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.

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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.

Why I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Avengers Endgame is nearly upon us, and as a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I thought I was entirely on top of all the plot strands, then I watched Captain Marvel and spent half the time trying to work out how all the plots tied together, particularly where the tesseract came and went. So I set myself the happy challenge of re-watching all 21 films in order. I then ended up with so many things to say that I’m spreading them across multiple posts, including my own ranking of the films. But this post is the gushing about why I love the MCU.

I heard someone on the radio comment the other day that they didn’t think any of the Marvel films had character development and I very loudly called them quite a rude name. I don’t think that statement could be further from the truth. These films are all about real people, with real feelings. They are complex individuals with strengths and weaknesses beyond any superpowers – ‘heroes’ who screw up, ‘villains’ with moral complexity and ‘sidekicks’ who steal the show. All those characters are then thrown together to bounce off of each other in even more complicated and evolving relationships.

Those characters are brought to love by an incredible collection of actors. According to this helpful list on imdb there are nearly 100 Oscar nominated actors in the MCU cast as a whole, and 18 winners. That speaks to the quality of the film making that can attract this caliber of actor (or maybe the size of the pay offers…) and that feeds round to the quality of the films and the attractiveness of the roles again. There are very few people in the MCU that haven’t headlined films of their own, even those that are playing secondary characters here. And that means that those secondary characters have as much depth as the stars. Robert Downey Jr is absolutely incredible as Iron Man, but put him with Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Samuel Jackson, Jeff Bridges, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson… and everyone builds to another level.

Just like their characters, the films are a blend of different styles, genres and tones. Each strand of the MCU, and even each film has a different theme, even almost a different genre to it. The Captain America films are about being a soldier – First Avenger is a classic war movie, while Winter Soldier is a more nuanced cold war thriller. Antman is a heist movie, Thor is swords and sorcery, Guardians is an 80’s sci fi romp, Captain Marvel a 90’s action film etc etc. That brings variety to the MCU as a whole, and leads to some really bizarre mashups when the characters collide.

All of that is down to an incredibly talented group of people. Of course you start off with great material from the Marvel universe, mostly led by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The Marvel characters and stories have always appealed to me more than the DC ones, they always seemed brighter, more optimistic and richer. The driving force behind the cinematic universe is Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios since 2007 and a producer on all the MCU films (and a few other Marvel films too including the original X-Men and Spider-Man trilogies). I can only guess at the mental juggling that’s required to plan and keep hold of all the MCU threads (let alone the tv series and other media streams) while also allowing the talents involved to have enough creative freedom.

Sometimes that engineering becomes a little too obvious. Aspects of plot and characters become too forced and can lose sight of the characters and the fun. Films can get bogged down in their own mythology and the ‘gubbins’ of moving the plot along with too much exposition, or too much hoop jumping. As cinematic spectacles they all hold the attention, but I found it very noticeable that watching at home my attention would often drift towards my phone screen during villainous monologues or drawn out fight sequences. Not all the writers and directors are able to blend the elements throughout and things can get a little formulaic.

The other problem I will confess to is over-fandom. There are very few characters in the MCU that I don’t like, even some of the villains are hard not to enjoy spending time of. But my affection means I don’t like it when my heroes do things I don’t agree with, and being realistic human beings, they often do things I’d rather they didn’t. I then start to lose my ability to rationally assess whether the writers are being lazy and miss-using my characters just to move the plot along, or if the characters would actually behave that way because they can be just as stupid, mistaken or unreasonable as the rest of us can. You’ll see in my ordering of the films that there are a few things that I just can’t get over.

The achievements of the series are impressive, the films have smashed financial records all over the place, they are a critical success and increasingly are breaking down idiotic cultural glass ceilings too. For me though, mostly it can be looked at a lot more simply, I love spending time in this universe. They make me laugh, they make me care, and they make me completely forget about the real world. How much more could you want?

Films in March

Us
With Jordan Peele’s second film I was expecting something similar to Get Out, so was slightly surprised to find a more classic slasher film than creepy psychological thriller. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the genre so am probably not the best person to review this film, but it seemed to me like a good example of the genre. The set up was solid, the characters vibrant enough, the bad guys suitably creepy and scary. I really liked the humour of it, watching it in a cinema there were a lot of laughs that were well placed to break the tension. The ending I thought was a bit ‘meh’, I’d almost rather they didn’t explain it at all as the back story just felt incredibly underdeveloped and improbable. Not really my kind of film, but well done (I think).

Disobedience
Rachel Weisz is an incredibly watchable performer, but the film as a whole is a bit of a slog. I never felt I had a good grasp of the orthodox Jewish community that was really at the centre of the film, and so I couldn’t really understand where the boundaries were that the estranged Ronit was pushing. It was just too slow to really hold my attention even with Weisz.

Velvet Buzzsaw
This was all over the place. There were bits of it that came close to doing something interesting, but then kept drifting back towards predictable and unimaginative, or just bludgeon you with the idea until it feel worn out. There are characters that set off in a direction and then lurch in a different one; great actors that are delivering in one scene and then phoning it in in another. There are some beautiful shots, but just like the way it is presenting the modern art world – it’s all surface and no substance.

The Usual Suspects
The first time I watched this film, many years ago, I didn’t really enjoy it because I didn’t know what was going on (almost certainly ‘cos I wasn’t paying attention). This time watching it, I didn’t really enjoy it because I knew what was going on. When you know the twist at the end the rest of the film is just not that exciting.

Films in February

Because I spent so much time writing about Oscars, I forgot to do my round up of films in February. It’s probably a bit repetitive with the Oscar posts as most films were related to awards, but for completeness I thought I’d better still make the post.

NEW RELEASES
Green Book
I’m a bit unsure about this film. On one hand, it’s a nice film about the development of an unlikely relationship with a lot of laughs and smiles along the way and I really quite enjoyed it. The central performances are all big and the characters are complex and interesting. However, I was also uncomfortable that this was a film about racism, bigotry and systematised hatred and oppression; and if that film is ‘nice’ it’s probably missing something. Not every film has to be hard hitting and challenging, but this one just made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because it’s being award nominated and is another of those films that if it had been released in May or October, I wouldn’t be so critical towards.

The Wife
I never quite made it to the cinema to see this film, so rented it from Amazon as part of an award nominations blitz. I’d been intrigued from early on about the ‘mystery’ of the film, but was slightly disappointed to realise that it was fundamentally exactly what you think it is. The overall plot and writing was in fact a bit clunky throughout, I think the flashbacks rather over-egged the pudding and I wonder if there was a more elegant solution to those. However, for all the lack of subtlety in the overall structure of the film, Glenn Close’s performance is absolutely mesmerizing. She sold the emotions, conflicts and contentedness of her character in ways that were beyond the script (somehow) and brought an otherwise middling film to life.

NEW TO ME
BlacKkKlansman
I struggle with this film. At it’s heart is a story that is completely ridiculous, and yet is apparently true. In the 1970’s the first black cop in Colorado Springs, persuades his department to launch an extensive investigation into the KKK. He does this by joining the KKK, with himself playing the member on the phone, and a white (Jewish) colleague playing the member in person. I mean, why does the white cop not just talk on the phone too? That central question bugged me the whole way through the film. It also bugged me that it seemed to be presenting itself as a dark comedy, but wasn’t really funny enough, and I’m not entirely sure it was dark enough either – the ineptness of this branch of the KKK seemed to undermine the horrors they committed. And then, the film ends with news footage of horrible events in present day America which just didn’t feel appropriate with the light tone the film ended on. It felt like finger wagging, when the rest of the film had done very little to actually educate or elevate the discussion.

REWATCHES
Roma – I’ve watched this film twice now. On first watch I was incredibly unimpressed with it, but the amount of critical praise and number of awards it was getting made me think I may have missed something. On second watch, looking for the things that people had praised, I could see that I had been overly harsh on the film. I could see the beauty in the cinematography, and I was certainly more appreciative of the acting, particularly from absolute new comer Yalitza Aparicio. However, I still feel, there is just not enough meat in the film. All the characters and relationships are quite straightforward and there’s very little attempt to develop them. Everything feels very surface, no attempt to share the backstory of either characters or history, it’s just a sequence of things that happen. On first watch I was completely bored, on second watch I was a bit more engaged, but already, less than 10 minutes after finishing watching, it’s fading from my memory. I’ll raise my review from “awful” to “fine”, but it’s nothing more than that.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – After the disappointment of X-Men First Class, I was happy to see the original cast back for this installment, even if they were accompanied by the younger generation who I’d felt just didn’t have the heft that the Sirs Stewart and McKellan and the Mighty Jackman brought to the franchise. As it turns out, either the older generation’s support, or the much improved supporting cast raised everyone’s game a notch and the whole gigantic cast all came together to form a rather glorious whole. The time travel plot was a little of a bodge, but hung together pretty well, with just enough bouncing back and forth and interweaving that I never found myself frustrated to be in one time or the other.
It did what superhero films at their best have always done, partner the brutality of the metaphor with a sense of fun and awareness. The characters acknowledge their ridiculous situations and the fact that (for the most part) their powers don’t actually help them know what they should do, they just provide additional, spectacular, options. The film mixed character, action and plot very neatly, and I was never once bored. In fact my only complaint would be that I wanted even more – more characters, more interactions, more action and more jokes. After the disappointments of First Class and The Wolverine, the series is back on track, I’m sure the fact that it’s Bryan Singer back writing and directing is absolutely no coincidence.

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.

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House – I don’t think this is the best of Cary Grant’s films, he seems to be a little on auto-pilot at times, playing the tired, down-trodden city man with a dream a little too tired. It’s missing the aspect of barely controlled mania that he brings to some other roles, I kept waiting for the explosion. The dryness of his best friend and wife make up for it though, the snide background remarks are wonderful. I also loved the opening scene, watching the busy family try to live in the tiny space on top of each other, it’s comfortably familiar and hilariously well observed. I do still prefer the re-imagined version in The Money Pit though.

East is East – Another great film from Film Four looking at a subject that really wouldn’t make the cut in Hollywood. It’s great fun, but also really challenging in its subject matter, a challenging but charming look at family life across cultures.