Films in September

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

New to me
Vice
Adam McKay has a very specific style – smart, fast and creative. When applied well (eg Ant Man), I really like it, but it takes a bit of getting used to and can trip over into smug (The Big Short). It is applied a bit more carefully in Vice, making a more mainstream drama with just moments of flare to it that raise the film up above the dry political drama that it could have been. The cast is all nicely aligned, all perfectly playing their characters at the very limits of credibility without tripping into something that feels unbelievable (although my limit for what is believable for politicians is nowhere near as high as it used to be). Vice does drag a little in places, but I struggled to keep up in others, but the performances really elevate it to something a bit special.

It
I was expecting a horror film, what I actually got was an 80’s kids adventure with a 15 rating level of creepiness and jump scares. And it worked really well! The kids are suitably energetic, spunky and acting their age with stupid mistakes and ill-managed feelings. The gang is maybe a little too large making it hard to get engaged with all of them, but there are some great performances from the young cast. The lack of adults makes the horror seem more real somehow, it makes sense that the kids would accept weird activity and go and investigate it when any normal grown up would assume everything was a hoax and deny everything. Pennywise is genuinely creepy and unexpected, the use of practical and visual effects blending well. The whole film very well done, but I can’t say I was completely lost in it (maybe because I was watching at home) and I did get a bit bored towards the end of the final ‘battle’.

Mother!
This review is a bit more spoilery than I usually write, because it’s basically impossible to talk about what I think of the film without giving away the direction it goes in, despite that being one of the interesting mysteries of the film. For the first hour or so I was quite enjoying it. The film starts with a couple of disturbing flashes which set a tone of disquiet which carries through into the opening scenes of an otherwise tranquil seeming existence. As the tension builds I was constantly guessing whether what we were seeing was normal, or whether there was something more going on, and how those initial scenes tied in. Jennifer Lawrence is always charming and interesting to watch, and she is a perfect choice for someone that the audience can empathise with as she too questions whether she’s being unreasonable, paranoid, or if there really is something weird going on. It’s a fantastic performance.
Problems started at about an hour in where it started to get a bit boring. Too many threads of ideas that had been teased at were just abandoned without exploration while other bits went round in circles that started to get boring rather than sinister. After a slightly jarring time jump, the film enters another repetition which does actually move towards an ending, but it just lost me somewhere along the way. After dragging things out, the resolution felt too sudden and I was uncertain whether I was seeing something real or hallucinated, and that uncertainty was no longer interesting, but annoying. Maybe there was too much subtext and allegory to really make it satisfying; everything was hinted at and implied and it wasn’t until I read imdb that I really got what Aronofsky was trying to achieve. That frustration undermined the rest of the film for me and left me with a negative feeling, which is a real shame because there was a lot of good in it and it was very close to being something special, but with any movie around a mystery, it lives and dies with its reveal and this one sadly didn’t land it.

The Seventh Veil
This is a pretty good psychological thriller, with a fatal flaw. It follows the fall proof structure of starting three quarters of the way through the story as a character hits rock bottom, and then showing how she got there (via a narrative device of hypnosis driven flashback) before resolving the character’s story in the final act. There were two problems – the first was just about survivable in that the same actress plays the central character from the age of about 16 to (I’d guess) about 30 and the actress was 36, it made it quite hard to tell how old the character is supposed to be at any point so it never quite feels right. Also the “older” relative is played by an actor exactly the same age. The unforgivable problem however is literally the last minute of the film where the character resolves her story by picking ABSOLUTELY the wrong man, and it’s treated as a romantic conclusion, thereby completely nullifying any arc for either characters or audience and leaving a really very bad taste.

Jamaica Inn
Apparently Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t very happy with this film, and I have to say neither was I. It’s just a bit all over the place, with script and actors all pulling in different directions between drama, farce and pantomime. None of it really worked and it was frankly frustrating and boring to watch.

Rewatches
The Incredibles 2
I have always felt that The Incredibles was one of Pixar’s quietest gems. For some reason it never seemed to get the rabid response that Toy Story or Finding Nemo got, but for me it was always one of my favourites. The story, the characters, the voice work, the understated humour, and most of all the visual style all just really spoke to me and I was thrilled when I heard a sequel was on the way. I’m even more thrilled that it was everything I hoped for and more. The story and the quality pick up seamlessly from the end of the first film and just keep improving. I can’t remember the last film where I laughed out loud so much; scenes, phrases and even just wordless looks became instant classics. At two hours long, it’s apparently the longest Pixar film yet and I didn’t notice time passing at all, I would have cheerfully sat there for another 2 hours. Absolutely wonderful.

Cowboys and Aliens
How can you resist a film with a title like that? Well, maybe I should have remembered that while I love alien films, I’m really not a fan of cowboy films. Unfortunately there was way too much cowboy and not enough alien, so it did all the things that frustrate me with cowboy films – chief among them the strong and silent type lead characters. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are two of the biggest names in cinema and boy are they mediocre in this, both playing gruff and broody characters who only really let the tiniest slivers of actual personality and charm show through. It made a lot of the film a bit of a slog, counting the minutes until one of the more interesting supporting characters or a vicious alien attack showed up. I am being a little harsh on the film, it certainly wasn’t awful and there were some fun ideas in it and as a western it was certainly one of the better ones I’ve seen, but overall I was disappointed.

The Princess and the Frog
Despite having a lot of really strong elements, this film just doesn’t quite gel together to form anything special, at least not by recent Disney standards. I think it is let down a bit by a storyline that’s quite fragmented (very much a series of small adventures and incidental characters) and some instantly forgettable songs. Around that though is some very beautiful design and animation, and some encouraging steps towards representing diverse cultures. It’s ok to watch, but quite forgettable.

Films in August

I thought I’d had a very quiet month for films (compensating for the increase in books being read), but when I looked at the list it looked pretty healthy. Then I remembered that I had a weekend of lego building and film watching which accounts for eight out of the eleven films.

New
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywoodonce upon a time hollywood
I have a great many conflicting thoughts about this film. I’m going to broadly approach them chronologically as they hit me.
As the film started, I immediately settled into it, warming to the characters and wanting to know more about them and spend time with them. DiCaprio and Pitt are both playing characters that are comfortable for them and the audience, just enough depth and complexity to be interesting, but neither massively challenging. After a while I also began to appreciate the style of the film, the loving way 1960’s Hollywood was presented. It as shot with a creative eye, but not an “overly arty” one that felt contrived. I was also lucky enough to see the film on 35mm which just added to the period feel.
I forgot it was a Quentin Tarantino film. It was smart, but not in the smug or deliberately shocking way that his other films were. It was also gentle and felt safe. Even with Sharon Tate as a central character and the knowledge of what happened to her, it still felt as if everything was controlled, not as chaotic as Tarantino usually feels.
Then I got bored. It was still interesting and pleasant spending time with the characters, but it didn’t feel like it was going anywhere. Tarantino’s lack of ability to edit was showing again. I began to wonder whether the film was actually not going to show what happened to Tate as we were still firmly stuck 6 months before that date and noodling around.
Then suddenly we were back in a Tarantino film. The dry narrator reappeared, the events edged from quirky but believable into more extreme and the violence cranked up to levels that I actually closed my eyes for. I’m not going to spoil it but I’m genuinely not sure how I feel about the ending, whether it’s a cheap trick or a clever twist. I genuinely can’t decide.
Overall – There were bits that I loved, bits that I found frustrating and bits that I have no idea about. If you watched the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes I don’t think you’d ever connect them as the same film and I don’t think that the transition is managed very well. It’s an interesting film, and almost a film that’s designed to be studied and talked about, but there’s also a lot to enjoy in it.

New for me
simple favourA Simple Favour
This film covers the full range from daft physical comedy to fairly tragic drama and I really cannot decide whether it’s a complete muddle, or a delicious mixture. In Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively it certainly has a charismatic pair of actresses, both mostly playing to type but adding in a twist of something unusual. Kendrick is the perfect soccer-mom, simultaneously insufferable and lovely, but develops (or reveals) a thread of ruthlessness. Lively is all glamour and attitude, but with a thread of vulnerability buried underneath. The plot and the actresses just about keeping the guessing game going of who is the victim and who the aggressor. I don’t think the blending of the black comedy quite worked, but if it fails, it’s an admirable failure, and the actresses make it an enjoyable watch anyway.

rawRaw
First off, this is definitely not a film to watch while eating dinner, I’m not incredibly squeamish, but I did avert my eyes from the screen quite a lot while watching and I certainly wouldn’t want to watch it at the cinema. The film is a very slow build, it feels like each scene lasts a long time and each step of the story is a long time coming. During that time I did get a little bored and it gave me too much time to start thinking about what people should be saying, asking and doing. If the film had moved along a bit faster, or supporting characters had been fleshed out a bit more (pardon the pun) I wouldn’t have had the time to find the flaws.

man upMan Up
This film is a roller-coaster. There are bits that I found utterly charming, refreshingly truthful and pleasingly self aware; but there are a few bits that I found myself getting very cross about (playing stalking and attempted sexual assault for laughs, some gender double standards that aren’t challenged quite quickly enough) that rather soured it for me. There were times I completely believed in the characters and their vulnerabilities, but other times they just tipped out of credibility for me. I think it’s probably a ‘good enough’ – solid rom com set up, charismatic leads and a tight pace thanks to all being set in one day. But it’s not going to be one I go back to.

Rewatches
shaun of the deadShaun of the Dead
A brilliantly entertaining film from the first second to the last. There is so much going on, packed in something that on the surface is quite small. To say it’s funny is an understatement and not a surprise, every single second is packed with visual gags, directing jokes, one-liners, long running jokes, callbacks, fart gags and wit. More surprising is that there’s real drama being delivered, commentary on different aspects of life and being out of step. My only frustration is that Nick Frost’s character pushes too far into caricature at times to be believable even in this slightly out of reality setting. I’ve also previously felt that the ending was a bit abrupt, but actually I can now see it’s perfect as the film has done all it needed to do and doesn’t need to outstay its welcome. Every time I watch this film, I love it a little bit more.

kung fu pandaKung Fu Panda
The quality of the animation of this film is really very beautiful – it has a lot of style to it, creative ways to ‘shoot’ action sequences that really make if feel like a kung fu movie. The story is fairly standard fair, but occasionally manages to swerve around a couple of cliches in a pleasing way. Unfortunately it’s the dialogue that lets the side down a bit, it’s just a bit flat and unremarkable, not using any of its voice cast to their full ability, but most key is that there is absolutely no spark from Jack Black at all which was incredibly disappointing.

in brugesIn Bruges
I wasn’t expecting this to be quite as dark and violent as it turned out to be, I was expecting a fairly disposable fish-out-of-water style comedy of a couple of Irish blokes stuck in Belgium. The deep emotional trauma thing came a bit out of left field. That said, once I got over the mental gear shift, I found myself completely immersed, laughing out loud at the comedy and quite moved by the drama. The farce elements were really well done so they were utterly believable in a Murphy’s Law kind of way and it was refreshing to see such a smart and funny film.

easy aEasy A
I loved this film. The story was original and relevant but grounded in classic literature (as is called out), raising interesting questions and playing with them to extreme but just about credible conclusions. The cast were utterly charming and all had great chemistry, with both adults and teenagers actually feeling realistic. The direction is bright and fresh feeling without being overly arty or fussy, and the dialogue is absolutely hilarious. One of the best teen/high school films of recent years.

lion kingThe Lion King
Another real gem in the Disney catalogue. I opted to watch this film on dvd rather than going to see the new version in the cinema, because the trailers left me craving the film but uncomfortable with the new photo-realistic animation (impressive, but too uncanny valley for me). The story blends an emotional plot with some entertaining characters, with the very talented and well cast voice actors mixing and alternating humor and seriousness effortlessly. The songs are catchy and clever (I’d forgotten that even the sappy Can You Feel the Love Tonight had an entertaining top and tail). The ‘diamond edition’ blu-ray I watched did a beautiful job of showing off the animation and the animators clearly spent a lot of time on how to combine realistic animal movement with more anthropomorphic actions. All in all, a joy to watch a truly timeless classic.

life of brianLife of Brian
This film is 40 years old. 40. I (like many people) can quote chunks of dialogue from it by heart and have probably seen it a dozen times. But it’s been a good few years since I last saw it and put the dvd in thinking I was going to be disappointed, or even bored. But it is still completely brilliant. Somehow even 40 years on (40!) the material is still shocking and challenging, the jokes that I remembered are still comedy gold and there are hundreds of jokes and visual gags that I had forgotten or just not noticed. The thing I was most surprised about was the production quality – the scale of the sets, costumes and number of extras that make this a proper film rather than jut a collection of sketches. If you haven’t revisited Python recently, I can really recommend it.

layer cakeLayer Cake
I’ve just seen this film for the first time and it’s 15 years old. In the meantime Daniel Craig has become so familiar as James Bond (a character and film series I have some substantial reservations about) that it’s hard to think of him as anything else. The character he plays in Layer Cake is actually a far more interesting one, or allowed to be so without the pressure of a massive franchise and bevy of fans that refuse to see Bond as the morally ambiguous historical artefact he really is. Craig is charming and likeable, a ruthless criminal capable of violence, and a real person who’s shocked and emotionally impacted by what he sees/does; it’s easy to see why casting people would see a huge star. The film itself is no slouch either, it’s got style, pace, humour and shock, still feeling fresh after 15 years.

Films in July

New Releases
Yesterday
Review 1: This is a classic Richard Curtis – sweet, funny, and escapist. The construct (everyone except for one struggling singer-songwriter has forgotten The Beatles) is daft, but just about holds together and provides a solid driver for the rags to riches storyline, as well as an excuse to play lots of great Beatles songs. I’ll confess that I fall in the middle ground of Beatles fandom – I’m very familiar with their songs, and I like them, but I’m not overwhelmed by them. That meant when they came on in the film, I smiled, but I didn’t feel the sense of joy and desperation to rush out and listen to their back catalog the way I did with Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody. It will not have a lasting impact on me, and I can’t imagine it becoming a classic, but it’s entertaining mush for a lazy brain.
Review 2: This is classic Richard Curtis – contrived, wafer thin and sexist. If you don’t think about anything too hard it’s ok, but it’s all surface polish over something darker. The concept was fun, but the details were inconsistent with an erratic approach to what/who were so influenced by The Beatles that they no longer exist. The central love story meanwhile is deeply problematic, I didn’t get a huge amount of romantic chemistry from the pairing and the lead female is reduced to a besotted groupie following him around. She just about rescues some agency for herself but it’s presented as making his life difficult. The resolution of the plot was a lot less satisfying than the set up of it, including a scene late in the film (in a cottage) that I felt rather uncomfortable about and an ending that tied everything up in an utterly improbably neat bow. Haven’t we moved on from this stuff yet?

I Am Mother
One of the annoyances I have with Netflix (or maybe it’s just on the xbox Netflix app) is that it automatically starts playing the trailers whenever you even hover over anything AND that so many trailers give away too much of the film. That’s the case with I Am Mother and it spoiled the film for me because I knew too much of where it was going and it’s a film that would be much better to just naturally grow the tensions instead of being one where you’re waiting for the inevitable. Excepting that there’s a very solid science fiction story here which works on multiple levels. I was surprised by the quality, even if the surprise of the story was spoiled.

New to me
McQueen
This is one of those rare documentaries that in the space of just 111 minutes gives you a startling informative and emotive look into a world, even one that you know nothing about, and possibly care even less about. I probably somewhere in my brain knew that there was a fashion designer called Alexander McQueen, I’d maybe even read news stories that he had commited suicide (and the tone of the film is immediately doom laden enough that it’s obvious his story is not going to have a happy ending), but I had no idea that one of the UK’s leading fashion designers was in fact a Lewisham lad from a very ‘normal working class family’. The documentary had me absolutely gripped, the candid interviews with his friends and colleagues and lots of archival footage digging in to how and why he was such a superstar, and how that effected him. For the first time I really feel like I understood fashion as an art form, an expression of ideas rather than something to wear. I was completely engrossed and deeply moved.

Ghost Rider
If I were being charitable to the film I would point out that I was exceptionally tired when I started watching, but it was only 7.30pm and I hoped that I’d at least make it through the 2 hour runtime to make it a reasonable bed time for a grown woman. I gave up after an hour and decided that the grown up choice was to not torture myself with any further drivel. I had to double check the year this was made as it looked and felt like a low budget 80’s film, not something that apparently cost only 20% less than Iron Man and was released a year earlier. It was truly terrible – awful script, stunningly bad acting and utterly horrific special effects (unnecessary blue screening meant even simple scenes were polluted by this). The basic plot would have been fine, but without even a quarter way decent scripts or performances then it’s just painful. I rarely quit a film in the middle, but this was just unbearable.

Den skyldige (The Guilty)
I watched the first half of the film thinking that this was something very special, but unfortunately I gradually turned to thinking that the film was trying to be something very special, but was actually falling slightly off the mark. The film is almost a single performance, Jakob Cedergren giving an absolutely storming performance as the less-than-perfect police officer who is on the receiving end of an emergency call from a woman reporting that she’s being abducted. He is constrained to the end of the phone, engaging with different people involved in the case – the public and other police officers. It’s a great set up and a great performance (also by the people on the unseen people on the phone), but the plot just slightly under-delivers. I found it predictable and frustratingly slow; the lack of proper process left me irritated and detracted from the drama rather than improved it. It’s still a really very good thriller, the tension at times almost painful, but it falls slightly short of being the outstanding piece that it felt like it was trying to be.

Atomic Blonde
What a great film. It’s fun and stylish, with a quirky tone and great soundtrack; but it’s also a really incredibly solid spy thriller that kept me guessing. The action sequences are exquisitely choreographed and performed, you can feel every hit along with the characters. It did occasionally wallow in the stylistic elements which I found distracting, but as soon as things started moving again it immediately grabbed me back again.

The Happytime Murders
There is a really great noir detective movie here, set in a world mixing puppets and people. It’s got all the necessary elements, traumatic pasts, Hollywood glamour and the darkness just behind it, stories and relationships with lots of history. It’s a real shame that they decided to make it a crude comedy rather than just telling it straight (see Detective Pikachu) or even just a knowing spoof. I don’t like crude comedies generally, but I don’t think this was a very good one. The design and creativity of the world they’ve built though is fascinating and still worth watching the film for, but it’s a missed opportunity for something clever.

The Dark Tower
Despite a lot of interesting stuff going on with this film, my over-riding thought during most of the film was “what is going on with Idris Elba’s accent?”. When Matthew McConaughey is in a film I know I’m going to have problems with understanding people, but I didn’t expect to have problems with Idris Elba! Writing my review 5 days after watching the film and that’s still my abiding memory. When I really think about it I can remember some stuff about the plot and some nice ideas, but they’re really fading from my memory leaving just a bit of a gap where something more substantial should have been.

Houseboat
I really wish I could let it go about the age differences between the romantic leads in films of this period, but it just taints them all. Added on to this is the discomfort of the lead character being pretty mean to his children at the start and there was a bad taste in my mouth that never quite recovered despite the sharp script and charismatic leads.

Rewatches
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Some classics, particularly science fiction ones, really don’t age well. Either the ideas become outlandish, or the filming styles and technology begin to look really scruffy, best case scenario is sometimes that the film ends up being so influential that everyone else builds on and parodies the ideas so much that the original ends up looking weirdly derivative despite having actually been there first. None of this happens with Close Encounters. Through some form of outright magic, Spielberg’s 1977 film is as much a masterpiece today as it was then. The characters and performances are all so grounded, the themes and filming techniques are so simple that they don’t really age, and the emotions are as real today as they were over 40 years ago. Even the simple 5 note refrain that is so incredibly familiar lands in the movie in a way that gave me genuine goosebumps.

The Illusionist – The challenge with films about magic is that it’s hard to make the tricks seem impressive while not making them unbelievable. Unfortunately The Illusionist does not manage this, several of the tricks presented on stage and off it did not seem possible, pushed just a little too far to be truly credible and therefore undermining the whole story and breaking my investment in it. The other pet peeve of mine they hit were unnecessary and eratic accents – set in Vienna, some attempted accents while others didn’t and it was just jarring. It’s a shame because everything else is there and really drew me in.

Memento – An excellent film that tries to be clever and actually not only *is* clever, but is also enjoyable to watch! The twists are numerous and the plot complex, but it is followable on the first viewing, although I suspect it will gain much from a second viewing. The principle idea of a character with no short term memory is fascinating, and Guy Pearce is outstanding in the lead role.

Films in June

Toy Story 4
The ‘original trilogy’ told the story of the toys lives with Andy and seemed like a complete story, that had us saying goodbye to all the characters moving on to the next stages in their lives. When a fourth film was announced it seemed unnecessary. The trilogy was near perfect, it didn’t need more, and I was worried it would be an unnecessary blight on perfection. I’m not sure whether it was or not.
On one hand, it is a wonderful film. It has great new characters (although that did turn many of the ‘old’ characters into borderline cameos), creative ideas, a solid story, lots of laughs, plenty of action and a huge amount of heart. It looks absolutely stunning with Pixar continuing to push the boundaries of the the technology (the textures, the rain, the lighting), but also designing shots that have the sort of directorial artistry of framing, composition and lighting that any live action director would be seeking.
On the other hand, I wish I’d never seen it. The third film ended on the closing of on chapter of the toys’ lives and the opening of a new chapter. This film shows that it’s not quite that simple, and Woody is put in a situation where he has to chose what he wants to do. It’s tough to explain without spoiling it, but I did not like the choice that was engineered and the option that was taken. I hated it. I just about held off the full on heaving crying in the cinema, but even a week on, just thinking about it leaves me quietly devastated. While Toy Story 3 made me cry as well, I was left with an overall sense of happiness, Toy Story 4 left me very sad. So, an excellent film, that I don’t want to think about any more and I think may mean I can never watch any of the films again.

Late Night
Emma Thompson as an acerbic late night talk show host is everything I could have hoped for. She is biting and cruel with just enough humanity hidden under the surface to make her likable. Mindy Kaling is the perfect opposite – positive and hopeful with a layer of grit hiding underneath to make her not a simpering push over. The film touches on some very interesting ideas about how to appeal to the masses without undermining your principles, and what discrimination and inclusion look like now. But I think it slightly shied away from those issues before really getting to the crux of them. The film is hugely entertaining, but I found myself a little irritated that it didn’t take some of it didn’t push the issues as far as it could and tied everything up with a nice bow at the end.

New to me
Free Solo: This is one of those classic documentaries that looks like it is about one thing, but is in fact a character study of the person that is doing the thing. The thing in question is the absolutely bonkers idea of climbing nearly 3000ft of cliff face without the aid of any equipment or safety ropes – you fall you die. The film is beautifully shot to really give you a sense of the scale and the difficulty of this challenge and it’s not one for those suffering from vertigo. But, all the way through the film, the real focus is on Alex Honnold as he prepares physically and mentally. Honnold is very good company – introspective, warm and open. I can simultaneously completely relate to him, while also not understanding how he could chose to do the things he does. The people surrounding him (including the film crew) who share fly on the wall scenes and short interviews grounds both Honnold and the film as a whole, showing how ‘normal’ people react to the extreme elements of Honnold’s activities. I was completely gripped throughout the film, blown away by the Honnold’s phenomenal physical and mental achievement and grateful to have been given this insight into an incredible experience and person.

The Beguiled: A film that makes me want to read the original book, because the concepts are so fascinating, but sadly the delivery of them in the film is underwhelming. The twists and complexities of the characters were undermined by a collection of alternately bland and over the top characters, and a script that lurched from ambiguous to overly pointed every few minutes. The whole thing felt quite muddled in tone with most of it trying to be subtle and understated, but occasional characters or scenes trampling through. To add insult to injury, I didn’t get on with the directorial style either, too much of it was in shadows and darkness to hold my attention.

Charade: A really twisting ride where I was pretty unsure at which direction anything was going and who was really on which side. I did spot the ending a fair way off, but there were still plenty of smaller mysteries along the way. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are both wonderful to watch and their bantering chemistry is lovely and almost enough to overcome the discomfort of the 25 year old age gap, but sadly not quite.

American Animals: There’s a couple of strong ideas at the heart of this film, but I don’t think it quite managed to deliver on either of them. The film is based on a true story of a group of college students who decide to pull a heist, based mostly on their knowledge from film and TV. The story is more than sufficient to carry the film along, it starts as a lot of fun but grows darker in a very satisfying way. The story telling is augmented by pieces to camera by the real people, and touches upon the fact that different people remember, or tell events differently, which is a really interesting idea but I don’t think it quite lands fully. The pieces to camera interrupted the flow and didn’t quite align with the tone of the film, making the fun bits suddenly serious, and the darker bits more irreverent. Not enough was really made of the potential for different versions of the truth, at first it was treated more for laughs and quirkiness and then it was suddenly thrown in towards the end as a serious point that kind of undermined a lot that had gone before. I did enjoy the film, and it’s worth certainly worth watching, but I think there might have been something truly outstanding possible that didn’t quite stick the landing which left me frustrated.

RBG: It’s quite hard sometimes to separate the subject of a documentary from the quality of the documentary, and this is one of those cases. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an absolute legend, one of the few people that can genuinely be said to have changed the world within her own lifetime. She has fought her whole life for civil rights, battling from within the system that is restricting her, to make it better for herself, those that are victims of discrimination, and for the whole country. She fights not just because it’s not fair, but because the outcome is better for everyone. The story of her life (and those around her, most notably her husband) is a true inspiration. The documentary itself is fairly unremarkable, it’s played completely straight with little embellishment or style, but when the subject stands for itself so strongly, it doesn’t need anything more. I should probably complain a bit about the fact there is minimal attempt to criticise Justice Ginsburg or show any other point of view, but I don’t really want to see that, so I’m happy to just celebrate her amazing life.

Beast: Wow. This is the kind of film best served by a vague review, because the film is best watched if you know little about it. It’s a film that you should fall into, getting sucked into the characters and story as it gradually builds and adds layers and layers of complexity. I didn’t know what the film was going to do and every time I thought I knew where it was heading, it did something a lot more interesting. The performances are very carefully measured to make sure the nuance and uncertainty is embedded rather than deceiving. Just go and watch it.

The Program: The level of systematic cheating and bullying present in cycling in the early 2000’s was truly mindblowing. This dramatisation of that period, focusing on Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall, shows a level of corruptness, bullying and self-denial that is really quite scary. The way that all the people involved justified themselves is well presented, with Chris O’Dowd a charismatic counter voice passionate about the sport that he sees as being destroyed. Ben Foster portrays Armstrong as a complexly ambitious person, the film doesn’t present him as a simple villain, but also doesn’t excuse that he lied and made choices for himself and others that he knew were wrong. The drama is occasionally a little forced, some plot lines should have been either dropped or more developed, and I struggled to keep track of characters sometimes. But overall, a really well put together drama that entertains, engages and informs.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Wow, apparently I have never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m really not sure how I’ve managed that. Surprisingly after leaving it so long, I was still actually quite impressed with the film. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and has dated surprisingly well. I think that’s down to two factors – the first is that there’s a strong fantasy element to it anyway, the level of complexity of the capers are far from logical anyway, so it’s obviously pointless to challenge the realism of it. The second is that the emotions of the characters are pretty universal – independent of decade or even age of the audience. My only frustration was that while Matthew Broderick was a star turn, the supporting characters got slightly short shrift, with Mia Sara’s Sloane getting little to work with and Alan Ruck’s Cameron clearly having huge potential that felt unresolved.

The Craft: I watched this on the same day as Ferris Beuller’s day off, having somehow missed both films. While Ferris Beuller was a surprisingly entertaining watch with some impressively timeless, the same cannot be said for The Craft. I just found it rather naff and cheesy, the cast lacked spark, the ideas felt weary and it dragged. I didn’t think it was terrible or anything, but it just sort of trudged through without feeling like it really added anything beyond checking tropes previously delivered by things like Heathers, and updating the soundtrack.

Bright Young Things: I spent the whole of this film going “oh it’s so-and-so” as a parade of actors I like passed by the screen without ever actually managing to engage me. Maybe it’s because, weirdly, the only actor I didn’t recognise was the lead character who was completely bland other than his ability to make stupid decisions. Maybe it’s because there’s very little in the way of plot. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to feel connection, let alone sympathy, for willfully ignorant rich people. Or maybe it’s just not very good.

The Mummy: What a load of rubbish. I’m completely bored by Tom Cruise action hero, there’s not much in the way of acting going on, just the same ‘character’ over and over again and while his commitment for stunts is impressive, I don’t find him charming enough to want to watch him. Some films manage to work around this by providing engaging supporting characters to provide interest (Simon Pegg in Mission Impossible for example) but sadly no one in The Mummy manages that. The plot is dumb, the supporting characters bland, and even the action sequences are flat and unremarkable. So all there really seems to be to the film is Tom Cruise, and that’s really just not enough.

Crooked House: A thoroughly hammy Agatha Christie that’s solid entertaining for a dreary afternoon. The majority of the cast are familiar faces taking the chance to be over the top, and sensibly balanced out by a fairly straight performance from the lead investigator. Being a Christie, the nuts and bolts of the mystery are solid, with enough red herrings and twists to keep the plot moving along. The resolution is one of the darker ones, which is maybe a little disjointed from the overall tone, but overall I enjoyed myself almost as much as the cast seemed to.

To Catch a Thief: Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock, should be a no brainer success, but sadly it’s dull, artificial and flat. The director seems more in love with the scenery than the plot; there’s little creativity to the style and there are some rookie mistakes like bad dubbing. Cary Grant’s usual charm is sadly muted and the 25 year age gap between the romantic leads doesn’t help. Really disappointing.

Rewatches
Despicable Me: The film that spawned a thousand merchandising opportunities! My house is full of minions and they just never fail to make me smile. They are beautifully introduced and utilised with a combination of slapstick and silly noises/words being laugh out loud funny. Although the minions are the standout stars, the film itself is very well put together, with a sweet and engaging plot that holds up to multiple viewings.
Despicable Me 2: The producers of Despicable Me clearly learnt from the first film that while the story was enjoyable enough, what audiences went absolutely nuts about were the little yellow minions, so they take a much larger role in the film too. And it really works. I love those little guys. As soon as they appear I laugh and I hardly stop for breath. The rest of the film is perfectly servicable, and by itself would have been entertaining enough, but whenever you go more than five minutes without a minion, it feels like an eternity.
Despicable Me 3: Not enough minions. I know the point of the Despicable Me films isn’t the minions, but I can’t be the only one that’s mostly watching these films for the minions. I mean the other characters are ok (the little girls are pretty funny and Agnes is really pretty adorable), and the plot is just about ok but I did find myself constantly hunting the backgrounds for minions and generally didn’t find them.

Sense and Sensibility: I’m not a big fan of these sorts of period romances as I tend to find the characters rather soppy and tiresome, but Sense and Sensibility brings just enough spunk to make them tolerable. The wit in the writing and performances brings life to some familiar tropes and I even found myself engaged in the twists and turns of the relationships, unsure where they would actually end up. While the cast is all superb, I’m not sure that they actually work together as some of the ages didn’t seem to match and left some relationships that I wanted to root for, a little unsettling.

Films in May

New Releases
Rocketman – I was a bit nervous of this film going in. I’m not a particular fan of Elton John and I’d been frustrated by Bohemian Rhapsody which I’d found entertaining, but compromised in terms of addressing the full story of Queen and Freddie Mercury. Rocketman however managed to satisfy me on all fronts. The two films do share a director in Dexter Fletcher (who took over, uncredited, on Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer left) so there’s definitely been a learning path that Rocketman has been the beneficiary of.
A key thing that’s different is that this is a musical, not a film with music in it, but a film that immediately reveals that it will break into massive song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat. No excuses are needed for it, and they are utterly shameless in manipulating the emotions. Music can make you feel joy, sadness, anger, and connection almost immediately, and Elton John’s music is exemplary and used to tremendous effect. I was completely emotionally connected to the characters, utterly immersed and entwined with them.
One of the cleverest tricks Lee Hall the writer has done is to frame the biography as Elton’s own telling of his story. This is a bit of a get out of jail free card for any over-simplification of people or events or any overly “on the nose” dialogue; that’s just how he remembers it and presents it. Elton John doesn’t come across as a saint by any means, but it is still a one sided story with most of the supporting characters coming across as rather one-dimensional (particularly the ‘villains’ of the piece). But while that frustrated me hugely with Bohemian Rhapsody (lesson – managers are all terrible), it was absolutely fine here because it was all framed as Elton’s point of view. The only other rich character was the lyricist Bernie Taupin, who I didn’t know anything about and was played with beautiful understatement by Jamie Bell. Their relationship was just another of the points of joy of the film.
None of this would have worked without the breath-taking performance of Taron Egerton. He signs, he dances, he struts, he melts down and he does that thing that I just can’t even fathom – plays a character who’s playing a character, continually trying to present a different persona to the world and losing track of who is real. The only negative thing I can think to say is that I was occasionally distracted about how they were managing to dub in the original voice of Elton John because I couldn’t believe Egerton was actually managing to match him. He was. He’s just that good.
The word that I keep thinking of is ‘joy’. That may be a bit odd, because there’s a lot of heartbreak and darkness in Elton’s life and this film doesn’t shy away from that. But there’s a thread of joy running through it that never gets lost – Elton and Bernie love music, love creating it together and love the performance, and the audiences (both within the film and watching the film) love their music. I dare anyone to think of Crocodile Rock, or Pinball Wizard or Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting and not grin. I’m off to buy a soundtrack.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu
I’ve got no idea about Pokemon. I’ve never played any of the games or watched any of the cartoons, so I came with zero baggage. My cinema companions on the other hand are moderately obsessed with pokemon go and quite well versed in the details of the series. I think it’s really quite impressive that both them and I enjoyed the film thoroughly, it quite slickly delivers both the basics for newbies and the richness for fans. I wouldn’t say I understood everything completely, but it was a kind of happy lack of understanding as it all just bubbled over me. The universe of the film feels utterly credible even if it is bonkers, it all seems to have just about enough internal consistency to let you go with it. The plot is well paced and even if elements are predictable, and twists are telegraphed it manages to put enough spin on old tropes to get the job done. But if all that sounds a bit underwhelming, the most important thing is that it’s really fun. I laughed loads and was charmed even more; Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds both have such a natural delivery that it’s impossible not to be charmed into going with whatever they say. It’s also visually absolutely stunning, there’s so much going on (I love the use of famous buildings from around the world all blended in the new city), which makes it well worth a trip to see on the big screen.

Eighth Grade – I went in with big expectations based on lots of critical praise, and people saying how much of a revelation it was to see a presentation of a ‘normal’ 13/14 year old, someone quiet, anxious, uncertain and struggling. I wish I could say I liked it as much as others did. I certainly felt for the main character and could recognise parts of my own childhood, but as a whole I didn’t get lost in her like some people seem to. From an intellectual point of view it was interesting to see what it’s like being a 13 year old American today (specifically a white, reasonably affluent one) – with phones, pool parties, malls and changing schools at 14 rather than 11 as in the UK. Maybe it was just that there were too many differences for me to really connect to her. It definitely wasn’t a fault of the performance, that was very impressive for someone actually that age.
I often don’t get on with films that just kind of noodle along, not really having much of an arc, I often don’t find them very satisfying and that as true here. Obviously a swift resolution to the themes wouldn’t have been realistic at all, but it made me think again of how strong the concept of Boyhood was – jumping through periods of someone’s life to show things do change, just not quickly.

New to me
Lars and the Real Girl – The name of this film rang a bell, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good bell or a bad bell. The synopsis “a delusional young man strikes up an unconventional relationship with a doll he finds on the internet” is a bit risky and I wasn’t really in the mood to watch a film about people being cruel. I relaxed a bit when I saw Emily Mortimer was in it, as she can’t be anything other than lovely. And that’s what the film is, just lovely. It somehow manages to neither make fun of Lars, nor become too dark with the mental health issues being raised. It just deals with them, like people would (or at least as you hope people would) with kindness, empathy and humour. I came away feeling genuinely uplifted.

The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu) – I came incredibly close to switching this film off about 1/2 hour in, it was only really my lack of enthusiasm to find something else to watch that kept me with it. For a change my disengagement with the film came from the fact there was too MUCH going on, everything was thrown at the audience full tilt, exposition was delivered in intense ‘briefings’ rather than naturally and I felt like I should be taking notes. There were just too many characters, locations, timeframes, and plot threads. All of it was interesting, it was just so overwhelming that I never felt settled and confident that I was getting everything. This is a particular challenge when trying to follow very fast paced subtitles, I kept missing the beautiful visuals, or vice versa. Things didn’t make sense, but I think that was just because I was missing bits. All the ingredients were solid, it was just completely overwhelming.

Murder by Numbers – I figured I couldn’t go too wrong with a thriller starring Sandra Bullock, how wrong I was. This is TERRIBLE. It’s badly written, badly directed and even the charm of Sandra Bullock and a young Ryan Gosling cannot rescue it. There is no elegance to anything, no layers to anything. Characters are single note, plot twists are obvious, there’s no subtext or subtlety. The final indignity is the dramatic conclusion which has some of the worst blue-screening I’ve ever seen. If no one in the production could be bothered to put any effort in, then I don’t recommend any audiences do either.

Cafe Society – I remain, as ever, underwhelmed by Woody Allen. Cafe Society just kind of bumbles along, never being funny enough for a comedy, or challenging enough for a drama. I didn’t like or care about any of the characters, and was uncertain where anything was going. The only thing that really engaged me was pondering whether it was misogynistic or not, and while I didn’t come to a conclusion, the fact that I was thinking it is probably enough.

Films in April

New Releases
Avengers: Endgame – I have written entire essays about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the individual films within it, and I could write at similar length about this one. But to do that I’d need to include spoilers and probably watch it another half dozen times. So I’ll keep it (relatively) brief and vague.
The biggest triumph of Endgame is that it stays true to the foundations of the MCU and the Marvel franchise as a whole. Yes, the stakes and scope are yet again take a step up from previous films (even the seemingly un-top-able Infinity War), but it never loses sight of the core foundations of characters, heart and fun. Somehow Endgame delivers not only a universe spanning plot and the conclusion of character arcs decades in the making, but it finds time for humour. It doesn’t even feel like it’s squeezing the humour in, it’s all completely entwined with the drama and the action, I’d be laughing, crying, gasping and cheering all at the same time. With the weight of expectations and quantity of stuff it needed to get through, it should have felt heavy; but the film had a lightness and elegance that in hindsight was missing from Infinity War. The only reason that the film really felt 3 hours long was because I made the mistake of drinking a large cup of tea before going in. Throw in an intermission and I would cheerfully have watched another couple of hours.
This is a film that I think any fan would be hard pressed to not like, because it was so clearly written for the fans. There were so many satisfying call backs and references that I found myself tearing up out of pure satisfaction. It’s not perfect, but given the scale of the ambition it was never going to be. I’m trying to resist thinking too hard about the mechanics of the plot because it may not stand up to interrogation. I suspect every fan will all have a couple of characters that they feel were under-served by either the film or the series as a whole, there are opportunities that have been missed and I almost need to grieve for those as much as for the arcs that were actually resolved.
I’ll often come out of these films wanting to go straight back in, but I think it may be a while before I can re-watch this one. I feel like I need to respect the film by allowing it to settle. I know the MCU is continuing, but Endgame marks the end of an era that I have absolutely adored and I need to allow myself some time to accept that ending. Just like when you finish reading a great book, there’s a sadness that there is no more, that almost feels like it overwhelms the joy that you had while reading it. “All good things must come to an end” and Endgame was a near perfect ending to a very good thing indeed.

The Highwaymen (Netflix) – The Bonnie and Clyde story from the side of the law is a great story that I can’t remember seeing done anywhere before. The film makers really committed to that perspective and the choice to have the criminal pair and their gang as little more than figures in the distance worked very well. The mixed feelings of people towards the criminals makes a really interesting backdrop to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward chase movie. It’s great casting of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the aging buddy-cup pairing. They are both charismatic actors playing to type, with Costner reserved and thoughtful, and Harrelson rambling and personable. They are immediately charming and believable as long standing colleagues who respect each other while also winding each other up. But somehow the film ends up being slightly less than the sum of its parts and it felt a little disposable, not really digging far enough into any of the issues to be satisfying. I was loading up wikipedia long before the film had finished to allow me to dig more into the events, people and issues of the time.

Unicorn Store (Netflix) – I think this was aiming for cute and whimsical but I didn’t settle into it enough to be charmed. The very thing that attracted me to it was unfortunately the downfall of the film for me – Brie Larson is a great actress but she was miscast here. I spent the whole film unable to work out what age the main character was supposed to be. I *think* she was supposed to be about 20, freshly dropped out of college and that would have just about worked for a coming of age film, someone who has chosen, or has been protected from having to become a dreary adult. But Brie Larson is closer to 30 and so I spent all my time feeling uncomfortable that she wasn’t getting the help/support/challenge she needed to deal with the real world appropriately.

Guava Island (Amazon) – I’m not really sure what this is. It’s 55 minutes long, so it’s not a feature film, but it’s a bit long for a short film. There are a few sections that felt like music videos. It has a slight other-worldly tone to it (eg the use of colour) that makes it feel a bit fantasy, but not quite enough for me to be certain. It’s mostly fairly light, but the end is quite dark. It feels a bit like a short film that got out of hand while they were having fun and the names involved could just carry it along to do what they wanted. It’s not bad, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I just couldn’t really get a handle on it.

New to Me
Shimmer Lake – This had been loitering at the bottom of my Netflix watchlist for ages and I had pretty low expectations, which led to a very pleasant surprise. It’s not the most expensive or the most polished of films, but it is a film that’s “enough” – funny enough, clever enough, speedy enough, original enough and satisfying enough. The trick the film plays with the time structure is a smartly delivered one that makes the film worth watching.

Northern Soul – Good grief this was a slog. I really had to force myself to keep watching and paying attention. I don’t quite know why it didn’t work for me, all the ingredients seemed ok and it’s had some solid reviews. I found myself bored by it all though, not engaging with the characters or their circumstances, or even really being able to track them. I didn’t feel the situations and cultures were really explained well enough for me to fully understand where everyone was coming from, it all just seemed a bit one dimensional and childish.

Kong: Skull Island – This was a lot better than I was expecting. Actually, “better” is probably the wrong word, I’m not sure that the quality was particularly good, with plenty of incoherence and predictability in the plot and some middling dialogue. But it was very entertaining, thanks to the great cast all having a lot of fun. The special effects were also impressive, giving a real sense of scale and solidity, and a true sense of character for Kong. It’s hardly the best film of all time, but it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

The Children Act – This is a film of two halves. The first half is a very interesting legal drama combined with the presentation of an interesting conundrum in a relationship. Both aspects are presented with respect and thoughtfulness. I found it particularly satisfying that there was very little made of the fact that the main protagonist was female, the type of decisions she’s making, the power that she has is just presented naturally, not as any kind of gender issue. In fact, I suspect that the film would be largely unchanged if any of the roles were recast in different genders.
The problem is that the second half of the film drifted slightly off the beaten track and made less sense. It subtly switched from being an exploration of rational people with conflicting ideas, to people making more irrational and emotional choices. It’s not that it’s badly written, and it’s certainly not badly acted as all concerned give impressive performances, I just didn’t like it as much. I wanted the more intellectual debate which is much less commonly done. I was just less interested in the melodrama.

Hereditary – I was going to write that “I don’t like horror films”, but that’s not really true. I don’t like films that are just scary for the sake of being scary, but I do like films that are using scary elements to tell a story about really interesting people. Hereditary falls into the trap that I quite often see in horror films (most recently notable – Us) where the horror is handled well, the character development is fascinating, and then it screws it all up by trying to explain what was happening. If not for the final act of the film, this could be an award worthy exploration of grief and anger. Toni Collette is exceptional, as is Alex Wolff with the difficult task of playing someone emotionally shut down. There are moments and scenes which will stick in my memory for the utter horror and shock, with very impressive coordination of effects, acting, direction, editing and music all working together for maximum effect. But then it just didn’t stick the landing. I completely lost track of what was going on, the steps the characters were going through made no sense and the action started to overwhelm the time needed to watch the characters.

Trois couleurs: Bleu – There were moments in this film that I was spellbound by the beautiful images and the complexity of the central character. Sadly those moments were hugely outnumbered by times when I was bored, disengaged and even frustrated by the obviousness. Everything moved so slowly that I kept wondering if I was missing something, conspiracies and hidden complexity. But there wasn’t. Things that I think I was supposed to find arty (the fade to and from black in the middle of a scene, the loud music, the use of blue) I found far too pointed and the lack of subtlety annoyed me.

The House with a Clock in its Walls – Perfectly fine kid’s adventure film. All the nuts and bolts are there, but there’s a slight lack of spark, even Jack Black felt a little off his game, maybe too much exposition and acting to wade through and not enough improvisation? Cate Blanchett was the standout really, delivering a beautiful character that was eccentric but grounded, closed off but emotional, and lovely chemistry with the other characters. It’s worth watching the film just to see a true master at work, bringing her A game even if it’s “just” a kids’ film.

Fyre – This is a well put together documentary telling some of the story of the disastrous Fyre Festival. There are are a lot of different elements discussed in the film, raising questions and presenting evidence and counterpoint to most of them. As a project manager I almost watched this as learning and development as it demonstrates just how badly things can go wrong if simple elements of planning are ignored. The power of a charismatic leader, group think, optimism bias and the damage that “can do” attitudes can cause if not tempered with pragmatism. With that in mind I found it a little disappointing that the ‘ending’ was all focused on the financial aspects and revelation of the levels of fraud one of the leaders committed. That skipped over the shared culpability of the other professionals involved (and talking frankly to camera without taking a huge amount of responsibility) for the entirely predictable failure. It’s a fascinating case study, and I could frankly run training sessions using the content of this documentary.

An Inspector Calls – A classic that holds up to its status. It’s a well put together story, or collection of stories – each individually is fairly predictable, but the overall idea was quite elegantly done and I didn’t know, or really guess what was going on until near the end when it came as quite a satisfying realisation. The only problem I had was that the last few minutes felt unnecessary and it would have been a stronger ending if it hadn’t added a final additional resolution.

Loving Vincent – The technical and artistic achievement of this film is absolutely incredible. According to imdb every one of the 65,000 frames is painted in oils on canvas, painting and repainting 853 different canvases to make 853 shots. Watching the film is a completely unique experience and really does take the breath away from the opening credits to the closing ones. Using the style and techniques of Van Gogh to tell his story is inspiring. However, it did not actually work for me as a compelling film. The visuals and the audio never felt like they merged together, it never felt like the voices were coming from the people on screen. I don’t know whether it was just my brain failing to engage in the unusual style, or if it was something to do with the reduced frame rate… I just couldn’t settle. I found myself wanting to close my eyes and just listen to the voices, or mute the volume and watch the images. Maybe I should have just watched with the subtitles on. An incredible film making achievement, but sadly not one I liked.

On Chesil Beach – Interesting. This feels the kind of film that should be studied more than enjoyed, although I think if you were going to do that you’d probably be better going back to the source book. I wasn’t quite sure that I was getting the full experience with the film. The actors did a fine job portraying the emotions of all the stages of the story – the charm and connection of the early romance, the awkward nervousness of the wedding night and then the anger afterwards. But I’m not sure that the events and actions of the characters were quite fully earned. Aspects were hinted at, but almost off hand, fleeting possibilities that felt shoehorned in. After spending a fair amount of time showing the establishment of the relationship, it didn’t feel like an equal amount was spent on the fallout, leaving the film feeling unbalanced and incomplete.

Rewatches
The Martian – A good old science fiction disaster movie, like Gravity and Apollo 13 this is pure geeky entertainment. Great characters and cast, great story, great emotion, great action, great humour. I was on the edge of my seat, I wept messily, and laughed out loud – and the blending of that is near perfect, the film never felt ‘heavy’, everything was done with incredible efficiency of show don’t tell and the diary narration conveyed all the action and emotion effectively. The presentation of all the science was completely credible, but better than that it was joyous – the science was all interesting, fun and heroic – not dry excuses and technobable. There were sections that dragged a bit and it maybe got a bit too bonkers towards the end, but those are fairly minor niggles. I’ve watched it multiple times (and read the book) and the emotional impacts are barely dimmed, if anything it’s even more satisfying and is turning into one of my very favourite films.

Sideways – The film just about manages to find the sweet spot between sappy, funny, touching and arty, never once drifting too far into one area. The character’s leaped off the screen and seemed so natural in their conflicts and feelings that their pain and embarrassment actually hurt. The direction was beautiful managing to be arty without feeling forced. The theme of wine and the setting of the Californian vineyards opened up a landscape and world that I’ve not seen before and added another layer of interest onto the film. I was impressed that the ending was ‘right’ rather than necessarily what the audience wants – it ends at exactly the right moment and exemplifies the way that this movie never says more than it has to.

The Cabin in the Woods – I don’t really like slasher type films because they’re dumb. BUT when a smart slasher movie comes along I’m the biggest fan in the world, so Scream is easily my favourite horror series. Cabin in the Woods is like Scream. But better, because it’s written by Joss Whedon. It’s a film that manages to mock the genre while respecting it, and ask deep and meaningful questions while still being rollicking good fun.
I’ll dutifully avoid the spoilers because they’re not necessary to understand that this is a great film. It does both the horror and the smart stuff really well, with hilarious dialogue, edge of seat tension and startling jumps tripping over each other. The icing on the cake is the cast with Whedon stalwarts like Fran Kranz and Amy Acker teaming up with complete unknowns (some of whom are a lot less unknown now – Chris Hemsworth has done alright for himself) and the mighty Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Absolutely brilliant! It reminds me a lot of LA Confidential, another great example of the genre, this time with a lot more humour. I laughed almost all the way through, particularly at the narrator. The cast are superbly charismatic and really exciting to watch. It’s fun, it’s different, it’s clever and it’s satisfying.

Up in the Air – I’m a sucker for a George Clooney film and this one was no disappointment. He is utterly charming in this (as in all things); even when he’s playing someone who on paper should be pretty annoying, he manages to make you care. There’s good chemistry with all the women around him, the romantic and the not, each relationship develops nicely through the film and everyone grows. I liked the style a lot with the little pieces to camera and the less-than-glamorous travel and locations. The ending threw me a bit, it’s not what I expected, but actually a really good choice for the film.

The Wedding Singer – It’s dated a little badly in places, making me flinch a couple of times, but the overall charm carry it through. The soundtrack alone is enough to make it worth watching, and Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are enough to make it fun.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Best to worst

I’m a bit of a Marvel fangirl, and there are few things we fangirls are better at than overanalysing what we love, and making some lists. So I dusted off the dvds and worked my way through all 20 films in order (I saw Captain Marvel at the cinema just before starting the project). The normal small print applies, this is my opinion at the moment of hitting publish. I reserve the right to change my mind in the future without any acknowledgement that I have done so. Broadly this is a list in order of preference not quality, there are a couple of films that I can objectively see are very good and I should put them higher, but I don’t like them so tough luck.

1) Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers Age of Ultron delivers everything I love about the superhero genre. It presents an incredible opportunity for huge, imagination defying stories, spectacular design and blockbusting action that completely immersed in the big screen spectacle. But the true strength is that at the heart of every good superhero story is a complicated character. It’s not Batman’s gadgets but his tragic past that make him fascinating, it’s not Superman’s powers but Clarke Kent’s humanity that make you care about him and it’s not Captain’s America’s serum that makes him a hero. So when you combine all the potential of the genre with Joss Whedon, the master of character and dialogue, you’ve got two things I absolutely adore.
The biggest strength of the film is the way Whedon connects action, character and dialogue together. It’s easy for these films to switch back and forth – here’s the narrative, here’s the action, here’s the funny bit. But every scene and moment in the Avengers multi-tasks. Personalities shine at every moment whether it’s exposition or action, every fight is interspersed with one-liners and character connections. Moments, glances and body language ripple through the film, I’ve watched it half a dozen times and found something new each time.
If I were going to try and be a proper critic, I’d acknowledge that the story is all over the shop, with some pretty big holes in it and tenuous connections to get from A to B. It is also VERY crowded, with by my estimate a dozen main characters and another 1/2 dozen supporting ones. But I think Whedon pulled it off. While I’d like to have spent more time with every character I didn’t think anyone was particularly short changed, everyone got a big chunk of development and had significant relationships across the huge web of characters. It’s not a perfect film, but I think it’s probably as good as it could be given the insanity of the ambition. At the end of the day it was a near perfect cinema experience – I was never bored, I laughed, I sniffled, I was on the edge of my seat and I came out with the biggest smile on my face in a long time,

2) Black Panther
It never ceases to impress me how each entry into the Marvel franchise manages to do something new and different, while still fitting into the overall framework. Black Panther’s uniqueness is around blending futuristic technology with African culture and history. It is also probably the most important of the MCU films with the huge cultural significance, it is absolute insanity that in 2018 it still needed to be ‘proved’ that a film by and about African and African-American people could be a success, but prove it it did. I recommend seeking out articles by people a lot more relevant than me to comment on that. What I can comment on is that the film was a huge amount of fun. I was gripped, amused, entertained and intrigued almost all the way through. I lost a little bit of focus during the final (inevitable) big battle, but even that had an impressive amount of character and emotion in it.

3) Iron Man
The start of a film franchise like no other and after 20 other films and 11 years, the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe still holds up incredibly well. It sets the tone from the very start – big, bright, loud, flashy, witty and absolutely focused on character. It doesn’t have any huge moral rants like the X-Men, or the dark psychology of Batman, there’s no stupid love triangle like Superman or wailing teenage angst of Spider-Man. It’s just a bloke who’s very rich and builds himself a super-suit to get himself out of trouble. Robert Downey Jr is phenomenal and immediately brings a depth and complexity to Tony Stark, enriched by his relationships with equally vibrant supporting characters like Pepper, Rhodey, and even just the voice of Jarvis. It’s a huge amount of fun to watch, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without substance in story or message, just that they’re all blended together into a hugely satisfying watch.

4) Avengers Assemble
When this first came out the idea of bringing together Thor, Captain America, The Hulk and Iron Man seemed an impossible challenge. I’d been skeptical that it would be possible to bring this number of large characters together in the same place, but if anyone could do it, it would be Joss Whedon. And he did. Each character got a bit of time and there were plenty of combinations and groups that had interesting relationships. The Avengers has everything I want from a blockbuster – witty dialogue, fun characters, interesting relationships, cool toys, an understanding of its own ridiculousness and some really, really big action sequences. A massively enjoyable film from start to finish.

5) Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians is perfectly aware of how silly the premise sounds, but rather than being apologetic or snooty about it, the film-makers completely embraced it. On one hand you’ve got a spectacular sci-fi construction, with battling alien races, conflicted characters and huge special effect setups. But on the other you’ve got a gloriously cheesy 70s/80s soundtrack embedded in the film and completely hilarious, irreverent dialogue. I laughed myself silly from start to finish of this film and the experience of sharing that laughter with a near sell out cinema audience is one I cherish. It was the kind of film that everyone just plain enjoys and you end up chatting to random audience members as you leave because you’ve all just shared something that you loved. Re-watching it on dvd does lose some of the excitement, and the plot sections plodded a little, but there are still sequences that made me laugh out loud and just give me an overwhelming feeling of joy. The soundtrack is on hard rotation and always puts a smile on my face.

6) Captain America: The Winter Solider
Each strand of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own tone and Captain America is about what it means to be a soldier. In the first film that was a more classic approach of guns and warfare, The Winter Soldier though is about the more clandestine side of things. Pairing good boy soldier Captain America with pragmatic spy Black Widow is inspired and the chemistry between them is sparkling and hilarious. Of all the super heroes, Captain America is probably the one that is most about what it is to be a hero – duty, honour, loyalty – all those things are to his core. This film challenges all of those and Chris Evans beautifully delivers the complexity of a man who doesn’t know his place in the world and tries to hold true to his beliefs while also acknowledging he has to adapt. The storyline is maybe a little convoluted at times, but then it’s a spy movie so it should be. This is a film that at first doesn’t really seem to fit with the whole MCU, a completely different style to Iron Man or Thor… but now that I’ve watched it in the sequence of the whole run, it really does stand out as one of the lynch pins for the whole arc and I’m very impressed at the overall storytelling that puts that in place.

7) Captain America: The First Avenger
I had low expectations of this film, a patriotic super-soldier didn’t seem that exciting. But I was actually thoroughly entertained by it. Maybe it was the “aw schucks” charm of Chris Evans, maybe it was the hilarity of Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan delivery, or the utter joy of Hayley Atwell taking absolutely no crap. I felt Captain America did exactly what Iron Man succeeded in and Thor failed in – it took itself just seriously enough to not be daft, while not taking itself so serious it was sanctimonious. It really felt like this was a film about a real person, not about a ‘comic book hero’ in the simplistic sense, Steve Rogers felt like a fully rounded character with strengths and vulnerabilities, not an invincible emotionless automaton in a suit. Okay, the villain was daft and some of the set pieces were a bit explosion-tastic, but I cared about the characters and really enjoyed myself.

8) Ant-Man and the Wasp
This film is just plain FUN. I was utterly immersed from the first scene to the last, there was always something going on for the eye, the ear, and the heart; although the brain is probably best off if it takes a nap rather than listening to unconvincing exposition with every other word being “quantum”. Often I am bored watching fight scenes, but the creativity here had me watching every second and even wishing I could re-wind to catch more detail. I love how everyone involved plays with the ideas of shrinking and growing, fully exploring the potential. The characters are never forgotten and Marvel’s stunning casting strikes again, with all the characters falling somewhere in the middle of the hero-villain spectrum. It’s a nice change that it’s not the entire world being threatened, the more intimate stakes make a nice change and fit in the wider pacing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe perfectly. It was the perfect film to fill the gap between Infinity War and Endgame, in a way that Captain Marvel (further down the list) wasn’t.

9) Spider-Man: Homecoming
I didn’t bother going to see this in the cinema because frankly I was bored of going to see Spider-Man films. I eventually picked it up on dvd after being relentlessly told how good it was by people, and they were right. It managed to be a fresh take on the story and felt far more like an actual teenager than the previous ones did. It’s interesting how Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has been pre-embedded in the Marvel universe BEFORE getting his own film, and having Tony Stark appear in this film further grounds him so his character makes more sense and is both more accepting and more acceptable as a teenager with superpowers. Despite having so much weight above it, the film still felt fresh, original and vibrant and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

10) Thor: Ragnarok
Finally a Thor film that worked for me. The first two were a bit bogged down for me, all a bit “Shakespeare in the Park”. There were flashes of humour in them, but nowhere near enough to overcome some plodding plots. Post-Avengers-Thor is a much more interesting character making the most of the considerable comic talents of Chris Hemsworth while letting the dramatic elements be shown rather than said for a change. Loki, Hulk, Banner, Dr Strange and Valkyrie all have substantial supporting roles, each with a similar blend of humour and tragedy, although it’s Korg who steals the show at every available opportunity. While there’s some pretty heavy stuff going on in this film, it is primarily just fun.

11) Iron Man 2
I really enjoyed the first film and I really enjoyed the second. I like the fact that there’s no overhyped subtitle, it really is just Iron Man 2, everything that was in the first is in the second. The strength of these films comes from the scripts, yes the effects and action sequences are spectacular, but what brings the film to life is the banter between the characters and the very real feeling dialogue of people talking over each other. The film struggles rather more when the central characters aren’t there; any time spent with the villains just dragged and plot as a whole was a bit tedious, but it’s just fun to spend time with the main characters.

12) Iron Man 3
I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was everything I love about comic book movies in general and Iron Man in particular – a mixture of laugh-out-loud humour, characters I believe and care about and some edge of seat action sequences. Iron Man excels at actually blending those elements together rather than just alternating them, meaning that I was completely engrossed from before the film logos appeared until after the end of the credits. The action sequence towards the end got a little hard to follow, particularly on the small screen, and if you think about it too hard some of the character actions are a little inconsistent, but for the most part, it’s just fun to watch.

13) Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel had a fair amount of challenge to it. In release timeline it comes in just before Avengers End Game which finishes up the the 20-odd movie arc of the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But chronologically it sits almost at the start of the story, ‘introducing’ Nick Fury, Agent Coulson (both with some technically impressive, but still unsettling digital de-aging), aliens, superheros and several elements that will crop up in the earlier/later films. Plus (ridiculously) it’s the first Marvel film to be lead by a woman. Sadly all that pressure proved too much. If it had been allowed to just be a ‘little’ film in the same way some of the earlier Marvel films were, I think I’d have thought it was charming and fun. But it just felt a bit too weighed down. I spent most of the time trying to remember who the Kree were and what I already knew about Fury. The structure of the film didn’t really help that as it starts with a character who doesn’t remember her past and then tries to connect things up, so it’s all about looking for connections. Brie Larson is great – challenging without being annoying, powerful without losing vulnerability, and prickly but charming. The unexpected double act with Nick Fury was a joy. There was a lot that I should have loved about the film, but I came out feeling slightly underwhelmed and almost disappointed in myself for feeling that way.

14) Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War sets a new level of insanity for trying to merge characters and groups, there are about 2 dozen characters together, crossing genres and personalities. The gradual coalescence of the groups supports both characters and audience through the transition, personalities have mmoments to shine and key relationships can be established before it turns into a giant scrum. But there are casualties. Most characters get little more than a cameo, very few get anything resembling character development and some Avengers didn’t make the cut at all. The biggest casualty though is the plot. It’s a very rushed quest story with too many doodads and locations to easily keep track of. When watching in the cinema for the first time, it felt like an absolute roller coaster that pulled you through, but on re-watching on dvd the flaws were more obvious and frustrating.
In counter point, on first watch the film has the problem of knowing that it’s the first of two films, any early moments of possible success were obviously doomed and the weight of doom is oppressive rather than thrilling. However on re-watch, knowing how it goes it’s easier to appreciate the journey. The eventual ending was well judged I think, it felt both like a cliffhanger and a satisfactory end, which is a neat trick to pull off. I didn’t love this film as much as previous Avengers films, but that’s possibly almost all down to the fact it’s not the end, so it’s hard to come out feeling complete. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away with it. I felt it lacked the cohesion that the other Avengers films did, if felt like it was fighting with itself a bit trying to squash everything in, rather than blending humour, character, plot and action as effectively as the previous ones did.

15) Captain America: Civil War
First up, the film could just as easily have been called Avengers 3, and that might in fact have helped the balance of the film out. It didn’t really feel like a Captain America film, primarily for the huge number of characters, but more importantly because it felt like the more thoughtful elements that Captain America films have usually had were poorly delivered here. My biggest issue with the film was the contrivances. Characters and plots made no sense, they just went in the directions needed to get to the set pieces. After all the work done in the previous films to build characters, relationships and teams; it was all torn apart in an instant. No one talked to each other, no one discussed the issues, no one offered any counterpoints to arguments. After all the effort of all the previous films establishing the team and delicate relationships, it felt like a betrayal that the characters would just jump straight to punching each other.
There’s still a lot of good of course. There’s some great action sequences and lots of fun moments between different combinations of characters. The newer characters worked well and got some more depth. I particularly liked the very comic book look of many of the shots, with the iconic framing of characters looking like comic panels. This is the film I have the most problems with as a fan. It’s not that it’s a bad film, I just don’t LIKE it, I don’t believe, or don’t want to believe that the characters would behave this way to each other. It just makes me sad.

16) Ant-Man
It just didn’t work for me. It seemed to want to play up the absurdity but couldn’t quite stop taking itself seriously. Paul Rudd managed to find a balance for that most of the time, but most of the actors were trying to play it straight and didn’t quite work. I didn’t really engage with either characters or storyline and found the whole thing a bit of a trudge.

17) Thor
I think this film hovers very nervously on the border between entertainingly bonkers, and flat out terrible, and which way it topples is going to depend on your mood. The concept of Norse gods being real aliens with magic powers and an all powerful hammer is pretty daft, but I can’t help but think there was a better way to handle it than this. I think it either needed to be played completely straight, getting rid of the daft over-shiny armor and jokes, or going the other way and adding more self-mocking elements and reducing the melodrama. I think I may view the film more charitably now as part of the the whole MCU knowing the good work that Chris Hemsworth does in the future making Thor a much more interesting character, but here he bears the brunt of the hammy script with little opportunity to show his talents. Put this film up next to Iron Man and it’s a very poor comparison indeed.

18) Thor: The Dark World
There’s some absolutely sparkling dialogue in here. Really fresh, modern, quirky, witty, pithy and pointed stuff that various members of the cast deliver with a beautiful understatement that makes even the most simple of lines (“tada”) make you want to rewind just to experience their pure delight over and over. Then there’s the rest of the film, which is rubbish. It alternates ponderous legend filled plot with people/monsters/cgi-things thumping each other, neither of which held my attention in the slightest. The opening ‘prologue’ set the whole thing up to feel like a Lord of the Rings, but with all the cgi it never felt anything other than flimsy. It’s worth watching for the dialogue, but I wish the plot was better.

19) Doctor Strange
A film of missed opportunities. Benedict Cumberbatch was perfectly cast, except for the fact that he’s perfect casting because he’s basically been playing a small variant of Sherlock, so all you’ve really added is magic and a weird accent (that odd mid-atlantic, non-specific american accent that doesn’t quite work). Then the magic stuff. OK, it’s an interesting add on to the Marvel universe, but stop trying to explain it! There was SO much exposition, I kept getting bored. Then I struggled to really follow the action sequences, maybe it’s something about my eyes, but I found them too complicated, too fast moving and too layered to really focus on and get a hang of what was going on. On the plus side – Tilda Swinton was absolutely fantastic, the bickering between the wizards was fun and the “is this my mantra” line is possibly the funniest thing I’ve heard all year. But I think the rest of it was a bit mediocre, and it shouldn’t have been.

20) Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2
I really wanted to love this film. I loved the first one – for all that the plot was (literally) all over the place, everything else was just so joyful that I didn’t care. The characters, the dialogue, the SOUNDTRACK! Just happiness from start to finish. This one… just fell flat.
The opening sequence is all that the first one was – a weird musical pick that worked perfectly, a quirky approach to the classic superhero battle and I had the same smile on my face. But it didn’t last. The story turned into a trope and then didn’t poke fun at itself like the first one did, but instead actually took itself seriously. The one liners and inherent comedy of the group are still there somewhere, but got bogged down in the storyline. The final nail in the coffin – the soundtrack just didn’t have the same consistent foot tapping that the previous one did either. It was always going to be hard for this film to succeed as much as the first, as it had more expectations and completely lost the element of surprise, but it missed on so many fronts that I’m just slightly sad.

21) The Incredible Hulk
It almost feels like a cheat to name this the worst MCU film as it’s barely part of the universe, hovering somewhere between the 2004 Eric Bana film and the introduction of Mark Ruffalo in the role in The Avengers. The continued recasting of The Hulk leaves the character and the audience unsettled. Each performance is very different and makes it hard to mentally track that the events all happened to the same character. They came far too quickly to redo the foundations each time but without it and the solution here of covering half the foundation story during a rapid flashback sequence was confusing in the extreme, I had to double check that I hadn’t missed a film out. Maybe I’m just biased because I saw and loved Mark Ruffalo in the role before catching up on this film, but the casting of Edward Norton just didn’t work for me, he’s a very very fine actor but just not settled in the role. There’s also no real sense of The Hulk being a character in himself which is a complete missed opportunity. This one really is best forgotten.