Films in October 2020

A bit of a rubbish short list of films watched this month. I’m finding it a bit hard to get into films, and find something that matches my mood. I did make it to the cinema once though, and a couple of new releases online.

Saint Maud (Cinema)
I’m a devoted Wittertainment listener, but I really should remember that when Mark recommends something and says it’s going to be one of his top films of the year, I should probably walk the other way. He absolutely raved about Saint Maud, and when I spotted a showing at a convenient time I decided to go and support my local cinema. I think I would have been happier just giving them the ticket price and leaving after the trailers. The film is a tense drama/horror playing on standard themes of how medical carers and religion can go very badly wrong. Both are let into our lives in a way that are supposed to be supportive and nurturing, but if mishandled can be controlling and terrifying. Saint Maud thumps these messages home without a great deal of subtlety (certainly not in the honking soundtrack). My overwhelming feelings were unsettledness, discomfort and a growing boredom and wish for the film to be over. I’m not sure that the filmmakers did anything wrong necessarily (certainly the acting was very good), but there was just nothing in the film that I can see as enjoyable or interesting to watch – it’s got themes that are unoriginal, gory bits that are truly nauseating, and a general tone that’s just unpleasant. It’s not particularly bad, it’s just got nothing positive going for it.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Rebecca (Netflix)
I’m a big fan of the original novel and the Alfred Hitchcock film, which I re-watched only recently and I’d been looking forward to seeing this new version in the cinema, but sadly had to settle for watching on Netflix. Lily James is very well cast as the second Mrs De Winter, there’s a fragile surface to her, but an underlying strength that eventually comes through. Kristin Scott Thomas is also perfectly cast as Mrs Danvers as well. I’m not so sure about Armie Hammer’s Max De Winter who seems a little more insubstantial, but it’s a weird role and this film deals slightly better with the inconsistencies of the character – swinging from joyous new romance to distant, inconsiderate, and frankly a bit of an arsehole. I don’t think it’s a huge departure from the Hitchcock version to be honest, and I think it’s not really much more than a remake of a film that didn’t really need remaking. I wish the talent involved had done something more original with the material (set it in a different time period, used a different point of view, done more with the supporting characters, play around with the timelines) as I think that would have been really interesting.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb (Netflix)
I’m simultaneously impressed and mystified by Netflix, who not only made this slightly dry documentary about Egyptian archaeologists (often with subtitles), but also heavily promoted it. Despite the rather dramatic name, and some very well shot opening sequences, most of the film is a pretty straightforward documentary following a dig season focused on exploring and explaining a beautifully preserved tomb. The narrative is well crafted and seems well grounded in science and history from a team of experts who are clearly passionate, respectful and excited. There are a couple of nice explanatory animated sequences, but I wish they’d used a bit more creativity to really connect things up (eg maps, timelines, drones, overlays etc). I felt I got a bit of depth in a couple of areas, but can’t really join up how it all fits together.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Gentlemen (Amazon)
Guy Ritchie is playing to his strengths here and he’s produced a slick and entertaining British gangster movie. The large number of characters and branches of the plot are handled elegantly, the narrative device of a narrator telling the story is well used and holds everything together. The tone is very carefully balanced with plenty of laughs, a dark centre and a really well judged sense of its own ridiculousness. The cast are all perfectly on note, I was going to call out Hugh Grant but to be honest there isn’t a bum note in the cast. If I were going to be picky and a bit prudish, I thought the language was maybe a little too crude and I wish a more creative approach had been found rather than the absolutely gratuitous use of the C word.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Murder on the Orient Express (TV)
An absolutely stunning cast (and Jonny Depp) combined with Agatha Christie’s most iconic work, and Kenneth Branagh as star and director was an easy sell and delivered beautifully to high expectations. What I didn’t anticipate though was how stunning gorgeous the cinematography would be, or how funny it was. I think a criticism could be made that there’s a few lurches in the reveals, and it may be quite easy to lose track of characters (I read the book recently so didn’t have a problem). Overall it’s an absolute delight of a film, just like curling up with a good book.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Aladdin (DVD)
Seeing that this film was made in 1992 makes me feel old. I remember it as one of the ‘new’ Disney films, distinct from the more traditional ones. I remember feeling that as a teenager it was still ok for me to enjoy Aladdin, while something like Fox and the Hound was more for children.
Even though it’s now nearly 30 years old, Aladdin still holds up pretty well as a ‘modern’ animation that’s got things to interest kids and adults alike. The dialogue is witty (largely, but not exclusively driven by the spark of Robin Williams), the music catchy, the characters lively, the female lead has as much agency as historically appropriate, and the whole thing feels vibrant.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Hotel Transylvania (Netflix)
A cute animation with enough moral centre to give it some depth, but not so much it gets too bogged down and sanctimonious. The concept is good, and the details of the characters and the world are well developed. There’s plenty of visual and audio references for the monster movie fans and plenty of silliness for the kids (or young at heart). The voice cast is really good, and doesn’t fall into the trap of just sounding like the known actors rather than the characters. A nice film to watch on Halloween.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Halloween (2018) (Netflix)
It wasn’t until I was about half way through this film that I realised that I’ve never actually seen the original Halloween or any of its many sequels before this one. It really didn’t make any difference (in fact that’s an interesting idea for a horror film, the ‘aftermath’ of a slasher movie that you never actually see). You could describe it negatively as being very generic, hitting all the beats that you’d expect (even the inevitable ‘twists’), but you could also put a positive spin on it that it’s being classic rather than generic. I thought it was absolutely fine but really nothing more than that. If you’re looking for a classic slasher with the women taking control rather than being powerless victims, then this film will do absolutely fine. But there’s not really much to get excited about.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (Netflix)
This is an absolutely terrible film. The only reason it’s mustered 3/10 not lower is because those scores are reserved for films that offend me on a moral level, whereas this one just offends me on a competency level. Things start badly with the title, which is so utterly unmemorable that I forgot it between viewing the IMDB page and switching tabs to write this review. I don’t even remember there being a hill in the film, there’s a lake and a waterfall, but no hill. Then there’s the lead character who is a pathological liar, but that’s never really explored or explained, she just choses to lie about ridiculous things. There’s interesting psychology, but it’s just ignored and instead we have a central narrator who you absolutely cannot trust. But she’s so dominant in the film that there’s no counterpoint to that and so the narrative is just confused. Then you’ve got multiple levels of conspiracy going on (which I didn’t care about), some magicians with terrible French accents, a plot with holes in it so big I actually rewound a couple of times to check I hadn’t missed something. I actually gave up on the film and skipped about half an hour to get to the end which was just as ridiculous as the rest of it and then ended on a cryptic scene that undermined what little plot they’d committed to. A truly terrible film that wasn’t worth the effort of downloading, let alone making it.
Ranking: 3 / 10

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