The Plain, Simple Review of the Month: September 2020

Another month down in this tumultuous year (only a few to go until Christmas! Gee, how’s that going to go?!) and in September, we heard of some more expected delays to some of our most anticipated films, we heard some more sad news with the passings of Dame Diana Rigg, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Michel Lonsdale, and of course, we also saw a couple of new films hitting our cinema screens as well as some on-demand releases. So let’s see what new things September brought us.

And this will be a particularly LONG post – with sixteen 2020 releases to get through and review – so there’ll be no “Best of the Rest” this month. But that’s also because I didn’t see that many excellent, pre-2020 films this month.

2020 Releases

Tenet (2020)

★ ★ ★

My full review can be found HERE so I’ll keep this brief but overall, Tenet was as technically accomplished and as full of spectacle and innovation as most other Nolan films, a lot of hard work clearly went into it, and the leads were good, but it was also TOO ambitious and the needlessly complicated storyline and lack of emotion honestly left me feeling annoyed and alienated as it moved into its final act.

I haven’t got around to watching it for a second time though, which is surely necessary for a film like this.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

I’m Thinking of Ending Things. A Charlie Kaufman film that was EASIER to understand than Tenet!

I don’t think that I have the brain power that’s necessary for deciphering the unique mind of Charlie Kaufman but, although I have to admit that much of it surely must have gone over my head, I enjoyed his latest film; the film benefits from two strong performances from Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons – the former having to convey several different personality types, which she achieves quite brilliantly, and the latter, though initially appearing as a meek supporting character, has a lot more to do in the second act – and I’m sure that I understood most of what Kaufman was trying to say – the film presenting us with themes about time, old age, death, and how being in relationships with different people can make you feel as though you’re trapped in an endless, hellish loop – and the film does have a mysterious and hypnotic atmosphere that I gratefully lapped up, though sometimes it appears to simply be weird just for the sake of being weird, as well as a little pretentious, and the protracted conversations that took place in the characters’ car often had me zoning out, suggesting that the film could’ve achieved the same effect with a shorter runtime.

But for me, the film’s biggest asset was Jeff Wadley’s score; though it only appears in a couple of scenes, the “central theme” was just beautiful.

Get Duked! (2019)

★ ★ ★ ★

Considering the recent misfires that have been Troop Zero and Chemical Hearts, I wasn’t expecting much from this Amazon original, anticipating yet another laugh-free comedy that’ll be forgotten about by the end of the year, but Get Duked! turned out to be a most pleasant surprise: it’s original, entertaining, and has a remarkably strong script that actually has something to say about class divide, as well as plenty of refreshingly good jokes and funny bits, not to mention characters who could easily have been lazy stereotypes (i.e. clueless and foul-mouthed tough kids, nerdy do-gooder) but who actually come across as developed and supportable protagonists, there are some inventive and creative directorial flourishes, and the four leading actors share strong chemistry.

The New Mutants (2020)

★ ★ ★

Another new film that I actually summoned up the energy to write a REVIEW for (!), The New Mutants, surely the target of many a joke on social media given its many, many delays, is a decent watch as it’s rarely boring, the story is alright, and Anya Taylor-Joy gives an excellent performance, but it’s also nothing special as it’s hampered by its “PG-13” rating, not able to fully deliver on the horror or scares, the effects are occasionally dodgy, and the whole thing doesn’t really go anywhere special. Definitely not a bad film, it could’ve been a lot worse, but it’s not a great one either.

The Sleepover (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

In a similar manner to Get Duked!, I sure wasn’t expecting much out of this one, anticipating yet another lazy, throwaway Netflix offering, but this was yet another pleasant surprise and even though the film has been pretty poorly received, with a few sniffy reviews up on Letterboxd, I have to admit that I really enjoyed it.

Sure, it’s silly and apparently aimed at the family market, but it was original and entertaining, it had a few endearing performances from the young Maxwell Simkins (a remarkably strong and capable performer) as well as Ken Marino, doing a good “goofy dad” bit, there are some great one liners in there (“We’re CANADIAN?!”), and it actually lifted my spirits and made me laugh and smile, which is something that I didn’t expect at all.

Thanks, Netflix. I needed that.

The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020)

★ ★

2017’s The Babysitter, though not without some minor flaws, was an entertaining and original Halloween release, giving us a fresh story alongside some over-the-top kills and a breakthrough performance from young Denise Richards Samara Weaving, and though Killer Queen attempts to expand that particular cinematic universe while also giving us more of what made the original so fun, I left the film feeling disappointed and maybe even a little annoyed.

It’s not as good as the first one and its main problems are that it takes a good long while to get into gear, experiencing a pacing problem as it takes time to recap the events of the previous film and to set up its new characters and a new “predicament”, the writing is substandard and messy, not being particularly clever or interesting and apparently suffering from having four writers working on the script, and the antagonists are poor and let the film down greatly – there’s a “big bad” but their motivations are essentially nonexistent and it makes no logical sense for them to be the main villain, the newer ones are incredibly weak and aren’t developed or intriguing at all, there’s a redemption arc for one of the villains which doesn’t ring true at all, and the returning baddies are given very little to do and what material they do have to work with is silly, uninspired, and maybe even a little embarrassing.

Cuties (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

Ah. Now, this is a film that has been incredibly controversial, with many vocal complaints about the film oversexualising its pre-teen stars, instantly dismissing the film as something immoral and tawdry, but having now seen it for myself, I am ready to chime in with my opinion and say that it isn’t as immoral nor as inappropriate as many would have you believe, but it does cross the line at certain points.

On the positive side, the film has a strong first half, appearing as a refreshing new coming-of-age tale that reminded me of fellow female-directed “slice of life” films Wadjda and Girlhood, and the film clearly has something to say about how young girls seeking popularity and acceptance can be negatively influenced by the internet, music videos, reality TV, and all the social media that they’re certain to encounter, how they’ll observe how certain women look, dress and act and think that it’s all perfectly acceptable and how, in an all too recognisable obsession with “likes” and with “going viral”, they may make bad choices and turn into different people. It’s bold, important and relevant subject matter and although the film isn’t as powerful as it could have been, it mostly shows itself to be a well written and intriguing coming-of-age tale that will get you thinking about the issues afterwards.

And regarding the more controversial material, I’d say that the film doesn’t go too far but at the same time, director Maïmouna Doucouré does cross the line occasionally and the numerous close up twerking shots, as well as a scene set at a laser tag and a “water exorcism”, start to get too uncomfortable and it’s in these sequences when the film sadly starts to get a little too inappropriate.

The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020)

★ ★ ★

Being totally honest, I only saw this one because it was a new cinema release and those are pretty rare nowadays!

But anyway, this is a perfectly harmless and breezy romantic comedy that has its heart in the right place, ideal for those looking for a bit of light relief or a temporary distraction from the world, and Blockers’ Geraldine Viswanathan is particularly endearing, likeable and sweet in the leading role, appearing as a loveable goof in some scenes but also being able to deliver in the more emotional scenes, but it’s also very formulaic as it presents us with all the tropes that we’ve come to expect from the rom-com genre – complete with meet cute, the unsuitable love interest, the third act argument/breakup, and the eventual reconciliation and grand gesture of love – and it’s also not particularly funny, it’s too schmaltzy in places, and it ultimately adds nothing original to the popular genre.

Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)

★ ★ ★

I’m not exactly a huge fan of the Bill and Ted series of films, having only watched Bogus Journey a day or two before I saw the newest one and finding, on a rewatch, that I didnt enjoy Excellent Adventure quite as much as I did the first time, but they’re still fun and original films and I, of course, wanted to see where they would take the story and what a 21st century addition to the franchise would look like.

And in the end, Face the Music ends up as a perfectly entertaining film that gives us a lot of what made the previous films so fun while also making use of improved special effects and a few new characters for us to enjoy. True, watching Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter act exactly as they did back in ’91 is a little awkward (though it’s nowhere near as forced as I thought it would be) but they’re clearly having fun with the characters and also, Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine get to goof around and have fun channelling the spirits of their onscreen dads, Lundy-Paine being a particular delight and it’s quite something to see a non-binary actor being cast in a high profile film like this. Plus, William Sadler returns as Death and he clearly has a lot of fun slipping back into the comedic role.

The film has a relatively simple story (albeit one that deals with a lot of those wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey plot elements that we’ve come to expect from a film like this) and though it’s one that you may forget about before too long, the film is a fun and entertaining enough diversion, the effects look good, the cast all have a good time, it has some excellent music (particularly the big final number) there’s an abundance of good feeling and genuine heart to be found.

Watch it to distract yourself from the gloom of 2020 and party on, dudes!

The Social Dilemma (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

Netflix’s hybrid of documentary and drama aims to warn us all of the dangers of social media and how our smartphones can be so much more addictive than we think, and, thanks to the testimony of several experts and insiders, it really does present us with some spooky information, letting us know that we are being closely monitored as several shifty programs monitor exactly what we look at and how long we look at certain things in order to build up a profile of each of us and in turn, create advertisements and notifications that have been specifically designed to attract and addict us, and it warns us that social media may be indeed be having global implications, further splitting the population into drastically opposing sides – “left and right”, so to speak – and having an impact on global politics, as well as leading impressionable young girls to self harm and/or suicide.

True, the drama side of the film – an advisory tale about technology addiction that stars Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward and Vincent Kartheiser – can be little awkward and twee, something that you might show to secondary school children, but overall, The Social Dilemma truly is an eye-opening piece that will get you thinking about the issues and will hopefully reduce the amount of time you spend on your devices.

Myself, I left the film with a strong desire to take my phone out to the middle of a field and smash it up, Office Space style.

The Devil All the Time (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

Antonio Campos’ film has a wonderfully dark, edgy and engrossing atmosphere and it coherently tells several interconnecting stories, presents us with the theme of religion, which pervades every scene and plays a large part in all the characters’ motivations, and it shows off a big name cast who all give strong performances, especially Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson and Bill Skarsgård. Full review HERE.

Enola Holmes (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

First of all, I have to admit that once I realised that the director – Harry Bradbeer – also directed many episodes of Fleabag, my enjoyment of this film was hampered because from then on, I was all too aware of the constant fourth wall breaking and the occasional mugging to the camera and it was in these moments that I couldn’t help but find the film a little obnoxious, just as I found the aforementioned popular TV show to occasionally be.

But that aside, I also found Enola Holmes to be a perfectly harmless and entertaining family mystery adventure and it was a fun addition to the popular Sherlock Holmes “universe”, looking at his world through a different perspective and bringing a lesser known character to the foreground, and it also tells a story of finding your own way in the world as well as looking at female empowerment and reform in a way that’s not too preachy or obvious.

The cast is good – Henry Cavill is a perfectly dashing and suave Sherlock, Sam Claflin is a considerably grumpy and uptight Mycroft, and Helena Bonham Carter is appropriately mysterious as the Holmes’ missing mother – but young Millie Bobby Brown really is the star of the show and as the spirited heroine, she carries the whole film and delivers a memorable performance; as Enola, she is smart, feisty, tough, brave and funny, while also showing palpable vulnerability, despair and sadness at times, and all in all, she presents us with a very endearing and supportable heroine – one of the more interesting film characters of the year so far that’s given fresh life by Brown’s well rounded, passionate, and just plain brilliant performance.

The Hunt (2020)

★ ★ ★

No, not a September release but rather, one of those infamous releases that I think made it into cinemas right before lockdown began, only to be made available to rent on VOD straight afterwards. For the absurd price of around £14.99. For me though, watching it now, months after its initial release, I was able to rent it for £1.99. Win.

And I enjoyed it. It’s an entertaining film that benefits from some wonderfully over-the-top kills/violence as well as a story that pokes fun on the ever-growing left/right divide and it shows us (in a way few films have done before) that left-wingers can be just as silly, inept, misinformed, and as annoyingly opinionated as everyone else; The Hunt may technically be a film where the “Liberal elite” are the villains but the film never gets overly political and the filmmakers have fun in showing both sides as being equally ridiculous.

The cast are all game (I did like the way that the film wrongfooted us by making us believe that Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz and that handsome dude were going to play major roles, only to kill them off really quickly) and GLOW‘s Betty Gilpin makes an impact and performs really well as the film’s protagonist: a heroine who is refreshingly smart, sensible, and who has a good head on her shoulders.

The Call of the Wild (2020)

★ ★

I read a tweet not too long ago that wanted to bring our attention to the fact that Call of the Wild was released THIS year and it is indeed hard to believe. I would’ve guessed that it was from Christmas last year and it goes to show what havok this pandemic is wreaking on our perception of time.

Anyway, as this film has recently been released on Disney Plus (as well as having one of those laughable £14.99 rental prices earlier in the year), I decided to finally watch it but despite its good intentions, it bored me.

It has its heart in the right place, there are one or two good moments, the score is nice, and Omar Sy is a most pleasant presence, but it’s also quite a boring film that comes across as too twee and saccharine – being one of those uplifting “man’s best friend” features – and the decision to have a computer generated dog front and centre was a mistake as all the constant CGI is off-putting and the effects sure aren’t the best.

True History of the Kelly Gang (2019)

★ ★ ★

There have apparently been a great many cinematic adaptations that tell of the “legend” of Ned Kelly, the one starring Heath Ledger immediately comes to mind, but despite him being a popular figure who I’m sure most people know a lot about, I have to admit that I knew next to nothing about Kelly going in, apart from the fact that he was a highwayman of some sort, so when this film essentially promised to give us a kind of revisionist version of events, explicitly stating that this is not a true story and that the “narrative” is being shaken up a bit, that didn’t mean much to me as I was unaware of “the true story” to begin with.

True History certainly has a fair amount of style – as he did with Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed, director Justin Kurtzel imprints the film with his own “punk/rock style” and gives us some striking images as well as scenes that feature unabashed violence and gruesome deaths – and the whole thing is unique and interesting enough, but after a while, I lost a bit of interest as the film can’t quite maintain a steady momentum and it takes around an hour and a half for the actual gang to get together, Kurtzel dedicating most of his time to building up character and Kelly’s motivation for becoming the famous outlaw. Kurtzel’s brother Jed gives the film an unsettling score and in the performances, George MacKay does well in showing Kelly as a man initially reluctant to kill but then later descending into madness, giving a magnetically unhinged performance as the unstable outlaw, Essie Davis is formidable and strong as the fearsome Kelly matriarch, and Russell Crowe performs a very different kind of role and is quite mesmerising as the very dangerous and unpredictable criminal Harry Power.

Unhinged (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

And following on from True History, we have yet another film where Russell Crowe plays an imposing, dangerous and incredibly mad bastard, as Unhinged (which has seemingly been in cinemas for quite a while and probably won’t be leaving anytime soon) lets Crowe sink his teeth into another different kind of role and the results are very satisfying.

The film, which deals with road rage and sees one particularly angry driver aiming to cause as much hurt and pain to one unassuming young woman as possible, is an exciting little thriller that is fully capable of getting you on the edge of your seat, delivering many shocking and unexpected moments of bold violence and really ratcheting up the tension and unease, and it is an effective “cat and mouse” feature that comes across as a blend of Duel, The Terminator, Joker and Falling Down.

True, the writing is occasionally too clunky and expositional (especially with the completely unsubtle “How to Deal with a Child Coping With Divorce” book at the beginning) and maybe there are one or two plot holes and incredulous moments, but the film doesn’t try to be something that its not (I’m sure one of it’s posters once claimed to be “far easier to understand than Tenet“!), it’s directed well, it has a perfectly gripping, tense and uncertain atmosphere, and perhaps above all else, Russell Crowe is quite something as the main antagonist: a menacing and hulking presence who you have no trouble believing is truly dangerous.

And it’s also a SHORT film. As in, I was really surprised at the end when I looked at my watch and discovered just how early it was!

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