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.
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.
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.