Films in April

New Releases
Avengers: Endgame – I have written entire essays about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the individual films within it, and I could write at similar length about this one. But to do that I’d need to include spoilers and probably watch it another half dozen times. So I’ll keep it (relatively) brief and vague.
The biggest triumph of Endgame is that it stays true to the foundations of the MCU and the Marvel franchise as a whole. Yes, the stakes and scope are yet again take a step up from previous films (even the seemingly un-top-able Infinity War), but it never loses sight of the core foundations of characters, heart and fun. Somehow Endgame delivers not only a universe spanning plot and the conclusion of character arcs decades in the making, but it finds time for humour. It doesn’t even feel like it’s squeezing the humour in, it’s all completely entwined with the drama and the action, I’d be laughing, crying, gasping and cheering all at the same time. With the weight of expectations and quantity of stuff it needed to get through, it should have felt heavy; but the film had a lightness and elegance that in hindsight was missing from Infinity War. The only reason that the film really felt 3 hours long was because I made the mistake of drinking a large cup of tea before going in. Throw in an intermission and I would cheerfully have watched another couple of hours.
This is a film that I think any fan would be hard pressed to not like, because it was so clearly written for the fans. There were so many satisfying call backs and references that I found myself tearing up out of pure satisfaction. It’s not perfect, but given the scale of the ambition it was never going to be. I’m trying to resist thinking too hard about the mechanics of the plot because it may not stand up to interrogation. I suspect every fan will all have a couple of characters that they feel were under-served by either the film or the series as a whole, there are opportunities that have been missed and I almost need to grieve for those as much as for the arcs that were actually resolved.
I’ll often come out of these films wanting to go straight back in, but I think it may be a while before I can re-watch this one. I feel like I need to respect the film by allowing it to settle. I know the MCU is continuing, but Endgame marks the end of an era that I have absolutely adored and I need to allow myself some time to accept that ending. Just like when you finish reading a great book, there’s a sadness that there is no more, that almost feels like it overwhelms the joy that you had while reading it. “All good things must come to an end” and Endgame was a near perfect ending to a very good thing indeed.

The Highwaymen (Netflix) – The Bonnie and Clyde story from the side of the law is a great story that I can’t remember seeing done anywhere before. The film makers really committed to that perspective and the choice to have the criminal pair and their gang as little more than figures in the distance worked very well. The mixed feelings of people towards the criminals makes a really interesting backdrop to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward chase movie. It’s great casting of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the aging buddy-cup pairing. They are both charismatic actors playing to type, with Costner reserved and thoughtful, and Harrelson rambling and personable. They are immediately charming and believable as long standing colleagues who respect each other while also winding each other up. But somehow the film ends up being slightly less than the sum of its parts and it felt a little disposable, not really digging far enough into any of the issues to be satisfying. I was loading up wikipedia long before the film had finished to allow me to dig more into the events, people and issues of the time.

Unicorn Store (Netflix) – I think this was aiming for cute and whimsical but I didn’t settle into it enough to be charmed. The very thing that attracted me to it was unfortunately the downfall of the film for me – Brie Larson is a great actress but she was miscast here. I spent the whole film unable to work out what age the main character was supposed to be. I *think* she was supposed to be about 20, freshly dropped out of college and that would have just about worked for a coming of age film, someone who has chosen, or has been protected from having to become a dreary adult. But Brie Larson is closer to 30 and so I spent all my time feeling uncomfortable that she wasn’t getting the help/support/challenge she needed to deal with the real world appropriately.

Guava Island (Amazon) – I’m not really sure what this is. It’s 55 minutes long, so it’s not a feature film, but it’s a bit long for a short film. There are a few sections that felt like music videos. It has a slight other-worldly tone to it (eg the use of colour) that makes it feel a bit fantasy, but not quite enough for me to be certain. It’s mostly fairly light, but the end is quite dark. It feels a bit like a short film that got out of hand while they were having fun and the names involved could just carry it along to do what they wanted. It’s not bad, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I just couldn’t really get a handle on it.

New to Me
Shimmer Lake – This had been loitering at the bottom of my Netflix watchlist for ages and I had pretty low expectations, which led to a very pleasant surprise. It’s not the most expensive or the most polished of films, but it is a film that’s “enough” – funny enough, clever enough, speedy enough, original enough and satisfying enough. The trick the film plays with the time structure is a smartly delivered one that makes the film worth watching.

Northern Soul – Good grief this was a slog. I really had to force myself to keep watching and paying attention. I don’t quite know why it didn’t work for me, all the ingredients seemed ok and it’s had some solid reviews. I found myself bored by it all though, not engaging with the characters or their circumstances, or even really being able to track them. I didn’t feel the situations and cultures were really explained well enough for me to fully understand where everyone was coming from, it all just seemed a bit one dimensional and childish.

Kong: Skull Island – This was a lot better than I was expecting. Actually, “better” is probably the wrong word, I’m not sure that the quality was particularly good, with plenty of incoherence and predictability in the plot and some middling dialogue. But it was very entertaining, thanks to the great cast all having a lot of fun. The special effects were also impressive, giving a real sense of scale and solidity, and a true sense of character for Kong. It’s hardly the best film of all time, but it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

The Children Act – This is a film of two halves. The first half is a very interesting legal drama combined with the presentation of an interesting conundrum in a relationship. Both aspects are presented with respect and thoughtfulness. I found it particularly satisfying that there was very little made of the fact that the main protagonist was female, the type of decisions she’s making, the power that she has is just presented naturally, not as any kind of gender issue. In fact, I suspect that the film would be largely unchanged if any of the roles were recast in different genders.
The problem is that the second half of the film drifted slightly off the beaten track and made less sense. It subtly switched from being an exploration of rational people with conflicting ideas, to people making more irrational and emotional choices. It’s not that it’s badly written, and it’s certainly not badly acted as all concerned give impressive performances, I just didn’t like it as much. I wanted the more intellectual debate which is much less commonly done. I was just less interested in the melodrama.

Hereditary – I was going to write that “I don’t like horror films”, but that’s not really true. I don’t like films that are just scary for the sake of being scary, but I do like films that are using scary elements to tell a story about really interesting people. Hereditary falls into the trap that I quite often see in horror films (most recently notable – Us) where the horror is handled well, the character development is fascinating, and then it screws it all up by trying to explain what was happening. If not for the final act of the film, this could be an award worthy exploration of grief and anger. Toni Collette is exceptional, as is Alex Wolff with the difficult task of playing someone emotionally shut down. There are moments and scenes which will stick in my memory for the utter horror and shock, with very impressive coordination of effects, acting, direction, editing and music all working together for maximum effect. But then it just didn’t stick the landing. I completely lost track of what was going on, the steps the characters were going through made no sense and the action started to overwhelm the time needed to watch the characters.

Trois couleurs: Bleu – There were moments in this film that I was spellbound by the beautiful images and the complexity of the central character. Sadly those moments were hugely outnumbered by times when I was bored, disengaged and even frustrated by the obviousness. Everything moved so slowly that I kept wondering if I was missing something, conspiracies and hidden complexity. But there wasn’t. Things that I think I was supposed to find arty (the fade to and from black in the middle of a scene, the loud music, the use of blue) I found far too pointed and the lack of subtlety annoyed me.

The House with a Clock in its Walls – Perfectly fine kid’s adventure film. All the nuts and bolts are there, but there’s a slight lack of spark, even Jack Black felt a little off his game, maybe too much exposition and acting to wade through and not enough improvisation? Cate Blanchett was the standout really, delivering a beautiful character that was eccentric but grounded, closed off but emotional, and lovely chemistry with the other characters. It’s worth watching the film just to see a true master at work, bringing her A game even if it’s “just” a kids’ film.

Fyre – This is a well put together documentary telling some of the story of the disastrous Fyre Festival. There are are a lot of different elements discussed in the film, raising questions and presenting evidence and counterpoint to most of them. As a project manager I almost watched this as learning and development as it demonstrates just how badly things can go wrong if simple elements of planning are ignored. The power of a charismatic leader, group think, optimism bias and the damage that “can do” attitudes can cause if not tempered with pragmatism. With that in mind I found it a little disappointing that the ‘ending’ was all focused on the financial aspects and revelation of the levels of fraud one of the leaders committed. That skipped over the shared culpability of the other professionals involved (and talking frankly to camera without taking a huge amount of responsibility) for the entirely predictable failure. It’s a fascinating case study, and I could frankly run training sessions using the content of this documentary.

An Inspector Calls – A classic that holds up to its status. It’s a well put together story, or collection of stories – each individually is fairly predictable, but the overall idea was quite elegantly done and I didn’t know, or really guess what was going on until near the end when it came as quite a satisfying realisation. The only problem I had was that the last few minutes felt unnecessary and it would have been a stronger ending if it hadn’t added a final additional resolution.

Loving Vincent – The technical and artistic achievement of this film is absolutely incredible. According to imdb every one of the 65,000 frames is painted in oils on canvas, painting and repainting 853 different canvases to make 853 shots. Watching the film is a completely unique experience and really does take the breath away from the opening credits to the closing ones. Using the style and techniques of Van Gogh to tell his story is inspiring. However, it did not actually work for me as a compelling film. The visuals and the audio never felt like they merged together, it never felt like the voices were coming from the people on screen. I don’t know whether it was just my brain failing to engage in the unusual style, or if it was something to do with the reduced frame rate… I just couldn’t settle. I found myself wanting to close my eyes and just listen to the voices, or mute the volume and watch the images. Maybe I should have just watched with the subtitles on. An incredible film making achievement, but sadly not one I liked.

On Chesil Beach – Interesting. This feels the kind of film that should be studied more than enjoyed, although I think if you were going to do that you’d probably be better going back to the source book. I wasn’t quite sure that I was getting the full experience with the film. The actors did a fine job portraying the emotions of all the stages of the story – the charm and connection of the early romance, the awkward nervousness of the wedding night and then the anger afterwards. But I’m not sure that the events and actions of the characters were quite fully earned. Aspects were hinted at, but almost off hand, fleeting possibilities that felt shoehorned in. After spending a fair amount of time showing the establishment of the relationship, it didn’t feel like an equal amount was spent on the fallout, leaving the film feeling unbalanced and incomplete.

Rewatches
The Martian – A good old science fiction disaster movie, like Gravity and Apollo 13 this is pure geeky entertainment. Great characters and cast, great story, great emotion, great action, great humour. I was on the edge of my seat, I wept messily, and laughed out loud – and the blending of that is near perfect, the film never felt ‘heavy’, everything was done with incredible efficiency of show don’t tell and the diary narration conveyed all the action and emotion effectively. The presentation of all the science was completely credible, but better than that it was joyous – the science was all interesting, fun and heroic – not dry excuses and technobable. There were sections that dragged a bit and it maybe got a bit too bonkers towards the end, but those are fairly minor niggles. I’ve watched it multiple times (and read the book) and the emotional impacts are barely dimmed, if anything it’s even more satisfying and is turning into one of my very favourite films.

Sideways – The film just about manages to find the sweet spot between sappy, funny, touching and arty, never once drifting too far into one area. The character’s leaped off the screen and seemed so natural in their conflicts and feelings that their pain and embarrassment actually hurt. The direction was beautiful managing to be arty without feeling forced. The theme of wine and the setting of the Californian vineyards opened up a landscape and world that I’ve not seen before and added another layer of interest onto the film. I was impressed that the ending was ‘right’ rather than necessarily what the audience wants – it ends at exactly the right moment and exemplifies the way that this movie never says more than it has to.

The Cabin in the Woods – I don’t really like slasher type films because they’re dumb. BUT when a smart slasher movie comes along I’m the biggest fan in the world, so Scream is easily my favourite horror series. Cabin in the Woods is like Scream. But better, because it’s written by Joss Whedon. It’s a film that manages to mock the genre while respecting it, and ask deep and meaningful questions while still being rollicking good fun.
I’ll dutifully avoid the spoilers because they’re not necessary to understand that this is a great film. It does both the horror and the smart stuff really well, with hilarious dialogue, edge of seat tension and startling jumps tripping over each other. The icing on the cake is the cast with Whedon stalwarts like Fran Kranz and Amy Acker teaming up with complete unknowns (some of whom are a lot less unknown now – Chris Hemsworth has done alright for himself) and the mighty Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Absolutely brilliant! It reminds me a lot of LA Confidential, another great example of the genre, this time with a lot more humour. I laughed almost all the way through, particularly at the narrator. The cast are superbly charismatic and really exciting to watch. It’s fun, it’s different, it’s clever and it’s satisfying.

Up in the Air – I’m a sucker for a George Clooney film and this one was no disappointment. He is utterly charming in this (as in all things); even when he’s playing someone who on paper should be pretty annoying, he manages to make you care. There’s good chemistry with all the women around him, the romantic and the not, each relationship develops nicely through the film and everyone grows. I liked the style a lot with the little pieces to camera and the less-than-glamorous travel and locations. The ending threw me a bit, it’s not what I expected, but actually a really good choice for the film.

The Wedding Singer – It’s dated a little badly in places, making me flinch a couple of times, but the overall charm carry it through. The soundtrack alone is enough to make it worth watching, and Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are enough to make it fun.

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