Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Well first things first – the film is a lot better than the title, which is an uninspiring mess of a thing. It’s also a lot better than the first Doctor Strange film, this one is considerably more coherent and more interesting than both predecessor and title. I went in completely un-spoiled and I highly recommend doing the same, even the cast list is a spoiler that will really spoil some great reveals in the film. I’ll not spoil anything here.

With Iron Man and Captain America out of the picture, Doctor Strange is now the de-facto leader and elder statesman of the MCU despite the fact that he didn’t appear until film 14. He fits quite neatly into the gap left by Tony Stark, smart but arrogant, an aloof exterior but a heart full of emotions. Benedict Cumberbatch has grown into the role a bit, it no longer feels like a variation on Sherlock and I really enjoyed both his performance and the character. Although I’m still not a massive fan of the mid-atlantic accent.

The plot… I’m not even going to try to explain. Suffice to say that the concept of the multi-verse basically opens everything up as fair game, but can make things a bit complicated to follow. The film does a solid job of explaining what you need, without drowning in too much exposition like the first Doctor Strange film did. Spider Man No Way Home and the animated tv series What If are both good bits of revision (which isn’t a hardship as both are excellent).

The thing that surprised me most was how much this is Wanda’s film as much as Strange’s. WandaVision is an absolute must pre-watch, and I rather regret not re-watching it before going in as there were elements that I wasn’t quite sure of as I watched it when it came out. My memory of how WandaVision finished didn’t quite tally with the direction of the character arc here and I’m not convinced that it was ‘fair’ which has left a bit of a bad taste.

It’s easy though to overlook the significant events and impacts of the film on the MCU and individual characters, because the film is just such a fun ride. It’s a little over 2 hours, but I never once looked at my watch and throughout I was entertained and engaged and at points genuinely thrilled. It’s only afterwards on the way home that I started thinking about what bits of it meant and getting a little frustrated and sad. I’m looking forward to watching it again and joining it all together.

Books I read in Apr 2022

After a disappointing two books in March, April is an utterly triumphant TEN! I had two weeks off work after Easter, desperately needing to relax and de-stress. Thankfully it it coincided with some lovely weather so I basically spent the whole time sat in my garden reading and it was utterly glorious. I even went to the library to get more books out and there’s another 2 books read during my holiday that fell into May.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 12: Amongst Our Weapons
This series is impressively consistent, it’s hard to think of anything original to say for the 12th book in the series. Everything just jumps out of the page into your head, the narrative from Peter is completely natural, driving the story on, providing all the exposition and conveying his personality flawlessly. The supporting characters are all equally vibrant, whether recurring characters, or new ones for this mystery. The only thing I struggle with a little is keeping track of the story itself, but to be honest, I don’t try that hard, because even if I’m not really getting the nuances of who is plotting what against who, it’s such a fun journey that I don’t really care that much.

Malcolm Gladwell – Talking to Strangers
This is not Gladwell’s best book. It still has all the wonderful storytelling and journalism, bringing a range of histories and science to life through carefully crafted narratives and humanising everyone involved. Usually however those anecdotes and explanations connect together into central themes and this time it didn’t land. The subtitle is “what we should know about people we don’t know” but the book focused mostly on how we can’t actually know whether someone is lying. I felt disappointed that there wasn’t more depth on things like cultural differences, contexts, body language, even understanding what you bring to any meeting yourself. There didn’t seem to be any kind of core message beyond – you can’t know why people are acting as they are, which was kind of depressing. It’s still an interesting read, but it just fell flat without a stronger theme to bring it together.

Tom Holt – An Orc on the Wild Side
Tom Holt has an impressive bibliography of over 40 books since the late 80’s. I read a lot of his books in college, finding him a very enjoyable read, although lacking the world building skills, depth and elegance of Pratchett. I hadn’t read one of his books in ages, but spotted this in the library so gave it a go. It’s everything I remember about Holt, thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster journey, with some nice observational stuff and really vibrant characters. The plot and world felt fairly solidly put together actually, helped by borrowing/riffing on Tolkien’s Middle Earth and also being part of a series (not that I knew that while reading, so it can clearly be read stand alone). I’m going to make a mental note to read more of his work.

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls
I had been meaning to read this for a while and was slightly disappointed. I’m a big fan of the recent trend in retelling classics and myths from a more female point of view, and having studied Homer’s Iliad in detail at school thought this would be really interesting. Unfortunately I think my knowledge was a downside for this book, because although I liked the storytelling and where details were added, it didn’t do much to develop the story. It didn’t feel like there was enough richness or depth to it to really sustain even the relatively restrained 320 pages. I would have liked to see more of the characters, maybe interweaving with someone inside Troy. It’s very well written, easy to read and adds some depth to the story from The Iliad, but I think it missed an opportunity.

Pat Barker – The Women of Troy
I enjoyed this sequel to Silence of the Girls a bit more than the first book, I at least didn’t have the problem that I knew exactly what was going to happen. I felt the story was richer here, more depth and complexity, but that may just have been that it was new to me. There are more characters although there could still be more development of them. It frustrated me that more of the women weren’t given the opportunity to narrate, the majority is still from Briseis, while Pyrrhus gets a few chapters here and there. It seems ironic that so few of the women are given their voices and it would have really added to the book. As in the ( book the historical descriptions of the camp and war are vivid and feel very credible.

Jane Austen – Persuasion
Every now and then I feel obliged to pick up a ‘classic’ book and at least 50% of the time all I get out of it is a small amount of smugness that I tried. I’ve read a few Brontes and Austens and haven’t like a single one of them. Persuasion is probably the least offensive of them. The lead character is actually quite likeable, and although many of the supporting characters are very irritating, at least the central character feels that way too. I did find the plot a bit convoluted and confusing, but that probably wasn’t helped by the fact I was struggling to stay focused. At least it’s fairly short.

Claire North – The Gameshouse
Claire North’s books are a bit hit and miss. I love her concepts, she has a rare ability to take a concept like body swapping, or being forgotten by everyone that meets you and developing it into a complete narrative, fully fleshed out and believable. However her story telling sometimes lets her down, she experiments with different styles of writing and some of them really haven’t worked. This book falls somewhere in the middle. The story follows the players of games, part of a century spanning Gameshouse where the stakes can be anything from years of your life, your memories or even your name. The game of Hide and Seek may span an entire country, the pieces in a game of chess are generals, bishops and prime ministers and taking a piece could mean a death, an institution collapsing, or a coup. It’s a great concept. However I didn’t get on with the writing style which had a kind of independent observer narrating it as if we were all watching. It was interesting at first, but became grating after a while and meant I didn’t connect with the story or characters as much as if it had been told more first person. I didn’t et lost in the book, the stakes were so high and the moving parts so epic that it felt a bit unreal and I just never sank into it.

Terry Pratchett – Discworld 21: Jingo
This isn’t the best of Pratchett’s City Watch novels. It lacks the adventure and mystery of the earlier books. The story and messages about the stupidity of war isn’t delivered with much subtlety and it feels a little like the Guards just got thrown in for the ride and the story compromised in order to include them. I’d actually have preferred it I think if it were a book ‘starring’ Vetinari rather than Vimes and make it a full on political satire. It’s not a bad book, there are plenty of Pratchett zingers and clever observations, but it’s not one of his best.

Mark Rowlands – Everything I Know, I Learned from TV – DIDN’T FINISH
The title of this book obviously really spoke to me, but digging in a bit it actually sounded even better. It’s actually a book about philosophy. That’s a subject that I’ve always wanted to know more about but really struggle to find an entrance too. Well, unfortunately this is another one I struggled with, so much that I gave up after 2 chapters. It has the same problem that every other book on philosophy I’ve ever tried, it just lost me. The problem is it’s very very heavy on the philosophy and just sprinkles some TV in as examples. But the concepts were either too complicated, too poorly explained, or just too much for me because I was lost by about page 10. For once, I’m not going to keep going through a book I don’t like and am not getting anything from, so I gave up. Off to the charity shop it goes.

Agatha Christie – The Hollow
A perfectly serviceable Poirot story. The characters are all a bit over the top (as usual) and the mystery meanders about a little bit, but it’s a pleasing enough read.

Films I Watched in Apr 2022

This was a better month for films with fourteen watches, partly thanks to a couple of weeks holiday. I managed 3 trips to the cinema – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (very middling, not enough beasts), Downton Abbey: A New Era (great for fans of the show) and a re-release of Encanto, which grows on me every time I see it. On top of that were seven films that were new to me, and four rewatches, including a couple of James Bond from the new collection on Amazon.

The Adam Project
It’s a Ryan Reynolds film. That kind of covers not only the who, but the what, and to a certain extent the review as well. If you like Ryan Reynolds, you’ll probably like this film, if you don’t you won’t because it’s 75% just him doing his thing. Personally I enjoy that, he’s funny, charming and his characters have a depth and humanity to them even when they’re pretending not to. The story itself, like most time travel stories, possibly doesn’t make sense if you think about it too much; so you just shouldn’t think about it too much. Just enjoy the ride. 8 / 10

Motherless Brooklyn
A really good noir mystery film. The nuts and bolts are all there, a just-about-followable political conspiracy with a dash of violence and a splash of romance in a beautifully rich 1950s New York. The noir tropes are all there and played straight without falling into parody. The twist in the set up is that the lead character has Tourette’s Syndrome, with physical tics and outbursts of random words and at first that felt gimicky, but it was (I think) well played by Edward Norton and the way the character used and managed his condition, and the way others interacted with him, was really interesting. On top of that performance Norton also wrote and directed the film and it’s quite an achievement. 8 / 10

Cats
I wasn’t going to pay good money to see Cats, but when it appeared on Netflix I figured I’d give it a try, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as everyone said. Shockingly, it really was. I honestly don’t know what they were thinking, everything about it is terrible. The visuals were just wrong even if they hadn’t been done poorly. The weird combination of human and cat, CGI fur, ears and tails on top of motion captured actors was just unsettling. The backgrounds were so badly built and rendered they were embarrassing and nothing connected together at all. Even the scale was all over the place. The unknown actors actually were more believable, but as soon as big names are appearing it’s just completely unsettling. The performances are equally all over the place – caricatures and over-egged. Many of them can’t sing (I’m sorry to say it, but Judi Dench was TERRIBLE) and even those that can are struggling through the acting elements. The music is still great, but I don’t remember the stage version struggling so much with a clunky plot.
An absolute shambles that was doomed from the start and should never have been released. 3 / 10

The House
This is an anthology of 3 discrete stop motion animations, each centered on a house. Usually a house in a place of safety, a home; but here the houses are something different, more sinister or trapping. I found the film deeply unsettling, and in fact took a few days break between the first two stories and the third. The animation is beautiful and really interesting, they’re all in the same broad style, but applied to different settings almost a past, present and future (although it’s a run down future rather than a shiny science fiction one). It’s certainly interesting, although my personal tastes at the moment meant that I didn’t enjoy the creepiness. 7 / 10

The Bubble
Despite all the horribleness, there’s still a sliver of fun to be had from the pandemic. David Tennant’s and Michael Sheen’s Staged was a hilarious take on life in lockdown for actors. The Bubble throws probably 100x the cash at the same subject and makes something without a single solitary laugh. The concept and actors are all solid, it just somehow managed to fall completely flat. I think they tried to make it too big, they took things too far and it got silly, then stupid, then annoying and eventually just turned into noise. 5 / 10

The Sparks Brothers
I had never heard of Sparks – the band led by Ron and Russell Mael. They’ve been around for 5 decades, had 26 albums, 49 singles and even after watching the documentary the only song I’d heard of was “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”. As a subject for a documentary they’re very interesting thanks to their longevity, their influence, their quirkiness and the number of times they’ve reinvented themselves. I did grow to like them, and respect them. The documentary is made by Edgar Wright, a talented director but a massive Sparks fan and that turns it more into a love letter than a good documentary. There are elements of conflict that are skimmed over (the rest of the band seems to be treated as largely disposable) and the editing could be a lot tighter as 2 hours 20 really tries the patience when there’s no real narrative. Also the multiple visual gimmicks are a bit much, more dedication to just one or two would have been better. It’s a nice watch, but I suspect fans of Sparks won’t learn much and the rest of us won’t really care. 7 / 10

Wolfwalkers
A really lovely animation. The story is original, like Song of the Sea demonstrating the breadth of mythology/fairy tale in even just western Europe beyond Hans Christian Anderson and Grimm. The animation is equally original, and while it didn’t always work for me (I didn’t like the flat backgrounds) I still respected it. The other thing that didn’t quite work for me unfortunately was Sean Bean, he’s very talented and does excellent voice work, but I could never forget that it was Sean Bean. 7 / 10

REWATCHES
Casino Royale
All the elements of a James Bond film were here and fairly well done, but as a whole the film didn’t really work for me. Each element was ok but nothing more than just ok, and they didn’t bond together into a particularly cohesive whole. The villain was very underwhelming and there were at least 2 plot elements too many, leading to a film that’s 1/2 an hour too long but still leaves several aspects incomplete. Daniel Craig is a good Bond, ticks all the boxes, but I’m never entirely convinced by the franchise. 6 / 10

Quantum of Solace
The more Bond films I watch, the more I wish they’d just ditch Bond and do a film all about M. Judi Dench is far and away the most watchable thing in these films, funny and scary, a professionally cold, yet not impersonal character and her interactions with Bond are almost the only thing that make him human. Meanwhile everything else goes on in usual Bond style – I have no idea what the plot was about and the whole thing was just a collection of thinly connected stunts, which to be honest I found pretty dull. 5 / 10

Lilo and Stitch
A thoroughly enjoyable film for kids and adults alike. A very well scripted film that has a solid narrative with depth to the characters, complexity to the issues and plenty of laughs from slapstick and visual humour, wit and sarcasm and impeccably delivered lines and subtle animation. It doesn’t bother covering plot holes, it just kinda ploughs straight through them bringing the audience in on the joke. It’s beautifully animated so the characters (both human and alien) really burst off the screen. Plus for the Elvis songs really felt like part of the film rather than squashed in as an after-thought. Really utterly charming.
Gantu: You are vile, you are flawed, you are foul.
Stitch: Also cute and fluffy!
9 / 10

Encanto
There’s plenty to love about this film. The whole thing is bright and beautiful, vivid characters, a plot that charges along, full of energy and spark and with some lovely sentiment in it. On my first watch in the cinema, it did not work for me. There was just too much in it, too many characters, too much colour, too much backstory, too many sentiments and even too many words in the songs. It was hard to connect with the film and I felt overwhelmed rather than immersed. However, I liked it more when I watched it at home, and then even more when I caught it a second time in the cinema after it won the Oscar. Nothing’s really changed, it’s just that each viewing makes it less overwhelming and I was able to really fall in love with the characters (all of them) and the songs (most of them – I still think the opening song is just too busy and the sappy one is just meh). But, Disney films shouldn’t need multiple viewings though, even complex films like Inside Out worked on the first viewing and then continued to grow more. 8 / 10

Downton Abbey
I once wrote of the TV series “Downton is an autumnal Sunday evening drama. You curl up under a blanket on the sofa with a nice cup of tea and a packet of biscuits and relax. It’s not gritty or challenging, you’re not expected to think or relate it to the reality of life, it’s a last vestige of calm before the crashing arrival of Monday morning.” And that’s pretty much what the film does. Other than a few more expensive and lingering drone shots, very little has been changed to adapt the film to the big screen. This would not have been misplaced as a Christmas special, in fact it could have been even better as two extended episodes for Christmas and New Year to give a bit more time to the crowded number of characters and plots. I’m really pleased that they resisted the urge to go too big with anything, there’s no huge world ending dramas, no stunt casting and nothing particularly life changing. Yes the King and Queen visit, but they’re fairly under-stated for royalty and the focus is still 100% on the lives of the characters we’ve known and loved all along.
I saw it with a packed cinema that absolutely loved it. There was plenty of laughter, some audible ‘aws’, a bit of sniffling, and stifled applause for the cringe inducing Mr Molesley in *that* scene (which when I rewatched on dvd I had to fast forward). It wasn’t much more than a polished up television episode, but it was lovely to see it with a large appreciative audience for once. 8 / 10

Downton Abbey: A New Era

It’s not often I see a film on release day, but it perfectly aligned that this film was released on the last day of some time off work and it seemed like some kind of message. Downton Abbey on a Sunday night used to be the perfect way to end a weekend with a bit of daft escapism, so ending a 2 week holiday with the film seemed to fit. I wasn’t disappointed, the second Downton Abbey film fits all the expectations you have of a Downton Abbey film, and also a fair number of the expectations you probably have for any sequel.

The most sequelly thing a sequel can do is take the characters on holiday. I don’t know whether that trope is so frequent because it’s a way to keep audiences interested, the writers having run out of ideas, or a reward for the cast and crew for proving bankable enough to justify a holiday. Either way, half of the Downton crowd end up in the South of France for an artificial story line involving a mysterious old ‘friend’ of the Dowager Countess. I never quite shook the feeling that the plot was just there as the bare minimum to justify the beautiful shots of sun and sea. It was a bit sketchy, but the sunshine was indeed lovely.

Meanwhile the unfavoured cast members got to stay in Downton and make a film. This feels another sequelly thing to do – get a bit meta. Much ‘hilarious’ irony with people bemoaning the tackiness of films, or how talking will ruin cinema. I wasn’t enthused at the plot in the trailer, but it actually ended up being quite charming and interesting, bringing some new and unusual characters to Downton, and gave some of the existing characters the opportunity to show different sides.

For all the sequel tropes on display, this film is actually better than the first. It felt more like a film, where the previous one felt like several episodic ideas cut down and then stuck together leading to an overcrowded film with odd structuring. This time the stories were better entwined and the structure flowed more organically. Somehow almost all the characters (and there are about 2 dozen of them) got a bit of development and something to do. There were still plenty of rushed bits that could have been better covered up I think, but it felt like we were missing maybe 1/2 a dozen scenes, rather than 1/2 a dozen episodes.

The film is definitely for fans of Downton Abbey, there are so many little nods and references to past events and I smiled with satisfaction at each of them. It certainly covers the full range of emotions, I beamed as characters found happiness, laughed at the wonderful Maggie Smith’s put downs and absolutely sobbed my eyes out as well. I hope we get to continue checking in for many years to come.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

I rewatched the first two films in this series a little while ago, partly to prepare for this film as I remembered finding it hard to follow the second one when I saw it. Unfortunately that just reminded me that I didn’t really like them that much and so I wasn’t actually going to bother going to the cinema for the third. But I was bored, so gave it a go anyway.

I shouldn’t have bothered.

For a start, the re-watches hadn’t helped me keep track of the plot very well, so I was still a bit confused. Or rather unengaged, because I couldn’t really be bothered to work out what was going on. Maybe I’m just not a big enough Potter fan and if I was I’d get a lot more references and how things fit together. It’s also all just a bit bleak to be honest, Harry Potter does Nazis. Even if that was something I wanted to see, which I don’t, it completely jars with the whole whimsical “fantastic beasts” title.

In fact, given the criminal underuse of the beasts, it feels like the title is a bit of a bait and switch (although I guess it’s slightly less clumsy than “Crimes of Grindelwald”). Every now and then the writers remember the film title and throw one in, but they’re utterly incidental. Even the animation of them felt a bit lackluster, some nice design, but the interaction with the actors often felt flakey and obviously just CGI additions rather than anything substantive.

The cast is solid and they are creating interesting and original characters (or adding to existing ones in Jude Law’s case), and Mads Mikkelsen is certainly an improvement on the over the top Johnny Depp. I just with that they’d taken a completely different direction with the series. Fun adventure stories, mysterious animals, lean in to the ecological message even.

As I was leaving a young boy was asked if he liked the film. He replied that he liked the stick insect. When pushed whether that meant he liked the film, he replied that no, it just meant he liked the stick insect. I couldn’t agree more.

Books I read in March 2022

Oh dear, March wasn’t a good month for books. Just two, and one of them was really bad. And really long! Why I didn’t give up on it I really can’t explain. But just to prove I’ve learnt, I’ve thrown in a third book that was technically in April, but I stopped reading it after 2 chapters. See I can learn!

THE GOOD: Greg Jenner – Dead Famous
The history of celebrity is a longer story than you might think and it’s a subject that works very well for Greg Jenner’s easy going, down to earth approach. He’s clearly done a huge amount of research on individual personalities from the past couple of thousand years and then turned it into a solid structure to look at different aspects of celebrity and how much the term can be applied to historical figures. It’s an academic approach, but the writing style is completely accessible. He does sometimes get a little stuck by his constructs and also can’t quite stick to his self imposed rule about not covering ‘modern’ celebrities, but I’m willing to forgive. It’s an entertaining and interesting read shedding light on how remarkably little has changed.

THE BAD: Elizabeth Knox – The Absolute Book
I was lured in by a shiny cover and gushing praise on the back. The first bit of the book started quite well, a fairly straightforward kind of thriller, and then it lurched towards the fantasy and it all fell apart. What I should have done is stop at that point, about 100 pages in, but I kept going for another 500 pages for some unknown reason. The book’s a mess. Nothing felt consistent, characters and plots meandered about, the world building just didn’t work for me. I never felt like anything made sense, let alone feeling immersed or getting any enjoyment out of it. The bits that are written as a straight real-world thriller actually work quite well, but as soon as the fantasy elements break through again it just felt like random words on a page. Maybe I missed something early on and once I’d disengaged there was no way back. And I’ve no one but myself to blame for not just putting it down.

THE NOPE: Mark Rowlands – Everything I Know, I Learned from TV
The title of this book obviously really spoke to me, but digging in a bit it actually sounded even better. It’s actually a book about philosophy. That’s a subject that I’ve always wanted to know more about but really struggle to find an entrance too. Well, unfortunately this is another one I struggled with, so much that I gave up after 2 chapters. It has the same problem that every other book on philosophy I’ve ever tried, it just lost me. The problem is it’s very very heavy on the philosophy and just sprinkles some TV in as examples. But the concepts were either too complicated, too poorly explained, or just too much for me because I was lost by about page 10. For once, I’m not going to keep going through a book I don’t like and am not getting anything from, so I gave up. Off to the charity shop it goes. (750)

Films I watched in March 2022

March was Oscar month, so I did a push on the nominees. I did my round up of them all in this post, and am actually pretty happy with the winners, particularly CODA being named best film, because it absolutely was. It was also good enough all by itself to justify the Apple TV+ subscription which has also brought me Ted Lasso, so it’s a double win for me.

But for all that, I only watched 8 films in March, and only one new release (Turning Red – premiering on Disney+ and reviewed here). That’s a bit poor, my excuses are that work is insane and I stupidly installed Civilisation VI.

Spencer
All the talk on this film seems to have been about Kristen Stewart’s performance, and I was expecting great things. What I wasn’t expecting was that the film would be so incredibly bad that it was a struggle to stand it enough to even watch the performance. The writing, and other performances in the film are incredibly poor, “lumpy” was the word that sprang to mind. There was no subtlety, and none of the dialogue, personalities, or situations came across as remotely believable even excusing the bizarreness of Royal life. Diana herself had such a weird way of speaking and over-blown mannerisms that any attempt to recreate them feels like a caricature even if it’s not. I think Stewart is doing a very good performance, but unfortunately it’s as an unbelievable character, in an unbelievable situation with unbelievably bad dialogue. I found the film almost completely unbearable. 4 / 10

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
This biography follows the rise and fall of Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband, two of the biggest figures in American televangelism and their eventual downfall through scandal and fraud. The problem is that I don’t think anyone quite knows whether Tammy Faye was complicit in the fraud, whether she deliberately chose to look the other way and enjoy the fame and money, or if in fact she was actually too simple to even think contemplate what was going on. Rather than pick a motivation, or even creating a complex character that maybe could have blended different ideas, I felt the film makers actually just made a bit of a mess because they didn’t want to commit. I don’t know whether the character lacked agency because Tammy Faye did, or because the writers couldn’t work out what her agency was. All the impressive makeup and excellent acting from Jessica Chastain couldn’t make up for the lack of substance at the heart of the film. It’s entertaining, but in a cheesy hallmark movie kind of way rather than anything more substantial. 6 / 10

CODA
I signed up for Apple TV+ mainly to watch this film and it was one of my better decisions. It is a brilliant film, doing all the things that a good film should do – saying something interesting, exposing you to a world different to your own, being beautiful to look at and fun to watch. The characters and locations are vibrant and immediately believable, the family are each fully rich personalities in their own rights, but with complex relationships and groupings between them. The specifics of the story are original, but the themes more universal so there’s both something new to experience and something relatable.
The only minor gripe I had was some of the nuts a bolts of Ruby’s discovery as an amazing singer felt a little bit of a stretch. I cringed at the singing teacher making the teenagers sing Lets Get it On and romantic duets. But this is a coming of age story and a feel good film so I’m not going to get that cross because the film had me utterly gripped throughout and has really stayed with me. 9 / 10

The Tragedy of Macbeth
I don’t like Shakespeare. There, I’ve said it. The stories are ok, although it tends to be the same ones done over and over again, but in the original language I find them utterly indecipherable. On the plus side for this film, I studied Macbeth at school, so at least understood the plot (and all the slightly tedious metaphor and context stuff); but that also just meant that I could zone out of the dialogue completely because I didn’t need or like it. The only two saving graces of this film then are Denzel Washington’s performance (which ALMOST made me understand) and the production design. It was a fascinating style that blended stage elements and film lighting effects to make something other-worldly. So at least there was something interesting to look at while being bored by the film. 6 / 10

West Side Story (2021)
I really didn’t like the original and there’s a mixture of that dislike carrying over into this remake and being resolved. The thing that isn’t changed is that I don’t like the songs, they’re just not to my taste, but at least this version has the actors singing and so doesn’t have the dubbing issues. The dancing I also got along with a bit better this time, the choreography and scale of it meant I stayed focused on it and could see much more the beauty in the mixture of ballet and salsa and jazz. Unfortunately I still didn’t have much enthusiasm for the story, I don’t really get the starcrossed lovers thing (“I’ve seen you across a crowded room and now I will throw away all our futures for you”). The chemistry between Tony and Maria was solid and had a joy to it that I liked, but it didn’t completely blow me away and there were some deeply questionable character choices. I understand completely the decision to keep the Spanish unsubtitled, but I hadn’t expected there to be so much of it at such key moments that I just didn’t know what people were saying and so couldn’t engage fully with their characters and stories.
The film is beautifully designed, shot and directed; the cast all very solid… but the material does not sing for me, making the two and a half hour runtime a bit of a slog. 6 / 10

Robin Hood (Disney’s 1973)
One of my favourite Disney films of all time, this was a staple on rotation in my family growing up and the simple mention of it is enough to bring a big grin to my face. With the exception of a slightly insufferable love song in the middle the film absolutely charges along with an utterly improbable collection of animals in the various roles. Even after all these years, it still makes me laugh and sing along. 8 / 10

Stranger Than Fiction
What a brilliant film! I was expecting a mediocre rom-com with a typically irritating Will Ferrell character. What I actually got was a very smart, very funny, very sweet, tragic comedy that kept me smiling and guessing the whole way through. The direction was stylish without being over the top and the writing was clever without being smarmy. 9 / 10

Oscars 2022

There are 38 full length films nominated for one of the awards at the Oscars across 99 nominations. I have seen 25 of the films (66%) but thanks to multiple nominations, I managed 77% of the nominations.

Looking at the list of films there are very few that I feel strongly positive about, and even those aren’t always nominated in the right places. There are a few films I liked but feel a bit light for big award plaudits, and there are films that I have some respect for but didn’t really enjoy or connect with. To me, that’s really fundamental – you can be full of worthy material and beautifully made, but if I’m bored watching, then I’m not going to get past that.

As usual, for each of the awards I’ll quickly cover my feelings on the nominees, anything that I think is missing, who I think should win, and who I think will win. I think there’s going to be a lot of people spreading their votes around, not necessarily minding where the awards go, but trying to make sure a subset of films (Power of the Dog, Belfast, Dune, Flee, Drive My Car) all get something somewhere. But if it’s not coordinated it could get a bit weird and messy.

codaBest film detailed reviews here

  • Belfast – alright, but needlessly black and white, trying too hard
  • CODA – lovely, fun to watch, interesting story, lots to say and and it said it well.
  • Don’t Look Up – not believable enough for good satire, not funny enough for straight comedy
  • Drive My Car – not seen
  • Dune – excellent adaptation, beautifully made, a bit too cold
  • King Richard – not seen
  • Licorice Pizza – over-long, under-plotted
  • Nightmare Alley – 1/3 good, 1/3 cliché, 1/3 needless padding
  • The Power of the Dog – boring
  • West Side Story – solid enough production but the source story is not good.

I’m rather underwhelmed with this list. I think tick, tick… Boom! is a far superior film to Don’t Look Up, and a far better musical than West Side Story. I also like The Tender Bar a lot more than awards voters seem to. Of the actually nominated films I was going to give my vote to Dune. But then I finally saw CODA this week and it swept me away. Not only well made and letting me experience a world I have no experience of, but a film I enjoyed watching and can wholeheartedly recommend to just about anyone. However, I think The Power of the Dog will win instead and I have zero clue why.

power of the dogBest Director

  • Kenneth Branagh – Belfast – Sorry, I can’t get over the black and white thing, just trying too hard.
  • Ryusuke Hamaguchi – Drive My Car – Not seen
  • Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza – I can’t remember much about the direction except that it dragged
  • Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog – Solid I guess
  • Steven Spielberg – West Side Story – the big dance numbers were well shot, gave a sense of scale and place, but a nuts and bolts direction of a musical.

I again think tick, tick… Boom! is swindled here, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction of a musical is a lot more creative and interesting than Spielberg’s. Also Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was all about the direction, maybe the Academy are just waiting to see if he lands the 2nd part.

I don’t have strong feelings about who should win, but it would be nice for Jane Campion to be only the 3rd woman to win, and the 2nd consecutive after Chloe Zhao last year. If we can keep the trend going we’ll have gender parity in 2110. However I don’t think that Power of the Dog will win both best film and best director, so it may be Branagh.

Best Actor

  • tick tick boomJavier Bardem – Being the Ricardos as Desi Arnaz – nothing special
  • Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog as Phil Burbank – A big part of my dislike for the film was down to the quality of Cumberbatch’s performance as a deeply unpleasant person to be around which I guess is impressive.
  • Andrew Garfield – Tick, Tick… Boom! as Jonathan Larson – brilliant. A triple threat singing, dancing and acting performance of an incredibly complex character.
  • Will Smith – King Richard as Richard Williams – haven’t seen, but it’s a great role for him
  • Denzel Washington – The Tragedy of Macbeth as Lord Macbeth – I dislike Shakespeare intensely, but his performance almost made me understand and care

I really liked Ben Affleck in The Tender Bar, but apparently Oscars forgot that film existed. A slightly leftfield choice would be Kenneth Branagh as Poirot who was funny and heartbreaking and the only consistent thing about the whole mess of Death on the Nile. Riz Ahmed was also superb in Encounter and for real “that’ll never happen” consideration, how about Tom Holland for Spiderman?  Any of them would have been better nominees than Javier Bardem to be honest. But of the other four nominees I think any of them are worthy winners, personally I’d vote for Andrew Garfield. However I think Will Smith is probably the front runner.

eyes of tammy fayeBest Actress

  • Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye as Tammy Faye Bakker: This is a transformative performance, I could barely see Chastain through the makeup, and it’s an interesting role but I think it was let down a bit by the writing which seemed indecisive as to whether Tammy Faye was a canny woman stealing and using power where she could, or a slightly simple woman at the mercy of everyone around her and unwilling to look too closely or take responsibility.
  • Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter as Leda Caruso – I didn’t like this film. I didn’t really understand what the main character was thinking and what was driving her actions, and I’m not sure the actress or writer did either.
  • Penélope Cruz – Parallel Mothers as Janis Martínez Moreno – not seen
  • Nicole Kidman – Being the Ricardos as Lucille Ball – this didn’t feel very natural, a bit too much like a performance, someone delivering a script. The performance, and the film itself were very watchable, but felt like it didn’t quite stick the landing.
  • Kristen Stewart – Spencer as Diana, Princess of Wales – I was going to say that this seemed like a good option, until I actually watched the film last night. Stewart does an uncanny impression of someone very odd which makes it feel either creepy or ridiculous. The script is also truly abominable and the combo meant I found the film almost unbearable.

A really underwhelming set of nominations, some potentially good performances let down by mediocre material. Film makers need to do better. It feels like Catriona Balfe for Belfast is missing and Emilia Jones for CODA would actually win my vote so it’s a real shame that she’s not even nominated. Of those on offer I think I’d actually vote for Jessica Chastain for the volume of performance if nothing else.  I’m not sure who will win though, Nicole Kidman maybe?

Best supporting actor

  • Ciarán Hinds – Belfast as Pop – there wasn’t a massive amount of complexity or depth to this role. feels more like a lifetime achievement award than a genuine nomination
  • Troy Kotsur – CODA as Frank Rossi – this role on the other hand had a HUGE amount going on and it was all beautifully, hilariously, passionately and heartbreakingly performed
  • Jesse Plemons – The Power of the Dog as George Burbank – Jesse Plemons excels playing this kind of unremarkable character that other bigger characters dance around, and in some ways it’s lovely to see that recognised, but on the other hand it doesn’t really scream award worthy.
  • J. K. Simmons – Being the Ricardos as William Frawley – blink and you’ll miss it. Simmons is always great, but this wasn’t an outstanding role
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Power of the Dog as Peter Gordon – it’s an impressive achievement to stand alongside the huge performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and not only hold your own, but bring another level of unsettling creepiness.

Supporting awards are interesting, is it the 2nd biggest role in a film (arguably Troy Kotsur and Kodi Smit-McPhee), is it stealing the scenes you’re in (J.K. Simmons and Ciaran Hines) or is it just doing a good job with a nuts and bolts role to fill in the narrative gaps that the story needs (Jesse Plemons)? It’s hard to compare. But in this case I’m not going to think too hard about it because it’s an easy choice anyway as Troy Kotsur completely blew me away me in CODA, and for that matter in his acceptance speech at the BAFTAS. I don’t think there’s much doubt he’ll win the Oscar.

west side storyBest Supporting Actress:

  • Jessie Buckley – The Lost Daughter as Young Leda Caruso – arguably a better written and more coherent role than Coleman’s and very well performed.
  • Ariana DeBose – West Side Story as Anita – she absolutely stole the show, lighting up the screen with her singing, dancing, shouting and crying. In fact this is the best role in the whole film even if it’s supposed to be ‘supporting’.
  • Judi Dench – Belfast as Granny – like Ciaran Hines, a solid performance but more of a default nomination I think
  • Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog as Rose Gordon – better material than her on, and off screen husband Jesse Plemons had, and very worthy of nomination
  • Aunjanue Ellis – King Richard as Oracene “Brandy” Price – not seen

Another set of slightly slim pickings for actresses this year. Ironically the person I thought doing the best job of the leading 4 in Being the Ricardos was Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance and she’s the only one not to be nominated. Rita Moreno who plays Valentina in West Side Story and was Anita in the original version was also very worthy of nomination which would have made some lovely poetry. However I think it should and will be this West Side Story’s Anita – Ariana DeBose to win.  (If you get a chance, look up her winning the Rising Star award at the BAFTAs, she gives a great speech but more hilariously she was clearly not expecting it as you clearly see her say “Oh SHIT!” before remembering the cameras are on her.

Best Original Screenplaybelfast

  • Belfast – Kenneth Branagh – ok, I guess. I struggled to really understand the politics going on and I’m not sure if that’s my fault for being embarrassingly ignorant, or the screenplay.
  • Don’t Look Up – Screenplay by Adam McKay; Story by Adam McKay and David Sirota – I think the problems I had with the film were down to the writer’s not creating believable characters and motivations
  • King Richard – Zach Baylin – not seen
  • Licorice Pizza – Paul Thomas Anderson – I don’t think there was enough plot, or clarity of message
  • The Worst Person in the World – Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier – not seen

Why do animated films not get nominated for screenplays? I think Encanto would be an interesting and worthy nominee here, there was a LOT going on and it was juggled and structured well by the writers. It seems weird that an Aaron Sorkin script doesn’t get nominated, I liked the construction of the constrained time line of Being the Ricardos a lot although maybe some of it was a bit clunky. I also think Spider Man No Way Home did a lot of clever plotting and dialogue.

Of the five, I’ve not seen 2 of them, and 2 of them I thought were actively poor so I guess that means I’d vote for Belfast and I think the Academy will lean that way too.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • CODA – Sian Heder – well structured, completely believable, and entertaining as well. But it’s based on a French film so I’m not sure how much work there was to do.
  • Drive My Car – Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe – not seen
  • Dune – Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth – The previous film shows just how you can make a mess of adapting this and there’s a LOT in the book to play with. Plus splitting one book into two films and still making the first film a contained entity is worthy of note.
  • The Lost Daughter – Maggie Gyllenhaal – the main character didn’t make much sense to me, I was bored by the pacing and didn’t like the way the timelines were blocked out.
  • The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion – fine? I mean, I didn’t like it, but that doesn’t mean it was bad.

Adapted screenplay is tough, are you just awarding the quality of the resulting screenplay in which case I’d vote for CODA; or is it the difficulty of the adaptation which I think would go to Dune because adapting from a novel to a film must be harder than going from one film to another. I think the academy will go for The Power of the Dog.

encantoBest Animated Feature

  • Encanto – I enjoyed this, more on the second viewing, and actually some of the ideas and characters have really stuck with me.
  • Flee – I wish I’d seen this, but I haven’t managed it
  • Luca –I found this quite unremarkable
  • The Mitchells vs. the Machines – I actually thought Ron’s Gone Wrong the superior animation on this theme, although MvsM did have more creative animation I suppose, even if personally I didn’t like it.
  • Raya and the Last Dragon – I liked the end… but found the rest a bit clunky,

Of those I’ve seen Encanto is the best. Having a documentary in the category shakes things up, demonstrating the format is more than just kids films but I think people will probably vote for it in the documentary category instead.

drive my carBest International Feature Film

  • Drive My Car, Flee, The Hand of God, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, The Worst Person in the World

The only one I’ve seen is The Hand of God and I found it a bit of a muddle, too long and the final section left me irritated. So I’m gonna abstain from my own choice, but surely Drive My Car will win something?

fleeDocumentary Feature

  • Ascension, Attica, Flee, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Writing with Fire

Summer of Soul is the only one I’ve seen and while I thought the archive footage was an amazing find and the participants and attendees looking back at it make a powerful story, it didn’t quite sing for me. From what I’ve heard, Flee is the most original and interesting and will likely win, if the votes don’t get split too much between the three categories its nominated in.

duneBest Score

  • Don’t Look Up – Nicholas Britell – no memory of the music at all.
  • Dune – Hans Zimmer – the music wasn’t exactly full of catchy tunes, but it was very important to the scale, impact and what there were of emotional impacts.
  • Encanto – Germaine Franco – I *think* the score doesn’t really include the songs so this feels a bit of a long shot
  • Parallel Mothers – Alberto Iglesias – not seen
  • The Power of the Dog – Jonny Greenwood – no memory of the music at all

Dune is the only one of these I’ve seen where I really remember the existance of the music (as opposed to the Encanto songs) so I’d vote for Hans Zimmer (usually a safe bet).  However it might go to Jonny Greenwood because he was snubbed for a nomination a few years ago on a technicality and people were cross.

Best Song

  • “Be Alive” from King Richard – Music and lyrics by DIXSON and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter – OK song, some nice (and relevant) lyrics.
  • “Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto – Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda – this is a bit unfortunate. The nominations had to be submitted before the film was even released and no one guessed “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” was going to be such a hit.  This song however I’ve got no memory of and when I went to listen to it again I decided it was too boring after just 15 seconds.
  • “Down to Joy” from Belfast – Music and lyrics by Van Morrison – catchy song and goes well with the film, but Van Morrison is rather problematic, so no chance.
  • “No Time to Die” from No Time to Die – Music and lyrics by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell – Perfectly ok Bond theme, but I had no memory of it.
  • “Somehow You Do” from Four Good Days – Music and lyrics by Diane Warren – weird nomination, never heard of the film and it just seems to me a generic country song.

What should win – We Don’t Talk about Bruno. So much so that it seems they’re putting an extra song in the show just to make sure it’s played. I have a suspicion they’ll give it to Lin-Manuel Miranda anyway.

Best Sound

  • Belfast, Dune, No Time to Die, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story

I’ve seen all of these and Dune wins hands down, the soundscape of the film did as much (if not more) work than the actors. The others were all perfectly fine but the sounds didn’t shine in the same way.

nightmare alleyBest Production Design

  • Dune – Patrice Vermette & Zsuzsanna Sipos: there is a LOT to look at and there’s a lot of complexity in the design, evolving what’s described in the books, what’s gone before and referencing other science fiction.
  • Nightmare Alley – Tamara Deverell & Shane Vieau: I felt the film was style over substance, but there was a LOT of style
  • The Power of the Dog – Grant Major & Amber Richards: very charismatic, the limited colour pallet actually worked here.
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth – Stefan Dechant & Nancy Haigh: I don’t like Shakespeare, but the design here was extreme and actually held my attention throughout.
  • West Side Story – Adam Stockhausen & Rena DeAngelo: the most unremarkable of the lot, it felt a bit artificial and stagey, I hope that was deliberate, but it was another thing that distanced me.

These are all are doing something quite different and are completely core to the films, if not THE most interesting thing about the films. I think I’d give it to Dune, but Nightmare Alley will win on the day.

Best Cinematography

  • Dune – Greig Fraser: almost every shot of this film could be framed on a wall showing something interesting and creative.
  • Nightmare Alley – Dan Laustsen: there’s a lot of complexity (SO much shooting in the rain)
  • The Power of the Dog – Ari Wegner: I don’t remember a huge amount of creativity here to be honest.  Fun fact – Ari Wegner is only the 2nd woman to be nominated for this award and would be the first winner
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth – Bruno Delbonnel: Like the production design, the creativity of framing and lighting makes this film.
  • West Side Story – Janusz Kamiński: More a technical achievement with the large sets and choreography

Again, I can see any of these winning the award, I think I would go for Dune.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Coming 2 America – Mike Marino, Stacey Morris and Carla Farmer – even for an Oscar nomination, I’m not watching this film.
  • Cruella – Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon – lots of creativity, but it was the costumes doing most of the work.
  • Dune – Donald Mowat, Love Larson and Eva von Bahr – actually of all the design fields, the hair and makeup was probably the one that stood out least for me on Dune.
  • The Eyes of Tammy Faye – Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh – There’s a HUGE amount of work here, Jessica Chastain is completely transformed AND aged throughout the film. Andrew Garfield’s aging was not quite as good though
  • House of Gucci – Göran Lundström, Anna Carin Lock and Frederic Aspiras – I’ve not seen, but there was certainly a lot of work

I think this will be either Eyes of Tammy Faye or House of Gucci, my vote for the former (as I haven’t seen the latter).

cruellaBest Costume Design

  • Cruella – Jenny Beavan – the costumes are integral to the story and are a stunning array of creativity, not just the ‘big’ outfits either, there’s loads going on everywhere
  • Cyrano – Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran – I’ve not seen the film, but the costumes on display in the trailers and clips are clearly stunning and doing a lot of work
  • Dune – Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan – the costuming is supporting a lot of the design and storytelling for different races/ranks
  • Nightmare Alley – Luis Sequeira – the costumes are great, but like a lot of the rest of the film, they were a bit derivative and not really doing anything massively original
  • West Side Story – Paul Tazewell – fine, but other than Anita’s stunning yellow dress, I can’t remember much.

Cruella hands down should win and I think probably will win. Also even I know that Jenny Beavan is an absolute legend.

Best Film Editing

  • Don’t Look Up – Hank Corwin; Dune – Joe Walker; King Richard – Pamela Martin; The Power of the Dog – Peter Sciberras; Tick, Tick… Boom! – Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum

In terms of the level of challenge, I would think editing musicals and big FX driven sci fi is a bigger challenge, so for me it comes down to Dune or Tick, Tick… Boom! and the latter feels like it takes things a step forward to with not just choreography but interweaving views and threads, all connected to the music and rhythm.

Best Visual Effects

  • Dune, Free Guy, No Time to Die, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Spider-Man: No Way Home

It’s interesting to see 4 big sci fi films alongside an action film, it brings home just how much is artificially created in No Time to Die and merged together in a way that doesn’t throw the audience out of the moment. I think I would vote for No Time to Die, although I think the actual winner will be Dune.

Oscars 2022 – Best Films

There are ten nominees for Best Film at the Oscars this year, and I’d actually already seen six of them without even trying, and picked up another two without much effort. Normally I have to do a bit more deliberate watching, but even the ones I’d missed I had intended to see in the cinema, it just never quite worked out. I don’t know whether this means they’re a bit more mainstream, or just that pickings are a bit slim this year both for award fodder and cinema choice. I have to say, I’m not massively overwhelmed.

I’ll do a post later in the week covering all the other categories.

Belfast
It’s hard going to see films that have already got a lot of hype and buzz about awards, you go in looking for certain things, and even if you do find them, some of the magic is lost. Belfast is a solid film, with an interesting story and point of view, engaging characters and is very well written and shot. But because it’s being so lauded, I dwell more on the problems. Firstly, I didn’t really understand the politics in Belfast at the time. Maybe it really does just not make sense, and I shouldn’t be so ignorant of history, but I doubt I’m the only one and it meant that I really didn’t understand where the violence and terror was coming from, it just felt un-grounded. I know the film is kind of told from the point of view of the child, and he wouldn’t get it either, but it didn’t make for a very satisfying experience. The other problem I had was the black and white. It just didn’t feel like it added to the film at all and the way that scenes on cinema screens were in colour made no sense to me. It’s a good film, but it felt like it was trying too hard to be too many things and didn’t quite deliver any of them as well as it could.

codaCODA
I signed up for Apple TV+ mainly to watch this film and it was one of my better decisions. It is a brilliant film, doing all the things that a good film should do – saying something interesting, exposing you to a world different to your own, being beautiful to look at and fun to watch. The characters and locations are vibrant and immediately believable, the family are each fully rich personalities in their own rights, but with complex relationships and groupings between them. The specifics of the story are original, but the themes more universal so there’s both something new to experience and something relatable. The only minor gripe I had was some of the nuts a bolts of Ruby’s discovery as an amazing singer felt a little bit of a stretch. I cringed at the singing teacher making the teenagers sing Lets Get it On and romantic duets. But this is a coming of age story and a feel good film so I’m not going to get that cross because the film had me utterly gripped throughout and has really stayed with me.

Don’t Look Up
Satire is tricky. Particularly at the moment when the real world is pretty ridiculous all by itself. If you make the situations and characters too extreme then it’s just silly, if you don’t make them extreme enough, it just feels like a drama. I don’t think Don’t Look UP quite got the pitch right, pushing it to be too silly. The biggest problem for me was that the ‘bad guys’ didn’t seem to make any sense. I didn’t understand what their plans were, and so I couldn’t buy into it. I liked the ‘straight’ characters, particularly Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. But I didn’t find the film funny enough or satirical enough to really completely enjoy it. To be honest, it feels quite out of place on this list of nominees and more a point about the message, than about the quality of the film.

Drive My Car
Of course one of the ones I missed out is the foreign language film. Rubbish of me.

Dune
I read the book years ago and really loved it, a proper classic sci fi novel although it occasionally drifted too far into the mystical for my tastes. Then I saw the original Dune film and was utterly underwhelmed, it had already aged very badly and seemed to focus on all the bits of the book that I didn’t like. But I was quite enthused with Denis Villeneuve taking it on, and decided to push the boat out and see it in imax. I wasn’t disappointed.
The film is stunning to look at for a start, design work that builds from all that has gone before it, both Dune itself and every other science fiction series since. It’s definitely worth seeing on the biggest screen possible to get the scale of it. Also the soundscape is phenomenal and benefits from a massive sound system. But all that would be nothing without a decent story, characters and performances and it’s solid on that too. Frank Herbert’s world building supported an epic series of books and the film’s writers have carefully crafted something that demonstrates that richness without overloading with exposition or complexity. The acting is similarly well done, personalities, relationships and emotions shown not told.
My only challenges to the film is that despite all that richness it sometimes felt a little flat and cold. The dream sequences are integral to the plot but can make it a bit hard to engage with emotionally – what’s real, what’s certain, what’s destiny that cannot be changed? There is a sense of wonder from the characters, and strong connections between them, and yet with the exception of Jason Mamoa again leaping off the screen, they lacked warmth and humour. Everyone felt like they were characters with specific roles in an epic story, rather than real people living their lives.
So overall, wonderful to watch, intellectually engaging, but just a little cold to really care that much about.

King Richard
I’ve not seen this one, I tried to but the film times never quite worked out.

Licorice Pizza
I did not like this film, although explaining why isn’t easy. It suffers from overlong and under plotted, an awful lot of noodling about; that can work if the characters are interesting, but I never quite got on board with them. I was constantly confused by how old everyone was and how much time was passing between scenes, and unsettled throughout by questions around the age differences and appropriateness of relationships. The acting was good, and there were some fun sequences, but overall I was left a bit bored, a bit confused and a bit creeped out.

Nightmare Alley
A film of three parts. The first third was really interesting, beautifully shot and creatively filmed it shows a newcomer arrive at a 1930’s freak show/carnival with a lot of emotional baggage and very little actual baggage. It’s atmospheric, the characters are larger than life and everyone has history, secrets, tricks and personal codes. I really loved it and was settling in. Then there’s a time jump and the next third is a much more traditional noir, with scam artists and multiple levels of deceit. It was unoriginal, cliche, lacking in any subtlety and even the visual style was nothing that hasn’t been done before. I was really disappointed. The worst thing thought is that there’s a third part of the film that I have no idea where it was. There was a two hour film stretched out to a two and a half hour runtime completely unnecessarily making me fidgety and frustrated as everything dragged on. So 1/3 great, 1/3 cliche and 1/3 completely unnecessary. Not a very good ratio and I expected a lot more from Guillermo del Toro.

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.

West Side Story
I really didn’t like the original and while some of the problems are fixed, there’s a lot that just carries over. The two things that can’t really be changed are the story and the songs and neither is too my taste. I can respect the songs, but I don’t like them, although at least this version has the actors singing and so doesn’t have the dubbing issues. The dancing I also got along with a bit better this time, the choreography and scale of it meant I stayed focused on it and could see much more the beauty in the mixture of ballet and salsa and jazz.
The story remains annoying. I don’t really get the starcrossed lovers thing – “I’ve seen you across a crowded room and now I will throw away all our futures for you”. The chemistry between Tony and Maria was solid and had a joy to it that I liked, but it didn’t completely blow me away and there were some very problematic character choices.
The final issue, I’m not sure whether it’s the film’s problem or my own. The natural language of many of the characters would be Spanish, and the decision was made to keep it in Spanish and not subtitle it. I understand that either of those options would be disrespectful, and I respect that choice, but at the same time, it meant there were large chunks of dialogue that I couldn’t undrestand. Yes, you can get the gist by context, tone and body language, but it meant I couldn’t engage fully with their characters and stories.
The film is beautifully designed, shot and directed; the cast all very solid… but the material does not sing for me, making the two and a half hour runtime a bit of a slog.

Turning Red

Pixar is known for pushing the boundaries of what can be done with animation, elevating the art form both technically and conceptually – from Sully’s fur to elegant handling of complex psychology in Inside Out. The boundary that Turning Red pushes is to discuss periods in a mainstream film for kids. The fact that it’s a boundary at all is completely ludicrous, but it’s still impressive that a major studio has done it. Although I hope that’s not why they premiered it on Disney+ rather than in cinemas.

Turning Red talks about periods and the other aspects of puberty outright, but the main thrust of the story is an extended metaphor whereby the 13 year old central character starts turning into a giant, very very fluffy red panda (the technology for Sully’s fur continues to evolve). Various adventures and emotional turmoil ensue as she, her friends and her family deal with the situation in different ways.

Unfortunately I admired the film more than I liked it. The characters are all larger than life (especially the panda) and I found them universally irritating. The awkwardness of being a teenager is well presented, but it’s not really something I enjoy being reminded of or enjoy watching. The bigger problem I had though was that the storytelling was clunky, characters did not behave consistently or with any particular degree of logic, which is almost ok for the teenagers, but in the adults just screams lazy writing.

It’s worth watching, and maybe it will connect with a younger audience (I hope it does). At the very least it’s broken a taboo that will hopefully be the start of something.