Films in February 2020

NEW RELEASES
Parasite (Cinema)
I didn’t see Parasite until after it had won all the awards, so I had fairly high expectations but had thankfully avoided all spoilers about the content and even the style. That freedom from preconception is really important for this film, so I’ll stay equally vague. Sadly there’s no way to get around the fact that everyone knows the film is supposed to be superb and that in itself can damage a film. It’s easy to watch the film looking for reasons why it should or shouldn’t have won awards than actually just watching the film. That’s especially true of a film like Parasite that on the surface doesn’t scream out that it’s doing something special. But it is. The more I sank into the film while watching it, and in the time I’ve been thinking about it since, there are layers upon layers of pure quality. It’s absolutely packed with everything anyone could hope for. The story is timeless but completely fresh, entertaining and engaging on the surface, but with levels and levels of depth and complexity. The direction and production design of the film is beautiful, but looks effortless rather than fussy or contrived. My only problem with the film is that being in Korean I felt I was missing out on some of the richness of the performances, struggling to identify the inflections and subtleties in the language. But even without that nuance, the ensemble cast still shone and connected.
This film not only thoroughly deserved its Oscar win, but it’s win gives me hope for the awards and cinema as a whole.

Birds of Prey (Cinema)
I’d like to say that I went to see this to make a point about seeing films (particularly action / superhero films) written and directed by women, but I’m afraid I didn’t. I went to see this on a complete whim, I came out of one cinema screen and didn’t feel like going home, and this was the next thing on. I was very happy with my choice. OK, it’s not a masterpiece that’s going to be winning academy awards, but it was exactly what it needed to be and should be – bright, exciting, engaging and with just enough substance to it to raise it above disposable fluff. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is mesmerising, she may seem bonkers, but she’s actually seeing things possibly more clearly than anyone else. The world she lives in is insane and she’s just reacting accordingly. The rest of the Birds of Prey can’t quite find the space to shine for most of the film, which is a little disappointing as for most of the film any scene without Harley in it is just a little duller and starts to lag. In the unchallenging competition of the DC cinematic universe, this is the first one that hasn’t disappointed me.

Uncut Gems (Netflix)
When I see the name Adam Sandler attached to a film I expect something somewhere between an inoffensively charming rom com and an unbearabley awkward comedy. This is absolutely nothing like anything he’s ever done, and he’s amazing in it. He plays a gem dealer dodging from one slightly dodgy deal to the next, but the edges of his world are closing in, the deals are getting tighter, the risks are getting higher. The sense of pace and claustrophobia of the film are incredible, I spent the whole thing thinking disaster was around every corner and each time he just about negotiates a way through it just got more intense. I didn’t actually enjoy watching it because of that tension, but I was very impressed by it.

OLDER FILMS (roughly ordered good to bad)
For Sama (TV)
I’ve passed on multiple opportunities to see this film but eventually, after it won the BAFTA and the people behind the film spoke so powerfully, I figured it wasn’t something I should avoid. I’m so glad I did. I’m woefully under-informed on why there is a conflict in Syria, and this film does not do much to fill that gap. However the film isn’t about that, it’s about what it’s like to be on one side of the conflict, to live, work and raise a family in the city that has always been your home and is now a battleground. Waad Al-Kateab is a journalist and film maker, her husband Hamza Al-Khateab is one of the few doctors left in Aleppo and he is trying to keep a hospital running. When Waad becomes pregnant they decide to stay in the city they love, fighting for what they believe, and helping their friends and community. The footage in the documentary is intense, brutal and at times almost unbearable. But also intimate, gentle and occasionally even joyous. It is an absolutely unparalleled look into what individuals actually experience in these situations, behind the news footage and the headlines and it is the kind of film that everyone should watch.

The Favourite (rewatch, DVD)
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.

The Post (rewatch, Amazon Prime)
It’s somewhat astonishing that Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have never worked together before, and when you add on an excellent supporting cast and an interesting, and topical, historical event you’re on to a winning formula. I would suggest that the film doesn’t really do much more than put those ingredients together and let it go, there’s not much in the way of embellishment or decoration to it, but then good ingredients do speak for themselves. Everyone is on solid form and the whole thing trips along nicely, just about keeping me understanding a story and background that I knew almost nothing about. I don’t think there’s anything particularly remarkable about the film, but when it brings so many greats together, it can’t help but be something a little bit special.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (rewatch, DVD)
I had issues with the previous film failing to capture the wonder and excitement of the original Jurassic Park and feeling rather soul-less. With my expectations lowered accordingly, I was actually pleasantly surprised that Fallen Kingdom does manage to do something new, to raise some interesting questions about the dinosaurs and tug at the heart strings. The mixture of actual plot and action sequences is just right, never leaving it too long without some excitement, but also not dragging sequences out until they get dull. Yes, there’s plenty of cheesy moments, and the plot doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but the characters are fun, the cast charismatic and the special effects convincing. There wasn’t a single moment of the film when I was bored or my brain escaped back to the real world. Exactly what I’m looking for in Jurassic Park films.

Long Shot (Netflix)
A comedy starring Seth Rogen was not something I instinctively thought I’d enjoy, but Mark Kermode said that it was not what you’d expect and I thought I’d give him, and the always excellent Charlize Theron the benefit of the doubt. They weren’t wrong. Both Theron and Rogen are perfect for their roles, her as the ambitious politician who still has plenty of humour, heart and humanity underneath her perfect exterior; him as the crass and scruffy but principled journalist. They’re an unlikely partnering, but the chemistry is immediate and enjoyable to watch, powering through the rest of the film and the usual unlikely rom-com events pushing them together and pulling them apart. I wouldn’t say it’s a complete classic, but it’s a rare adult comedy film that really did make me laugh.

Deadwood (DVD)
This isn’t really a film. It’s really a double episode finale of the TV series that we’ve just had to THIRTEEN YEARS to. Mind you the TV series was always pretty cinematic anyway, as one of the grandfathers of the latest ‘golden age’ of television that saw series like The Wire and The Sopranos start to show what could be done on cable channels with big commitments, big budgets and allowing the series creators far more autonomy than was found on networks. If this film had played out as the series’ fourth season it would have been a perfect fit, as a film it’s a bit odd. There are little clips of moments from the original series that are a bit clumsy if you know the series (I rewatched it recently) and it’s all wrapped up a little too neatly for a series that is so uncompromising. Still, it was lovely to see the cast together again (no small feat) and if my biggest complaint is that I was left feeling happy and satisfied, than I should probably keep my mouth shut.

My Neighbour Totoro (rewatch, Netflix)
Despite some beautiful visuals, I’m afraid I was unimpressed by this film. I was certain I must have seen it before, but I either completely forgot it or actually have missed it when I’ve watched other Studio Ghibli films. There were some scenes and individual frames that I would happily have as prints on my wall, the softness and detail of the backgrounds, combined with the simple impact of the characters are really breathtaking. But the story just didn’t sing to me. Maybe it was the quality of the dub, but I never quite lost myself in the characters, they always felt like voices and animation, not that I was watching whole people. It is however very clear how other future Ghibli works grew from these foundations.

Mrs Lowry and Son (Netflix)
Timothy Spall’s second excellent performance as a British painter, but yet again in a film that is nowhere near as good as his performance. I knew nothing about Lowry and the film portrays a fascinating relationship with his elderly, bullying mother (played by the wonderful Vanessa Redgrave). But the writing is painfully poor at places. Incredibly on-the-nose dialogue that even these talented actors can’t quite make feel natural, clunky flashbacks and overly malodramatic sequences that just make the whole thing feel slightly cheap. There are some powerful and beautiful moments, but those are largely either when the actors have no words to say, or the director is seeking out the artistic visuals.

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