Films in January

The new year usually kicks off with a flurry of award contenders, but that feels a little bit delayed this year. Or I just haven’t dragged myself to see films that I *should* see, but don’t necessarily *want* to see. Maybe February will see them flock in. Meanwhile I had a couple of days hiding from the cold blitzing netflix/amazon, so there’s an overall tally of 16 films for the month.

New films
The Favourite – What an odd film. I mean from the director of The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Dear, that’s hardly surprising. In fact the only thing that’s surprising is the fact that such a weird movie is getting such a huge mainstream release. Of course that’s mostly down to national treasure Olivia Colman who is perfectly cast and perfectly delivers the complex heart of the film – a farcical character driven by incredible tragedy. There are few actresses that could manage to imbue a character with such strength, childishness, pride, rage, loneliness and just all round complexity. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have relatively simple roles beside that, but the triangle of the three of them is only as strong because of all three points. That complexity and confusion occasionally lurches in the film, and while the ending was ‘right’ it maybe wasn’t as satisfying as I might have wanted. But I was impressed, entertained and quietly stunned through the whole film and can’t think of anything that compares.

Mary Poppins Returns – The original Mary Poppins film holds a special place in my heart, as it does for huge numbers of people, so it was with some nervousness I went into Returns. Quite early on I was relieved and relaxed into the film. It was exactly what a sequel to Mary Poppins should be, the same in theme and heart (and it had SO MUCH heart) but evolving the ideas and taking different approaches. It’s like they exactly copied the blurb from the back of the dvd case but delivered everything in their own way. Emily Blunt puts her own stamp on the character, Lin-Manuel Miranda is charming as Bert-Two (including the slightly dodgy accent) and Ben Whishaw plays the new Mr Banks beautifully. I won’t say it’s a perfect film, if you look at it objectively the original wasn’t either, but as a Mary Poppins sequel it was as good as could be hoped for.

Stan and Ollie – Timing is everything. Laurel and Hardy’s comedy is a master class in timing, but the timing of the release of this film sadly did it no favours. Coming out bang in the middle of awards season I went in expecting something exceptional and instead got something solidly middling. The writing and directing is depressingly pedestrian, lacking in elegance or creativity. No opportunity is missed for hammering home any emotional points leaving it entirely without subtlety. While I knew next to nothing about Laurel and Hardy (I’ve never really been a fan) I still found it incredibly predictable and while I’d be lying if I pretended it didn’t have be reaching for the tissues, it felt like it was the history that earned the tears, not the film. It’s a shame, because the true lives, and the superbly cast John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan deserved a lot better. It’s not a terrible film, it’s just from the hype and timing I had been expecting something outstanding.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – I’d been fairly convinced before I saw Spider-Man Homecoming that the last thing the world needed was yet another Spider-Man reboot. I was wrong, because they did something fresh and interesting with the concept, so I wasn’t so presumptuous as to say the same thing about the awkwardly named Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, and yet I still wasn’t going to bother seeing it in the cinema. Then the reviews started piling up and everyone said it was brilliant, so I gave it a try, and the reviews were almost entirely right. The film is great fun, it’s got the heart of Spider-Man but still manages to do lots of fun new stuff with it (all grounded in the comic lore from what people say). It’s charming, funny, sweet, exciting and completely unexpected. The only thing I’m torn over is the animation style. Most of it I really liked, it’s got a lot of different styles to it, really feeling like an animated comic book. My only problem was that I found it too much at times, particularly the odd effects used for the backgrounds which I found so distracting and weird that I actually checked to make sure I hadn’t wondered into a 3D showing. I see what they were trying to do, and I completely respect the attempt, but that didn’t quite work for me and sadly spoiled an otherwise really lovely film.

After the Screaming Stops – Some documentaries just kind of make themselves, find some interesting people, put them under some stress and let the cameras roll. Matt and Luke Goss are just those people. I’m the right age to remember Bros mania, so even though I didn’t join in with it I can connect with that side of the story of their past. It’s interesting to see where they’ve both ended up and how it’s all effected them. At heart this is just a story about two twins who have gone in different directions, but they are far from normal. Whether it’s the fame or just nature they are really quite bizarre and when they collide it’s like watching a crazy train wreck. It’s an absolutely fascinating character study that if written as fiction would be utterly unbelievable.

New to me
22 July – There’s a lot going on in the film, maybe a bit too much. It feels uncomfortable to watch a recreation of such a recent tragedy, oddly opportunistic and voyeuristic, particularly because it involves children. Also because the ‘villain’ of the piece seems so extreme, cold and horrific in a way that feels unrealistic. It’s a well done film, I’m just not sure it should have been done.

The Squid and the Whale – This had just about everything I hate. It was a noodle-y storyline that didn’t really go very far but took a long time getting there, despite actually only having a runtime of 1 hour 20. The characters were all utterly horrible, overwhelmed by their own self-importance and failure to really deal with any serious problems except those of their own making. A miserable waste of a talented cast.

The Bookshop – This had all the ingredients to be utterly charming and 5 minutes in I thought I knew exactly the film I was watching. Emily Mortimer is immediately lovely, sparky and charismatic, and she’s going to try to set up a bookshop in a little village to share her love of books. I assumed it would be about the challenge to get the locals reading, while Bill Nighy is the reclusive book lover who will quietly support her and provide inspiration and encouragement, as the bookshop inevitably goes through challenges before succeeding gloriously and luring Nighy out to join the newly invigorated literary community. I really would have loved to watch that film. Unfortunately this film is about as far from that feel good joy as can get. It’s really the story of Mortimer’s fight against the Lady of the Manor who has vigorously taken against her shop for absolutely no reason. And, spoiler alert, Mortimer loses absolutely everything. It’s not a feel good film, it’s an absolutely miserable and horrible film. If there had been some sort of reason for it, at least that would have been a different film, but I couldn’t get past the lack of motivation and the crushing disappointment of not getting what I felt I’d been promised.

What We Do in the Shadows – I was really impressed with how committed this film was to its concept. It plays it entirely straight with the concept of a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew following a group of vampires sharing a house and living semi-openly in New Zealand. The vampires are not playing it for laughs at all, or horror for that matter, they’re playing it exactly as slightly nervous but excited subjects of this kind of documentary do. Likewise the unseen director of the documentary is doing exactly their usual role, showing the humour and the horror through the footage itself and editing. The result is a film that finds that perfect sweet spot of horror, comedy, and that point in the middle where you don’t know whether to laugh, hide, or just drop your jaw in wonder. This is an utterly original and fresh film that I’m sorry I didn’t see earlier.

Fences – Films of plays can be a bit problematic, it often doesn’t feel like they lose the stage-iness of the original. There was never a single moment of Fences that I wasn’t thinking about how this would be presented as a play and how I might feel if I were watching in a theatre. I never lost myself in the film, never felt like I was watching real people. The performances were technically superb, but I never forgot they were acting. The character depth and development is interesting, but I felt like I should be writing an essay about it, not reacting emotionally. Maybe it’s because the directing was so flat, or because the start is so slow, that it was too easy to get bored and distracted during the long rambling speeches. I just didn’t lose myself in it at all.

Guys and Dolls – Way too long. Two and a half hours without enough substance, and with only really a couple of catchy tunes or dance numbers.

Rewatches
Batman Begins – I’ve always struggled with the Batman character, particularly when he’s played straight as a serious character. In contrast to the Marvel superheroes it doesn’t feel like there’s any real depth to the character, there’s no light to contrast the dark and it means I struggle to connect to him, or enjoy spending time with him. The darkness runs through everything in this film – story, characters, visuals and even the sound and music; I know a lot of people like that, but I just find boring. Legends Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman all bring brightness, but they’re not enough to overcome the charisma vacuum of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the underwhelming villains and love interest. Fundamentally, I was bored.

X-Men: First Class – Something went a bit wrong here. I guess someone realised that they’d missed a trick with the X-Men films and they could go back and look at teenage mutants in the 60’s and have teenage angst combined with out of control superpowers. The problem is that the original X-Men were all so well cast that this bunch just look like kids playing dress up. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are quite watchable but they’re no Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and Jennifer Lawrence brings a new side to Mystique. However the rest of the cast isn’t even half as successful, January Jones was particularly awful as Emma Frost, although she did spend most of the film stuck in a gratuitous costume next to Kevin Bacon hamming it up something horrific. All in all, a rather disappointing pickle.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – When I first watched this film I was confused and really struggled to follow along and only gave it 6/10. Now though I’ve watched the film a couple of times and also read the book I can actually track the incredibly rich characters and plots. It also meant that because I wasn’t so desperately trying to cross reference everything, I could start to see the beautiful details in the cinematography, direction and performances. I think it is the kind of film that’s a classic and just gets better and better, and you almost can’t have that richness and growth if on the first viewing it all makes sense.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! – Rarely does a film actually warrant having two exclamation marks in the title, but frankly I’m not sure that’s enough for Pirates! This film throws absolutely everything at the screen with such enthusiasm that it all feels worthy of exclamation and I had to resist the temptation to applaud at the screen on occasions. I can’t think of higher praise than to say that this reminded me of Pixar at its best with a perfect intertwining of a decent and original story with dozens, if not hundreds of tiny little references and in-jokes. It avoids a key pitfall that even Pixar have on occasion fallen into by making their famous voice-cast utterly unrecognisable, meaning the actors never overwhelm the characters. It’s also incredible to watch knowing the sheer amount of time and talent that have gone into producing the models and the animation, every single frame a work of dedication. A massive achievement and a thoroughly entertaining watch, absolutely outstanding.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson movies have an unmistakable style to them, sort of other-worldly, with a bit of child like wonder about them and a sort of sing-song style to them that can sometimes become cloying and tiresome. Grand Budapest Hotel however continually snaps you out of that style with an abruptness to the dialogue that continued to surprise me all the way through. Who knew Ralph Fiennes was such a great comedian? This is the sort of film that almost defies review and description, you’ve just got to see it and you’ll either love it like I did, or be utterly unmoved. Take your chances.

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Films I Saw in 2018

I saw 167 films in 2018, down slightly on last year (172), but still a respectable showing. 103 of them were new to me, the full list is down the bottom of the page. 69 films were repeat viewings for me. This year I had multiple days that for various reasons I spent on the sofa with either some lego or a jigsaw and just watched nice safe, back to back movies, often 6 or even 7 in a day. Bliss.

There were 37 cinema trips; film is my escape from the real world, and the cinema is the ultimate escape to me – switch off the outside world, so I’m not going to think about how much all those tickets cost. Slightly cheaper are the 45 on Netflix and 49 on Amazon. I’ve been particularly impressed about the new releases coming through these channels, not just the popular stuff but some really very high quality and even experimental films.

Short story – my top films of 2018 (in no particular order):

A Quiet Place
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
I, Tonya
Incredibles 2
Lady Bird
Love, Simon
Avengers: Infinity War
Black Panther
Isle of Dogs
Journeyman

57 of the films I watched were new releases in the UK, which is a slightly higher percentage than last year and I think that’s due to several films being released by Netflix or Amazon. When I started writing this, I was thinking it had been a slightly underwhelming year, but the more I think about it, I think that’s because I was comparing the lists that the critics were putting out of ‘best films of the year’ and I disagreed with their choices. But really, there have been plenty of films I’ve been impressed by, they’re just not the same as other people’s. I am (apparently) a difficult and contrary person to impress when it comes to film. I am more likely to be satisfied by a simple idea done well; while critics far worthier than I than I are praising big ambitions, and understated subtlety I will be gushing over something that just delivers a straightforward story in a compelling way.

That was certainly highlighted in Jan/Feb when I was underwhelmed by almost all the films that everyone else was gushing about and were coming out as major award contenders. Maybe in fairness if I hadn’t gone into them expecting outstanding, I wouldn’t have been so harsh, but I was disappointed over and over again – Darkest Hour (great performance, mediocre film), Three Billboards (doesn’t flow), The Shape of Water (not immersive), Phantom Thread (boring) and Call Me By Your Name (insufferable).

Of the main 2017 award nominees it was the one that I didn’t see at the time that actually impressed me most – Lady Bird; the very definition of a simple thing (the characters and relationship between a young woman and her mother) done incredibly well. I, Tonya, Molly’s Game
and The Post also stood out for me as very solidly made films that were maybe not pushing any boundaries of film making, but were interesting and entertaining. I may be simple, but I like films that are entertaining, I don’t go to the cinema to be bored.

Other films that impressed me this year tend to fall into the category of “doing what they do well” – Cargo (zombies), Set It Up (romcom), Ready Player One (popcorn adventure), The Cloverfield Paradox (scifi disaster). Most outstanding though I think is A Quiet Place which is a horror film starting from a simple idea (sound summons monster) and building it to a completely rounded package. The performances, cinematography and particularly the sound design are outstanding and I was utterly gripped from start to finish. Even if there are a couple of credibility problems in the background story, it’s so pleasing an experience that I happily overlook them.

There are a handful of films this years that broke barriers. Each of these films should just be assessed as what they are, good examples of their genres with the usual niggles that each genre has. But each breaks a barrier that seems ridiculous to exist in 2019. Love, Simon had the usual problems of the teenage coming of age story where the actors are too old and no one does any school work, but it also proved that a mainstream film could focus on a gay teenager – as if that actually needed proving. Black Panther was a superb superhero film that delivered a huge box office with a black and African focus, and Ocean’s Eight was a solid heist movie starring a crew of (mostly) women. I wish I’d seen Crazy, Rich, Asians so I could add that to this list. It’s laughable that it be seen as necessary to ‘prove’ that these can be successful, but prove it they did.

It’s telling that Black Panther is probably the biggest superhero film of the year, even when the year contained the immense juggernaut of Avengers: Infinity War, which may have its problems but is an astonishing juggling act. Although I think I probably enjoyed the much smaller (pardon the pun) Ant-Man and the Wasp. I was underwelmed by other franchises unfortunately. Solo: A Star Wars Story just didn’t work for me; Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was a jumbled mess; Mission Impossible: Fallout had great stunts but lacked anything to bond them together. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was the only one of these that actually fully managed to hold my attention, and surprisingly, so did Tomb Raider which felt like a fresh approach that kept the heart of the game.

There were a couple of other surprises from films I watched almost randomly. I find Wes Anderson a bit hit and miss, and the trailer for Isle of Dogs was distinctly odd, but the film worked and utterly charmed me. As did animation The Breadwinner telling the story of a young girl growing up in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Journeyman was a pure character piece, that did little more than give Paddy Considine and Jodie Whittaker a platform to shine, and shine they did. I’m not sure whether Black Mirror: Bandersnatch should actually count as a film or a tv episode, but it took me over 2 hours to watch, so I’m listing it here. The mechanism of choosing the direction the character went was clever, but what surprised me was how I became completely emotionally engaged as a participant in the story – I didn’t WANT to chose sometimes, even though I wanted to see the different outcomes, I didn’t WANT to be in control. It said and demonstrated something incredibly powerful that really impressed me.

Except for the wonderful Incredibles 2, it was a bit of a dreary year for Disney films with Ralph Breaks the Internet, Coco and Christopher Robin all failing to work for me. Although in fairness, I failed to catch Mary Poppins Returns until Jan 1st 2019 and that was an absolute triumph that redeemed the house of mouse.

There are a fair number of films this year that I just don’t see what everyone else is raving about, or rather maybe, how those people don’t see the flaws. A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody and Widows had some amazing performances in them and may have been good fun to watch, but all had problems with story, tone and believability that stopped them being outstanding. I could also group First Man in there as I struggled with the film making around the central performances and ended up being disappointed, but I do concede that may be a personal issue. I’ve had a very poor year for watching foreign films. I found the much praised Roma utterly boring. Clunky, pretentious and going nowhere; I may have hated it less if it hadn’t been in black and white which automatically sets my teeth on edge, but fundamentally there wasn’t enough meat to this film.

I think the only other film I’d label as ‘bad’ was Annihilation which was just a complete mess. There are plenty of films that weren’t very good, mostly because they got muddled over what they were trying to do (Funny Cow, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Downsizing, Winchester) but they all still had some merit in them even if the flaws were quite substantial.

New to me
Of the remaining 49 films that were new to me, roughly half of them were from 2017 with the rest scattered over previous decades. There are some gems in this list that would likely have made my films of the year list if I’d seen them last year. Logan and God’s Own Country are both stunning pieces of film making, beautiful in sight and heart, entertaining to watch and with enough substance to keep it in mind long after the credits finish. The fact that one is ‘just’ a superhero film is irrelevant.

The Intern was a little comedy film that really surprised me – whenever it could have made the ‘easy’ joke about old people, or women bosses, it stepped sideways and remained charming and fun. Colossal and Spider-Man: Homecoming
both had the same idea at heart, giving a ‘normal’ person superpowers and be completely realistic about how they’d handle them. Misery and Soylent Green are both classics that exceeds the spoofs they’ve spawned, and of all the films you’ve never heard of 84 Charing Cross Road is just delightful.

On the flip side, worst film of the year award goes to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, honestly how many people and how much money went into making such a mess? At least Plan 9 from Outer Space had some excuse and is a classic of sorts.

All 2018 films (in quality order)

A Quiet Place
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
I, Tonya
Incredibles 2
Lady Bird
Love, Simon
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Avengers: Infinity War
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
Cargo
Darkest Hour
Isle of Dogs
Journeyman
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Ready Player One
Set It Up
The Breadwinner
The Cloverfield Paradox
The Post
Tomb Raider (2018)
Bird Box
Coco
Downsizing
Extinction
First Man
Molly’s Game
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle
Mute
Ocean’s Eight
Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)
Swimming with Men
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
You Were Never Really Here
A Star is Born
Christopher Robin
Deadpool 2
Ghost Stories
Mission Impossible: Fallout
Ralph Breaks the Internet
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The Shape of Water
The Square
Widows
Winchester
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Funny Cow
Phantom Thread
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Annihilation
Call Me By Your Name
Roma

The rest

Logan
The Intern
Moana
Spotlight
Big Hero 6
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Wreck-It Ralph
How to Train Your Dragon
The Blind Side
WALL-E
Gosford Park
Fight Club
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Colossal
God’s Own Country
Miss Sloane
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Strong Island
Misery
84 Charing Cross Road
Soylent Green
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
The Lady Vanishes
T2: Trainspotting
Wind River
Kubo and the Two Strings
Star Trek: Beyond
Zootropolis
Before I Go to Sleep
Made in Dagenham
The Social Network
Up
Juno
Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)
The Incredibles
Good Will Hunting
Scream
Death Becomes Her
When Harry Met Sally
Mary Poppins
The Sword in the Stone
All About Eve
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Boat That Rocked
The Florida Project
Their Finest
From Up on Poppy Hill
Gnomeo and Juliet
Frida
Panic Room
Delicatessen
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Death of Stalin
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
The Hateful Eight
Moneyball
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Tangled
Watchmen
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Ratatouile
Kiki’s Delivery Service
The Terminal
Hercules
Forbidden Planet
A Ghost Story
Detroit
Finding Your Feet
Hampstead
Icarus
Lean on Pete
Mudbound
The Great Wall
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
What Happened to Monday
Dark Skies
The Conjuring
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
American Psycho
The Bodyguard
Brazil
Risky Buiness
House on Haunted Hill
A Star is Born (1937)
Doctor Strange
Ghostbusters (2016)
Jurassic World
In the Loop
The Queen
Scream 2
Heathers
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Borg vs. McEnroe
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Dark Shadows
Once
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Get Shorty
True Romance
The Greatest Showman
The Woman in Black
The Golden Compass
Scream 3
Notting Hill
My Best Friend’s Wedding
Romancing the Stone
The 39 Steps
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Plan 9 from Outer Space

Films in December

New Releases A bumper month for films including eight new releases. I kept luring myself out to do Christmas shopping by promising cinema trips at the same time and there were several big releases on Netflix too (continuing to impress me with their range of films). Mary Poppins Returns isn’t on the list because I saved it for New Year’s Day so it doesn’t quite count, but I will say that it is utterly lovely.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (Netflix)
This may be more of a ‘feature length episode’ than a film, but given that it’s completely standalone I’m going to count it as a film. That said, my review is going to be pretty brief because I went in knowing nothing about it and I think that strongly contributed to my reactions when watching. I can’t remember the last time a piece of media had so much impact on me, I was not only engaged in the story and characters but through the choose your own adventure style, I was an active participant in the story, not just passively choosing options, but on an emotional level. It’s not perfect, there are some frustrations in the mechanics and a couple of sections that just didn’t work for me. But it is completely and utterly original and a fascinating exercise.

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)
I’d heard good things about this film, but then what really convinced me to go was that it’s written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, who also wrote and directed Our Little Sister which was one of my favourite films of a couple of years ago. I didn’t find Shoplifters as enjoyable or satisfying as that film, you can never quite settle into this family because there’s obvious tension throughout. I thought it overplayed the mystery elements of how these people all came together, it just felt a little forced, as if the writer was having to deliberately construct scenes so that people didn’t say what would have been natural. With that criticism in mind though, I was still engaged and connected to all the characters throughout.

Roma (netflix) – I’d been feeling a bit bad for not watching enough films that fall into the category of “I don’t really want to watch it, but I probably should watch it”. It’s very easy to just watch the fun films and skip over the important ones, so when Netflix promoted a black and white Mexican film I took a deep breath and went for it. It is by Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) so I had some hope it wouldn’t be completely without substance. Sadly though, it was.
There was just not enough meat to it. I was initially quite engaged, learning the structure of the family and the relationships, but they turned out to be quite straightforward and then didn’t really go anywhere. There’s so little plot I feel that even it’s almost not worth mentioning. That’s not always a problem, but if there aren’t any relationships and even the visuals aren’t anything exciting to look at (why black and white? why?!) then it’s just two and a quarter hours of drudge.

Ralph Breaks the Internet
This just fell a bit flat. The original Wreck it Ralph felt charmingly retro, making fun about old school games, but Ralph Breaks the Internet picks the wrong target. On one hand the extremely basic jokes it’s making about the intranet are already dated (when was the last time anyone was actually bothered by a pop up advert?), but the jokes are also too current with references to sites and memes of (almost) the moment which are going to date incredibly fast and very badly. The plot meanwhile was rather bitty and the final moral felt contrived and tired. There were a lot of bits that did make me quietly smile (I really loved the self-aware princess bit) and I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t charm me, entertain me, or move me the way I expect Disney movies to these days. Maybe that’s just that I’m holding them to too high a standard, but this felt very disposable.

Bird Box (Netflix) – Unfortunately for this film, I’d just watched A Quiet Place, which is playing with very similar ideas and does it in a much, much more elegant and engaging way. That’s a shame for Bird Box because it is actually very good, it’s just I can only think of it in deficiencies compared to A Quiet Place. Firstly the concept is even more extreme than “sound summons deadly monsters”, which was already a bit of a stretch. Here we have monsters that if you see them they make you kill yourself, so the survivors can never go outside without being blindfolded. The narrative follows a small group of survivors in two threads – the original outbreak and years later as they try to reach sanctuary. Everything about the way the story played out was well paced and engaging, interesting characters and a good mix of action and character development. But the fundamentals of it relied on too many ideas that stretched reason beyond breaking point. Where Quiet Place managed the magicians trick of distracting from the plot holes, Bird Box just had too many holes for even the always wonderful Sandra Bullock to distract from. Still worth a watch though, just don’t go in with a high bar and you’ll be fine.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – I had meant to re-watch the first Fantastic Beasts film before I went onto this one as I couldn’t remember much of what happened, but I didn’t get round to it and foolishly hoped the filmmakers would be generous enough to gently remind the audience what was going on. Nope. Thrown straight in, I started out faintly lost, and just got further and further behind. I’m not even sure that if I’d been up to speed on the previous film this one would have made much more sense. I also found it hard to follow the visuals, with many scenes colourised to a dreary grey monotone and moving too fast to really allow me to get a visual lock on designs. As a final straw, it didn’t feel like sufficient time was given to the actual fantastic beasts, they were more like cameos than the titular focus. Even the title itself is pretty terrible.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (Netflix)
I only watched this because a) it’s by Andy Serkis and he’s great and b) it was a new big release on Netflix so easy to tick off. Working against it however was a strong sense of boredom at another Jungle Book. When the live action one came out I didn’t really feel that the world needed more Jungle Book than the original Disney film, and I certainly didn’t think it needed a non-Disney version. But I am willing to concede that a fresh (ish) take on it had some merit. It’s a little more gritty than the Disney, apparently truer to the book, but not substantially so to be honest. In fact it did seem a little confused about whether to be a children’s film or a more adult one, I think it actually starts out for children and then takes a darker direction that frankly is likely to upset younger audiences. The animation was also a bit mediocre at times, certainly not up to the Disney standards. I found it a lot more engaging than I expected to, but I’m still not convinced it really adds much to the already crowded playing field.

Widows – I’d been looking forward to this one as it had such a strong story, some great names (Steve McQueen, Viola Davis) and was getting solid reviews. But I found it disappointing, in a lot of contrasting ways. Somehow it managed to be both too slow, but packed with too many threads; it was played too seriously for a cheesy heist movie, but then the preparation for the heist was completely ridiculous. It had comic moments that undermined the drama, and emotional scenes that were undercut by the comedy. The whole thing seemed like a bit of a muddle and just didn’t really work.

New to me – as the end of the year approached I did my usual desperate blitz trying to get through as many recent films as possible to make my review of the year more complete. Between Netflix, Amazon, christmas presents and the HMV sale I managed to catch up on 11 films, some that I really should have seen already, and tick off some mediocre offerings that I’m glad I didn’t spend money on.

Lady Bird– With a less talented writer/director and cast this could have been just another entry into the coming of age genre, with an irritating lead character, stereotype supporting family and friends, and all the usual milestones (prom, driving test, college choices, boyfriends, friendships etc). But this film has magic. I’m not sure what it is, it really doesn’t look like anything special on paper, but everything falls into place and makes something wonderful. All of the characters and relationships are familiar and predictable but still a delight to watch, the direction shows how small towns can be both beautiful and boring at the same time. It’s an absolutely lovely film.

The Breadwinner – Another example of the incredible power of animation. For me, this is a story of a strange land with seemingly insane rules and customs, but it is not a fantasy, it’s a reality. Using a child’s view and very simple (but beautiful) animation to show 2001 Afghanistan is very powerful, and then adding a child’s fairy tale into it further adds to the richness. The connections between the story and the reality are quite clear, but not hammered home as forcefully as would be found in a Disney film, but then this isn’t really a kid’s film. I’ve found myself thinking about it repeatedly in the days since I watched.

A Quiet Place – This is an astonishing film. Even though I knew a lot about it and had very high expectations, it still managed to impress me. It takes an extremely simple concept (sound summons deadly monster) and delivers an extremely well paced and emotionally powerful film. The best way to see it would be in a busy but VERY well behaved cinema, but the worst place would be a busy but BADLY behaved cinema; so seeing it at home alone was probably the safest, but not best circumstances. I did think that would effect the impact, but if it did, then I think watching in a cinema may have been unbearable. The way that sound, and the absence of sound is used is incredible, heightening not just the drama and tension, but surprisingly the emotions as well. So much is unsaid, but there is absolutely no doubt about how anyone is feeling. The only downside is that the logistics of the monsters were a bit clunky, that’s all that stops it being a 10.

You Were Never Really Here – I only really watched this because I was hunting out 2018 films that were available for free, and when I started watching it over breakfast on New Year’s Eve I wasn’t particularly engaging. However I slowly found myself sinking into it and giving it more and more of my attention. The film is a very slow, quiet work (even though it’s about violence and action) and somehow has depth to it, despite really not giving you much to go on. I was frustrated that the plot driving the characters made so little sense – over-complicated and under-explained, but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is compelling.

Swimming with Men – “Innocuous” feels rather like damning with faint praise, but it really does fit this film perfectly. It seems unlikely it’s going to change anyone’s life, but while it’s on it’s perfectly adequate entertainment. Most of the cast are pretty recognisable as stalwart British character actors and immediately put you at your ease. It is fundamentally built around some serious issues of loneliness and depression, but it only skims the surface without committing to diving deeper (pardon the puns), but that works alongside the slightly silly spectacle of men who aren’t exactly in their physical prime doing synchronised swimming.

Journeyman – I was impressed at this. Everything about the film is understated but very carefully judged, it’s very simple, but exceptionally well executed. It gives each beat of the plot just enough time to settle before gently moving on, finding that balance between drawn out, but providing enough time to really engage. There are a small number of characters and locations, but they are all well formed and have a strong sense of character. The lead pairing of Paddy Considine and Jodie Whittaker are as phenomenal as expected, but I didn’t realise until the credits that Considine also wrote and directed it.

Ghost Stories – I’m hoping this was a fairly small budget, fast shot exercise; if it was then it’s a really solid little indie film, if it was more expensive then it’s an unremarkable, slightly amateur exercise. Ghost Stories is an anthology of 3 very small stories tied together with a narrative that manages to link everything together and tell an interesting story of its own. There were a couple of moments that I was either creeped out or shocked, but also a lot that had me rolling my eyes. The eventual twists and turns are satisfying enough to make it worth the effort, plus I’d watch Martin Freeman read a phone book, but it’s not going to be a classic.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
A mouthful of a title, and the film is a bit the same. For the most part it’s the charming “terribly British” film that you’d expect with a title like that a cast made up of half of Downton Abbey. But the thread of story running through it about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey is horrific. I was aware that Guernsey was occupied, but I never really thought about what that meant and even the sanitised version shown in this relatively fluffy film is awful. That leaves me conflicted about the film, on one hand it did at least educate me a bit, and it was charming and sweet. But at the same time it feels like threads of it are in a different film (the heartbreaking Penelope Wilton) and it didn’t quite come together.

Tomb Raider (2018)– This was actually pretty good! Alicia Vikander does a great job making Lara Croft a real person. She’s not a huge hero, invulnerable or all knowing, she has no idea what she’s doing and sort of bumbles from one set piece to the next. I’ve no idea whether the actual plot made any sense, I didn’t really bother following it too much and it really didn’t matter. The action pieces are creative, entertaining and very well delivered and everything really rattles along. I actually found myself looking forward to a sequel.

A Star is Born (1937) – The very first Star is Born that will go on to be directly and indirectly re-made multiple times. It’s a timeless story and the original actually holds up quite well, and in some ways it made more sense than the most recent version as the sexism and awkward #metoo moments don’t seem out of place in the 1930’s.

Winchester – It’s hard to summon up much in the way of either enthusiasm or anger at this film. It’s absolutely fine sufficient plot, sufficient character development and sufficient style, just nothing particularly good or bad about it. It’s a bit surprising to find Helen Mirren in something this mediocre and she doesn’t really make a huge amount of effort either.

Rewatches – it’s Christmas so plenty of opportunities to slump in front of some family favourites.

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

Ratatouille – I remember this feeling a bit of a let down when I first watched it, it didn’t feel like it was doing anything particularly original compared to the previous Pixar offerings. But it grows on you as a really solid film that may not be spectacular, but doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s really a very sweet story with some nice animation and fun characters.

Tangled – Before the film starts there’s a little splash screen to tell you that this is Disney’s 50th animated feature and the film manages to perfectly tie in both the greatest traditions of Disney’s heritage and yet feel sufficiently contemporary to sit alongside Pixar’s offerings. The animation and design are absolutely beautiful, the characters interesting and engaging, the plot trots along, the voice acting is full of character rather than celebrities and the whole thing is just lovely to watch. The only letdown were the songs which I felt were an interruption to the fun dialogue.

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’s rightly getting press for its cultural significance and that this film is so remarkable is a depressing statement on the history of film and 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 when compared to something like Iron Man 3, or anything out of the DC universe.

The Greatest Showman – All of the building blocks were there for a spectacularly piece of entertainment and somehow they messed it up. Hugh Jackman was born to play PT Barnum, Zac Efron is like Hugh Jackman Jnr, the budget was all there and the cast and crew were clearly 100% committed and yet it falls flat. I think most of the blame lies on the plot itself which swerved from one set piece to the next with clunky bridges in between, which would rely on various contrivances to make sure the story didn’t just stop dead (magic money sources, instant forgiveness, spontaneously remembering why a romance wouldn’t work just after a massive love song) or simply skimmed past contentious areas (was he exploiting his stars, was there a romance?). From a production point of view there were some rookie errors – many scenes were set at night and were just too dark, the entry and exit of the musical numbers was clumsy and lip-syncing the songs felt like short change. I didn’t hate the film, the musical numbers were wonderful (except the lip-syncing), but my main feeling was one of disappointment that the amazing story and talented cast were wasted.

Solo: A Star Wars Story – I’d not really been intending to see this film, but I was looking for something to distract my brain for a day and it worked out that I could do a double bill of this and Jurassic World. As it turned out, Solo lived up to my apathy, and even failed to work as a distraction.
The film got off to a bad start with a pet peeve of mine – over colourisation and dim lighting. I thought it was just to hammer home the metaphorical dinginess of Solo’s home planet, but it followed him the whole film. Scenes looked grainy, dull, indistinct and colour filtered beyond any believability. With the visual spectacle crippled, there was more reliance on the story and I just didn’t really care for it or the characters. It felt too bitty (a problem I’ve had with other Star Wars films) – go here, get the thing, go there, get the thing. Fun characters were massively underused disappearing far too quickly, leaving only the rather dull ones, nuance was non-existent so if I was supposed to be surprised by anything it was sadly ineffective. This film failed to distract me, I frequently found my mind wandering which is not what I expect from this kind of film. Really disappointing.

T2: Trainspotting – 20 years is a long time to leave for a sequel, and for a film so ingrained with a sense of the 1990’s it’s probably shouldn’t have worked to jump back to see the characters present day lives. It shouldn’t be possible to make it current while also still being Trainspotting. But somehow they manage it, at least for me as someone who’s seen the original a couple of times and liked it a lot. The characters have all grown and yet also completely not, similarly the tone has evolved but is still absolutely Trainspotting. I really enjoyed this.

Mary Poppins – It doesn’t matter how often I watch this I always find something new, but it also doesn’t matter how long I leave between watches I have a deep sense of nostalgia for it, reciting and singing along. The core story holds up well over the decades and the songs remain catchy and/or moving. It does drag somewhat (nearly two and a half hours for a children’s film!) but it certainly deserves its classic status.

Zootropolis – The lines between Disney and Pixar are really blurring under John Lasseter’s leadership of Disney and that’s turning into a really really great thing for Disney. Zootropolis does all the things we’ve always expected from Pixar – smart, bright, original and with a huge heart. It’s playing with classic ideas of the cop genre, taking a keen new recruit and throwing them into the reality of the city and partnering with a more worldly wise companion (in this case a conman). I laughed pretty consistently through the film thanks to the verbal and visual gags, particularly the elegantly included grown up references that in no way would detract from a child’s entertainment. There were a couple of slower segments in the middle where plot was explained and the kids in the audience got a bit fidgety. Also the moral message was really hammered home until it became a little frustrating, but given how important a message it is, I shouldn’t really complain. Another great entry into Disney’s catalog.

How to Train Your Dragon – I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this, but within a few seconds I was absolutely charmed and since then I’ve watched it over and over again with the same level of enjoyment each time. From the very opening seconds it is bursting with wit, originality, vibrancy and character. While the detail of the animation has dated a little bit, the observation of the movements and expression is outstanding for all the characters – human, dragon and even the sheep. The design of Toothless is particularly beautiful, managing to be fish like, reptilian and cat like all at once. The voice acting was perfectly done, actually feeling like voices of the characters on screen instead of celebrities doing voice-over like many films. I adore it.

Films in November

Bohemian Rhapsody
I always forget how many truly great songs Queen have had. The trailer alone for this film packed half a dozen songs together into a stunning mashup with incredible editing. Then you’ve got the story of the band, and particularly Freddie Mercury which gives more than enough story. Sadly, while the material is all there for a 10/10, the film only manages to get to 8/10. There were a few too many elements that I felt needed just one more polish – dialogue and direction were at times just too obvious, most of the characters were too thinly painted (particularly Paul and Mary) and I don’t think there was really a commitment about how to handle Freddie’s sexuality. Not to mention quite a lot of artistic licence with history.
BUT while these things niggle from the point of view of making an outstanding film, they don’t detract from the pure enjoyment of watching this film. I was entertained throughout, and firmly convinced of the joy and heartbreak of Freddie and Queen’s music. I watched most of the last 20 minutes with both a huge grin and streaming tears. I’m writing this a couple of hours later with Queen thumping out of the stereo and I’ve stopped typing several times just to sing along.

A Star is Born
First of all I want to say that Lady Gaga is absolutely phenomenal in this film. I knew she could act a bit from her tv work, but here she is a full blown, award worthy actress. The character has depth and complexity, she is clearly saying one thing while thinking another, and often not even really knowing how feels. It is a stunning performance, and I’m just disappointed that the rest of the film didn’t feel as worthy of her talents.
The biggest problem for me was that I felt the film presented itself as a love story and music film, and didn’t dig hard enough into the issues of exploitation and power dynamics. The issues were there, but never challenged and explored, continually sidestepped with a rousing musical number or emotionally manipulative confrontation on a different subject. I felt uncomfortable the whole time, even when I was also enjoying the music and spectacle. Was Ally being exploited by the older star who found his own passion for music and life reinvigorated by her as a muse and the music industry trying to change her image to sell more records. Or was Ally very aware of that and playing the game to her own gain? From their very first meeting Ally and Jack set off all my “me too” alarm bells with a famous, older, drunk man picking up a younger woman and offering her a path to her dreams. Maybe neither side felt there was a trade being done, but there was clearly a power imbalance at the heart of their relationship and I don’t think the film addressed that at all, it just romanticised everything. I would have much preferred if Ally hadn’t known who he was when they first met and she could obviously fall in love with the person rather than any uncertainty. Add to that the timeframe within the film felt rushed, but the film itself dragged. I spent the whole film feeling uncomfortable and the more I think about it, the more frustrated I get.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (netflix)
This is actually five short films stuck together and I’m honestly not sure whether I liked it or not. I watched the first 4 stories back to back one evening and I was utterly bored. But then I finished off the fifth one and I found myself rather charmed by it, and also thinking back fondly on the sections that previously I’d found quite dull. It’s a great cast of character actors, all giving it there all to bring characters to life so quickly. The stories are fairly minimal, but that works well to celebrate the acting and not outstay the welcome on any messages. There’s some lovely directing and cinematography as well. Maybe it’s best to watch each one individually.

Rewatches – I had a day of watching Disney films and playing with Lego. It was brilliant.
Up – Another really really amazing film from Pixar. The opening was really beautiful, similar to Wall-E in telling a meaningful story with very few words. There’s a slight disconnect between the beauty of the opening and then the more standard Disney style adventure, which I found a little tricky to process. But once I settled into the adventure it was a lot of fun. Once again Pixar made me laugh out loud and bawl my eyes out. They really are leading the way in film making, not just for animation but for family films in general.

Wreck-It Ralph – I don’t like the title. That really is the only criticism I have of the film, everything else about it was just so bright, original, entertaining and expertly crafted that the title really is the only thing that stands out as not being completely perfect. The care and attention that went into the design of the world, the characters and the storyline created something that seems to effortless that you come out wondering why other films aren’t that good. In many ways my gushing about this film almost doesn’t seem right, because it’s not really a groundbreaking film. It doesn’t try to do anything epic like some of Pixar’s films do, but that doesn’t feel like a lack of ambition, instead it feels like all of that creativity and skill has instead gone into producing a near perfect animation.

The Sword in the Stone – This certainly ranks near the top of my Disney films list, it’s certainly one of my favourites of the roughly described ‘pre-modern-era’. I must have seen this a dozen times growing up and I definitely remember it being one that my Dad would cheerfully watch over and over with me. It’s got that great Disney blend of humour and heart, enough action and laughs to keep the attention, and a good enough story and message at its core to give it life beyond the fun. It’s not the best animation admittedly, the style is quite rough in places looking like it’s more of a first draft than a finished offering (although the squirrel sequence, which presumably could re-use animation and studies from previous critter cartoons is more impressive). The songs however are wonderful (the Sherman Brothers strike again!) and the voice acting charming. Utterly wonderful.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Zootropolis – The lines between Disney and Pixar are really blurring under John Lasseter’s leadership of Disney and that’s turning into a really really great thing for Disney. Zootropolis does all the things we’ve always expected from Pixar – smart, bright, original and with a huge heart. It’s playing with classic ideas of the cop genre, taking a keen new recruit and throwing them into the reality of the city and partnering with a more worldly wise companion (in this case a conman). I laughed pretty consistently through the film thanks to the verbal and visual gags, particularly the elegantly included grown up references that in no way would detract from a child’s entertainment. There were a couple of slower segments in the middle where plot was explained and the kids in the audience got a bit fidgety. Also the moral message was really hammered home until it became a little frustrating, but given how important a message it is, I shouldn’t really complain. Another great entry into Disney’s catalog.

Moana – Another great entry into the Disney catalogue, it’s a good long while since they’ve had a dud, and they continue to meld both all the traditional elements that make Disney great while bringing innovation in tone, style and story that continually surprise. Moana’s focus on a very different culture is respectful of traditions without compromising on incredibly strong female characters. Like Frozen there are complexities in who the ‘baddie’ is which adds a lot of depth to the story. The animation is beautiful, and the voice acting is superb, completely integrated with the animation, never feeling like celebrities putting on voices and disjointed. The songs are catchy, and actually grow on me every time I hear them. I rewatched it on DVD and am actually improving its rating, which rarely happens. It had lost absolutely none of the joy or freshness on repeat viewing, and actually I saw even more strength in the characters and story, and more nuance and beauty in the animation.

Films in October

I actually had quite a quiet month for films, the only reason this film doesn’t look quiet is that I had a day off sick and watched 7 films back to back. I think that may be a personal best.

New films
First Man
There’s a lot that is admirable about this film. The ‘story’ of the first man to walk on the moon is a fantastic one that certainly supports a film. Armstrong is simultaneously the least likely choice and the perfect choice for the history making position – a remarkable man, but also a very down to earth one (pardon the pun). The film’s writers, directors and star Ryan Gosling all fully explore the contrast – telling the story of his daughter’s death, showing everything in lingering closeup and performing everything in an very internalised way. It’s an incredible story, told well. So why didn’t I like it?
Firstly, I didn’t get on with the style. I see why they chose to film it in a period way (basic framing, lots of closeups, grainy texture, flat lighting) but I found it dull. I also often had to close my eyes when the handheld, fast motion got rather nauseating. I can see that the film isn’t about NASA, or even the moonshot itself, but is in fact about Armstrong, but I was disappointed to not get more of the ‘supporting’ characters, most of whom (even Buzz Aldrin) were reduced to single note cliches. I also understand why it played so slowly at times, but I found it boring. Maybe that was because I did already know a lot of the beats in the story and it just felt dragged out. There were a few moments scattered through that really, completely engrossed me (the footage on the moon was beautiful, and the Apollo 1 section was utterly horrific to watch). But my over-riding response for most of it was impressed but slightly bored.

Extinction (Netflix)
There were three phases to this film and I’m going to avoid spoilers, so pardon the vagueness. The first phase is well covered by the trailers – a ‘normal guy’ in a near future looking city is having recurring dreams of some sort of apocalyptic attack. It’s all very flashy, but it’s hard to make out real details. His family, friends and colleagues are noticing his distraction and want him to get treatment, but he feels that they’re not dreams but visions. Then in the second phase it looks like his visions are coming true, when an invasion starts. We start following the fairly standard steps of him trying to get his family to safety – dodging attackers and explosions. At this point I was pretty bored to be honest. While it was trying to look flashy, it felt cheap and unoriginal. Not enough was really made of the vision bit and I was feeling frustrated that the ‘unique selling point’ was being so dramatically underused.
The thing is, the final third explains what’s going on and pulls everything together. Suddenly there’s interesting depth to world and characters which I wanted to spend more time exploring… but having dedicated an hour to the boring bits, we’re now out of time. I can see that you wouldn’t be able to get to the interesting bit without the first bits, but that doesn’t change that they’re quite dull.

New to me
Crazy, Stupid Love – I wobbled about on this film. That’s not necessarily a surprise as it’s a sort of anothology film, with a few different storylines running through, either losely but obviously connected or seemingly disconnected from each other. Some of the characters are problematic, and some of the others also had some dubious moments. But, I did rather find myself charmed overall. The character development is quite sweet and the way things occasionally clicked together was incredibly satisfying.

True Romance – I just didn’t really get into this film, from the very start I found the characters irritating and frustrating. I didn’t really feel it was stylish enough to be a parody or riff, but it was a very long way from being realistic and a credible caper. There were moments that showed flair and originality, but for the most part I was bored and irritated.

The Stepford Wives (1975) – The film does suffer a bit when you know what the secret is, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find many people who don’t by now know it after it’s been referenced so many times. But I was actually surprised that there’s still considerable value in watching the film, the tension of suspicion and paranoia and seeing the characters work things out. It’s a heavily period piece now – not just in terms of the fashions, but also the film making style, but that just gives it another level of interest.

Panic Room – You could almost use this film as a masterclass of how to make a solid thriller. The sense of dread builds up from the very beginning, not rushed, but also not waiting so long before the drama really kicks in. The sense of claustrophobia is pitched just right – the eponymous panic room is small, but with the use of security cameras in the larger house the scale of the film isn’t too limited. There were times when I was almost shouting at the screen as characters made stupid choices, or didn’t think of obvious (to me, sitting on my sofa) options, but for the most part I think they fell just on the side of reasonable. My only real complaint is that it got a little ‘Home Alone’ at times.

Finding Your Feet – I felt really cross about this film. I put it on because I was looking for some feel good, easy entertainment. I should have known better because any film with ‘older’ characters seems to endlessly feel that they must have a death in it somewhere. So rather than smiling and tapping my foot, I’m reaching for the tissue box. The film is solidly written, the cast is superb and everything is very well delivered, so if you’re looking for a big dollop of heartbreak along with your feel good, then it’s a good film. But I do think films should come with a warning label that realistic but depressing life events may occur.

Bridget Jones’s Diary – Somehow, I’ve managed to got seventeen years without seeing Bridget Jones’s Diary. And after all that time I find that I wasn’t really missing much. I can see that it could really speak to some people, but personally I just found Bridget incredibly irritating and the choices of men that she’s presented with deeply underwhelming.

Rewatches
Scream 1-3 – I’m not a fan of horror films, but I’ve always loved the Scream films, maybe it’s because they’re as much a film for film fans as they are for horror films. Scream is now over 20 years old but is holding up quite well, it was a new take on teen slasher movies at the time and it still feels surprisingly fresh. The self-awareness of the characters still feels appropriate and the pacing is well managed to build and release tension. I think the fact the elements of the plot are so straightforward but delivered at such speed means there’s never time to start questioning how things fit together, or even to notice aspects that are now dated (at no point did I actually even think about them using mobile phones). Sadly the next two films in the trilogy have dated less well. The second one is still delightfully self-derogatory (“by definition sequels always suck”) with the characters realising they are in a horror movie and a sequel at that. It’s not as tight as the first film, but it’s still fun, which is more than can really be said for the third film. With Neve Cambell in a reduced roll it falls to the Arquettes to carry the movie and they just can’t manage it. The cannon fodder is numerous, interchangeable, and not very good; the villain is convoluted and unpredictable and the script predictable and cheesy. I couldn’t face watching Scream 4.

The Hateful Eight
I say over and over again that I’m not a Quentin Tarantino fan. I have a respect for his style, and frequently actually like it, but as a film maker I think his flaws override his strengths and I’m endlessly frustrated that he hasn’t learnt better. Hateful Eight is classic Tarantino. It’s a small (largely familiar) cast, it’s dialogue heavy, violence heavy, set slightly out of its time, with a spectacular soundtrack and some gorgeous visuals. It’s also classic Tarantino in that it’s waaaaay too long and that completely undermines the otherwise extremely good film.
I first saw this film digitally projected in a cinema and it was over 3 hours long with an intermission in it. An actual intermission! For a start, that just made the film even longer, for a second it gave you a chance to realise just how much more of the film there was to go and how much of your day was evaporating, and for a third, it completely broke the flow of the film. I next saw it on Netflix and had to watch it across two days. While every scene had something interesting in it (even if that was just Jennifer Jason Lee pulling faces in the background) as a whole it was baggy and draining.
I wish I spent longer in this review talking about how good it was, how funny it was, how original. How good the performances were. How interesting it was to have much of it set inside just one large room and be able to watch all the cast members in the background. But instead Tarantino shoots himself in the foot and all anyone talks about is how it’s too long. Learn Quentin! Learn!

Gosford Park – A great film that really benefits from multiple viewings. There’s about 30 different characters to try and track and most of the first viewing is spent trying to work out who’s who and how they relate to each other. However they are all well developed and have their own stories to tell. It’s definitely worth giving it a chance as it is a truly superb film with so many great performances and different layers to it. This is one of my top picks for a sofa day and I watch it almost annually and I never fail to be entertained and gripped.

The Woman in Black – The film is built around the scariness of long drawn out silences followed by things jumping out at you. The problem with that is, that if something goes wrong with either the tone of the movie, the casting, or just the interest level of the viewer, the long drawn out silences don’t so much build tension as just make you bored. This film was boring. Maybe it’s the relentless grey, the slight miscasting of Daniel Radcliffe (he’s good, but the character needed to be older), or just the fact that I was too easily distracted by other things… but I found this film not scary, but boring.

Before I Go to Sleep – Although I had read the book and been completely gripped by it, I couldn’t remember the details of the plot, so was equally gripped by the film (even the second time around). The story is very well told (in both book and film) with twists and turns constantly keeping the audience on edge right along with the main character. The real success of the film though is the casting which sees Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong switching back and forth between their rather typecast personas and the polar opposite. The whole thing played with audience expectations very slickly. The plot isn’t without holes and stretches, but it’s so atmospheric that you don’t really think about it while you’re watching.

Death Becomes Her – This film was a staple in my family growing up (I have no idea why!) so despite not having seen it for years, I found I could quote most of the dialogue and was laughing at things before they’d even happened. That does make it rather hard for me to objectively assess whether it’s any good, I have a suspicion it probably isn’t. But I don’t care.

Kubo and the Two Strings – Visually, this film is absolutely stunning. It’s beautiful to look at with an original and strong style to it, but throughout I had to keep reminding myself that it was stop motion, and when in the credits they show a tiny snippet of the scale and detail of the work that went into the film, it’s absolutely breath-taking. Fortunately the film is also entertaining and meaningful, taking fairly standard themes and building and twisting them. The visual style is original and gorgeous and the humour subtle but lovely.

Films in September

New Films
The Miseducation of Cameron Post – While I was watching, I was gripped by this film. Even in some of the more ‘arty’ moments of lingering, moody shots, I was entirely there – mostly I suspect due to the extraordinary talent of Chloe Grace Moretz who can say so much without opening her mouth. Afterwards, as I though about the film however I felt a little more frustrated that threads of story and other characters hadn’t been better developed. Each character effectively had a single moment that gave them depth, but then it wasn’t really extended at all and so they all came across as two dimensional. That’s better than one dimensional, but it’s still frustrating. I wish that thought hadn’t lingered as much as it has, because as I left the cinema itself I thought really highly of the film.

New for me
From Up on Poppy Hill – A Studio Ghibli film that I’d not heard of, so a rare treat to be introduced to a new film. It’s a fairly straightforward story of a young girl with responsibilities beyond her age, getting involved with a new group of kids. There’s no fantasy or magic beyond some improbable behavior and lax schooling standards. I quite liked the contrast of a straight story but with the beautiful, delicate illustrations of Studio Ghibli. It’s not outstanding, it’s not hugely original and it’s pretty predictable; but it’s also gently lovely.

American Psycho – The 80’s-ness of it is rather painful and undermines the film a bit, it’s very hard to not laugh (unfairly) at the giant mobile phones, fashions and music. The central themes are chilling, but it’s hard to entirely buy into any of it. There are moments of shock, and it’s well done that there’s more shock in the anger behind the actions than in the violence of the actions themselves. Bale is superbly unpredictable, and the way the film closes surprised me too, but it didn’t really impact me once the credits finished.

Lean on Pete – I was strangely unaffected by this film. Despite being on subjects that would normally have me emotionally gripped, it felt oddly cold. This is possibly deliberate as the lead character is quite emotionally closed off and spends a chunk of the film in various states of shock. Without the emotional connection, I was a bit bored by the film, at one point I checked to see how near the end I was and was shocked to find myself only half way through the two hour run time. I don’t think it was a bad film, the structure kept things moving (I was glad they went for a straight linear timeline rather than jumping around) and the performances were excellent. But it just didn’t work for me for some reason.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool – This did not work for me at all. I just didn’t get on with any of the characters, the eponymous film star was played for almost a single character trait – lack of acceptance of growing older. The boyfriend meanwhile had no personality of his own at all (and I spent a good amount of time just trying to reconcile him as Jamie Bell from Billy Elliott), and although Julie Walters is of course lovely, she is 100% Julie Walters rather than an embedded character. Without any character development the story is too minimal to support the film and it’s just boring.

The Lady Vanishes – Sometimes I’m surprised by films. This was made in 1938 and frankly about the only thing that has dated is the aspect ratio and film quality. The story, characters, and even direction are as fresh and polished as many modern films. The finale is maybe a bit cheesy and improbable, but the twists and turns to get there were gripping. Alfred Hitchcock truly was a master, who directors even today are struggling to emulate.

Rewatches
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – Absolutely brilliant. It’s so vivid- loud with music, alive with characters, bright with colour, and sparkling with dialogue. It’s not pure frothiness, it (and the characters) has a line of hardness running through the middle, not losing touch with the reality of the world around them. The characters are hilarious and heartbreaking, the dialogue exquisitely quotable (in the right company) and by the end I had a giant smile on my face and my heart felt completely full.

Spotlight – This is an incredible story – both the facts that the journalists are trying to uncover, and the process they have to go through to get to the bottom of the cover-up. The film focuses on that without particularly embellishing it with style or creativity. It’s not a glamorous collection of star-turns, it’s instead an incredibly solid ensemble cast and very straightforward writing and direction letting the story (or rather the history) stand on its own. It’s not flashy, artsy or overdone and that’s exactly what the events deserve and what makes the film utterly compelling.

WALL-E – I was lucky enough to see this in the cinema again, 10 years after its first release and it absolutely took my breath away. It is stunningly beautiful in every way – visuals, story and sentiment. Pixar (as usual) have managed to infuse so much character and heart into things with minimal faces and make them seem more human than the human characters. So much of the communication comes from expressions and sound effects and yet you always know exactly what the robots are saying. The visual style is approached as if it were filmed with cameras and lenses – it has lighting, focus and textures that must be constructed for animation and they are breathtaking. It may not be the funniest Pixar, or the slickest plot, or the most exciting, but I think it might actually be the most beautiful one, and it may just be my favourite one too.

The 39 Steps – Not Hitchcock’s best, but an engaging mystery, adventure type film. In many ways it’s an early version of North by Northwest and the later film does many elements much better, including the chemistry and the actual drama. I have to admit I found it quite difficult to get into the film and was very easily distracted.

Films in August

New Films
Christopher Robin
I really wanted to love this film, but it did make it hard. I found the opening half hour or so of the film incredibly bleak. We start with Christopher Robin saying goodbye to all his friends in Hundred Acre Wood as he goes to boarding school then we see a collection of flashbacks including the death of his father and going to war, while the toys slowly fades away as he forgets them. There’s a flash of cheeriness as he marries Hayley Atwell, but then he becomes obsessed with work and providing for his family, losing sight of fun and being present for those he loves. By this point I was pretty miserable to be honest.
The second half picks up as the toys come back into his life, but Christopher Robin still takes a lot of convincing to be a decent human being and is pretty mean to poor old Pooh. There’s eventual redemption, but it’s a very long time coming.
It is a truly stunning film to look at, with hints of arthouse style direction and technically beautiful animation, even if it didn’t always feel quite grounded in the landscape. The same with the voices, even with members of the original Disney voice cast, it felt like a slightly off copy. There is some lovely stuff going on, but it just doesn’t all mesh together. It’s very much a film of two halves, with the first half really not being much fun for kids (or adults really), but then the second half being a bit too much of an easy fix for it to really work as just a grown up film.

Mission Impossible: Fallout – I went to the cinema in search of distraction, to quiet the anxious voices in my head and just escape the world for a bit. I figured a Mission Impossible film would be almost perfect for that. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of the films, but I do think they’re good at what they are. I was slightly disappointed with Fallout compared to previous MI films. The plot seemed even less coherent than usual and it felt like they spent too long trying to explain it which just slowed the film and drew attention to the nonsense of it all. It doesn’t matter if the plot makes no sense (or even if there isn’t much plot at all) but don’t waste so much time on it and leave the audience enough time to spot the holes. I also didn’t feel that it had the humour or character of previous films. Obviously Tom Cruise is the star under the thin disguise of his character Ethan Hunt, but I’d like a bit more interaction with the more than capable supporting actors (both good guys, bad guys, and somewhere-in-the-middle). The action sequences were utterly spectacular, but everything in between was mediocre and bordering on dull, it therefore failed on its basic mission to distract me.

Ant-Man and the Wasp – The Marvel universe always manages to impress me with the sheer variety it brings in its different threads of the franchise (and then astonish me when it weaves the threads together to form an even vaguely coherent joint offering). Ant Man is on the comedy end of the spectrum and it knows it. It 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 can happily take a bit of a nap for a lot of it. 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 and possibilities, fully exploring the potential. But the characters are never forgotten and Marvel’s stunning casting strikes again, with everyone delivering a rich portrayal of everyone as somewhere in the middle of the hero-villain spectrum. It’s a nice change that it’s not the end of the world being threatened; the more intimate stakes make a nice change and fit in the wider pacing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe perfectly. This was exactly the distraction and the entertainment I was looking for.

New to Me
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 did manage to be a fresh take on the story and felt more like an actual teenager than I think 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 in a known universe so his character makes more sense and is both more accepting and more acceptable as a teenager with superpowers. Despite having so much behind it, the film still felt fresh, original and vibrant and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rewatches
The Hobbit films – ITV have been showing all the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, so I decided to marathon my way through the Hobbit films on a wet bank holiday as I haven’t seen them since I was somewhat disappointed by them in the cinema. I remain disappointed. I won’t bother reviewing each one individually, as it’ll be quite repetitive, just like the films. It feels like they missed all the heart and soul that was present in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and just shamelessly tried to make as much money as possible. Primarily, that meant dragging a very limited story out into three over-long films and forcing in cameos and references that just didn’t feel right. I also think they skimped on the special and visual effects, more scenes were obviously green-screened and CGI’ed and it didn’t feel like there was the richness that the original trilogy had. The actors are doing their best and there are some nice moments but it mostly felt cold and mercenary.

Kiki’s Delivery Service – I was lucky enough to see this during the Picturehouse’s Studio Ghibli season and it’s a lovely film to see on the big screen. Some animations work on the big screen because of the amount of detail (Zootopia or Big Hero 6 for example), but this one works because of the simplicity of the animation. The simplicity of the lines, character design and the colours are so elegant on the big screen. It’s a pure kids film, a slow burning fairy tale but there’s enough touches of humour to keep it interesting for adults too. The majority of the film is a very gentle, slow ride which builds to an ending which felt a little rushed, but maybe watching things play out over the titles is the best way to gently break away from the lovely world.

Heathers – This film has had a cinema re-release for its 30th anniversary, which makes me feel a bit old because it was one of the films when I was at school that would do the rounds on vhs for sleepovers and the like. Admittedly it was already a few years old at that point, but it certainly spoke to teenage girls even in the early 90’s. The messages at the heart of the film are still somewhat relevant even if the styles are now horrifically dated. It’s a weird film wandering between fantasy and reality in a way that didn’t feel entirely coherent. It suffers as many of these films do by having actors who are clearly far older than the characters they are meant to portray, and not all are quite up to the depths that the writers may have been aiming for. It’s certainly not a great film, and I’m not really sure it deserves a ‘classic’ label either, but it is interesting to think where it fits into the overall timeline of teen films and how it inspired films after it.

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 the character in Sherlock, so all you’ve really added is magic and a weird accent (it sounded just like Hugh Laurie on House to me, 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 and explaining of things that really didn’t make any sense, 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 (I think if I’d seen it in 3d it would probably have made me feel ill). The bits that weren’t action OR exposition were quite interesting, but I just kept zoning out of the rest of it. On the plus side – Tilda Swinton was absolutely fantastic and the line about the ‘mantra’ 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.

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