Film in June 2020

Dating Amber – A really solid entry into the growing mainstream genre of coming of age LGBTQ+ films. The film starts on the gentler end of the spectrum, with lots of charm, plenty of comedy and some entertainingly ridiculous supporting characters. But the balance gradually shifts as the film goes on and the reality of the uncertainty and desperation these young people experience becomes increasingly heartbreaking. There’s a lot going on in the film and it’s beautifully crafted and I think has the potential to be a real classic.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – About 50% of this film is perfectly pitched to match Eurovision’s sense of glorious awfulness. It has outrageously ridiculous spectacle combined with a sense of joy and connection that made my jaw drop and my mouth grin. But that’s only 50% of the film, and the other half is painful, trying too hard, awkward and uncomfortable. Even more unfortunately a lot of that is up front and I came quite close to giving up on the film before it reached the redemptive second half. The second half would get an 8/10, but the first half gets a 5/10.
I’d say a lot of the problem lies with Will Ferrell who I’ve never really warmed to, and is just continuing to ply the same old man-child shtick in a way that is really tedious for a man in his 50’s. Rachel McAdams has good comic skills, but didn’t seem to connect with Ferrell’s improvised style, and their age gap made the love story elements uncomfortable (particularly given Ferrell’s writing credit). I don’t know why they wasted so much time pre-Eurovision, and why they didn’t make the whole thing a jukebox musical (the big music number in the middle was wonderful and made me realise what the first half had been missing). It’s also a real shame that McAdams and the superb Dan Stevens are obviously not doing their own singing, and I’m not sure how the Icelandic will appreciate the cheesy accents.

Older Films
Monos – This is a Columbian film following a group of teenagers trained as soldiers and left to guard an American hostage on a remote mountaintop. The eight main characters are a group of little more than children left to their own devices, making up thei own rituals, bullying each other, having crushes and doing stupid things. But they’re dealing with responsibilities and events that are on a completely different level, heavily armed and under real life-and-death pressures. This film is extraordinary. I had heard many reviews saying that it was very special, but I still started watching it with a sense of duty rather than anticipation. It immediately grabbed me and held on to me throughout. On a technical level it is superb, the locations create a sense simultaneously of both space and claustrophobia. The young actors are incredible, blending child and soldier, innocence and brutality, victim and oppressor; they are heartbreaking and terrifying. I don’t know that any of my words can come close to describing this film and the impact of it, it’s something truly special.

Citizen Kane – Being frequently labelled the best film of all time is a blessing and a curse; I wouldn’t have watched it without that tag, but with it came some pretty high expectations. Unfortunately it was never going to be able to live up to those. Don’t get me wrong the film is great, but it doesn’t seem outstanding unless you continually remind yourself it was made in 1941 by a first time director. The film itself is enjoyable to watch, a well crafted biography that brings together all the elements you’d expect to find in someone’s life – love, drama, humour and angst. The direction is interesting, occasionally a bit too ‘different’ but some of it’s adventurous ideas work well. Whether it’s the best film of all time, I don’t know, but it is a great film.

American Beauty – This is a very delicate mixture in this film that maximizes appeal. It’s definitely a full on film with drama, grit and artyness to it that appeal to the critics and make it’s Oscar win understandable. But it’s also very enjoyable and accessible, with laughs and relatability. Everything is carefully judged and yet feels fairly effortless – writing, direction and acting switching between extreme and subtle and somehow all just working. It’s just a shame that the film will be forever tainted by the presence of Kevin Spacey – his performance is superb and it’s hard to imagine anyone as good at playing on the boundaries of everyman and arsehole. But his horrific behaviour now blights all his works and this one is particularly uncomfortable given the subject matter of the film.

Ophelia – I don’t know the story of Hamlet. In fact, I know so little about it that I didn’t even realise that this film WAS Hamlet until he turned up and I thought “that’s a weird name”. However this is Hamlet told from the point of view of Ophelia, and therefore gives a much stronger emphasis to the female characters. I can’t compare it to the original work, but I would say that I enjoyed watching this more than I enjoy most Shakespeare. The language still feels Shakespearean and I assume there are some sections that are lifted directly, but between the words and the actors I found it easy to understand what the characters meant and felt (which I often struggle with in Shakespeare). Daisy Ridley has a fascinating screen presence although it’s a shame that the male characters are a little one-dimensional, but that may just be a pointed dig at Shakespeare.

Demolition Man – Somehow I’ve never seen this film, and in the 25+ years since it was made I’d also never realised that it wasn’t a simple action film. The posters and descriptions are all moody grey and macho blah blah blah, and that’s where the film starts with Stallone and Snipes in full on violent cliche mode fighting and blowing things up before both being arrested and put in suspended animation as punishment (a clumsy setup). We jump to a hippy-like future where violence is completely irradiated and when Snipes is accidentally unfrozen and starts creating mayhem, the modern cops can’t even begin to handle him, so unfreeze Stallone. From there on the core of the film is really a buddy cop comedy pairing Stallone with Sandra Bullock and both of them having a lot of fun. Stallone cheerfully pokes fun at himself and the genre he’s used to, Sandra Bullock gives as good as she gets, and Snipes gets some great material as well. It’s pretty clumsy in places and falls back a little too often on tedious action sequences, but rather than being just another brainless action film, it’s trying to do something more interesting and I wish I’d seen it sooner.

Rampage – This film has Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson in it and there’s really very little else that needs to be said. If forced I would say that although the special effects are impressive, the plot is ridiculous and the supporting cast is mostly hamming it up (Naomi Harris being the notable exception). But it doesn’t matter, because The Rock is in it and he’s charming and hilarious and exciting to watch and so nothing else matters.

Hercules – Easily the best thing about this film is the songs, as soon as they start playing (actually as soon as I even think about them playing) I get a big smile on my face and want to sing along. The mixture of ancient Greek setting and the gospel music is absolutely genius. The rest of the film is solid enough with some good comedy from the familiar side-kick slots and a satisfyingly spunky female lead, but it’s the music that’s the real joy.

The Secret Life of Pets – From the studio that brought you Despicable Me… and it’s just not that good I’m afraid. It has some really great observational bits about pets, really capturing dogs and cats as animals while still anthropomorphising them for the story. The attitudes and actions are perfectly captured. Unfortunately the story just isn’t anything special. Actually, it was something special when it was done in Toy Story, but fundamentally the whole pitch of Secret Life of Pets is to retell Toy Story with pets not toys. It just wasn’t original enough to hold the attention. BUT the pet stuff did make me laugh the whole way through, so it’s still fun to watch.

Skyscraper – I had a Dwayne Johnson double bill and this was the much weaker film compared with Rampage, frankly because there was just insufficient Rock in it. I mean, there was plenty of Rock jumping and swinging and running and punching but there wasn’t enough real character and personality coming through. All the stunts and action sequences were very well done (if completely preposterous) and if I were watching in a cinema I probably would have been gripped, but at home on the sofa I just found myself a bit bored. The start of the film had some really good stuff, and it was wonderful to see Neve Campbell in a strong role that was far more than ‘just the wife’. But overall it just felt like there was a bit of a lack of personality.

The Addams Family – This is absolutely fine. There’s a lot of detail and care gone into making this a new version of the original series, with lots of direct lifts (as far as I can tell). The style is interesting, somehow managing to make it simultaneously gothic dark appear vibrant in the animation. But for all that, for some reason it just didn’t really charm me.

Interview with the Vampire – As a teenage girl in the 90’s it was almost obligatory to be completely obsessed with Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and yet I took great pride in not reading them and not watching the film. By the time I was no longer making a specific point by not watching/reading, every indication was that they weren’t very good so I didn’t bother catching up. Jump to 25 years later and I spotted Interview with the Vampire on Amazon and thought I’d give it a go. Wow, it’s bad. The story meanders about, missing opportunties to look at the different time periods in any depth beyond the opportunity to spend a lot of money on the sets and fashion. The biggest problem is that the casting is just plain bad. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise are utterly wrong, and clearly bored by the whole thing, both are categorically out-acted by the startling 12 year old Kirsten Dunst. Cruise goes for manic incoherence while Pitt aims for deep melancholy and hits bored apathy. I mean the idea of broody vampires appeals to me no more today then it did as a teenager, it’s a crowded genre these days, but I think even at the time this wasn’t doing anything interesting. I guess it looks pretty, but that’s it.

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