Films I Saw in 2020

I watched 211 films in 2020, beating my previous record of 208 in 2016. The fact that there was really nowhere to go for most of the year, and that I had a lot more available time in the evenings thanks to working from home increased my film watching quite considerably. While there was a strong temptation to just watch safe and familiar films, I’m quite pleased that 134 (64%) of what I watched was new to me, and that’s about the same percentage as last year. However fewer new releases meant there were only 33 films from this year, 16% of the total, down from 21% last year. I went to the cinema just 12 times, and all but 2 of those were in the first two months of the year. That’s just half the number compared to last year, which was already substantially down on the previous year with 39. I really do miss cinema, even when I go by myself it’s nice to have a shared viewing experience, and watching a film on the sofa just isn’t the same escape from the real world.

So almost every film on this list was watched from my sofa via streaming services. Netflix led the way with 71 films (34%) including a lot of the more diverse titles from documentaries and world cinema. Amazon Prime was second with 45 films (21%). I finally subscribed to Disney+ at the end of the year and powered through their back catalog with 34 films (16%) although other than occasional new releases I’ve probably exhausted their supply. I also watched 38 films (18%) on dvds, 12 films (6%) that were on normal telly and ONE film that I got bought from Sky (except I didn’t buy it as it was a free gift). I didn’t pay for any new releases through any of the (I’m sure) excellent cinema replacement sites like Curzon Home Cinema, simply because there wasn’t anything that I really wanted to pay for over the options on the services I already pay for.

FILMS OF 2020
I only rated one film from 2020 as 9/10 and utterly amazingly, it’s also the film that won the Academy Award for best picture – Parasite. I’m usually a bit snippy about the Oscars, but this year they were spot on, it was original but timeless; easy to watch and enjoy but challenging and thought provoking. I was completely blown away.

Other standouts from the year are a bit more eclectic. If you’re looking for pure entertainment there’s Enola Holmes or Birds of Prey. Dating Amber and Rocks are both a bit more deep, offering powerful insights into the challenges of being a teenager, and to a certain extent the same description could be applied to Mulan the first of the Disney live action remakes that I’ve seen that’s a real step change from the original animation. If you’re after more traditional dramas I’d recommend The Midnight Sky and Uncle Frank, and if you really feel like going all in Uncut Gems is an anxiety attack in film form. For outright technical genius 1917 has to be seen to be believed. And the closest that I can come to a comedy recommendation is the harsh but hilarious, Death to 2020.

Unfortunately, the biggest miss I have of the year was Saint Maud which a lot of critics have raved about but I found boring and uncomfortable (and not in a good way). The film that probably made me crossest was Artemis Fowl because I like the books so much, they would have made a great film, and this one completely missed the whole point. And the one that I found most disappointing was Tenet which wasn’t terrible, but was distinctly mediocre and had some very clumsy film making errors (why can’t Nolan make his dialogue audible?). Incidentally Saint Maud and Tenet were the only two cinema visits I made between lockdowns, which made the disappointment even worse.

The rest of this post breaks the films down roughly by genre (very roughly in places) and I try to highlight the best of 2020, the best of the films I caught up on from the last couple of years, older ‘classic’ films and then some stuff that you should avoid.

DOCUMENTARIES – 9 films (4.3% – slightly up on last year’s 3.5%)
Best of 2020: I only watched one documentary from 2020, the rather underwhelming Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb.
Best of recent years: For Sama is an unparalleled look at the lives that are going on behind the short news coverage you might see of the conflict in Syria. It’s brutal, heartbreaking, intimate and sometimes joyous – everyone should watch this film. I’d also recommend Circus of Books an absolutely fascinating look into LGBTQ+ history by telling the story of a LA sex shop run by a terribly nice middle class Jewish couple, now in their 70’s; American Factory, an intriguing look at a culture clash between American and Chinese working practices; and Three Identical Strangers which starts out as a fun “weirder than fiction” story and develops into something even more incredible that really impacted me.
Classic: Well, the only one I watched that was older than 2019 was Filmed in Supermarionation which is a bit middling, but if you’re a Gerry Anderson fan you’ll find it lovely.
To be avoided: Democracia em Vertigem (Edge of Democracy) unless you want a rather jumbled and one sided view of Brazilian politics (which admittedly sounds INSANE), and I was disappointed by Diego Maradona which I found boring and failed to make me understand who Maradona really was.

ANIMATIONS – 29 films (14% – slightly up on last year’s 12%)
Best of 2020: slightly slim pickings. Even the best rated only got 7/10 – Pixar’s Onward and The Willoughbys, both of which were absolutely fine, but felt like they just didn’t do enough with the ideas.
Best of recent years: Why did I not watch Spies in Disguise earlier? Will Smith as James Bond (basically) who gets turned into a pigeon. It’s HILARIOUS. A close runner up was Klaus which is a brilliant Christmas animation in the spirit of The Nightmare Before Christmas but with a style and charm all of its own. And although I found recent Pixar films Onward and Soul underwhelming, there’s always the beautiful Finding Dory.
Classic: I enjoyed re-watcing a lot of Studio Ghibli on Netflix and Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso were the standouts. Does 2014 count as classic? If it does then The Boxtrolls is a lovely grungy alternative to Disney, and I also rewatched Disney’s animated Aladdin and it’s still great entertainment.
To be avoided: Over the Moon was a Netflix release in 2020 and although the opening bit in China is really great, as soon as we go over the moon it turns into cliche ridden chaos that bored me. I’m not sure whether Space Jam counts as animation, but whatever it is, it’s really rubbish.

HORROR – 21 films (10% up on last year which was 6%)
Best of 2020: the only 2020 horror film was Saint Maud and I thought that was rubbish.
Best of recent years: Prevenge from 2017 was incredibly acted, directed and written – all by a heavily pregnant Alice Lowe, it’s creepy, gory, unpleasant and occasionally also really funny; a masterpiece in 88 minutes. Also worth a watch are Split which I’d always written off a bit as just an acting exercise for James McAvoy playing multiple personalities, but there’s a lot more going on. Midsommar is also pretty good and it’s a nice to see a very sunny horror, but it was let down slightly by the 2.5hr runtime.
Classic: El orfanato (The Orphanage) is a great creepy horror and The Shining is a beautiful piece of film making, although having read the book there’s a lot that was sadly lost.
To be avoided: I really don’t know why I watched Interview with the Vampire which was actually worse than I expected with a meandering plot and catastrophically bad casting. The 2019 Hellboy is an absolute muddle that utterly fails to recapture the magic of the del Toro version and Van Helsing is just plain rubbish from start to finish.

SF/FANTASY – 44 films (21% up on last year which was 9%)
That’s a lot of SF/Fantasy although my definition is pretty broad and to be fair it includes 14 Star Wars films and 4 Alien films.
Best of 2020: The Midnight Sky, it’s not the cheeriest of films at the moment and didn’t always feel like it was working, but it comes together at the end. It’s not exactly amazing, but it’s rather slim pickings from new releases and I’m afraid I really didn’t get on with Tenet.
Best of recent years: Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi is the best of the recent Star Wars films, and thanks to new effects, a great cast, and the joy that the nostalgia brings, I’ve actually ranked it higher than most of the original trilogy. Ready Player One and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom both stand up well for entertainment value.
Classics: Moon was released in 2009 so is now firmly the classic that I thought it would be as soon as I saw it in the cinema. A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back still stand up really well (sadly the same can not be said of Return of the Jedi or ANY of the prequels.
To be avoided: I’m sorry, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is just rubbish. I mean it still looks beautiful, but it’s INCREDIBLY boring. Jabberwocky somehow completely missed the the Monty Python sweet spot, and Battle Beyond the Stars is an incoherent mess.

MUSICALS – 16 films, excluding animations (7.6% up on last year’s 3.5%)
Best of 2020: The highest rated is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga but that’s not saying much as it only got 6/10. Half of it is brilliant, perfectly capturing the charm and insanity of Eurovision, but the other half is awkward and uncomfortable. The only other 2020 musical was The Prom which was even worse.
Best of recent years: I’m as surprised as anyone to say that it’s the 2019 live action remake of Aladdin. I was expecting to declare that no one could replace Robin Williams and there was nothing to be gained by remaking the original. But Will Smith brings a different and wonderful energy to the Genie and the writers have added more depth and complexity to the story, the only thing that let it down was actually the direction of the musicals which are really not Guy Ritchie’s strong suit.
Classics: Into the Woods is a full on all-singing musical and it’s charming and clever. Funny Girl is a great film, with a stunning performance from Barbra Streisand but to be honest I felt it was the musical elements that pulled the film back. Oh and of course, The Muppet Christmas Carol every time.
To be avoided: The News Boys (Newsies) felt incredibly flat, has a rubbish script, mediocre songs and Christian Bale failing to sing, dance or act like a teenager (despite actually being 18). All three Descendants films are a waste of a good idea and Pitch Perfect 3 is an incredibly sorry end to an otherwise joyous trilogy.

COMEDY – 28 films (13%, down on last year’s 19%)
You’d think I’d go searching for comedy as an escape from the real world, but I actually tend to avoid them as I just don’t tend to find them that funny, and a non-funny comedy is just more depressing.
Best of 2020: Death to 2020, maybe this should have been in the documentary category, but it was the fictional characters and the comedy that really stood out. It’s impressive to take the rubbishness and deliver something with both impact and big laughs.
Best of recent years: Two categories in a row with recommendations for Guy Ritchie films, The Gentlemen is back in more familiar territory for him with violence, intertwining stories, blokishness and a lot of swearing, and I really enjoyed it. For contrast – Book Club is all about women and has four absolute acting legends (Diane Keaton,Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen) being friends, drinking copiously and making dirty jokes, I roared with laughter. Honorable mention to Knives Out which is just as much fun on second viewing at home as it was on first viewing in the cinema.
Classics: The film I was most pleased to see remains wonderful was Cool Runnings, 27 years young and probably the quintessential sports underdog story. Impressively still funny after 61 years is Operation Petticoat, Cary Grant at his downtrodden best. There are also a couple of relatively low key cooking movies – Chef and Julie and Julia both of which have a lot of heart and a lot of laughs, they’re both warm hugs of comfort food. Finally I’m still not entirely sure if A Cock and Bull Story was inspired or bonkers with the walk between parody with laughs and tender observation with heart.
To be avoided: Two films were so unfunny they made me angry. The Hippopotamus was Stephen Fry dialled up the annoying pretentiousness and crudeness that even Roger Allam couldn’t rescue. The other was The Seven Year Itch which charitably may have been funny in the 50’s, but despite Marilyn Monroe’s quirky performance I found little to laugh at about marital infidelity and the treatment of Monroe as nothing more than a target. (On a similar note You’ve Got Mail really hasn’t aged well.)

ACTION – 27 films (13% – I didn’t track this last year)
Best of 2020: Rather wonderfully, both of my top action films from this year have female eponymous heroes! The original Mulan animation was fine but nothing special, but this year’s live action re-imagining adds a lot of richness, takes away the silliness and songs and results in a really entertaining film. Enola Holmes is a lovely spin on Sherlock Holmes, maybe it’s not really an action film, but it’s got so much spark and speed that it felt like a really satisfying roller coaster.
Best of recent years: Slightly surprisingly I really enjoyed a Transformer’s film – Bumblebee was fun, charming, and had action sequences that I actually followed. The Meg is a wonderfully stupid film about a giant shark, it’s objectively rubbish, but hugely fun. And in another nod to Guy Ritchie (what’s going on?), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is still cool and a great reimagining, it’s a shame that it didn’t lead to a franchise.
Classics: Speed was made in 1994 and although it’s clearly not imax screen quality, the central ideas and action sequences are still brilliant. I also watched all the Mission Impossible films and the standout was definitely 2011’s Ghost Protocol
To be avoided: For reasons I cannot now remember I watched all the films in the The Da Vinci Code series and they are all pretty poor, but the first one really is the worst. Deep Blue Sea is also rubbish, getting everything wrong that The Meg got right.

DRAMAS – 46 films (22%)
This is the generic catchall category at the end, capturing intense dramas, biopics, a couple of westerns, some non-animated kids films, some murder mysteries and some utterly undefinable stuff.
Best of 2020: Uncle Frank is a really easy to watch film that packs quite a lot of emotion, Uncut Gems is pretty much the opposite and is incredibly high intensity and a really quite uncomfortable watch.
Best of recent years: Monos is a Columbian film that had me completely gripped from start to finish with some incredible performances by very young actors. Bombshell meanwhile has a very well known cast telling well known recent events in a way that had me cheering and swearing at the screen. Little Women came out at the very end of 2019 and I rewatched it this year in the privacy of my own home where I could laugh, cheer and sob uncontrollably all by myself and it was glorious, one of my favourite books of all time told by someone who loves it, and gets it completely. I’d also recommend the little heard of, and gloriously named Peanut Butter Falcon which is just the kin of warm hug of a film that we need at the moment.
Classics: Educating Rita could have been incredibly trite, but the film brings such nuance and complexity to the characters and the situation that I was completely gripped (just a shame about the synthesizer music). The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an absolute defining moment in film, a perfectly crafted slow and thoughtful spy film that was unsettling throughout and satisfying in the end.
To be avoided: Two films with 3/10! Disappearance at Clifton Hill was so badly written, badly acted and badly directed that I did something almost unheard of for me – I gave up. I did jump to the end and discovered that the ending was even worse. 1995’s Sabrina meanwhile wasn’t badly made but committed crimes against feminism that even in 1995 I don’t think were acceptable, the age gaps between characters and actors are nauseating and the single track mind of all the characters are abominable.

Films in December 2020

A very busy month where I watched 43 films! I was supposed to be going on holiday to Chicago at the beginning of the month but instead I stayed home and subscribed to Disney+. I watched all 12 Star Wars films over a few days and reviewed them separately and also caught up on the various remakes that Disney have been churning out. Then over Christmas holiday I’ve been catching up on some recent releases on digital platforms, I’m really missing the cinema trips of this time of year for either re-releases of Christmas classics, the big blockbusters, or the start of the award bait films. Fingers crossed we’ll be back to cinemas in 2021.

NEW RELEASES
The Midnight Sky (Netflix new release) – There were a lot of moments in this film that I wanted to switch it off, not because it was bad but because of the opposite. The situations it presents are ones that I don’t want to think about, the choices the characters have to make are ones that I don’t want to consider, and because the film is so well made and incredibly well acted, you really can’t hide away from them. I didn’t quite get the different elements as the film was playing out. There are two storylines and they play out pretty independently for the most part, and the flashbacks for one of the threads felt unnecessary (particularly with the oddness of younger actors playing George Clooney, but dubbed with his voice). However they did come together beautifully at the end in a way and there was a payoff that I really didn’t see coming, although that doesn’t really overcome the mild irritation that’s already been experienced. 8 / 10

Rocks (Netflix new release) – This film is told exclusively from the point of view of a teenager, which is a really dangerous thing to do. Done well (which this film really is) makes the experience uncomfortable – it’s absolutely no fun being a teenager and having limited control over your life, but at the same time having enough power to make bad choices that are just embarrassing to watch as an adult. This film is a hard watch because it’s done so incredibly well, your empathy is pulling you in multiple directions as you know that the central character (and her friends) should make different choices, but you absolutely understand why she goes the way she does. The writing and direction are very light of touch, it feels incredibly organic, not like it came from a written page or a production team, but as if it’s just happening. I was really moved and impressed by this film. 8 / 10

Uncle Frank (Amazon new release) – Set in the 70’s the eponymous uncle is a New York lecturer who stands apart from the rest of his South Carolina family. When his niece starts attending the same university, and then they have to travel home for a family funeral his true life gets revealed. This film could very easily have been trite and even comedic, but the film is written and directed by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, American Beauty) who makes the film straightforward and light with plenty of laughs, a simple plot and large characters. But there’s also a lot of heart, depth and impact. Paul Bettany perfectly delivers that range, there’s always something more going on within him than what is on the screen. The only downside is a truly terrible mustache. 8 / 10

Death to 2020 (Netflix new release) – I went into this very nervously, 2020 has been depressing enough, did I really need to watch a retrospective? But Charlie Brooker and his producing partner Annabel Jones have set a high standard over the years with both Black Mirror and the ‘wipe’ documentary/review series so I gave it a chance and I’m glad I did. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches and you’re not going to come out of it feeling any better about the miserable year that we’ve all suffered through. However it plays to the fine tradition of satire and comedy through the centuries which is if you can’t beat it, laugh at it. And I laughed a lot. the blend of documentary archive footage, biting narration and spoof talking heads are mixed perfectly to highlight the insanity and the horror that this year has been. My only criticisms of it would be around the weight given to the different stories and maybe a bit of confusion about whether it’s playing to an American or a British audience. Please god don’t let us need another one of these next year. 8 / 10

Mulan (Disney+, newish release) – What a shame that this didn’t get the big screen release that it was supposed to have, because this is definitely one of the rare hits in the Disney live action remake series. The film builds from the animated version modifying the plot, adding richness, and adjusting characters. On one hand the film is played straight – there are no animal sidekicks and no songs, but there is a magical element introduced for the power some characters have to move and fight. That took me a little bit of getting used to, it didn’t quite feel like that magic blended with the historical details that are beautifully done. Yifei Liu as Mulan is absolutely stunning, she plays the early comedy just as well as she does the heartbreaking drama and I was completely with her at every moment of the film. As I say, it’s a shame this film may fall under the radar of many, as it’s a real standout for me. 8 / 10

Soul (Disney+ new release) – Maybe I was expecting too much, maybe the pressure of a Christmas afternoon premier was too built up, but I was really disappointed with this film. 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. There was too much going on in Soul, too many mechanics to understand, too much 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 don’t really understand what I was supposed to take from it. I suspect I’m being a bit harsh on it, and maybe on future watches I’ll get it a bit more, but on a first watch, it was a disappointment. 6 / 10

Mank (Netflix new release) – I suspect a lot of people will heap praise and award nomiations on this film, because, partially because there’s nothing Hollywood likes more than self-referential films, and a bit of black and white. I’m not going to heap praise on Mank except to say that Gary Oldman is going to get a very well deserved Oscar nomination for this, and Amanda Seyfried deserves a supporting actress nomination too. Their performances were interesting and their characters well written, but the film as a whole was baggy, confusing, and ultimately boring. I see what David Fincher was trying to do – recreate the style and structure of Citizen Kane in order to tell the story of the writing of Citizen Kane, but I found it distancing and harder to keep track of the characters, settings and time frames with the jumping plot. Most critically, the film was at least 1/2 hour too long. 6 / 10

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix new release) – This film comes from the same playwright and the same film production team as Fences did, and I felt largely the same way about this as I did that film. Both have a problem that they fundamentally feel “stagey” – minimal settings (just two rooms for most of this film), incredibly long scenes and very large performances. It lacks fluidity, there’s no sense of movement or spontaneity in any of it, just a series of long conversations and monologues that always feel like the characters are playing to an audience rather than just existing. I did find Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom slightly more engaging than Fences, I think maybe the music added some richness that was missing in Fences and a wider supporting cast added additional points of view as well, but I can’t really say I enjoyed it unfortunately. It’s an interesting part of history, and Ma Rainey seems like a fascinating woman, and I’d rather just watch a story about her that’s actually written as a proper film. 6 / 10

The Prom (Netflix new release) – I wanted to let myself go and just enjoy this, but for some reason I just couldn’t. Despite the big star cast it just felt a little low budget and amateury, maybe because intrinsically it’s hard to turn broadway musicals into films that feel natural. Characters are played as one-note stereotypes until they eventually get their turn to have a song and spontaneously gain depth and backstory, but by then it just feels awkward. There was just something that set my teeth on edge, like people trying too hard to poke fun at themselves, but without any real sincerity; the knowing lyrics to the songs didn’t sound self deprecating they just sounded a bit smug. I’m not sure why I’ve taken so against this film, but I really didn’t get on with it. 5 / 10

OLDER FILMS

Spies in Disguise (Disney+, new for me) – Will Smith is a James Bond-esqua super spy and he gets turned into a pigeon. I mean, come on who’s not already sold on that? And the excellent news is that it thoroughly delivers to that concept. The script is sharp, the voice talent is really great (Will Smith completely nailing the dry wit, and Tom Holland is adorable), the animation style is vibrant and full of visual gags. This film is an absolute joy and I can see myself coming back to it over and over. 9 / 10

The Muppet Christmas Carol (umpteenth rewatch of a dvd) – Without a doubt, the best Christmas movie of all time and a staple for my Christmas schedule for decades. The music is absolutely amazing, the mixture of Dickens and Muppet is perfect and it is great fun to watch for all the family. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at Christmas in 2018, with a packed audience and it made me so happy I cried. 9 / 10

Queen of Katwe (Disney+, new for me) – This is one of those “based on real events” stories that are absolutely made for film, an incredible under-dog story that celebrates talent, passion, and those that seek to provide opportunities. However it doesn’t shy away from the struggle, the brutal reality of existence in a Ugandan slum where a natural talent just cannot magically make those realities change. It’s not the talent that changes her life, it’s the commitment of people around her to give her a chance, that’s why this is a Disney family film that left me with tears of joy. It’s the kind of film that probably wouldn’t have worked if it was just written, the audience would roll their eyes at the improbability of it all, but because it’s true it’s a hit, and it’s important. 8 / 10

Sing (rewatch of a dvd) – When I first reviewed this I said I didn’t think it was going to be a “classic for all time”, but I’ve since found myself reaching for it when I need a thoroughly feel good bit of entertainment. Although it’s a star-studded cast, no one felt like stunt casting, they were all playing the characters so well that I didn’t even notice who the voices were. It’s bright and colourful, packed with great songs and just plain fun from start to finish, leaving you with feet tapping and face grinning. 8 / 10

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Disney+, new for me) – A solid, but maybe slightly forgettable Christmas movie. It takes the core of the Nutcracker ballet and adds some classic Christmas/Disney tropes of a dead mother, a ‘misfit’ heroine and a quest for a magical item and some personal development. The design is stunning throughout with the different realms (including the ‘real’ world created in beautifully rich detail. Mackenzie Foy is excellent in the lead, capturing the tipping point of a teenager’s childlike delight and having to deal with grown up issues. Stealing the show is Kiera Knightly as Sugar Plum, to explain why she is so great would be a spoiler, but it’s worth watching this film for her performance alone, and I wish there was maybe a little more of that spark scattered through the film to just raise it up a little bit. 7 / 10

Onward (Disney+, rewatch) – The concept behind Onward is that magic has been lost from the realm of fairy tale-esque creatures, they may be elves and centaurs, but they now live in a world of cars and smart phones. It’s a really well crafted and fun story. Although all the familiar “tropes” of a magical quest are there, they’re approached in a fresh and self aware way. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland are wonderful as the two brothers, having a lot of fun but delivering real heart as well. I laughed out loud at both the spoken jokes and the visual ones, and teared up appropriately for the lovely emotional conclusion.
The problem is that if any other studio, even Disney Studios itself had made Onward all that praise would have been enough. But Pixar have set themselves an impossibly high standard, their films when at their best are works of art, creating vivid new worlds that offer stunning insight into our own. Onward is not that film. It felt like there was more that could have been done, more richness and detail in the magical world (compare with Zootopia), or creativity in visual style, or even in the soundtrack. I did enjoy the film in the cinema, but when rewatching on tv at home I was really not gripped. 7 / 10

The Nightmare Before Christmas (rewatch of a dvd) – A wonderfully quirky christmas film, that actually manages to be christmassy without being overly sappy. It is everything that you’d expect a Tim Burton film to be (although he didn’t actually direct it) – weird, dark, bizarre, creepy yet kinda endearing. The songs are a bit mixed, some a bit ropey and forced but others are absolute classics. It’s such a visual feast, incredible amounts to look at in every frame all done with a quirky and wonderful blend of Halloween and Christmas that it works perfectly. An absolute Christmas classic. 7 / 10

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (rewatch on dvd) – The name Fred Rogers won’t mean much to UK audiences, but to Americans he’s an absolute institution that many of them will have watched on tv as young children. For me, I may not have that sort of connection to the subject of the film, but I do have the same fondness for Tom Hanks who is playing him, so I was really looking forward to this film. Then the film throws in Matthew Rhys who I’ve loved since Brothers and Sisters and recently excelled in The Americans. The film itself is a bit odd, Mr Rogers is a slightly other-worldly character, and that’s played up with some surreal sections and even breaking the fourth wall. But it’s offset by Rhys’ character who is based firmly in an unforgiving reality. Both leads are excellent and somehow manage to connect the different tones elegantly. It did miss a few opportunities to delve deeper into understanding Mr Rogers the person vs Mr Rogers the character, but I went in wanting something engaging and comforting and it completely delivered. 7 / 10

The Death of Stalin (rewatch on TV) – An odd film. Armando Iannucci is a superb comedy writer and this is certainly a laugh out loud funny. The hilarity of some creative swearing, of a well timed silence, of physical comedy, farce and wordplay – it’s a masterclass. There are loads of characters with complicated backstories and relationships that can be a little hard to track, but thanks to some brilliant ‘character actors’ they all leap off the screen. The problem is that, while the farcical elements of the grabs for power are inherently funny, the overall situation is not. The film doesn’t entirely shy away from the fact that thousands of people are being routinely rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed; but by interspersing it with comedy it does be-little it and leave a bad taste in the mouth. It’s not like you can watch the film and ignore it, because it’s integral to the story; so I’m not quite sure what reaction we’re supposed to have. Overall I think I just wish that Iannucci and the cast made a different film. 7 / 10

Lion King (2019) (Disney+, new for me) – To quote the great Ian Malcolm Disney were “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. Yes, they absolutely can create photo-realistic animals and landscapes that are STUNNINGLY beautiful, there’s barely a shot in the film that couldn’t be framed on a wall and the movement of the animals is flawless. You can tell what the characters are thinking and feeling without them saying a word. But the problem is that the characters talk and sing and it’s completely jarring and uncomfortable. Photo-realistic lions don’t talk, they don’t sing and they don’t dance and as soon as you try to make them do that it just screams out wrong. The story is of course fine, because it was fine in the original animation and it’s just a direct lift. The voice performances are mostly solid (although I’m not entirely sure about John Oliver as Zazu or Seth Rogan as Pumbaa – neither of whom can sing). I just wish they hadn’t wasted the amazing animation on a film that it fundamentally didn’t work in. 6 / 10

Race to Witch Mountain (Disney+, new for me) – There are few things in the world more watchable than Dwayne Johnson. This is just a fundamental truth for me. It really doesn’t matter what he’s in, he lights up the screen and makes me happy. There’s not much to say about the film beyond that to be honest, it has all the nuts and bolts and gets the job done, but without The Rock it would have been utterly forgettable and a bit dull. 6 / 10

A Wrinkle in Time (Disney+, new for me) – I thought this had a lot going for it. At the centre are a couple of really charismatic young actors and a wonderfully bright and vibrant collection of settings. I mean the plot itself made very little sense, the script was a bit spotty in places and Oprah Winfrey was weirdly terrible, but those feel like fairly minor complaints in a kids film. Personally, I switched my brain off, opened my eyes and my heart wide and just let myself go and had a pretty good time. 6 / 10

Dumbo (Disney+, new for me) – Thankfully this isn’t just a straight recreation of the original animated feature, a film that even nearly EIGHTY years on is still a really good watch. This film takes the main story of the animated film and moves it out of ‘talking animals’ territory, adding a whole cast of humans and focusing on their story more. That’s a very good choice, because for a start there isn’t really enough plot in the original to sustain a full length film, and for a second the photo realistic CGI just looks weird for talking animals. So the producers of this film have made some good choices, and then somehow utterly failed to add the magic. I really can’t explain why, but I was completely unmoved by the film. I had no sense of wonder, joy, sadness… nothing, no emotional engagement at all. I really have no idea how they managed that, it’s technically completely fine but I was just not interested. That’s almost magical in itself. 6 / 10

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Disney+, new for me) – As a franchise the X-Men series are really a bit all over the place, so much potential and scope from the comic series but the delivery just doesn’t quite seem to be able to consistently hit the spot. They all have a bit a of a problem over-egging the metaphor and message, forgetting that the films need to be fun to watch and we need to care for the characters. Dark Phoenix has a great concept at the centre of the story, but it then has too many complexities piled on top of it and the characters and relationships become bogged down and lost. Too much infighting and betrayal by the good guys left me just frustrated and disengaged. It’s a great cast that has been assembled, and yet somehow they come across as stodgy a lot of the time. I think the MCU set a very high bar for superhero films, Dark Phoenix isn’t bad, it’s just not quite good enough for these days. 6 / 10

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Disney+, rewatch) – Narnia looked amazing – very natural, even the unusual creatures fitted in very well, although some of the cgi/blue screening was a bit ropey. The acting was superb, the young children and voice actors doing very good jobs. The film as a whole though was too long and that just took a bit of a shine off the magic. 6 / 10

Lady and the Tramp (2019) (Disney+, new for me) – Oh dear, talking photo-realistic animals. According to the article I just read, the film was made with a combination of real animal actors and supplementary animation so that they lip-synced with the dialogue, and it just felt weird. I was utterly charmed by the animals… until they started talking and then I was just a bit creeped out each time. It wasn’t a technical problem, the animation was flawless, but it just didn’t work in my brain. The film is also way too long, the original is 1h18m and this is 1h15m and it’s just unnecessary. Cutting the songs (which also didn’t fit in with the rest of the film) would have been a good start. 6 / 10

Descendants Trilogy (Disney+, new for me) – This is such a fun idea – all the Disney villains have been exiled to an island, while all the Disney heroes live in fairy tale luxury. Now their kids are all teenagers and four ‘villain kids’ are invited to go to school with the ‘good kids’, but they’ve got a secret mission from the parents that will release all the villains from exile. Great concept, but sadly the reality is slightly underwhelming. There’s a lot of teen film cliches going on that the occasionally sly digs at Disney can’t quite overcome. It also all looks a little cheap (it’s definitely made for TV quality) and even the colourful and original design visuals can’t quite shine when they’re done in polystyrene. Most criminally the majority of the songs are unremarkable (with the exception of Kristin Chenoweth’s Evil Like Me in the first film) and the dance numbers feel quite laboured. Things get even cheaper and worse in the second and third films, I’ve really got no idea why I kept watching them, so I’ve only got myself to blame really. They’re not terrible, but it does feel a little like a school production, and it’s just a bit of a waste of such a good idea. 6 / 10 for the first, 5/10 for the second and third.

Secret Society of Second Born Royals (Disney+, new for me) – This has a nice concept to it, the younger siblings of heirs to the throne have superpowers and form a secret society. Cute. This gets the full on Disney TV Movie treatment though and so cute is about as far as it gets. There’s just not really any heft to it, characters are pretty cliche, the plot is pretty predictable and there’s a lack of detail and richness that make everything feel very insubstantial and surface. The younger actors are all doing their best, but the script is pretty flat and there are no charismatic leading adults to raise any of it up. It’s fine, but absolutely nothing that you’ll remember 20 minutes after it finishes. 6 / 10

Artemis Fowl (Disney+, new for me) – I really enjoyed reading the Artemis Fowl series, for a while they were one of my picks for reading anytime I wanted something fun but not too challenging to the brain, perfect for when you want distracting from the real world. They’re well written, but could still easily disappear in a flood of children/young adult fantasy series, but the twist is that rather than following a child hero, we instead follow a child villain, and that really elevates the series above the crowd. So it’s incredibly disappointing that the film completely missed the point. Artemis is still a genius, but without the hook that he’s a villain, the film falls flat. Holly is also lacking in the spark that she has in the book, and that combo means that the relationship between them falls completely flat. I think if you don’t know the books you could enjoy the film as a disposable kids film, but it’s a complete waste of the source material and it left me very frustrated. 5 / 10

The News Boys (Newsies) (Disney+, new for me) – Christian Bale can do many things, but I’m afraid in 1992 when this film was made he could not lead a musical, he couldn’t sing terribly well, and weirdly despite being 18 he couldn’t seem to convincingly play a teenager. He was fighting an uphill battle with a clunky script, mostly unremarkable songs and surrounded by a cast of children struggling a bit and a few adults phoning it in. I was surprised when I read up on it that it was an original film not an adaption of a stage musical (it went the other direction) as it felt incredibly stagey. It really was a bit of a slog to get through. 5 / 10

Star Wars

I had a week off at the start of December and rather than going on Chicago as planned, I got a Disney+ subscription and settled in to watch all the Star Wars films. I like Star Wars, but I’ve never been obsessive about it in the way that I can be about other sci fi. The universe is incredibly rich, and the stories that are created in the films are reasonably solid, if alternately overwhelmed with over-complicated politics, or over-simplified fantasy quests. The writing quality similarly swerves about a bit and relies on charismatic actors to try and overcome the written words. But what makes them re-watchable are the beautiful visuals, the rich details of the backgrounds, the rousing music, and the energetic action sequences.

I watched the 11 films in chronological order within the story, rather than by release date, so started off with the dreaded prequel trilogy, before building up to finally watching The Rise of Skywalker for the first time. Oh, and look out for my review of The Mandalorian in the next few days too. I didn’t dig out the Holiday Special (I tried watching the Lego one but only lasted 10 minutes before getting too bored), and I’m also not counting the Ewok films here.

Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace – The miss-steps in this film are painfully glaring. How did anyone think JarJar was a good idea? Every time he came on screen I just flinched. The pacing of the film is also all over the place, a weird combination of action sequences that are too drawn out (the pod racing being the key offender) and scenes that are way to short and topped and tailed with transition effects that ruin any flow. Oh and some dialogue that feels like it missed the final draft to take it from functional to realistic. But there’s good in there too, excellent effects, well choreographed action, breathtaking music, a couple of good twists and some good actors trying their best to rise above the dialogue. It just really needed a good polish all over. 6 / 10

Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones – This whole film could have been improved hugely by removing just about any scene featuring Amidala and Anakin. I know it’s an important part of the whole story… but the scenes really were very bad. They were poorly written, poorly acted (well, Natalie Portman was doing her best, but Hayden Christensen is just not very good), it was creepy rather than romantic and the whole thing was so overblown with multiple costumes and locations that any impact of the doomed romance was truly lost. Remove those scenes and you’ve got a fairly likeable film in the finest tradition of Star Wars with some great action sequences, (Yoda with a light saber!), some funny one liners and an interesting contribution to the wider plot if you chose to pay attention to it. 5 / 10

BONUS Star Wars: The Clone Wars – I can’t be bothered to go down the rabbit hole of whether this is cannon or not, but I’m including it here because I watched it so I want credit. It’s not very good. I did like the animation, and I also like the idea of filling in the gaps between the films and getting to see a bit more of Obi Wan and Anakin’s adventures, but it’s undermined by a not very good voice cast. I never lost awareness that it was actors in a studio reading lines and so any of the nice character moments, flashes of humour or dramatic tension just fell completely flat. Still, at least it didn’t have Anakin and Padme mooning around. 5/10

Star Wars 3: Revenge of the Sith – This film was trapped by the plot it had to follow, i.e. flipping Anakin from hero to villain, giving characters the confrontations they needed but having everyone walk away from the fights to live for the later episodes. It sometimes felt more like the writers were plumbing in pipes to join A to B than writing satisfying narratives. I do think they did about as good a job as they could under the circumstances, but that didn’t make it amazing, particularly given that Hayden Christensen really didn’t have the acting ability to pull off the complexity needed for the character. It did a solid but unspectacular job, it had humour, action, adventure, intrigue, great special effects, interesting fights, but as usual let down by some terrible terrible dialogue that the actors did their best to chew through. The star of the film (and possibly the entire series) however was obviously R2D2 – he flies, he catches, he shoots, he sets things on fire! I think everyone does their best, but when the outstanding thing is a tin can that beeps, it’s not a great sign. 6 / 10

Solo: A Star Wars Story – The film got off to a bad start with a pet peeve of mine – over-colourisation and dim lighting. I thought it was just to hammer home the metaphorical dinginess of Solo’s home planet, but it followed him the whole film. Scenes looked grainy, dull, indistinct and colour filtered beyond any believability. With the visual spectacle crippled, there was more reliance on the story and there was a bit of a struggle there too as too many characters came and went too quickly, and so many betrayals that it was hard to emotionally connect to anyone. The plot also felt too bitty (a common challenge with Star Wars films, and in fact fantasy films in general) – go here, get the thing, go there, get the thing. On a surface level, I was entertained by the film – some sparky dialogue, funny one liners, and good acting, which have been a struggle for some Star Wars films. But it completely failed to immerse me and overall left me underwhelmed. 6 / 10

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – On the plus side, this film does a much more elegant job that Episode 3 of filling in some gaps in the overall Star Wars story. It’s all a bit “B story”, but in many ways the focus here on some of the “little people” behind the scenes expands the universe even further – everyone in the background has their own story even if they’re not directly connected to a Skywalker. That sentiment is admirable and a nice idea, but the delivery was a little underwhelming. The story was another convoluted sequence of “go here, do this, go to another planet, do another thing etc etc”. It relied on an increasingly ridiculous series of activities, technology and poor decisions and any sense of credibility disappeared quite early on. The characters were all quite one-note, without getting a chance to show complexity, most annoyingly the two lead characters – sanctimonious Cassian and flip-flopping Jyn. The wider cast seemed far more interesting, but with so many people crowding the screen didn’t really get any development. 5 / 10

Star Wars 4: A New Hope – I’ve seen this film more times than I can count, and it’s hard to review it objectively as a film rather than the foundation of a mega-empire. Sitting in the middle of my chronological watch, A New Hope is a breath of fresh air. All the other films have at struggled or completely failed to find the effortlessness of A New Hope. Maybe it was the pressure of trying to fit in and live up to a legend, whereas A New Hope could just do whatever it liked.
The thing about the original Star Wars trilogy is that they’re fun and a spectacle. Yes there are some serious storylines and character developments going on, but they’re not bogged down by that. You’re never far from a laugh or from a stunning effects sequence that even over 40 years later still completely mesmerize. Some of the dialogue is pretty clunky, but the actors are good enough to step lightly over it and move on. The universe that is being created is introduced gradually, starting small and expanding outwards no faster than the plot needs or the audience can take. Nothing in the film overwhelms or feels like it’s trying too hard, it’s just doing its own thing without any care or pressure. Just fun. 8 / 10

Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back – Empire Strikes Back is a great middle installment. It moves everything along, but also manages to slow down a bit and flesh out some of the details. The decision to jump the story forward by a few years is a good one, meaning we jump straight into the middle of a new adventure without getting bogged down in the details of how we got from the end of the last movie to the start of this one. It means the story and the characters have all moved on a bit and it’s like we’ve just dropped in. There’s a good blend of light and dark, plot and action, drama and comedy, big and small. Luke learning more about the force may have dragged a bit if not for the wonderful creation of Yoda an inspired choice to make a master of the mind a tiny green muppet. There’s a lot more darkness in this film than in the previous installment, which as the name implies was a lot more hopeful than this rather desperate fan. I just wish that I could get to experience the shock of the reveal of Darth Vader as that must have been truly something. 8 / 10

Star Wars 6: Return of the Jedi – I watched all three of the original trilogy back to back, and unfortunately Return of the Jedi feels like the series stumbled at the last hurdle. I’m not sure whether they were trying to make something lighter than Empire Strikes Back and just went too far, but the whole film lost the balance of drama and comedy that the previous films had and fell straight into daft. Thankfully the overall plot with Darth Vader and the Empire is still solid and draws everything together well, and the character arcs are also well built. However the main activity of the film is just a bit too focused on cuteness, comedy, and spectacle, so you have to almost look through what is on the screen to see the richness. The first set piece with Jabba the Hutt devolves into slapstick fights (alongside the unnecessary Leia in the gold bikini issue), and the less said about the Ewoks the better. I think maybe it was a reaction to bring it back to a more family focus, and I distinctly remember this being my favourite film as a kid, but now as an adult it feels like a jarring swerve from Empire and a disappointing way to finish. 6 / 10

Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens – This film manages to completely capture the FEEL of the original trilogy, in a way that the prequels just didn’t quite manage. Force Awakens connects into the greater cultural relevance that has grown into the franchise, it’s not just copying or referencing, it has the SOUL of a Star Wars film. As the words “A long, long time ago…” appeared on screen and John William’s still breath-taking score kicked in, a smile appeared on my face. And every time a past character, event or prop appeared or was referenced, the smile grew a bit bigger. The plot is still contrived (as my brother who only recently watched the original said, “the force is a handy little trick isn’t it?”) and either I missed or just didn’t understand how the political situation had evolved from the end of Return of the Jedi. There are also some character development questions that are rather dubious in my opinion. But it’s entertaining, the dialogue is fun, the sets and effects are gorgeous, the action well paced and the emotion hits when it needs to. 8 / 10

Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi – I liked this film a lot. It did all the things that I think Star Wars at it’s best does – character, action, fun, and wonder. Last Jedi had me pretty much gripped throughout and never entirely certain where it was going to go, even with the rather excessive runtime. After the film I started identifying some plot holes and McGuffins, but while watching I was completely carried along. The old and new casts felt much better entwined, with almost all the characters getting development and depth, with the slight exception of Finn. This felt far more a film of it’s own, rather than trying to prove something or having to focus too much on serving lots of different fans. It still had the same nostalgia with the music and the style all there, it’s still 100% a Star Wars film; but it felt like it was being a Star Wars film on its own terms. Completely entertaining from the opening chord and title card, to the final one at the end of the credits. 9 / 10

Star Wars 9: The Rise of the Skywalker – Once again, I think the final film of the trilogy might be the weakest one. Maybe it’s because I watched at the end of watching all 11 Star Wars films over the span of four days and I’d run out of enthusiasm. But I do feel that the plot of this film, compared to the previous, just felt a bit all over the place. There were a lot of new elements introduced that felt a little out of nowhere, and rather too much questing going from A to B to C etc and I lost track of why they needed to go to each place. In contrast though the character stories are very well told and the new cast really does carry the film completely, although the appearances from older characters are still welcome, and very moving. All the nostalgia is still there, the effects and action sequences are good, but I’m afraid overall it fell a little flat compared to the rest of the trilogy. 9 / 10

Films in November 2020

No cinema trips, and the only ‘new’ release I saw via online platforms was a very mediocre animation on Netflix that is right down at the bottom of this list. Instead I plodded through a couple of film series – the six Mission Impossible films and the three Robert Langdon films. One of those series was much more a plod than the other…

Mission Impossible Franchise
On the surface the Mission Impossible films are all the same – complicated plots, Tom Cruise saving the world and convoluted stunts. But each one has some nuances, including a rotating group of sidekicks, some of which work and some don’t, there’s not actually a trend either, the series goes up and down rather than learning from the good and the bad.

Mission Impossible: The first film is actually quite different to the later films. It’s got a lot more emphasis on spy work and plot; it feels more thoughtful and careful. Cruise feels relatively fresh and the action sequences aren’t as flashy, but they still hold up remarkably well considering they’re over 20 years old. The plot is predictable as anything and it’s a real shame the supporting cast for the majority of the movie never delivers the charisma that the team in the first sequence do. Ranking: 7 / 10

Mission: Impossible II: Tom Cruise and director John Woo are both more focused on stunts than on plot or character leading to a charmless character and a film that is more a sequence of stunts than a coherent or interesting film. Thandi Newton is criminally underused, she starts off pretty fiery, quickly reverts to a damsel in distress. Ranking: 6 / 10

Mission: Impossible 3: A bit of a bridge. Most of the film is very much the dumb action film that Mission Impossible 2 was, brainless action sequences, convoluted and irrelevant plots, an underwhelming supporting team, a glowering Tom Cruise and old school female characters who get kidnapped, tortured and killed just to motivate the male character. However there are some flashes of what the future holds with moments of humour, splashes of personality from the likes of Simon Pegg and a few moments of self-awareness of how daft everything is. Ranking: 6 / 10

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol: Ghost Protocol is the high point of the series, and one of the best action movies out there. I was properly on the edge of my seat for most of the ‘mission’ sequences, they were perfectly paced, beautifully choreographed, stylishly directed (without drawing attention to the direction) and entertainingly creative. The plot holding the missions together was fine (making enough sense without really making you have to pay attention) and the performances were all convincing and charismatic. The biggest success of the film though was remembering to make the most of humour, Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner are great at the action hero/spy thing but could have become irritatingly serious if not balanced by Simon Pegg’s banter. Ranking: 8 / 10

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: The plot which is as meandering, convoluted, and hole ridden, but then that’s not really the point. The giant action sequences are still some of the most impressive out there. There’s no overloading of cgi like you see in the superhero films, all the action feels painfully real. The franchise is finally addressing the failings of the first few films in its approach to women, they save the men just as much as the other way around. I wouldn’t mind a bit more of the humour and character moments that occasionally flash past, and I don’t quite know why the plot can’t make sense, but overall it’s a thrill ride from start to finish. Ranking: 7 / 10

Mission Impossible: Fallout: A step backwards. The plot seemed even less coherent than usual and it felt like they spent too long trying to explain it which just slowed the film and drew attention to the nonsense of it all. It doesn’t matter if the plot makes no sense (or even if there isn’t much plot at all) but don’t waste so much time on it and leave the audience enough time to spot the holes. I also didn’t feel that it had the humour or character of previous films. Obviously Tom Cruise is the star under the thin disguise of his character Ethan Hunt, but I’d like a bit more interaction with the more than capable supporting actors (both good guys, bad guys, and ambiguous). The action sequences were utterly spectacular, but everything in between was mediocre and bordering on dull, it therefore failed on its basic mission to distract me. Ranking: 6 / 10

Robert Langdon Series
A trio of films based on Dan Brown’s novels. They are that rarest of things – bad Tom Hanks films. A lot of the problems come from the nature of the books, puzzle solving just isn’t a very cinematic affair, it’s mostly watching people think and listening to people explain what they are thinking, which just isn’t very interesting.

The Da Vinci Code – Well, I hated the book, so at least the film is consistent. They probably actually did a pretty good job adapting it, because it’s just as clumsy, ridiculous and boring as the original is. There are so many ideas thrown in that that film feels like it’s a repeating sequence of exposition and running. At least we got to see some nice European locations I guess. Ranking: 5 / 10

Angels and Demons – There’s a little bit more interest here than there was in The Da Vinci Code, but that’s a pretty low bar to step over. The plot of the antimatter bomb and the conspiracy to undermine the election of the Pope makes sense in a kind of movie way that makes ridiculous things acceptable, and it required considerably less exposition, and slightly less suspension of disbelief than the century old conspiracy theory at the heart of The Da Vinci Code. Ranking: 6 / 10

Inferno – The least convoluted of the plots and Inferno also manages to deal a little bit with the issue of alternating running and puzzle solving by shaking the order up a bit to start with running and then introducing puzzles. It did at least make the start of the film a lot more engaging to throw characters and audience alike right into the middle of things with no idea what was going on. That was a very clever move. Everything else was a bit so so, but this may actually be the best of the series (which isn’t saying much). Ranking: 7 / 10

Finding Dory
Thirteen years after Finding Nero, a sequel eventually came along, and after that long wait, it was absolutely everything that Finding Nemo was. It’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny and it’s emotionally manipulative as anything leaving me sniffling basically from start to finish. Yeah, it gets a bit daft at times, but it’s just so much fun that it’s hard to care. The new characters and voice actors are absolutely brilliant and I didn’t even find myself missing the characters from the tank in the previous film. Heart breaking and hilarious. Everything I want from a Pixar film. Oh and Piper, the short in front, is all of those things in 5 minutes without a single line of dialogue. Perfection. Ranking: 9 / 10

Into the Woods
The style of this film can take a bit of getting used to, even amongst musicals the Sondheim style takes a bit of getting used to. Songs flow into each other and overlap, a lot of the music and singing sounds almost incidental rather than following traditional structures. This inter-twining matches the storyline with characters and plots coming and going, passing each other by and occasionally colliding. The tone also take some getting used to, a wry and dark take fairy tales, but incorporating some of the happy Disney elements. The first time I watched it I didn’t particularly get on with it, but this time I appreciated it a lot more. The lyrics of the songs made me laugh out loud and the performers absolutely nailed the shifting and different tones. Ranking: 8 / 10

Aladdin (2019)
When I reviewed the Beauty and Beast live action remake I was deeply critical. I didn’t see the point of remaking an absolute classic almost word for word, it brought absolutely nothing new, just messed some things up. Either Disney listened to me, or they struck lucky with Aladdin because it has none of the same problems (although it does have some new ones).
The film felt like a new version, the same nuts and bolts but some new bits that made it sing. Firstly Will Smith is brilliant as the Genie, no one can replace Robin Williams, but this is a new Genie with his own style and I loved him. The rest of the cast is also absolutely superb and Naomi Scott shines as Jasmine who has a MUCH richer involvement in the story (as well as the STUNNING new song Speechless). The tweaks to the story worked well, both to flesh out characters and move things along. And the live action recreation of both the normal characters and settings and the Genie created magic were vibrant and richer than the simplistic (but effective) animation of the original. The only thing that occasionally didn’t work were the transitions into and out of the songs and a couple of the musical numbers that just felt produced rather than a natural part of the world. I think that’s probably the outcome of a having a director who although very good, had no experience of musicals. That’s a minor complaint though and I can actually see myself re-watching this as often as I do the animated film… maybe even more. Ranking: 8 / 10

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
I’d been fairly convinced before I saw Spider-Man Homecoming that the last thing the world needed was yet another Spider-Man reboot. I was wrong, because they did something fresh and interesting with the concept, so I wasn’t so presumptuous as to say the same thing about the awkwardly named Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, and yet I still wasn’t going to bother seeing it in the cinema. Then the reviews started piling up and everyone said it was brilliant, so I gave it a try, and the reviews were almost entirely right. The film is great fun, it’s got the heart of Spider-Man but still manages to do lots of fun new stuff with it (all grounded in the comic lore from what people say). It’s charming, funny, sweet, exciting and completely unexpected. The only thing I’m torn over is the animation style. Most of it I really liked, it’s got a lot of different styles to it, really feeling like an animated comic book. Many of the individual frames are utterly stunning. My only problem was that I found it too much at times, particularly the odd effects used for the backgrounds which I found so distracting and weird that I actually checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally gone into a 3D showing without glasses. I see what they were trying to do, and I completely respect the attempt, but that didn’t quite work for me and sadly slightly spoiled an otherwise utterly wonderful film. Ranking: 8 / 10

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)
A completely and utterly beautiful film. The characters immediately grabbed my attention and held it throughout, I wanted to spend time with them as they just lived their lives, and I could happily have stayed in their company well beyond the 2 hour run time. This isn’t a story that has a huge amount of plot, but it’s made up for in character and relationships that evolve. The gradual revealing of the history of the direct and indirect families is elegantly paced, never feeling manipulatively secretive, but just incredibly naturalistic. It does occasionally drift into melodramatic moments towards the end, but I’ll forgive that as everything else was so constrained that a bit of a release of emotions (positive and negative) felt well deserved. I believed in these characters, fell in love a bit with the family and house and just simply adored the time I spent with them. Ranking: 8 / 10

Game Night
I always approach comedies with caution as I seem to be out of step with the general film audiences and am more likely to find popular comedies annoying or embarrassing than I am to find them funny. I’m not sure why I gave Game Night a try, but I’m actually glad I did. While I may not have laughed continuously or loudly, there were plenty of scenes and ideas that made me smile and mostly importantly only a couple of small moments that made me cringe. I was impressed at the number of switches in the storyline, nothing lingered too long to stretch credibility to breaking point and the plot moved along really quickly. Similarly the characters were ‘bigger’ than reality, but they weren’t completely out of touch. I enjoyed it. Ranking: 7 / 10

Sorry to Bother You
What an utterly bizarre film. It’s very elegantly made – gradually introducing the weirder elements, kind of continuously lulling your brain into a false sense of security then each time dialing things up a notch so you can be unsettled all over again. I’m not sure that I exactly LIKED it as it’s quite intense, jarring and challenging; but I was certainly impressed by it.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Coco
I went into this film with simultaneously high and low expectations. High because it’s a Pixar film and many critics have raved about it. Low because I didn’t really jump with enthusiasm at the trailer, and the whole Day of the Dead thing feels a little over-done recently. That mixed feeling going in carried through the film. It was certainly beautifully animated and voiced, and the characters were vibrant and complex. But the overall story just fell a bit flat. I saw everything coming a mile off and it felt like there were just an arbitrary number of steps in the quest – how many chunks do we need to make up a reasonable runtime? Far from a terrible film, but not up there with the best.
Ranking: 7 / 10

The Girl in the Spider’s Web
The problem with having a main character who’s closed off and removed from connections is that it’s very hard to engage with her as an audience. It’s not that Claire Foy’s performance was bad, it’s just there was nothing to really connect with and I got a bit bored. I think this series is better when Lisbeth Salander is partnered with another character who can do the emoting, and connecting to the audience, for her. The film isn’t bad, there’s some good sequences and the plot is ok enough, but it’s missing a heart. Ranking: 6 / 10

Over the Moon
This feels slightly like an animated film made by committee, throwing all the cliches and animated staples into a pot giving them the slightest of stirs and then assuming the finished product will work. But I don’t think it did. I really liked the first section, getting to know Fei Fei and her family, the animation was beautifully detailed and it didn’t matter that nothing particularly original was happening. But then we went to the moon and I almost immediately lost interest. The style was lost, everything just became multicoloured and chaotic, characters came and went, different quests overlapped, it didn’t seem to make sense and I couldn’t be bothered to try. The final nail in the coffin was that the songs were just a bit rubbish (and notably Frozen-derivative at times). Ranking: 5 / 10

Films in October 2020

A bit of a rubbish short list of films watched this month. I’m finding it a bit hard to get into films, and find something that matches my mood. I did make it to the cinema once though, and a couple of new releases online.

Saint Maud (Cinema)
I’m a devoted Wittertainment listener, but I really should remember that when Mark recommends something and says it’s going to be one of his top films of the year, I should probably walk the other way. He absolutely raved about Saint Maud, and when I spotted a showing at a convenient time I decided to go and support my local cinema. I think I would have been happier just giving them the ticket price and leaving after the trailers. The film is a tense drama/horror playing on standard themes of how medical carers and religion can go very badly wrong. Both are let into our lives in a way that are supposed to be supportive and nurturing, but if mishandled can be controlling and terrifying. Saint Maud thumps these messages home without a great deal of subtlety (certainly not in the honking soundtrack). My overwhelming feelings were unsettledness, discomfort and a growing boredom and wish for the film to be over. I’m not sure that the filmmakers did anything wrong necessarily (certainly the acting was very good), but there was just nothing in the film that I can see as enjoyable or interesting to watch – it’s got themes that are unoriginal, gory bits that are truly nauseating, and a general tone that’s just unpleasant. It’s not particularly bad, it’s just got nothing positive going for it.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Rebecca (Netflix)
I’m a big fan of the original novel and the Alfred Hitchcock film, which I re-watched only recently and I’d been looking forward to seeing this new version in the cinema, but sadly had to settle for watching on Netflix. Lily James is very well cast as the second Mrs De Winter, there’s a fragile surface to her, but an underlying strength that eventually comes through. Kristin Scott Thomas is also perfectly cast as Mrs Danvers as well. I’m not so sure about Armie Hammer’s Max De Winter who seems a little more insubstantial, but it’s a weird role and this film deals slightly better with the inconsistencies of the character – swinging from joyous new romance to distant, inconsiderate, and frankly a bit of an arsehole. I don’t think it’s a huge departure from the Hitchcock version to be honest, and I think it’s not really much more than a remake of a film that didn’t really need remaking. I wish the talent involved had done something more original with the material (set it in a different time period, used a different point of view, done more with the supporting characters, play around with the timelines) as I think that would have been really interesting.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb (Netflix)
I’m simultaneously impressed and mystified by Netflix, who not only made this slightly dry documentary about Egyptian archaeologists (often with subtitles), but also heavily promoted it. Despite the rather dramatic name, and some very well shot opening sequences, most of the film is a pretty straightforward documentary following a dig season focused on exploring and explaining a beautifully preserved tomb. The narrative is well crafted and seems well grounded in science and history from a team of experts who are clearly passionate, respectful and excited. There are a couple of nice explanatory animated sequences, but I wish they’d used a bit more creativity to really connect things up (eg maps, timelines, drones, overlays etc). I felt I got a bit of depth in a couple of areas, but can’t really join up how it all fits together.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Gentlemen (Amazon)
Guy Ritchie is playing to his strengths here and he’s produced a slick and entertaining British gangster movie. The large number of characters and branches of the plot are handled elegantly, the narrative device of a narrator telling the story is well used and holds everything together. The tone is very carefully balanced with plenty of laughs, a dark centre and a really well judged sense of its own ridiculousness. The cast are all perfectly on note, I was going to call out Hugh Grant but to be honest there isn’t a bum note in the cast. If I were going to be picky and a bit prudish, I thought the language was maybe a little too crude and I wish a more creative approach had been found rather than the absolutely gratuitous use of the C word.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Murder on the Orient Express (TV)
An absolutely stunning cast (and Jonny Depp) combined with Agatha Christie’s most iconic work, and Kenneth Branagh as star and director was an easy sell and delivered beautifully to high expectations. What I didn’t anticipate though was how stunning gorgeous the cinematography would be, or how funny it was. I think a criticism could be made that there’s a few lurches in the reveals, and it may be quite easy to lose track of characters (I read the book recently so didn’t have a problem). Overall it’s an absolute delight of a film, just like curling up with a good book.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Aladdin (DVD)
Seeing that this film was made in 1992 makes me feel old. I remember it as one of the ‘new’ Disney films, distinct from the more traditional ones. I remember feeling that as a teenager it was still ok for me to enjoy Aladdin, while something like Fox and the Hound was more for children.
Even though it’s now nearly 30 years old, Aladdin still holds up pretty well as a ‘modern’ animation that’s got things to interest kids and adults alike. The dialogue is witty (largely, but not exclusively driven by the spark of Robin Williams), the music catchy, the characters lively, the female lead has as much agency as historically appropriate, and the whole thing feels vibrant.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Hotel Transylvania (Netflix)
A cute animation with enough moral centre to give it some depth, but not so much it gets too bogged down and sanctimonious. The concept is good, and the details of the characters and the world are well developed. There’s plenty of visual and audio references for the monster movie fans and plenty of silliness for the kids (or young at heart). The voice cast is really good, and doesn’t fall into the trap of just sounding like the known actors rather than the characters. A nice film to watch on Halloween.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Halloween (2018) (Netflix)
It wasn’t until I was about half way through this film that I realised that I’ve never actually seen the original Halloween or any of its many sequels before this one. It really didn’t make any difference (in fact that’s an interesting idea for a horror film, the ‘aftermath’ of a slasher movie that you never actually see). You could describe it negatively as being very generic, hitting all the beats that you’d expect (even the inevitable ‘twists’), but you could also put a positive spin on it that it’s being classic rather than generic. I thought it was absolutely fine but really nothing more than that. If you’re looking for a classic slasher with the women taking control rather than being powerless victims, then this film will do absolutely fine. But there’s not really much to get excited about.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (Netflix)
This is an absolutely terrible film. The only reason it’s mustered 3/10 not lower is because those scores are reserved for films that offend me on a moral level, whereas this one just offends me on a competency level. Things start badly with the title, which is so utterly unmemorable that I forgot it between viewing the IMDB page and switching tabs to write this review. I don’t even remember there being a hill in the film, there’s a lake and a waterfall, but no hill. Then there’s the lead character who is a pathological liar, but that’s never really explored or explained, she just choses to lie about ridiculous things. There’s interesting psychology, but it’s just ignored and instead we have a central narrator who you absolutely cannot trust. But she’s so dominant in the film that there’s no counterpoint to that and so the narrative is just confused. Then you’ve got multiple levels of conspiracy going on (which I didn’t care about), some magicians with terrible French accents, a plot with holes in it so big I actually rewound a couple of times to check I hadn’t missed something. I actually gave up on the film and skipped about half an hour to get to the end which was just as ridiculous as the rest of it and then ended on a cryptic scene that undermined what little plot they’d committed to. A truly terrible film that wasn’t worth the effort of downloading, let alone making it.
Ranking: 3 / 10

Films in September 2020

The timing of this post is slightly odd. If I’d written it yesterday as I intended, I’d be focusing on the fact that after a nearly 6 month gap (4 days short) I went back to the cinema and the experience was everything I wanted it to be, given a couple of constraints. The Cineworld in South Ruislip was clean, welcoming and felt safe. The showing I went to on a Saturday morning only had a dozen or so people in, well spaced out so I didn’t feel bad that I wasn’t wearing a mask (supported by the fact that I was shoving food in my mouth for most of the showing). I’ve often referred to the cinema as ‘my happy place’, a place to switch off from the outside world, and for the most part I could do that (some of the adverts really wanted to remind you of reality, which I could have lived without).

But instead, I’m writing this post today. With the announcement yesterday that the Bond film was being pushed to April, Cineworld have had to make the horrible choice to completely close. With no big films to pull audiences back in, and get into a regular cinema pattern, closing their doors is the only option. It does feel there’s a bit of an element of studios letting the side down (Disney not releasing Mulan on the big screens, the new delay to Bond), but everyone has to do what they have to do I guess. I guess it’s also likely that with film production shut down, there are concerns about how sustainable the film calendar is this year.

Maybe I didn’t do my bit enough, I only went to the cinema once. I did keep meaning to go and see some of the re-releases of older classics, but just never quite managed it. Now it looks like that option will be gone for another 6 months. I know in the grand scheme of suffering out there at the moment, my loss is pretty minimal; and I am thinking of the thousands of people who’s livelihood have been impacted. But the sustained loss of my ‘happy place’ has sent me into quite the funk.

And what makes that even worse, is that the next bit of this post explains why I think the biggest and most important of film of the year is actually a bit rubbish.

Tenet
I have no problem with complex films, I purposely go to the cinema and watch films to distract my brain from the world around me and so a film where I have to concentrate helps that. Christopher Nolan films push complexity to the limit, respecting that the audience is more intelligent than many suppose and that they want to be challenged. The problem I found with Tenet wasn’t that I couldn’t understand it, it was that I was never given the chance to. There was no breathing room, explanations were rushed through and swiftly followed by action, I just wanted things to pause for 30 seconds to allow me to really sink into the ideas, but I was always being rushed on. Then in the middle of action sequences I wasn’t quite sure whether things were going to plan or not, because I’d never quite grasped the plan, so I didn’t understand the jeopardy and lost the emotional connection. Also in thinking about the film since watching, I’m not entirely sure it hangs together – did the stuff at the start about the bullets actually make sense and/or matter?

There are secondary problems with the film, many of which I complained about for Interstellar too. Dialogue was often mumbled and overwhelmed by some terrible sound mixing. The lead female character was depressingly poorly-written, little agency of her own and an object for the male characters to engage with, that’s just depressing these days. However the cast were very good, the stunt work superb and the creativity is certainly refreshing. The great irony is, that for a film that’s been tasked with saving cinema, I think it’s actually a film best watched on dvd where you can pause to think through the explanations, put the subtitles on to catch the dialogue, and rewind to check what on earth is happening.

I went back to the DVD collection for a couple of Nolan’s older works, and confirmed what I thought, his older films were better. Inception is absolutely a challenging film that requires you to pay attention, but if you do, it does mostly make sense… mostly. I’ve watched the film multiple times and lose the plot at about the same point each time. I’m still not entirely certain whether that’s my understanding, the writers’ explanations or in fact that it doesn’t all hang together at all. But the key difference with Inception over Tenet is that it doesn’t really matter that you’re not completely following it while you’re watching – the action, character moments and emotional connections are strong enough by the point it gets too confusing that I’m just happy to ride it to the end and then agonise over it once it’s finished.

The Prestige is the oldest and by far the best of the Nolan films I re-watched (I didn’t bother with Interstellar because I find it deeply frustrating – but it’s reviewed on my website). The start of this film is slightly hard work as you try to get the hang of the different timelines and points of view, but after a while you realise that you’re no longer having to think about it and it’s all just flowing naturally. It’s a very satisfying film, I was actually grinning at the end of it, so pleased at how the different layers interacted and mirrored everything. Unlike more recent Nolan films that have left me with more questions than answers, this one ties it all together without handing it to the audience on a plate. It’s a film that you want to re-watch because you can see more, not that you HAVE to rewatch in order to understand it. It’s an incredibly clever, elegant film, that actually manages to be better than the source book as it intertwines the story lines much better.

Enola Holmes (Netflix)
I’m not sure whether the world of Sherlock Holmes just naturally lends itself to quirky film making, or whether once it’s been done that way once, everyone else has to follow. This is Holmes in the style that’s become familiar through the BBC series and the Robert Downey Jnr films, full of spark, and speed; bouncing around and zipping along at the speed of the genius’ mind and bringing the audience along for the ride. It’s just that this time the Holmes isn’t Sherlock, it’s his 16 year old sister, and without a Watson to explain everything to, she talks (or just rolls her eyes) at the audience directly. Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame more than carries the film, she’s charming, smart, witty, subtle and original; playing a character with all the intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, but with added emotion that is a very welcome addition. I actually really loved this film, the twists and turns of the plot were satisfying without being too challenging and although it maybe drags on a little bit and lacks some focus, I really enjoyed it and really hope that the open ending means this will turn into a series.

Bombshell
Bombshell is the story of some of the events of 2016 which saw the chairman of Fox News accused of sexual assault. It also features Donald Trump’s harassment of news anchor Megyn Kelly in the run up to the presidential election. I had a lot of emotions watching this film. There were moments that I literally shouted at the television in disgust at what the characters were saying, attitudes that should just be laughably incomprehensible, but sadly even a couple of years after #metoo are still depressingly unsurprising. But there are also moments that made me want to cheer, and many moments of interesting nuance that start to touch on some of the more complex aspects of the issues. Crucially however, it’s also an excellent film with a truly stunning cast of women (Margot Robbie was robbed at awards season), an interesting directorial style and a vibrancy and originality that really kept me utterly engrossed throughout.
Ranking: 9 / 10

The Shining
I can certainly see why this is considered a classic, it’s the king of slow burning creepy horror film that I like, as opposed to the “make you jump” kind of horror, or a gory one, although there are elements of that as well. Kubrick is famous for taking dozens of takes to get shots perfect and it really pays off here, there isn’t a single element of a scene that’s mediocre, it all looks absolutely perfect. The two leads are really good, although having recently read the book, I did miss the more psychological elements with the characters starting out more ‘normal’ and showing a more ambiguous decent into paranoia and craziness. The book and the film are very different, but each is a classic.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Speed
Speed is over 25 years old. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made there about car insurance. It has actually aged really really well. That’s because fundamentally the building blocks of the action film are all incredibly solid – a simple concept with incremental set pieces and solid characters running through it. Keanu Reaves isn’t the most versatile of actors, but he’s playing to his strengths here and Sandra Bullock is the one really carrying the emotions of the film. So much of the stunts and effects are live that they haven’t really aged, only some of the camera quality now looks sadly grainy. Even the soundtrack is still really great.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Cool Runnings
I’m a sucker for an under-dog sports film and this one is utterly charming from start to finish. It’s bright and colourful, funny and exciting, touching and inspiring. I laughed and cried more than once and was thoroughly entertaining for a couple of hours.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Ready Player One
I really loved the book, but I can’t say I remember any of the details, so I didn’t feel frustrated by any of the changes. I was excited when I heard that Steven Spielberg was making it and what has resulted is a good, fun Spielberg film. It’s a family adventure film with bright lights, large performances, wit and excitement. I can see that some might be frustrated at the popcorn-ness of the whole thing, but I found it a really entertaining romp. I was never bored, I smiled at the references I got and didn’t notice the ones I didn’t. I think there was maybe the potential to do more, the cast in particular felt a little ‘television’ level, rather than blockbuster names, but it does what it sets out to do.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Crazy Rich Asians
I tend to not like comedies that much, so when I say that this one was absolutely fine, that’s actually pretty good going. There was a pretty good mixture of melodrama and actual drama. There were characters that were comedic, ones that were over the top, and some playing it pretty straight – but also enough twists where comedy characters would cut the truth of a drama, or straight characters would be put into a ridiculous situation. The only thing that I felt let it down slightly was sometimes it felt a little forced – I never quite worked out whether it was clumsy dialogue, or actors that couldn’t quite land the nuance, but it just felt a bit clunky at times.
Ranking: 7 / 10

The Monuments Men
There are a lot of great ingredients in this film, not least a great cast and a strong concept, but they just don’t come together. The biggest problem with the film is tone. Many of the characters and scenes (and the trailer) are played for laughs, large personalities played by great character actors and a slightly wacky set up. But there’s also a lot of real tragedy and hard hitting content, which while well performed are somewhat simplistically written and just disconnected from the rest of the tone. Sadly the writing and direction just isn’t very good. The moments of light and dark are not intertwined, they’re switched back and forth. Serious points are delivered via heartfelt speeches, lightness is confined to specific scenes. Everything is obvious, predictable and clunky – the dialogue, characters, structure, framing, even the way scenes are lit. It’s not a terrible film, but it is a horrible waste, it’s an amazing story and this cast could have made something truly special.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Juliet, Naked
The film gets off to a slightly bumpy start as it seems slightly uncertain and inconsistent in tone. Chris O’Dowd’s and a few other characters are played large and verging on ridiculous, which just didn’t sit right alongside Rose Byrne’s more low key performance. However, Ethan Hawke is on exactly the same wavelength as Byrne, and as their connection grows and O’Dowd’s falls away, the film becomes a lot more settled and really very charming. The story that develops is believably complicated, and builds on interesting ideas of the things we regret either doing, or not doing. I really loved their story together, but the film itself kept trying to force annoying and embarrassing comedy characters in that just spoilt things.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Hippopotamus
This is the most Stephen Fry movie that has ever existed, and I’m afraid that’s not quite a good thing. A little bit of Fry is a wonderful thing, an elegant turn of phrase, a broad knowledge base and a cheeky sense of humour. However, when dialed up as much as the writing in this film is that turns into needlessly pretentious and utterly overblown dialogue, a meandering plot and a schoolboy crudeness. Even the glorious Roger Allam couldn’t elevate this film to anything other than painful.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Films in August 2020

I’m a little disappointed in myself for not actually making it back to the cinema this month. I did mean to, but the timings never quite worked and my plans to see Tenet fell into September. I didn’t even watch any new releases on netflix/amazon, so instead the below are all just re-watches or random catch ups. There’s an absolute classic at both the top AND bottom of the list, and I don’t think everyone would be happy with the bottom one, but I found it insufferable. The only other notable thing is that I accidentally watched two shark films and two Jason Statham films, you shouldn’t read too much into that.

Rebecca – A brilliant film that manages to create a creepy, uncomfortable, engaging mystery without ever laying it on too thick. The lead characters are beautifully crafted, even the one that never actually appears but guides the whole story. The sets are amazing and the way the different characters slot into them is managed so smoothly with just a few glances and movements. This film is all about what isn’t said and seen and it is pretty nearly perfect. 9 / 10

Moon – Proper old school science fiction – completely story and concept driven. I’m continually complaining about films being too long the editing on this was absolutely superb, the plot never feels rushed, but at the end you realise that not a second was wasted, no shot lasted longer than it had to and no lines were used that couldn’t be replaced with a perfect expression. Sam Rockwell is superb, although I felt Kevin Spacey’s voice was too recognisable for the computer and that dropped the illusion a bit. My favourite thing about the film though was the design of it all, from the lived in work spaces to the bleak lunar landscape, there was always something fascinating to look at that made perfect sense in the environment. A really wonderful film.9 / 10

El orfanato (The Orphanage) – I love a creepy horror film, and this is a great one. The build up of tension and creepiness is very well judged, well timed jumps give shots of adrenaline to the ongoing unsettled feelings. The ending is also very satisfying, revealing the truth at just the right moment and then playing out the fallout to leave the film properly finished off. A true classic. 8 / 10

Peanut Butter Falcon – A nice film. What with one thing and another this is the kind of film that I needed to watch at the moment. It’s sweet and funny, with just enough drama and sadness to it to give it body, but not so much that it brings down the overall feel good warmth. Yes it’s slow, but the scenery is beautiful to look at and the direction understated but effective. The trio of lead actors have wonderful chemistry and the whole film was just a nice way to spend some time. 8 / 10

Knives Out – I LOVE a good who-done-it, and this is a great one. It could easily have been written by Agatha Christie, but also lives easily in the present day with appropriate technology and social issues. The collection of characters are entertaining, extreme but not caricatures and funny but not ridiculous all expertly delivered by a great ensemble cast. The structure of the plot was very well done, the mystery itself really kept me guessing with different options, and the twists and turns kept things interesting and plenty of laughs along the way. When I saw it in the cinema I complained that the cinematography was too dark to fully luxuriate in the locations and sets, but on the smaller screen I didn’t have that problem at all, so it was even better. 8 / 10

The Meg – A wonderful stupid action film about a giant shark terrorizing some scientists and Jason Statham. I mean obviously Jason Statham isn’t really terrorized, because he’s Jason Statham, but the shark is ridiculously big and gives even The Stath some challenges. The film is gloriously dumb and completely aware of how ridiculous it is; everyone in the cast is playing it consistently and there’s no one trying to be too big, or play it too straight. It plays a little bit with some of the tropes of the genre, but it’s not pushing any boundaries making it a comfortable, fun, and fairly disposable watch. 8 / 10

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – I was a big fan of the television series growing up and could never quite understand why in the endless series of remakes, this classic had never made it to the big screen, but it was worth the wait as this is spot on. The key word is ‘entertaining’. The style is dialed up and the complexity is dialed down and the focus is on the great characters, snappy dialogue and fun banter. The introduction of Alicia Vikander to make the duo a trio is inspired. The period details are incredible with great costumes, locations and music, although the grainy film style and split screens were maybe a little overdone. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this, even on a third watch on a small screen. I’m a bit disappointed that it didn’t turn into an ongoing series, but maybe ‘one and done’ is safer. 8 / 10

Emma. – I am not a fan of Jane Austen et al. I keep trying the books, and different film and TV adaptions but for the most part I find them fairly insufferable, in fact the best rated one in my reviews is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This production of Emma is probably going to be the next highest rated. I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say I *liked* it, but I certainly found it tolerable, and at times even entertaining. I think the biggest success is that the eponymous lead character is presented as fairly annoying and ridiculous so I couldn’t really get cross about it. I don’t know how much is in the original and how much is the adapter and director, but the whole thing is all just on edge of parody, overly bright colours, over blown characters and big acting; and as it’s all coherent it works. The only slight frustration was that as per usual I didn’t buy into the main pairing and if anything that romance felt bodged in rather than an integral part of the story. 7 / 10

Hitch – I was torn on this film. On the one hand, Will Smith is perfect – charming without being smarmy, sweet without being pathetic and a big screen presence without being unrealistic. The supporting cast are all just as perfectly played and there wasn’t a single irritating character, a rarity in romantic comedies – even Kevin James wasn’t annoying! But I did spend most of the film trying to work out whether it was problematic. It felt like they were putting a label on issues in a humorous way, rather than being part of the problem, but I could never quite be certain. I’m not going to look up whether I should have been offended or not, because I rather enjoyed it so I don’t want to spoil that. 7 / 10

My Big Fat Greek Wedding – A good fun film that moves the inevitable “frumpy girl turns into surprise beauty” to the very start of the film and then just kinda gets on with it. There’s a lot of fun, but also a lot of love in the over-the-top family and although it’s a bit dated in places now, the central ideas are pretty timeless. 7 / 10

Minority Report – The film holds up pretty well 18 years after it was made, it still looks suitably futuristic and creative, even if some of the effects have dated a smidgen. The twists of the plot are well balanced to involve some thought but not to Nolan-esque complexity levels that make your brain hurt. 7 / 10

Venom – A film of thirds. The first third is dull. We’re introduced to Tom Hardy’s annoying journalist who screws up his life and then wallows, and Riz Ahmed’s ludicrously over the top villain. Just as I was mentally checking out of the film though, suddenly the film bursts into life with the arrival of Venom. Tom Hardy’s acting skills come to the fore, both in terms of physical performance and action sequences and also finding both the humour and horror in the situation. The plot got interesting, the effects were interesting to watch and the whole thing gained pace and fun. And then the third section turned into an action sequence that overdid the CGI, under did the character and left me zoning out a bit again. Overall the film was better than I expected, but it’s a shame it didn’t really play to the strengths. 6 / 10

True History of the Kelly Gang – Eighty percent of this film is really well put together and has great depth, but sadly it’s ruined by twenty percent of laziness. There were a lot of interesting characters, even if they were only small parts of this film, I got the sense there was a lot going on with each of them, no one was cleanly a hero or a villain. But unfortunately I completely lost track of what was going on when the story got to the actual Kelly Gang bit. Suddenly the subtlety was lost and it felt like Kelly turned from a well developed and complex character into an incoherent ‘legend’ that made no sense. On top of that, much of the action took place in the dark and made it impossible to follow. That section really spoiled the rest of an otherwise interesting film. 6 / 10

The Expendables – I don’t think this film quite knew what it wanted to be. On one hand there’s a lot of fun banter between characters, a slight world weariness of the action tropes that the characters find themselves in. But they didn’t quite completely commit to that, so most of the action sequences are played straight, just like you’d see in any action film with drawn out sequences and utterly improbable violence. The main plot was also dumb as anything and Stallone still seemed to want to write dramatic moments for him and an ill advised and weird romantic implication that they then bottled out of. So I would zone in for the banter and zone out for the rest of it, but naturally the climax of the film was an extended action sequence and I basically zoned out for the final third of the film. 6 / 10

Deadpool 2 – This is unfortunately two films mushed together and it doesn’t work. On the plus side, there’s the Deadpool bits. The hilariously inappropriate violence, language, crudeness, breaking of the 4th wall and in jokes are still there. So many elements of the film work so well together and still feel fresh and original, everything from the music choices to the brilliantly directed and choreographed action sequences that were genuinely interesting to watch for a change.
But you know there’s a ‘but’ coming, and it’s a big one. There’s just too much emotion at the forefront of the story. From the ‘unfortunate event’ and the theme of parenthood that runs through the film it just didn’t feel like Deadpool. There were a lot of scenes that I was waiting for the punch line and was left with just a pure emotional moment that didn’t feel at all in the right film. It wasn’t even done very well, it was utterly lacking in subtlety and the kind of story that we’ve seen play out hundreds of times before.
There were plenty of scenes and moments that were brilliant, but there were a number of places that I was bored and the film dragged and overall I came away feeling rather disappointed. 6 / 10

A Canterbury Tale – I thought this was going to be a proper version of The Canterbury Tale, so at least even if it were rubbish I could count it as educational. I guess the “A” in the title should have clued me in. The problem was that nothing really happened for most of the film. Towards the end there’s some more drama, but by then it just felt a bit over the top. The film is I guess a picturesque and diverting view of village life in England during the second world war, although the positive glow and charming locals come across a little more propaganda than realistic presentation. It’s not terrible to watch with a cup of tea and a crossword, but I’ll be honest that I didn’t really see the point of it. 6 / 10

Puzzle – I went in expecting a nice, low impact little film, the sort of thing that can be watched on an easy Saturday afternoon while doing a jigsaw puzzle. This isn’t quite that film. It’s not what I’d call massively hard hitting, but it is toward that end of the spectrum, with some quite deep things to say about loneliness, expectations and finding a voice. Unfortunately I’m not sure that the deeper elements really landed, there were a couple of long speeches that felt contrived, and some of the characters weren’t as well rounded as they needed to be. That’s a shame because other bits were very well observed and delivered; it’s just a shame all the pieces didn’t quite seem to come from the same puzzle.6 / 10

Remains of the Day – If this film went any slower it would actually move backwards. In fact thanks to the bulk of the story being told in flashback, I guess it does actually go backwards. I loved the book but don’t think it translated very well to film, there isn’t much going on. The cast do a very good job getting inside the characters heads, but I couldn’t help but compare the film to Gosford Park, and it doesn’t come up very well. 5 / 10

Deep Blue Sea – Wow, what a disaster. It’s like they took half of a great film – a solid disaster movie set up, expensive sets and animatronics, Samuel L. Jackson, and LL Cool J, and then ran out of money and put two lead actors in who lacked charisma, chemistry and any real acting talent. Charitably the script didn’t give them a huge amount to go on, but the same people were writing for Jackson and Cool J and they did absolutely fine. Maybe there was different direction given and the two leads were told to play it straight, when no one really wants that in a film about super smart sharks. It passes the time, and it’s worth watching for the good bits, but it’s a missed opportunity. 5 / 10

2001: A Space Odyssey – I’m amazed to find that there is no review of 2001 on my site already, meaning I haven’t watched it since at least 2002 when I started compulsively reviewing everything. I decided that was too big a gap to have so picked up a dvd and settled in.
Wow, that was BORING.What seems to have happened is that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick have taken Clarke’s original short story and then turned it into a 2.5 hour saga to show off some special effects and forgotten to add any additional plot. In fact they probably removed some of the plot from the short story in order to make it deliberately more weird and cryptic. The special effects are definitely impressive, even over FIFTY years later but they’re then so dragged out that I got utterly bored. Accompanying some those sequences are some beautiful music choices, but there are also some horrendous shrieking bits that had me turning the volume down to almost nothing. The plot and characters are so minimal that they’re almost not worth mentioning. The whole film could probably be boiled down to 45 minutes, not only not losing anything of substance, but actually adding to the overall impact. 4 / 10

Films in July 2020

New Releases – only one this month, and it wasn’t very good. I did try to watch How to Build a Girl but I lasted just 10 minutes before the cringiness and the accent drove me away (I checked with someone who lives near Wolverhampton and they agreed the accent was poor).

The Old Guard
A small band of immortals come together to make the world a better place. Good concept, unremarkable execution. There’s some nice ideas about what it means to be 100’s of years old, and how you approach combat (and life) if you can’t die. The fight scenes are impressive and really play with the idea that if you’ve been fighting side by side with the same people for hundreds of years your team work is on a different level. But it didn’t quite come together, I think maybe if it had been a more starry cast, a more polished script, a big screen experience, it might have been a really interesting addition to the super hero genre… but it just felt a bit too unremarkable. Fine, but nothing more.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Older films / Rewatches in ranked order
Prevenge
This is so good! I had so many emotions while watching it. Alice Lowe wrote, directed and starred in it and she excels in all three aspects. The script is a with a beautifully judged script mixing tones classic horror film types with incredible creepiness, genuine gore and plenty of psychological unpleasantness. But there’s also some really funny observational comedy blending seamlessly with the other aspects. The directing is just interesting enough to make it interesting but not intrusive (the scene in the tunnel for example). But it’s the acting that most impressed me, playing a character that’s both complex and simple, committed and uncertain, playing roles but still herself. And all that packed into just 88 minutes. This film is an absolute masterpiece.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Little Women
Little Women is probably my favourite book of all time, I’ve read it more times than I can count and know the characters, storyline, dialogue and even the descriptions incredibly well. It feels like there’s an adaption of it for pretty much every generation of actors and I can’t actually remember any of them disappointing.
Greta Gerwig clearly knows and loves the book just as well as I do and it shows in every single frame of this movie. The book is beautifully, faithfully and lovingly retold, finding aspects that could be highlighted and emphasised to connect to themes of feminism and freedom that feel modern, but are in fact universal. The only significant change from the book is to shake the linear narrative up and use overlapping timelines and flashbacks. The first time I watched, it didn’t work for me as I felt it spoilered some of the storylines, big moments of character development were lost because we already knew how things would turn out. My companion didn’t like it either, he wasn’t familiar with the story and lost track of characters and ‘when’ we were. But on the second watch through (and with the help of some DVD extras) I understand what Gerwig was doing, focusing on the women that the characters would become, rather than getting bogged down in the childhood events that shaped them.
This film brought me an overwhelming sense of joy – at the quality of Gerwig’s writing, the talented performances of everyone in the cast, the beautiful design of the period setting and the stunning cinematography. The only word of warning is that, while watching in the privacy of my own home I cried so hard I gave myself a headache.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Behind the Candelabra
This film immediately grabs you, filling the screen with sequins and the other-worldly behavior in Las Vegas. The film was engrossing from the very first few moments, the directions the characters and their relationships went was absolutely fascinating. The most phenomenal thing however were the performances. I’ve never really rated Michael Douglas that highly, but he was incredible in this role. The highest praise I can give him is that I forgot who the actor was. I’ve been a fan of Matt Damon for longer, so never quite lost sight of the actor behind the action roles, but it was also a transformative performance. The actors and writers gave depth and empathy to the complex relationship, never taking the easy route of making one party the ‘bad guy’. If there’s one criticism of the film it would be that it didn’t always seem to know what it was – comedy or drama, biopic or romance. But then that’s what life is, a muddle of everything thrown together. It may make the film less satisfying in the end, but it certainly makes it interesting.
Ranking: 8 / 10

The AristoCats
I doubt this Disney film is top of anyone’s favourites, but The AristoCats is one I come back to every now and then since my childhood – never outstanding, but consistently watchable. The story and characters are charming, the songs relatively few but still fun and the moralistic elements are fairly discrete. As an adult though two things stand out, firstly the beautiful style of the artwork which is slightly more hand-drawn feeling then certainly recent Disney films, the animation of the cats is stunning – carefully observed and then delivered with an absolute minimum of pencil lines. The other thing was the amount that was re-used from other films of the era – voices, music snippets, even whole animation sections from films like Jungle Book and Robin Hood. I don’t blame them for the efficiencies, and it doesn’t diminish the film, but it does make it slightly disconcerting in places.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Trolls
I went into this film pretty cynical, I mean the Trolls were annoying enough as toys the first time round, turning them into a film of peppy singing creatures… how could that possibly work. The main way it worked was by putting a character in that basically had exactly the same attitude as I did and having him mercilessly negate all the perkiness. And by doing that, completely selling the cheerfulness. On top of that, the voice acting was spot on and the design and style of it absolutely gorgeous. It was impossible to not be charmed by it, and believe me I tried.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Brave
Here’s the review if this film had been made by anyone but Pixar: Brave is a very solid little animation. While the over-exaggerated Scottishness gets a bit grating at times, the voice acting just about carries it off. The story is a little clumsy at times, but gets the job done and bounces along with enthusiasm. The ‘princess’ is a suitably modern offering, rebelling against tradition and handsome princes and wanting to make her own way in the world. The animation itself is absolutely gorgeous.
BUT because the film is a Pixar production, I found myself disappointed. I was asked on Twitter whether I cried, and had to say that I really didn’t. I rather expect a Pixar film to have me in embarrassing floods of tears, but this one just didn’t have that level of connection for some reason. It’s not that the film was bad at all, it just wasn’t the sort of ‘special’ that I’ve come to expect from Pixar.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Ocean’s Eight
I’m a huge fan of the Clooney/Pitt/Damon et al Ocean’s 11, even if 12 and 13 did then get progressively sillier, so I was quite looking forward to a female installment and the cast was more than enough to inspire enthusiasm. I sadly found myself a little underwhelmed. The first half was a little slow (someone a few rows back in the cinema was snoring!) and then the heist itself was a little fast, then slow again for the post-heist follow ups, and then a final twist that came too far out of nowhere. The comedy wasn’t quite as easy as Ocean’s 11, and one of the early reveals about the connection to the previous films (staying vague for spoilers) actually struck quite a negative blow that really felt like the wrong tone to set. The plot was fairly precarious (I was spotting holes/needless complexity as it went) and overall neither characters nor movie as a whole felt quite as smooth and slick as they needed to be. Oh and who’s idea was Helena Bonham Carter’s terrible accent? Was that supposed to be an homage to Don Cheadle’s terrible cockney? Solidly entertaining, but the cast can do a lot better and I was wanting more.
Ranking: 7 / 10

O Brother, Where Art Thou
I rather odd film, but I think I liked it, it’s one of those films that I can’t really be sure. The combination of offbeat ramblings and oddly formal dialogue matches pretty well for a modern(ish) retelling of The Odyssey with the mixture of hard reality and whimsical fantasy. It occasionally gets a bit bogged down, the pacing is maybe a little off, and there are rather too many bit part characters that are a bit hard to track, but overall it’s pretty entertaining, and the soundtrack is worth the price of admission (free on Netflix) alone.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Silver Linings Playbook
This film absolutely monstered the awards nominations in 2013, it was nominated for all 4 acting categories, as well as best film, directing and adapted screenplay at the Oscars, but in the end the awards themselves were a bit thin on the ground. And that’s I think because the film isn’t actually very good. It never seemed to know whether it wanted to be a hard hitting drama on mental illness, an improbable but sweet romance, or a comedic look at how crazy absolutely everyone is regardless of whether they have a diagnosis or not. Although the actors were all doing their very best with the material, I just don’t think they were able to rise above the inconsistencies. The final act did sort of suck me back in, finally seeming to settle into a more standard and quite lovely romantic comedy. Unfortunately that doesn’t really balance out the first two thirds of the film where I could have been very tempted to switch off altogether.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Straight Story
The most accessible David Lynch film, although that’s not a particularly hard challenge to win, and while he’s taken out a lot of the weird that puts me off his films, I think he forgot to really replace it with anything. I think we were supposed to be hypnotised by the scenery, or the music, or the grizzlyness of the main character, but to be honest none of those held my attention at all. There are some nice scenes as the main character encounters a few people on his travels, but those interesting points were surrounded by endless boring scenery, and irritating music.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Battle Beyond the Stars
There’s a lot going on here. It’s obviously The Magnificent Seven (or Seven Samurai) in Space, but it feels a little like each character was from a slightly different version of the film and the actors, makeup, costumes and script went with each variation. There were people playing it straight, people playing it for laughs, a character that seemed like she came straight out of Barbarella and people playing it as if they were had a tax bill due and this was the best their agent could find. Some of those elements worked well in isolation, and some of them even worked together in a contrasting way, but as a whole it was a bit of an incoherent mess.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Roadhouse
This starts off ok, I mean it’s cheesy as anything and so 80’s it hurts, but the idea is solid and Patrick Swayze is charmingly monosyllabic as the bouncer (sorry – ‘cooler’) who comes in to clean up a dive bar through professionalism and calm. But just as I was settling in, two terrible things happen. The first was Kelly Lynch who delivered a performance that was wooden even by trashy 80’s standards and infected Swayze with her lack of spark. The second problem was that the film decided it wanted to be a mindless action film instead with increasingly ridiculous fights and a complete break from all the rules that it had originally set itself. As a laughably stupid 80’s action film it was probably ok but I’d foolishly thought it was going to be more than that.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Radioactive
I’d been looking forward to this for three reasons – Marie Curie, Rosamund Pike, and that it’s based on a graphic novel and used the same graphic style. Of those three, only Marie Curie didn’t disappoint. She is a fascinating person, her scientific achievement alone is incredible, but the fact that she was a she makes her story worthy of telling. The relationship (personal and professional) with her husband, and her daughters brings the emotion to the story and is equally original. Unfortunately everything else about the film was a bit mediocre. Rosamund Pike is doing her best, but the script is so clunky that she comes over very hammy at times, and Sam Riley as Pierre Curie is just a bit bland. With the exception of one scene, I really didn’t see any attempt at any visual style at all and the opportunities to explain and showcase the science visually were completely missed. A wasted opportunity.
Ranking: 4 / 10

The Seven Year Itch
A film made famous by the scene where Marilyn Monroe stands on a grating and her dress blows up. One of the most iconic visuals in movie history and the full shot doesn’t even actually appear in the film, only close ups. Which pretty much sums up this film. It’s supposed to be a comedy and yet frankly isn’t funny at all. The wry voiceover and Monroe’s quirky performance are doing their best, but I struggled to find any humour in a man carefully deciding to cheat on his wife and a female character that’s simply there to wear tight clothes and act ditzy.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Film in June 2020

Dating Amber – A really solid entry into the growing mainstream genre of coming of age LGBTQ+ films. The film starts on the gentler end of the spectrum, with lots of charm, plenty of comedy and some entertainingly ridiculous supporting characters. But the balance gradually shifts as the film goes on and the reality of the uncertainty and desperation these young people experience becomes increasingly heartbreaking. There’s a lot going on in the film and it’s beautifully crafted and I think has the potential to be a real classic.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – About 50% of this film is perfectly pitched to match Eurovision’s sense of glorious awfulness. It has outrageously ridiculous spectacle combined with a sense of joy and connection that made my jaw drop and my mouth grin. But that’s only 50% of the film, and the other half is painful, trying too hard, awkward and uncomfortable. Even more unfortunately a lot of that is up front and I came quite close to giving up on the film before it reached the redemptive second half. The second half would get an 8/10, but the first half gets a 5/10.
I’d say a lot of the problem lies with Will Ferrell who I’ve never really warmed to, and is just continuing to ply the same old man-child shtick in a way that is really tedious for a man in his 50’s. Rachel McAdams has good comic skills, but didn’t seem to connect with Ferrell’s improvised style, and their age gap made the love story elements uncomfortable (particularly given Ferrell’s writing credit). I don’t know why they wasted so much time pre-Eurovision, and why they didn’t make the whole thing a jukebox musical (the big music number in the middle was wonderful and made me realise what the first half had been missing). It’s also a real shame that McAdams and the superb Dan Stevens are obviously not doing their own singing, and I’m not sure how the Icelandic will appreciate the cheesy accents.

Older Films
Monos – This is a Columbian film following a group of teenagers trained as soldiers and left to guard an American hostage on a remote mountaintop. The eight main characters are a group of little more than children left to their own devices, making up thei own rituals, bullying each other, having crushes and doing stupid things. But they’re dealing with responsibilities and events that are on a completely different level, heavily armed and under real life-and-death pressures. This film is extraordinary. I had heard many reviews saying that it was very special, but I still started watching it with a sense of duty rather than anticipation. It immediately grabbed me and held on to me throughout. On a technical level it is superb, the locations create a sense simultaneously of both space and claustrophobia. The young actors are incredible, blending child and soldier, innocence and brutality, victim and oppressor; they are heartbreaking and terrifying. I don’t know that any of my words can come close to describing this film and the impact of it, it’s something truly special.

Citizen Kane – Being frequently labelled the best film of all time is a blessing and a curse; I wouldn’t have watched it without that tag, but with it came some pretty high expectations. Unfortunately it was never going to be able to live up to those. Don’t get me wrong the film is great, but it doesn’t seem outstanding unless you continually remind yourself it was made in 1941 by a first time director. The film itself is enjoyable to watch, a well crafted biography that brings together all the elements you’d expect to find in someone’s life – love, drama, humour and angst. The direction is interesting, occasionally a bit too ‘different’ but some of it’s adventurous ideas work well. Whether it’s the best film of all time, I don’t know, but it is a great film.

American Beauty – This is a very delicate mixture in this film that maximizes appeal. It’s definitely a full on film with drama, grit and artyness to it that appeal to the critics and make it’s Oscar win understandable. But it’s also very enjoyable and accessible, with laughs and relatability. Everything is carefully judged and yet feels fairly effortless – writing, direction and acting switching between extreme and subtle and somehow all just working. It’s just a shame that the film will be forever tainted by the presence of Kevin Spacey – his performance is superb and it’s hard to imagine anyone as good at playing on the boundaries of everyman and arsehole. But his horrific behaviour now blights all his works and this one is particularly uncomfortable given the subject matter of the film.

Ophelia – I don’t know the story of Hamlet. In fact, I know so little about it that I didn’t even realise that this film WAS Hamlet until he turned up and I thought “that’s a weird name”. However this is Hamlet told from the point of view of Ophelia, and therefore gives a much stronger emphasis to the female characters. I can’t compare it to the original work, but I would say that I enjoyed watching this more than I enjoy most Shakespeare. The language still feels Shakespearean and I assume there are some sections that are lifted directly, but between the words and the actors I found it easy to understand what the characters meant and felt (which I often struggle with in Shakespeare). Daisy Ridley has a fascinating screen presence although it’s a shame that the male characters are a little one-dimensional, but that may just be a pointed dig at Shakespeare.

Demolition Man – Somehow I’ve never seen this film, and in the 25+ years since it was made I’d also never realised that it wasn’t a simple action film. The posters and descriptions are all moody grey and macho blah blah blah, and that’s where the film starts with Stallone and Snipes in full on violent cliche mode fighting and blowing things up before both being arrested and put in suspended animation as punishment (a clumsy setup). We jump to a hippy-like future where violence is completely irradiated and when Snipes is accidentally unfrozen and starts creating mayhem, the modern cops can’t even begin to handle him, so unfreeze Stallone. From there on the core of the film is really a buddy cop comedy pairing Stallone with Sandra Bullock and both of them having a lot of fun. Stallone cheerfully pokes fun at himself and the genre he’s used to, Sandra Bullock gives as good as she gets, and Snipes gets some great material as well. It’s pretty clumsy in places and falls back a little too often on tedious action sequences, but rather than being just another brainless action film, it’s trying to do something more interesting and I wish I’d seen it sooner.

Rampage – This film has Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson in it and there’s really very little else that needs to be said. If forced I would say that although the special effects are impressive, the plot is ridiculous and the supporting cast is mostly hamming it up (Naomi Harris being the notable exception). But it doesn’t matter, because The Rock is in it and he’s charming and hilarious and exciting to watch and so nothing else matters.

Hercules – Easily the best thing about this film is the songs, as soon as they start playing (actually as soon as I even think about them playing) I get a big smile on my face and want to sing along. The mixture of ancient Greek setting and the gospel music is absolutely genius. The rest of the film is solid enough with some good comedy from the familiar side-kick slots and a satisfyingly spunky female lead, but it’s the music that’s the real joy.

The Secret Life of Pets – From the studio that brought you Despicable Me… and it’s just not that good I’m afraid. It has some really great observational bits about pets, really capturing dogs and cats as animals while still anthropomorphising them for the story. The attitudes and actions are perfectly captured. Unfortunately the story just isn’t anything special. Actually, it was something special when it was done in Toy Story, but fundamentally the whole pitch of Secret Life of Pets is to retell Toy Story with pets not toys. It just wasn’t original enough to hold the attention. BUT the pet stuff did make me laugh the whole way through, so it’s still fun to watch.

Skyscraper – I had a Dwayne Johnson double bill and this was the much weaker film compared with Rampage, frankly because there was just insufficient Rock in it. I mean, there was plenty of Rock jumping and swinging and running and punching but there wasn’t enough real character and personality coming through. All the stunts and action sequences were very well done (if completely preposterous) and if I were watching in a cinema I probably would have been gripped, but at home on the sofa I just found myself a bit bored. The start of the film had some really good stuff, and it was wonderful to see Neve Campbell in a strong role that was far more than ‘just the wife’. But overall it just felt like there was a bit of a lack of personality.

The Addams Family – This is absolutely fine. There’s a lot of detail and care gone into making this a new version of the original series, with lots of direct lifts (as far as I can tell). The style is interesting, somehow managing to make it simultaneously gothic dark appear vibrant in the animation. But for all that, for some reason it just didn’t really charm me.

Interview with the Vampire – As a teenage girl in the 90’s it was almost obligatory to be completely obsessed with Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and yet I took great pride in not reading them and not watching the film. By the time I was no longer making a specific point by not watching/reading, every indication was that they weren’t very good so I didn’t bother catching up. Jump to 25 years later and I spotted Interview with the Vampire on Amazon and thought I’d give it a go. Wow, it’s bad. The story meanders about, missing opportunties to look at the different time periods in any depth beyond the opportunity to spend a lot of money on the sets and fashion. The biggest problem is that the casting is just plain bad. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise are utterly wrong, and clearly bored by the whole thing, both are categorically out-acted by the startling 12 year old Kirsten Dunst. Cruise goes for manic incoherence while Pitt aims for deep melancholy and hits bored apathy. I mean the idea of broody vampires appeals to me no more today then it did as a teenager, it’s a crowded genre these days, but I think even at the time this wasn’t doing anything interesting. I guess it looks pretty, but that’s it.

Films in May 2020

A solid month of film watching, with 23 films watched through the power of netflix and amazon prime, but I am really missing going to the cinema. I’m gonna start with the review that would normally come last – the very worst film. But it’s so offensively awful that I wanted to put it at the top.

Sabrina (1995)
What a truly awful film. I know that this film was made 25 years ago, but even in 1995 I don’t think the crimes against feminism were considered appropriate. Look at the poster, that’s pretty indicative. Although the ages of the characters are never given, Julia Ormond was about 30, and Harrison Ford 53, that’s already a pretty uncomfortable age gap for a rom-com, but Sabrina is presented as much much younger. Initially she is more like a teenager with a crush, then magically after a year in Paris and a haircut she seems to have aged considerably. Ford’s character then deliberately seduces her to get her away from his younger brother (played by Greg Kinnear, only 2 years older than Ormond), who may have been a shameless womaniser, but at least seemed genuine in the moment. Harrison Ford can’t quite seem to work out whether he’s supposed to be playing evil (as the plot indicates) or charming (as the tone and dialogue indicate), so he settles for an utterly wooden middle ground of nothingness. Of all the female characters, only Nancy Marchand playing the formidable mother raises her character above being a shameless object to be maneuvered about. Marchand and Kinnear bring some light to the darkness, but the rest of the film is an insulting mess.
Ranking: 3 / 10

Educating Rita
I enjoyed the maturity of this film. It could have been a very trite film – pragmatic working class girl meets stuffy academic lecturer and they change each other’s lives and ride off into the sunset together to live happily ever after. But the film (based on a play) acknowledges that life isn’t that simple, you can’t change your life without losing things; and having a happily ever after implies that there is one ‘correct’ answer to all the questions of life. The young Julie Walters is fresh, vibrant and just bursting from the screen; Michael Caine somehow makes a world weary character hum with just as much energy and potential. I was not expecting much, and I was hugely impressed. The only thing wrong with the film was the awful synthesizer sound track.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Circus of Books
Karen and Barry Mason are a nice Jewish couple from LA, well into their 70’s now I would think. He is quiet and jovial, she is more firm. They’ve raised three children, one of whom is the writer/director of this documentary. Oh, and since the 1970s they have been running a sex shop specialising in gay porn. It’s the kind of story you couldn’t make up. But while the documentary may start off looking at the unlikely circumstances that led to them setting the shop up, it quickly becomes a really interesting look at gay history and the history of censorship being used to persecute communities. The documentary never loses connection to the personal stories and issues of those involved though, and there is some particularly insightful and challenging psychology to unpick. I thought this was going to be a little bit of fun, but I learnt a lot and was really very moved.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Split
I’m not sure how I’ve missed this film, maybe because I was expecting a film with a powerful central performance and not much else. James McAvoy was impressive as expected playing about half a dozen very different characters. However I was surprised to find there was a lot more to the film. For a start, it’s really Anya Taylor-Joy who’s the central character, and she manages to give her character with just as much depth and complexity. Also the film has more than enough plot, structure and drama to stand up as a really engrossing thriller. It did run a little long, and I did get a bit lost in the idea of the beast, but I was pretty engrossed for most of it.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Porco Rosso
This is an unexpectedly different style of Studio Ghibli film. With the exception of the fact the main character has been cursed and turned into a pig, the rest of the story is played fairly straight and somehow manages to blend a more adult noir-esque film with the Ghibli vibrancy and childlike energy. It really shouldn’t work, but it really really does. I was completely engrossed, frequently laughing out loud and utterly charmed.
Ranking: 8 / 10

No Country for Old Men
I was quite dismissive of this film the first time I saw it in 2008, but rewatching it 12 years later I was more impressed. What I’d previously described as “a slightly uncomfortable mix of a cat and mouse thriller with slow moving thoughtful drama”, I now see as a well balanced mixture of a slick thriller and a grounding thread of characters making sure that the true impacts of these horrors aren’t forgotten. It’s not melodramatic, there is no wailing about the unfairness of life, just a quiet reflection on the reality of the world the events are happening in. I do still feel a bit disappointed in the ending, but can see that the only ‘right’ way to end the story is to not actually have an ending. the performances of all three lead actors are very different and very fine, but for me it’s Tommy Lee Jones that absolutely steals every moment he’s on screen.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Funny Girl
There’s a film here, and there’s a performance. Barbra Streisand’s performance is just phenomenal. She lives up to the title of ‘funny girl’ with beautiful timing and originality, but she also delivers an emotional performance, making it abundantly clear that the label of ‘funny girl’ can be just as much a burden as a celebration. The audience is never in doubt that there is a complex woman beneath the persona. The production values help support the sense of misdirection and illusion and it’s to Streisand’s credit that even the spectacle cannot overwhelm her story. I’ll probably get shouted at for this, but the only thing I didn’t like about it were the songs. I didn’t think it was necessary to make it a musical, and I didn’t feel the songs blended into the story.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Book Club
Really, all you should need to say is that the film stars Diane Keaton,Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen and that should really be enough for anyone. They are playing a group of long time friends who are all very different but have a wonderful bond that just shines off the screen. Frankly I would just watch them all drinking wine and chatting and that would be a very entertaining 2 hours. The icing on the cake is that they are all connecting in different ways with the book Fifty Shades of Grey, and hence these absolutely legends are making dirty jokes and innuendos that had me roaring with laughter. And the cherry on the cake… Richard Dreyfuss turns up for a couple of scenes.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Paradise Hills
This was a bit of a surprise. I was drawn to it by the title card on Netflix which had a beautiful and unusual visual style to it that is carried through the film making it visually incredibly interesting. It’s one of those films that’s a bit hard to categorise and that’s part of its charm, so I’m not really going to try and explain it as I’d recommend you experience it yourself. I don’t think it’s necessarily an amazing film, but it kept me solidly entertained for it’s run time and I think you will get more out of it by not knowing what’s going on.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Beetlejuice
I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen Beetlejuice. I’m not sure how that’s happened, I think because the clips etc have always focused on the wacky central character and irritating goth teenager and I’ve just never been interested. But it turns out the core of the film is actually a really interesting idea as Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin adjust to being dead and having to share their house with people they don’t like. Their slightly inept attempts to deal with the bureaucracy of being dead, and get rid of the unwanted housemates was more easy going fun. I tended to zone out a bit for the more extreme antics of Beetlejuice himself, and tried very hard to ignore the deliberately shoddy special effects pieces that were just a bit much for me. But the rest of it was actually quite nice.
Ranking: 7 / 10

The Vast of Night
I watch a lot of films and it’s not often that there’s something that I feel is markedly different and unusual. The strange thing about The Vast of Night is that while it feels original, it also feels classic, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Unfortunately, I have to admit that it didn’t entirely work for me. I did like the very natural feeling dialogue, but the sound mixing wasn’t quite good enough and I struggled to make out what the characters were saying until I resorted to subtitles. There were also sections that the music was too overwhelming. However, I did respect the originality of it and the ambition.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
Generic teenage fantasy series. I’ll be honest I didn’t really track the plot that much something about demons and angels and shadowhunters and runes and werewolves and vampires… basically the same old building blocks all thrown in together. Plus of course the whole saving the world thing has to be done in between establishing various overlapping romances. It was a perfectly serviceable film to have on in the background while playing with Lego, the only moment I really took offense to was an overly obvious and loud piece of cheesy pop music to accompany the big kiss in the middle. However it will fade into memory so quickly that in 6 months time, without this review, I would have completely forgotten I ever saw it.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Hannibal
I rewatched Silence of the Lambs a couple of weeks ago and, while it may have been exceptional when it was made, now it’s just a solid and unremarkable thriller. This sequel is just as unremarkable now, except that I think it was born unremarkable rather than slowly being overtaken by newer films. It was perfectly fine, plenty of twists and turns, some stupid characters to drive the plot where it needed to go, deliberately shocking gore that was actually a bit eye-rolly, and a big chunk of hammy overacting.
Ranking: 6 / 10

You’ve Got Mail
1998. Different times. The technology, the fashions and what was considered romantic and acceptable behaviour. I’m sorry but I just can’t find entertainment in a person (male or female) trying to get someone (male or female) to fall in love with them by lying. Even when one of those people is the utterly lovely Tom Hanks. Entrapping someone into a relationship, using the fact that you know more than they do do manipulate them is just creepy. That the film went in that direction is a real shame, because the rest of it was great, with a charismatic pairing, some solid supports and a lovely sense of time and place that has seamlessly moved from being present day to being a period piece. I can think of a couple of ways the writers could have avoided the imbalances, that would actually have made a lot more sense for the characters as well. I was really disappointed.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Top Hat
Eh. I guess it’s fine? I struggled to really engage with the film to be honest, which meant for a big chunk I lost track of the plot and logistics of how the identities were mistaken and why everyone was making such a fuss. It’s fine, there’s some funny bits and nice dancing, but nothing to really write home about. At least it’s short.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Extraction
I don’t really understand the business logic of these big action films that Netflix is premiering. They must be incredibly expensive to make, but I can’t imagine that they’re ever going to be what finally convinces someone to get a Netflix subscription, or to not cancel it for another month. You’d have to be a pretty huge Chris Hemsworth fan to think that this was worth paying a subscription for. In a cinema this kind of big dumb action film works because the stunt sequences on the big screen and the soundtrack through the massive sound system keep you fully engaged. But on the small thing it’s just not good enough and you can’t help but get bored by the daft plot, and frustrated by the poor dialogue (what little there is of it between grunts). It passes the time but it’s perilously close to being laughably bad.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this film. It was certainly a very interesting film to look at with an utterly unique style to it, I was mesmerised watching it. Unfortunately that was about the only thing that really grabbed me because the plot and characters left me cold. I never really emotionally engaged in the story, it just felt like an itinerary bouncing between different locations. Similarly the characters never quite connected and I felt slightly uncomfortable with the amount of violence and guns in an otherwise inoffensive children’s film. But then I was always an Asterix kinda girl growing up rather than a Tintin one.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Silence of the Lambs
I think this is probably one of those films that at the time of making it was really something very special, but in the intervening decades has been completely eclipsed not just by other films, but frankly by a fair number of TV shows. The structure is interesting, the interweaving stories of two different serial killers and following not the main investigations, but a small side story. However everything else about the film is a bit dreary now – performances that feel completely over-egged, obvious direction and a completely lack of subtlety throughout. It’s an important step in the history of film/TV, but watching it now the interest is more in its place in history than actually as a film for entertainment.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Crimson Peak
I was looking forward to Guillermo del Toro’s new film. Pan’s Labyrinth, while not necessarily enjoyable, was incredibly original; full of character, creepiness and gorgeous design work. Crimson Peak came with the bonus of not having to be distracted by reading subtitles and another bonus of Tom Hiddleston. Of all that, the only thing that actually carried through was the gorgeous design (well, and Tom Hiddleston being pretty). The house in particular is an incredible piece of work, so complicated and textured as it falls down around the characters. It’s such an integral part of the story and it’s by far the most interesting thing on screen.
Everything else was, frankly, fairly dull. It was neither creepy enough, nor romantic enough to be a true gothic romance. The plot is incredibly predictable, I kept coming up with more adventurous and interesting explanations and then being disappointed when the real answers were so much more trite. The characters are single note giving the talented cast very little to work with, even Tom Hiddleston couldn’t quite elevate his character to anything particularly interesting. To top it all off there are unfortunate moments that reminded me of 80’s comedies such as The Money Pit and Death Becomes Her. After the first half hour or so I was just chanting in my head “get on with it” and if I were limited to a one word review it would be “dull”. If I had a couple more it would be “pretty, but dull”.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Space Jam
I think the most that can be said about this film is that it is only bad, it’s not as catastrophically awful as it could have been. By all rights, the worst thing about this film should have been Michael Jordan who I’m sure is an incredibly talented basketball player, but has absolutely no right to be leading a blockbuster movie. As it turns out, his innate charm is one of the brighter spots of the film, he (and the other basketball stars featured) are sort of adorably amateur but soldier through with self-deprecating humour. Beyond that though it’s miserable. The plot is ridiculous which wouldn’t matter if they didn’t spend quite so much time trying to explain it, and Looney Toon characters should be left in small screen, short cartoons. And the biggest crime – starting and ending the film with R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Red Dragon
It’s interesting how the Silence of the Lambs series has gone steadily downhill. This is a really bargain basement entry that feels incredibly clumsy, predictable and charmless from the very get go. The story seemed to rely heavily on the belief that Edward Norton’s character was some kind of genius investigator, but instead it just made all the other investigators look stupid that they’d missed the clues that anyone who’s seen a season of Criminal Minds would pick up on. Edward Norton is an actor I struggle to get on with, particularly when he’s trying to play sincere and likable and rather failing. Ralph Fiennes delivers and over-the-top performance in keeping with the writing and Anthony Hopkins’ standard. It’s dull and unremarkable.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Coco Before Chanel
On one hand, a fascinating insight into someone I knew absolutely nothing about. I was amazed to learn that the famous fashion designer started out in such desperate struggles, seeking out opportunities where she could. But this isn’t the story of someone with a dream, an artist with a passion, desperately fighting to realise it. In fact the biggest problem with the film for me was that I could never quite work out how Coco felt about anything, what she wanted either long or short term. She seemed to have a low level disdain for absolutely everything and everyone. The moments where she truly emotes (either positively or negatively) are the high points of the film, but they were too few and far between, and too unpredictable. I found her, and therefore the film, incredibly frustrating.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Pitch Perfect 3
The things I love about the original Pitch Perfect are that Anna Kendrick is perfection, the song and dance numbers are joyous, and there are verbal and visual jokes that have me laughing out loud. Unfortunately, the thing I don’t like about the series is Rebel Wilson. I simply don’t find her funny. Her character is just too much, overwhelming the ensemble, upping the cringe-factor and stepping on quieter moments. Unfortunately I felt Pitch Perfect 3 built up her role, and the whole balance was broken. Also it didn’t feel like there were as many songs!
Ranking: 5 / 10