December watching comes in 3 buckets – the first is the new releases, although I didn’t actually make it to the cinema at all sadly, so these are all newly released on Netflix/Amazon. The second bucket is me trying to collect up a few more releases from earlier in the year so that I can include them in my review of the year and the final big bucket are all the Christmas and family films that pretty much appear on my list every year. There are also a couple of bonuses this year, a rewatch of the Matrix trilogy and a film that I knew was going to make me very angry, and did. Merry Christmas!
tick, tick…BOOM! – This is a VERY musical-theatrey musical. It’s a film of a musical about a musical theatre writer putting on a performance of a musical. Characters move in and out of songs without blinking, dance numbers break out spontaneously, and the music isn’t the pop style of many film musicals, but is mostly the type of song you only see in musical theatres. So long as none of that makes you want to run screaming, you will LOVE this film. Unlike some other film versions of stage musicals this never felt ‘stagey’, making you miss seeing it in a theatre. It is very cleverly done, the story is complex and is masterly interwoven across times, locations, and possibly even reality (was the theatre bit all in his head?). Andrew Garfield is STUNNING, he’s an absolute natural to musical theatre and his performance moves seamlessly in and out of songs and dances, never for one minute losing the emotions of the character. Jonathan Larson was a huge talent and a fascinating ‘character’ and this film honours him. 9 / 10
The Power of the Dog – Some of the blurbs of this film describes Benedict Cumberbatch’s ranch owner as “charismatic” and even “brutally beguiling”, but I never had that kind of reaction to him at all, I just wanted to be as far away as possible from him, and that meant I didn’t want to watch the film. Having a hateful character is one thing, but it needs to be balanced with something else to make you want to watch the film, other characters, or even just a story, but there wasn’t anything in this film I wanted to see. The other characters were all poorly developed and fairly stereotype and although the film was beautifully shot it still wasn’t enough to hold my attention. Maybe because of that wandering attention I missed some nuance because it felt like there were a couple of big character shifts that had little motivation. It’s a good performance from the actors, and a pleasing change of type for Cumberbatch, but there wasn’t enough substance to the film. 6 / 10
Being the Ricardos – Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are 50’s television royalty for Americans and while they don’t have the cultural relevance to me, I’m aware enough of them that a film about them would be of interest even without Aaron Sorkin being attached. Sorkin brings his trademark dense script, turn of phrase, and clever construction. The film is mostly set in a 5 day shooting schedule for an episode of I Love Lucy, but also has a few flashbacks and some ‘talking head’ style interviews with people in the future (they’re all actors, it’s not documentary). The structure allows a lot to be packed in and it really worked for me, filling in the big gaps in what I knew about Lucy and Desi. I’m not 100% sure on the casting, I always find Nicole Kidman a little ephemeral and delicate, and I’m not sure she quite had the power for Lucille Ball; she wasn’t bad at all, I’m just not sure that she was quite right. I was however completely gripped by the film for the whole runtime, fascinated by the characters, the story, the period setting, and the dialogue. 8 / 10
Single All The Way – This film is rubbish. A proper rubbish Christmas romantic comedy. It’s got massively over the top performances from a variety of “oh it’s thingy from whatsit” tv actors with a predictable and stodgy plot and chemistry in the wrong places. But the actors all know exactly what they’re doing and it’s got just the right number of scattered moments of hilarity (including a reference to Clue that made me cheer) that I actually loved it and suspect it may become a bit of staple. 6 / 10
Ammonite I was really looking forward to a film about the incredibly Mary Anning starring the incredible Kate Winslet. Then I saw the trailer and I was angry, and that anger remained as I watched the film. This is a beautiful story about two very complex women in the 1840’s, rough and smooth, each with their own challenges and how their relationship grows and changes them. It’s beautifully shot and stunningly acted by Winslet and the equally incredible Saoirse Ronan and is a lovely but very slow film. I’d probably give it 6/10.
But this film is about Mary Anning, and that is NOT her story. The writer and director Francis Lee said “After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?”. That’s a very interesting point, but I’d respond that two wrongs do not make a right, straightening people is wrong, but so is, um, ‘bending’ them. Mary Anning is a rich and important figure in her own right, her real story is one that deserves to be told, and if there’s no evidence of any relationship at all, then that should be respected. Maybe the lack of relationship is important to her history, she does not need a man or a woman to make her important or interesting. No one does. Mary Anning revolutionised scientific thinking despite being a working class woman in a time that meant she had no opportunities for science. She was amazing and deserves to have her story told, to have her life celebrated. This film thought she was only worthy of that if they made up a love story for her. That’s appalling and means it gets a “I’m actually angry” rating of 2 / 10
The Matrix Trilogy I watched the Matrix trilogy over a few days in preparation for seeing the new one in the cinema. The good news is that 20 plus years later the first film is still a stone cold classic. It still plays pretty well as a straight science fiction film, the storyline and effects hold up quite well; but it’s also interesting in a historical context – “at the turn of the millennium this is what science fiction was, what we were worried about and what we thought was cool”. Despite being referenced, evolved and parodied the film is still engrossing, fun and cool to watch. The bad news is that the second one falls off a cliff, and the third one hits the rocks with a splat. It’s a bit hard to pin down where the second film went wrong, because in many ways they’re the same as the first, but the bad version. The story was poorly told, big blocks of exposition delivered badly by actors who seemed bored. A lot of the cyber punk stuff that was effortlessly cool and sexy in the first film is now trying too hard and felt sleazy. The stunts and fx are still brilliant, and there are some great edge of your seat set pieces, but many of them went on too long and I got bored. And when it drifts into the philosophical, religious wibblings I completely zoned out.
Army of Thieves – I gave Army of the Dead just 4 out of 10 and described it as “2.5 hours of banging and crashing, atrocious dialogue, dull characters, mediocre acting, predictable story and frankly, boredom”. It’s a good job I didn’t re-read that before I watched the prequel Army of Thieves, because I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it, which would have been a shame because it’s a much better film. It’s a more classic heist film, just breaking into some safes, none of the zombies and Las Vegas stuff, just a small band of crooks and a very dull safe cracker who gets caught up with them. Matthias Schweighofer is charming as the fish out of water, and somehow also manages to direct the film with a fair bit of flair and style. It’s not amazing, it’s derivative and full of holes, but it’s a solid way to pass the time compared to the much bigger Army of the Dead. 7 / 10
Ron’s Gone Wrong – This is a cute animation. I happened to watch it on the same day as Mitchells vs Machines, and Ron’s Gone Wrong is a much better film about the perils and positives of technology. It’s a better film in general actually, all the components are good and they all build together nicely – story, characters, animation and voice acting. The message is sweet and not overly simplified – technology isn’t evil it’s what people do with it, either deliberately like the business villain, or accidentally like the kids who are bullying or self-obsessed. I really enjoyed watching the film, although it had the familiar problem of being about 20 minutes too long. 7 / 10
Encounter – Riz Ahmed is a great actor and this film really showcases his talents because he’s playing a character where the audience doesn’t know what’s going on with him. The film manages to create uncertainty about what is really happening but does it quite elegantly without feeling hugely forced and deliberately misleading. He’s ably supported by two young actors and the three of them are really watchable and the ups and downs of the story really connected as well. There were a couple of clunky bits, but overall the film is a really good watch. 8 / 10
Summer of Soul – There’s something sad and marvelous about the fact that despite taking place in the same year as Woodstock, attracting thousands of attendees, featuring top name artists AND being professionally filmed… no one has ever heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival. It’s sad because it’s completely to do with racism, but marvelous because it allows us to discover it now. The documentary covers not only the festival itself, but the context it was in culturally and musically. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it sometimes gets a bit muddled or passes too quickly over interesting bits, but it’s a fascinating starting point and an education with a great soundtrack. 7 / 10
Dave Made a Maze Dave builds a cardboard maze in his living room, and gets lost in it, requiring his friends to come in and find him. And it gets weirder. This is billed as a comedy, but I don’t think that’s a particularly good label. It’s got some humour to it, no doubt, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a fantasy/sci-fi type thing, with actually a fair bit of psychological depth to it. I wasn’t laughing about the main character and his odd maze, I was thinking it was an interesting metaphor for depression. So not what it’s billed as, but interesting and some nice design too. 7 / 10
The Mitchells vs the Machines – This is a loud, bright, high paced, chaotic animation and I just felt overwhelmed by it. I didn’t really get on with the story, the voice cast didn’t quite work for me and it was at least 1/2 hour too long with way too many ‘final’ battles and then more endings than Lord of the Rings. The animation style was interesting and original, I will give them that, but while it worked very well in the slower moments, it was too busy for the action sequences and contributed to the overload that made me disengage. 6 / 10
Paddington – It’s a good old fashioned story right down to the Disney style loss of the parental figures very early on (I’ll admit, I welled up somewhat), and alternates fairly blockily between heartfelt moralising and silly action sequences. Each is done well, but a little more elegance merging the two would be good. The casting is superb throughout and the cgi bear is mostly pretty well done. I’m not entirely certain about the bluntness of the messages about immigration and providing warm welcomes, it was rather too pointed at times, but their heart was in the right place. 7 / 10
Mary Poppins Returns – The original Mary Poppins film holds a special place in my heart, as it does for huge numbers of people, so it was with some nervousness I went into Returns. Quite early on I was relieved and relaxed into the film. It was exactly what a sequel to Mary Poppins should be, the same in theme and heart (and it had SO MUCH heart) but evolving the ideas and taking different approaches. It’s like they exactly copied the blurb from the back of the dvd case but delivered everything in their own way. Emily Blunt puts her own stamp on the character, Lin-Manuel Miranda is charming as Bert-Two (including the slightly dodgy accent) and Ben Whishaw plays the new Mr Banks beautifully. I won’t say it’s a perfect film, if you look at it objectively the original wasn’t either, but as a Mary Poppins sequel it was as good as could be hoped for. 9 / 10
The Muppet Christmas Carol – 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’ve watched it dozens of times but I never fail to find something new. 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
Love Actually – The proposal to follow (by my estimates) 8 different plots sounds doomed, but it works spectacularly well. The groups are all linked together some how and with all the big name actors it’s easy enough to follow “the plot with Mr Darcy in it” etc. It’s full of laughs, heart, and christmas and without the usual nauseated feeling following a romantic comedy. It’s a staple for Christmas and it brings me happiness. 8 / 10
Klaus – The opening scenes didn’t grab me, introducing a spoiled and lazy heir to a postal service, whose father gives him one last chance and sends him to the far North as postman to an island occupied by two clans in perpetual conflict. Once we reach the island, the film really starts to shine. It’s clearly a fairy tale, but in the best tradition it has plenty of darkness running through it. The script has a perfect amount of bite to offset the soft centre, so it never becomes too sickly. It reminded me a lot of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s got a style all to itself. It was thoroughly entertaining to watch, beautiful to look at and a perfect addition to the regular Christmas catalog. 9 / 10