Films in September 2020

The timing of this post is slightly odd. If I’d written it yesterday as I intended, I’d be focusing on the fact that after a nearly 6 month gap (4 days short) I went back to the cinema and the experience was everything I wanted it to be, given a couple of constraints. The Cineworld in South Ruislip was clean, welcoming and felt safe. The showing I went to on a Saturday morning only had a dozen or so people in, well spaced out so I didn’t feel bad that I wasn’t wearing a mask (supported by the fact that I was shoving food in my mouth for most of the showing). I’ve often referred to the cinema as ‘my happy place’, a place to switch off from the outside world, and for the most part I could do that (some of the adverts really wanted to remind you of reality, which I could have lived without).

But instead, I’m writing this post today. With the announcement yesterday that the Bond film was being pushed to April, Cineworld have had to make the horrible choice to completely close. With no big films to pull audiences back in, and get into a regular cinema pattern, closing their doors is the only option. It does feel there’s a bit of an element of studios letting the side down (Disney not releasing Mulan on the big screens, the new delay to Bond), but everyone has to do what they have to do I guess. I guess it’s also likely that with film production shut down, there are concerns about how sustainable the film calendar is this year.

Maybe I didn’t do my bit enough, I only went to the cinema once. I did keep meaning to go and see some of the re-releases of older classics, but just never quite managed it. Now it looks like that option will be gone for another 6 months. I know in the grand scheme of suffering out there at the moment, my loss is pretty minimal; and I am thinking of the thousands of people who’s livelihood have been impacted. But the sustained loss of my ‘happy place’ has sent me into quite the funk.

And what makes that even worse, is that the next bit of this post explains why I think the biggest and most important of film of the year is actually a bit rubbish.

Tenet
I have no problem with complex films, I purposely go to the cinema and watch films to distract my brain from the world around me and so a film where I have to concentrate helps that. Christopher Nolan films push complexity to the limit, respecting that the audience is more intelligent than many suppose and that they want to be challenged. The problem I found with Tenet wasn’t that I couldn’t understand it, it was that I was never given the chance to. There was no breathing room, explanations were rushed through and swiftly followed by action, I just wanted things to pause for 30 seconds to allow me to really sink into the ideas, but I was always being rushed on. Then in the middle of action sequences I wasn’t quite sure whether things were going to plan or not, because I’d never quite grasped the plan, so I didn’t understand the jeopardy and lost the emotional connection. Also in thinking about the film since watching, I’m not entirely sure it hangs together – did the stuff at the start about the bullets actually make sense and/or matter?

There are secondary problems with the film, many of which I complained about for Interstellar too. Dialogue was often mumbled and overwhelmed by some terrible sound mixing. The lead female character was depressingly poorly-written, little agency of her own and an object for the male characters to engage with, that’s just depressing these days. However the cast were very good, the stunt work superb and the creativity is certainly refreshing. The great irony is, that for a film that’s been tasked with saving cinema, I think it’s actually a film best watched on dvd where you can pause to think through the explanations, put the subtitles on to catch the dialogue, and rewind to check what on earth is happening.

I went back to the DVD collection for a couple of Nolan’s older works, and confirmed what I thought, his older films were better. Inception is absolutely a challenging film that requires you to pay attention, but if you do, it does mostly make sense… mostly. I’ve watched the film multiple times and lose the plot at about the same point each time. I’m still not entirely certain whether that’s my understanding, the writers’ explanations or in fact that it doesn’t all hang together at all. But the key difference with Inception over Tenet is that it doesn’t really matter that you’re not completely following it while you’re watching – the action, character moments and emotional connections are strong enough by the point it gets too confusing that I’m just happy to ride it to the end and then agonise over it once it’s finished.

The Prestige is the oldest and by far the best of the Nolan films I re-watched (I didn’t bother with Interstellar because I find it deeply frustrating – but it’s reviewed on my website). The start of this film is slightly hard work as you try to get the hang of the different timelines and points of view, but after a while you realise that you’re no longer having to think about it and it’s all just flowing naturally. It’s a very satisfying film, I was actually grinning at the end of it, so pleased at how the different layers interacted and mirrored everything. Unlike more recent Nolan films that have left me with more questions than answers, this one ties it all together without handing it to the audience on a plate. It’s a film that you want to re-watch because you can see more, not that you HAVE to rewatch in order to understand it. It’s an incredibly clever, elegant film, that actually manages to be better than the source book as it intertwines the story lines much better.

Enola Holmes (Netflix)
I’m not sure whether the world of Sherlock Holmes just naturally lends itself to quirky film making, or whether once it’s been done that way once, everyone else has to follow. This is Holmes in the style that’s become familiar through the BBC series and the Robert Downey Jnr films, full of spark, and speed; bouncing around and zipping along at the speed of the genius’ mind and bringing the audience along for the ride. It’s just that this time the Holmes isn’t Sherlock, it’s his 16 year old sister, and without a Watson to explain everything to, she talks (or just rolls her eyes) at the audience directly. Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame more than carries the film, she’s charming, smart, witty, subtle and original; playing a character with all the intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, but with added emotion that is a very welcome addition. I actually really loved this film, the twists and turns of the plot were satisfying without being too challenging and although it maybe drags on a little bit and lacks some focus, I really enjoyed it and really hope that the open ending means this will turn into a series.

Bombshell
Bombshell is the story of some of the events of 2016 which saw the chairman of Fox News accused of sexual assault. It also features Donald Trump’s harassment of news anchor Megyn Kelly in the run up to the presidential election. I had a lot of emotions watching this film. There were moments that I literally shouted at the television in disgust at what the characters were saying, attitudes that should just be laughably incomprehensible, but sadly even a couple of years after #metoo are still depressingly unsurprising. But there are also moments that made me want to cheer, and many moments of interesting nuance that start to touch on some of the more complex aspects of the issues. Crucially however, it’s also an excellent film with a truly stunning cast of women (Margot Robbie was robbed at awards season), an interesting directorial style and a vibrancy and originality that really kept me utterly engrossed throughout.
Ranking: 9 / 10

The Shining
I can certainly see why this is considered a classic, it’s the king of slow burning creepy horror film that I like, as opposed to the “make you jump” kind of horror, or a gory one, although there are elements of that as well. Kubrick is famous for taking dozens of takes to get shots perfect and it really pays off here, there isn’t a single element of a scene that’s mediocre, it all looks absolutely perfect. The two leads are really good, although having recently read the book, I did miss the more psychological elements with the characters starting out more ‘normal’ and showing a more ambiguous decent into paranoia and craziness. The book and the film are very different, but each is a classic.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Speed
Speed is over 25 years old. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made there about car insurance. It has actually aged really really well. That’s because fundamentally the building blocks of the action film are all incredibly solid – a simple concept with incremental set pieces and solid characters running through it. Keanu Reaves isn’t the most versatile of actors, but he’s playing to his strengths here and Sandra Bullock is the one really carrying the emotions of the film. So much of the stunts and effects are live that they haven’t really aged, only some of the camera quality now looks sadly grainy. Even the soundtrack is still really great.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Cool Runnings
I’m a sucker for an under-dog sports film and this one is utterly charming from start to finish. It’s bright and colourful, funny and exciting, touching and inspiring. I laughed and cried more than once and was thoroughly entertaining for a couple of hours.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Ready Player One
I really loved the book, but I can’t say I remember any of the details, so I didn’t feel frustrated by any of the changes. I was excited when I heard that Steven Spielberg was making it and what has resulted is a good, fun Spielberg film. It’s a family adventure film with bright lights, large performances, wit and excitement. I can see that some might be frustrated at the popcorn-ness of the whole thing, but I found it a really entertaining romp. I was never bored, I smiled at the references I got and didn’t notice the ones I didn’t. I think there was maybe the potential to do more, the cast in particular felt a little ‘television’ level, rather than blockbuster names, but it does what it sets out to do.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Crazy Rich Asians
I tend to not like comedies that much, so when I say that this one was absolutely fine, that’s actually pretty good going. There was a pretty good mixture of melodrama and actual drama. There were characters that were comedic, ones that were over the top, and some playing it pretty straight – but also enough twists where comedy characters would cut the truth of a drama, or straight characters would be put into a ridiculous situation. The only thing that I felt let it down slightly was sometimes it felt a little forced – I never quite worked out whether it was clumsy dialogue, or actors that couldn’t quite land the nuance, but it just felt a bit clunky at times.
Ranking: 7 / 10

The Monuments Men
There are a lot of great ingredients in this film, not least a great cast and a strong concept, but they just don’t come together. The biggest problem with the film is tone. Many of the characters and scenes (and the trailer) are played for laughs, large personalities played by great character actors and a slightly wacky set up. But there’s also a lot of real tragedy and hard hitting content, which while well performed are somewhat simplistically written and just disconnected from the rest of the tone. Sadly the writing and direction just isn’t very good. The moments of light and dark are not intertwined, they’re switched back and forth. Serious points are delivered via heartfelt speeches, lightness is confined to specific scenes. Everything is obvious, predictable and clunky – the dialogue, characters, structure, framing, even the way scenes are lit. It’s not a terrible film, but it is a horrible waste, it’s an amazing story and this cast could have made something truly special.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Juliet, Naked
The film gets off to a slightly bumpy start as it seems slightly uncertain and inconsistent in tone. Chris O’Dowd’s and a few other characters are played large and verging on ridiculous, which just didn’t sit right alongside Rose Byrne’s more low key performance. However, Ethan Hawke is on exactly the same wavelength as Byrne, and as their connection grows and O’Dowd’s falls away, the film becomes a lot more settled and really very charming. The story that develops is believably complicated, and builds on interesting ideas of the things we regret either doing, or not doing. I really loved their story together, but the film itself kept trying to force annoying and embarrassing comedy characters in that just spoilt things.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Hippopotamus
This is the most Stephen Fry movie that has ever existed, and I’m afraid that’s not quite a good thing. A little bit of Fry is a wonderful thing, an elegant turn of phrase, a broad knowledge base and a cheeky sense of humour. However, when dialed up as much as the writing in this film is that turns into needlessly pretentious and utterly overblown dialogue, a meandering plot and a schoolboy crudeness. Even the glorious Roger Allam couldn’t elevate this film to anything other than painful.
Ranking: 4 / 10

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