Books in March and April 2020

Matthew Syed – Rebel Ideas
Matthew Syed takes on the subject of diversity, in its broadest definition – why it’s important to bring together people who think differently; whether that’s because they have different races, genders, backgrounds, training, specialisms or styles – you’ll get better results if people think differently and (just as importantly) can express themselves and be heard. As with all Syed’s books it’s fantastically well researched and grounds scientific explanations with vibrant anecdotes and personal accounts. It did start to lose me a bit towards the end when the theory got a little bit too heavy and theoretical, but the rest of it was interesting and entertaining to read.

Bridget Collins – The Binding
The book is divided into three sections and my enjoyment level varied significantly between the three. The book starts in a fairly classic way a young man with some sort of trauma in his past is apprenticed to a mysterious woman who may or may not be a witch. The fact that the blurb on the back of the book gives away the mystery is a bit of a shame, but it’s a well developed idea and the character is interesting. The second section becomes a lot less interesting, losing most of the fantasy elements that were the only reason I had picked up the book. The third section then turns into a bit of a jumble, with a new first person narrator that never quite felt coherent to me. A good start, that just didn’t work out so well.

Kate Atkinson – Big Sky
It’s been a long wait for a new Jackson Brodie novel, so long that I’d half forgotten the series. I suddenly remembered though that I had the dvd of the BBC series starring (hello to) Jason Isaacs so I recapped via that first. It was a good job I had because there were a lot of call outs in Big Sky to the previous works. It wasn’t until after I’d finished the book that I looked up my reviews of the previous works and realised that I had been less than glowing about a lot of them, which completely matched how I felt about Big Sky. On one hand, it’s a rich collection of characters and stories that gradually come together into something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. But on the other hand, it’s a mess of too many disparate elements that are brought together through completely unlikely coincidences (oh and there’s really not enough Jackson Brodie in it). I think as a disposable, relatively low impact thriller, it’s a satisfying read. But I went in expecting more and was a bit disappointed.

Harlan Coben – The Woods
If you’re looking for a solid thriller, Harlan Coben is the place to go. This book certainly kept me turning the pages and coming up with various new ideas and solutions every few chapters, and still managed to surprise me at the end. I did have a few moments of wanting to shout at characters for poor decision makers (the lawyer who doesn’t report the attempts to blackmail him seems particularly stupid) but I got better at just shushing that inner voice and enjoying the journey.

Anthony Horowitz – Moriarty
I suspect if I were a fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels I’d appreciate this book a bit more. I know enough to be able to spot that the style and tone were referencing the style of the original series, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy the style. There’s a smugness to the writing and many of the characters, the sense that the characters and the writer know more than the reader and are quietly gloating about that. That pushed me in the opposite direction a bit, and I found myself looking for the inconsistencies and errors even more than I usually would, and of course found plenty that either the characters or the writer overlooked. Just as I was getting very bored of the book though, there’s a twist at the end that was genuinely shocking and turns everything on its head in a way that was really very clever. So I’m torn, the excellent ending doesn’t change the fact that most of the book is fairly unremarkable and occasionally irritating.

Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson – Starchild
I was given three months subscription to a service that sends you random books from charity shops, and this was one of them. It’s a solid 60’s SF book that’s got some interesting stuff going on, some weird stuff going on and some incoherent stuff going on. It’s short enough to burn through and gloss over the things that make sense and it’s an ok read, but nothing to really write home about. It also turns out that this was book 2 of a trilogy, so maybe it would have made more sense read in the right order. I don’t mind random books, but not so random as to be midway through a series that is no longer in print.

Films in March 2020

Well isn’t the world very odd at the moment? I’ve not got the abundance of free time that some people seem to have, so I’ve not had a dramatic uptick in film watching, and my choices of films are tending more towards the low imapct end of the spectrum. I managed to get one last cinema trip in before they closed, and at least I ended on a high note.

Onward (cinema)
The concept behind Onward is that magic has been lost from the realm of fairy tale-esque creatures, they may be elves and centaurs, but they now live in a world of cars and smart phones. Ian and Barley are mismatched brothers who get the chance to spend one day with their father who died when they were very young, but they have to work together and rediscover magic in order to do it. It’s a really well crafted and fun story. Although all the familiar “tropes” of a magical quest are there, they’re approached in a fresh and self aware way. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland are wonderful as the two brothers, having a lot of fun but delivering real heart as well. I laughed out loud at both the spoken jokes and the visual ones, and teared up appropriately for the lovely emotional conclusion.
The problem is that if any other studio, even Disney Studios itself had made Onward all that praise would have been enough. But Pixar have set themselves an impossibly high standard, their films when at their best are works of art, creating vivid new worlds that offer stunning insight into our own. Onward is not that film. It felt like there was more that could have been done, more richness and detail in the magical world (compare with Zootopia), or creativity in visual style, or even in the soundtrack. I did enjoy the film immensely, but I don’t think it will stay with me and be one that I either reach down from the DVD shelf again and again over the years.

Alien Quaudrilogy
I watched my way through the Alien box set. Watching them back to back is quite interesting, as it highlights the similarities and differences. The first film in 1979 almost defined the whole genre, but by the fourth, nearly 20 years later the genre has left the series behind a bit.
Alien – Many of the special effects and even just film style now feel very clunky, even if they were groundbreaking. However the fundamentals of the story and how it feels to watch it haven’t changed. It’s still thrilling, and even after dozens of references and parodies over the years, it still gets the adrenaline going.
Aliens – Everything is bigger than in Alien – the sets, the size of the cast, and the explosions, the only thing that isn’t bigger is the brains. I felt it had turned this into more or a classic action film going from one set piece to another rather than telling a mapped out suspenseful story. Then to add insult to injury, they added a small child in, as if they realised that the marines were all utterly unengaging and both Ripley and the audience needed someone to actually connect with. It’s an exciting adventure, but I don’t think it does anything creative or special, unlike the first film.
Aliens 3 – At the end of this film it’s clear that this was supposed to be the end of a trilogy. Ironically when they eventually made the 4th film, it made this film be the one that’s most irrelevant. Opening by unceremoniously killing off the characters that Ripley had previously established relationships with, and the film never really finds that level of emotion and humanity again. Ripley is emotionally shut down, which is understandable but very boring, and the prisoners she finds herself with are hard to tell about. There’s just nothing here that jumps out or gives any personality.
Alien Resurrection – The nuts and bolts of the film bring absolutely nothing new to the franchise, with yet another rag-tag group fighting to survive against the alien menace and the usual selection of human antagonists. Fortunately Sigourney Weaver has something new to chew on, with the resurrected Ripley changed by her experiences, and a bit of Alien DNA. That iteration on her character actually makes this film rise above the previously unremarkable Alien 3.

The Boxtrolls (Netflix)
A really lovely, charming film that’s thoroughly original. It’s grungier than most Disney, perfectly suited to the intricate detail of the stop motion animation of Laika studios. The story is a classic one, but the details and specifics are rich and original. The voice cast is familiar, it’s hard to not see Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and Jared Harris when you hear their voices, but that also means their characters are richer for their inherited histories. It’s a lovely film that I can see watching over and over again.

Julie and Julia (Netflix)
I found this film utterly charming! I was really surprised at how much I loved it, I thought the modern half of the story would be filler to Meryl Streep’s impression of the slightly ridiculous Julia Child. But if anything it was the Streep half that felt like filler. I loved Julie and all her (many) trials, tribulations and failings, cookery based and otherwise. I haven’t laughed this hard at a film in a very long time or been so sad when it counted down to it’s final recipe.

Midsommar (Amazon)
This film brings two things the sub-genre of horror films about creepy cults that I really liked. The first was the fact that the whole thing is set in big open spaces in the sunshine. Horror films are too often set in dark and claustrophic spaces, where I frequently find myself struggling to be able to actually see what’s going on. But here there are bright blue skies and wide open fields, that by the end of the film feel just as threatening. The second thing I very much like is the wonderful Florence Pugh who brought an intense believability, that grounded even the weirdest of scenes. There’s a great blend of all the major horror styles, there are jump scares, creepy oddness, edge of seat suspense and visual gore. I would say that in order to get all that in the film does drag on a little with a nearly 2.5 hour runtime, which meant by the end I was rather willing it to be over.

A Cock and Bull Story (Amazon)
What an incredibly odd film. All I knew going in was that it was a film of the supposedly “unfilmable” Tristram Shandy, it quickly became clear that this was much stranger and a blend of actual film, and a fictional account of the making of that film. I don’t know whether they tried to write that film and then realised they couldn’t or always set out to make this behind the scenes film, but either way I think the result is possibly inspired. Possibly. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon don’t hold back playing extreme versions of themselves. All the characters walk a fine line between parody and tender observation which gives the film a real heart beneath some of the cheap laughs. I wasn’t expecting a film with quite so many layers to it, and would actually quite like to watch it again now I know what to expect.

The Aeronauts (Amazon)
This is one of those films that is quite deceptive. It appears to be quite a straightforward period adventure story of two people trying to fly a hot air balloon higher than anyone has gone before in the 1860’s, with plenty of extreme weather, clambering through ropes, and life and death peril. But the character studies going on at the same time are what bring the film to life. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne create rich and fascinating individuals and then bring them together in a relationship that’s adversarial, respectful, and challenging. I’m glad the film was structured with the balloon journey playing out in approximately real time through the film, while the story of how they got there is told through flashbacks, as a linear story it would have been predictable and probably felt too slow, but jumping around in time gave the story a lot more life. The film is beautifully shot, with period details on the ground and scenes on the balloon that are both claustrophobic and spacious. I wish I’d seen this on the big screen; even on a TV the shots of the balloon flying were beautiful, and I think at the cinema they would have been really breathtaking. It’s a lovely film that I think could easily be overlooked.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Netflix)
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.

Shrek (Netflix)
Learning from the Toy Story school of making animation fun for adults and taking it even further this Dreamworks CGI is a lot of fun. It’s not as subtle as Pixar at its best, but there’s plenty of jokes that made me laugh out loud. I think the biggest thing I remember about this film is the soundtrack that hits all the right points. The story is nothing special, but the injokes, side comments and references make this just as entertaining the 6th time as the 1st.

Intolerable Cruelty (Amazon)
A romantic comedy from the Coen brothers. Meaning it’s pretty black, deeply bizarre, very quirky and very funny in places. George Clooney is dialling up the smarmy charm and Catherine Zeta Jones the aloof manipulator; both playing their characters very carefully so they’re extreme, but don’t quite fall over into completely unbelievable. The looping of the plot did get a little tiresome, particular if you can see the steps coming, but the utter weirdness of the characters, and some great supporting characters keep it enjoyable.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Netflix)
As I was scrolling endlessly through Netflix, this this documentary caught my eye because I’d recently seen the Tom Hanks film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and I thought I’d try to get a little more insight. If you’re looking for hard hitting journalism here, you’re going to be disappointed and I didn’t really get anything more than I did from the dramatisation. There is some interesting insight into how he got into children’s television and then how he left it for a while before feeling he needed to return. However most of it is just a group of people talking about a very nice person. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but I think I’d prefer to watch Tom Hanks.

Blinded by the Light (Amazon)
Labels like “feel good film of the year” are frequently misapplied, either to films that are trying way too hard, or to films where there’s a lot of misery before the feel good. On the plus side, this film doesn’t have too much trauma, just enough to get the characters moving, and the feel good tunes kick in pretty early. But I never fully engaged with the characters, their stories, or the music itself and so never got the full benefits of the positivity. I felt like an awful lot of energy was expended in telling me how everyone felt and how amazing Bruce Springsteen’s music were, but I never actually felt it, so was just left a bit bored.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (DVD)
I remember this film incredibly fondly from my childhood, but actually haven’t seen it in decades. It’s hard not to compare it to Mary Poppins, despite being 7 years younger they had interweaving production timelines and shared several cast and crew, and most notably the songs for each were done by the Sherman Brothers. Mary Poppins clearly has the stronger cultural history and it’s sadly quite clear why when re-watching Bedknobs as an adult. If Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Poppins was dubious, the children in Bedknobs are an absolute horror which it’s very hard to get over. The wonderful Angela Landsbury is painfully wooden and delivers lines like someone that’s wondering what happened to her career. That’s a shame, because the story itself is charming, the characters are fun (David Tomlinson the only member of the cast seemingly having fun) and the animation is fun (the football match in particular). But the real standout are the Sherman brothers’ songs which are just as catchy as the Mary Poppins ones, and all the lyrics came flooding back as soon as I heard the overture (“Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee”). It’s still a fun film, but not nearly as timeless as it’s older sister.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (Netflix)
I just went back and reread my review of Pacific Rim and it’s interesting that while I absolutely loved the action and described it as loud, cool and fun in the cinema when I re-watched it on tv I downgraded it because the spectacle just wasn’t as good and started to reveal some poor scripting. I didn’t see Pacific Rim: Uprising at the cinema and maybe I would have thought more fondly if I had. One of the strengths of the original was that it didn’t have big name hollywood stars which gave the characters more individuality, here the lack of big stars just felt like it lacked talent. John Boyega was the notable exception, creating an interesting lead (the icecream scene was a standout), but the rest were a bit flat and failed to bring personality to either their own characters, or the massive robots that they were powering. The onscreen action sequences weren’t enough to distract from the fact that the plot and even the music didn’t give me the same punch of adrenaline. The whole thing felt like it lacked heart, didn’t have the same sense of jeopardy and desperation that the first did and just left me feeling flat.

Jabberwocky (Amazon)
I had a lot of complicated thoughts while watching this film, mostly because the film itself was so utterly boring and unentertaining that my brain desperately went looking for something else to do. I was trying to work out why I didn’t like this, but I do like Monty Python. There’s so much that overlaps with Python (people and style) and yet while I find Python hilarious, this just seemed ridiculous. I did have to wonder whether it was because I’d been TOLD Python was funny, and have seen it so often in the context of it being wonderful, whereas Jabberwocky was forgotten and overlooked. I guess I’ll never really know, but I certainly won’t be watching Jabberwocky again to give it another try.

Locke and Key: Season 1

This series has been a long time coming. Based on a highly regarded comic series started in 2008 the rights bounced around various companies it was originally loudly announced as a film trilogy, before converting to a TV series and having pilots made in both 2011 and 2017. Off that second pilot, Netflix picked up the show and then recast almost everyone and making the 10 part series that eventually landed in Feb 2020 and ending up with something that is perfectly fine, but I’m not sure was really worth the wait.

The series starts with Nina Locke and her three kids trying to get a fresh start following the murder of their husband/father the improbably named Rendell Locke. They’re returning to his family home – Key House, a massive rambling old house that looks exactly like the house in any horror or mystery film with massive rooms, antique fixtures, sweeping staircases and doors everywhere. My main thought is that it’s going to be a nightmare to heat.

It doesn’t take long for weird stuff to start and we learn that the house is home to a series of magical keys, each with its own exciting powers. It’s a nice gimmick and the series uses it well to have some fun, provide character insight and drive the plot forward. It does occasionally get a bit hard to track the number of keys, what they do, what the rules are and who has them, but generally when I found I was losing track a character would helpfully recap.

It is more teen drama than adult series, I’d liken it in tone to the later books of Harry Potter, not as childish as the early books because it deals with serious issues like alcoholism, grief and trauma, but still with a fair dollop of teenage ‘shenanigans’ like flirting and dealing with bullies. Given that it’s a story about kids, there’s no way it could go as ‘grown up’ as series like Game of Thrones, but it did feel like it was holding back on some of the more serious issues that could have been pushed darker. The kids aren’t too irritating, and the central trio of the Locke children have some fun sibling dynamics going on, but if you’re not a fan of teenage dramas, then you’re going to get frustrated.

The series is solidly put together, pacing fairly well through the 10 episodes. I did occasionally get frustrated with the frequent flashbacks (particularly because I found Rendell Locke a very annoying character), but it did feel like the history was revealed at a natural rate rather than people frustratingly keeping secrets just to drag the story out. Given the number of time periods, characters and keys to keep track of, it’s an achievement that it works as well as it does. There’s also some nice design work going on using the lock and key motifs (which I’m sure is straight from the graphic novel) which elevates the early episodes but feels like it fades out later in the series. The younger members of the cast are doing a good job with some complex roles, but disappointingly there’s something about a lot of the adult actors that just feels a little low impact, a little bit second tier and by the numbers.

I enjoyed watching Locke and Key a lot, but it’s not the kind of series that really stays with you and makes you want to re-watch it or desperately want another season. I do find myself wondering if there was a missed opportunity with the source material to make something superb, maybe by making it more grown up? As soon as there’s a story with teenagers though it feels difficult to make anything other than a teen drama which (apparently) requires cliches of love triangles and teenage uncertainties. But if you go in knowing what it is, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Books in January and February 2020

Oh dear, I’m off to a very slow start reading this year. I set myself the target of averaging one book a week and I’m waaaaay behind that, without even the excuse that the books were particularly long, although 2 out of the 5 books did turn out to be pretty bad.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 10: False Value
The previous book in the Rivers of London series saw the big ongoing storyline wrapped up fairly conclusively and I actually worried that it might be the end of the series overall. Thankfully Aaronovitch is clearly not done. False Value builds from what has gone previously and continues to extend the world, but is a fairly standalone story, and I’m actually quite happy he didn’t launch straight into a new big storyline. Peter is quite removed from his usual environment and although it’s fun to see him out on his own and sharing his more geeky side, I did miss the familiar supporting characters who were reduced to not much more than cameos. I found it easier than usual to keep track of the story (probably as it was so self contained) and as usual, found plenty of charm and fun in the writing.

Mark Hayden – Tom Morton Series: A Serpent in Paradise and Another Place to Die
Mark Hayden is creating a fairly well put together, if not hugely remarkable collection of characters. While it’s the King’s Watch urban fantasy series that is the more creative, he’s also got a nice side line in solid crime thrillers. It was the Operation Jigsaw trilogy that spawned the two main characters for each series and although the morally dubious Conrad Clarke gets the bigger adventures in the King’s Watch spin off, I actually prefer the more straight laced Tom Morton in this straight forward crime drama. On paper he may seem a bit dull, more likely to solve crimes with spreadsheets that with running about, and more likely to quote the rule book than shout in interrogations. However he’s passionate and good at what he does and with some more lively supporting characters the books are very satisfying.
The first book, A Serpent in Paradise has a great set up with a murder in a gated community full of highly paid sports people, plenty of room for intrigue, high emotions and drama. Tom’s more steady pace is a perfect contrast to the setting and the cast of suspects, witnesses and those in between is diverse and fascinating.
The plot of the second novel, Another Place to Die, is a little more forgettable, but Tom is working with a larger team here that makes things a bit more interesting and it’s another enjoyable ride. I was a little sad to find out it was only a pair of books not the familiar trilogy structure, but I can see how the author (and readers) got distracted with the more flashy King’s Watch.

Erin Morgenstern – The Starless Sea
Eight years is a long time to wait for a second novel, and sadly this was really not worth the wait. I loved The Night Circus for the beautiful world it created, and The Starless Sea is attempting to do the same thing, this time around… ok this is where the book failed. I genuinely have no idea what it was about. It starts off well with ideas of secret societies, hidden libraries, fairy tales and stories weaving together with reality. There was some initial satisfactions as things connected together, but then I lost the threads and everything unraveled. I ended the book not knowing how the timelines worked, what the rules were, what anyone was trying to do and unsure whether it was my fault for not paying attention, or whether it really did just make no sense. I found myself cross and looking for faults (most of the characters come across as bland, either because they’re under-developed or because they’re so mysterious that you never get a sense of them. The flashes of solidity give points of hope, but they slip away and you’re left trying to track a dozen different threads to try and work out the pattern and by the end, I’d either failed, or it turned out the pattern was a blur anyway. I was incredibly disappointed.

Karen Joy Fowler – Sister Noon
There are some nice characters and set ups here, but then absolutely nothing happens with them. Reading the author note at the end it turns out much of it is based on real people of whom there is much uncertainty between fact and fabrication. While I admire the author’s determination to not ‘guess’ about true history, it does not make for a satisfying book as without any certainty it’s just a book of rumour and hinting. I never felt fully grounded in the period (elements felt slightly anachronistic, but maybe that’s just my ignorance showing) and I was very bored by the end.

Films in February 2020

NEW RELEASES
Parasite (Cinema)
I didn’t see Parasite until after it had won all the awards, so I had fairly high expectations but had thankfully avoided all spoilers about the content and even the style. That freedom from preconception is really important for this film, so I’ll stay equally vague. Sadly there’s no way to get around the fact that everyone knows the film is supposed to be superb and that in itself can damage a film. It’s easy to watch the film looking for reasons why it should or shouldn’t have won awards than actually just watching the film. That’s especially true of a film like Parasite that on the surface doesn’t scream out that it’s doing something special. But it is. The more I sank into the film while watching it, and in the time I’ve been thinking about it since, there are layers upon layers of pure quality. It’s absolutely packed with everything anyone could hope for. The story is timeless but completely fresh, entertaining and engaging on the surface, but with levels and levels of depth and complexity. The direction and production design of the film is beautiful, but looks effortless rather than fussy or contrived. My only problem with the film is that being in Korean I felt I was missing out on some of the richness of the performances, struggling to identify the inflections and subtleties in the language. But even without that nuance, the ensemble cast still shone and connected.
This film not only thoroughly deserved its Oscar win, but it’s win gives me hope for the awards and cinema as a whole.

Birds of Prey (Cinema)
I’d like to say that I went to see this to make a point about seeing films (particularly action / superhero films) written and directed by women, but I’m afraid I didn’t. I went to see this on a complete whim, I came out of one cinema screen and didn’t feel like going home, and this was the next thing on. I was very happy with my choice. OK, it’s not a masterpiece that’s going to be winning academy awards, but it was exactly what it needed to be and should be – bright, exciting, engaging and with just enough substance to it to raise it above disposable fluff. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is mesmerising, she may seem bonkers, but she’s actually seeing things possibly more clearly than anyone else. The world she lives in is insane and she’s just reacting accordingly. The rest of the Birds of Prey can’t quite find the space to shine for most of the film, which is a little disappointing as for most of the film any scene without Harley in it is just a little duller and starts to lag. In the unchallenging competition of the DC cinematic universe, this is the first one that hasn’t disappointed me.

Uncut Gems (Netflix)
When I see the name Adam Sandler attached to a film I expect something somewhere between an inoffensively charming rom com and an unbearabley awkward comedy. This is absolutely nothing like anything he’s ever done, and he’s amazing in it. He plays a gem dealer dodging from one slightly dodgy deal to the next, but the edges of his world are closing in, the deals are getting tighter, the risks are getting higher. The sense of pace and claustrophobia of the film are incredible, I spent the whole thing thinking disaster was around every corner and each time he just about negotiates a way through it just got more intense. I didn’t actually enjoy watching it because of that tension, but I was very impressed by it.

OLDER FILMS (roughly ordered good to bad)
For Sama (TV)
I’ve passed on multiple opportunities to see this film but eventually, after it won the BAFTA and the people behind the film spoke so powerfully, I figured it wasn’t something I should avoid. I’m so glad I did. I’m woefully under-informed on why there is a conflict in Syria, and this film does not do much to fill that gap. However the film isn’t about that, it’s about what it’s like to be on one side of the conflict, to live, work and raise a family in the city that has always been your home and is now a battleground. Waad Al-Kateab is a journalist and film maker, her husband Hamza Al-Khateab is one of the few doctors left in Aleppo and he is trying to keep a hospital running. When Waad becomes pregnant they decide to stay in the city they love, fighting for what they believe, and helping their friends and community. The footage in the documentary is intense, brutal and at times almost unbearable. But also intimate, gentle and occasionally even joyous. It is an absolutely unparalleled look into what individuals actually experience in these situations, behind the news footage and the headlines and it is the kind of film that everyone should watch.

The Favourite (rewatch, DVD)
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.

The Post (rewatch, Amazon Prime)
It’s somewhat astonishing that Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have never worked together before, and when you add on an excellent supporting cast and an interesting, and topical, historical event you’re on to a winning formula. I would suggest that the film doesn’t really do much more than put those ingredients together and let it go, there’s not much in the way of embellishment or decoration to it, but then good ingredients do speak for themselves. Everyone is on solid form and the whole thing trips along nicely, just about keeping me understanding a story and background that I knew almost nothing about. I don’t think there’s anything particularly remarkable about the film, but when it brings so many greats together, it can’t help but be something a little bit special.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (rewatch, DVD)
I had issues with the previous film failing to capture the wonder and excitement of the original Jurassic Park and feeling rather soul-less. With my expectations lowered accordingly, I was actually pleasantly surprised that Fallen Kingdom does manage to do something new, to raise some interesting questions about the dinosaurs and tug at the heart strings. The mixture of actual plot and action sequences is just right, never leaving it too long without some excitement, but also not dragging sequences out until they get dull. Yes, there’s plenty of cheesy moments, and the plot doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but the characters are fun, the cast charismatic and the special effects convincing. There wasn’t a single moment of the film when I was bored or my brain escaped back to the real world. Exactly what I’m looking for in Jurassic Park films.

Long Shot (Netflix)
A comedy starring Seth Rogen was not something I instinctively thought I’d enjoy, but Mark Kermode said that it was not what you’d expect and I thought I’d give him, and the always excellent Charlize Theron the benefit of the doubt. They weren’t wrong. Both Theron and Rogen are perfect for their roles, her as the ambitious politician who still has plenty of humour, heart and humanity underneath her perfect exterior; him as the crass and scruffy but principled journalist. They’re an unlikely partnering, but the chemistry is immediate and enjoyable to watch, powering through the rest of the film and the usual unlikely rom-com events pushing them together and pulling them apart. I wouldn’t say it’s a complete classic, but it’s a rare adult comedy film that really did make me laugh.

Deadwood (DVD)
This isn’t really a film. It’s really a double episode finale of the TV series that we’ve just had to THIRTEEN YEARS to. Mind you the TV series was always pretty cinematic anyway, as one of the grandfathers of the latest ‘golden age’ of television that saw series like The Wire and The Sopranos start to show what could be done on cable channels with big commitments, big budgets and allowing the series creators far more autonomy than was found on networks. If this film had played out as the series’ fourth season it would have been a perfect fit, as a film it’s a bit odd. There are little clips of moments from the original series that are a bit clumsy if you know the series (I rewatched it recently) and it’s all wrapped up a little too neatly for a series that is so uncompromising. Still, it was lovely to see the cast together again (no small feat) and if my biggest complaint is that I was left feeling happy and satisfied, than I should probably keep my mouth shut.

My Neighbour Totoro (rewatch, Netflix)
Despite some beautiful visuals, I’m afraid I was unimpressed by this film. I was certain I must have seen it before, but I either completely forgot it or actually have missed it when I’ve watched other Studio Ghibli films. There were some scenes and individual frames that I would happily have as prints on my wall, the softness and detail of the backgrounds, combined with the simple impact of the characters are really breathtaking. But the story just didn’t sing to me. Maybe it was the quality of the dub, but I never quite lost myself in the characters, they always felt like voices and animation, not that I was watching whole people. It is however very clear how other future Ghibli works grew from these foundations.

Mrs Lowry and Son (Netflix)
Timothy Spall’s second excellent performance as a British painter, but yet again in a film that is nowhere near as good as his performance. I knew nothing about Lowry and the film portrays a fascinating relationship with his elderly, bullying mother (played by the wonderful Vanessa Redgrave). But the writing is painfully poor at places. Incredibly on-the-nose dialogue that even these talented actors can’t quite make feel natural, clunky flashbacks and overly malodramatic sequences that just make the whole thing feel slightly cheap. There are some powerful and beautiful moments, but those are largely either when the actors have no words to say, or the director is seeking out the artistic visuals.

American Horror Story: 1984 (season 9)

Naming the series 1984 conjures up two equally horrifying ideas, George Orwell horrible vision of the future, and the real world’s horrible vision of fashion. It’s not hugely surprising that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk opt for the latter subject as the perfect target for their blend of humour and horror, taking the tropes of 80’s slasher movies. The result is one of the sillier seasons of American Horror Story, and unfortunately not one of its best.

The series starts in 1984 as a group of young twenty-somethings join up to go to Camp Redwood as counselors for the summer. But the Camp has a history as the scene of a massacre. Unsurprisingly the past comes back and the first five episodes are basically just an over-extended classic slasher movie playing out absolutely all the stereotypes and tropes, just with a 5 hour run time rather than a normal 90 minutes. There are plenty of twists and reveals of additional levels of complexity in the relationships, but I saw most of them coming a long way off and I didn’t find any of it particularly shocking or surprising. I’m also not entirely sure that the different ‘mythologies’ at play were applied consistently.

The final 4 episodes do something a little more interesting, stepping forward in time a couple of times to see more of the fall out, including some interesting cultural ideas about how people who felt completely at home in a time period feel as the world moves further away from that time. However for the most part I still felt this was a bit unremarkable for American Horror Story. It may be doing something that you don’t see in classic 80’s slasher films, but it’s not original for American Horror Story in season 9.

Overall I just felt it was a little ‘phoned in’. The majority of the series just doesn’t seem to do anything original with the ideas, it’s just a straight forward slasher movie that except for the improved filming quality and special/visual effects could have been made in the 80’s. The characters are too caricature, the humour too obvious and the story too simple. On the positive side, you can easily just skip this season of the anthology and come back next season which will hopefully be more interesting.

Oscars: Films of 2019

Thirty eight films are nominated for Oscars this year and I’ve seen 21 of them, covering 70% of the nominations. The big ones that I missed are Parasite (6 nominations), Ford v Ferrari (4) and Bombshell (3); and I suspect not seeing Parasite will mean some of my calls below are off. I have to say it’s a bit of a disappointing year both for films and the quality of the nominations. It feels like the industry has taken a step backwards in diversity in film making and the Academy has taken an even bigger step back in what they chose to recognise. There were opportunities missed to celebrate more diverse people and a greater range of films, there were significant achievements that haven’t been celebrated while slots were taken up with unremarkable entries from traditional names that coast their way to nominations on automatic. I’ll call out some of the alternative options as I go through.

Best Picture

  • Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite
  • My Pick: See my earlier post for more detailed thoughts, but to make a long story short, my pick would be Marriage Story
    Prediction: 1917, and I’m not going to be cross about that.
    What’s Missing: Rocketman was my film of the year and it should not only be nominated but I think I probably would have picked it as my choice to win. I also wanted to see more diversity in the nominations in terms of genres, Avengers Endgame should be there, so should Us, potentially Knives Out and even For Sama which will likely win the documentary prize.

    Best Director

  • Martin Scorsese – The Irishman, Todd Phillips – Joker, Sam Mendes – 1917, Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Bong Joon-ho – Parasite
  • My pick and prediction: I don’t think anyone other than Sam Mendes need bother writing a speech. 1917 wasn’t just the best direction of the year, it was probably the best direction of the century so far. It was an incredible challenge to keep everything in very long takes that splice together to make 2 seemingly unbroken acts, and yet the ambition of the complexity of the shots was never compromised. It was truly ground breaking.
    What’s missing: Martin Scorses did absolutely nothing outstanding on The Irishman that I can see so his place on this list so that’s one gap that can be filled. Dexter Fletcher did a superb job with Rocketman creating a film that blends intimate character with spectacle. The Safdie brothers’ delivered almost unbearable tension in Uncut Gems, and Greta Gerwig’s direction of Little Women was beautiful and understated. But why nominate a woman when there’s a 70 year old white guy doing the same thing he’s been doing for decades? Yes, I’m pretty cross about The Irishman.

    Best Actor

  • Antonio Banderas – Pain and Glory: the only one I haven’t seen unfortunately
  • Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: this is the one I’m least certain about. It was a good performance, but I’m not sure the material gave him the depth to really be outstanding
  • Adam Driver – Marriage Story: a powerful performance of a proper person, balancing good and bad, anger and restraint, drama and reason.
  • Joaquin Phoenix – Joker: His performance is so intense and claustrophobic, so much buried just below the surface that even thinking about it makes me feel anxious.
  • Jonathan Pryce – The Two Popes: In some ways like Phoenix this is a performance of what is just below the surface and Pryce is just as mesmerizing, but in a more positive way.
  • My pick and prediction: This is a strong list. I think I would probably go with Joaquin Phoenix. 80% of this film is down to him, supported by some good direction and some unsettling music, he is completely responsible for making the film so compelling and so horrible to watch. I can’t think of many other actors who could have played this role, whereas most of the others I think could have been swapped and still worked.
    My prediction: I think Phoenix will win, but I can also see that the Academy might give it to Jonathan Pryce as a bit of a lifetime achievement award.
    Who’s missing: Taryn Egerton for Rocketman should have been on this list and for me he’d be Phoenix’s biggest competition as he also gave a performance that had so many layers to it (and he sang!). Also Eddie Murphy was superb in Dolemite is my Name, and Adam Sandler puts in a very different and impressive performance in Uncut Gems. Also George MacKay for 1917 because while I didn’t think it was necessarily the best performance of the year, when you take into account that there was no editing to get each frame perfect, he did that performance every time while also doing choreography and stunts that left me breathless.

    Best Actress

  • Cynthia Erivo – Harriet, Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story, Saoirse Ronan – Little Women, Charlize Theron – Bombshell, Renée Zellweger – Judy
  • My pick: I’ve only seen Marriage Story and Little Women and I’m not sure I could pick between the two actresses.
    Prediction: Renée Zellweger will almost certainly win
    Who’s missing: Lupita Nyonga for Us, slightly cheating because she had two roles but she was terrifying. Awkwafina was wonderful in The Farewell, Jessie Buckley for Wild Rose.

    Best Supporting Actor

  • Tom Hanks – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: a really weird character played beautifully by Hanks
  • Anthony Hopkins – The Two Popes: I don’t think this was as good a performance as Jonathan Pryce’s, there was just less going on with the character and you basically got what you saw.
  • Al Pacino and Joe Pesci – The Irishman: I couldn’t actually tell you who did what role, I just didn’t think there was any depth to the characters, just stereotype gangsters
  • Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A solid performance but nothing special imho.
  • My pick: Tom Hanks, easily
    My prediction: Brad Pitt seems to be picking up all the awards for some reason.

    Best Supporting Actress

  • Kathy Bates – Richard Jewell: not seen
  • Laura Dern – Marriage Story: I didn’t actually think there was anything particularly outstanding about her performance here, if anything I found her character a bit extreme, detracting from the honesty of the film.
  • Scarlett Johansson – Jojo Rabbit: the successful parts of this film were entirely down to the performances of Johansson and Waititi, the two voices in Jojo’s ears that were in counterpoint to each other, but had the same tone of quirky truthfulness. Johansson was perfect playing an incredibly rich character who loves her son but doesn’t like him sometimes, wants to open his eyes but has to stay secret. Beautifully done.
  • Florence Pugh – Little Women: Through Pugh’s beautiful performance and Gerwig’s wonderful writing Amy somehow rises from pages (and previous performances) that often sideline her as the spoilt child and turns her into a powerful woman of her time. Without losing sight of the fact that she is also occasionally a spoilt child.
  • Margot Robbie – Bombshell: I haven’t seen this film, but Margot Robbie is fairly universally wonderful.
  • My pick: I would like either Johansson or Pugh, but I think Johansson edges it because much of Pugh’s wonderfulness comes from Gerwig’s interpretation of the character.
    Prediction: Laura Dern seems to have it in the bag for reasons that completely escape me.

    Best Original Screenplay

  • Knives Out – Rian Johnson: I’m very happy to see this nomination as I think it would be easy to overlook how hard it is to write such a satisfying murder mystery, pacing out the twists and turns.
  • Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach: A film where the writing is absolutely everything, delivered by very good actors, but fundamentally everything was on the page.
  • 1917 – Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns: While the film was incredible, the story and dialogue was ‘just’ there in service of the direction I think. If the film hadn’t been shot in such a dramatic style I don’t think it would be nominated here.
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino: In many ways this is the least Tarantino film of his and I’m not sure it necessarily did him any favours. The writing is fine, but not outstanding.
  • Parasite – Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won: Haven’t seen
  • My Pick and prediction: Marriage Story easily.
    What’s missing: I think if the Academy were as open minded as they should be they’d be forced to recognize the writing achievement of Avengers Endgame, blending so many characters, complex story threads, humour and action together. I don’t understand how that is less of an achievement than the writing of a drama with just a handful of characters and a simple story.

    Best Adapted Screenplay

  • The Irishman – Steven Zaillian, Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi, Joker – Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, Little Women, The Two Popes – Anthony McCarten
  • My pick and prediction Hands down this should be Greta Gerwig. She took a story that had been adapted dozens of times before and found new layers to it without losing any of the original. By the way, she’s partners with Noah Baumbach so wouldn’t that make a lovely pair of bookends for them.

    Best Animated Feature Film

  • How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World: I was very sad about how they chose to end the series, but I can’t fault the way that the story was delivered.
  • I Lost My Body: A french animation (although I watched the dubbed version) about an amputated hand that is trying to find its way back to its body. It shouldn’t work, and yet it really does. The way simple 2d animation is used to make a hand such a powerful character is impressive.
  • Klaus: This film was easily missed on Netflix but was actually a really entertaining, original and beautiful new addition to any Christmas watch list.
  • Missing Link: I was underwelmed I’m afraid, just completely lacking in originality.
  • Toy Story 4: As with How to Train Your Dragon, I was sad about how they ended the film, but thoroughly enjoyed it all the way up to that point.
  • My pick: Klaus. Original, fun, moving and beautiful in look and content.
    My prediction: Toy Story 4
    Missing: I’m not devastated by the absence of Frozen 2, but Shaun the Sheep Farmageddon should have been there and potentially even won it.

    Best International Feature Film

  • Corpus Christi (Poland), Honeyland (North Macedonia), Les Misérables (France), Pain and Glory (Spain), Parasite (South Korea)
  • Prediction: I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t seen any of these, but I think it will be a miracle if anything other than Parasite wins.

    Best Documentary Feature

  • American Factory: Really interesting and well put together. It did everything a documentary should – it informed, it intrigued and it made me care.
  • The Cave: Not seen
  • The Edge of Democracy: I knew nothing about Brazilian politics but because the film is told exclusively from one point of view it didn’t work for me as an introduction to the subject as I don’t quite trust what I was shown.
  • For Sama: Stunning. While it’s as biased as The Edge of Democracy, this documentary isn’t trying to explain the why’s of a situation, it’s trying to show what it’s like to live through it and it does that spectacularly.
  • Honeyland: Not seen.
  • My pick and prediction: For Sama. An incredible and important piece of film making
    Missing: while it’s not as hard hitting a subject, the Fyre documentary was hugely entertaining and an excellent case study of business psychology.

    Best Original Score

  • Joker – Hildur Guðnadóttir, Little Women – Alexandre Desplat, Marriage Story – Randy Newman, 1917 – Thomas Newman, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – John Williams
  • My pick and prediction: I have to say, of the 4 films I’ve seen the only one I remember the music in is Joker and that wasn’t because it was a memorable tune, but just because it contributed so much to the oppressive mood of the film. Of course John Williams can also do no wrong and I’m sure his latest Star Wars soundtrack continued to build interestingly on his foundations, so I wouldn’t be sad to see him win (interestingly it would only be his 6th Oscar from FIFTY TWO nominations.)

    Best Original Song

    “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4 – Music and Lyrics by Randy Newman: What a weird song, in the context of the film it’s cute but the lyrics themselves could be interpreted very differently and I’m not sure that the jaunty music quite matches the subject.
    “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman: compared to the rest of Elton and Taupin’s back catalog that’s in the film, this one didn’t stand out, but that’s pretty tough competition.
    “I’m Standing with You” from Breakthrough – Music and Lyrics by Diane Warren: meh.
    “Into the Unknown” from Frozen 2: I didn’t like it as much as Let it Go, but it was a great belter of a song. I feel very sorry for all the parents who have to listen to kids try to sing it without decades of Broadway experience.
    Stand Up” from Harriet – Music and Lyrics by Joshuah Brian Campbell and Cynthia Erivo: A powerful song that really stays with you AND works for the film.
    My pick and prediction: Stand Up. This will also make Cynthia Erivo the youngest ever EGOT. Missing though is No Place Like Home for Wild Rose, anyone who saw Jessie Buckley perform it at the BAFTAs will be bemused that it’s not nominated.

    Best Sound Editing: Ford v Ferrari, Joker, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
    Best Sound Mixing: Ad Astra, Ford v Ferrari, Joker, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
    Meh, who knows. Star Wars for Editing and 1917 for mixing?

    Best Production Design

  • The Irishman: Dreary and unremarkable, looks like absolutely every single gangster film ever made.
  • Jojo Rabbit: In contrast, Jojo Rabbit did something original, making Nazi Germany full of light and colour
  • 1917: so much detail bringing all the locations to life.
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The period details were beautifully recreated and shot
  • Parasite: Haven’t seen
  • My pick and prediction: 1917
    Missing: I would have LOVED to see Pokemon Detective Pikachu in here!

    Best Cinematography

  • The Irishman, Joker, The Lighthouse, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  • Pick and prediction: 1917 by a landslide. Roger Deakins’ work is usually something special and even if 1917 had been shot in a normal way he would still likely have been on this list, but to produce that within the constraints of the single takes was just on another level.

    Best Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Bombshell, Joker, Judy, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, 1917
  • Two films that are changing people faces to resemble someone else, two films making people look scary and one film making people look dirty (and possibly injured, I’m not sure if that counts as makeup). I never quite understand how the sci-fi films that are doing such amazing prosthetics and alien looks never make it into this category. I’m not sure how you compare any of them.
    My prediction: Joker as the makeup is so obvious and so part of the character as his clown mask changes throughout the film.

    Best Costume Design

  • The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  • All of these films are in some way recreating periods, so it doesn’t feel like they’re on the same level of creativity as films like Star Wars, Avengers, even Us. That said, period piece Downton Abbey should have been there instead of The Irishman.
    My pick: Jojo Rabbit at least was at least taking the period pieces and building from them. Although I also wouldn’t mind Little Women because they were having to be a little bit more creative in how people from that period with limited funds would work, adapting and re-purposing hand me downs etc.

    Best Film Editing

  • Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Parasite
  • My pick and prediction: Joker, the editing contributed so much to the horrible sense of dread. The irony of the The Irishman being nominated here is insane, it was over 3 hours long and STILL didn’t find any time for character depth or any female characters.

    Best Visual Effects

  • Avengers: Endgame, The Irishman, The Lion King, 1917, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  • My pick: Avengers of Star Wars – I just want to see the mainstream action/scifi genres get SOME love somewhere. These films show the biggest range of effects. Irishman is just a single trick of de-aging actors (which it admittedly did very well) and Lion King is ‘just’ CGI animation.
    My prediction: 1917, which wasn’t bad.

    Oscars: Best Films of 2019

    Nine nominees for Best film this year and I’ve managed to see 7 of them. Parasite is only released on Friday and I don’t think I’m going to have a chance to see before the awards on Sunday. It’s frustrating that a film with so much buzz around it is so slow to come to UK cinemas, particularly given that it actually won a couple of BAFTAs last weekend – how a film can be eligible for awards when it isn’t even out in the country is beyond me. The other is Ford v Ferrari (or Le Mans ’66 as it was known in the UK) which I sort of wanted to see but just didn’t get around to, I probably would have made more of an effort if I had known it was going to be an Oscar nominee but it never seemed to have that level of buzz about it.

    On some levels it’s an interesting range of films, big spectacle (1917, Ford V Ferrari), intimate drama (Marriage Story), period drama (Little Women), something foreign (Parasite), something controversial (Joker) something undefinable (Jojo Rabbit), and a couple by big names just doing their thing (Martin Scorsese’s Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).
    However, those entries are only ‘diverse’ if you’re considering films that are considered dramas. The point of expanding the nominees list was supposed to open it up for a broader range of films but it feels like it’s failed this year. Even just comparing to last year, mainstream films Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born, and superhero film Black Panther were nominated while this year’s similar and superior offerings of Rocketman and Avengers Endgame were completely ignored. Was Black Panther nominated because it was a good film (which it really really was) or because it shocked the Hollywood elite by showing a mainstream film made and starring black people could be a success. Because in 2018 that was apparently something that needed to be proved. I believe Black Panther earned a nomination because it was a really great film, but nominating a ‘token’ superhero film one year is no better than nominating a ‘token’ black actor or female director (I’ll rant more about that in my next post) just to shut up critics and then reverting to blinkers the following year. I think Rocketman with it’s perfect blend of fascinating story, insightful writing, stunning acting and beautiful direction not only should have been nominated, but that it should possibly have won.

    So looking at the actual nominees, of the 7 films that I’ve seen, the two I don’t feel belong on this list are the two by the Names. I thought The Irishman was actively bad – completely lacking in any depth of character or plot, unforgivable given the length). Once Upon A Time in Hollywood wasn’t as complete a write off, but it was still a jumbled collection of good ideas for very different films that Tarantino just meandered between. Neither director has any self-control with editing or run times and both films committed the terminal sin of long periods where I was bored. The third film I really struggle with on this list is Jojo Rabbit which I didn’t feel delivered the tone it needed to, which makes me sad rather than angry, and I’m willing to concede that I may be wrong in my feelings on it and was just expecting something different given the trailer.

    That leaves four films for me to chose between and while they are all incredibly good films, I think the one that is the best package is Marriage Story. It manages to blend all the big elements of film making – writing, acting, directing together to produce an intimate film that’s beautiful and brutal. The other three films are all superb, but each excels in one area of film making maybe over and above the others – Joker has a stunning performance at its heart, Little Women is a truly wonderful adapted screenplay making a classic completely relevant without losing the heart of the original, and 1917 is one of the most impressive directorial achievements in decades, but lacks a little on the story front. Marriage Story was the only film that I was absolutely gripped by the whole time, even though I watched it at home via Netflix; all the other films at some point I dropped out of the immersion to think about the film making itself.

    My full reviews are below. I’ll post my full list of picks for the awards at the weekend.
    Continue reading “Oscars: Best Films of 2019”

    Films in January 2020

    Welcome to January. In the world of film that usually means a flood of very worthy films that are vying for awards. This year it seems it’s more a race of weirdness and also for me, rummaging around Netflix where there are some really interesting documentaries hiding.

    New Releases
    1917
    This is an incredible cinematic achievement. The film is made up of a series of incredibly long takes (apparently up to 10 mins long each) and is blended together so that it seems like just two continuous shots. We follow a mission given to two young (but jaded) soldiers charged with a terrifying but critical mission to deliver a message. The shooting style isn’t just a gimmick it’s a tool to make the audience completely part of the experience, and the intensity of it is all part of the film. What surprised me was that it didn’t feel like the film makers really made many concessions to the style, the film still has massive action sequences, complex camera moves, complicated lighting and moments of intense acting. The beauty and the scale took my breath away on multiple occasions and with so many “tricks of the trade” not available it made even the simplest of shots so much more impressive.
    I will say, that without this incredible way of filming, I don’t think the film would have been anywhere near as remarkable, in fact I think the film making did limit some aspects. The concept is of course strong, and any film that presents the reality of war has something worth listening to, but I think overall there was probably not enough depth to characters or situations. The filming style would have made it very hard to get this depth, the actors did an impressive job in what must have been incredibly challenging circumstances, but I did find a couple of the characters a little too closed off, a avoiding the depth of emotion that it would be hard to reach in the middle of a ten minute take, and impossible to edit for. Ordinarily there would be dozens of options for every single second, but here I’m sure there were brilliant moments of performance that had to be thrown away because of a miss-firing effect or stumble of a cameraman. That the output is so good even with those constraints is incredible, but it does make the focus of the film that style rather than the other components. I’m not complaining, it’s made something unusual and still an incredibly good piece of cinema.

    The Personal History of David Copperfield
    I did not get on with this film. Other reviewers have described it as delightful and hilarious, but although I was desperate for some quirky fun, I just couldn’t get into it. Although I’m not familiar with David Copperfield, I’m usually a big fan of Armando Iannucci’s humour, either through outright satire in The Thick of It, or jaw dropping insanity in The Death of Stalin, but here I found it was neither whimsical enough nor biting enough. It just felt a bit jumbled, scenes being shared by people who are playing up the dry wit and drama alongside those playing pantomime caricatures. Dev Patel is to be commended for managing to deliver every aspect of the film with charm and energy, and I was happy to see a bright and colourful Dickensian world for a change, but I found the rest of it a little insufferable I’m afraid.

    Jojo Rabbit
    Another film I’d been looking forward to and ended up disappointed. The concept and tone of the trailer were intriguing – a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany, with Hitler as an imaginary friend. But the quirky comedy of the trailer was too thinly striped through the main film, with much of it having a more thoughtful and serious tone before suddenly remembering it was also supposed to be satirical and funny. It’s an odd thing to say, but it actually needed more Hitler as he was the comedy relief who really nailed the satire of the piece; Sam Rockwell also did an admirable job here and could have been on screen more. It had great ideas, solid cast, nice design (just as in David Copperfield I liked the brightness of it, rather than the cliche dreary colour scheme), and some really great scenes, but it was fighting itself and just didn’t quite come together.

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

    Edge of Democracy
    An Oscar nominated documentary that I would never have watched if it hadn’t been nominated (and available on Netflix). On the very positive side I have learnt some stuff about Brazilian politics, but it is the kind of learning that I then feel I need to double check. The documentary maker has a very personal connection to the story which she is open about, but immediately made me nervous about the fairness of her documentary as an educational piece. I was also frustrated with the tone and style which was a little simpering and arty for me, verging on poetry when I just wanted facts and simplicity. Unfortunately it felt like an effort to get through to the end and although it gave me an introduction to an incredibly messed up political situation that the world should probably be more engaged in, I didn’t feel confident that I’d fully understood, or been shown, the whole story.

    The American Factory
    I thought this was an absolutely fascinating documentary. It has incredible access to a closed down car factory in Ohio that is re-opened by a Chinese company, highlighting the completely different ways of working that the two countries have with management styles, work culture, safety, pay, and work/life balance. A lot of people share their points of view through interviews, voice over and being filmed at work and home. It is fascinating to see how, although the workers are all keen to work and learn together to make this business work, they are literally and figuratively speaking completely different languages. It’s only really “let down” by the senior management who do come across rather pantomime, not actually trying to adapt and respect the different cultures to truly merge them together and therefore driving everyone towards confrontation. It’s particularly interesting to watch being neither American, nor Chinese and therefore not coming from an assumed position with the other side is “foreign”. The film makers (led by two Americans, but supported by Chinese film-makers) keep a refreshing tone of respect and open-mindedness. Although I do think it comes across a bit western biased, I think it is actually more that it’s biased against the management layer, most of whom are Chinese. This documentary has really stayed with me and I highly recommend it.

    Klaus
    What a shame I didn’t watch this at Christmas! I’d dismissed it as a cheap kid’s animation to cash in on Christmas and only bothered to add it to my watchlist when it was nominated for an Oscar. The opening scenes didn’t grab me, introducing a spoiled and lazy heir to a postal service, whose father gives him one last chance and sends him to the far North as postman to an island occupied by two clans in perpetual conflict. Once we reach the island, the film really starts to shine. It’s clearly a fairy tale, but in the best tradition it has plenty of darkness running through it. The script has a perfect amount of bite to offset the soft centre, so it never becomes too sickly. It reminded me a lot of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s got a style all to itself. It was thoroughly entertaining to watch, beautiful to look at and a perfect addition to the regular Christmas catalog.

    Hail Satan
    I’m on a run of watching documentary films at the moment, and this falls rather on the innocuous end of the spectrum. I did feel that I learnt some stuff, but at the same time didn’t really feel transformed. Most of the film is spent following the leaders of a growing community of Satanist churches and completely focused on the political aspects of their movement challenging the perception that America is (or should be) a Christian country. The documentary is completely focused on this aspect of Satanism and the people featured come across as thoughtful, open minded and considerate. It’s all told from their point of view, with a couple of short sections on the history of Satanism. The people on the other side of their campaigns aren’t entirely voiceless as there are clips from the news and counter-protests, but these are clearly selected for contrast. I got the distinct feeling there was a bit more going on out in the wider network of churches (as is alluded to briefly) but frustratingly that’s not really explored. Still, it’s an entertaining documentary and gives voice to a group of people that you may not have encountered so it’s definitely worth a watch.

    Hellboy
    Good grief, what a mess. The original Hellboy films were also a mess, but at least they were a fun mess. This one is just a muddle. It felt like they couldn’t decide whether they were going to go for a fun 12A film, or a Deadpool-esque 18 rated grown up film. So they’ve ended up with something that’s too dark and bitter to be a fun action film; but doesn’t have enough bite and anger to really feel like it’s grown up. The plot makes no sense (not that the original did either) and the actors felt a little televisual, not really throwing themselves into it with the energy it needed. What a waste.

    Rocketman
    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 sings, 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 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.

    Films I Saw in 2019

    By the numbers
    I saw 201 films in 2019, that’s pleasingly over 200 and a long way up on last year’s 167, but frustratingly slightly short of my record of 206 films in 2016. Of those, 127 were films that were new to me, so that’s nearly 2/3 new and 1/3 comfort repeat viewings which is a pretty healthy ratio I think.

    I only saw 23 films at the cinema this year (11%), a long way down from 39 (22%) last year. I just don’t think there were as many films that I felt like going out for, less big blockbusters and spectaculars that felt like they had to be seen on the big screen. The number of films on both Netflix and Amazon were higher (59/29% and 55/27% respectively). Netflix in particular had some very good and varied original releases, although I’m not sure there were any that I would have gone to the cinema to see. I had a fair number of film days at home (frequently accompanied by either lego or a jigsaw, my stress reliefs of choice). Those were often days of comfort films that I know are good, or a little more risk taking with films renowned as classics (rightly or wrongly) or complete left-field choices when I get bored surfing too far in Netflix/Amazon lists.

    43 of the films I watched were released this year, 21% of all watches, and another 32 from last year to make 37% of all my viewing new-ish films (I go by UK release date, so some of the 2019 releases would have been 2018 films in the US). That’s substantially less in both number and percentage than last year, even though many more new releases are available through streaming services. It just didn’t feel there were as many films to get excited about. I wasn’t going out of my way to catch up on classics, so I’m ok with the fact that only 28% of the films were more than ten years old.

    Top films of 2019
    The more I look at the list of 2019 films, the less enthusiastic I am about the year for film overall, there were far fewer films that I wanted to see enough to go to the cinema for and the one’s that I did see, or catch up on via streaming services were mostly either ‘fine’, or had bits of greatness undermined by flaws. I’ve broadly labelled 15 as good (35%), 5 as bad (12%) and the rest somewhere in the middle. For comparison, last year 39% of the films I watched were ‘good’, but the same percentage (12%) were bad. So it’s just that films this year were slightly more likely to be ‘ok’ rather than great. However I’ve managed to pull together a top 10 I’m happy with, even if anything much more than 10 would have been a challenge.

    1) Avengers: Endgame – For me, the film of the year, the one that I had been counting down to with equal parts excitement and dread, and I was hugely relieved that after 21 films, Marvel and the Russo Brothers completely stuck the landing with a blockbuster experience of epic proportions, grounded by beautiful characters and heartbreaking emotions. Whatever the nit-picky flaws, this film and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole is a truly stunning cinematic achievement.

    2) Rocketman – From a purer point of view, for me the best film of the year was Rocketman. After the entertaining mess of Bohemian Rhapsody last year, I had low expectations of the Elton John biopic and I was completely overwhelmed by this beautiful film. It felt like a true and open account of the life of a human being – with all the joy and heartache, complexity and simplicity that is true of any individual’s life. The use of his music is perfectly integrated to make it a true musical film, and Taron Egerton is for me, the standout performance of the year.

    3) Marriage Story – The story of a family struggling through divorce may not appeal when you’re skimming the endless options on Netflix, but it’s an absolute masterclass of writing and acting, both with an intense truthfulness that is really remarkable. It’s a film that hits hard and then really stays with you.

    4) The Favourite – After careful checking I can include this as it was released on 1st January 2019 in the UK. On paper it probably shouldn’t work, it’s all over the place in tone, but it somehow it all comes together in a weird and wonderful way. The three leads are all fantastic, riding the waves of different tones with grace and power.

    5) Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon – charming, funny, beautiful and creative, another masterclass from Aardman that works across all the generations and is a particular treat for sci-fi fans. It was pure joy, in a year when many of the most anticipated animations chose to push very different emotions.

    6) Downton Abbey – took a TV staple to the big screen without getting carried away and trying to do anything too drastically different; so it was just as charming, easy going, and daft, and as much fun in a cinema with a big crowd as it was on a Sunday night on the sofa.

    7) Little Women (2019) – Greta Gerwig took my favourite book and did something faithful, creative, current and loving with it. Personally I wasn’t completely sold on the inter-weaving timelines, but I really respected the care that it was done with and the additional layers it added.

    8) Pokemon Detective Pikachu – a chaotic blend of classic noir detective with a bonkers universe of magic critters that shouldn’t work but really really does, even if you can’t tell your Charizard from your Psyduck (and yes, even after seeing the film twice now, I still had to look those names up).

    9) Joker – I put off watching this for a long time and eventually gave into the hype and was still surprised and impressed by it. Regardless of controversy, or how it fits in with the DC universe it is still a fascinating film with an incredible performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

    10) The Two Popes – A surprisingly engrossing film just full of conversations between two old men, who just happen to be the current and future pope and played by two acting legends. I was completely gripped in a way that some of the most adrenaline fueled action films haven’t managed. This is exactly the kind of thing I never imagined Netflix producing.

    Worst film of the year, or maybe just my most controversial opinion of the year, was The Irishman, over-indulgent and boring, edit 90 minutes out and it would have made it up into middling, but even if it were 2 hours it would still have been boring, at 3.5 hrs it was interminable (and even at that length there still wasn’t apparently space for a meaningful female character). The other really bad films of the year are probably ones that no one will have heard of anyway – Unicorn Store (presented as a charming story of a young woman who loves unicorns, comes across as a woman with mental health problems who’s not getting the support she needs), Velvet Buzzsaw (all over the place) and Vox Lux (nice idea very badly done).

    Animation – 25 films (12%), including 10 Disney films

    • Best of 2019 – Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon, a true masterclass in how to convey humour and emotion through wordless Plasticine.
    • Best of recent years – the brilliantly original Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (even if some of the animation made me feel a little motion sick).
    • Classic – slightly pointedly I’m going to pick the original animated The Lion King, I watched this instead of going to the cinema for the new one and didn’t see any need to bother going out. For non-Disney The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! or Coraline
    • To be avoided – Loving Vincent, maybe don’t avoid it completely and just watch 5 minutes, because the animation is INCREDIBLE, each frame literally an oil painting. BUT it doesn’t turn into a film, the voices are completely dissociated and I actually physically couldn’t watch and listen at the same time. Also Missing Link unfortunately which I found flat, simplistic and incredibly unremarkable which was hugely disappointing from the usually wonderful Laika studios.

    A trend that I’ve spotted in children’s animations stopped me completely loving two of the big animated releases of the year – Toy Story 4 and How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World (and Frozen 2 skirts near the issue too). Trying to be vague on spoilers, they end their franchises on a decisive goodbye that left me heartbroken. It wasn’t that the outcomes were ‘wrong’ for the stories that had been told, it’s just that it didn’t seem like the writers had to take the stories in that direction and could have given the audience a “and they all continued to have adventures and lived happily ever after” ending. I don’t watch kids’ films for gritty realism, I don’t want to leave the cinema in floods of tears that mean I can’t re-watch the earlier films without knowing the sadness is coming.

    Documentaries – 7 films (3.5%)

    • Best of 2019- Fyre is on the entertaining end of the documentary style, but beneath the insane personalities there is some fascinating business psychology that really spoke to me as a project manager.
    • Best of recent years – a tie of two from 2018 Free Solo and McQueen are both fascinating character studies, both incredibly tense and affecting although for different reasons.
    • Classic – Catfish has some questionable legitimacy but a surprisingly touching conclusion and is undeniably important.
    • To be avoided – I wouldn’t say avoid it necessarily, but approach The Great Hack with caution as I found it kept sidestepping the really interesting points to tell a sensational version of the story.

    SF / Fantasy / Horror – 28 films (14%)

    • Best of 2019 – Pokemon Detective Pikachu, or if you want a purer SF, I Am Mother. It felt like there was a bit of a gap in the big releases here, although I should highlight that I haven’t seen Star Wars. Maybe the studios were avoiding clashing with Avengers and maybe even Game of Thrones on TV.
    • Best of recent years – Snowpiercer which did classic SF concepts very well.
    • Classic – Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 40 years on and this film still feels incredibly vibrant and relevant.
    • To be avoided – The Mummy – a truly rubbish plot and Tom Cruise at his most irritating. Also The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu) and Geostorm which were both messes.

    Superheroes – 28 films (14%)

    • Best of 2019 – Avengers: Endgame – duh
    • Best of recent years – as I’ve already called out Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in the animation category, I’ll go with X-Men: Days of Future Past just to call out something that isn’t in the MCU.
    • Classic – Iron Man where it all started in 2008 (which is pretty classic as this genre goes), it was a great film then, and as the foundation of an empire, it still holds up really well. I watched all 21 of the MCU films in order and went on about it at length and ranked them from best to worst if you want to see where they all rank.
    • To be avoided – Justice League was a disastrous mess of a film and Ghost Rider wins the award for worst film that I saw in 2019.

    Comedies – 38 films (19%) that I think were predominantly meant to be funny

    • Best of 2019 – The Favourite. I know many people wouldn’t consider it a comedy, but in the end I classed it as a comedy because I remember laughing out loud more than in any other film, despite there also being some heartbreaking moments and a lot of intense drama.
    • Best of recent years – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – this had no right to be anywhere near as funny or as engaging as it was, managing to do three difficult genres really well – high school, body swap AND video games
    • Classic – Life of Brian which I hadn’t seen in years, but still manages to be hilarious and surprisingly cutting
    • To be avoided – Cafe Society was Woody Allen at his noodling worst and The World’s End was a very disappointing end to the otherwise brilliant Cornetto Trilogy.

    Musicals – 7 films (3.5%)

    • Best of 2019 – Rocketman, the songs are completely, and beautifully integrated with the narrative making it a true musical, rather than just a film with music in it.
    • Best of recent years – Mary Poppins Returns can be loved just as much as the original. Phew.
    • Classic – The Muppet Christmas Carol of course. With an honourable mention to Dreamgirls because Muppets is basically going to monopolise this category forever.
    • To be avoided – this may be controversial but I couldn’t stand Guys and Dolls – it was too long and lacked enough substance. Also I’d exercise caution with Richard Curtis’ love letter to The Beatles, Yesterday, it left me really uncertain whether it was a lovely feel good film, or contrived, confused and sexist.

    Films not in the English Language – 8 films (4%)

    • Best of 2019 – Den skyldige (The Guilty) a very tightly put together thriller. (I know most people would put The Farewell but I was spoiled by the hype and ended up disappointing that it wasn’t as funny or as emotional as I’d expected.
    • Best of the rest – to be honest, nothing that I would bother calling out. Normally the foreign language films are self selecting as really good because otherwise we’d never hear of them, but this year has been disappointing, even with only a very small number.

    [This is where I run out of well defined genres and broadly split the ‘rest’ of the films into either “films that are supposed to be entertaining” or “films that are supposed to be dramatic”. Which is a pretty fuzzy distinction, but it’s the best I’ve got at this point.]

    Entertaining films – 26 films (12%) – action, romances, murder mysteries and the like

    • Best of 2019 – Downton Abbey by an easy margin and Knives Out as a runner up.
    • Best of recent years – as it’s such a broad category I’ll pick four very different films: Paddington 2 is just plain lovely and is only in this group because there weren’t enough films to make up a non-animated kids category. This is Where I Leave You is a lovely family comedy/drama. American Animals is an entertaining heist film that comes close to doing something special, and Atomic Blonde is an absolutely stunning action thriller.
    • Classic – And four more picks here, although none of them are what I’d really think of as old – Up in the Air because the trio at the heart are wonderful, US Marshals because Tommy Lee Jones is great and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Layer Cake because they are both still slick.
    • To be avoided – How to Talk to Girls at Parties was just too weird and muddled for me, maybe I was missing something. Murder by Numbers badly written, badly directed, even badly blue-screened; even Sandra Bullock and Ryan Gosling couldn’t save it.

    Dramas – 41 films (20%), sorry this really is basically “and the rest”

    • Best of 2019 – Marriage Story – heart-achingly real and truthful about awful situations
    • Best of recent years – Tully – a beautiful film, stunningly well observed and delicately written and directed. Charlize Theron is astonishing, particularly given her incredibly different and no less stunning performance in the previously mentioned Atomic Blonde.
    • Classic – Tinker Tailor Sodier Spy – perfectly judged to be complex and twisty but not completely overwhelming
    • To be avoided – The Squid and the Whale – a noodle-y storyline that didn’t go anywhere and took forever to get there

    Full list (2019 films in bold)
    Continue reading “Films I Saw in 2019”