Films in May 2021

A quiet month of film watching, but I watched a fair number of new releases and it even ended with a return to the cinema! It was good to be back, particularly as I went at exactly the right moment for my brain – it wouldn’t shut up worrying and stressing about stuff and two and a half hours of escape to a dark room with a distracting film to focus on was the perfect cure. Now we just need more films to be released and we’ll be off and running.

Cruella
Cruella is a cleverly put together film that’s both classic and original, mixing up lots of familiar ideas and tropes into something that feels fresh and fun. The characters are a lot of fun and brilliantly performed, particularly by Emmas Stone and Thompson but also by the large supporting cast, and even some animals. The film looks absolutely stunning and the costume design is particularly outstanding. My only two criticisms are that it was a little too long at 2.14, and that I don’t think that it joins up to 101 Dalmatians particularly well. Ranking: 8 / 10

Nomadland
I came away from this film feeling a bit… blank. Not really deeply moved, but also not unaffected, just not quite sure of what I was supposed to be taking away from it. Maybe nothing, maybe it was just supposed to be a peek into a community and way of life without coming to any big conclusion, but it felt like I should have a stronger response. The film is very well made, it looks beautiful and holds the attention all the way through. The use of non-actors rarely feels obvious, but maybe that contributes to the lack of direction to it, that makes it feel half like an insight documentary rather than a narrative film. It’s well worth a watch, and maybe the strangeness of it is actually a brave new creation, but I was left wanting a little bit more. Ranking 8/10

Sound of Metal
This is a powerful and really well constructed film that hits all the right notes (pardon the pun) with rich characters and a well paced story with innovative film making that really draws the audience into the main characters experiences. The way sound is used throughout really immerses the audience into the stages of hearing loss that the Ruben is going through, but because it’s not solely from that point of view, when we switch back to the ‘normal’ sound it really heightens what he’s lost. I would say that there were sections of the film that I really didn’t enjoy because of these effects, the muffled or dissonant sounds are quite unpleasant to listen to (I was glad for once to NOT have a cinema sound system) but that discomfort it absolutely a part of the film. Riz Ahmed is miraculous as Ruben, an incredibly complex character going through something utterly life changing, it’s hard to know how anyone would react, but Ahmed’s performance is completely believable and relatable. The only downside is that this focus does mean a lot of potentially interesting supporting characters are quite one-note, they’re all from Ruben’s point of view and felt a little bit ‘used’. However overall, this is a fascinating, impressive and important film that really exemplifies what film can do. Ranking: 9 / 10

The Woman in the Window
There are some sub-genres that can be described in a lot of detail, or you can just refer to the classic film that has spawned dozens of similar offerings. In the case of The Woman in the Window, it’s in the sub-genre of “Vertigo” – someone trapped in their house watches their neighbors and seems to witness a murder, but no one (including the audience) is quite sure if they really did or not. In this case we get the always watchable Amy Adams playing an agoraphobic, separated from her husband and young daughter, watching the family over the street. It’s a reliable set up and it’s very well delivered, it kept me guessing about what had really happened and whether it was a hallucination or drunken mistake. The film is well paced with just enough twists and turns before delivering a satisfying conclusion, all in just 1.40 to make a very solid entry into the sub-genre. Ranking: 8 / 10

Love and Monsters
This is a very knowing film, it’s a monster film where the characters have all seen monster films. However despite the sarcastic and self-aware narration, it doesn’t actually come across dark and bitter. It’s as if it knows what works, and knows that it’s not better than what came before, or trying to dramatically reinvent the genre. On top of the monsters element is the love bit which plays out quite sweetly really without getting nauseating. There are a few bits of CGI that look a little on the low budget side, but even that somehow felt fitting for the film. I really enjoyed it and was both relaxed in how predictable it was and satisfied at the small innovations. Ranking: 8 / 10

Army of the Dead
Good grief this was rubbish. And to add insult to injury it was LONG and rubbish. 2.5 hours of banging and crashing, atrocious dialogue, dull characters, mediocre acting, predictable story and frankly, boredom. The concept was solid enough I guess (a band of mercenaries stage a heist in a zombie-occupied Vegas – Oceans 11 meets Walking Dead) but everything beyond that was poorly done. There was no richness to the characters, too many subplots and relationships all spread too thin to give any satisfaction. I didn’t care and I was bored. Oh, and it lost another mark because of the entirely needless gratuitous nudity at the start. Ranking: 4 / 10

Love, Weddings and Other Disasters
Another film trying to be Love Actually (or similar) and not quite working, but it’s a near miss rather than a complete disaster. Most of the threads are engaging enough with likeable performances, quirky (but not too quirky) characters and some sweet relationships. Surprisingly what let it down for me was the older generation, Jeremy Irons and Diane Keaton hamming it up, alongside the very depressing choice of not casting an actual blind woman in the role, which is just not acceptable. Other than that glaring miss-step though the film is fairly watchable, but not really more than that. Ranking: 6 / 10

Thunder Force
I like Octavia Spencer a lot, and she is worth suffering through this film. The concept is also not terrible – two middle aged women are the only heroes with super powers but have to learn how to use them. But I’m afraid I didn’t really get on with the rest of the film, particularly the brand of humour that tends to come with Melissa McCarthy. She’s a very talented actress and comedian, but the cringy, slightly crude comedy just isn’t my thing. There were a few moments that did make me laugh, so it wasn’t a disaster, but I just didn’t laugh enough. Ranking: 6 / 10

Monster-in-Law
I had exceptionally low expectations of this going in, as I was persuaded to watch it on tv one evening. Astonishingly, it was actually really good. It knows exactly how cheesy it is and embraces it, managing to balance the cheese, funniness and sweetness. My only complaint was that there wasn’t more of the hilarious side-kicks, but then that would take time away from Jane Fonda which would also be a crime. Ranking: 8 / 10

Page Eight
Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz in a British spy drama, a low risk choice you’d think. Wrong, it’s terrible. So bad that I didn’t even finish it, and I ALWAYS finish films. There was no creativity, just cut and paste from various spy dramas set in the cold war and plonked into the 21st century with a bunch of supposed professionals who don’t talk to each other, spend more time playing politics than doing their jobs and generally just being assholes. All of that is then delivered with no creativity or style from the production team, and zero energy from the actors. It just felt like the whole thing was thrown together with no love or effort and I couldn’t be bothered to waste my time on it. Ranking: 5 / 10

Books in April 2021

Lydia Kang is a new author for me, found via Kindle Unlimited and she’s got a number of skills going for her. For a start, she’s a doctor so brings clinical knowledge and detail to the murders and the investigations, she’s also clearly got an interest in history and manages to bring period settings to life. Thirdly, she can write well with vibrant characters and solid plots.
A Beautiful Poison – This is an interesting mystery story with a few different threads going on, some murders, some character puzzles and some historical elements that play out nicely. It gets a little melodramatic at times, but it was satisfying enough that I picked up a second book by the author immediately.

The Impossible Girl – There’s a lot of strands going on in this book and I’m not 100% sure they all come together. It presents as a murder mystery, there are certainly lots of bodies to go around, but it felt a bit like the murders kept getting forgotten, no one was really investigating them, and the plot wasn’t really driven by that. In fact it sometimes felt a little like the plot was just meandering around searching for a thread. It’s not that it wasn’t enjoyable, the characters are interesting and the period setting is rich and detailed (and a jump from the time of her other book I’ve read, demonstrating impressive historical research). But I wasn’t as swept away in the story, I wasn’t so enthused to keep picking it up and I don’t feel as satisfied as I did when reading her other book.

James Clear – Atomic Habits
I don’t tend to read many self-help books like this. Heaven knows I need all the help I can get, but it’s rare that I find a self-help book that actually helps, tells me something I don’t know and doesn’t come across as patronising and smug. This book isn’t without some smugness, but it was also realistic and forgiving. A lot of the stuff the book talks about may already be familiar, and it certainly makes sense, but it’s not necessarily something that individually we can articulate, and I at least find it really helpful to be able to put labels and structures around familiar behaviors and feelings. It’s not got any magic tricks and isn’t going to change your life, but it does a good job highlighting opportunities to make small adjustments that might make things better.

Mark Hayden – The King’s Watch 8: Six Furlongs
As I started reading this book I was a little frustrated by it. Each book in the series adds more characters and complexity to the story’s world which really works if you’re reading a lot at a time, but it’s nearly a year since I read the last one and there’s an ever growing amount of baggage to catch up making the start of the book a bit overwhelming. But I really got into the book as it went on and thoroughly enjoyed it. The way characters have gradually been introduced over the series have made for a diverse group with a range of depths of relationships and understanding of the world of magic bringing even more richness to the world.
I went straight on to read the accompanying novella Fire Games which is a mini story with a subset of the characters who we haven’t seen in a while. It’s an entertaining read and makes a nice change to have a story told by another point of view.

Films in April 2021

It’s been a somewhat light months for films. Normally in Oscar month I’d be desperately seeing as many nominees as possible, but this year I just couldn’t really be bothered. A combination of underwhelming films, trickier availability, and my own mood making me less willing to watch high drama. So I only managed 10 films, and 5 of them were Jurassic Parks. I’ve given you a bonus of Sound of Music which I actually watched on May 1st, but was so good I didn’t want to wait a month to post the review.

Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime)
This is a powerful and really well constructed film that hits all the right notes (pardon the pun) with rich characters and a well paced story with innovative filmmaking that really draws the audience into the main characters experiences. The way sound is used throughout really immerses the audience into the stages of hearing loss that the Ruben is going through, but because it’s not solely from that point of view, when we switch back to the ‘normal’ sound it really heightens what he’s lost. I would say that there were sections of the film that I really didn’t enjoy because of these effects, the muffled or dissonant sounds are quite unpleasant to listen to (I was glad for once to NOT have a cinema sound system) but that discomfort it absolutely a part of the film. Riz Ahmed is miraculous as Ruben, an incredibly complex character going through something utterly life changing, it’s hard to know how anyone would react, but Ahmed’s performance is completely believable and relatable. The only downside is that this focus does mean a lot of potentially interesting supporting characters are quite one-note, they’re all from Ruben’s point of view and felt a little bit ‘used’. However overall, this is a fascinating, impressive and important film that really exemplifies what film can do. Ranking: 9 / 10

Palm Springs (Amazon Prime)
Nyles is trapped at an endless wedding. We’ve all been to weddings that feel that way, but Nyles is in fact trapped in a time loop re-doing the same day over and over attending a wedding that he doesn’t really care about. Rather than join the story at the start though, the writers very cleverly drop us with Nyles after he’s been trapped long enough to have given up trying to escape and is just resigned to his fate. Until someone joins him in the loop. The construction is really clever, bringing new life to the old Groundhog Day trope and playing out mostly as a romcom, but with a vein of quite deep philosophy running through it about. It’s quite a timely question to ask how do you find joy and surprise if you’re just trapped in the same place all the time? At an hour and a half it packs a lot in, leaves a fair amount up to the audience to fill in and is a really satisfying and entertaining package. Ranking: 9 / 10

Minari
I wanted to like this film. I didn’t. I was really really bored. The person I watched it with actually fell asleep. It just felt like there wasn’t enough to sustain the 2 hour run time. What was there was really well done, it looked beautiful, the acting was great and the stories original. But it felt too thin and bitty, missing opportunities to dig deeper, fill in history, or look at more of the relationships and connections. I was just wishing for it to be over. Ranking: 6 / 10

Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon
A lovely, lovely film with plenty of entertainment for absolutely all the family. I particularly loved all the geeky references to science fiction classics and I’m sure that I would continue to spot new things on any number of subsequent watches. The story and humour are gentle but constant, and as the whole thing is wordless it’s a real achievement at how much emotion, laughs and meaning is packed in by the animators and the sound department. Ranking: 8 / 10

An American Werewolf in London
I’ve somehow never seen this before and I found it to be surprisingy low key and charming. I’d been expecting something really silly, and although it had a fairly light touch to it, there was actually a lot more depth and heart to it than I was expecting. The film takes familiar werewolf tropes and doesn’t really muck about with them, just gives the eponymous American a bit of self-awareness and disbelief, the drama is more in him coming to terms with the situation than in the gory rampages (although there’s also a fair bit of that). The effects are a bit laughable in places, although I can see they were impressive in 1981. But although it may look a bit dated sometimes, the story and presentation are timeless. Ranking: 8 / 10

The Lego Movie 2
I wasn’t sure that the bonkers awesomeness of the first movie could be replicated, but they actually do manage it. There’s no way they could redo the twist at the end of the first movie that reveals the multiple levels of the story, but they do manage to continue to evolve the ideas. The concept isn’t quite as strong, but it’s still got a lovely message at its heart that really connects to the core ideas of the Lego brand. It’s a huge amount of fun to watch, there’s so many different things going on, connections to all the different brands that Lego comes with that are charming if you get the references and just add to the weirdness if you don’t and both work well. Ranking: 8 / 10

Jurassic Parks
1 is amazing, 2 is rubbish, 3 is slightly better but still poor, 4 is flawed but fun to watch and 5 is actually pretty good!

Jurassic Park
I can’t believe how old this film is (1993) and how good it still is. The effects still look good, thanks to some very careful direction and editing so that ropey bits are hidden behind lighting and dramatic music. There’s a decent plot behind the running and screaming, but it doesn’t get in the way of the death and maiming and even the small kids aren’t too irritating. The music is possibly the best soundtrack ever, and the moment they first see the dinosaurs and the music swells makes me beam with joy no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Ranking: 8 / 10

Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World
This film should have been good, it would probably have never been as good as the first, but there was more than enough material to play with, a cast and budget to die for and yet it ends up being insulting bad. The biggest issue was the plot. The first half of the film is entirely driven by characters doing stupid things (particularly the lead female unfortunately who loudly proclaims to be an expert on these things and then does absolutely everything wrong. Then the second half when they leave the island is so riddled with plot holes that you can drive a sauropod through them. Then the crappy icing on the rubbish cake is that somehow, 4 years after the original, the special effects are substantially worse. At least the music is still good. Ranking: 5 / 10

Jurassic Park 3
Jurassic Park 3 is not as bad as Jurassic Park 2. While it’s not a high bar to step over, it is something to celebrate. This film keeps things relatively simple, just a small number of people trying to get away from the dinosaurs through a series of set pieces that felt rather less organic than they could have done. Everything about the film is fine – it’s playing up the humour rather more than the first one did, it feels quite light in comparison, I didn’t have any particular emotional investment in any of the characters but the action sequences barreled along. Some cheaper special effects were hidden away behind things being dark rather too often, but at least they were hidden I suppose. It’s fine, but it’s nothing special. Ranking: 7 / 10

Jurassic World
I was particularly harsh about this film the the first time I watched it in the cinema. I felt that they’d over-commercialised the idea and lost the heart and soul of it. I called out the moment early in the film where it lost me – the music swelled into the familiar theme, one that in the first film played as the helicopter swept over the beautiful landscape, eventually coming to a climax as the herd of brontosaurus are revealed to audience and characters for the first time. John Williams’ genius score carried us along with the power of nature, the joy of the paleontologists seeing dinosaurs walking around – the majesty, the surprise, the delight, the wonder. In Jurassic World, it plays as we pass over a sweeping landscape of shops at a theme park. The music automatically made me feel all the old emotions and then made me hate myself because I was connecting them with commercialisation. I acknowledged that this was possibly done deliberately to show us the wonder being turned into a dollar sign, the product placement being ironic… but it just felt hypocritical and smug rather than self-aware.
However. I’ve just watched it straight after watching the original trilogy, and while it isn’t in the same league as the first one, it’s a definite step back in the right direction compared to 2 and 3. At least this film was made with competence and even some heart, where the previous two felt like absolute cash ins that they couldn’t even be bothered to make any effort at all with.
At least the plot and characters make sense here, the action sequences and special effects are really well done (and mostly in the daylight rather than hidden in shadows) and the way some of the ideas have evolved shows thought rather than lazily rehashing the same things. Chris Pratt is rapidly turning into the go-to guy for this kind of charming, slightly insufferable hero. He injects an energy and a heart to the film that is otherwise sadly absent. And Bryce Dallas Howard is a perfect partner for him.
It’s not the original, but it ain’t terrible.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
This film manages to find some of the heart that was missing from the previous films, raising some interesting questions about the dinosaurs and tug at the heart strings. The mixture of actual plot and action sequences is just right, never leaving it too long without some excitement, but also not dragging sequences out until they get dull. Yes, there’s plenty of cheesy moments, and the plot doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but the characters are fun, the cast charismatic and the special effects convincing. There wasn’t a single moment of the film when I was bored or my brain escaped back to the real world. Exactly what I’m looking for in Jurassic Park films. Ranking: 8 / 10

Oscars 2021

The Oscars are a couple of months later than usual, and I’d completely forgotten about them, so this is a rather hastily compiled summary. I did mean to tick off a few more nominated films, but I wasn’t particularly inspired. There are 39 films with at least one nomination, and I’ve seen 19 of them, nearly half. Thanks to a couple of films getting multiple nominations though, I’ve seen 51 out of 97 nominations, which is slightly more than half. Half ain’t great, but then by my searching about a third of them aren’t even available in the UK.
Still, for the sake of not missing a year, here are my thoughts and predictions.

Best Picture

  • Mank – I cynically predicted that this would get a nomination because it was black and white and Hollywood does love a self-referential film. But outside of a couple of good performances (see later) it was baggy, confused, self absorbed and boring.
  • Minari – Interesting idea, good acting, beautiful cinematography but too thin resulting in a film so boring my companion fell asleep.
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Sorkin doing his thing and doing it well
  • Films I haven’t seen – Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Well of the fairly pathetic three that I’ve seen, the only one I liked was Trial of the Chicago 7 so that would be my pick. But I would guess that Nomadland will win.

    Best Director

  • David Fincher – Mank – I didn’t think this film was very well put together
  • Lee Isaac Chung – Minari – I guess a director works with the script they get and if there’s not enough in it there’s not much they can do about it.
  • Films I haven’t seen – Thomas Vinterberg – Another Round, Chloé Zhao – Nomadland, Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman
  • Who do I think should win… I really don’t care, I will randomly guess for Nomadland. Aaron Sorkin for Trial of Chicago 7 could have been here probably.

    Best Actor

  • Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – it’s a stagey film and a stagey performance that isn’t without merit, but it felt rather more like two good monologues rather than an outstanding lead performance
  • Gary Oldman – Mank as Herman J. Mankiewicz – an excellent performance with a lot of range and depth
  • Steven Yeun – Minari as Jacob Yi – it makes me very happy that Glenn from The Walking Dead has an Oscar nomination, but he’s not gonna win.
  • Films I’ve not seen: Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal, Anthony Hopkins – The Father
  • Missing from this list is Paul Bettany for the really lovely Uncle Frank.
    This is a tricky one. I’d vote for Gary Oldman of the ones I’ve seen, but from what I’ve seen and heard, Riz Ahmed sounds like a truly outstanding performance and the trailer for The Father has Anthony Hopkins being amazing – plus at 83 this may be one of the last opportunities. However I think Chadwick Boseman is going to win it, and while he probably doesn’t deserve it for this role, he would have won one eventually and he deserves the mark of respect. Randomly as I’m writing this I’m re-watching Justified from 2011 where he appears in 2 scenes as a thug, he came up fast didn’t he?

    Best Actress

  • Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as Ma Rainey – a big performance that fills the screen and would have filled the stage.
  • Films I’ve not seen: Andra Day – The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman, Frances McDormand – Nomadland, Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman
  • I’m disappointed in myself for not seeing more of these performances because I’ve heard really good things about all of them. If I had to guess, I’d tag Frances McDormand for another win.

    Best Supporting Actor

  • Sacha Baron Cohen – The Trial of the Chicago 7 – he delivers Sorkin’s dialogue perfectly, and he crafts a character that is larger than life and completely credible.
  • Leslie Odom Jr. – One Night in Miami… – another stagey film and performance, but his performance was one of the few bits of the film that I liked.
  • Haven’t seen: Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah, Lakeith Stanfield – Judas and the Black Messiah, Paul Raci – Sound of Metal
  • I am amazed to be saying this, but I think Sacha Baron Cohen should probably win this.

    Best Supporting Actress

  • Amanda Seyfried – Mank as Marion Davies – she manages to be a point of colour and brightness in an otherwise dreary film.
  • Youn Yuh-jung – Minari – there is so much going on with this character, she’s mother/mother-in-law and grandma as well as a character in her own right, and she slots into so many roles in the film – antagonist, comic-relief, and emotional heart. I would be tempted to call it a lead role as she does a lot of the heavy lifting.
  • Glenn Close – Hillbilly Elegy – the whole of this film is so far over done that it turned itself into a parody and Glenn Close is just as bad.
  • Films not seen: Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Olivia Colman – The Father (but it’s Olivia Colman and the trailer looks amazing)
  • I would like to see Youn Yuh-jung win this one, a really wonderful performance, but as long as Glenn Close doesn’t win, I’ll be okay.

    Best Original Screenplay

  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin – there is a huge amount in this film – lots of characters, complex history, interweaving timelines and detailed legal procedings and as usual Sorkin juggles them all into something that’s understandable, impactful and entertaining.
  • Minari – Lee Isaac Chung – the core ideas and characters are very good, but I think it needed more to make the runtime worth it.
  • Not seen: Judas and the Black Messiah – Screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King; Story by Berson, King, Keith Lucas and Kenny Lucas, Promising Young Woman – Emerald Fennell, Sound of Metal – Screenplay by Abraham Marder and Darius Marder; Story by Derek Cianfrance and D. Marder
  • Aaron Sorkin delivers yet again and deserves this win. I would have also called out I’d also call out Kelly O’Sullivan for Saint Francis.

    Best Adapted Screenplay

  • One Night in Miami… – Kemp Powers, based on his play – and to my mind there wasn’t enough adaption to make it a film. Plus I feel uncomfortable about something that’s mixing the history of real people with a completely made up scenario.
  • The White Tiger – Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga – I read and loved the novel a decade ago, and I watched and loved the film.
  • Not seen – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja and Dan Swimer; Story by Baron Cohen, Hines, Nina Pedrad and Swimer; Based on the character by Baron Cohen – (I’m not quite clear on what this is adapted from), The Father – Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller, based on the play by Zeller, Nomadland – Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder
  • Well I’d go for the only one I’ve seen, The White Tiger as it was very well done.

    Best Animated Feature Film

  • Onward – Kori Rae and Dan Scanlon – a nice film, but I wasn’t actually blown away by it, I just wanted a bit more.
  • Over the Moon – Peilin Chou, Glen Keane and Gennie Rin – this had a lovely opening section, and then they went to the moon and it turned into generic multiculoured, pop song nothingness.
  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon – Will Becher, Paul Kewley and Richard Phelan – I loved this film, packed full of story, references, jokes, character and heart, although given I saw it in Oct 2019 it feels like a very long time coming.
  • Soul – Pete Docter and Dana Murray – I didn’t like this film, I even gave it a second attempt and I still felt that it was jumbled, dull and had a message that felt like it started off telling you one thing (find what you love) and then told you that was a trick and you should just live. I was confused and underwhelmed. Just go watch Inside Out again instead.
  • Wolfwalkers – Tomm Moore, Stéphan Roelants, Ross Stewart and Paul Young – sadly not seen
  • My easy choice for this is Shaun the Sheep, but Soul will win.

    Best International Feature Film

  • Not seen any of them: Another Round (Denmark), Collective (Romania), The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia), Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • I’m afraid I haven’t seen any of these, I would slightly randomly guess Quo Vadis, Aida will win.

    Best Documentary Feature

  • Crip Camp – Sara Bolder, Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham – a really fascinating and eye opening documentary, highly recommended
  • My Octopus Teacher – Pippa Ehrlich, Craig Foster and James Reed – beautiful, educational, emotional and inspiring.
  • Not seen: The Mole Agent – Maite Alberdi and Marcela Santibáñez, Time – Garrett Bradley, Lauren Domino and Kellen Quinn, Collective – Alexander Nanau and Bianca Oana
  • It’s a tough choice between the two I’ve seen, and I highly recommend watching them both (they’re on netflix) but I think My Octopus Teacher is the one that has had the more profound emotional impact. Circus of Books was eligible for nomination as well which would have been a good choice.

    Best Documentary Short Subject

  • Colette, A Concerto Is a Conversation Do Not Split, Hunger Ward, A Love Song for Latasha
  • I haven’t seen any of them I’m afraid, I’ll predict A Love Song for Latasha.

    Best Live Action Short Film

  • Feeling Through – Doug Roland and Susan Ruzenski, The Letter Room – Elvira Lind and Sofia Sondervan, The Present – Ossama Bawardi and Farah Nabulsi, Two Distant Strangers – Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, White Eye – Shira Hochman and Tomer Shushan
  • I watched all of these (see my other post for details), my favourite would be Feeling Through, but I think Two Distant Strangers will win because of the subject matter of black lives matter, and I have zero problem with that.

    Best Animated Short Film

  • If Anything Happens I Love You – Michael Govier and Will McCormack – beautifully animated and powerful, but the structure didn’t quite work.
  • Burrow – Michael Capbarat and Madeline Sharafian – lovely, but nothing particularly special
  • Not seen: Genius Loci – Adrien Mérigeau and Amaury Ovise, Opera – Erick Oh, Yes-People – Arnar Gunnarsson and Gísli Darri Halldórsson
  • Of the two I saw Burrow aimed middling and thoroughly succeeded, but If Anything Happens I Love You aimed very high but missed and I’m not sure how to balance that. So I’m randomly going to go for Yes-People which I didn’t see but the trailer made me actually want to see it.

    Best Original Score

  • Da 5 Bloods – Terence Blanchard, Mank – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
    Minari – Emile Mosseri, News of the World – James Newton Howard, Soul – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste
  • I’ve seen all of these except Da 5 Bloods, but I have no particular memory of the scores except for Soul for which music was such a key element that it will surely win, plus it was good (if you like jazz)

    Best Original Song

  • “Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah – Music by D’Mile and H.E.R.; lyric by H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas
  • “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Music by Daniel Pemberton; lyric by Celeste and Pemberton
  • “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – Music and lyric by Rickard Göransson, Fat Max Gsus and Savan Kotecha
  • “Io sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead – Music by Diane Warren; lyric by Laura Pausini and Warren
  • “Speak Now” from One Night in Miami… – Music and lyric by Sam Ashworth and Leslie Odom Jr.
  • I listened to all of these on Youtube and the only one that was memorable even when I was actually listening to it was the one from Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga, which was a great Eurovision song and really connected to the film so that would definitely be my choice.

    Best Sound

  • Greyhound – Beau Borders, Michael Minkler, Warren Shaw and David Wyman
  • Mank – Ren Klyce, Drew Kunin, Jeremy Molod, Nathan Nance and David Parker
  • News of the World – William Miller, John Pritchett, Mike Prestwood Smith and Oliver Tarney
  • Soul – Coya Elliot, Ren Klyce and David Parker
  • Sound of Metal – Jaime Baksht, Nicolas Becker, Philip Bladh, Carlos Cortés and Michelle Couttolenc
  • Given that Sound of Metal is all about sound, I think this is probably a sure thing.

    Best Production Design

  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Production Design: Mark Ricker; Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara and Diana Sroughton – given the minimal settings, it doesn’t feel like there was enough opportunity here for outstanding design.
  • Mank – Production Design: Donald Graham Burt; Set Decoration: Jan Pascale – actually, this film did look amazing, capturing the different looks of Hollywood through time and place, plus making a rich and lush design on black and white can’t be easy.
  • News of the World – Production Design: David Crank; Set Decoration: Elizabeth Keenan – the world was a lot more interesting to look at than the film was to watch.
  • Tenet – Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Kathy Lucas – the style was slick and the only film on this list I saw on the big screen, but it didn’t really do much for me.
  • The Father – Production Design: Peter Francis; Set Decoration: Cathy Featherstone – and the trailer looks fairly isolated in location (another one based on a play) but actually the flat is such an important factor in the story that I can see why the production design is so important.
  • I think maybe Mank?

    Best Cinematography

  • Mank – Erik Messerschmidt – making modern films feel like old classics is a really difficult thing to achieve, and for all that I didn’t think much of the story, there’s a lot of technical achievement in this.
  • News of the World – Dariusz Wolski – the cinematography is possibly the best thing about this film, it is beautiful to look at while also making it clear that the beauty comes at a price – hard work and loneliness, territorial fights despite the seeming endless space.
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Phedon Papamichael – I didn’t initially think of the cinematography being impressive, but I suspect it was harder than it looks. There’s a mixture of styles going on – intimate spaces in the courtrooms and offices, but also massive exterior scenes of riots and protests.
  • Not seen – Judas and the Black Messiah – Sean Bobbitt, Nomadland – Joshua James Richards
  • I think News of the World, although possibly Nomadland will win it.

    Best Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Emma. – Laura Allen, Marese Langan and Claudia Stolze – I’ve seen it but I have no memory of the makeup or hair, or they film as a whole actually.
  • Hillbilly Elegy – Patricia Dehaney, Eryn Krueger Mekash and Matthew W. Mungle – I guess it takes a lot of effort to make people look this bad (the 80s were not a kind time to anyone)
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson – I remember people being hot and sweaty… I guess that’s hard to pull off
  • Mank – Colleen LaBaff, Kimberley Spiteri and Gigi Williams – Hollywood glamour plus black and white is probably tricky.
  • Not seen – Pinocchio – Dalia Colli, Mark Coulier and Francesco Pegoretti
  • I suspect Hillbilly Elegy might be the best achievement, but I’m not sure anyone will want to give it any awards at all, so maybe Mank.

    Best Costume Design

  • Emma. – Alexandra Byrne – yup, English period drama, gotta love it
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Ann Roth – as it’s all set in one day and it’s a period piece, it doesn’t feel like there was a huge amount of opportunity for design.
  • Mank – Trish Summerville – more period stuff
  • Mulan – Bina Daigeler – the costumes were incredible
  • Not seen – Pinocchio – Massimo Cantini Parrini
  • My vote would be for Mulan

    Best Film Editing

  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Alan Baumgarten – I can see that editing around Sorkin’s dialogue is no small achievement, and the interweaving flashbacks with overlapping narratives must have been a challenge.
  • Not seen: The Father – Yorgos Lamprinos, Nomadland – Chloé Zhao, Promising Young Woman – Frédéric Thoraval, Sound of Metal – Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
  • I’d vote for Trial of Chicago 7 as it’s impressive and the only one I’ve seen, but I think I would predict Sound of Metal

    Best Visual Effects

  • The Midnight Sky – The film is very interesting, but for a sci fi film there didn’t feel like much in the way of visual effects, maybe that’s the accomplishment as I’m sure there was a lot of artificial backgrounds etc going on.
  • Mulan – I did very much like the film, but I’ll be honest that I can’t remember much in the way of visual effects in it.
  • The One and Only Ivan – The animal animation was very well done, and I was impressed that the talking, photo-realistic animals were credible not creepy.
  • Tenet – I didn’t like the film much but there were some slick effects that made the backwards stuff
  • Not seen – Love and Monsters
  • Without all the big blockbusters it’s a bit quieter in this category than usual, but of this set I’d rather weirdly vote for The One and Only Ivan given the effects were at the very heart of the film.

    Oscars 2021 – Short films

    I went hunting for some of the Oscar short films, the live action ones are all available via Curzon Home Cinema, or a couple are on Netflix. I only found two of the animated ones (one on Netflix and one on Disney+). Unfortunately most of them were rather disappointing, many of them with the same low content density as many full length films do. Overall a bit of a slog.

    Live Action

    The Letter Room – Elvira Lind and Sofia Sondervan
    The story of a prison custodian, given the job of checking prisoner mail. At 33 minute, this had plenty of opportunity to tell several different stories, an insight into the lives of lots of different prisoners, as well as the guard himself. Instead it focuses almost entirely on one prisoner and while that was a really interesting idea, it just wasn’t enough. The second story that’s thrown in feels like it might have got lost a bit in the edit, maybe the two stories were originally balanced but then the second story fell away, and it was left just not really enough to be worth the extra time on the running order. An opportunity missed and a boring result.

    The Present – Ossama Bawardi and Farah Nabulsi (available on Netflix)
    The story of a man and his daughter going to get a gift, except that they need to cross a checkpoint in the West Bank and that’s a slog and a humiliation that it’s hard for us to understand. It’s the type of short film that does give a good insight into a world that I know nothing about, but given I knew so little while I understood some of the feelings, I didn’t understand the politics or history that were driving it. Why were the soldiers assholes – was it just their nature or was there context I didn’t understand. That frustration (and another drawn out runtime that could have been cut down) left me slightly underwhelmed.

    Feeling Through – Doug Roland and Susan Ruzenski
    A young man with his own problems encounters a deaf and blind man seeking assistance. This is a good use of the short film format, giving a quick insight into the lives of people we don’t encounter, it’s not a deep insight, but it’s just enough to make you think. It’s a very natural and very sweet story that has stuck with me

    Two Distant Strangers – Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe (available on Netflix)
    The concept is really well thought out, a ground hog day version of all the ways a day can go catastrophically wrong for a black man in New York. It has a powerful message about black lives matter that is impossible to not engage with, but a lot of that power is almost inherited and unfortunately I think the film actually pushes slightly too hard and turns from powerful to bludgeoning. It is however very well put together, visually interesting, very well acted and creative and only about 5 minutes too long rather than 20 minutes like the others, so the best of them all.

    White Eye – Shira Hochman and Tomer Shushan
    This is a 10 minute idea dragged out to 20 minutes. In hindsight I can see that everything plays out in real time (possibly even in one single shot – which is a good technical achievement) gives a sense of reality to it that would have been damaged if it had been edited down. But to keep the runtime there just needed to be a bit more going on, less passivity from the supporting characters, or expanding backstories, or even just cut the length by simplifying the story (don’t have the police come and go and then come back). Visually it wasn’t interesting enough to keep the attention (just a dark street corner) and nothing was lively enough.

    Animated films
    Burrow – Michael Capbarat and Madeline Sharafian (Disney+)
    The story of a little bunny trying to dig a home. This is just delightful. It’s just 6 minutes long (5.5 if you don’t count the credits) and in that short time I smiled, laughed and very loudly went “Aw!”. There’s nothing really groundbreaking here (pardon the pun), the animation style is simple and classic, the story and themes could have come straight from a fairy tale and the resolution is fairly predictable, but it’s just a warm hug to watch.

    If Anything Happens I Love You – Michael Govier and Will McCormack (Netflix)
    There’s some really very beautiful animation that is extremely simple but interesting to look at, and conveying a lot of emotion in a very small number of lines and frames. But I found the storyline a bit muddled though, jumping about a bit too much, I think the elegance with which the emotions were portrayed was maybe enough to stand by itself without actually needing to jump around so much.

    Genius Loci – Adrien Mérigeau and Amaury Ovise
    The trailer for this made me want to run a mile. I have zero clue what it was about, it seemed like the kind of thing that would be running in a modern art gallery and I’d completely fail to understand.

    Opera – Erick Oh
    The trailer tells you absolutely nothing. In fact I thought I was just watching the little animated logo of the production company.

    Yes-People – Arnar Gunnarsson and Gísli Darri Halldórsson
    This was the only trailer that actually made me want to watch the film. The animation had personality and it looked amusing and entertaining.

    The Queen’s Gambit

    I’m a bit late to the party on this one, by the time I finally got round to watching it Queen’s Gambit had already won a flock of awards, including the Golden Globe for best limited series. But if I’m late to the party, at least I’m showing up with enthusiasm. This is a great series, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and one of the best crafted and presented characters I’ve seen in a very long time.

    The first thing I will say, is that the series is overall a positive one and it ends well. That’s one of the key things I look for in a series at the moment, and although I guess it could be considered a spoiler, I think it’s more a part of the genre description. It’s no more a spoiler than saying something is “feel good”, or “gritty”, one gives away a happy ending, and the other means there’s going to be a lot of darkness (although something gritty can still have a positive ending, and something feel good might have darkness along the way). I wouldn’t describe Queen’s Gambit as light and fluffy, there are certainly dark moments along the way, but throughout there were more moments that had me smiling with happiness and satisfaction than there were that had me tensing for disaster.

    The series tells the story of Beth Harmon – an orphan chess prodigy (or maybe a math prodigy who happens to get hooked on chess first). Give or take a couple of flash backs and flash forwards, the series tells her life story quite linearly from her arrival at the orphanage at age 9 in the mid 1950’s through the next 15 years or so. It’s not the most original or surprising of stories, but it’s well put together and well paced with ups and downs. Beth’s life is full of contrasts, she’s lucky and unlucky, smart and ignorant, aloof and needy, studious but rebellious, capable of planning ahead but also out of control. It would be easy for all that contradiction to come across as an incoherent, badly written character, but she’s in fact a brilliantly written and incredibly complex character where every seeming contradiction actually always makes complete sense.

    That writing is brought to life by a completely mesmerising performance by Anya Taylor-Joy who is very deservingly picking up all the awards. She delivers so many layers in every scene that I frequently found myself rewinding just to focus on her word, or her face, or her body language and truly appreciate all the nuances. It would have been very easy for the series to get very dark and heavy under the weight of some of the stories, and even just the weight of chess, but Taylor-Joy brings the lightness to, delivering humour and vulnerability just as well as she delivers the dramatic moments, the controlled moments, and the quiet.

    The only thing that slightly let down the series for me was actually the chess. I have absolutely no interest in chess (I haven’t the patience to play and watching makes no sense to me) and the series did not manage to change that. There were a couple of visual tricks to try and make it more engaging, but I was utterly unengaged for the most part in long recitations of different strategies and watching boards. The psychology elements of the game were interesting (the posturing, the confidence tricks etc) just like they are for any sport, but I’m not sure if the series could have lifted the game more, or if chess is just a completely lost cause for me.

    Still, the subject of the story is just a means to an end and the character, writing, performance and story are easily enough to make this one of my favourite series of recent years.

    The Queen’s Gambit is 7 roughly hour long episodes and available on Netflix.

    Books in March 2021

    T Kingfisher – Paladin’s Strength
    Another wonderful warm hug of a book from T Kingfisher. Like the previous book in the series Paladin’s Grace this is a pure romance novel dressed up in fantasy adventure clothes but it can’t help wearing it’s awkward heart on its sleeve. The characters leap off the page immediately becoming old friends and the relationships are just adorable, never feeling forced or unrealistic. While the story is of secondary importance it still delivers plenty of excitement, a bit of horror and some gloriously unsettling bunny rabbits. I ADORE these books.

    Natalie Haynes – Pandora’s Jar
    This book takes a dozen or so female characters from Greek mythology and shows how the telling of their stories has changed over time, not so much giving new perspectives on them, but sometimes just re-promoting older versions. Haynes focuses on the ancient sources themselves for the most part, but also covers the rest of history – art, theatre, opera and modern media too. Each story is fascinating and shows how rich the myths were in the first place, and how the telling of stories is linked so strongly to the beliefs and fashions of the period of the teller, not the period of the events. It’s interesting to take a chapter per character, but I do wish there was a way to also do the opposite presentation and focus a bit more on how each period of history retold all the myths, joining the two sides of the story together. The other frustration is that for a book that talks a lot about representation in art there is only one picture per chapter, so you have to read a lot of descriptions (and/or google the images in parallel). Despite these quibbles though, it’s a fascinating book that really made me think.

    Eoin Colfer – High Fire
    The title and cover of this book makes it look like just another generic dragon book. It’s not that book and it’s not that dragon. This dragon lives in a swamp in New Orleans where he is hiding from humanity, drinking heavily, swearing a lot, watching a lot of television and generally wallowing in a really bad mood. His mood gets considerably worse when a showdown between a trouble making kid and a local policeman/criminal overlord wannabe lands in his back yard. The book is about as far from a generic dragon novel as is possible, the book and the characters embrace the insanity of the situation without undermining either the drama or the emotions. It was both a lot of fun to read, and genuinely thrilling as it twisted and turned.

    Eva St. John – The Quantum Curators and the Faberge Egg
    A team of Quantum Archivists travel from an alternate timeline version of Earth where the library of Alexandria was never destroyed and they travel to various points in history on our Earth to rescue important objects before they are lost of destroyed. It’s a bit Indiana Jones but with more wibbly science and better gadgets and I really enjoyed it. We’re launched straight into everything and the plot moves quite fast, I could actually have enjoyed spending more time on the set up and just spending time with the characters and this has the potential to become a fun series.
    The Quantum Curators and the Enemy Within
    The second book in the series continues to move quickly but smoothly, expanding the world’s that the author has created and delving deeper this time into how the alternate Earth of the curators works. We’ve jumped forward in time a bit which works really well so that our eyes into the world has been there a little while and can act as both our guide and the audiences questioning voice. The mystery/conspiracy elements are well paced and kept me guessing throughout, but not in a frustrated way where it felt like I was being deliberately misled at all. A fun and easy to read series, I look forward to the next one.

    Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs 5: The Long Bad Friday
    I’d been really disappointed by book 4 of this series, but having got that far, I figured I might as well read the final book. It was better than the previous one, back to the main characters and the familiar locations of Birmingham, but it inevitably lost its way. The problem with the series is that what I loved was the contrast between the mundanity of civil servants/academics dealing with alien gods who are bringing about the apocalypse. It was just normal (ish) people dealing with the periphery of an extraordinary set up. But when everything starts getting bigger, the books lose their charm. Also unfortunately this book is way too long, too many weird names and gods to keep track of, too many different threads and an ending that I didn’t really understand or like. Unfortunately given the way the series ends, I’m not sure I can really recommend it.

    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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    Films in February 2021

    Not a great month for my film watching. I’m finding it increasingly hard to find things that I want to watch, for the most part I’m avoiding anything too serious, at the end of each day I just don’t have the energy to be thinking or feeling too much and most nights I’m drifting more towards easy going television.

    News of the World
    I adore Tom Hanks, and he’s on good form here playing to his strengths as the fundamentally nice guy trying to do the right thing. This particular iteration sees him taking responsibility for an orphaned girl just after the American Civil War, trying to get her to her family. It’s beautifully shot, well acted, solidly put together… and I was bored. I really can’t put my finger on what didn’t work for me, it just didn’t. Maybe if I’d been watching in a cinema I would have been more appreciative of it and less easily distracted.
    Ranking: 6 / 10

    Saint Frances
    Bridget is in her mid thirties, all her friends are getting married, having babies while she is a waitress and has just had an abortion. Despite seemingly having zero experience with children, she gets a job as a nanny to a precocious 6 year old (Frances). This is the kind of noodling, introspective film that I would tend to find quite irritating, but I really enjoyed this one. There’s not much subtlety to the film, the characters talk like real people who have no idea what they’re doing or feeling, and as they each figure it out a little bit the audience is just along for the ride. It felt very natural, nothing was a simple black and white problem, there were no particularly big revelations, it was just human beings slowly growing. I loved it.
    Ranking: 8 / 10

    Sylvie’s Love
    This is in many ways a very simple film, it’s just a love story. It’s set in the 1950’s and 1960’s, so there’s a bit of history thrown in, but the emphasis beyond all else is just on the two characters and their relationship. It’s not smooth sailing for them, and they occasionally do things that might have the audience sighing in frustration, but all the twists and turns, and ups and downs feel perfectly natural. It’s just a lovely film to watch.
    Ranking: 8 / 10

    The Trial of the Chicago 7
    Aaron Sorkin is at his best with this film. He’s got a combination of politics and court room drama, a large cast of characters, a talented acting ensemble and masses of dialogue. After the first 10 minutes I was a bit lost with so many people and my lack of knowledge about the American politics and civil rights movements around the Vietnam War. But Sorkin trusts his audience to stick with it and I trusted in Sorkin and before I realised it was happening, it did all come together in my brain. I did feel that the Judge was maybe written too much as a pantomime villain, but reading into it a bit, while Sorkin has played a little casual with the truth of events, the Judge may actually have been even more horrific then here presented. I’m not 100% sold on the way the flashbacks were handled and almost wish the film had found a way to do without them as getting in and out of them was just a bit clunky. But as is usual with Sorkin at his best, it has heart, humour and passion and I heartily recommend it.
    Ranking: 8 / 10

    Moana
    This is now one of my go-to happy movies, even though the bit with the grandma makes me cry like a baby every time, the rest of it just makes me smile and feel better. Moana’s focus on a very different culture is respectful of traditions without compromising on incredibly strong female characters. Like Frozen there are complexities in who the ‘baddie’ is which adds a lot of depth to the story. The animation is beautiful, and the voice acting is superb, completely integrated with the animation, never feeling like celebrities putting on voices and disjointed. The songs are catchy, and actually grow on me every time I hear them.
    Ranking: 9 / 10

    Indiana Jones trilogy – I dusted off the box set of dvds for some nice adventure and easy distraction and was… disappointed.

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark – It all seems rather contrived and dated now, and the special effects look really rubbish. If you switch your brain off and just watch it there’s still good fun. No one can delivery the flat one-liner quite like Harrison Ford can, and you’ve gotta love the hat! And the music! But not so much the plot. Ranking: 6 / 10
  • Temple of Doom – The special effects, particularly the blue screening, really do look quite dreadul now, Short Round is moderately endearing, but Willy is quite spectacularly irritating. Gains points for having elephants in it. Ranking: 6 / 10
  • Last Crusade – This film is played more for laughs than previous ones and it makes it easier to like, but oh dear there are some real clangers now in terms of the female lead and the relationships which really made me cringe. The extra 5 years on the previous film has made the special effects slightly less un-special compared to the others and there’s still the hat and the music to rely on.
  • The Chaperone
    It took me two attempts to get through this film, and while the second half was slightly better than the first half that’s not saying much. The script is clunky beyond belief, the acting a bit bland and occasionally rubbish (particularly Elizabeth McGovern as the eponymous chaperone) and the direction flat – I shouted at the screen when there was a soft focus fade into a flashback. Despite some interesting source material from the real life of film star Louise Brooks the film smoothed everything out and shied away prudishly from any real drama until it was just a disappointing bland nothingness.
    Ranking: 4 / 10

    Books in Jan and Feb 2021

    As I only read two books in January, I decided to save this post until February when I would make sure I read a bit more.

    Bone Season – Samantha Shannon
    I’d loved Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree so thought I’d delve into her back catalogue a bit, but in ‘good news/bad news’ she has clearly grown as a writer over the last few years, because this book isn’t very good. There’s a solid idea – the spirit world and people with clairvoyance are real but criminalised by the authoritarian government, but there’s more behind it than simple fear and there’s actually a complex conspiracy being hidden from the public. So far so good, but the story is told from the point of view of a 19 year old caught up in all this and she is deeply annoying. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or poor writing, but she’s very inconsistent in her thoughts and actions, very short sighted and not really engaging with the bigger issues. There’s a bit of jumping about with memories/dreams and a few lurches in the timeline when the plot moves forwards but the characters’ emotions don’t. The book is at least 100 pages too long and I found it really dragged. It’s a seven book series, but I don’t think I’ll even be bothering with the second.

    Peter Swanson – Rules for a Perfect Murder
    The central character of this book is a murder expert – he runs a crime bookshop, and he compiles a list of the perfect murders in crime fiction… which someone then seems to be using as a guide in the real world. It’s a really really good set up for a novel (or in fact a TV series with an odd couple of a detective and a book seller, I’m surprised no one has made that yet, Amazon would make a killing on tie-in book sales). Peter Swanson certainly knows his crime fiction and knows how to write a twisting and turning thriller. The things I didn’t like about it were personal preferences – the main character is quickly revealed to be not as innocent as he first appeared and I didn’t really like that, I wasn’t expecting there to be that much moral angst in the book and I felt a bit side-swiped by it. It’s a good book though, (maybe the ending is a bit contrived? A bit smug?) that’s a great page turner even if on occasions I didn’t want to go back to it because I didn’t want the internal conflict of trying to justify the actions of the narrator just because I liked him.

    Madeline Miller – Circe
    I’m reading a lot of classical history at the moment, non-fiction books that are re-evaluating how historians approach history and how much our view of myths and ancient histories have been tainted by being written and re-written by historians bringing their own baggage to the past, most notably their white, male baggage. This book stuck with that theme, but through fiction instead of non-fiction and it paints a much richer picture of a character that featured in multiple myths. Here Circe is made the hero of her own story, or sometimes the villain, or the victim. Miller creates an incredibly rich character, and in turn the surrounding characters become richer through her eyes too, bringing real human complexity where previously there’d only been basic characteristics necessary to get the messages and morals of the myths across. The book does occasionally drag a bit, although the slight meandering does fit the classical style of an epic and Circe’s story does at least deserves the page count.

    NON-FICTION
    Randall Munroe – What If?
    Randall Munroe is a genius. Not only is he clearly incredibly smart, but he’s very curious and has a way with words and images that turns even the most complicated of ideas into something informative, entertaining and inspiring. In What If he takes the most weird and wonderful questions that the internet can throw at him and thoroughly researches them as if they’re completely viable academic questions, and not totally improbable craziness. Then he takes his comprehensive research and turns it into something understandable (usually) and funny (always) and (sometimes) really rather sweet. This book is an absolute delight, and while some of the explanations did rather get away from me, I learnt a lot of amazing stuff and laughed a lot along the way.

    Humble Pi – Matt Parker
    A book about maths errors – how ‘boring’ maths can have really quite serious impacts on the real world. I find I have rather muddled feelings on this book. On one hand it’s a fairly easy read, but part of that is because the chunks that go into the maths go so far that I found myself glazing over and just skimming it quickly rather than really understanding it because it was just a bit too hard (and I studied maths a bit at university). Also it’s got a jokey tone throughout which is really nice, but some of the examples used are really serious causing suffering and death. I did enjoy the book, and I did learn some stuff, it’s just that it felt a bit odd at times.