Films in December

New Releases A bumper month for films including eight new releases. I kept luring myself out to do Christmas shopping by promising cinema trips at the same time and there were several big releases on Netflix too (continuing to impress me with their range of films). Mary Poppins Returns isn’t on the list because I saved it for New Year’s Day so it doesn’t quite count, but I will say that it is utterly lovely.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (Netflix)
This may be more of a ‘feature length episode’ than a film, but given that it’s completely standalone I’m going to count it as a film. That said, my review is going to be pretty brief because I went in knowing nothing about it and I think that strongly contributed to my reactions when watching. I can’t remember the last time a piece of media had so much impact on me, I was not only engaged in the story and characters but through the choose your own adventure style, I was an active participant in the story, not just passively choosing options, but on an emotional level. It’s not perfect, there are some frustrations in the mechanics and a couple of sections that just didn’t work for me. But it is completely and utterly original and a fascinating exercise.

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)
I’d heard good things about this film, but then what really convinced me to go was that it’s written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, who also wrote and directed Our Little Sister which was one of my favourite films of a couple of years ago. I didn’t find Shoplifters as enjoyable or satisfying as that film, you can never quite settle into this family because there’s obvious tension throughout. I thought it overplayed the mystery elements of how these people all came together, it just felt a little forced, as if the writer was having to deliberately construct scenes so that people didn’t say what would have been natural. With that criticism in mind though, I was still engaged and connected to all the characters throughout.

Roma (netflix) – I’d been feeling a bit bad for not watching enough films that fall into the category of “I don’t really want to watch it, but I probably should watch it”. It’s very easy to just watch the fun films and skip over the important ones, so when Netflix promoted a black and white Mexican film I took a deep breath and went for it. It is by Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) so I had some hope it wouldn’t be completely without substance. Sadly though, it was.
There was just not enough meat to it. I was initially quite engaged, learning the structure of the family and the relationships, but they turned out to be quite straightforward and then didn’t really go anywhere. There’s so little plot I feel that even it’s almost not worth mentioning. That’s not always a problem, but if there aren’t any relationships and even the visuals aren’t anything exciting to look at (why black and white? why?!) then it’s just two and a quarter hours of drudge.

Ralph Breaks the Internet
This just fell a bit flat. The original Wreck it Ralph felt charmingly retro, making fun about old school games, but Ralph Breaks the Internet picks the wrong target. On one hand the extremely basic jokes it’s making about the intranet are already dated (when was the last time anyone was actually bothered by a pop up advert?), but the jokes are also too current with references to sites and memes of (almost) the moment which are going to date incredibly fast and very badly. The plot meanwhile was rather bitty and the final moral felt contrived and tired. There were a lot of bits that did make me quietly smile (I really loved the self-aware princess bit) and I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t charm me, entertain me, or move me the way I expect Disney movies to these days. Maybe that’s just that I’m holding them to too high a standard, but this felt very disposable.

Bird Box (Netflix) – Unfortunately for this film, I’d just watched A Quiet Place, which is playing with very similar ideas and does it in a much, much more elegant and engaging way. That’s a shame for Bird Box because it is actually very good, it’s just I can only think of it in deficiencies compared to A Quiet Place. Firstly the concept is even more extreme than “sound summons deadly monsters”, which was already a bit of a stretch. Here we have monsters that if you see them they make you kill yourself, so the survivors can never go outside without being blindfolded. The narrative follows a small group of survivors in two threads – the original outbreak and years later as they try to reach sanctuary. Everything about the way the story played out was well paced and engaging, interesting characters and a good mix of action and character development. But the fundamentals of it relied on too many ideas that stretched reason beyond breaking point. Where Quiet Place managed the magicians trick of distracting from the plot holes, Bird Box just had too many holes for even the always wonderful Sandra Bullock to distract from. Still worth a watch though, just don’t go in with a high bar and you’ll be fine.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – I had meant to re-watch the first Fantastic Beasts film before I went onto this one as I couldn’t remember much of what happened, but I didn’t get round to it and foolishly hoped the filmmakers would be generous enough to gently remind the audience what was going on. Nope. Thrown straight in, I started out faintly lost, and just got further and further behind. I’m not even sure that if I’d been up to speed on the previous film this one would have made much more sense. I also found it hard to follow the visuals, with many scenes colourised to a dreary grey monotone and moving too fast to really allow me to get a visual lock on designs. As a final straw, it didn’t feel like sufficient time was given to the actual fantastic beasts, they were more like cameos than the titular focus. Even the title itself is pretty terrible.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (Netflix)
I only watched this because a) it’s by Andy Serkis and he’s great and b) it was a new big release on Netflix so easy to tick off. Working against it however was a strong sense of boredom at another Jungle Book. When the live action one came out I didn’t really feel that the world needed more Jungle Book than the original Disney film, and I certainly didn’t think it needed a non-Disney version. But I am willing to concede that a fresh (ish) take on it had some merit. It’s a little more gritty than the Disney, apparently truer to the book, but not substantially so to be honest. In fact it did seem a little confused about whether to be a children’s film or a more adult one, I think it actually starts out for children and then takes a darker direction that frankly is likely to upset younger audiences. The animation was also a bit mediocre at times, certainly not up to the Disney standards. I found it a lot more engaging than I expected to, but I’m still not convinced it really adds much to the already crowded playing field.

Widows – I’d been looking forward to this one as it had such a strong story, some great names (Steve McQueen, Viola Davis) and was getting solid reviews. But I found it disappointing, in a lot of contrasting ways. Somehow it managed to be both too slow, but packed with too many threads; it was played too seriously for a cheesy heist movie, but then the preparation for the heist was completely ridiculous. It had comic moments that undermined the drama, and emotional scenes that were undercut by the comedy. The whole thing seemed like a bit of a muddle and just didn’t really work.

New to me – as the end of the year approached I did my usual desperate blitz trying to get through as many recent films as possible to make my review of the year more complete. Between Netflix, Amazon, christmas presents and the HMV sale I managed to catch up on 11 films, some that I really should have seen already, and tick off some mediocre offerings that I’m glad I didn’t spend money on.

Lady Bird– With a less talented writer/director and cast this could have been just another entry into the coming of age genre, with an irritating lead character, stereotype supporting family and friends, and all the usual milestones (prom, driving test, college choices, boyfriends, friendships etc). But this film has magic. I’m not sure what it is, it really doesn’t look like anything special on paper, but everything falls into place and makes something wonderful. All of the characters and relationships are familiar and predictable but still a delight to watch, the direction shows how small towns can be both beautiful and boring at the same time. It’s an absolutely lovely film.

The Breadwinner – Another example of the incredible power of animation. For me, this is a story of a strange land with seemingly insane rules and customs, but it is not a fantasy, it’s a reality. Using a child’s view and very simple (but beautiful) animation to show 2001 Afghanistan is very powerful, and then adding a child’s fairy tale into it further adds to the richness. The connections between the story and the reality are quite clear, but not hammered home as forcefully as would be found in a Disney film, but then this isn’t really a kid’s film. I’ve found myself thinking about it repeatedly in the days since I watched.

A Quiet Place – This is an astonishing film. Even though I knew a lot about it and had very high expectations, it still managed to impress me. It takes an extremely simple concept (sound summons deadly monster) and delivers an extremely well paced and emotionally powerful film. The best way to see it would be in a busy but VERY well behaved cinema, but the worst place would be a busy but BADLY behaved cinema; so seeing it at home alone was probably the safest, but not best circumstances. I did think that would effect the impact, but if it did, then I think watching in a cinema may have been unbearable. The way that sound, and the absence of sound is used is incredible, heightening not just the drama and tension, but surprisingly the emotions as well. So much is unsaid, but there is absolutely no doubt about how anyone is feeling. The only downside is that the logistics of the monsters were a bit clunky, that’s all that stops it being a 10.

You Were Never Really Here – I only really watched this because I was hunting out 2018 films that were available for free, and when I started watching it over breakfast on New Year’s Eve I wasn’t particularly engaging. However I slowly found myself sinking into it and giving it more and more of my attention. The film is a very slow, quiet work (even though it’s about violence and action) and somehow has depth to it, despite really not giving you much to go on. I was frustrated that the plot driving the characters made so little sense – over-complicated and under-explained, but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is compelling.

Swimming with Men – “Innocuous” feels rather like damning with faint praise, but it really does fit this film perfectly. It seems unlikely it’s going to change anyone’s life, but while it’s on it’s perfectly adequate entertainment. Most of the cast are pretty recognisable as stalwart British character actors and immediately put you at your ease. It is fundamentally built around some serious issues of loneliness and depression, but it only skims the surface without committing to diving deeper (pardon the puns), but that works alongside the slightly silly spectacle of men who aren’t exactly in their physical prime doing synchronised swimming.

Journeyman – I was impressed at this. Everything about the film is understated but very carefully judged, it’s very simple, but exceptionally well executed. It gives each beat of the plot just enough time to settle before gently moving on, finding that balance between drawn out, but providing enough time to really engage. There are a small number of characters and locations, but they are all well formed and have a strong sense of character. The lead pairing of Paddy Considine and Jodie Whittaker are as phenomenal as expected, but I didn’t realise until the credits that Considine also wrote and directed it.

Ghost Stories – I’m hoping this was a fairly small budget, fast shot exercise; if it was then it’s a really solid little indie film, if it was more expensive then it’s an unremarkable, slightly amateur exercise. Ghost Stories is an anthology of 3 very small stories tied together with a narrative that manages to link everything together and tell an interesting story of its own. There were a couple of moments that I was either creeped out or shocked, but also a lot that had me rolling my eyes. The eventual twists and turns are satisfying enough to make it worth the effort, plus I’d watch Martin Freeman read a phone book, but it’s not going to be a classic.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
A mouthful of a title, and the film is a bit the same. For the most part it’s the charming “terribly British” film that you’d expect with a title like that a cast made up of half of Downton Abbey. But the thread of story running through it about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey is horrific. I was aware that Guernsey was occupied, but I never really thought about what that meant and even the sanitised version shown in this relatively fluffy film is awful. That leaves me conflicted about the film, on one hand it did at least educate me a bit, and it was charming and sweet. But at the same time it feels like threads of it are in a different film (the heartbreaking Penelope Wilton) and it didn’t quite come together.

Tomb Raider (2018)– This was actually pretty good! Alicia Vikander does a great job making Lara Croft a real person. She’s not a huge hero, invulnerable or all knowing, she has no idea what she’s doing and sort of bumbles from one set piece to the next. I’ve no idea whether the actual plot made any sense, I didn’t really bother following it too much and it really didn’t matter. The action pieces are creative, entertaining and very well delivered and everything really rattles along. I actually found myself looking forward to a sequel.

A Star is Born (1937) – The very first Star is Born that will go on to be directly and indirectly re-made multiple times. It’s a timeless story and the original actually holds up quite well, and in some ways it made more sense than the most recent version as the sexism and awkward #metoo moments don’t seem out of place in the 1930’s.

Winchester – It’s hard to summon up much in the way of either enthusiasm or anger at this film. It’s absolutely fine sufficient plot, sufficient character development and sufficient style, just nothing particularly good or bad about it. It’s a bit surprising to find Helen Mirren in something this mediocre and she doesn’t really make a huge amount of effort either.

Rewatches – it’s Christmas so plenty of opportunities to slump in front of some family favourites.

The Muppet Christmas Carol – Without a doubt, the best Christmas movie of all time and a staple for my Christmas schedule for decades. The music is absolutely amazing, the mixture of Dickens and Muppet is perfect and it is great fun to watch for all the family. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen this Christmas, with a packed audience and it made me so happy I cried.

Ratatouille – I remember this feeling a bit of a let down when I first watched it, it didn’t feel like it was doing anything particularly original compared to the previous Pixar offerings. But it grows on you as a really solid film that may not be spectacular, but doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s really a very sweet story with some nice animation and fun characters.

Tangled – Before the film starts there’s a little splash screen to tell you that this is Disney’s 50th animated feature and the film manages to perfectly tie in both the greatest traditions of Disney’s heritage and yet feel sufficiently contemporary to sit alongside Pixar’s offerings. The animation and design are absolutely beautiful, the characters interesting and engaging, the plot trots along, the voice acting is full of character rather than celebrities and the whole thing is just lovely to watch. The only letdown were the songs which I felt were an interruption to the fun dialogue.

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.

The Greatest Showman – All of the building blocks were there for a spectacularly piece of entertainment and somehow they messed it up. Hugh Jackman was born to play PT Barnum, Zac Efron is like Hugh Jackman Jnr, the budget was all there and the cast and crew were clearly 100% committed and yet it falls flat. I think most of the blame lies on the plot itself which swerved from one set piece to the next with clunky bridges in between, which would rely on various contrivances to make sure the story didn’t just stop dead (magic money sources, instant forgiveness, spontaneously remembering why a romance wouldn’t work just after a massive love song) or simply skimmed past contentious areas (was he exploiting his stars, was there a romance?). From a production point of view there were some rookie errors – many scenes were set at night and were just too dark, the entry and exit of the musical numbers was clumsy and lip-syncing the songs felt like short change. I didn’t hate the film, the musical numbers were wonderful (except the lip-syncing), but my main feeling was one of disappointment that the amazing story and talented cast were wasted.

Solo: A Star Wars Story – I’d not really been intending to see this film, but I was looking for something to distract my brain for a day and it worked out that I could do a double bill of this and Jurassic World. As it turned out, Solo lived up to my apathy, and even failed to work as a distraction.
The film got off to a bad start with a pet peeve of mine – over colourisation and dim lighting. I thought it was just to hammer home the metaphorical dinginess of Solo’s home planet, but it followed him the whole film. Scenes looked grainy, dull, indistinct and colour filtered beyond any believability. With the visual spectacle crippled, there was more reliance on the story and I just didn’t really care for it or the characters. It felt too bitty (a problem I’ve had with other Star Wars films) – go here, get the thing, go there, get the thing. Fun characters were massively underused disappearing far too quickly, leaving only the rather dull ones, nuance was non-existent so if I was supposed to be surprised by anything it was sadly ineffective. This film failed to distract me, I frequently found my mind wandering which is not what I expect from this kind of film. Really disappointing.

T2: Trainspotting – 20 years is a long time to leave for a sequel, and for a film so ingrained with a sense of the 1990’s it’s probably shouldn’t have worked to jump back to see the characters present day lives. It shouldn’t be possible to make it current while also still being Trainspotting. But somehow they manage it, at least for me as someone who’s seen the original a couple of times and liked it a lot. The characters have all grown and yet also completely not, similarly the tone has evolved but is still absolutely Trainspotting. I really enjoyed this.

Mary Poppins – It doesn’t matter how often I watch this I always find something new, but it also doesn’t matter how long I leave between watches I have a deep sense of nostalgia for it, reciting and singing along. The core story holds up well over the decades and the songs remain catchy and/or moving. It does drag somewhat (nearly two and a half hours for a children’s film!) but it certainly deserves its classic status.

Zootropolis – The lines between Disney and Pixar are really blurring under John Lasseter’s leadership of Disney and that’s turning into a really really great thing for Disney. Zootropolis does all the things we’ve always expected from Pixar – smart, bright, original and with a huge heart. It’s playing with classic ideas of the cop genre, taking a keen new recruit and throwing them into the reality of the city and partnering with a more worldly wise companion (in this case a conman). I laughed pretty consistently through the film thanks to the verbal and visual gags, particularly the elegantly included grown up references that in no way would detract from a child’s entertainment. There were a couple of slower segments in the middle where plot was explained and the kids in the audience got a bit fidgety. Also the moral message was really hammered home until it became a little frustrating, but given how important a message it is, I shouldn’t really complain. Another great entry into Disney’s catalog.

How to Train Your Dragon – I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this, but within a few seconds I was absolutely charmed and since then I’ve watched it over and over again with the same level of enjoyment each time. From the very opening seconds it is bursting with wit, originality, vibrancy and character. While the detail of the animation has dated a little bit, the observation of the movements and expression is outstanding for all the characters – human, dragon and even the sheep. The design of Toothless is particularly beautiful, managing to be fish like, reptilian and cat like all at once. The voice acting was perfectly done, actually feeling like voices of the characters on screen instead of celebrities doing voice-over like many films. I adore it.


2 thoughts on “Films in December

  1. Pingback: Films I Saw in 2018 | Narrative Devices

  2. Pingback: Oscars: Films of 2018 – Narrative Devices

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