Films in March 2021

I watched a respectable 20 films in March, although only one of them is really a new release. Normally when the Oscar nominations are out I’d be ticking as many of them off as possible, but the options are a bit limited this year, and frankly not very inspiring. Of the ones that I managed to find, by far the most impressive were two documentaries – My Octopus Teacher, and Crip Camp both of which are brilliant and on Netflix. Other than that, I’ve mostly been re-watching stuff. I gave Soul another try, but remain underwhelmed, so I re-watched Inside Out again and it was infinitely better. I also trudged through the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Fellowship is 20 years old this year) which is now a bit dated in places, but still a stunning achievement, and watched Avatar again for the first time since seeing it in the cinema 12 years ago and that still holds up really well. On the other hand, Aquaman is a complete pile of rubbish.

Moxie – new release
Vivian is 16 and starting a new year at school. A new arrival points out that a lot of the activities are not just weird (pep rallies) but massively sexist – dress codes, harassment, worship of the football team, sexualised behaviour and public ‘ranking’ of the women. Vivian is suddenly absolutely furious about this and secretly prints a pamphlet. Yup, an actual paper print out. And that’s apparently enough to get girls who had previously done absolutely nothing about anything to rise up. I wanted to like this film, but I’m afraid I found it rather trite. It’s taking hugely difficult and complex issues of multiple types of discrimination and harassment, racial inequality, cultural differences and even rape and trying to mush them all into a 2 hour film with a perky soundtrack and a happy ending. It oversimplifies things to a point that is insulting rather than engaging. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but if you’re not going to handle these things properly, then just make a different film.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Crip Camp
This documentary has an incredible arc to it. Through some incredibly archive footage we start out in the 1970’s at an American summer camp for disabled kids. They talk freely about their lives and this is then combined with present day interviews with them reflecting back with an adult’s eye view. These stories alone would have been a fascinating insight into lives that have been under-represented. But the documentary keeps going, as many of the people from that camp go on to lead the disability civil rights movement of the next decades. The film is incredibly well put together, elegantly explaining the context and history of the period, while weaving in all the incredibly personal stories and emotions. The blending of archive footage and present day remembrances is flawless, I was completely gripped throughout and deeply moved.
Ranking: 9 / 10

My Octopus Teacher
This is the beautiful story of Craig Foster, a film maker who found himself disconnected from his job and his life, and then re-connected with it by forming a bond with an octopus. It’s an incredibly personal story for the film maker, and the film is at its best when it feels like he’s filming and talking just for himself as a form of therapy. At times it does break out of that though (who was filming him walking?) and then it starts to feel a little staged and artificial. But when it’s just Foster observing and becoming part of the ecosystem, and connecting with the octopus, it’s mesmerizing. I was really quite profoundly moved by this documentary.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Hillbilly Elegy
This seems like the kind of film that was clearly aiming for awards nominations, almost through a checklist – multi-generational family drama across different time periods, colourful characters battling with challenges, sweeping cinematography along with a big dollop of liberal guilt for our judgement of ‘hillbillies’. But 80% of the film overshoots the target and ends up a mess of over-writing and over-acting. It’s based on true people and events, so maybe it’s a case of truth being stranger than fiction but it felt constructed and fake. The only thing that actually rang true was the much more understated performances and relationships between the two siblings. Maybe if the film had just stuck in that time period rather than forcing flashbacks to tell a history that was quite obvious, then it would have been more successful, but this is just painful.
Ranking: 5 / 10

One Night in Miami
Films of theatre productions just don’t really seem to work very well. It doesn’t really make sense, but they always seem to feel small, claustrophobic and overly artificial. This feeling is compounded for One Night in Miami because it’s an uncomfortable blend of real people in a situation that never actually happened, which feels somehow more fake than an entirely created storyline. The performances were excellent within the context of the film, but again because of the theatre constructs felt slightly unnatural – like each character had an allotted moment for a monologue, each combination had an allotted confrontation. The final frustration for me was that I just didn’t know enough about most of the individuals, and the historical context they were in and the film didn’t really help me with that, although at least it drove me to do some wikipedia research and learn something important.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Aquaman
I really have no idea how so many people, can spend so much time and money making something so truly terrible. With the notable exception of Jason Momoa who manages to somehow deliver natural and charismatic performance, everything about this film is ill advised and dumb. The plot is an absolute disaster of names, places, quests, politics, running around and fighting people that I neither followed nor cared about in the slightest. The script is woeful – aiming for Shakespearean and ending up like bad Dr Seuss and the actors clearly have no idea what they’re even saying half the time. Maybe on the big screen it would have at least been a good visual spectacle, but on my TV there was way too much going on to get any real sense of style or spectacle. A truly awful film.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Soul
I gave Soul a second attempt. The first time I watched was on Christmas afternoon when it premiered to much hype and I wondered if that had damaged my appreciation of it. The second viewing unfortunately confirmed my disappointment. 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 (I re-watched Inside Out immediately afterwards and there’s just no comparison). There was too much going on in Soul, too many mechanics to understand, too many 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 still don’t really understand what I was supposed to take from it.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Inside Out
What an incredible film. The writers have clearly done a huge amount of research on neuroscience and psychology, but combined that science with observation and careful thought about how people really feel and act. Then they’ve turned all that into a beautiful looking film with wonderful characters, compelling plot and plenty of laughs that will appeal to people of all ages.
The film somehow manages to explain the complexity that exists in people’s heads elegantly and through the story and natural character conversations, it never felt like there were big moments of exposition needed, it all just flowed organically. The simplicity of the presentation and the progression towards the overall messages of understanding the contributions of different emotions are incredibly powerful. I’m tearing up just thinking about it, and I was pretty close to a blubbery mess in the film itself. I’ve watched this film multiple times and I find new things every time while watching and it keeps coming back to me; when I talk to people about it they keep pointing out additional levels and interpretations. It really is an incredible achievement.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Avatar
When I first saw this film I was surprised and thrilled to find that Avatar actually lived up to its budget, hype, and box office take. Over a decade later, I was equally surprised to find it was still very satisfying even on the small screen. Avatar is not only a stunning use of technology, but has a gripping story, well developed mythologies and technologies, charismatic characters and a genuinely entertaining plot. The depth of detail in the world is astonishing and completely immerses you in the world.
The plot is a bit predictable, there’s a palpable sense of doom across the whole thing followed by some rousing speeches and underdogs fighting back. But the range of emotions are evoked without feeling too manipulative. It’s maybe a bit long as I really do think two and a half hours should be the limit for a film, but I split it across two viewings at home and I was never bored.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Lord of the Rings Trilogy
According to my tracker, I’ve watched each of these films at least 6 times in the first decade after their release, but it was then a whole decade gap before I watched it again. They’re still great films but there are bits that are now started to look a bit scruffy (the green screen in particular), and feel a little bit cheesy and plodding at times. But there’s still plenty to look at to keep the interest, and while the effects may suffer, the production design and craftsmanship is still breathtaking. The Two Towers is definitely the best of the three with a good mix of comedy, so much action, drama, prettiness, romance – nothing is missing, it’s well mixed and it’s all done beautifully. Unfortunately the trilogy slightly stumbles at the last film, although it’s still better than 90% of the films out there. There’s too many threads going on and they feel too disconnected and none of them really satisfying enough to anchor the film. Plus some of them are down-right odd (ghosts… why did Tolkien thing ghosts were a good idea?). But the trilogy as a whole is still a monumental achievement.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu
I’ve got no idea about Pokemon, but this film quite slickly delivers the basics for newbies. I wouldn’t say I understood everything completely, but it was a kind of happy lack of understanding as it all just bubbled over me. The universe of the film feels utterly credible even if it is bonkers, it all seems to have just about enough internal consistency to let you go with it. The plot is well paced and even if elements are predictable, and twists are telegraphed it manages to put enough spin on old tropes to get the job done. But if all that sounds a bit underwhelming, the most important thing is that it’s really fun. I laughed loads and was charmed even more; Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds both have such a natural delivery that it’s impossible not to be charmed into going with whatever they say. It’s also visually stunning, there’s so much going on (I love the use of famous buildings from around the world all blended in the new city) that it stands up to repeated viewings well.
Ranking: 8 / 10

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson movies have an unmistakable style to them, sort of other-worldly, with a bit of child like wonder about them combined with a black humour and a sort of sing-song style to them that can sometimes become cloying and tiresome. Grand Budapest Hotel however continually snaps you out of that style with an abruptness to the dialogue that continued to surprise me all the way through. Who knew Ralph Fiennes was such a great comedian? This is the sort of film that almost defies review and description, you’ve just got to see it and you’ll either love it like I did, or be utterly unmoved. Take your chances.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Antz
This is one of the early computer generated films (2 years after Toy Story) but it’s not by Pixar and it unfortunately shows. The animators have done some good tricks to cover the limitations, but there are some locations, action sequences and character details that look rather uncanny. The second problem is that the voice cast is too recognisable and so I never felt like I was listening to a true character, but always Woody Allen, Gene Hackman and Sylvester Stallone pretending to be an ant. It’s a shame because the story is quite well done and there’s some good ideas in there.
Ranking: 6 / 10

La La Land
It actually got off to a good start, I really liked the opening musical number – proper traditional musical stuff with everyone bursting into a coordinated song and dance number. I liked the old style combined with the modern setting of a traffic jam and some modern dance (parkour and skateboards and the like). Then we meet our ‘heroes’ and my hackles immediately go up because I didn’t particularly sympathise with either of them. He’s a sanctimonious jazz fanatic who’s more interested in telling people why they’re wrong then he is in paying the bills. She was sort of better as the wannabe actress reaching the end of her patience with awful auditions.. until the writers decided to take a break from reality and give her a shiny new prius and beautiful apartment.
The rest of the film swung wildly between two distinct tones and I’m not sure either held up. The old-school fantasy musical/screwball romance, would have made a nice change from the usual Hollywood stuff, but the two leads were no Debbie Reynolds or Gene Kelly, their singing and dancing was acceptable but far from outstanding. The more gritty reality of their relationship was more within their talents but felt disjointed. To add insult to injury, as per usual it was too long, and the fantasy ending tacked on felt like a cop out from the writers who still couldn’t make their mind up whether it should be fantasy or reality.
I know a lot of people have really loved this film, but I just don’t see it. I *wanted* to love it, because heaven knows some escapism is much needed, but I just didn’t think it was very good.
Ranking: 5 / 10

The Breakfast Club
I re-watched this film for the first time in years thinking that I would have to approach it more as a period piece, trying to overlook the “of its time” attitudes. But I was really pleasantly surprised to find that other than the fashions and the technology the film was just as relevant today as it was in the 80;s. The American High School is still a pretty foreign concept for non-American’s, and the characters are dialed up, but the core emotions and issues the teenagers are dealing with are pretty universal. Playing out in a single day, with very limited number of sets and small ensemble cast gives real energy to film and I really enjoyed it.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Sixteen Candles
This is a lovely eighties teenager film. It’s got great characters, a good mixture of comedy and heart, with a little bit of bite to it, and is filled with the fashions and music that we expect from the eighties. Of course it’s also now filled with some quite uncomfortable aspects that we also now expect when we look back at pop culture from decades back with some incredibly inappropriate behavior that I struggled to dismiss as “of its time” and unfortunately pushes this film away from the fun and charming entertainment that I would have classed it as if I’d watched it 20 years ago.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Stargate
I’ve been reviewing all the films I watched since 2002 and Stargate wasn’t on the list, so apparently I’ve not re-watched it in at least 19 years. In the meantime though I have watched over 350 episodes of various Stargate television franchises so the movie felt very familiar. The amount of media that’s expanded out of this one film is incredible, particularly given that it’s not actually very good! The plot doesn’t hang together at all, there are huge holes in the science, the history, and just the general common sense of how plots fit together. Kurt Russel lacks any of the charm, strength or humour that Richard Dean Anderson would bring to the character on TV. Thankfully James Spader is working a bit harder, all be it with a terrible script and the stunning score by David Arnold does a lot of the heavy listing too. I’d skip the film and just watch the TV series, although that is a substantially bigger time commitment.
Ranking: 6 / 10

All Is True
The history of the last few years of Shakespeare’s life, and actually his family and background, wasn’t one I really knew. This film tells it like a Shakespeare play, and like I do with most Shakespeare plays I found it an interesting story that I would probably have understood better reading a wikipedia page. Technically there’s nothing wrong with the film, it’s well written and acted, but I found it hard to engage with and get lost in. Even the amazing cinematography while beautiful, felt forced and unnatural, everything framed for effect rather than reality.
Ranking: 6 / 10

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One thought on “Films in March 2021

  1. Pingback: Oscars 2021 – Narrative Devices

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