Films in December 2020

A very busy month where I watched 43 films! I was supposed to be going on holiday to Chicago at the beginning of the month but instead I stayed home and subscribed to Disney+. I watched all 12 Star Wars films over a few days and reviewed them separately and also caught up on the various remakes that Disney have been churning out. Then over Christmas holiday I’ve been catching up on some recent releases on digital platforms, I’m really missing the cinema trips of this time of year for either re-releases of Christmas classics, the big blockbusters, or the start of the award bait films. Fingers crossed we’ll be back to cinemas in 2021.

NEW RELEASES
The Midnight Sky (Netflix new release) – There were a lot of moments in this film that I wanted to switch it off, not because it was bad but because of the opposite. The situations it presents are ones that I don’t want to think about, the choices the characters have to make are ones that I don’t want to consider, and because the film is so well made and incredibly well acted, you really can’t hide away from them. I didn’t quite get the different elements as the film was playing out. There are two storylines and they play out pretty independently for the most part, and the flashbacks for one of the threads felt unnecessary (particularly with the oddness of younger actors playing George Clooney, but dubbed with his voice). However they did come together beautifully at the end in a way and there was a payoff that I really didn’t see coming, although that doesn’t really overcome the mild irritation that’s already been experienced. 8 / 10

Rocks (Netflix new release) – This film is told exclusively from the point of view of a teenager, which is a really dangerous thing to do. Done well (which this film really is) makes the experience uncomfortable – it’s absolutely no fun being a teenager and having limited control over your life, but at the same time having enough power to make bad choices that are just embarrassing to watch as an adult. This film is a hard watch because it’s done so incredibly well, your empathy is pulling you in multiple directions as you know that the central character (and her friends) should make different choices, but you absolutely understand why she goes the way she does. The writing and direction are very light of touch, it feels incredibly organic, not like it came from a written page or a production team, but as if it’s just happening. I was really moved and impressed by this film. 8 / 10

Uncle Frank (Amazon new release) – Set in the 70’s the eponymous uncle is a New York lecturer who stands apart from the rest of his South Carolina family. When his niece starts attending the same university, and then they have to travel home for a family funeral his true life gets revealed. This film could very easily have been trite and even comedic, but the film is written and directed by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, American Beauty) who makes the film straightforward and light with plenty of laughs, a simple plot and large characters. But there’s also a lot of heart, depth and impact. Paul Bettany perfectly delivers that range, there’s always something more going on within him than what is on the screen. The only downside is a truly terrible mustache. 8 / 10

Death to 2020 (Netflix new release) – I went into this very nervously, 2020 has been depressing enough, did I really need to watch a retrospective? But Charlie Brooker and his producing partner Annabel Jones have set a high standard over the years with both Black Mirror and the ‘wipe’ documentary/review series so I gave it a chance and I’m glad I did. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches and you’re not going to come out of it feeling any better about the miserable year that we’ve all suffered through. However it plays to the fine tradition of satire and comedy through the centuries which is if you can’t beat it, laugh at it. And I laughed a lot. the blend of documentary archive footage, biting narration and spoof talking heads are mixed perfectly to highlight the insanity and the horror that this year has been. My only criticisms of it would be around the weight given to the different stories and maybe a bit of confusion about whether it’s playing to an American or a British audience. Please god don’t let us need another one of these next year. 8 / 10

Mulan (Disney+, newish release) – What a shame that this didn’t get the big screen release that it was supposed to have, because this is definitely one of the rare hits in the Disney live action remake series. The film builds from the animated version modifying the plot, adding richness, and adjusting characters. On one hand the film is played straight – there are no animal sidekicks and no songs, but there is a magical element introduced for the power some characters have to move and fight. That took me a little bit of getting used to, it didn’t quite feel like that magic blended with the historical details that are beautifully done. Yifei Liu as Mulan is absolutely stunning, she plays the early comedy just as well as she does the heartbreaking drama and I was completely with her at every moment of the film. As I say, it’s a shame this film may fall under the radar of many, as it’s a real standout for me. 8 / 10

Soul (Disney+ new release) – Maybe I was expecting too much, maybe the pressure of a Christmas afternoon premier was too built up, but I was really disappointed with this film. I feel Soul was trying to re-capture the astonishing achievement of Inside Out and just came across as trying too hard, missing the elegance and the lightness of touch that made Inside Out so impressive. There was too much going on in Soul, too many mechanics to understand, too much clunky chunks of exposition. The film felt bitty and rushing between those bits so everything feels like it’s only shown at a very surface level and I found it a struggle to keep up and frankly I wasn’t really engaged enough to make the effort. The eventual resolution felt equally jumbled and I don’t really understand what I was supposed to take from it. I suspect I’m being a bit harsh on it, and maybe on future watches I’ll get it a bit more, but on a first watch, it was a disappointment. 6 / 10

Mank (Netflix new release) – I suspect a lot of people will heap praise and award nomiations on this film, because, partially because there’s nothing Hollywood likes more than self-referential films, and a bit of black and white. I’m not going to heap praise on Mank except to say that Gary Oldman is going to get a very well deserved Oscar nomination for this, and Amanda Seyfried deserves a supporting actress nomination too. Their performances were interesting and their characters well written, but the film as a whole was baggy, confusing, and ultimately boring. I see what David Fincher was trying to do – recreate the style and structure of Citizen Kane in order to tell the story of the writing of Citizen Kane, but I found it distancing and harder to keep track of the characters, settings and time frames with the jumping plot. Most critically, the film was at least 1/2 hour too long. 6 / 10

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix new release) – This film comes from the same playwright and the same film production team as Fences did, and I felt largely the same way about this as I did that film. Both have a problem that they fundamentally feel “stagey” – minimal settings (just two rooms for most of this film), incredibly long scenes and very large performances. It lacks fluidity, there’s no sense of movement or spontaneity in any of it, just a series of long conversations and monologues that always feel like the characters are playing to an audience rather than just existing. I did find Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom slightly more engaging than Fences, I think maybe the music added some richness that was missing in Fences and a wider supporting cast added additional points of view as well, but I can’t really say I enjoyed it unfortunately. It’s an interesting part of history, and Ma Rainey seems like a fascinating woman, and I’d rather just watch a story about her that’s actually written as a proper film. 6 / 10

The Prom (Netflix new release) – I wanted to let myself go and just enjoy this, but for some reason I just couldn’t. Despite the big star cast it just felt a little low budget and amateury, maybe because intrinsically it’s hard to turn broadway musicals into films that feel natural. Characters are played as one-note stereotypes until they eventually get their turn to have a song and spontaneously gain depth and backstory, but by then it just feels awkward. There was just something that set my teeth on edge, like people trying too hard to poke fun at themselves, but without any real sincerity; the knowing lyrics to the songs didn’t sound self deprecating they just sounded a bit smug. I’m not sure why I’ve taken so against this film, but I really didn’t get on with it. 5 / 10

OLDER FILMS

Spies in Disguise (Disney+, new for me) – Will Smith is a James Bond-esqua super spy and he gets turned into a pigeon. I mean, come on who’s not already sold on that? And the excellent news is that it thoroughly delivers to that concept. The script is sharp, the voice talent is really great (Will Smith completely nailing the dry wit, and Tom Holland is adorable), the animation style is vibrant and full of visual gags. This film is an absolute joy and I can see myself coming back to it over and over. 9 / 10

The Muppet Christmas Carol (umpteenth rewatch of a dvd) – Without a doubt, the best Christmas movie of all time and a staple for my Christmas schedule for decades. The music is absolutely amazing, the mixture of Dickens and Muppet is perfect and it is great fun to watch for all the family. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at Christmas in 2018, with a packed audience and it made me so happy I cried. 9 / 10

Queen of Katwe (Disney+, new for me) – This is one of those “based on real events” stories that are absolutely made for film, an incredible under-dog story that celebrates talent, passion, and those that seek to provide opportunities. However it doesn’t shy away from the struggle, the brutal reality of existence in a Ugandan slum where a natural talent just cannot magically make those realities change. It’s not the talent that changes her life, it’s the commitment of people around her to give her a chance, that’s why this is a Disney family film that left me with tears of joy. It’s the kind of film that probably wouldn’t have worked if it was just written, the audience would roll their eyes at the improbability of it all, but because it’s true it’s a hit, and it’s important. 8 / 10

Sing (rewatch of a dvd) – When I first reviewed this I said I didn’t think it was going to be a “classic for all time”, but I’ve since found myself reaching for it when I need a thoroughly feel good bit of entertainment. Although it’s a star-studded cast, no one felt like stunt casting, they were all playing the characters so well that I didn’t even notice who the voices were. It’s bright and colourful, packed with great songs and just plain fun from start to finish, leaving you with feet tapping and face grinning. 8 / 10

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Disney+, new for me) – A solid, but maybe slightly forgettable Christmas movie. It takes the core of the Nutcracker ballet and adds some classic Christmas/Disney tropes of a dead mother, a ‘misfit’ heroine and a quest for a magical item and some personal development. The design is stunning throughout with the different realms (including the ‘real’ world created in beautifully rich detail. Mackenzie Foy is excellent in the lead, capturing the tipping point of a teenager’s childlike delight and having to deal with grown up issues. Stealing the show is Kiera Knightly as Sugar Plum, to explain why she is so great would be a spoiler, but it’s worth watching this film for her performance alone, and I wish there was maybe a little more of that spark scattered through the film to just raise it up a little bit. 7 / 10

Onward (Disney+, rewatch) – 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. 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 in the cinema, but when rewatching on tv at home I was really not gripped. 7 / 10

The Nightmare Before Christmas (rewatch of a dvd) – A wonderfully quirky christmas film, that actually manages to be christmassy without being overly sappy. It is everything that you’d expect a Tim Burton film to be (although he didn’t actually direct it) – weird, dark, bizarre, creepy yet kinda endearing. The songs are a bit mixed, some a bit ropey and forced but others are absolute classics. It’s such a visual feast, incredible amounts to look at in every frame all done with a quirky and wonderful blend of Halloween and Christmas that it works perfectly. An absolute Christmas classic. 7 / 10

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (rewatch on dvd) – The name Fred Rogers won’t mean much to UK audiences, but to Americans he’s an absolute institution that many of them will have watched on tv as young children. For me, I may not have that sort of connection to the subject of the film, but I do have the same fondness for Tom Hanks who is playing him, so I was really looking forward to this film. Then the film throws in Matthew Rhys who I’ve loved since Brothers and Sisters and recently excelled in The Americans. The film itself is a bit odd, Mr Rogers is a slightly other-worldly character, and that’s played up with some surreal sections and even breaking the fourth wall. But it’s offset by Rhys’ character who is based firmly in an unforgiving reality. Both leads are excellent and somehow manage to connect the different tones elegantly. It did miss a few opportunities to delve deeper into understanding Mr Rogers the person vs Mr Rogers the character, but I went in wanting something engaging and comforting and it completely delivered. 7 / 10

The Death of Stalin (rewatch on TV) – An odd film. Armando Iannucci is a superb comedy writer and this is certainly a laugh out loud funny. The hilarity of some creative swearing, of a well timed silence, of physical comedy, farce and wordplay – it’s a masterclass. There are loads of characters with complicated backstories and relationships that can be a little hard to track, but thanks to some brilliant ‘character actors’ they all leap off the screen. The problem is that, while the farcical elements of the grabs for power are inherently funny, the overall situation is not. The film doesn’t entirely shy away from the fact that thousands of people are being routinely rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed; but by interspersing it with comedy it does be-little it and leave a bad taste in the mouth. It’s not like you can watch the film and ignore it, because it’s integral to the story; so I’m not quite sure what reaction we’re supposed to have. Overall I think I just wish that Iannucci and the cast made a different film. 7 / 10

Lion King (2019) (Disney+, new for me) – To quote the great Ian Malcolm Disney were “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. Yes, they absolutely can create photo-realistic animals and landscapes that are STUNNINGLY beautiful, there’s barely a shot in the film that couldn’t be framed on a wall and the movement of the animals is flawless. You can tell what the characters are thinking and feeling without them saying a word. But the problem is that the characters talk and sing and it’s completely jarring and uncomfortable. Photo-realistic lions don’t talk, they don’t sing and they don’t dance and as soon as you try to make them do that it just screams out wrong. The story is of course fine, because it was fine in the original animation and it’s just a direct lift. The voice performances are mostly solid (although I’m not entirely sure about John Oliver as Zazu or Seth Rogan as Pumbaa – neither of whom can sing). I just wish they hadn’t wasted the amazing animation on a film that it fundamentally didn’t work in. 6 / 10

Race to Witch Mountain (Disney+, new for me) – There are few things in the world more watchable than Dwayne Johnson. This is just a fundamental truth for me. It really doesn’t matter what he’s in, he lights up the screen and makes me happy. There’s not much to say about the film beyond that to be honest, it has all the nuts and bolts and gets the job done, but without The Rock it would have been utterly forgettable and a bit dull. 6 / 10

A Wrinkle in Time (Disney+, new for me) – I thought this had a lot going for it. At the centre are a couple of really charismatic young actors and a wonderfully bright and vibrant collection of settings. I mean the plot itself made very little sense, the script was a bit spotty in places and Oprah Winfrey was weirdly terrible, but those feel like fairly minor complaints in a kids film. Personally, I switched my brain off, opened my eyes and my heart wide and just let myself go and had a pretty good time. 6 / 10

Dumbo (Disney+, new for me) – Thankfully this isn’t just a straight recreation of the original animated feature, a film that even nearly EIGHTY years on is still a really good watch. This film takes the main story of the animated film and moves it out of ‘talking animals’ territory, adding a whole cast of humans and focusing on their story more. That’s a very good choice, because for a start there isn’t really enough plot in the original to sustain a full length film, and for a second the photo realistic CGI just looks weird for talking animals. So the producers of this film have made some good choices, and then somehow utterly failed to add the magic. I really can’t explain why, but I was completely unmoved by the film. I had no sense of wonder, joy, sadness… nothing, no emotional engagement at all. I really have no idea how they managed that, it’s technically completely fine but I was just not interested. That’s almost magical in itself. 6 / 10

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Disney+, new for me) – As a franchise the X-Men series are really a bit all over the place, so much potential and scope from the comic series but the delivery just doesn’t quite seem to be able to consistently hit the spot. They all have a bit a of a problem over-egging the metaphor and message, forgetting that the films need to be fun to watch and we need to care for the characters. Dark Phoenix has a great concept at the centre of the story, but it then has too many complexities piled on top of it and the characters and relationships become bogged down and lost. Too much infighting and betrayal by the good guys left me just frustrated and disengaged. It’s a great cast that has been assembled, and yet somehow they come across as stodgy a lot of the time. I think the MCU set a very high bar for superhero films, Dark Phoenix isn’t bad, it’s just not quite good enough for these days. 6 / 10

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Disney+, rewatch) – Narnia looked amazing – very natural, even the unusual creatures fitted in very well, although some of the cgi/blue screening was a bit ropey. The acting was superb, the young children and voice actors doing very good jobs. The film as a whole though was too long and that just took a bit of a shine off the magic. 6 / 10

Lady and the Tramp (2019) (Disney+, new for me) – Oh dear, talking photo-realistic animals. According to the article I just read, the film was made with a combination of real animal actors and supplementary animation so that they lip-synced with the dialogue, and it just felt weird. I was utterly charmed by the animals… until they started talking and then I was just a bit creeped out each time. It wasn’t a technical problem, the animation was flawless, but it just didn’t work in my brain. The film is also way too long, the original is 1h18m and this is 1h15m and it’s just unnecessary. Cutting the songs (which also didn’t fit in with the rest of the film) would have been a good start. 6 / 10

Descendants Trilogy (Disney+, new for me) – This is such a fun idea – all the Disney villains have been exiled to an island, while all the Disney heroes live in fairy tale luxury. Now their kids are all teenagers and four ‘villain kids’ are invited to go to school with the ‘good kids’, but they’ve got a secret mission from the parents that will release all the villains from exile. Great concept, but sadly the reality is slightly underwhelming. There’s a lot of teen film cliches going on that the occasionally sly digs at Disney can’t quite overcome. It also all looks a little cheap (it’s definitely made for TV quality) and even the colourful and original design visuals can’t quite shine when they’re done in polystyrene. Most criminally the majority of the songs are unremarkable (with the exception of Kristin Chenoweth’s Evil Like Me in the first film) and the dance numbers feel quite laboured. Things get even cheaper and worse in the second and third films, I’ve really got no idea why I kept watching them, so I’ve only got myself to blame really. They’re not terrible, but it does feel a little like a school production, and it’s just a bit of a waste of such a good idea. 6 / 10 for the first, 5/10 for the second and third.

Secret Society of Second Born Royals (Disney+, new for me) – This has a nice concept to it, the younger siblings of heirs to the throne have superpowers and form a secret society. Cute. This gets the full on Disney TV Movie treatment though and so cute is about as far as it gets. There’s just not really any heft to it, characters are pretty cliche, the plot is pretty predictable and there’s a lack of detail and richness that make everything feel very insubstantial and surface. The younger actors are all doing their best, but the script is pretty flat and there are no charismatic leading adults to raise any of it up. It’s fine, but absolutely nothing that you’ll remember 20 minutes after it finishes. 6 / 10

Artemis Fowl (Disney+, new for me) – I really enjoyed reading the Artemis Fowl series, for a while they were one of my picks for reading anytime I wanted something fun but not too challenging to the brain, perfect for when you want distracting from the real world. They’re well written, but could still easily disappear in a flood of children/young adult fantasy series, but the twist is that rather than following a child hero, we instead follow a child villain, and that really elevates the series above the crowd. So it’s incredibly disappointing that the film completely missed the point. Artemis is still a genius, but without the hook that he’s a villain, the film falls flat. Holly is also lacking in the spark that she has in the book, and that combo means that the relationship between them falls completely flat. I think if you don’t know the books you could enjoy the film as a disposable kids film, but it’s a complete waste of the source material and it left me very frustrated. 5 / 10

The News Boys (Newsies) (Disney+, new for me) – Christian Bale can do many things, but I’m afraid in 1992 when this film was made he could not lead a musical, he couldn’t sing terribly well, and weirdly despite being 18 he couldn’t seem to convincingly play a teenager. He was fighting an uphill battle with a clunky script, mostly unremarkable songs and surrounded by a cast of children struggling a bit and a few adults phoning it in. I was surprised when I read up on it that it was an original film not an adaption of a stage musical (it went the other direction) as it felt incredibly stagey. It really was a bit of a slog to get through. 5 / 10

One thought on “Films in December 2020

  1. Pingback: Films I Saw in 2020 – Narrative Devices

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.