In these strange times, in which cinemas have temporarily closed their doors and those high profile new releases just keep on getting delayed, I’ve been far less inclined to create any new blog posts or to read anything that everyone else has submitted. Sorry about that.
So I’ve decided, in addition to making more of an effort to read everyone else’s reviews and posts, that instead of reviewing the major on-demand releases in individual posts, I will submit a “monthly roundup” of all the new 2020 releases that I’ve seen, writing mini reviews for all of them while also giving a roundup of some of the very best films from other years that I saw this month. Whether this will eventually turn out to simpy be a “one off” or whether it will remain a regular feature, a decision that will entirely change how this site is put together, remains to be seen but for now, I think that squidging all my thoughts together into a single monthly post will be a far less stressful way of reviewing things but I predict that when cinemas finally reopen, I will probably go back to reviewing all the big releases separately.
Seeing as how it has been over two months since my last post, I hope that by doing this, I will be further inclined to write about film and TV once again and I hope to see more of what you’ve been writing about.
So let’s begin with all the 2020 releases (UK release date) that I saw this month.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
★ ★ ★
I am definitely no Eurovision fan – I know only the most basic facts about it and have never sat down to watch the popular contest – and I think that those who are more familiar with the show will perhaps get the most out of it as they will pick up on any in-jokes and references and will probably have a great time basking in the silliness of it all.
As for me, I enjoyed a fair amount of Eurovision and thought that some of the songs were good, it had a breezy enough story, it’s bright and colourful and all the costumes and set designs are plenty of fun, and regarding the cast, Rachel McAdams remains a real delight and Dan Stevens also shines in his role of the contest favourite, hamming it up and having fun with his Russian accent and whatnot.
But beyond that, much of it was also disappointing because it has a very predictable and cliche ridden underdog story, full of lazy writing and ridiculous plot contrivances that of course lead to our hapless duo inexplicably reaching the grand final (because hey, we wouldn’t have a film if reality prevailed and they fell at the first hurdle) and the whole thing is completely unfunny and nothing really special at all, though it did manage to hold my interest and it provided decent enough Friday night entertainment.
I also have a problem with Will Ferrell. He’s just not funny. At all.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Before going into this film (according to the internet, it IS a film and I will be counting it as such come the end of the year), I was all too aware that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show was an absolute phenomenon, having heard it favourably mentioned in a few TV shows and such, but I really had no idea of what it was about or just what made it so special, so when it was released on Disney Plus, I of course took the opportunity to check it out for myself, hoping to see just what made it a much talked about and popular phenomenon.
I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed because Hamilton truly is a terrific show and above all else, this is because of Miranda’s remarkable songs; although the film is over two and a half hours long, the music hardly ever stops and I think that for the sheer amount of words and lyrics included in the show, Miranda deserves the highest praise possible. The lyrics really are clever and snappy, given life by the actors who deliver them all at around 100mph, and they are complemented well by the equally impressive music, the songs being delivered in a variety of styles that include rap and hip-hop. Each song truly is a banger, my favourites being the council rap battles along with “My Shot”, “You’ll Be Back”, and “Washington on Your Side”, and I really did clap after almost every one.
And to top it all off, the whole thing is creatively and excitingly staged, using the “moving stage” to great effect and playing around with slow motion and time jumps imaginatively, the costumes are dope, there’s a great and enlightening story to be found, and the production also has an insanely talented cast; picking out specific names would be wrong as everyone involved, especially the supporting artists (who each get a credit at the end, thank God), clearly has oodles of talent but I’m still going to go ahead and say that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a naturally great lead and he is supported by particularly amazing turns from Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsbury, Phillipa Soo, and Johnathan Groff. But again, it’s a real team effort.
But one small nipick: I didn’t realise that Daveed Diggs was playing two different characters until partway though the second act!
★ ★ ★
This Amazon original is a small scale drama about a passenger plane that gets hijacked in midair and the “relationship” that emerges between the captive pilot (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and one of the perpetrators, a nervous, unpredictable and uncertain young man, and in the first half, it proves to be a very effective little thriller that does very well in establishing a tense atmosphere, using just the right directorial flair and invention to get us on the edge of our seats, but when the film reaches a certain point, things take a bit of a nosedive (ha!) because the story eventually gets far less interesting, all tension evaporates, and the 90 minute or so feature really drags its feet and appears much longer than it actually is.
Still, this is a good star vehicle for Joseph Gordon Levitt and along with the escalating tension, he’s the best thing about it and he fully convinces as the everyman who has become trapped in an unenviable situation and we clearly see the pain and anguish on his face at all times, Levitt ultimately giving an all round solid and magnetic performance.
Although I was aware of the less than positive reception and critical mauling that this “dark romance” received, I decided to watch it because the premise sounded similar to a certain book series that I used to be obsessed with (no, not 50 Shades) and at the beginning, there were enough similarities to said book series to keep me intrigued and interested to see where it would all be heading, but after a while, it really does become clear that 365 Days is a really bad film.
The problems are that the whole “365 days to fall in love with me” premise is a bad starting point and furthermore, the film goes on to demonstrate plenty of poor writing as well as an increasingly dull story, a cold and wholly unlikeable performance from the film’s female lead, an intrusive and obnoxious soundtrack, and a lot of terrible direction coupled with a great amount of truly baffling and unintentionally hilarious editing choices; case in point: there’s a “sex montage” which is set on a boat but for some reason, the filmmakers insist on a great many cuts and the switching of the “action” to both interior and exterior shots, including footage of the surrounding areas and of the boat sailing along, and all of this is a massive hindrance to the film, resulting in it all being a big dull dud.
50 Shades, it ain’t. Though neither “saga” exactly sets the world on fire.
The Old Guard
★ ★ ★
This Netflix original, one that is clearly intended to become a brand new action franchise for the streaming service, is a great star vehicle for the incomparable Charlize Theron and as far as Netflix originals go, this one’s really good. It has an original and intriguing story about a team of immortal warriors who discover a young woman who is just like them and in addition, the fight and action sequences are very well put together and exciting to watch (though Extraction‘s one-take driving/fight sequence is the action setpiece to beat this year), and the film has a good cast: Charlize Theron kills it as per use (“uge”?) and there are several fine supporting performances from the dashing Matthias Schoenaerts and from Beale Street‘s Kiki Layne.
It has a naff corporate villain though (sorry, Dudley), the pacing does lag in certain areas, and most disappointingly, the setting up of future films is far too obvious and it’s a shame that films like this forget about fine tuning just ONE film, instead looking towards the future and only concerning themselves with the next chapter in the franchise.
★ ★ ★
The latest film from Oliver Assayas is all about . . . you know what? I can’t even remember what it was about. I know that it involved a certain series of events in the nineties relating to Castro, defecting, smuggling, and the pivotal network that attempted to unmask the “traitors and threats” but if you asked me to impart my knowledge relating to that particular period of history, I certainly couldn’t do it!
Still, I thought that it was all pretty informative at the time and the whole thing reminded me of both Scarface and American Made, but since I have trouble remembering the film’s events, it just goes to show that Wasp Network is one of those films that’s decent in the hour or so when you watch it but before long, it’s forgotten about.
But I DO remember two different men walking out on both Penelope Cruz AND Ana de Armas and that was clearly the most unrealistic thing about it.
How to Build a Girl
★ ★ ★
With her wonderful performances in Lady Bird and Booksmart already under her belt, this film gives Beanie Feldstein another leading role but the end results are mixed. On the one hand, Feldstein herself continues to prove herself to be a versatile and endearing performer and she manages to be both sweet and supportive in her dial roles of both Johanna Morrigan and her outrageous, cold, confident and cruel alter-ego Dolly Wilde, and the whole thing has a good and engaging enough story about the world of (music) criticism and compromising your beliefs and personality in order to get noticed and to gain wealth and fame, but the whole thing never really catches fire, it often appears a little formulaic and predictable, and the character of Dolly, as well as the her “if it bleeds, it leads” colleagues, leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth.
For a story about a critic who starts off by liking everything but who then goes on to be cruel and harsh because that’s what their peers expect, maybe watch the “Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner” episode of The Simpsons instead?
. . .
And now, here’s a brief roundup of a few of the very best first time watches that I was treated to this month:
The Best of the Rest
Hell Drivers (1957)
This one has a really great story about a deadly rivalry between Stanley Baker and Patrick McGoohan’s characters and of the exploitation of drivers by their profit-obsessed bosses, encouraging them to drive as recklessly as possible; interest never lags, the actors (young Sean Connery, anyone?) are uniformly great, and the whole thing is remarkably tense and exciting.
Well, with lockdown in effect and a fair amount of time on my hands, this seemed like the ideal opportunity to watch Claude Lanzmann’s acclaimed 9 1/2 hour holocaust documentary.
I actually think that it could’ve been just as incredible had it been edited down into a five hour film, as long stretches regrettably went over my head and I felt that Lanzmann sometimes focused on too many inconsequential details such as specific distances and the colour of trucks, but this is still an undeniably important documentary and an impressive achievement in filmmaking as we are given a very expansive and detailed account of what took place, listening to interviews with a great many different people, victims and perpetrators alike, and the bleak and desolate, but also hauntingly beautiful, landscapes go hand in hand with the complete lack of music and score.
Although I didn’t think too much of her later work, Little Joe, Jessica Hausner’s 2009 film Lourdes provides so much food for thought about themes of religion, faith, miracles, and of human nature – specifically how petty we can sometimes be and how certain people fancy themselves as experts in who deserves to be helped or not; it also provides a fascinating look at how places like this can become noticeably “touristy” – with brightly lit souvenir shops lining the streets and sermons being given to the conveyor belt crowds – there really is so much to be taken away from this film and it is directed perfectly, Haunser managing to tell so much with very little dialogue, it looks great, and there are several special performances.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Surely superior to any other adaptation of Macbeth, Akira Kurosawa’s film admirably creates a spooky and mystical atmosphere as well as treating us to a great story all about ambition, paranoia, madness and treachery; Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune is solid in the leading role and the finale is incredible.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Ever since Disney Plus launched on the 24th of March, I’ve been steadily (re)watching all of Disney’s major animated films and in amongst all the gems (The Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo and Stitch have also been particular highlights of this month), I loved watching Disney’s own superhero film Big Hero 6; it’s fun, exciting and incredibly cool (all the superhero shenanigans and all the armour and gadgets were just awesome and totally geektastic), the Japanese element was very well incorporated into the feature, and complimenting all of that, the film also has a ton of genuine heart and the emotional moments work so well.
. . .
So I guess that’s all for now (there’s nothing much to tell about the TV that I watched this month apart from Snowpiercer (not as good as the film) and that I’ve started watching Gilmore Girls (great so far) and the fourth season of Game of Thrones); I’ll be back later in the month with my contribution for Film Music Central’s Fifth Annual James Horner Blogathon but until then, I hope to see you all next month! Or maybe sooner . . .