Films in May 2020

A solid month of film watching, with 23 films watched through the power of netflix and amazon prime, but I am really missing going to the cinema. I’m gonna start with the review that would normally come last – the very worst film. But it’s so offensively awful that I wanted to put it at the top.

Sabrina (1995)
What a truly awful film. I know that this film was made 25 years ago, but even in 1995 I don’t think the crimes against feminism were considered appropriate. Look at the poster, that’s pretty indicative. Although the ages of the characters are never given, Julia Ormond was about 30, and Harrison Ford 53, that’s already a pretty uncomfortable age gap for a rom-com, but Sabrina is presented as much much younger. Initially she is more like a teenager with a crush, then magically after a year in Paris and a haircut she seems to have aged considerably. Ford’s character then deliberately seduces her to get her away from his younger brother (played by Greg Kinnear, only 2 years older than Ormond), who may have been a shameless womaniser, but at least seemed genuine in the moment. Harrison Ford can’t quite seem to work out whether he’s supposed to be playing evil (as the plot indicates) or charming (as the tone and dialogue indicate), so he settles for an utterly wooden middle ground of nothingness. Of all the female characters, only Nancy Marchand playing the formidable mother raises her character above being a shameless object to be maneuvered about. Marchand and Kinnear bring some light to the darkness, but the rest of the film is an insulting mess.
Ranking: 3 / 10

Educating Rita
I enjoyed the maturity of this film. It could have been a very trite film – pragmatic working class girl meets stuffy academic lecturer and they change each other’s lives and ride off into the sunset together to live happily ever after. But the film (based on a play) acknowledges that life isn’t that simple, you can’t change your life without losing things; and having a happily ever after implies that there is one ‘correct’ answer to all the questions of life. The young Julie Walters is fresh, vibrant and just bursting from the screen; Michael Caine somehow makes a world weary character hum with just as much energy and potential. I was not expecting much, and I was hugely impressed. The only thing wrong with the film was the awful synthesizer sound track.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Circus of Books
Karen and Barry Mason are a nice Jewish couple from LA, well into their 70’s now I would think. He is quiet and jovial, she is more firm. They’ve raised three children, one of whom is the writer/director of this documentary. Oh, and since the 1970s they have been running a sex shop specialising in gay porn. It’s the kind of story you couldn’t make up. But while the documentary may start off looking at the unlikely circumstances that led to them setting the shop up, it quickly becomes a really interesting look at gay history and the history of censorship being used to persecute communities. The documentary never loses connection to the personal stories and issues of those involved though, and there is some particularly insightful and challenging psychology to unpick. I thought this was going to be a little bit of fun, but I learnt a lot and was really very moved.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Split
I’m not sure how I’ve missed this film, maybe because I was expecting a film with a powerful central performance and not much else. James McAvoy was impressive as expected playing about half a dozen very different characters. However I was surprised to find there was a lot more to the film. For a start, it’s really Anya Taylor-Joy who’s the central character, and she manages to give her character with just as much depth and complexity. Also the film has more than enough plot, structure and drama to stand up as a really engrossing thriller. It did run a little long, and I did get a bit lost in the idea of the beast, but I was pretty engrossed for most of it.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Porco Rosso
This is an unexpectedly different style of Studio Ghibli film. With the exception of the fact the main character has been cursed and turned into a pig, the rest of the story is played fairly straight and somehow manages to blend a more adult noir-esque film with the Ghibli vibrancy and childlike energy. It really shouldn’t work, but it really really does. I was completely engrossed, frequently laughing out loud and utterly charmed.
Ranking: 8 / 10

No Country for Old Men
I was quite dismissive of this film the first time I saw it in 2008, but rewatching it 12 years later I was more impressed. What I’d previously described as “a slightly uncomfortable mix of a cat and mouse thriller with slow moving thoughtful drama”, I now see as a well balanced mixture of a slick thriller and a grounding thread of characters making sure that the true impacts of these horrors aren’t forgotten. It’s not melodramatic, there is no wailing about the unfairness of life, just a quiet reflection on the reality of the world the events are happening in. I do still feel a bit disappointed in the ending, but can see that the only ‘right’ way to end the story is to not actually have an ending. the performances of all three lead actors are very different and very fine, but for me it’s Tommy Lee Jones that absolutely steals every moment he’s on screen.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Funny Girl
There’s a film here, and there’s a performance. Barbra Streisand’s performance is just phenomenal. She lives up to the title of ‘funny girl’ with beautiful timing and originality, but she also delivers an emotional performance, making it abundantly clear that the label of ‘funny girl’ can be just as much a burden as a celebration. The audience is never in doubt that there is a complex woman beneath the persona. The production values help support the sense of misdirection and illusion and it’s to Streisand’s credit that even the spectacle cannot overwhelm her story. I’ll probably get shouted at for this, but the only thing I didn’t like about it were the songs. I didn’t think it was necessary to make it a musical, and I didn’t feel the songs blended into the story.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Book Club
Really, all you should need to say is that the film stars Diane Keaton,Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen and that should really be enough for anyone. They are playing a group of long time friends who are all very different but have a wonderful bond that just shines off the screen. Frankly I would just watch them all drinking wine and chatting and that would be a very entertaining 2 hours. The icing on the cake is that they are all connecting in different ways with the book Fifty Shades of Grey, and hence these absolutely legends are making dirty jokes and innuendos that had me roaring with laughter. And the cherry on the cake… Richard Dreyfuss turns up for a couple of scenes.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Paradise Hills
This was a bit of a surprise. I was drawn to it by the title card on Netflix which had a beautiful and unusual visual style to it that is carried through the film making it visually incredibly interesting. It’s one of those films that’s a bit hard to categorise and that’s part of its charm, so I’m not really going to try and explain it as I’d recommend you experience it yourself. I don’t think it’s necessarily an amazing film, but it kept me solidly entertained for it’s run time and I think you will get more out of it by not knowing what’s going on.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Beetlejuice
I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen Beetlejuice. I’m not sure how that’s happened, I think because the clips etc have always focused on the wacky central character and irritating goth teenager and I’ve just never been interested. But it turns out the core of the film is actually a really interesting idea as Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin adjust to being dead and having to share their house with people they don’t like. Their slightly inept attempts to deal with the bureaucracy of being dead, and get rid of the unwanted housemates was more easy going fun. I tended to zone out a bit for the more extreme antics of Beetlejuice himself, and tried very hard to ignore the deliberately shoddy special effects pieces that were just a bit much for me. But the rest of it was actually quite nice.
Ranking: 7 / 10

The Vast of Night
I watch a lot of films and it’s not often that there’s something that I feel is markedly different and unusual. The strange thing about The Vast of Night is that while it feels original, it also feels classic, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Unfortunately, I have to admit that it didn’t entirely work for me. I did like the very natural feeling dialogue, but the sound mixing wasn’t quite good enough and I struggled to make out what the characters were saying until I resorted to subtitles. There were also sections that the music was too overwhelming. However, I did respect the originality of it and the ambition.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
Generic teenage fantasy series. I’ll be honest I didn’t really track the plot that much something about demons and angels and shadowhunters and runes and werewolves and vampires… basically the same old building blocks all thrown in together. Plus of course the whole saving the world thing has to be done in between establishing various overlapping romances. It was a perfectly serviceable film to have on in the background while playing with Lego, the only moment I really took offense to was an overly obvious and loud piece of cheesy pop music to accompany the big kiss in the middle. However it will fade into memory so quickly that in 6 months time, without this review, I would have completely forgotten I ever saw it.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Hannibal
I rewatched Silence of the Lambs a couple of weeks ago and, while it may have been exceptional when it was made, now it’s just a solid and unremarkable thriller. This sequel is just as unremarkable now, except that I think it was born unremarkable rather than slowly being overtaken by newer films. It was perfectly fine, plenty of twists and turns, some stupid characters to drive the plot where it needed to go, deliberately shocking gore that was actually a bit eye-rolly, and a big chunk of hammy overacting.
Ranking: 6 / 10

You’ve Got Mail
1998. Different times. The technology, the fashions and what was considered romantic and acceptable behaviour. I’m sorry but I just can’t find entertainment in a person (male or female) trying to get someone (male or female) to fall in love with them by lying. Even when one of those people is the utterly lovely Tom Hanks. Entrapping someone into a relationship, using the fact that you know more than they do do manipulate them is just creepy. That the film went in that direction is a real shame, because the rest of it was great, with a charismatic pairing, some solid supports and a lovely sense of time and place that has seamlessly moved from being present day to being a period piece. I can think of a couple of ways the writers could have avoided the imbalances, that would actually have made a lot more sense for the characters as well. I was really disappointed.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Top Hat
Eh. I guess it’s fine? I struggled to really engage with the film to be honest, which meant for a big chunk I lost track of the plot and logistics of how the identities were mistaken and why everyone was making such a fuss. It’s fine, there’s some funny bits and nice dancing, but nothing to really write home about. At least it’s short.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Extraction
I don’t really understand the business logic of these big action films that Netflix is premiering. They must be incredibly expensive to make, but I can’t imagine that they’re ever going to be what finally convinces someone to get a Netflix subscription, or to not cancel it for another month. You’d have to be a pretty huge Chris Hemsworth fan to think that this was worth paying a subscription for. In a cinema this kind of big dumb action film works because the stunt sequences on the big screen and the soundtrack through the massive sound system keep you fully engaged. But on the small thing it’s just not good enough and you can’t help but get bored by the daft plot, and frustrated by the poor dialogue (what little there is of it between grunts). It passes the time but it’s perilously close to being laughably bad.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this film. It was certainly a very interesting film to look at with an utterly unique style to it, I was mesmerised watching it. Unfortunately that was about the only thing that really grabbed me because the plot and characters left me cold. I never really emotionally engaged in the story, it just felt like an itinerary bouncing between different locations. Similarly the characters never quite connected and I felt slightly uncomfortable with the amount of violence and guns in an otherwise inoffensive children’s film. But then I was always an Asterix kinda girl growing up rather than a Tintin one.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Silence of the Lambs
I think this is probably one of those films that at the time of making it was really something very special, but in the intervening decades has been completely eclipsed not just by other films, but frankly by a fair number of TV shows. The structure is interesting, the interweaving stories of two different serial killers and following not the main investigations, but a small side story. However everything else about the film is a bit dreary now – performances that feel completely over-egged, obvious direction and a completely lack of subtlety throughout. It’s an important step in the history of film/TV, but watching it now the interest is more in its place in history than actually as a film for entertainment.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Crimson Peak
I was looking forward to Guillermo del Toro’s new film. Pan’s Labyrinth, while not necessarily enjoyable, was incredibly original; full of character, creepiness and gorgeous design work. Crimson Peak came with the bonus of not having to be distracted by reading subtitles and another bonus of Tom Hiddleston. Of all that, the only thing that actually carried through was the gorgeous design (well, and Tom Hiddleston being pretty). The house in particular is an incredible piece of work, so complicated and textured as it falls down around the characters. It’s such an integral part of the story and it’s by far the most interesting thing on screen.
Everything else was, frankly, fairly dull. It was neither creepy enough, nor romantic enough to be a true gothic romance. The plot is incredibly predictable, I kept coming up with more adventurous and interesting explanations and then being disappointed when the real answers were so much more trite. The characters are single note giving the talented cast very little to work with, even Tom Hiddleston couldn’t quite elevate his character to anything particularly interesting. To top it all off there are unfortunate moments that reminded me of 80’s comedies such as The Money Pit and Death Becomes Her. After the first half hour or so I was just chanting in my head “get on with it” and if I were limited to a one word review it would be “dull”. If I had a couple more it would be “pretty, but dull”.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Space Jam
I think the most that can be said about this film is that it is only bad, it’s not as catastrophically awful as it could have been. By all rights, the worst thing about this film should have been Michael Jordan who I’m sure is an incredibly talented basketball player, but has absolutely no right to be leading a blockbuster movie. As it turns out, his innate charm is one of the brighter spots of the film, he (and the other basketball stars featured) are sort of adorably amateur but soldier through with self-deprecating humour. Beyond that though it’s miserable. The plot is ridiculous which wouldn’t matter if they didn’t spend quite so much time trying to explain it, and Looney Toon characters should be left in small screen, short cartoons. And the biggest crime – starting and ending the film with R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Red Dragon
It’s interesting how the Silence of the Lambs series has gone steadily downhill. This is a really bargain basement entry that feels incredibly clumsy, predictable and charmless from the very get go. The story seemed to rely heavily on the belief that Edward Norton’s character was some kind of genius investigator, but instead it just made all the other investigators look stupid that they’d missed the clues that anyone who’s seen a season of Criminal Minds would pick up on. Edward Norton is an actor I struggle to get on with, particularly when he’s trying to play sincere and likable and rather failing. Ralph Fiennes delivers and over-the-top performance in keeping with the writing and Anthony Hopkins’ standard. It’s dull and unremarkable.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Coco Before Chanel
On one hand, a fascinating insight into someone I knew absolutely nothing about. I was amazed to learn that the famous fashion designer started out in such desperate struggles, seeking out opportunities where she could. But this isn’t the story of someone with a dream, an artist with a passion, desperately fighting to realise it. In fact the biggest problem with the film for me was that I could never quite work out how Coco felt about anything, what she wanted either long or short term. She seemed to have a low level disdain for absolutely everything and everyone. The moments where she truly emotes (either positively or negatively) are the high points of the film, but they were too few and far between, and too unpredictable. I found her, and therefore the film, incredibly frustrating.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Pitch Perfect 3
The things I love about the original Pitch Perfect are that Anna Kendrick is perfection, the song and dance numbers are joyous, and there are verbal and visual jokes that have me laughing out loud. Unfortunately, the thing I don’t like about the series is Rebel Wilson. I simply don’t find her funny. Her character is just too much, overwhelming the ensemble, upping the cringe-factor and stepping on quieter moments. Unfortunately I felt Pitch Perfect 3 built up her role, and the whole balance was broken. Also it didn’t feel like there were as many songs!
Ranking: 5 / 10

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