The Plain, Simple Review of the Month: April 2021

With only a month to go before cinemas open back up (here’s hoping), April gave us a new batch of Academy Award winners, with Chloé Zhao becoming the second woman to win the big prize for Best Director, and I was even able to tune in live for the very first time.

So while we all anticipate the return of the big pictures on the big screen, here are fourteen films and two series that were available for on-demand viewing this month:

2021 Releases

Concrete Cowboy (2020)

★ ★ ★

Based on a group of people that actually exist in certain parts of the world (though I had no idea of that until the closing credits), Concrete Cowboy is a curious blend of modern western and a “hood movie”, an “urban western” if you will, which sees Caleb McLaughlin from Stranger Things (I have to admit that I went through the ENTIRE MOVIE without recognising him!) get sent to live with his father (Idris Elba) in Philadelphia while also being lured into a life of crime by his old friend (Jharrel Jerome).

There’s some decent filmmaking on display and the cast are all a solid bunch of performers (Lorraine Toussant and Jharrel Jerome being the standouts) but the film never really comes to life as it’s all a bit predictable, it all moves along at a leisurely pace, and the emotional moments don’t pack that much of a punch and are too easy to ignore. And while it was certainly a novel idea to bring an “urban western” to the screen, I don’t believe that the fusion of genres was accomplished successfully and I was never fully invested in the story that was given to us.

Run (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

On paper, Run sounds like your typical run-of-the-mill Netflix thriller that’s destined to be forgotten about by the end of the year: mother and daughter live a seemingly happy life, mother’s a bit too protective, daughter starts to suspect that mother’s hiding something but is she really, or is the daughter losing her mind? When done badly, this kind of film can really be an infuriating waste of time but under the direction of Searching director Aneesh Chaganty and the talents of its two leading ladies, Run is able to confidently rise above the more pathetic entries in the thriller genre and the end product is a truly impressive and dark nail biter.

True, the film does have predictable plot beats and well worn narrative elements (which includes the discovery of some very convenient and carefully preserved newspaper clippings that blatantly spell the twist out for us) but all this can be forgiven because the film is just so well constructed; Chaganty successfully creates a remarkably tense and thrilling atmosphere throughout (assisted by a suitably creepy score) and while watching, I genuinely felt the lead character’s need to escape from the menacing forces that were threatening her, always fearful that the villain would pop up unexpectedly and really feeling the need to get away, which not many films are truly able to do.

Newcomer Kiera Allen is a strong and sympathetic lead, always being likeable and able to show genuine fright as well as resilience and toughness, and Sarah Paulson once again channels her inner Ratched and puts in a very impressive horror performance, giving us an unpredictable character who, at times, seems to show genuine concern for her daughter but she also lets us see the danger in her eyes and effectively creeps us out as she does whatever it takes to keep her daughter close to her.

Palmer (2021)

★ ★ ★

This Apple original is ultimately a teensy bit predictable and it’s unlikely that it’ll make most people’s “Best Of” lists but it has a strong story and an admirable message about the importance of being yourself and how we should celebrate being different, in spite of how society says you should act, and Justin Timberlake puts in a very good leading performance, as does the young Ryder Allen, who really is an adorable little gem.

Antebellum (2020)

★ ★ ★

I went in to this film aware of the overall negative reception it has apparently received (I surely glimpsed a few single star reviews on social media) but although I came out of it realising that it’s clearly not the best film there’s ever been, a picture with flaws that didn’t exactly blow me away, I believe that Antebellum is a perfectly decent film.

Regarding its flaws, I’m definitely of the opinion that the direction is uneven as, try as it may, it doesn’t succeed in shocking or provoking its audience and the directors don’t manage to create the necessary tension or unease that this film requires; while watching all the dark twists, the brooding atmosphere and the moments of violence and barbaric treatment that several characters receive, I was never phased so it’s apparent that the desired tone and atmosphere is not achieved and additionally, the story never fully comes to life and, interesting though it is, it probably could have been better.

But still, I was never bored while watching the film and the central idea of the two different time periods, with similar characters appearing in each century, was a fairly intriguing one and I enjoyed the time that I spent attempting to work out the big twist; I certainly came up with a theory but in the end, the twist took me by surprise and it really did turn the film on its head, which I appreciated. Janelle Monáe put in a good central performance, the music was good, and at the end of the day, Antebellum earns its place on the “Bitch, is you a Black Mirror episode?” Letterboxd list.

Yes Day (2021)

★ ★

Your standard Netflix comedy outing that may provide families with a quick laugh or two but will then be forgotten about the next day, similar in that regard to other passable comedies from the streaming giant such as Finding Ohana or Isn’t it Romantic, Yes Day certainly has a wacky premise and features all kinds of outrageous shenanigans that will amuse some families but in the end, it doesn’t amount to much as the film just isn’t funny or as entertaining as it could have been and the material often gets a little too silly at times, with unfortunate lapses into toilet humour and injuries to certain sensitive parts of the body. There are also valiant attempts at emotional and touching moments involving mother and daughter but these parts just slow the film down until, eventually, the whole concept of a “Yes Day”, its whole reason for being, is completely forgotten about.

But the one big positive about this film is Jennifer Garner because while her co-stars put in a mixed bag of performances, Garner always looks like she’s having fun and her performance in this is wonderfully lively and easygoing. A real gem, she is.

Bad Trip (2021)

★ ★ ★

A hidden camera prank show with a plot, Bad Trip‘s story and characters are pretty flimsy but heck, none of that’s really important as all we’re really interested in is the reactions of the everyday people who bear witness to the outrageous bits performed by Eric Andre, Lil Rey Howrey and Tiffany Haddish and while the material isn’t as provoking or as daring as something like Borat (there’s not much here will make you want to hide behind your hands, that’s for sure), it’s still fun to watch the reactions of the ordinary people and most fall into one of two categories: some are complacent and fail to really react when unpredictable situations occur (heck, one person essentially abets an escaped felon) but others actually act remarkably well as certain people manage to talk certain characters “down from the ledge” (in one instance, they literally accomplish this) and if anything, this film shows us that there really are some good and capable people out there.

So at the end of the day, Bad Trip isn’t as funny nor as clever as it may think it is but the people involved are great sports, as evidenced by the closing credit sequence – the best part of the feature.

Palm Springs (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

A film that appears to have been talked about and discussed ad nauseam ever since audiences in other parts of the world received the chance to watch it last year, Palm Springs finally had its UK release this month on Prime Video for British audiences to enjoy and now that I’ve seen it and can finally throw in my two cents, I have to admit that I didn’t love the film as many others have (heck, when it comes to time loop stories, I preferred Happy Death Day) and I don’t anticipate the film making by top ten/twenty at the end of the year, but still, Palm Springs is nonetheless a great film and I’m glad that it’s bringing joy to so many people.

Above all else, it’s the performances of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti that make this film so great; they share a sweet and genuine chemistry and they’re both fun and lively performers, always appearing as though they believe in and enjoy the ambitious material and delivering in both the comedic and the emotional stakes. Because Palm Springs successfully delivers on the lighthearted comedy, providing much breezy entertainment but when it gets serious, the dramatic moments successfully hit us in the feels and so the film clearly strikes an ideal tonal balance.

The film also has fun with its time loop story, clearly being aware that it’s not the first, nor even the second or third, film to tackle this popular “gimmick” and the material presented here really does feel fresh and the script is of an admirably high standard.

Thunder Force (2021)

★ ★

Over the years, Melissa McCarthy has put in some great comedic performances in films like Bridesmaids and Spy while also demonstrating her impressive dramatic capabilities in the brilliant Can You Ever Forgive Me? but I’m of course aware that she’s also starred in some poorly received films, such as The Boss and The Happytime Murders, but I’ve thus far avoided these apparent stinkers. Well, until now that is because Thunder Force is a pathetic and wholly laugh free affair with a mixed bag of performances and clunky directing.

It may be a film about superheroes and villains but all of this makes up a surprisingly small portion of the material because the film is far more focused on the relationship between Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer’s characters and spends a lot of time attempting to tug on the heartstrings and to have an emotional impact but all of these moments slow the film down too much and then, when the film tries to be funny, it fails because the humour here is far too silly and embarrassing and the film is ultimately not funny at all; myself, I only laughed once at a rather good Jodie Foster joke.

As for the superhero sequences, they’re serviceable, nothing memorable, and I give the film extra points for the brief “Kiss From a Rose” singalong scene.

Sound of Metal (2019)

★ ★ ★ ★

2019? Really? Wow.

Anyway, here we have one of the major contenders in the latest Academy Awards ceremony that has finally been made available for UK audiences to view and seeing as how it has been talked about and discussed for a little bit of time now, with much praise having been bestowed upon it, it was a little daunting to finally sit down and watch, the expectations having been built up so much, but the film did indeed provide a very worthwhile viewing experience thanks to its great story, stellar leading performance, and ace sound design.

The film really deserved to win all available awards for sound design as there are some really interesting things that are accomplished in that department, making us experience what deaf people, or those who are hard of hearing, go through and also using silence to a terrific effect. Sound of Metal also benefits from Riz Ahmed’s assured, confident and admirably layered performance and, as a flawed character who actually isn’t 100% likeable all the time, he really displays the full gamut of emotions, at first being unreasonable and difficult, later on succumbing to both anger and despair, and then finding true happiness among his new friends in the deaf community – and giving us an overall nuanced and affecting performance and additionally, Paul Raci puts in an equally excellent supporting performance as Ruben’s guide and mentor, always appearing as an understanding and caring individual, though he’s also one who will lay down the law when required, and he is a particularly likeable presence throughout the entire film.

Sound of Metal also has a really great story, one that’s easy to let yourself get lost in, and it is at its strongest when it shows Ruben demonstrating the behaviour of an addict when he becomes desperate to regain his hearing and most prominently, the film is able to show us how deaf people aren’t broken or handicapped (heck, hearing loss comes across as a true superpower in this film, complete with abilities that our main character was previously unaware of) and it’s particularly endearing when we see how supportive and joyous the deaf community can be and that, in some respects, deaf people have it better than everyone else, given how they are oblivious to the horrible noise and drone of everyday life.

So Sound of Metal really is a great film but I really did feel for Olivia Cooke’s character and those awful bleached eyebrows. Oof.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

Another popular favourite of this year’s awards circuit and the one that took home both the BAFTA and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, this was clearly a widely talked about film and I will admit that it took a little bit of time for the film to truly get into gear and for a short while, I feared that it would end up being an overhyped film, but the feature did indeed end up having an effect on me and it really does pack a punch as we witness the deplorable behaviour that is exhibited by many men as well as the apathy and cowardice that is displayed by those wanting to look the other way and to not “rock the boat”. It also sucks to learn that some guys who genuinely seem decent and good can eventually turn out to be as spineless and as sh*tty as all the others – I can see why people have trust issues because of this.

The dark and thrilling parts of the story were very tantalising and tense indeed (really dug the ending – I feared it would go one way but was relieved when things turned around) but I was surprised by the more lighthearted parts of the film as the scenes with Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham (great performance, BTW) contained an ideal amount of joy and humour that actually made me chuckle and it was probably a good thing that the film didn’t take itself too seriously and wasn’t just a straight up revenge thriller for the entire duration.

The music is stylish and chillingly effective, as is the cinematography and production design, and in the leading role, Carey Mulligan is quite something; she convinces in the scenes where she pretends to be drunk, she’s effectively dangerous and calculating when she’s acting in her “avenging angel” capacity, and she’s also able to display joy and true happiness in the lighter scenes with Burnham. A rewarding role and a very impressive movie.

Stowaway (2021)

★ ★ ★

For a Netflix film, this one has impressively high production values as the production design, cinematography, special effects and music are all sleek and very impressive indeed – the film would surely have had far more of an impact had it been viewed on the big screen – and I suppose that the central quartet of Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim and Shamier Anderson all did a good job but beyond all of that, there’s not much satisfaction to be gained from this feature – a film all about the discovery of an unexpected person during a delicate space mission which subsequently puts all lives in peril, leading to several difficult decisions being made – and the leisurely pace and unremarkable story ultimately work against the intentions of the filmmakers, resulting in a film that is definitely not the worst sci-fi film there’s ever been, but it’s one that could have been so much better.

Minari (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

A better “war with grandma” film than The War with Grandpa could ever hope to be.

I don’t think that this is the best Best Picture nominee from this year’s crop (ha!) and for me, I wasn’t completely sold on it and it didn’t have as much of an impact on me as it did on most other, more enlightened, people but still, Minari is nonetheless quite a lovely film and it’s really easy for us to share in the family’s joy when things are going well, as well as their despair when things go badly, the music and the general look and ambience of the film are lovely, and regarding the cast, Steven Yeun puts in a quietly powerful performance as the initially optimistic and determined patriarch whose pride won’t allow him to give up on his dream – not wanting to end up in the incinerator like all the useless male chicks – Alan Kim is just a total cutie patootie, and Youn Yuh-jung provides both endearing comedy and sadness as the family grandmother.

It was also really nice to see that, although the story concerned an Asian American family moving to Arkansas, finding themselves in amongst a sea of white faces, the story wasn’t about intolerance or prejudice in any way and it was great to see the community being genuinely caring and accepting. Hopeful stuff.

Two Distant Strangers (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

The winning recipient of the Best Live Action Short Film at the latest Academy Awards, this film is YET ANOTHER time loop story but here, there’s actually a good reason for utilising that particular format as it seeks to highlight the idea that so many people of colour in America are trapped in a never ending cycle, seemingly always destined to be hunted down by senseless violence, perpetrated by white police officers, and for a time, it gives us a glimpse of hope as we realise that, in an ideal world, people on both sides could sit down and talk about these things.

It was a good idea for a short film to re-use the tried-and-tested Groundhog Day format as the feature remains concise, purposeful, and powerful, the film’s message packs a punch and it’s certainly a relevant and important one, and the acting, writing, directing, and production values are all top notch.

Nomadland (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

The big winner at the latest Academy Awards ceremony, nabbing the coveted prizes for Best Picture, Director and Leading Actress, Nomadland was finally made available to us thanks to Disney Plus and for me, I’d say that its main strengths are the technical elements – given the beautiful cinematography, Einaudi’s lovely music and Zhao’s capable direction – as well as the solid, realistic and unshowy performance of Frances McDormand, who plays the likeable character of Fern so very well, and in addition, the film does do a good job in showing us this particular nomadic way of life, utilising a pseudo documentary format to let us hear the interesting stories of these real people, but saying all of that, I wasn’t exactly blown away by the film and of the 6 Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen so far, this was my 5th favourite.

It’s a repetitive film and it eventually reaches a point where it wears too thin, becoming as meandering as its characters, and for me, I found my mind wandering too often and the lack of an enticing plot resulted in too much of a lack of interest on my part.

In short, I found Nomadland to be a lovely and well meaning film but I don’t believe that it’s the strongest of the latest Best Picture crop and I feel as though we’ll be forgetting about it before too long.

So, in order of personal preference, that’s:

  1. Promising Young Woman
  2. Sound of Metal
  3. Run
  4. Palm Springs
  5. Minari
  6. Nomadland
  7. Two Distant Strangers
  8. Palmer
  9. Concrete Cowboy
  10. Antebellum
  11. Stowaway
  12. Bad Trip
  13. Yes Day
  14. Thunder Force

2021 Television

Love, Victor (Series One)

★ ★ ★ ★

Disney Plus’ Love, Simon spinoff probably doesn’t reach the heights of its big screen counterpart but still, this series is still a real breeze to get through and it has a fair amount of heart, the cast is a bright and lively bunch, and it’s ultimately both humorous and touching.

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

★ ★ ★

Following on from the great WandaVision, Disney Plus gives us another original Marvel series, this time a six part season centring around Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier as they fight against a dangerous new freedom fighting group, led by the misguided Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and her small band of unpredictable supersoldiers, as well as dealing with a new Captain America – the increasingly unstable John Walker (Wyatt Russell) – and the return of both Zemo (Daniel Brühl) and Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), with the constant question of whether Sam will eventually accept the role that was bestowed on him by Steve Rogers during the finale of Avengers Endgame.

TFATWS was technically proficient and it had its fair share of impressive and entertaining moments, which included the exciting opening Falcon sequence, the “New Cap” reveals (both at the end of the first episode and at the beginning of the finale), a few back-and-forths between Sam and Bucky, Zemo dancing, and the sequences involving Carl Lumbly and the notion of a black Captain America, but at the end of the day, the show acts as a less interesting version of The Winter Soldier or Civil War and the story that we’re given isn’t as exciting as it should have been and the show does tend to take itself too seriously and is often slow as it includes so many heart-to-hearts and emotional moments that don’t have enough of an impact.

Bring on Loki.

The Best of the Rest

Memories of Murder (2003)

Bong Joon-Ho does Zodiac and he here gives us an excellent drama that manages to remain engaging thanks to its well written and interesting story as well as its assured direction and it manages to stand out from the crowd by featuring quite a bit of comedy in the first half of the film – giving us something different as the “serious” investigation is complemented by the sub par detective work of the two bumbling cops. It has stirring music, some very admirable character development, and the rain really does become a character in itself!

Megamind (2010)

A fun and exciting superhero animation that really adds something fresh to the genre and it has great animation, a smart story, and a strong voice performance from Will Ferrell.

The Wicker Man (1973)

It may have taken a long while, but I’m glad that I’ve finally seen this British horror classic; it has a good story, fine music, and it’s quite something to witness the true nature of the islanders gradually come to light, the weirdness and unease really increasing as it moves towards its memorable endgame.

Midsommar REALLY owes this film a great debt.

Jubilee (1978)

There will be many cinephiles, viewers smarter than I, who will be able to properly understand and decipher this Derek Jarman picture, wherein we see Queen Elizabeth I looking forward in time to view a dark, dystopian Britain that is primarily populated by nihilistic punks, but going by my natural reaction and appreciating all that’s on the surface, I have to say that I really enjoyed this bold and ambitious film as I found myself fully absorbed in the anarchic, nihilistic and hedonistic atmosphere and thought that the wild punk characters were played terrifically by the intriguing cast and that Brian Eno’s score was memorable. That alternative version of “Rule Britannia” was something special as well.

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