Locke and Key: Season 1

This series has been a long time coming. Based on a highly regarded comic series started in 2008 the rights bounced around various companies it was originally loudly announced as a film trilogy, before converting to a TV series and having pilots made in both 2011 and 2017. Off that second pilot, Netflix picked up the show and then recast almost everyone and making the 10 part series that eventually landed in Feb 2020 and ending up with something that is perfectly fine, but I’m not sure was really worth the wait.

The series starts with Nina Locke and her three kids trying to get a fresh start following the murder of their husband/father the improbably named Rendell Locke. They’re returning to his family home – Key House, a massive rambling old house that looks exactly like the house in any horror or mystery film with massive rooms, antique fixtures, sweeping staircases and doors everywhere. My main thought is that it’s going to be a nightmare to heat.

It doesn’t take long for weird stuff to start and we learn that the house is home to a series of magical keys, each with its own exciting powers. It’s a nice gimmick and the series uses it well to have some fun, provide character insight and drive the plot forward. It does occasionally get a bit hard to track the number of keys, what they do, what the rules are and who has them, but generally when I found I was losing track a character would helpfully recap.

It is more teen drama than adult series, I’d liken it in tone to the later books of Harry Potter, not as childish as the early books because it deals with serious issues like alcoholism, grief and trauma, but still with a fair dollop of teenage ‘shenanigans’ like flirting and dealing with bullies. Given that it’s a story about kids, there’s no way it could go as ‘grown up’ as series like Game of Thrones, but it did feel like it was holding back on some of the more serious issues that could have been pushed darker. The kids aren’t too irritating, and the central trio of the Locke children have some fun sibling dynamics going on, but if you’re not a fan of teenage dramas, then you’re going to get frustrated.

The series is solidly put together, pacing fairly well through the 10 episodes. I did occasionally get frustrated with the frequent flashbacks (particularly because I found Rendell Locke a very annoying character), but it did feel like the history was revealed at a natural rate rather than people frustratingly keeping secrets just to drag the story out. Given the number of time periods, characters and keys to keep track of, it’s an achievement that it works as well as it does. There’s also some nice design work going on using the lock and key motifs (which I’m sure is straight from the graphic novel) which elevates the early episodes but feels like it fades out later in the series. The younger members of the cast are doing a good job with some complex roles, but disappointingly there’s something about a lot of the adult actors that just feels a little low impact, a little bit second tier and by the numbers.

I enjoyed watching Locke and Key a lot, but it’s not the kind of series that really stays with you and makes you want to re-watch it or desperately want another season. I do find myself wondering if there was a missed opportunity with the source material to make something superb, maybe by making it more grown up? As soon as there’s a story with teenagers though it feels difficult to make anything other than a teen drama which (apparently) requires cliches of love triangles and teenage uncertainties. But if you go in knowing what it is, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Books in January and February 2020

Oh dear, I’m off to a very slow start reading this year. I set myself the target of averaging one book a week and I’m waaaaay behind that, without even the excuse that the books were particularly long, although 2 out of the 5 books did turn out to be pretty bad.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 10: False Value
The previous book in the Rivers of London series saw the big ongoing storyline wrapped up fairly conclusively and I actually worried that it might be the end of the series overall. Thankfully Aaronovitch is clearly not done. False Value builds from what has gone previously and continues to extend the world, but is a fairly standalone story, and I’m actually quite happy he didn’t launch straight into a new big storyline. Peter is quite removed from his usual environment and although it’s fun to see him out on his own and sharing his more geeky side, I did miss the familiar supporting characters who were reduced to not much more than cameos. I found it easier than usual to keep track of the story (probably as it was so self contained) and as usual, found plenty of charm and fun in the writing.

Mark Hayden – Tom Morton Series: A Serpent in Paradise and Another Place to Die
Mark Hayden is creating a fairly well put together, if not hugely remarkable collection of characters. While it’s the King’s Watch urban fantasy series that is the more creative, he’s also got a nice side line in solid crime thrillers. It was the Operation Jigsaw trilogy that spawned the two main characters for each series and although the morally dubious Conrad Clarke gets the bigger adventures in the King’s Watch spin off, I actually prefer the more straight laced Tom Morton in this straight forward crime drama. On paper he may seem a bit dull, more likely to solve crimes with spreadsheets that with running about, and more likely to quote the rule book than shout in interrogations. However he’s passionate and good at what he does and with some more lively supporting characters the books are very satisfying.
The first book, A Serpent in Paradise has a great set up with a murder in a gated community full of highly paid sports people, plenty of room for intrigue, high emotions and drama. Tom’s more steady pace is a perfect contrast to the setting and the cast of suspects, witnesses and those in between is diverse and fascinating.
The plot of the second novel, Another Place to Die, is a little more forgettable, but Tom is working with a larger team here that makes things a bit more interesting and it’s another enjoyable ride. I was a little sad to find out it was only a pair of books not the familiar trilogy structure, but I can see how the author (and readers) got distracted with the more flashy King’s Watch.

Erin Morgenstern – The Starless Sea
Eight years is a long time to wait for a second novel, and sadly this was really not worth the wait. I loved The Night Circus for the beautiful world it created, and The Starless Sea is attempting to do the same thing, this time around… ok this is where the book failed. I genuinely have no idea what it was about. It starts off well with ideas of secret societies, hidden libraries, fairy tales and stories weaving together with reality. There was some initial satisfactions as things connected together, but then I lost the threads and everything unraveled. I ended the book not knowing how the timelines worked, what the rules were, what anyone was trying to do and unsure whether it was my fault for not paying attention, or whether it really did just make no sense. I found myself cross and looking for faults (most of the characters come across as bland, either because they’re under-developed or because they’re so mysterious that you never get a sense of them. The flashes of solidity give points of hope, but they slip away and you’re left trying to track a dozen different threads to try and work out the pattern and by the end, I’d either failed, or it turned out the pattern was a blur anyway. I was incredibly disappointed.

Karen Joy Fowler – Sister Noon
There are some nice characters and set ups here, but then absolutely nothing happens with them. Reading the author note at the end it turns out much of it is based on real people of whom there is much uncertainty between fact and fabrication. While I admire the author’s determination to not ‘guess’ about true history, it does not make for a satisfying book as without any certainty it’s just a book of rumour and hinting. I never felt fully grounded in the period (elements felt slightly anachronistic, but maybe that’s just my ignorance showing) and I was very bored by the end.

Films in February 2020

NEW RELEASES
Parasite (Cinema)
I didn’t see Parasite until after it had won all the awards, so I had fairly high expectations but had thankfully avoided all spoilers about the content and even the style. That freedom from preconception is really important for this film, so I’ll stay equally vague. Sadly there’s no way to get around the fact that everyone knows the film is supposed to be superb and that in itself can damage a film. It’s easy to watch the film looking for reasons why it should or shouldn’t have won awards than actually just watching the film. That’s especially true of a film like Parasite that on the surface doesn’t scream out that it’s doing something special. But it is. The more I sank into the film while watching it, and in the time I’ve been thinking about it since, there are layers upon layers of pure quality. It’s absolutely packed with everything anyone could hope for. The story is timeless but completely fresh, entertaining and engaging on the surface, but with levels and levels of depth and complexity. The direction and production design of the film is beautiful, but looks effortless rather than fussy or contrived. My only problem with the film is that being in Korean I felt I was missing out on some of the richness of the performances, struggling to identify the inflections and subtleties in the language. But even without that nuance, the ensemble cast still shone and connected.
This film not only thoroughly deserved its Oscar win, but it’s win gives me hope for the awards and cinema as a whole.

Birds of Prey (Cinema)
I’d like to say that I went to see this to make a point about seeing films (particularly action / superhero films) written and directed by women, but I’m afraid I didn’t. I went to see this on a complete whim, I came out of one cinema screen and didn’t feel like going home, and this was the next thing on. I was very happy with my choice. OK, it’s not a masterpiece that’s going to be winning academy awards, but it was exactly what it needed to be and should be – bright, exciting, engaging and with just enough substance to it to raise it above disposable fluff. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is mesmerising, she may seem bonkers, but she’s actually seeing things possibly more clearly than anyone else. The world she lives in is insane and she’s just reacting accordingly. The rest of the Birds of Prey can’t quite find the space to shine for most of the film, which is a little disappointing as for most of the film any scene without Harley in it is just a little duller and starts to lag. In the unchallenging competition of the DC cinematic universe, this is the first one that hasn’t disappointed me.

Uncut Gems (Netflix)
When I see the name Adam Sandler attached to a film I expect something somewhere between an inoffensively charming rom com and an unbearabley awkward comedy. This is absolutely nothing like anything he’s ever done, and he’s amazing in it. He plays a gem dealer dodging from one slightly dodgy deal to the next, but the edges of his world are closing in, the deals are getting tighter, the risks are getting higher. The sense of pace and claustrophobia of the film are incredible, I spent the whole thing thinking disaster was around every corner and each time he just about negotiates a way through it just got more intense. I didn’t actually enjoy watching it because of that tension, but I was very impressed by it.

OLDER FILMS (roughly ordered good to bad)
For Sama (TV)
I’ve passed on multiple opportunities to see this film but eventually, after it won the BAFTA and the people behind the film spoke so powerfully, I figured it wasn’t something I should avoid. I’m so glad I did. I’m woefully under-informed on why there is a conflict in Syria, and this film does not do much to fill that gap. However the film isn’t about that, it’s about what it’s like to be on one side of the conflict, to live, work and raise a family in the city that has always been your home and is now a battleground. Waad Al-Kateab is a journalist and film maker, her husband Hamza Al-Khateab is one of the few doctors left in Aleppo and he is trying to keep a hospital running. When Waad becomes pregnant they decide to stay in the city they love, fighting for what they believe, and helping their friends and community. The footage in the documentary is intense, brutal and at times almost unbearable. But also intimate, gentle and occasionally even joyous. It is an absolutely unparalleled look into what individuals actually experience in these situations, behind the news footage and the headlines and it is the kind of film that everyone should watch.

The Favourite (rewatch, DVD)
What an odd film. I mean from the director of The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Dear, that’s hardly surprising. In fact the only thing that’s surprising is the fact that such a weird movie is getting such a huge mainstream release. Of course that’s mostly down to national treasure Olivia Colman who is perfectly cast and perfectly delivers the complex heart of the film – a farcical character driven by incredible tragedy. There are few actresses that could manage to imbue a character with such strength, childishness, pride, rage, loneliness and just all round complexity. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have relatively simple roles beside that, but the triangle of the three of them is only as strong because of all three points. That complexity and confusion occasionally lurches in the film, and while the ending was ‘right’ it maybe wasn’t as satisfying as I might have wanted. But I was impressed, entertained and quietly stunned through the whole film and can’t think of anything that compares.

The Post (rewatch, Amazon Prime)
It’s somewhat astonishing that Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have never worked together before, and when you add on an excellent supporting cast and an interesting, and topical, historical event you’re on to a winning formula. I would suggest that the film doesn’t really do much more than put those ingredients together and let it go, there’s not much in the way of embellishment or decoration to it, but then good ingredients do speak for themselves. Everyone is on solid form and the whole thing trips along nicely, just about keeping me understanding a story and background that I knew almost nothing about. I don’t think there’s anything particularly remarkable about the film, but when it brings so many greats together, it can’t help but be something a little bit special.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (rewatch, DVD)
I had issues with the previous film failing to capture the wonder and excitement of the original Jurassic Park and feeling rather soul-less. With my expectations lowered accordingly, I was actually pleasantly surprised that Fallen Kingdom does manage to do something new, to raise 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.

Long Shot (Netflix)
A comedy starring Seth Rogen was not something I instinctively thought I’d enjoy, but Mark Kermode said that it was not what you’d expect and I thought I’d give him, and the always excellent Charlize Theron the benefit of the doubt. They weren’t wrong. Both Theron and Rogen are perfect for their roles, her as the ambitious politician who still has plenty of humour, heart and humanity underneath her perfect exterior; him as the crass and scruffy but principled journalist. They’re an unlikely partnering, but the chemistry is immediate and enjoyable to watch, powering through the rest of the film and the usual unlikely rom-com events pushing them together and pulling them apart. I wouldn’t say it’s a complete classic, but it’s a rare adult comedy film that really did make me laugh.

Deadwood (DVD)
This isn’t really a film. It’s really a double episode finale of the TV series that we’ve just had to THIRTEEN YEARS to. Mind you the TV series was always pretty cinematic anyway, as one of the grandfathers of the latest ‘golden age’ of television that saw series like The Wire and The Sopranos start to show what could be done on cable channels with big commitments, big budgets and allowing the series creators far more autonomy than was found on networks. If this film had played out as the series’ fourth season it would have been a perfect fit, as a film it’s a bit odd. There are little clips of moments from the original series that are a bit clumsy if you know the series (I rewatched it recently) and it’s all wrapped up a little too neatly for a series that is so uncompromising. Still, it was lovely to see the cast together again (no small feat) and if my biggest complaint is that I was left feeling happy and satisfied, than I should probably keep my mouth shut.

My Neighbour Totoro (rewatch, Netflix)
Despite some beautiful visuals, I’m afraid I was unimpressed by this film. I was certain I must have seen it before, but I either completely forgot it or actually have missed it when I’ve watched other Studio Ghibli films. There were some scenes and individual frames that I would happily have as prints on my wall, the softness and detail of the backgrounds, combined with the simple impact of the characters are really breathtaking. But the story just didn’t sing to me. Maybe it was the quality of the dub, but I never quite lost myself in the characters, they always felt like voices and animation, not that I was watching whole people. It is however very clear how other future Ghibli works grew from these foundations.

Mrs Lowry and Son (Netflix)
Timothy Spall’s second excellent performance as a British painter, but yet again in a film that is nowhere near as good as his performance. I knew nothing about Lowry and the film portrays a fascinating relationship with his elderly, bullying mother (played by the wonderful Vanessa Redgrave). But the writing is painfully poor at places. Incredibly on-the-nose dialogue that even these talented actors can’t quite make feel natural, clunky flashbacks and overly malodramatic sequences that just make the whole thing feel slightly cheap. There are some powerful and beautiful moments, but those are largely either when the actors have no words to say, or the director is seeking out the artistic visuals.

American Horror Story: 1984 (season 9)

Naming the series 1984 conjures up two equally horrifying ideas, George Orwell horrible vision of the future, and the real world’s horrible vision of fashion. It’s not hugely surprising that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk opt for the latter subject as the perfect target for their blend of humour and horror, taking the tropes of 80’s slasher movies. The result is one of the sillier seasons of American Horror Story, and unfortunately not one of its best.

The series starts in 1984 as a group of young twenty-somethings join up to go to Camp Redwood as counselors for the summer. But the Camp has a history as the scene of a massacre. Unsurprisingly the past comes back and the first five episodes are basically just an over-extended classic slasher movie playing out absolutely all the stereotypes and tropes, just with a 5 hour run time rather than a normal 90 minutes. There are plenty of twists and reveals of additional levels of complexity in the relationships, but I saw most of them coming a long way off and I didn’t find any of it particularly shocking or surprising. I’m also not entirely sure that the different ‘mythologies’ at play were applied consistently.

The final 4 episodes do something a little more interesting, stepping forward in time a couple of times to see more of the fall out, including some interesting cultural ideas about how people who felt completely at home in a time period feel as the world moves further away from that time. However for the most part I still felt this was a bit unremarkable for American Horror Story. It may be doing something that you don’t see in classic 80’s slasher films, but it’s not original for American Horror Story in season 9.

Overall I just felt it was a little ‘phoned in’. The majority of the series just doesn’t seem to do anything original with the ideas, it’s just a straight forward slasher movie that except for the improved filming quality and special/visual effects could have been made in the 80’s. The characters are too caricature, the humour too obvious and the story too simple. On the positive side, you can easily just skip this season of the anthology and come back next season which will hopefully be more interesting.

Oscars: Films of 2019

Thirty eight films are nominated for Oscars this year and I’ve seen 21 of them, covering 70% of the nominations. The big ones that I missed are Parasite (6 nominations), Ford v Ferrari (4) and Bombshell (3); and I suspect not seeing Parasite will mean some of my calls below are off. I have to say it’s a bit of a disappointing year both for films and the quality of the nominations. It feels like the industry has taken a step backwards in diversity in film making and the Academy has taken an even bigger step back in what they chose to recognise. There were opportunities missed to celebrate more diverse people and a greater range of films, there were significant achievements that haven’t been celebrated while slots were taken up with unremarkable entries from traditional names that coast their way to nominations on automatic. I’ll call out some of the alternative options as I go through.

Best Picture

  • Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite
  • My Pick: See my earlier post for more detailed thoughts, but to make a long story short, my pick would be Marriage Story
    Prediction: 1917, and I’m not going to be cross about that.
    What’s Missing: Rocketman was my film of the year and it should not only be nominated but I think I probably would have picked it as my choice to win. I also wanted to see more diversity in the nominations in terms of genres, Avengers Endgame should be there, so should Us, potentially Knives Out and even For Sama which will likely win the documentary prize.

    Best Director

  • Martin Scorsese – The Irishman, Todd Phillips – Joker, Sam Mendes – 1917, Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Bong Joon-ho – Parasite
  • My pick and prediction: I don’t think anyone other than Sam Mendes need bother writing a speech. 1917 wasn’t just the best direction of the year, it was probably the best direction of the century so far. It was an incredible challenge to keep everything in very long takes that splice together to make 2 seemingly unbroken acts, and yet the ambition of the complexity of the shots was never compromised. It was truly ground breaking.
    What’s missing: Martin Scorses did absolutely nothing outstanding on The Irishman that I can see so his place on this list so that’s one gap that can be filled. Dexter Fletcher did a superb job with Rocketman creating a film that blends intimate character with spectacle. The Safdie brothers’ delivered almost unbearable tension in Uncut Gems, and Greta Gerwig’s direction of Little Women was beautiful and understated. But why nominate a woman when there’s a 70 year old white guy doing the same thing he’s been doing for decades? Yes, I’m pretty cross about The Irishman.

    Best Actor

  • Antonio Banderas – Pain and Glory: the only one I haven’t seen unfortunately
  • Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: this is the one I’m least certain about. It was a good performance, but I’m not sure the material gave him the depth to really be outstanding
  • Adam Driver – Marriage Story: a powerful performance of a proper person, balancing good and bad, anger and restraint, drama and reason.
  • Joaquin Phoenix – Joker: His performance is so intense and claustrophobic, so much buried just below the surface that even thinking about it makes me feel anxious.
  • Jonathan Pryce – The Two Popes: In some ways like Phoenix this is a performance of what is just below the surface and Pryce is just as mesmerizing, but in a more positive way.
  • My pick and prediction: This is a strong list. I think I would probably go with Joaquin Phoenix. 80% of this film is down to him, supported by some good direction and some unsettling music, he is completely responsible for making the film so compelling and so horrible to watch. I can’t think of many other actors who could have played this role, whereas most of the others I think could have been swapped and still worked.
    My prediction: I think Phoenix will win, but I can also see that the Academy might give it to Jonathan Pryce as a bit of a lifetime achievement award.
    Who’s missing: Taryn Egerton for Rocketman should have been on this list and for me he’d be Phoenix’s biggest competition as he also gave a performance that had so many layers to it (and he sang!). Also Eddie Murphy was superb in Dolemite is my Name, and Adam Sandler puts in a very different and impressive performance in Uncut Gems. Also George MacKay for 1917 because while I didn’t think it was necessarily the best performance of the year, when you take into account that there was no editing to get each frame perfect, he did that performance every time while also doing choreography and stunts that left me breathless.

    Best Actress

  • Cynthia Erivo – Harriet, Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story, Saoirse Ronan – Little Women, Charlize Theron – Bombshell, Renée Zellweger – Judy
  • My pick: I’ve only seen Marriage Story and Little Women and I’m not sure I could pick between the two actresses.
    Prediction: Renée Zellweger will almost certainly win
    Who’s missing: Lupita Nyonga for Us, slightly cheating because she had two roles but she was terrifying. Awkwafina was wonderful in The Farewell, Jessie Buckley for Wild Rose.

    Best Supporting Actor

  • Tom Hanks – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: a really weird character played beautifully by Hanks
  • Anthony Hopkins – The Two Popes: I don’t think this was as good a performance as Jonathan Pryce’s, there was just less going on with the character and you basically got what you saw.
  • Al Pacino and Joe Pesci – The Irishman: I couldn’t actually tell you who did what role, I just didn’t think there was any depth to the characters, just stereotype gangsters
  • Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A solid performance but nothing special imho.
  • My pick: Tom Hanks, easily
    My prediction: Brad Pitt seems to be picking up all the awards for some reason.

    Best Supporting Actress

  • Kathy Bates – Richard Jewell: not seen
  • Laura Dern – Marriage Story: I didn’t actually think there was anything particularly outstanding about her performance here, if anything I found her character a bit extreme, detracting from the honesty of the film.
  • Scarlett Johansson – Jojo Rabbit: the successful parts of this film were entirely down to the performances of Johansson and Waititi, the two voices in Jojo’s ears that were in counterpoint to each other, but had the same tone of quirky truthfulness. Johansson was perfect playing an incredibly rich character who loves her son but doesn’t like him sometimes, wants to open his eyes but has to stay secret. Beautifully done.
  • Florence Pugh – Little Women: Through Pugh’s beautiful performance and Gerwig’s wonderful writing Amy somehow rises from pages (and previous performances) that often sideline her as the spoilt child and turns her into a powerful woman of her time. Without losing sight of the fact that she is also occasionally a spoilt child.
  • Margot Robbie – Bombshell: I haven’t seen this film, but Margot Robbie is fairly universally wonderful.
  • My pick: I would like either Johansson or Pugh, but I think Johansson edges it because much of Pugh’s wonderfulness comes from Gerwig’s interpretation of the character.
    Prediction: Laura Dern seems to have it in the bag for reasons that completely escape me.

    Best Original Screenplay

  • Knives Out – Rian Johnson: I’m very happy to see this nomination as I think it would be easy to overlook how hard it is to write such a satisfying murder mystery, pacing out the twists and turns.
  • Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach: A film where the writing is absolutely everything, delivered by very good actors, but fundamentally everything was on the page.
  • 1917 – Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns: While the film was incredible, the story and dialogue was ‘just’ there in service of the direction I think. If the film hadn’t been shot in such a dramatic style I don’t think it would be nominated here.
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino: In many ways this is the least Tarantino film of his and I’m not sure it necessarily did him any favours. The writing is fine, but not outstanding.
  • Parasite – Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won: Haven’t seen
  • My Pick and prediction: Marriage Story easily.
    What’s missing: I think if the Academy were as open minded as they should be they’d be forced to recognize the writing achievement of Avengers Endgame, blending so many characters, complex story threads, humour and action together. I don’t understand how that is less of an achievement than the writing of a drama with just a handful of characters and a simple story.

    Best Adapted Screenplay

  • The Irishman – Steven Zaillian, Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi, Joker – Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, Little Women, The Two Popes – Anthony McCarten
  • My pick and prediction Hands down this should be Greta Gerwig. She took a story that had been adapted dozens of times before and found new layers to it without losing any of the original. By the way, she’s partners with Noah Baumbach so wouldn’t that make a lovely pair of bookends for them.

    Best Animated Feature Film

  • How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World: I was very sad about how they chose to end the series, but I can’t fault the way that the story was delivered.
  • I Lost My Body: A french animation (although I watched the dubbed version) about an amputated hand that is trying to find its way back to its body. It shouldn’t work, and yet it really does. The way simple 2d animation is used to make a hand such a powerful character is impressive.
  • Klaus: This film was easily missed on Netflix but was actually a really entertaining, original and beautiful new addition to any Christmas watch list.
  • Missing Link: I was underwelmed I’m afraid, just completely lacking in originality.
  • Toy Story 4: As with How to Train Your Dragon, I was sad about how they ended the film, but thoroughly enjoyed it all the way up to that point.
  • My pick: Klaus. Original, fun, moving and beautiful in look and content.
    My prediction: Toy Story 4
    Missing: I’m not devastated by the absence of Frozen 2, but Shaun the Sheep Farmageddon should have been there and potentially even won it.

    Best International Feature Film

  • Corpus Christi (Poland), Honeyland (North Macedonia), Les Misérables (France), Pain and Glory (Spain), Parasite (South Korea)
  • Prediction: I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t seen any of these, but I think it will be a miracle if anything other than Parasite wins.

    Best Documentary Feature

  • American Factory: Really interesting and well put together. It did everything a documentary should – it informed, it intrigued and it made me care.
  • The Cave: Not seen
  • The Edge of Democracy: I knew nothing about Brazilian politics but because the film is told exclusively from one point of view it didn’t work for me as an introduction to the subject as I don’t quite trust what I was shown.
  • For Sama: Stunning. While it’s as biased as The Edge of Democracy, this documentary isn’t trying to explain the why’s of a situation, it’s trying to show what it’s like to live through it and it does that spectacularly.
  • Honeyland: Not seen.
  • My pick and prediction: For Sama. An incredible and important piece of film making
    Missing: while it’s not as hard hitting a subject, the Fyre documentary was hugely entertaining and an excellent case study of business psychology.

    Best Original Score

  • Joker – Hildur Guðnadóttir, Little Women – Alexandre Desplat, Marriage Story – Randy Newman, 1917 – Thomas Newman, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – John Williams
  • My pick and prediction: I have to say, of the 4 films I’ve seen the only one I remember the music in is Joker and that wasn’t because it was a memorable tune, but just because it contributed so much to the oppressive mood of the film. Of course John Williams can also do no wrong and I’m sure his latest Star Wars soundtrack continued to build interestingly on his foundations, so I wouldn’t be sad to see him win (interestingly it would only be his 6th Oscar from FIFTY TWO nominations.)

    Best Original Song

    “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4 – Music and Lyrics by Randy Newman: What a weird song, in the context of the film it’s cute but the lyrics themselves could be interpreted very differently and I’m not sure that the jaunty music quite matches the subject.
    “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman: compared to the rest of Elton and Taupin’s back catalog that’s in the film, this one didn’t stand out, but that’s pretty tough competition.
    “I’m Standing with You” from Breakthrough – Music and Lyrics by Diane Warren: meh.
    “Into the Unknown” from Frozen 2: I didn’t like it as much as Let it Go, but it was a great belter of a song. I feel very sorry for all the parents who have to listen to kids try to sing it without decades of Broadway experience.
    Stand Up” from Harriet – Music and Lyrics by Joshuah Brian Campbell and Cynthia Erivo: A powerful song that really stays with you AND works for the film.
    My pick and prediction: Stand Up. This will also make Cynthia Erivo the youngest ever EGOT. Missing though is No Place Like Home for Wild Rose, anyone who saw Jessie Buckley perform it at the BAFTAs will be bemused that it’s not nominated.

    Best Sound Editing: Ford v Ferrari, Joker, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
    Best Sound Mixing: Ad Astra, Ford v Ferrari, Joker, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
    Meh, who knows. Star Wars for Editing and 1917 for mixing?

    Best Production Design

  • The Irishman: Dreary and unremarkable, looks like absolutely every single gangster film ever made.
  • Jojo Rabbit: In contrast, Jojo Rabbit did something original, making Nazi Germany full of light and colour
  • 1917: so much detail bringing all the locations to life.
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The period details were beautifully recreated and shot
  • Parasite: Haven’t seen
  • My pick and prediction: 1917
    Missing: I would have LOVED to see Pokemon Detective Pikachu in here!

    Best Cinematography

  • The Irishman, Joker, The Lighthouse, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  • Pick and prediction: 1917 by a landslide. Roger Deakins’ work is usually something special and even if 1917 had been shot in a normal way he would still likely have been on this list, but to produce that within the constraints of the single takes was just on another level.

    Best Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Bombshell, Joker, Judy, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, 1917
  • Two films that are changing people faces to resemble someone else, two films making people look scary and one film making people look dirty (and possibly injured, I’m not sure if that counts as makeup). I never quite understand how the sci-fi films that are doing such amazing prosthetics and alien looks never make it into this category. I’m not sure how you compare any of them.
    My prediction: Joker as the makeup is so obvious and so part of the character as his clown mask changes throughout the film.

    Best Costume Design

  • The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  • All of these films are in some way recreating periods, so it doesn’t feel like they’re on the same level of creativity as films like Star Wars, Avengers, even Us. That said, period piece Downton Abbey should have been there instead of The Irishman.
    My pick: Jojo Rabbit at least was at least taking the period pieces and building from them. Although I also wouldn’t mind Little Women because they were having to be a little bit more creative in how people from that period with limited funds would work, adapting and re-purposing hand me downs etc.

    Best Film Editing

  • Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Parasite
  • My pick and prediction: Joker, the editing contributed so much to the horrible sense of dread. The irony of the The Irishman being nominated here is insane, it was over 3 hours long and STILL didn’t find any time for character depth or any female characters.

    Best Visual Effects

  • Avengers: Endgame, The Irishman, The Lion King, 1917, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  • My pick: Avengers of Star Wars – I just want to see the mainstream action/scifi genres get SOME love somewhere. These films show the biggest range of effects. Irishman is just a single trick of de-aging actors (which it admittedly did very well) and Lion King is ‘just’ CGI animation.
    My prediction: 1917, which wasn’t bad.

    Oscars: Best Films of 2019

    Nine nominees for Best film this year and I’ve managed to see 7 of them. Parasite is only released on Friday and I don’t think I’m going to have a chance to see before the awards on Sunday. It’s frustrating that a film with so much buzz around it is so slow to come to UK cinemas, particularly given that it actually won a couple of BAFTAs last weekend – how a film can be eligible for awards when it isn’t even out in the country is beyond me. The other is Ford v Ferrari (or Le Mans ’66 as it was known in the UK) which I sort of wanted to see but just didn’t get around to, I probably would have made more of an effort if I had known it was going to be an Oscar nominee but it never seemed to have that level of buzz about it.

    On some levels it’s an interesting range of films, big spectacle (1917, Ford V Ferrari), intimate drama (Marriage Story), period drama (Little Women), something foreign (Parasite), something controversial (Joker) something undefinable (Jojo Rabbit), and a couple by big names just doing their thing (Martin Scorsese’s Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).
    However, those entries are only ‘diverse’ if you’re considering films that are considered dramas. The point of expanding the nominees list was supposed to open it up for a broader range of films but it feels like it’s failed this year. Even just comparing to last year, mainstream films Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born, and superhero film Black Panther were nominated while this year’s similar and superior offerings of Rocketman and Avengers Endgame were completely ignored. Was Black Panther nominated because it was a good film (which it really really was) or because it shocked the Hollywood elite by showing a mainstream film made and starring black people could be a success. Because in 2018 that was apparently something that needed to be proved. I believe Black Panther earned a nomination because it was a really great film, but nominating a ‘token’ superhero film one year is no better than nominating a ‘token’ black actor or female director (I’ll rant more about that in my next post) just to shut up critics and then reverting to blinkers the following year. I think Rocketman with it’s perfect blend of fascinating story, insightful writing, stunning acting and beautiful direction not only should have been nominated, but that it should possibly have won.

    So looking at the actual nominees, of the 7 films that I’ve seen, the two I don’t feel belong on this list are the two by the Names. I thought The Irishman was actively bad – completely lacking in any depth of character or plot, unforgivable given the length). Once Upon A Time in Hollywood wasn’t as complete a write off, but it was still a jumbled collection of good ideas for very different films that Tarantino just meandered between. Neither director has any self-control with editing or run times and both films committed the terminal sin of long periods where I was bored. The third film I really struggle with on this list is Jojo Rabbit which I didn’t feel delivered the tone it needed to, which makes me sad rather than angry, and I’m willing to concede that I may be wrong in my feelings on it and was just expecting something different given the trailer.

    That leaves four films for me to chose between and while they are all incredibly good films, I think the one that is the best package is Marriage Story. It manages to blend all the big elements of film making – writing, acting, directing together to produce an intimate film that’s beautiful and brutal. The other three films are all superb, but each excels in one area of film making maybe over and above the others – Joker has a stunning performance at its heart, Little Women is a truly wonderful adapted screenplay making a classic completely relevant without losing the heart of the original, and 1917 is one of the most impressive directorial achievements in decades, but lacks a little on the story front. Marriage Story was the only film that I was absolutely gripped by the whole time, even though I watched it at home via Netflix; all the other films at some point I dropped out of the immersion to think about the film making itself.

    My full reviews are below. I’ll post my full list of picks for the awards at the weekend.
    Continue reading “Oscars: Best Films of 2019”

    Films in January 2020

    Welcome to January. In the world of film that usually means a flood of very worthy films that are vying for awards. This year it seems it’s more a race of weirdness and also for me, rummaging around Netflix where there are some really interesting documentaries hiding.

    New Releases
    1917
    This is an incredible cinematic achievement. The film is made up of a series of incredibly long takes (apparently up to 10 mins long each) and is blended together so that it seems like just two continuous shots. We follow a mission given to two young (but jaded) soldiers charged with a terrifying but critical mission to deliver a message. The shooting style isn’t just a gimmick it’s a tool to make the audience completely part of the experience, and the intensity of it is all part of the film. What surprised me was that it didn’t feel like the film makers really made many concessions to the style, the film still has massive action sequences, complex camera moves, complicated lighting and moments of intense acting. The beauty and the scale took my breath away on multiple occasions and with so many “tricks of the trade” not available it made even the simplest of shots so much more impressive.
    I will say, that without this incredible way of filming, I don’t think the film would have been anywhere near as remarkable, in fact I think the film making did limit some aspects. The concept is of course strong, and any film that presents the reality of war has something worth listening to, but I think overall there was probably not enough depth to characters or situations. The filming style would have made it very hard to get this depth, the actors did an impressive job in what must have been incredibly challenging circumstances, but I did find a couple of the characters a little too closed off, a avoiding the depth of emotion that it would be hard to reach in the middle of a ten minute take, and impossible to edit for. Ordinarily there would be dozens of options for every single second, but here I’m sure there were brilliant moments of performance that had to be thrown away because of a miss-firing effect or stumble of a cameraman. That the output is so good even with those constraints is incredible, but it does make the focus of the film that style rather than the other components. I’m not complaining, it’s made something unusual and still an incredibly good piece of cinema.

    The Personal History of David Copperfield
    I did not get on with this film. Other reviewers have described it as delightful and hilarious, but although I was desperate for some quirky fun, I just couldn’t get into it. Although I’m not familiar with David Copperfield, I’m usually a big fan of Armando Iannucci’s humour, either through outright satire in The Thick of It, or jaw dropping insanity in The Death of Stalin, but here I found it was neither whimsical enough nor biting enough. It just felt a bit jumbled, scenes being shared by people who are playing up the dry wit and drama alongside those playing pantomime caricatures. Dev Patel is to be commended for managing to deliver every aspect of the film with charm and energy, and I was happy to see a bright and colourful Dickensian world for a change, but I found the rest of it a little insufferable I’m afraid.

    Jojo Rabbit
    Another film I’d been looking forward to and ended up disappointed. The concept and tone of the trailer were intriguing – a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany, with Hitler as an imaginary friend. But the quirky comedy of the trailer was too thinly striped through the main film, with much of it having a more thoughtful and serious tone before suddenly remembering it was also supposed to be satirical and funny. It’s an odd thing to say, but it actually needed more Hitler as he was the comedy relief who really nailed the satire of the piece; Sam Rockwell also did an admirable job here and could have been on screen more. It had great ideas, solid cast, nice design (just as in David Copperfield I liked the brightness of it, rather than the cliche dreary colour scheme), and some really great scenes, but it was fighting itself and just didn’t quite come together.

    A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
    The name Fred Rogers won’t mean much to UK audiences, but to Americans he’s an absolute institution that many of them will have watched on tv as young children. For me, I may not have that sort of connection to the subject of the film, but I do have the same fondness for Tom Hanks who is playing him, so I was really looking forward to this film. To build on that the film also starred Matthew Rhys who I’ve loved since Brothers and Sisters and recently excelled in The Americans. The film itself is a bit odd, Mr Rogers is a slightly other-worldly character, and the film plays that up with some surreal sections and even breaking the fourth wall. But offsetting that Rhys’ character is based firmly in a quite difficult reality. Both leads are excellent and somehow manage to connect the different tones elegantly. It did miss a few opportunities to delve deeper into understanding Mr Rogers the person vs Mr Rogers the character, but I went in wanting something engaging and comforting and it completely delivered.

    Edge of Democracy
    An Oscar nominated documentary that I would never have watched if it hadn’t been nominated (and available on Netflix). On the very positive side I have learnt some stuff about Brazilian politics, but it is the kind of learning that I then feel I need to double check. The documentary maker has a very personal connection to the story which she is open about, but immediately made me nervous about the fairness of her documentary as an educational piece. I was also frustrated with the tone and style which was a little simpering and arty for me, verging on poetry when I just wanted facts and simplicity. Unfortunately it felt like an effort to get through to the end and although it gave me an introduction to an incredibly messed up political situation that the world should probably be more engaged in, I didn’t feel confident that I’d fully understood, or been shown, the whole story.

    The American Factory
    I thought this was an absolutely fascinating documentary. It has incredible access to a closed down car factory in Ohio that is re-opened by a Chinese company, highlighting the completely different ways of working that the two countries have with management styles, work culture, safety, pay, and work/life balance. A lot of people share their points of view through interviews, voice over and being filmed at work and home. It is fascinating to see how, although the workers are all keen to work and learn together to make this business work, they are literally and figuratively speaking completely different languages. It’s only really “let down” by the senior management who do come across rather pantomime, not actually trying to adapt and respect the different cultures to truly merge them together and therefore driving everyone towards confrontation. It’s particularly interesting to watch being neither American, nor Chinese and therefore not coming from an assumed position with the other side is “foreign”. The film makers (led by two Americans, but supported by Chinese film-makers) keep a refreshing tone of respect and open-mindedness. Although I do think it comes across a bit western biased, I think it is actually more that it’s biased against the management layer, most of whom are Chinese. This documentary has really stayed with me and I highly recommend it.

    Klaus
    What a shame I didn’t watch this at Christmas! I’d dismissed it as a cheap kid’s animation to cash in on Christmas and only bothered to add it to my watchlist when it was nominated for an Oscar. The opening scenes didn’t grab me, introducing a spoiled and lazy heir to a postal service, whose father gives him one last chance and sends him to the far North as postman to an island occupied by two clans in perpetual conflict. Once we reach the island, the film really starts to shine. It’s clearly a fairy tale, but in the best tradition it has plenty of darkness running through it. The script has a perfect amount of bite to offset the soft centre, so it never becomes too sickly. It reminded me a lot of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s got a style all to itself. It was thoroughly entertaining to watch, beautiful to look at and a perfect addition to the regular Christmas catalog.

    Hail Satan
    I’m on a run of watching documentary films at the moment, and this falls rather on the innocuous end of the spectrum. I did feel that I learnt some stuff, but at the same time didn’t really feel transformed. Most of the film is spent following the leaders of a growing community of Satanist churches and completely focused on the political aspects of their movement challenging the perception that America is (or should be) a Christian country. The documentary is completely focused on this aspect of Satanism and the people featured come across as thoughtful, open minded and considerate. It’s all told from their point of view, with a couple of short sections on the history of Satanism. The people on the other side of their campaigns aren’t entirely voiceless as there are clips from the news and counter-protests, but these are clearly selected for contrast. I got the distinct feeling there was a bit more going on out in the wider network of churches (as is alluded to briefly) but frustratingly that’s not really explored. Still, it’s an entertaining documentary and gives voice to a group of people that you may not have encountered so it’s definitely worth a watch.

    Hellboy
    Good grief, what a mess. The original Hellboy films were also a mess, but at least they were a fun mess. This one is just a muddle. It felt like they couldn’t decide whether they were going to go for a fun 12A film, or a Deadpool-esque 18 rated grown up film. So they’ve ended up with something that’s too dark and bitter to be a fun action film; but doesn’t have enough bite and anger to really feel like it’s grown up. The plot makes no sense (not that the original did either) and the actors felt a little televisual, not really throwing themselves into it with the energy it needed. What a waste.

    Rocketman
    One of the cleverest tricks Lee Hall the writer has done is to frame the biography as Elton’s own telling of his story. This is a bit of a get out of jail free card for any over-simplification of people or events or any overly “on the nose” dialogue; that’s just how he remembers it and presents it. Elton John doesn’t come across as a saint by any means, but it is still a one sided story with most of the supporting characters coming across as rather one-dimensional (particularly the ‘villains’ of the piece). But while that frustrated me hugely with Bohemian Rhapsody (lesson – managers are all terrible), it was absolutely fine here because it was all framed as Elton’s point of view. The only other rich character was the lyricist Bernie Taupin, who I didn’t know anything about and was played with beautiful understatement by Jamie Bell. Their relationship was just another of the points of joy of the film.
    None of this would have worked without the breath-taking performance of Taron Egerton. He sings, he dances, he struts, he melts down and he does that thing that I just can’t even fathom – plays a character who’s playing a character, continually trying to present a different persona to the world and losing track of who is real.
    The word that I keep thinking of is ‘joy’. That may be a bit odd, because there’s a lot of heartbreak and darkness in Elton’s life and this film doesn’t shy away from that. But there’s a thread of joy running through it that never gets lost – Elton and Bernie love music, love creating it together and love the performance; and the audiences (both within the film and watching the film) love their music. I dare anyone to think of Crocodile Rock, or Pinball Wizard or Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting and not grin.