The Plain, Simple Review of the Month: May 2021

The 17th of May 2021 was a true red letter day for many cinephiles as – hallelujah – UK cinemas reopened! I myself didn’t waste a single second and decided to watch as many releases as I could (within reason) and ended up having a “cinema week”, taking in seven films in seven days, taking the opportunity to finally watch Nomadland and Sound of Metal on the big screen as well as watching some exciting new releases, kicking it all off with the big blockbuster Godzilla vs. Kong.

But, of course, the beginning of May also gave us a few new on-demand releases so let’s have a look at a few of those and then see what the cinemas gave us when they finally reopened . . .

2021 Releases

The Force Awakens from Its Nap (2021)

★ ★

A REALLY short little feature that was released to coincide with Star Wars Day 2021 and one which, like Playdate With Destiny (which I liked), I could have seen playing directly before the latest Disney cinema release, this three minute diversion sees Maggie Simpson searching for her stolen pacifier amidst a sea of Star Wars characters and while there are (literally) a couple of good visual gags involving a wookie jar and an unexplodable Death Star, this short film is ultimately really pointless and there’s nothing clever, original, or genuinely funny about it at all, serving no real purpose besides annoying those who aren’t happy with the fact that Disney now owns The Simpsons and reminding us of how the glory days of the popular animated franchise are truly in the past.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

This Sony Pictures Animation film made big waves on social media, with audiences singing the film’s praises and proclaiming how much of a treat it was to view, and the film is exactly that: a really entertaining and funny feelgood film that everyone of all ages will be able to enjoy.

On the surface, the film succeeds thanks to its design and animation which, like the mighty Into the Spider-Verse, is wonderfully bright and colourful and there are a great many inventive visual flourishes throughout the feature that really make the film “pop” and keep things exciting and with regards to the story, it’s a fun and original one, fully capable of providing audiences with a great sense of adventure as our intrepid heroes go off on their epic journey and giving us many laughs as the joke “hit rate” is impressive and the script is really funny, but above all else, the story does so well when handling its emotional components; the film’s raison d’être, as well as showing us just how dependent on technology and wi-fi we all are, is to promote both the importance of family and to embrace our differences and weirdness and all throughout this film, we can really see the love and the strong bond that our titular family shares and it’s just so easy to care about each one of them and to support them from beginning to end. They really are a fun and wonderfully weird bunch – some of the best film protagonists of the year so far.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines also has a lively voice cast and they all put in some very endearing vocal performances (although I thought that the voice of Aaron didn’t match properly – too old a voice in too young a body, I think) and in particular, Disenchantment‘s Abbi Jacobson proves to be a perfect fit for her character, infusing her with plenty of passion and quirkiness, and I particularly loved Olivia Colman as the voice of the antagonistic PAL – she completely nailed all of the comedic lines and always left me wanting more of her.

Oxygen (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

With clear shades of Buried and, weirdly enough, Locke (given the single location and numerous phone calls), Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen may not be breaking completely new ground and parts of it are a little predictable but still, the film is nonetheless a particularly taut and tense little thriller and thanks to Aja’s assured direction (the kind he demonstrated so well with Crawl), the film is really capable of getting audiences on the edge of their seats and holding their breath (ha!) and additionally, the production design and visual effects are sleek, making great use of its single location, and the whole thing benefits from Melanie Laurent’s strong and very capable central performance, going through the whole gamut of emotions quite genuinely.

And between this and Stowaway, is 2021 becoming the year of Netflix films which revolve around dwindling oxygen supplies?

The Woman in the Window (2021)

★ ★

Given social media’s collective love for Amy Adams, I get the impression that most people expected this to be a top tier thriller and I certainly saw much excitement in the run-up to its eventual release date. Myself, I wasn’t exactly enthralled by the trailer and was fully prepared for the possibility that TWITW would turn out to be a big dull dud, given the fact that the story looked uninspired and full of plot twists that we’re all too familiar with nowadays.

Well, it turns out that my instincts were accurate on this occasion because TWITW, a film that starts off by really trying to imitate the mighty Rear Window and then later on appearing as this year’s Girl on the Train, doesn’t have an original bone in its body and it suffers because of its dodgy script, which I was surprised to learn was penned by Tracy Letts who previously provided the foundation for the darkly entertaining Killer Joe; said script is filled with boring and uninteresting characters as well as predictable plot developments and the tiresome narrative path of “is there really a conspiracy or is the main character really going mad?”. Danny Elfman’s score is surprisingly poor, the big name cast isn’t given proper opportunity to demonstrate their skills (Gary Oldman here turns in one of his poorer performances), and in the finale, the film takes a detour into substandard and ineffective horror movie fare.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

When cinemas finally reopened, I was of course eager to get back out there and to see as many big screen offerings as possible and for my first trip back, I just knew that I had to choose this big ol’ blockbuster as my first port of call. And it was indeed the right choice because I sure did have a fine time with this latest MonsterVerse entry – one that truly belongs on the big screen, leading me to wonder just why so many people opted to “jump the gun” and pay £15.99 or so to watch it at home.

Previous entries in this cinematic universe have suffered because of their weak “human stories”, offering up uninteresting human characters and giving us their plotlines that only slow the film down and take us away from the monster vs. monster spectacle that we all came in to see, but I’d say that GvsK does well in this regard because the characters, whilst not amazing, are a supportable bunch who are played by a fine group of actors (Millie Bobby Brown and Rebecca Hall here make the biggest impact) and regarding the storyline, it’s a good and fairly imaginative one as it’s all relatively straightforward and easy to get absorbed in. The story and characters aren’t as strong as those found in 2014’s Godzilla but they are an improvement over Skull Island and the notoriously messy King of the Monsters.

And when it comes to the main attraction, i.e. the pivotal monster vs. monster smackdown, the film really does deliver as the action sequences are energetic and exciting and they really do give the audience what they came to see. Comparing the bombastic fight sequences with other entries in the franchise, I’d say that Skull Island probably pips it to the post but at least in this film, we can actually SEE what’s going on – quite a pleasant departure from the disappointingly murky King of the Monsters.

Mortal Kombat (2021)

★ ★

To begin with, I’m not overly familiar with the MK universe, having never seen any of the cinematic adaptations nor played any of the games (apart from Mortal Kombat vs. DC) but going into the film, I was aware of a lot of the major players such as Sub-Zero, Scorpion and Raiden as well as the “catchphrases” like “Fatality”, “Flawless Victory” and Scorpion’s cry of “Get over here!” and was interested to see whether the film would make a fan out of me and encourage me to play some of the games or watch some of the other cinematic adaptations.

But alas, the film didn’t convert me as, though it’s nowhere close to being the worst film ever, 2021’s Mortal Kombat is still a poor film and I’d even say that it’s this year’s Justice League (the s**t 2017 one, not the incredible 2021 version) as the script is poor and it shoehorns in both tiresome and ineffective emotional scenes as well as comedy that just doesn’t work (Kano is a big culprit here as his loudmouth comedy schtick gets annoying after a while), the “coming together” of the team is not that exciting and I personally didn’t feel much towards the characters (and this wasn’t helped by the fact that the performances were only adequate and there was no great chemistry between the actors), and the whole thing was just a bit too predictable.

But on the positive side, several of the fight sequences were good and admirably bloody and one or two of the characters were pretty cool, I guess. Or “ice cold” in Sub-Zero’s case!

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

This Best Picture nominee finally recieved a proper UK cinema release this month and having now finally seen it, I would say that Judas really feels like a long film as it occasionally shifts focus onto one or two less interesting side characters and the slower, more emotional moments keep the film moving at a pace that’s a bit too slow for my liking (I really feel as though it could have indeed been made more compact) but on the positive side, Judas is nonetheless a powerful and relevant movie about the ongoing injustice faced by black Americans and it has several stirring scenes (the ending is particularly shocking) as well as two excellent LEADING performances from Lakeith Stanfield and the Oscar winning Daniel Kaluuya.

Stanfield’s character really goes on a journey and he’s really able to demonstrate a certain nonchalance and perhaps cockiness at the beginning but later on clearly warming to Fred, sharing in the brotherhood of the Panthers and going on to clearly show us his indecision, torment, and eventual despair over his tragic decisions, while Kaluuya is ideally charismatic and stirring in his “shouty scenes” but he also successfully shows us the more human side of Fred and ultimately gives us a layered and very grounded performance.

Just gotta see The Father now and then, I’ll have seen all the 2020/1 Best Picture nominees!

The Little Things (2021)

★ ★

Maybe it’s because I opted for a relatively late cinema viewing but honestly, I was nodding off during much of this film so unless I missed some good bits due to being semi-conscious, I’ll just say that The Little Things, while definitely not the worst film ever, is a dull and uneventful experience with an uninteresting and unsatisfying story that’s filled with plot threads that aren’t necessarily resolved by the end (as well as religious allusions that end up amounting to exactly nada), a meandering pace, two dimensional characters, and performances that hardly set the screen on fire – Denzel is nowhere near as charismatic as he usually is, Rami Malek is only decent as the hotshot cop, and Jared Leto gives us your standard “may be a killer, creepy weirdo” routine.

Us Again (2021)

★ ★ ★

Another short film, this one having been shown before the screening of Raya and the Last Dragon, this one is all about a man who has lost his zest for life, preferring to live like Carl Fredrickson while his wife really wants him to join the outside world and to dance together like they used to do, which, with the assistance of some magical, rejuvenating rain, they’re soon able to do.

It may only be seven minutes long and with no dialogue at all but Us Again is very technically accomplished as the animation is of course top notch and the filmmakers are able to make great use of deep focus as well as much colour and an upbeat soundtrack to keep us interested throughout. The short feature has an endearing message about the importance of not missing out on life and enjoying the company of the one(s) you love and though it will be forgotten about in time, Us Again is nonetheless an impressively animated and passionately made film with an affecting message.

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

A film that has finally been made available for UK audiences to view in cinemas, providing an alternative option to paying £20 or so to view it on Disney Plus (where it will apparently soon be made available for free, making me yet again snicker at those who opted to pay that ridiculous price simply to view it early), Raya is a most impressive cinematic experience from the House of Mouse, currently filling the #13 spot on my ranked list of Disney’s animated releases, and it really does astound with its spectacular animation and it is such a treat to look at and to absorb, impressing greatly with its fight and action sequences (there’s a climactic fight scene which is particularly frantic and which really gets us feeling the characters’ rage – it’s directed and animated so well), and in other areas, the film has a very strong voice cast that’s made up of mostly Asian American/British actors and it’s one that sees Kelly Marie Tran shine particularly brightly (screw you, troll haters) and, as I always appreciate hearing Awkwafina’s dulcet tones, she here provides much entertainment as the titular Sisu, the last dragon.

The story is a great one, making it all about Asia and focusing on humanity’s destructive, selfish and distrustful nature and how we all need to get along and stop fighting each other in order to make a better world, although the trust theme is thrust into our faces a little too often for my liking, and the film also makes use of a fine script which contains that winning Disney blend of comedy and heartfelt emotion.

Army of the Dead (2021)

★ ★ ★

First of all, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to see Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead so I won’t be comparing the two films but when it comes to Army of the Dead, it’s an entertaining enough film that will surely be a worthwhile group watch, it doesn’t feel like a 2.5 hour film, and Dave Bautista suits the leading role of the action hero quite well (I also liked Nora Arnezeder) but at the same time, I was never truly excited by it and thought that it never really lived up to its potential, being neither scary nor as wacky as it could have been. The cover versions of “Viva Las Vegas” and “The End” were a bit disappointing as well. As was the fact that Bautista had ample opportunity to say “Get to the Chopper!” right at the end but he didn’t take it. Shame.

And was Theo Rossi the only cast member who DIDN’T wear shades? I guess that after Luke Cage, he must’ve gotten bored of them!

Cruella (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

The first half is definitely more Devil Wears Prada than 101 Dalmatians and I don’t think that this is a film that young kids will exactly enjoy but when looked at as a separate entity than the Disney story, Cruella proves to be a worthwhile watch as the performances of Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are entertaining – they both look like they’re having fun – as are the double act antics of Joel Fry and Paul Walter Houser, the costumes and hairstyles are outlandish, colourful and bold (kudos to the great “bag lady” artist Jenny Beavan), and despite having a longer-than-necessary runtime, it remains constantly interesting and there are enough imaginative directorial flourishes and fun plot developments to keep audiences invested. Though on the more negative side, the many many songs included on the soundtrack (the “needle drops” as most people seem to be referring to them) often get too intrusive, the film isn’t as naturally funny nor as genuinely entertaining as it could have been and, as mentioned earlier, it needn’t have been so long.

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

As many will surely be aware, John Krasinski’s follow-up to his excellent 2018 horror film A Quiet Place, a film that I was a massive fan of and one which nabbed one of the five five star reviews that I gave out that year (2018 was an astounding year for films), was one of the first films to be delayed following the cursed COVID-19 pandemic and I’m all too aware of this because back in March last year, I had booked to go and see it in the cinema, had the ticket in my hand and everything, only to later hear of the closing of cinemas, rendering my lovely ticket worthless.

But as cinemas are now reopening (can I get a “hallelujah”?!), A Quiet Place Part II has finally arrived in cinemas for my our viewing pleasure and so I decided to catch a double bill of parts one and two in the cinema, going on to enjoy this long awaited sequel.

Technically, I suppose that it’s a little better than its predecessor (though that’s probably because it’s been a few years since the first one and, after three rewatches, it didn’t have quite the same impact for me as it did the first few times) and, following a really great opening “Day 1” sequence, it does well in expanding this particular cinematic world, splitting up our family unit in a way that actually works (quite unlike something like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II, where it proved detrimental) and it shows off more of Marco Beltrami’s beautiful score as well as so much more of that genuinely nail biting tension and two particularly strong performances from Cillian Murphy and Millicent Simmonds.

And in order of personal preference, it’s:

  1. Raya and the Last Dragon
  2. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
  3. A Quiet Place Part II
  4. Godzilla vs. Kong
  5. Oxygen
  6. Cruella
  7. Judas and the Black Messiah
  8. Us Again
  9. Army of the Dead
  10. The Force Awakens from its Nap
  11. Mortal Kombat
  12. The Little Things
  13. The Woman in the Window

2021 Television

Deutschland 89

★ ★

The third and final part of the televisual trilogy that began in 2016 with Deutschland 83, the series that effectively kicked off the Walter Presents streaming service, this series took place against the backdrop of “The Fall of the Wall” and saw young spy Martin Rauch working for, and being hunted by, many different factions who each had their own political agenda, and although I admired and appreciated the first series, savouring both the fish-out-of-water comedy and exciting spy drama, this third series is considerably more serious and so much more complicated, throwing around many different names, organisations and historical events that I found it impossible to keep up with. Viewers who possess superior brainpower and/or are interested with Cold War era German history (exactly like my father, with whom I watched the preceding two series) will probably enjoy it but for me, it was far too confusing and there was rarely any excitement.

The Best of the Rest

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

A true underdog story whose formula has surely been used and reused over the years, Baz Luhrmann’s directorial debut is a wild and entertaining ride, treating us to much great music and dancing while also making use of several deliberately grotesque and unlikeable characters as well as his signature style that Luhrmann would later go overboard with in films like Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby.

Naked Lunch (1991)

I’m sure that there’s some kind of hidden socio-political message contained within this film and maybe I didn’t truly understand it but still, I really savoured the unmistakably Cronenbergian atmosphere and dug the wild story and all of the body horror and impressive practical effects and dark design.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

A few other priests and I watched this film in order to get some idea of how to rescue Father Dougal from the exploding milk float, you know because Gene Hackman plays a priest in it, but it was ultimately no help at all. He didn’t even say mass.

But jokes aside (and respect to you if you understood that reference), this is a great disaster movie that has plenty of tense moments, a strong story, and some worthwhile performances from its small group of respected actors, particularly the commanding leading performance from Hackman.

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