The Plain, Simple Review of the Month: November 2020

November got off to a really good start, with news from across the pond of Joe Biden’s victory over He Who Shall Not Be Named, but the middle of the month saw things turn particularly bad for me as I, as well as the rest of my family, lost someone very important.

So maybe it’s because of that, maybe it’s because we’re nearing the end of the year and I’m just naturally less inclined to catch up on the new releases, maybe it’s because cinemas are still shut (even though Wales isn’t in lockdown and cinemas here should really be open), or maybe it’s because there really aren’t any new films worth talking about, that this monthly roundup will only consist of four new films that I saw earlier in the month and why I’ve been far less inclined to write anything or to read things that other people have written (sorry about that).

But let’s have a look at the 2020 releases that I did see this month.

2020 Releases

Rebecca (2020)

★ ★ ★

Ben Wheatley certainly isn’t one of my favourite directors; my favourite film of his is High Rise but looking at the rest of his filmography, I found Sightseers to have been overpraised, being neither particularly funny or gruesome, Kill List was alright but forgettable, and Free Fire was a big disappointment as I found it to be surprisingly slow and dull – a far cry from the kind of film that was promised by the main trailer.

But I was of course interested in watching a new adaptation of Rebecca, having greatly appreciated Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Best Picture winner, but although Wheatley’s version isn’t a bad film, it’s also nothing special at all and it doesn’t carry the same atmosphere of mystery, suspense and intrigue that Hitchcock managed to infuse his film with.

True, the film does have a few beautiful landscapes, as well as some good performances from the ever luminous Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ann Dowd, but the film seems to drag as the pacing is sluggish and the direction is workmanlike, there isn’t enough of the all important chemistry between James and Armie Hammer, and overall, the film doesn’t manage to suck the audience into the story, it doesn’t intrigue, and it’s a picture that will be forgotten about in no time at all.

American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

There will be those who were previously aware of the notorious case that has been brought to light by this documentary, maybe they’re in possession of even more facts and know things that even the documentary makers don’t know, but I myself was completely unaware of the crime in question and as I watched it all unfold for the first time, I found myself being completely gripped by the story and when the truth was revealed, I was absolutely floored and the shocking revelation really had an impact on me.

This really was an especially impressive documentary as it didn’t go down the usual “documentary route” – using narration, interviews, archive footage and the like – but instead managed to create a coherent and engaging narrative by using camera footage, text messages, phone calls and emails to tell its story. Just like Searching. The film was put together beautifully and creatively and it managed to slowly “pull the curtain” back in order to show that behind this seemingly ideal American family, bad things were indeed happening and it goes to show that you can’t always trust the “rose tinted” stories that you see on social media.

Powerful stuff.

Calm With Horses (2019)

★ ★ ★ ★

I’m pretty sure that I had heard good things about this film and noticing that it starred Barry Keoghan and Lady Macbeth‘s Cosmo Jarvis was all I needed to hear to give it a go. It’s a compact little drama about a “gentle giant” mob enforcer who gets in too deep with the bad people that he runs with, while also facing the prospect of his young son soon moving away, and although the story feels a little too familiar and perhaps predictable, it’s still worth a watch as it has a decent story, interesting characters, and Jarvis, Keoghan, and The Virtues‘ Niamh Algar contribute some very strong performances.

The High Note (2020)

★ ★ ★

It’s A Star is Born but with a happy ending.

Late Night director Nisha Ganatra’s latest film is all about a personal assistant to a hugely popular but ageing singer who discovers a bright new talent and attempts to become a producer and although I really dug the first half of the film, the relationship between Dakota Johnson’s assistant and Tracee Ellis Ross’ mighty but demanding performer (both actresses giving very good performances in the film) providing the strongest parts of the film, things start to get slower, less interesting and more predictable as our central character begins her “double life” and the feature ends with a wholly unnecessary and slightly ridiculous twist that I’m sure no-one asked for or needed.

It does have some great songs, though.

2020 Television

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness

★ ★ ★ ★

At the end of 2018, I named the first series of The Alienist as one of my favourite shows of the year so I was, of course, going to check out the latest series of the show.

And it’s pretty much on par with its predecessor: there’s a big case to be solved and throughout the series, it does go in some unexpected directions and it isn’t afraid to get dark and disturbing when it needs to be and additionally, the production design is appealing, the crew involved manage to give the series a notoriously moody atmosphere, and there are good performances to be found within its core cast, especially, as it was with the last series, Dakota Fanning who becomes even more of a central character as she takes the lead in the investigations and confidently stands up to all of the shady characters who doubt her abilities and convinces us that she is truly determined to bring the guilty party to justice.

But at the same time, Daniel Brühl takes perhaps a less active role in the series so in this case, this series of The Alienist isn’t particularly concerned with the actual alienist!

The Queen’s Gambit

★ ★ ★ ★

Well, it stars Anya Taylor-Joy so of course I was going to watch it! (even though I was at first sure it was a film, rather than a series)

Anyway, The Queen’s Gambit is an impressive series as it has a solid narrative and makes the game of chess, which could easily have been shown as something rather dry and dusty, appear fascinating and often exciting (although films like Geri’s Game and The Queen of Katwe have already managed to make the game interesting) and at the centre, the beautiful Anya Taylor-Joy carries the series brilliantly by using her eyes to tell us just what her character is going through and feeling during her games, she brings some comedy in the earlier episodes when she demonstrates her lack of understanding about the “real world”, and overall, she gives yet another impressive leading performance, ably supported by an equally strong cast that includes Bill Camp, Marielle Heller (didn’t know she acted!), Harry Melling, Isla Johnston, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Who will surely ALWAYS look as though he’s twelve years old. Even with the coat, hat, facial hair, and the world weary, “too cool for school” demeanour that his character has.

Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens

★ ★ ★

Having enjoyed watching the unique entertainer Awkwafina in films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s 8, The Farewell, and the latest Jumanji film, I was of course interested in viewing this semi-autobiographical series that she co-created and stars in and the results are a mixed bag.

On the positive side, Awkwafina is, as always, entertaining to watch, with several strong performers such as OITNB‘s Lori Tan Chin and BD Wong backing her up, and many of the episodes are fun and have some funny lines in there, but it’s hardly the most original, the most profound, nor the funniest comedy series around and it follows the tried and tested “slacker, who lives with her family, must make something of herself” narrative route and the comedy on offer is just a little too broad for my liking.

The Best of the Rest

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) and Fallout (2018)

Earlier this month, I fixed a major film blindspot and watched all of the Mission: Impossible films back to back and while I enjoyed all of them (perhaps excluding the second one), the fifth and sixth entries in the franchise were the best of them as they displayed the most confident and mature writing while also giving us the best action sequences of the franchise so far, as well as an ever improving cast of actors.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

The beautiful music and divine score, the melodrama, the colours, the characters, the romance, the pairing of Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson – I just ate it all up. Wonderful.

Funny Face (1957)

It may have a familiar and, by today’s standards, safe story of an unassuming and bookish young woman who rises to stardom and finds love, but this feelgood musical film really lifted my spirits and made me smile with its excellent Gershwin song and dance routines and impressive performances from Fred Astaire, Kay Thompson, and Audrey Hepburn, who here greatly impresses with her singing and dancing.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Billy Wilder is one of my favourite directors and this is another particularly impressive film that he gave us: an engrossing, tense and often very funny courtroom drama film that boasts stellar writing (throwing in so many shocking twists in the final ten minutes) and a particularly memorable performance from Charles Laughton, who plays the crotchety but brilliant barrister so wonderfully.

Dial M for Murder (1954)

It may be a “talky” film but this Hitchcock film is a tantalising and intriguing film and it has a strong story, a great score, and a particularly memorable performance from Ray Milland.

Truly, no-one makes ’em like Hitch.

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