Films in January 2021

Not a massively long list. Usually January is full of cinema trips to see as many award contenders as possible, but that’s really not happening this year.

The Dig
I want to describe this film as “gentle”. It’s the true story of the discovery and excavation of an Anglo-Saxon boat and treasures, the two main characters are the landowner (a young widow) and the self-taught archeologist. The story is hardly white-knuckle stuff and it’s accompanied by some very soft direction and score that makes it all feel very pastel. But there’s also some real grit to it, the events take place just as World War 2 is starting, there’s a lot of death sprinkled through the past and present, and the natures of the discoveries have their own excitement and drama. It’s a lovely film to sink into, not really seeming to try very hard, but having more to it than you might expect.

White Tiger
A rags to riches story of Balram Halwai and his journey from a very poor village, to becoming a driver for a rich family, to his dream of being an entrepreneur. It is introduced and narrated by the successful Balram, so that’s not a spoiler, but the way his journey goes there are plenty of unexpected events along the way that had me really quite tense. It’s been described as a black comedy, and while it does have some humour in it, the nature of the story is quite dark and it’s much more a drama than a comedy, but the humour is well judged to make the film still enjoyable rather than too much of a slog. I’m not sure how genuine the type of story is, I can believe it’s grounded in reality, but that’s also rather depressing. It’s an entertaining film, but that doesn’t stop it being very pointed in places.

Galaxy Quest
A cute idea – years after a sci fi series was cancelled, it’s fans still obsess over it and the cast can’t/won’t move on – attending conventions and signings. That in itself would be pretty interesting, but a naive bunch of aliens turn up thinking the television signals they received was history and seeking the help of the crew. I remember watching it at college and feeling slightly offended by it, thinking they were making fun of science fiction fans, but rewatching it now I can see it’s actually quite lovingly done. The geeks are mocked, but they turn out to be the heroes and celebrated for it. It’s rather cheesy in places and the effects are a bit shonky (although that’s possibly deliberate) but it’s got a solid heart.

Never Surrender
If you don’t already love Galaxy Quest, this documentary will make you love it. I enjoyed Galaxy Quest and thought it had some nice ideas, but when I watched this documentary a couple of days later I started looking at it with much more love. The documentary covers all angles – the context that the film came into, the ideas, the making of, the reception and then the long life of the film. It’s got pretty much all the key players in front of and behind the camera as well as science fiction royalty like Wil Wheaton talking about the cultural importance. The film was clearly made with love, this documentary was made with even more love and the combination is geek heaven.

Vanity Fair
Reese Weatherspoon excels as the incredibly complicated Becky Sharp at the heart of Vanity Fair, she would be a complicated character at any time, but in the early 1800’s her ambition is particularly hard to reconcile with what should have been ‘normal’ for a woman of her ‘place’. It’s a bit of a shame the supporting cast isn’t quite as excellent, a couple of hams and a few damp squibbs that make it hard to engage with the wider landscape and makes the film drag a bit in places. But it’s a wonderful story, beautifully produced with wonderfully rich locations and costumes, and Weatherspoon’s performance makes it worth a watch.

Hotel Artemis
The eponymous hotel is really more of a hospital, just a very exclusive one for a club of criminals. The film takes place in just one night, and almost entirely within the hotel while a riot rages outside. Those constraints build tension through the film, we’re just getting a tiny snapshot into a world that we don’t know about (it’s set in 2028), and a group of characters that have some connections and some agendas that may or may not align. Jodie Foster is wonderful as the Nurse who runs the hotel and is either having “just another Wednesday” but has a huge amount of backstory. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was really engrossed and quite impressed.

The Devil Wears Prada
I’ve got two sets of feelings about this film. The characters made me so mad that I wanted to stop watching. They were all rude, disrespectful and completely selfish, and the lack of human decency from ALL of them made me want to scream at them. And it’s not just the ‘devils’ of the fashion magazine, but the ‘heroine’ who thinks her job is beneath her, then buys into it like it’s a game, then turns her back again. They’re all hateful and inconsistent. But… it’s also watchable with some fun sequences, Meryl Streep being wonderful as usual, and Emily Blunt having great fun being horrible.

Mortal Engines
Centuries in the future the humanity are all wandering the wasteland of Earth on giant cities that hunt each other for resources. What a great idea! There’s a stunning steam punk style to it and the effects are stunning, I wish I could have seen it on a cinema screen there was so much detail in the designs. Which is a good job because while there was something to look at it didn’t matter quite so much that the plot and the script weren’t as good. I think it might have been the story that was the biggest problem, lots of clunky exposition, coincidences and contrivances that didn’t really engage me. The characters are almost all either ostentatiously over-the-top or astonishingly bland and nothing really came together with any coherence. Still, at least it’s pretty!

Skyfire
This film is rubbish. It’s a massive, expensive big screen disaster movie, but it managed to feel small, cheap and unexciting. Nothing was quite right – the setup of the hotel on the volcanic island didn’t make sense, the group of characters weren’t charismatic enough, and the action sequences all felt a little bit flat. And there wasn’t nearly enough Jason Isaacs (Hello). It also didn’t quite feel like it got the right tone, dozens of nameless bodies littered the streets, but we were supposed to be completely focused on the small number of core characters. It just about passed muster for brainless entertainment, but it’s a shame the money wasn’t better spent.

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