The Haunting of Hill House: Season 1

I was looking for something that would be a satisfying, but un-challenging box set for a weekend of dreary weather, mild illness and catastrophically low motivation. The Haunting of Hill House turned out to be a near perfect fit for my needs.

This series delivers a number of fundamental horror principles very solidly:

1) Is it supernatural or not? The twists and turns play out very nicely over the 10 episodes, supported by characters holding different positions and in turn evolving their thinking as the audience does. If you see the monster in the first 5 minutes there’s no mystery, just a battle for survival. But if you spend hours not sure whether the monster exists or if people are crazy, that’s far more interesting.

2) Family dynamics are the real horror. As much as this is a story about a haunted house, it’s a story about a haunted family. The series follows a sibling group demonstrating how differently people can respond to trauma, and how those differences can tear a people apart and bond them together. The individual characters are all complex individuals and played by actors more than capable of demonstrating their depth; while the connections and conflicts between the siblings are equally complex and fascinating.

3) Stuff that’s festered is more scary. I’m not just talking about some of the ickiness, but also by tracking two major timelines, and flashing back occasionally to key points in the intervening period, it allows you to see the huge, life changing impacts that events have. Being scared and getting over it is one thing, but when it’s shaped the characters lives for decades, that’s really scary. The plot and interweaving of the timelines was carefully done and I rarely felt frustrated to be pulled from one to the other.

Overall, The Haunting of Hill House is a very satisfying and solid horror series. It’s not without flaws, I struggled early on to track who was who, particularly tracking the children to their grown up counterparts, and there were a fair number of classic horror story problems whereby people often did dumb things that pushed the bounds of credibility. But that’s almost part of the genre itself. The series uses its running time well and leaves just the right amounts of closure and unanswered questions. A great binge watch for a dreary weekend.

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Books in January and February

Those of you paying attention will have noticed that in January I didn’t share my usual monthly digest of what I’d been reading, that’s because it was a rather embarrassing tally of just two books. I thought I’d make up for it in February, but frankly that was an even more pathetic count of just one book. This is mostly due to the fact that I’m working in a different office at the usual, and rather than a nice 2 hours each day on tubes to power through books, I have an unpleasant 2 hours driving slowly on clogged up motorways. That’s doing wonders for my podcast backlog, but not much for the reading list.

T Kingfisher – Swordheart
Another great book from T Kingfisher. There’s something incredible substantial about her characters – the way they speak, act and think just feel like fully realised individuals that are interesting and fun to spend time with. If I look at it objectively, I think there are some weaknesses in the storyline – maybe a little too much plodding between events and dragging things out. But as the characters are so nice to spend time with, I really don’t mind just sitting in a wagon listening to them talk. I really do adore her work.

Claire Evans – The Fourteenth Letter
A book that’s basically absolutely fine. There’s nothing to complain about, but also nothing to get excited about. The characters are engaging enough, but at first there are too many and then they don’t seem to really go anywhere; the plot moves along sufficiently, but lacks any real depth. I found something a little off though, it starts off quite easy going, gradually introducing some mysterious elements, but that light tone never quite hardens despite some very violent and disturbing subject matter. Maybe it’s that disconnect that left me feeling completely nothing about the book.

Martin Edwards (editor) – Silent Nights – Christmas Mysteries
A nice collection of mystery stories that are vaguely Christmas themed. By nature of short stories, particularly mysteries there isn’t much scope for developing characters and rich pictures, but the Christmas themes immediately give a little more richness. Some are very predictable, some are ridiculously improbable, but they’re all satisfying enough for a cold evening curled in an armchair.

Films in February

Because I spent so much time writing about Oscars, I forgot to do my round up of films in February. It’s probably a bit repetitive with the Oscar posts as most films were related to awards, but for completeness I thought I’d better still make the post.

NEW RELEASES
Green Book
I’m a bit unsure about this film. On one hand, it’s a nice film about the development of an unlikely relationship with a lot of laughs and smiles along the way and I really quite enjoyed it. The central performances are all big and the characters are complex and interesting. However, I was also uncomfortable that this was a film about racism, bigotry and systematised hatred and oppression; and if that film is ‘nice’ it’s probably missing something. Not every film has to be hard hitting and challenging, but this one just made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because it’s being award nominated and is another of those films that if it had been released in May or October, I wouldn’t be so critical towards.

The Wife
I never quite made it to the cinema to see this film, so rented it from Amazon as part of an award nominations blitz. I’d been intrigued from early on about the ‘mystery’ of the film, but was slightly disappointed to realise that it was fundamentally exactly what you think it is. The overall plot and writing was in fact a bit clunky throughout, I think the flashbacks rather over-egged the pudding and I wonder if there was a more elegant solution to those. However, for all the lack of subtlety in the overall structure of the film, Glenn Close’s performance is absolutely mesmerizing. She sold the emotions, conflicts and contentedness of her character in ways that were beyond the script (somehow) and brought an otherwise middling film to life.

NEW TO ME
BlacKkKlansman
I struggle with this film. At it’s heart is a story that is completely ridiculous, and yet is apparently true. In the 1970’s the first black cop in Colorado Springs, persuades his department to launch an extensive investigation into the KKK. He does this by joining the KKK, with himself playing the member on the phone, and a white (Jewish) colleague playing the member in person. I mean, why does the white cop not just talk on the phone too? That central question bugged me the whole way through the film. It also bugged me that it seemed to be presenting itself as a dark comedy, but wasn’t really funny enough, and I’m not entirely sure it was dark enough either – the ineptness of this branch of the KKK seemed to undermine the horrors they committed. And then, the film ends with news footage of horrible events in present day America which just didn’t feel appropriate with the light tone the film ended on. It felt like finger wagging, when the rest of the film had done very little to actually educate or elevate the discussion.

REWATCHES
Roma – I’ve watched this film twice now. On first watch I was incredibly unimpressed with it, but the amount of critical praise and number of awards it was getting made me think I may have missed something. On second watch, looking for the things that people had praised, I could see that I had been overly harsh on the film. I could see the beauty in the cinematography, and I was certainly more appreciative of the acting, particularly from absolute new comer Yalitza Aparicio. However, I still feel, there is just not enough meat in the film. All the characters and relationships are quite straightforward and there’s very little attempt to develop them. Everything feels very surface, no attempt to share the backstory of either characters or history, it’s just a sequence of things that happen. On first watch I was completely bored, on second watch I was a bit more engaged, but already, less than 10 minutes after finishing watching, it’s fading from my memory. I’ll raise my review from “awful” to “fine”, but it’s nothing more than that.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – After the disappointment of X-Men First Class, I was happy to see the original cast back for this installment, even if they were accompanied by the younger generation who I’d felt just didn’t have the heft that the Sirs Stewart and McKellan and the Mighty Jackman brought to the franchise. As it turns out, either the older generation’s support, or the much improved supporting cast raised everyone’s game a notch and the whole gigantic cast all came together to form a rather glorious whole. The time travel plot was a little of a bodge, but hung together pretty well, with just enough bouncing back and forth and interweaving that I never found myself frustrated to be in one time or the other.
It did what superhero films at their best have always done, partner the brutality of the metaphor with a sense of fun and awareness. The characters acknowledge their ridiculous situations and the fact that (for the most part) their powers don’t actually help them know what they should do, they just provide additional, spectacular, options. The film mixed character, action and plot very neatly, and I was never once bored. In fact my only complaint would be that I wanted even more – more characters, more interactions, more action and more jokes. After the disappointments of First Class and The Wolverine, the series is back on track, I’m sure the fact that it’s Bryan Singer back writing and directing is absolutely no coincidence.

The Secret Life of Pets – From the studio that brought you Despicable Me… and it’s just not that good I’m afraid. It has some really great observational bits about pets, really capturing dogs and cats as animals while still anthropomorphising them for the story. The attitudes and actions are perfectly captured. Unfortunately the story just isn’t anything special. Actually, it was something special when it was done in Toy Story, but fundamentally the whole pitch of Secret Life of Pets is to retell Toy Story with pets not toys. It just wasn’t original enough to hold the attention. BUT the pet stuff did make me laugh the whole way through, so it’s still fun to watch.

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House – I don’t think this is the best of Cary Grant’s films, he seems to be a little on auto-pilot at times, playing the tired, down-trodden city man with a dream a little too tired. It’s missing the aspect of barely controlled mania that he brings to some other roles, I kept waiting for the explosion. The dryness of his best friend and wife make up for it though, the snide background remarks are wonderful. I also loved the opening scene, watching the busy family try to live in the tiny space on top of each other, it’s comfortably familiar and hilariously well observed. I do still prefer the re-imagined version in The Money Pit though.

East is East – Another great film from Film Four looking at a subject that really wouldn’t make the cut in Hollywood. It’s great fun, but also really challenging in its subject matter, a challenging but charming look at family life across cultures.

Oscars: Films of 2018

There are 37 feature length films nominated for Oscars this year, and I’ve seen 21 of them (57%), slightly better than last year’s percentage of 52%. Those 37 films add up to 106 nominations in total, and thanks to me ticking off some of the bigger ones, I’ve managed 70% of the nominations in total, although that’s 7% fewer than last year. The two big ones that I missed are Vice (which I’m not that sad about) and Can You Ever Forgive Me (which I am a bit).

Picturesee yesterday’s post for the longer version

  • Black Panther – A great superhero film, proving something that didn’t need to be proved.
  • BlacKkKlansman – a ridiculous story that makes no sense, even if it is true. Muddled in tone.
  • Bohemian Rhapsody – brilliant fun to watch, but not brilliantly well done
  • The Favourite – gripping, charming, heartbreaking, startling
  • Green Book – a ‘nice’ film about the development of an unlikely friendship, but it lacks the heft required for a story addressing deep seated racism
  • Roma – beautiful to look at, but ultimately lacking in substance
  • A Star Is Born – entertaining in places, but problematic in others
  • Vice – the only one I didn’t manage to see.
  • Prediction – I’d like The Favourite to win, but it will almost certainly be Roma.

    Director

  • Alfonso Cuarón – Roma) – \the aesthetic is spot on, but I never got the impression there was anything going on beyond what I could see
  • Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) – I didn’t really notice much in the way of direction I’m afraid.
  • Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War) – haven’t seen it.
  • Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) – the quirky tone of the direction brings alive the script and performances, adding nuance and changing perspectives all the time.
  • Adam McKay (Vice) – not seen
  • What’s missing – I would have like to see John Krasinski here for A Quiet Place for the way that he communicated so much with such restricted sound. I also always think that the directors on epic blockbusters like Black Panther or Avengers Infinity War deserve recognition for the immense juggling act to make massive set pieces, stunts, close ups and entire CGI worlds all blend together. And it would of course have been nice to see a woman here.
    Prediction – Cuaron will probably win for Roma, but again, I think The Favourite is the more impressive achievement.

    Actor

  • Christian Bale (Vice) – not seen. I do always feel a bit weird about the heavy prosthetics work, makes it harder to work out how much is acting and how much is just makeup.
  • Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) – he was good, but I was incredibly irritated with the ridiculous voice that made it hard for me to understand him.
  • Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate) – not seen
  • Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) – another case of a chunk of the work being done by prosthetics (mostly teeth!), but even with that, the performance shone through, not only as an impression but as a rich, complex and fascinating character
  • Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) – this was a good performance, making a comedic character grounded; there’s not much in the way of subtlety, but it’s still a rich performance.
  • Who’s missing – Journeyman was a film that no one seemed to notice and yet had a superb performance from Paddy Considine. A bit surprising that Ryan Gosling didn’t get a nomination for First Man, but maybe it was just too quiet a character. Joaquin Phoenix for You Were Never Really Here.
    Prediction – I think Rami Malek has got this one in the bag.

    Actress

  • Yalitza Aparicio (Roma) – a quiet performance, incredible for a first time actress
  • Glenn Close (The Wife) – not an amazing film (I haven’t reviewed it yet), but Close is phenomenal
  • Olivia Colman (The Favourite) – perfect casting, Colman is heartbreaking and hilarious
  • Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born) – I was really impressed at her performance, she was a wonderfully rich character with confidence and vulnerability, a joy to watch.
  • Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) – not seen, but I’ve loved Melissa McCarthy since Gilmore Girls
  • Who’s missing – Emily Blunt for A Quiet Place, Jodie Whittaker for Journeyman, Viola Davis for Widows. I haven’t seen Mary Queen of Scots, but I’m surprised not to see Saoirse Ronan and/or Margot Robbie here.
    Prediction – Glenn Close is fantastic and has miraculously never won an Oscar despite 7 nominations and this performance certainly justifies a win. But I would also be more than happy if the wonderful Olivia Colman or the impressive Lady Gaga won.

    Supporting Actor

  • Mahershala Ali (Green Book) – an excellent performance that brings some subtlety to a slightly mediocre script, I’m just a little bemused that it’s considered ‘supporting’.
  • Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman) – Driver is more than capable of Oscar worthy performances, I just didn’t think he had enough material here.
  • Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) – all I remember is the growling voice, not really the performance
  • Richard E. Grant(Can You Ever Forgive Me?) – I haven’t seen it, but how wonderful was the pure joy that he has for the nomination
  • Sam Rockwell (Vice) – not seen
  • Prediction – Mahershala Ali seems to be sweeping the boards, and I guess he was the most impressive of the ones I’ve seen. I’d kind of like to see Richard E. Grant win though, just because he seems so lovely.

    Supporting Actress

  • Amy Adams(Vice) – not seen
  • Marina de Tavira (Roma) – I don’t think there was enough to this role to make it outstanding
  • Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) – not seen
  • Emma Stone (The Favourite) – I liked this performance a lot, she’s sparky and has a great arc
  • Rachel Weisz (The Favourite) – this role at first seems the simplest of the three women in this film, but that understates the subtlety beneath the surface which is a true achievement
  • Prediction: It seems like Regina King is a dead cert for this, although I would pick Rachel Weisz from the ones that I’ve seen.

    Original Screenplay

  • The Favourite – there’s a lot packed into the screenplay here, building up layer upon layer of comedy and tragedy
  • First Reformed – not seen
  • Green Book – very formulaic
  • Roma – Everything great about this film is in the visuals and the performances, the story and script are insubstantial and unremarkable.
  • Vice – not seen
  • Prediction: I hope and think The Favourite will win

    Adapted Screenplay

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – This is 5 short films stuck together, and I just wish it had been blended into one feature.
  • BlacKkKlansman – I didn’t think the events actually made any sense (why didn’t the white police man just talk on the phone?), and although that’s the history, I don’t think the screenplay did anything to address it.
  • Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  • If Beale Street Could Talk
  • A Star Is Born – I have real issues with A Star is Born, I think there are a lot of issues that could and should have been addressed that were just completely ignored and I don’t think it did enough to move the original storyline into a new century.
  • Prediction: Of the ones I’ve seen, I wasn’t particularly impressed by any of them. If Beale Street Could Talk?

    Animated Feature

  • Incredibles 2 – I thoroughly enjoyed this
  • Isle of Dogs – manages to be quirky but not irritating and really enjoyable
  • Mirai – not seen
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet – I was not impressed at this at all, it wasn’t doing anything new, riffs about pop-up ads are out of date before they started.
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – the most comic book feeling comic book film yet.
  • Prediction: I’d be happy with either Isle of Dogs of Spider-Man, but I think the latter will win.

    Foreign Language Film

  • Capernaum (Lebanon), Cold War (Poland), Never Look Away (Germany), Roma (Mexico), Shoplifters (Japan)
  • Prediction: Surely a slam dunk for Roma? The only other one I’ve seen is Shoplifters which didn’t blow me away, although I’ve heard good things about both Capernaum and Cold War.

    Best Documentary

  • Free Solo; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; Minding the Gap; Of Fathers and Sons; RBG
  • Prediction: Embarrassingly I haven’t seen any of these. I suspect the Academy will vote for RBG but that may be more about the subject of the documentary than the quality of it, but I’ve heard much better things about Free Solo.

    Documentary Short

  • Black Sheep, End Game, Lifeboat, A Night at The Garden, Period. End of Sentence. – I haven’t seen any of these I’m afraid.
  • Prediction: A Night at the Garden?

    Live Action Short

  • Detainment, Fauve, Marguerite, Mother, Skin – Nope none of these either
  • Prediction: Shrug – Marguerite.

    Animated Short

  • Animal Behaviour – cute and funny
  • Bao – I was a bit uncertain about it to be honest, but I spoke to someone to whom it is culturally very close and he adored it
  • Late Afternoon – this is only the trailer and it doesn’t give you much to go on, but the animation style is beautiful.
  • One Small Step – Absolutely beautiful, truly stunning.
  • Weekends – I wasn’t a big fan of the dream bits, but the rest of it was really lovely.
  • Prediction: A fairly tough category, but my choice would be One Small Step

    Original Score

  • Black Panther – everything in this film is an evolution growing from pan-Afican roots and the music is no different.
  • BlacKkKlansman – I didn’t notice it
  • If Beale Street Could Talk – not seen
  • Isle of Dogs – the music was really creative using traditional themes much like Black Panther, supporting the tone of the film perfectly, just quirky enough but not insane
  • Mary Poppins Returns – lovely, just lovely. Using the foundations from the original film and developing them.
  • Prediction: It seems a little unfair to compare musicals with non-musicals, they’ve got such different jobs to do, so while Mary Poppins is obviously the most memorable, I’m not sure it’s fair. I think Black Panther will win, but I actually prefer Isle of Dogs I think.

    Original Song

  • “All the Stars” from Black Panther – I’m not a fan, but I think it works for the film
  • “I’ll Fight” from RBG – Solid, but I’m not sure how well it would have fit in a documentary, but not having seen it I can’t really say.
  • “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns – beautiful. Perfect for the film and just lovely. Watching on Youtube has just reduced me to a sobbing mess again.
  • “Shallow” from A Star Is Born – I don’t actually like this song much, it seems unfinished, like they gave up writing lyrics for the chorus (“In the shallow, sha sha shallow…”). I prefer Always Remember Us This Way which seems much more connected to the film.
  • “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – is this good? I mean it’s cute and fits the film, but seems pretty basic to me.
  • Prediction: I think Shallow will win, but I wish it were Mary Poppins.

    Sound Editing:

  • Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man, A Quiet Place, Roma
  • Prediction: A Quiet Place. For no other film is the sound so absolutely critical .

    Sound Mixing

  • Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man, Roma, A Star Is Born
  • Prediction: Who knows… Bohemian Rhapsody?

    Production Design

  • Black Panther – the design is original, creative, grounded, detailed and absolutely critical to the film.
  • The Favourite – the world of 18th century court was beautifully created, I presume exagerated for comic effect in places and rich and colourful.
  • First Man – How much was ‘design’ and how much was just recreating history? I’m not saying that’s easy, but it’s not as impressive as creating from scratch.
  • Mary Poppins Returns – the fantasy worlds were all fun and vibrant, but I don’t think they had the depth that they need to be outstanding – I didn’t really believe any of them existed when the camera wasn’t rolling.
  • Roma – I don’t necessarily understand these things, but to me Roma is more about the cinematography than the production design, it’s not *designing* anything, it’s just real.
  • Prediction: Black Panther surely?

    Cinematrography

  • Cold War – not seen, I just know that it’s a weird aspect ratio and black and white.
  • The Favourite – this was doing something very interesting with lenses and the like, but actually I never felt like it was drawing attention to it, just making it a part of the film.
  • Never Look Away – not seen
  • Roma – I will aree that there are some beautiful shots in this film, and despite being in black and white it felt vibrant, BUT I also felt that the black and white was a little over-processed. The whole thing felt like it was trying too hard – look at me, I’m black and white and this long, lingering shot is beautifully framed. It didn’t add to the story.
  • A Star Is Born – can’t say I really noticed it.
  • Prediction: I think it will go to Roma, although I prefer The Favourite.

    Makeup and Hair

  • Border, Mary Queen of Scots, Vice
  • Prediction: I’ve not seen any of them and not even heard of Border, but I think this is a battle of wigs over imitation prosthetics. It feels to me like there are a lot of options missing from here – The Favourite (the wigs!), and the prosthetic work in various sci-fi films. I suspect Vice will win.

    Costume Design

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – there were some fun designs here.
  • Black Panther – the costume designs were integral to the look of the film, evolving something new from multiple different traditions.
  • The Favourite – beautiful, but I’m not sure how much were based on existing historical designs.
  • Mary Poppins Returns – one of the only films I remember specifically noticing the costumes during the film, the drawn but real costumes in the ‘bowl’ sequence was fascinating.
  • Mary Queen of Scots – as for The Favourite, I’m not sure how much was just historical.
  • Prediction: Black Panther was doing the most interesting work

    Film Editing

  • BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Vice
  • Prediction: I don’t think the editing really stood out on any of those that I saw, I suspect Vice may have been a bit more creative though.

    Visual Effect

  • Avengers: Infinity War – an huge amount of CGI, but not overwhelming and it all felt real
  • Christopher Robin – I didn’t get on with the un-canniness of the animation here, they were cute, they just didn’t quite ‘resolve’ into the environment.
  • First Man – the strength and weakness of the effects is the recreation of the experience of early spaceflight which is shaky and terrifying, and frankly made me nauseous and had to look away from the screen.
  • Ready Player One – from my recollection, this was a little overwhelmingly CGI, the bits that were set within a game that made perfect sense, but I’m not sure that made it outstanding.
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story – Unlike Avengers, I was always aware that everything was a special effect.
  • Prediction: It’s almost too easy to do incredible things in CGI these days, just rendering everything isn’t impressive anymore, it’s when things blend seamlessly that it’s impressive, which is why I think it will go to First Man, although I think Avengers demonstrated more different aspects.

    Oscars: Best Films of 2018

    There are eight nominees for Best Film this year, and they cover about half of all the nominations across all the awards for feature length categories. I’ll post tomorrow my thoughts on the rest of the awards, but here are my reviews and thoughts on these eight films, what’s missing, what I want to win, and what I think should win. In alphabetical order –

    Black Panther
    It never ceases to impress me how each entry into the Marvel franchise manages to do something new and different, while still fitting into the overall framework. Black Panther’s uniqueness is around blending futuristic technology with African culture and history. It’s rightly getting press for its cultural significance and that this film is so remarkable is a depressing statement on the history of film and I recommend seeking out articles by people a lot more relevant than me to comment on that. What I can comment on is that the film was a huge amount of fun. I was gripped, amused, entertained and intrigued almost all the way through. I lost a little bit of focus during the final (inevitable) big battle, but even that had an impressive amount of character and emotion in it when compared to something like Iron Man 3, or anything out of the DC universe.
    I’m a big fan of this film, and with the expanded number of nominations the Academy can now include films that are excellent examples of their genres, even if those genres aren’t usually respected by the Academy. But it makes feel a little uncomfortable considering how much this nomination may be a ‘token’ mark of respect for the cultural significance of the box office success. Is this the Academy being patronising? “Well done you black people for proving that you can make films too!”. Something that nobody except movie financiers actually needed to be ‘proved’. I really don’t know, but there’s something that doesn’t feel quite right. Either way, I don’t think it’s going to win, and while I like it and it made my top 10, I don’t think it was the best film of the year.

    BlacKkKlansman
    I struggle with this film. At it’s heart is a story that is completely ridiculous, and yet is apparently true. In the 1970s the first black cop in Colorado Springs, persuades his department to launch an extensive investigation into the KKK. He does this by joining the KKK, with himself playing the member on the phone, and a white (Jewish) colleague playing the member in person. I mean, why does the white cop not just talk on the phone too? That central question bugged me the whole way through the film. It also bugged me that it seemed to be presenting itself as a dark comedy, but wasn’t really funny enough, and I’m not entirely sure it was dark enough either – the ineptness of this branch of the KKK seemed to undermine the horrors they committed. And then, the film ends with news footage of horrible events in present day America which just didn’t feel appropriate with the light tone the film ended on. It felt like finger wagging, when the rest of the film had done very little to actually educate or elevate the discussion.
    Just like Black Panther, this feels like it was earmarked for one of the ‘extra’ nominations, a mark of respect rather than a real expectation of it being a contender. The more I think about this film, the more I wish Spike Lee had made t a documentary instead.

    Bohemian Rhapsody
    I always forget just how many truly great songs Queen have had. The trailer alone for this film packed half a dozen songs together into a stunning mashup with incredible editing. Then you’ve got the story of the band, and particularly Freddie Mercury which gives more than enough story. Sadly, while the material is all there for a 10/10, the film only manages to get to 8/10. There were a few too many elements that I felt needed just one more polish – dialogue and direction were at times just too obvious, most of the characters were too thinly painted (particularly Paul and Mary – I don’t think it passes the Bechdel test) and I don’t think there was really a commitment to how to handle Freddie’s sexuality.
    These things all prevent the film from being ‘outstanding’ and prevent it from being a truly worthy contender. However, the things that niggle from that point of view, don’t detract from the pure enjoyment of watching this film. I was entertained throughout, and firmly convinced of the joy and heartbreak of Freddie and Queen’s music. I watched most of the last 20 minutes with a huge grin and tears streaming and as soon as I got home I put Queen’s Greatest Hits on and turned the volume up.

    The Favourite
    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.

    Green Book
    I’m a bit unsure about this film. On one hand, it’s a nice film about the development of an unlikely relationship with a lot of laughs and smiles along the way and I really quite enjoyed it. The central performances are all big and the characters are complex and interesting. However, I was also uncomfortable that this was a film about racism, bigotry and systematised hatred and oppression; and if that film is ‘nice’ it’s probably missing something. Not every film has to be hard hitting and challenging, but this one just made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because it’s being award nominated and is another of those films that if it had been released in May or October, I wouldn’t be so critical towards.

    Roma
    I’ve watched this film twice now. On first watch I was incredibly unimpressed with it, but the amount of critical praise and number of awards it was getting made me think I may have missed something. On second watch, looking for the things that people had praised, I could see that I had been overly harsh on the film. I could see the beauty in the cinematography, and I was certainly more appreciative of the acting, particularly from absolute new comer Yalitza Aparicio. However, I still feel, there is just not enough meat in the film. All the characters and relationships are quite straightforward and there’s very little attempt to develop them. Everything feels very surface, no attempt to share the backstory of either characters or history, it’s just a sequence of things that happen. On first watch I was completely bored, on second watch I was a bit more engaged, but already, less than 10 minutes after finishing watching, it’s fading from my memory. I’ll raise my review from “awful” to “fine”, but it’s nothing more than that.

    A Star is Born
    First of all I want to say that Lady Gaga is absolutely phenomenal in this film. I knew she could act a bit from her tv work, but here she is a full blown, award worthy actress. The character has depth and complexity, she is clearly saying one thing while thinking another, and often clearly not even really knowing how feels. It is a stunning performance, and I’m just disappointed that the rest of the film didn’t feel as worthy of her talents.
    The biggest problem for me was that I didn’t feel the film made any attempt to dig into the issues that it was raising, let alone some of the issues it should have raised. For me, the plot was about the exploitation of talent – a young girl with clear talent being manipulated by a much older and more experienced man, then in turn she’s also manipulated by the wider industry, turning her into a successful artist rather than necessarily the one she set out to be. Most of that is on the screen but whenever it edged towards really calling out any of it, it instead went to another song or an emotionally manipulative set piece and sidestepped without any real development or resolution. It felt like it was romanticising the whole thing, but I spent most of the time finding the relationship between Ally and Jack downright creepy. Add to that the timeframe within the film felt rushed (everything happening within just a year or two) while watching the film dragged. The more I think about it, the more frustrated I get.

    Vice – Alphabetically last, and the only one I haven’t seen.

    What’s Missing
    A Quiet Place and Love, Simon both impressed me as incredibly well put together examples of their genres, and with Love, Simon also breaking a barrier that was long overdue for breaking, it’s a real shame that it didn’t get a nomination here. I’ve also heard a lot of good things about If Beale Street Could Talk and it sounds like a far more interesting and important film than Green Book.

    What I Would Like to Win
    The Favourite – I was entertaining, surprised, and impressed by this film as I watched it and it has stayed with me in a way that the other films haven’t really. Now that I think about them as a set, I have to say I find them a slightly underwhelming list. Nothing really blew me away, nothing had me unreservedly telling other people they should go and watch it and with the exception of The Favourite nothing surprised me. I’m disappointed that of 8 films, I think only 3 (Black Panther, Favourite and Roma) pass the Bechdel test, and I had some serious concerns about some of the content of 2 of them (Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born).

    What I Think Will Win
    Roma – all the smart money seems to be on Roma, which I find disappointing. When I went looking for things to like in the film, I found a few, but it fundamentally doesn’t have enough to say. I don’t care that it’s in black and white, or foreign language, or even that it takes its time – but there is no substance to this film. It didn’t engage me while I was watching it, and if not for my compulsive need to write about everything, I wouldn’t have given it a thought after it had finished. If it wins, it will be so far from what ‘normal’ film goers appreciate and respect that it just emphasises how out of touch these awards are.

    You: Season 1

    Netflix was pushing this fairly heavily, but I’d dismissed it slightly out of hand. I’d spotted that it was based on a book by Caroline Kepnes, and I’d recently read her second book (Providence) and been underwhelmed with unconvincing relationships and a distracted story. But then the buzz for You started building and I was informed by a couple of people that I HAD to watch it. So I did. And once I’d started I couldn’t stop.

    It’s the kind of show that if I describe the individual elements and how I feel about them, it would probably make you think I didn’t like it. It’s about a group of 20-something New Yorkers who are by and large pretty awful people. The central story focuses on, and is largely narrated by Joe, a quintessential Nice Guy bookshop manager who falls for wannabe writer Beck, who is equally the quintessential Writer – she’s struggling to make ends meet and yet lives in a stunning apartment, is rarely seen working (either on her writing or her job as, of course, a yoga teacher), and is always out at expensive bars. Her circle of friends are rich and vapid (one actually has a job as an instagram influencer). Joe immediately becomes obsessed with Beck and things spiral quite rapidly in some incredibly creepy and violent directions, it very quickly becomes clear that Joe is quite the expert stalker and there’s a lot in his past that he’s not sharing.

    What really pulled me into the show though was the voice over. We are watching the show from inside Joe’s brain, he’s narrating and talking throughout, explaining why he’s doing what he’s doing. While that never justifies his actions it does explain why he is doing everything. You can track the logic chains and while they are generally started by an idiotic choice that is unforgivable, you kind of understand why things keep going as they do. Joe does monstrous things, but because we are in his head, it’s hard for us to view him completely as a monster. He’s a fascinating character, elegantly written and subtly played by Penn Badgley.

    Unfortunately that’s more than can be said for most of the rest of the characters, all of whom are pretty one dimensional. I found Beck a deeply annoying and unlikeable character. The fact that she’s far from perfect makes for some interesting twists and turns for the plot, but I never really understood her choices. Because we’re not in her head as much as we are in Joe’s, we don’t get the same insight into her motivations, so she comes across as shallow, selfish and inconsistent. While I don’t want to drift into victim blaming, she does make poor choices that have consequences in her life, and just because she IS a victim, does not actually make her a nice person.

    This imbalance is what stops the show being great I think. The development of Joe’s character and the way he is presented makes a high quality drama (while still also having plenty of laughs from his dry observations), but because everyone around is flimsy, it undermines that central richness. It also makes it slightly uncomfortable when the aggressor is allowed more opportunity to be sympathetic than the victims are – they don’t have to be likeable, but if they’re not rounded, it just starts to come across as more of a cheap slasher than as a psychological drama. It’s still a hugely compelling and entertaining show to watch, but it could have been more.

    Films in January

    The new year usually kicks off with a flurry of award contenders, but that feels a little bit delayed this year. Or I just haven’t dragged myself to see films that I *should* see, but don’t necessarily *want* to see. Maybe February will see them flock in. Meanwhile I had a couple of days hiding from the cold blitzing netflix/amazon, so there’s an overall tally of 16 films for the month.

    New films
    The Favourite – 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.

    Mary Poppins Returns – The original Mary Poppins film holds a special place in my heart, as it does for huge numbers of people, so it was with some nervousness I went into Returns. Quite early on I was relieved and relaxed into the film. It was exactly what a sequel to Mary Poppins should be, the same in theme and heart (and it had SO MUCH heart) but evolving the ideas and taking different approaches. It’s like they exactly copied the blurb from the back of the dvd case but delivered everything in their own way. Emily Blunt puts her own stamp on the character, Lin-Manuel Miranda is charming as Bert-Two (including the slightly dodgy accent) and Ben Whishaw plays the new Mr Banks beautifully. I won’t say it’s a perfect film, if you look at it objectively the original wasn’t either, but as a Mary Poppins sequel it was as good as could be hoped for.

    Stan and Ollie – Timing is everything. Laurel and Hardy’s comedy is a master class in timing, but the timing of the release of this film sadly did it no favours. Coming out bang in the middle of awards season I went in expecting something exceptional and instead got something solidly middling. The writing and directing is depressingly pedestrian, lacking in elegance or creativity. No opportunity is missed for hammering home any emotional points leaving it entirely without subtlety. While I knew next to nothing about Laurel and Hardy (I’ve never really been a fan) I still found it incredibly predictable and while I’d be lying if I pretended it didn’t have be reaching for the tissues, it felt like it was the history that earned the tears, not the film. It’s a shame, because the true lives, and the superbly cast John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan deserved a lot better. It’s not a terrible film, it’s just from the hype and timing I had been expecting something outstanding.

    Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – I’d been fairly convinced before I saw Spider-Man Homecoming that the last thing the world needed was yet another Spider-Man reboot. I was wrong, because they did something fresh and interesting with the concept, so I wasn’t so presumptuous as to say the same thing about the awkwardly named Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, and yet I still wasn’t going to bother seeing it in the cinema. Then the reviews started piling up and everyone said it was brilliant, so I gave it a try, and the reviews were almost entirely right. The film is great fun, it’s got the heart of Spider-Man but still manages to do lots of fun new stuff with it (all grounded in the comic lore from what people say). It’s charming, funny, sweet, exciting and completely unexpected. The only thing I’m torn over is the animation style. Most of it I really liked, it’s got a lot of different styles to it, really feeling like an animated comic book. My only problem was that I found it too much at times, particularly the odd effects used for the backgrounds which I found so distracting and weird that I actually checked to make sure I hadn’t wondered into a 3D showing. I see what they were trying to do, and I completely respect the attempt, but that didn’t quite work for me and sadly spoiled an otherwise really lovely film.

    After the Screaming Stops – Some documentaries just kind of make themselves, find some interesting people, put them under some stress and let the cameras roll. Matt and Luke Goss are just those people. I’m the right age to remember Bros mania, so even though I didn’t join in with it I can connect with that side of the story of their past. It’s interesting to see where they’ve both ended up and how it’s all effected them. At heart this is just a story about two twins who have gone in different directions, but they are far from normal. Whether it’s the fame or just nature they are really quite bizarre and when they collide it’s like watching a crazy train wreck. It’s an absolutely fascinating character study that if written as fiction would be utterly unbelievable.

    New to me
    22 July – There’s a lot going on in the film, maybe a bit too much. It feels uncomfortable to watch a recreation of such a recent tragedy, oddly opportunistic and voyeuristic, particularly because it involves children. Also because the ‘villain’ of the piece seems so extreme, cold and horrific in a way that feels unrealistic. It’s a well done film, I’m just not sure it should have been done.

    The Squid and the Whale – This had just about everything I hate. It was a noodle-y storyline that didn’t really go very far but took a long time getting there, despite actually only having a runtime of 1 hour 20. The characters were all utterly horrible, overwhelmed by their own self-importance and failure to really deal with any serious problems except those of their own making. A miserable waste of a talented cast.

    The Bookshop – This had all the ingredients to be utterly charming and 5 minutes in I thought I knew exactly the film I was watching. Emily Mortimer is immediately lovely, sparky and charismatic, and she’s going to try to set up a bookshop in a little village to share her love of books. I assumed it would be about the challenge to get the locals reading, while Bill Nighy is the reclusive book lover who will quietly support her and provide inspiration and encouragement, as the bookshop inevitably goes through challenges before succeeding gloriously and luring Nighy out to join the newly invigorated literary community. I really would have loved to watch that film. Unfortunately this film is about as far from that feel good joy as can get. It’s really the story of Mortimer’s fight against the Lady of the Manor who has vigorously taken against her shop for absolutely no reason. And, spoiler alert, Mortimer loses absolutely everything. It’s not a feel good film, it’s an absolutely miserable and horrible film. If there had been some sort of reason for it, at least that would have been a different film, but I couldn’t get past the lack of motivation and the crushing disappointment of not getting what I felt I’d been promised.

    What We Do in the Shadows – I was really impressed with how committed this film was to its concept. It plays it entirely straight with the concept of a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew following a group of vampires sharing a house and living semi-openly in New Zealand. The vampires are not playing it for laughs at all, or horror for that matter, they’re playing it exactly as slightly nervous but excited subjects of this kind of documentary do. Likewise the unseen director of the documentary is doing exactly their usual role, showing the humour and the horror through the footage itself and editing. The result is a film that finds that perfect sweet spot of horror, comedy, and that point in the middle where you don’t know whether to laugh, hide, or just drop your jaw in wonder. This is an utterly original and fresh film that I’m sorry I didn’t see earlier.

    Fences – Films of plays can be a bit problematic, it often doesn’t feel like they lose the stage-iness of the original. There was never a single moment of Fences that I wasn’t thinking about how this would be presented as a play and how I might feel if I were watching in a theatre. I never lost myself in the film, never felt like I was watching real people. The performances were technically superb, but I never forgot they were acting. The character depth and development is interesting, but I felt like I should be writing an essay about it, not reacting emotionally. Maybe it’s because the directing was so flat, or because the start is so slow, that it was too easy to get bored and distracted during the long rambling speeches. I just didn’t lose myself in it at all.

    Guys and Dolls – Way too long. Two and a half hours without enough substance, and with only really a couple of catchy tunes or dance numbers.

    Rewatches
    Batman Begins – I’ve always struggled with the Batman character, particularly when he’s played straight as a serious character. In contrast to the Marvel superheroes it doesn’t feel like there’s any real depth to the character, there’s no light to contrast the dark and it means I struggle to connect to him, or enjoy spending time with him. The darkness runs through everything in this film – story, characters, visuals and even the sound and music; I know a lot of people like that, but I just find boring. Legends Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman all bring brightness, but they’re not enough to overcome the charisma vacuum of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the underwhelming villains and love interest. Fundamentally, I was bored.

    X-Men: First Class – Something went a bit wrong here. I guess someone realised that they’d missed a trick with the X-Men films and they could go back and look at teenage mutants in the 60’s and have teenage angst combined with out of control superpowers. The problem is that the original X-Men were all so well cast that this bunch just look like kids playing dress up. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are quite watchable but they’re no Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and Jennifer Lawrence brings a new side to Mystique. However the rest of the cast isn’t even half as successful, January Jones was particularly awful as Emma Frost, although she did spend most of the film stuck in a gratuitous costume next to Kevin Bacon hamming it up something horrific. All in all, a rather disappointing pickle.

    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – When I first watched this film I was confused and really struggled to follow along and only gave it 6/10. Now though I’ve watched the film a couple of times and also read the book I can actually track the incredibly rich characters and plots. It also meant that because I wasn’t so desperately trying to cross reference everything, I could start to see the beautiful details in the cinematography, direction and performances. I think it is the kind of film that’s a classic and just gets better and better, and you almost can’t have that richness and growth if on the first viewing it all makes sense.

    The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! – Rarely does a film actually warrant having two exclamation marks in the title, but frankly I’m not sure that’s enough for Pirates! This film throws absolutely everything at the screen with such enthusiasm that it all feels worthy of exclamation and I had to resist the temptation to applaud at the screen on occasions. I can’t think of higher praise than to say that this reminded me of Pixar at its best with a perfect intertwining of a decent and original story with dozens, if not hundreds of tiny little references and in-jokes. It avoids a key pitfall that even Pixar have on occasion fallen into by making their famous voice-cast utterly unrecognisable, meaning the actors never overwhelm the characters. It’s also incredible to watch knowing the sheer amount of time and talent that have gone into producing the models and the animation, every single frame a work of dedication. A massive achievement and a thoroughly entertaining watch, absolutely outstanding.

    The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson movies have an unmistakable style to them, sort of other-worldly, with a bit of child like wonder about them and a sort of sing-song style to them that can sometimes become cloying and tiresome. Grand Budapest Hotel however continually snaps you out of that style with an abruptness to the dialogue that continued to surprise me all the way through. Who knew Ralph Fiennes was such a great comedian? This is the sort of film that almost defies review and description, you’ve just got to see it and you’ll either love it like I did, or be utterly unmoved. Take your chances.