Films in March 2020

Well isn’t the world very odd at the moment? I’ve not got the abundance of free time that some people seem to have, so I’ve not had a dramatic uptick in film watching, and my choices of films are tending more towards the low imapct end of the spectrum. I managed to get one last cinema trip in before they closed, and at least I ended on a high note.

Onward (cinema)
The concept behind Onward is that magic has been lost from the realm of fairy tale-esque creatures, they may be elves and centaurs, but they now live in a world of cars and smart phones. Ian and Barley are mismatched brothers who get the chance to spend one day with their father who died when they were very young, but they have to work together and rediscover magic in order to do it. It’s a really well crafted and fun story. Although all the familiar “tropes” of a magical quest are there, they’re approached in a fresh and self aware way. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland are wonderful as the two brothers, having a lot of fun but delivering real heart as well. I laughed out loud at both the spoken jokes and the visual ones, and teared up appropriately for the lovely emotional conclusion.
The problem is that if any other studio, even Disney Studios itself had made Onward all that praise would have been enough. But Pixar have set themselves an impossibly high standard, their films when at their best are works of art, creating vivid new worlds that offer stunning insight into our own. Onward is not that film. It felt like there was more that could have been done, more richness and detail in the magical world (compare with Zootopia), or creativity in visual style, or even in the soundtrack. I did enjoy the film immensely, but I don’t think it will stay with me and be one that I either reach down from the DVD shelf again and again over the years.

Alien Quaudrilogy
I watched my way through the Alien box set. Watching them back to back is quite interesting, as it highlights the similarities and differences. The first film in 1979 almost defined the whole genre, but by the fourth, nearly 20 years later the genre has left the series behind a bit.
Alien – Many of the special effects and even just film style now feel very clunky, even if they were groundbreaking. However the fundamentals of the story and how it feels to watch it haven’t changed. It’s still thrilling, and even after dozens of references and parodies over the years, it still gets the adrenaline going.
Aliens – Everything is bigger than in Alien – the sets, the size of the cast, and the explosions, the only thing that isn’t bigger is the brains. I felt it had turned this into more or a classic action film going from one set piece to another rather than telling a mapped out suspenseful story. Then to add insult to injury, they added a small child in, as if they realised that the marines were all utterly unengaging and both Ripley and the audience needed someone to actually connect with. It’s an exciting adventure, but I don’t think it does anything creative or special, unlike the first film.
Aliens 3 – At the end of this film it’s clear that this was supposed to be the end of a trilogy. Ironically when they eventually made the 4th film, it made this film be the one that’s most irrelevant. Opening by unceremoniously killing off the characters that Ripley had previously established relationships with, and the film never really finds that level of emotion and humanity again. Ripley is emotionally shut down, which is understandable but very boring, and the prisoners she finds herself with are hard to tell about. There’s just nothing here that jumps out or gives any personality.
Alien Resurrection – The nuts and bolts of the film bring absolutely nothing new to the franchise, with yet another rag-tag group fighting to survive against the alien menace and the usual selection of human antagonists. Fortunately Sigourney Weaver has something new to chew on, with the resurrected Ripley changed by her experiences, and a bit of Alien DNA. That iteration on her character actually makes this film rise above the previously unremarkable Alien 3.

The Boxtrolls (Netflix)
A really lovely, charming film that’s thoroughly original. It’s grungier than most Disney, perfectly suited to the intricate detail of the stop motion animation of Laika studios. The story is a classic one, but the details and specifics are rich and original. The voice cast is familiar, it’s hard to not see Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and Jared Harris when you hear their voices, but that also means their characters are richer for their inherited histories. It’s a lovely film that I can see watching over and over again.

Julie and Julia (Netflix)
I found this film utterly charming! I was really surprised at how much I loved it, I thought the modern half of the story would be filler to Meryl Streep’s impression of the slightly ridiculous Julia Child. But if anything it was the Streep half that felt like filler. I loved Julie and all her (many) trials, tribulations and failings, cookery based and otherwise. I haven’t laughed this hard at a film in a very long time or been so sad when it counted down to it’s final recipe.

Midsommar (Amazon)
This film brings two things the sub-genre of horror films about creepy cults that I really liked. The first was the fact that the whole thing is set in big open spaces in the sunshine. Horror films are too often set in dark and claustrophic spaces, where I frequently find myself struggling to be able to actually see what’s going on. But here there are bright blue skies and wide open fields, that by the end of the film feel just as threatening. The second thing I very much like is the wonderful Florence Pugh who brought an intense believability, that grounded even the weirdest of scenes. There’s a great blend of all the major horror styles, there are jump scares, creepy oddness, edge of seat suspense and visual gore. I would say that in order to get all that in the film does drag on a little with a nearly 2.5 hour runtime, which meant by the end I was rather willing it to be over.

A Cock and Bull Story (Amazon)
What an incredibly odd film. All I knew going in was that it was a film of the supposedly “unfilmable” Tristram Shandy, it quickly became clear that this was much stranger and a blend of actual film, and a fictional account of the making of that film. I don’t know whether they tried to write that film and then realised they couldn’t or always set out to make this behind the scenes film, but either way I think the result is possibly inspired. Possibly. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon don’t hold back playing extreme versions of themselves. All the characters walk a fine line between parody and tender observation which gives the film a real heart beneath some of the cheap laughs. I wasn’t expecting a film with quite so many layers to it, and would actually quite like to watch it again now I know what to expect.

The Aeronauts (Amazon)
This is one of those films that is quite deceptive. It appears to be quite a straightforward period adventure story of two people trying to fly a hot air balloon higher than anyone has gone before in the 1860’s, with plenty of extreme weather, clambering through ropes, and life and death peril. But the character studies going on at the same time are what bring the film to life. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne create rich and fascinating individuals and then bring them together in a relationship that’s adversarial, respectful, and challenging. I’m glad the film was structured with the balloon journey playing out in approximately real time through the film, while the story of how they got there is told through flashbacks, as a linear story it would have been predictable and probably felt too slow, but jumping around in time gave the story a lot more life. The film is beautifully shot, with period details on the ground and scenes on the balloon that are both claustrophobic and spacious. I wish I’d seen this on the big screen; even on a TV the shots of the balloon flying were beautiful, and I think at the cinema they would have been really breathtaking. It’s a lovely film that I think could easily be overlooked.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Netflix)
I was lucky enough to see this during the Picturehouse’s Studio Ghibli season and it’s a lovely film to see on the big screen. Some animations work on the big screen because of the amount of detail (Zootopia or Big Hero 6 for example), but this one works because of the simplicity of the animation. The simplicity of the lines, character design and the colours are so elegant on the big screen. It’s a pure kids film, a slow burning fairy tale but there’s enough touches of humour to keep it interesting for adults too. The majority of the film is a very gentle, slow ride which builds to an ending which felt a little rushed, but maybe watching things play out over the titles is the best way to gently break away from the lovely world.

Shrek (Netflix)
Learning from the Toy Story school of making animation fun for adults and taking it even further this Dreamworks CGI is a lot of fun. It’s not as subtle as Pixar at its best, but there’s plenty of jokes that made me laugh out loud. I think the biggest thing I remember about this film is the soundtrack that hits all the right points. The story is nothing special, but the injokes, side comments and references make this just as entertaining the 6th time as the 1st.

Intolerable Cruelty (Amazon)
A romantic comedy from the Coen brothers. Meaning it’s pretty black, deeply bizarre, very quirky and very funny in places. George Clooney is dialling up the smarmy charm and Catherine Zeta Jones the aloof manipulator; both playing their characters very carefully so they’re extreme, but don’t quite fall over into completely unbelievable. The looping of the plot did get a little tiresome, particular if you can see the steps coming, but the utter weirdness of the characters, and some great supporting characters keep it enjoyable.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Netflix)
As I was scrolling endlessly through Netflix, this this documentary caught my eye because I’d recently seen the Tom Hanks film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and I thought I’d try to get a little more insight. If you’re looking for hard hitting journalism here, you’re going to be disappointed and I didn’t really get anything more than I did from the dramatisation. There is some interesting insight into how he got into children’s television and then how he left it for a while before feeling he needed to return. However most of it is just a group of people talking about a very nice person. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but I think I’d prefer to watch Tom Hanks.

Blinded by the Light (Amazon)
Labels like “feel good film of the year” are frequently misapplied, either to films that are trying way too hard, or to films where there’s a lot of misery before the feel good. On the plus side, this film doesn’t have too much trauma, just enough to get the characters moving, and the feel good tunes kick in pretty early. But I never fully engaged with the characters, their stories, or the music itself and so never got the full benefits of the positivity. I felt like an awful lot of energy was expended in telling me how everyone felt and how amazing Bruce Springsteen’s music were, but I never actually felt it, so was just left a bit bored.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (DVD)
I remember this film incredibly fondly from my childhood, but actually haven’t seen it in decades. It’s hard not to compare it to Mary Poppins, despite being 7 years younger they had interweaving production timelines and shared several cast and crew, and most notably the songs for each were done by the Sherman Brothers. Mary Poppins clearly has the stronger cultural history and it’s sadly quite clear why when re-watching Bedknobs as an adult. If Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Poppins was dubious, the children in Bedknobs are an absolute horror which it’s very hard to get over. The wonderful Angela Landsbury is painfully wooden and delivers lines like someone that’s wondering what happened to her career. That’s a shame, because the story itself is charming, the characters are fun (David Tomlinson the only member of the cast seemingly having fun) and the animation is fun (the football match in particular). But the real standout are the Sherman brothers’ songs which are just as catchy as the Mary Poppins ones, and all the lyrics came flooding back as soon as I heard the overture (“Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee”). It’s still a fun film, but not nearly as timeless as it’s older sister.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (Netflix)
I just went back and reread my review of Pacific Rim and it’s interesting that while I absolutely loved the action and described it as loud, cool and fun in the cinema when I re-watched it on tv I downgraded it because the spectacle just wasn’t as good and started to reveal some poor scripting. I didn’t see Pacific Rim: Uprising at the cinema and maybe I would have thought more fondly if I had. One of the strengths of the original was that it didn’t have big name hollywood stars which gave the characters more individuality, here the lack of big stars just felt like it lacked talent. John Boyega was the notable exception, creating an interesting lead (the icecream scene was a standout), but the rest were a bit flat and failed to bring personality to either their own characters, or the massive robots that they were powering. The onscreen action sequences weren’t enough to distract from the fact that the plot and even the music didn’t give me the same punch of adrenaline. The whole thing felt like it lacked heart, didn’t have the same sense of jeopardy and desperation that the first did and just left me feeling flat.

Jabberwocky (Amazon)
I had a lot of complicated thoughts while watching this film, mostly because the film itself was so utterly boring and unentertaining that my brain desperately went looking for something else to do. I was trying to work out why I didn’t like this, but I do like Monty Python. There’s so much that overlaps with Python (people and style) and yet while I find Python hilarious, this just seemed ridiculous. I did have to wonder whether it was because I’d been TOLD Python was funny, and have seen it so often in the context of it being wonderful, whereas Jabberwocky was forgotten and overlooked. I guess I’ll never really know, but I certainly won’t be watching Jabberwocky again to give it another try.

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