Films in January 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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