Screenplay

  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin – there is a huge amount in this film – lots of characters, complex history, interweaving timelines and detailed legal procedings and as usual Sorkin juggles them all into something that’s understandable, impactful and entertaining.
  • Minari – Lee Isaac Chung – the core ideas and characters are very good, but I think it needed more to make the runtime worth it.
  • Not seen: Judas and the Black Messiah – Screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King; Story by Berson, King, Keith Lucas and Kenny Lucas, Promising Young Woman – Emerald Fennell, Sound of Metal – Screenplay by Abraham Marder and Darius Marder; Story by Derek Cianfrance and D. Marder
  • Aaron Sorkin delivers yet again and deserves this win. I would have also called out I’d also call out Kelly O’Sullivan for Saint Francis.

    Best Adapted Screenplay

  • One Night in Miami… – Kemp Powers, based on his play – and to my mind there wasn’t enough adaption to make it a film. Plus I feel uncomfortable about something that’s mixing the history of real people with a completely made up scenario.
  • The White Tiger – Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga – I read and loved the novel a decade ago, and I watched and loved the film.
  • Not seen – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja and Dan Swimer; Story by Baron Cohen, Hines, Nina Pedrad and Swimer; Based on the character by Baron Cohen – (I’m not quite clear on what this is adapted from), The Father – Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller, based on the play by Zeller, Nomadland – Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder
  • Well I’d go for the only one I’ve seen, The White Tiger as it was very well done.

    Best Animated Feature Film

  • Onward – Kori Rae and Dan Scanlon – a nice film, but I wasn’t actually blown away by it, I just wanted a bit more.
  • Over the Moon – Peilin Chou, Glen Keane and Gennie Rin – this had a lovely opening section, and then they went to the moon and it turned into generic multiculoured, pop song nothingness.
  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon – Will Becher, Paul Kewley and Richard Phelan – I loved this film, packed full of story, references, jokes, character and heart, although given I saw it in Oct 2019 it feels like a very long time coming.
  • Soul – Pete Docter and Dana Murray – I didn’t like this film, I even gave it a second attempt and I still felt that it was jumbled, dull and had a message that felt like it started off telling you one thing (find what you love) and then told you that was a trick and you should just live. I was confused and underwhelmed. Just go watch Inside Out again instead.
  • Wolfwalkers – Tomm Moore, Stéphan Roelants, Ross Stewart and Paul Young – sadly not seen
  • My easy choice for this is Shaun the Sheep, but Soul will win.

    Best International Feature Film

  • Not seen any of them: Another Round (Denmark), Collective (Romania), The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia), Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • I’m afraid I haven’t seen any of these, I would slightly randomly guess Quo Vadis, Aida will win.

    Best Documentary Feature

  • Crip Camp – Sara Bolder, Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham – a really fascinating and eye opening documentary, highly recommended
  • My Octopus Teacher – Pippa Ehrlich, Craig Foster and James Reed – beautiful, educational, emotional and inspiring.
  • Not seen: The Mole Agent – Maite Alberdi and Marcela Santibáñez, Time – Garrett Bradley, Lauren Domino and Kellen Quinn, Collective – Alexander Nanau and Bianca Oana
  • It’s a tough choice between the two I’ve seen, and I highly recommend watching them both (they’re on netflix) but I think My Octopus Teacher is the one that has had the more profound emotional impact. Circus of Books was eligible for nomination as well which would have been a good choice.

    Best Documentary Short Subject

  • Colette, A Concerto Is a Conversation Do Not Split, Hunger Ward, A Love Song for Latasha
  • I haven’t seen any of them I’m afraid, I’ll predict A Love Song for Latasha.

    Best Live Action Short Film

  • Feeling Through – Doug Roland and Susan Ruzenski, The Letter Room – Elvira Lind and Sofia Sondervan, The Present – Ossama Bawardi and Farah Nabulsi, Two Distant Strangers – Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, White Eye – Shira Hochman and Tomer Shushan
  • I watched all of these (see my other post for details), my favourite would be Feeling Through, but I think Two Distant Strangers will win because of the subject matter of black lives matter, and I have zero problem with that.

    Best Animated Short Film

  • If Anything Happens I Love You – Michael Govier and Will McCormack – beautifully animated and powerful, but the structure didn’t quite work.
  • Burrow – Michael Capbarat and Madeline Sharafian – lovely, but nothing particularly special
  • Not seen: Genius Loci – Adrien Mérigeau and Amaury Ovise, Opera – Erick Oh, Yes-People – Arnar Gunnarsson and Gísli Darri Halldórsson
  • Of the two I saw Burrow aimed middling and thoroughly succeeded, but If Anything Happens I Love You aimed very high but missed and I’m not sure how to balance that. So I’m randomly going to go for Yes-People which I didn’t see but the trailer made me actually want to see it.

    Best Original Score

  • Da 5 Bloods – Terence Blanchard, Mank – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
    Minari – Emile Mosseri, News of the World – James Newton Howard, Soul – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste
  • I’ve seen all of these except Da 5 Bloods, but I have no particular memory of the scores except for Soul for which music was such a key element that it will surely win, plus it was good (if you like jazz)

    Best Original Song

  • “Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah – Music by D’Mile and H.E.R.; lyric by H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas
  • “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Music by Daniel Pemberton; lyric by Celeste and Pemberton
  • “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – Music and lyric by Rickard Göransson, Fat Max Gsus and Savan Kotecha
  • “Io sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead – Music by Diane Warren; lyric by Laura Pausini and Warren
  • “Speak Now” from One Night in Miami… – Music and lyric by Sam Ashworth and Leslie Odom Jr.
  • I listened to all of these on Youtube and the only one that was memorable even when I was actually listening to it was the one from Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga, which was a great Eurovision song and really connected to the film so that would definitely be my choice.

    Best Sound

  • Greyhound – Beau Borders, Michael Minkler, Warren Shaw and David Wyman
  • Mank – Ren Klyce, Drew Kunin, Jeremy Molod, Nathan Nance and David Parker
  • News of the World – William Miller, John Pritchett, Mike Prestwood Smith and Oliver Tarney
  • Soul – Coya Elliot, Ren Klyce and David Parker
  • Sound of Metal – Jaime Baksht, Nicolas Becker, Philip Bladh, Carlos Cortés and Michelle Couttolenc
  • Given that Sound of Metal is all about sound, I think this is probably a sure thing.

    Best Production Design

  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Production Design: Mark Ricker; Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara and Diana Sroughton – given the minimal settings, it doesn’t feel like there was enough opportunity here for outstanding design.
  • Mank – Production Design: Donald Graham Burt; Set Decoration: Jan Pascale – actually, this film did look amazing, capturing the different looks of Hollywood through time and place, plus making a rich and lush design on black and white can’t be easy.
  • News of the World – Production Design: David Crank; Set Decoration: Elizabeth Keenan – the world was a lot more interesting to look at than the film was to watch.
  • Tenet – Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Kathy Lucas – the style was slick and the only film on this list I saw on the big screen, but it didn’t really do much for me.
  • The Father – Production Design: Peter Francis; Set Decoration: Cathy Featherstone – and the trailer looks fairly isolated in location (another one based on a play) but actually the flat is such an important factor in the story that I can see why the production design is so important.
  • I think maybe Mank?

    Best Cinematography

  • Mank – Erik Messerschmidt – making modern films feel like old classics is a really difficult thing to achieve, and for all that I didn’t think much of the story, there’s a lot of technical achievement in this.
  • News of the World – Dariusz Wolski – the cinematography is possibly the best thing about this film, it is beautiful to look at while also making it clear that the beauty comes at a price – hard work and loneliness, territorial fights despite the seeming endless space.
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Phedon Papamichael – I didn’t initially think of the cinematography being impressive, but I suspect it was harder than it looks. There’s a mixture of styles going on – intimate spaces in the courtrooms and offices, but also massive exterior scenes of riots and protests.
  • Not seen – Judas and the Black Messiah – Sean Bobbitt, Nomadland – Joshua James Richards
  • I think News of the World, although possibly Nomadland will win it.

    Best Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Emma. – Laura Allen, Marese Langan and Claudia Stolze – I’ve seen it but I have no memory of the makeup or hair, or they film as a whole actually.
  • Hillbilly Elegy – Patricia Dehaney, Eryn Krueger Mekash and Matthew W. Mungle – I guess it takes a lot of effort to make people look this bad (the 80s were not a kind time to anyone)
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson – I remember people being hot and sweaty… I guess that’s hard to pull off
  • Mank – Colleen LaBaff, Kimberley Spiteri and Gigi Williams – Hollywood glamour plus black and white is probably tricky.
  • Not seen – Pinocchio – Dalia Colli, Mark Coulier and Francesco Pegoretti
  • I suspect Hillbilly Elegy might be the best achievement, but I’m not sure anyone will want to give it any awards at all, so maybe Mank.

    Best Costume Design

  • Emma. – Alexandra Byrne – yup, English period drama, gotta love it
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Ann Roth – as it’s all set in one day and it’s a period piece, it doesn’t feel like there was a huge amount of opportunity for design.
  • Mank – Trish Summerville – more period stuff
  • Mulan – Bina Daigeler – the costumes were incredible
  • Not seen – Pinocchio – Massimo Cantini Parrini
  • My vote would be for Mulan

    Best Film Editing

  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Alan Baumgarten – I can see that editing around Sorkin’s dialogue is no small achievement, and the interweaving flashbacks with overlapping narratives must have been a challenge.
  • Not seen: The Father – Yorgos Lamprinos, Nomadland – Chloé Zhao, Promising Young Woman – Frédéric Thoraval, Sound of Metal – Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
  • I’d vote for Trial of Chicago 7 as it’s impressive and the only one I’ve seen, but I think I would predict Sound of Metal

    Best Visual Effects

  • The Midnight Sky – The film is very interesting, but for a sci fi film there didn’t feel like much in the way of visual effects, maybe that’s the accomplishment as I’m sure there was a lot of artificial backgrounds etc going on.
  • Mulan – I did very much like the film, but I’ll be honest that I can’t remember much in the way of visual effects in it.
  • The One and Only Ivan – The animal animation was very well done, and I was impressed that the talking, photo-realistic animals were credible not creepy.
  • Tenet – I didn’t like the film much but there were some slick effects that made the backwards stuff
  • Not seen – Love and Monsters
  • Without all the big blockbusters it’s a bit quieter in this category than usual, but of this set I’d rather weirdly vote for The One and Only Ivan given the effects were at the very heart of the film.

    Oscars 2021 – Short films

    I went hunting for some of the Oscar short films, the live action ones are all available via Curzon Home Cinema, or a couple are on Netflix. I only found two of the animated ones (one on Netflix and one on Disney+). Unfortunately most of them were rather disappointing, many of them with the same low content density as many full length films do. Overall a bit of a slog.

    Live Action

    The Letter Room – Elvira Lind and Sofia Sondervan
    The story of a prison custodian, given the job of checking prisoner mail. At 33 minute, this had plenty of opportunity to tell several different stories, an insight into the lives of lots of different prisoners, as well as the guard himself. Instead it focuses almost entirely on one prisoner and while that was a really interesting idea, it just wasn’t enough. The second story that’s thrown in feels like it might have got lost a bit in the edit, maybe the two stories were originally balanced but then the second story fell away, and it was left just not really enough to be worth the extra time on the running order. An opportunity missed and a boring result.

    The Present – Ossama Bawardi and Farah Nabulsi (available on Netflix)
    The story of a man and his daughter going to get a gift, except that they need to cross a checkpoint in the West Bank and that’s a slog and a humiliation that it’s hard for us to understand. It’s the type of short film that does give a good insight into a world that I know nothing about, but given I knew so little while I understood some of the feelings, I didn’t understand the politics or history that were driving it. Why were the soldiers assholes – was it just their nature or was there context I didn’t understand. That frustration (and another drawn out runtime that could have been cut down) left me slightly underwhelmed.

    Feeling Through – Doug Roland and Susan Ruzenski
    A young man with his own problems encounters a deaf and blind man seeking assistance. This is a good use of the short film format, giving a quick insight into the lives of people we don’t encounter, it’s not a deep insight, but it’s just enough to make you think. It’s a very natural and very sweet story that has stuck with me

    Two Distant Strangers – Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe (available on Netflix)
    The concept is really well thought out, a ground hog day version of all the ways a day can go catastrophically wrong for a black man in New York. It has a powerful message about black lives matter that is impossible to not engage with, but a lot of that power is almost inherited and unfortunately I think the film actually pushes slightly too hard and turns from powerful to bludgeoning. It is however very well put together, visually interesting, very well acted and creative and only about 5 minutes too long rather than 20 minutes like the others, so the best of them all.

    White Eye – Shira Hochman and Tomer Shushan
    This is a 10 minute idea dragged out to 20 minutes. In hindsight I can see that everything plays out in real time (possibly even in one single shot – which is a good technical achievement) gives a sense of reality to it that would have been damaged if it had been edited down. But to keep the runtime there just needed to be a bit more going on, less passivity from the supporting characters, or expanding backstories, or even just cut the length by simplifying the story (don’t have the police come and go and then come back). Visually it wasn’t interesting enough to keep the attention (just a dark street corner) and nothing was lively enough.

    Animated films
    Burrow – Michael Capbarat and Madeline Sharafian (Disney+)
    The story of a little bunny trying to dig a home. This is just delightful. It’s just 6 minutes long (5.5 if you don’t count the credits) and in that short time I smiled, laughed and very loudly went “Aw!”. There’s nothing really groundbreaking here (pardon the pun), the animation style is simple and classic, the story and themes could have come straight from a fairy tale and the resolution is fairly predictable, but it’s just a warm hug to watch.

    If Anything Happens I Love You – Michael Govier and Will McCormack (Netflix)
    There’s some really very beautiful animation that is extremely simple but interesting to look at, and conveying a lot of emotion in a very small number of lines and frames. But I found the storyline a bit muddled though, jumping about a bit too much, I think the elegance with which the emotions were portrayed was maybe enough to stand by itself without actually needing to jump around so much.

    Genius Loci – Adrien Mérigeau and Amaury Ovise
    The trailer for this made me want to run a mile. I have zero clue what it was about, it seemed like the kind of thing that would be running in a modern art gallery and I’d completely fail to understand.

    Opera – Erick Oh
    The trailer tells you absolutely nothing. In fact I thought I was just watching the little animated logo of the production company.

    Yes-People – Arnar Gunnarsson and Gísli Darri Halldórsson
    This was the only trailer that actually made me want to watch the film. The animation had personality and it looked amusing and entertaining.

    The Queen’s Gambit

    I’m a bit late to the party on this one, by the time I finally got round to watching it Queen’s Gambit had already won a flock of awards, including the Golden Globe for best limited series. But if I’m late to the party, at least I’m showing up with enthusiasm. This is a great series, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and one of the best crafted and presented characters I’ve seen in a very long time.

    The first thing I will say, is that the series is overall a positive one and it ends well. That’s one of the key things I look for in a series at the moment, and although I guess it could be considered a spoiler, I think it’s more a part of the genre description. It’s no more a spoiler than saying something is “feel good”, or “gritty”, one gives away a happy ending, and the other means there’s going to be a lot of darkness (although something gritty can still have a positive ending, and something feel good might have darkness along the way). I wouldn’t describe Queen’s Gambit as light and fluffy, there are certainly dark moments along the way, but throughout there were more moments that had me smiling with happiness and satisfaction than there were that had me tensing for disaster.

    The series tells the story of Beth Harmon – an orphan chess prodigy (or maybe a math prodigy who happens to get hooked on chess first). Give or take a couple of flash backs and flash forwards, the series tells her life story quite linearly from her arrival at the orphanage at age 9 in the mid 1950’s through the next 15 years or so. It’s not the most original or surprising of stories, but it’s well put together and well paced with ups and downs. Beth’s life is full of contrasts, she’s lucky and unlucky, smart and ignorant, aloof and needy, studious but rebellious, capable of planning ahead but also out of control. It would be easy for all that contradiction to come across as an incoherent, badly written character, but she’s in fact a brilliantly written and incredibly complex character where every seeming contradiction actually always makes complete sense.

    That writing is brought to life by a completely mesmerising performance by Anya Taylor-Joy who is very deservingly picking up all the awards. She delivers so many layers in every scene that I frequently found myself rewinding just to focus on her word, or her face, or her body language and truly appreciate all the nuances. It would have been very easy for the series to get very dark and heavy under the weight of some of the stories, and even just the weight of chess, but Taylor-Joy brings the lightness to, delivering humour and vulnerability just as well as she delivers the dramatic moments, the controlled moments, and the quiet.

    The only thing that slightly let down the series for me was actually the chess. I have absolutely no interest in chess (I haven’t the patience to play and watching makes no sense to me) and the series did not manage to change that. There were a couple of visual tricks to try and make it more engaging, but I was utterly unengaged for the most part in long recitations of different strategies and watching boards. The psychology elements of the game were interesting (the posturing, the confidence tricks etc) just like they are for any sport, but I’m not sure if the series could have lifted the game more, or if chess is just a completely lost cause for me.

    Still, the subject of the story is just a means to an end and the character, writing, performance and story are easily enough to make this one of my favourite series of recent years.

    The Queen’s Gambit is 7 roughly hour long episodes and available on Netflix.