The Plain, Simple Review of the Month: June 2021

We’ve reached the halfway point of 2021 – how’d that happen?! Well anyway, June was an entire month in which cinemas were open and as such, we were given a fair share of brand spanking new releases and here are some of them:

2021 Releases

The Father (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

At long last, at a time long after everyone and their mums had apparently already seen it, I finally had a chance to see Florian Zeller’s triple Oscar winner and, though it wasn’t quite the claustrophobic, gut punch of a film I was expecting it to be, I got on really well with this film and found it to be my fourth favourite Best Picture nominee of the previous year.

The Father does very well in getting us to see the world through the lead character’s eyes (and diminished faculties) as both things and people change and as time moves back and forth unpredictably – it really disorients us and it’s scary to see how everything could be completely different once he turns a corner – and in the acting stakes, where the film shines particularly brightly, the great Welsh thespian Anthony Hopkins puts in a truly commanding leading performance and is able to be charming and funny one minute, irritable and harsh in another, and other times (particularly in a sad, shocking and haunting final scene) he appears genuinely vulnerable and lost, and supporting him all the way, Olivia Colman contributes what I believe to be one of her strongest performances yet as the helpful, but stressed, daughter – she’s such a sweet and supportable character who really appears as though she wants to help her father (indeed, she’s the only one who gives him the support he needs) but in her private moments, we can clearly see the toll that caring is taking on her as she longingly looks out the window at her happy neighbours or allows herself a brief fantasy in which she ends Anthony’s life. Colman’s performance is so raw and affecting and she’s admirably able to prove herself equal to Hopkins in the acting stakes.

So, finally, that’s all the 2020/1 Best Picture nominees seen and this is how I would rank them:

Dream Horse (2020)

★ ★ ★

I guess that every cinema year needs a Fisherman’s Friends or a Military Wives – a piece of predictable but good natured fluff that offers little in the way of surprises but one which delights and is capable of warming the audience’s heart for 90 minutes or so and Dream Horse seems to be that kind of film for 2021 audiences: a feelgood story about a small Welsh community that forms a racing syndicate and enters a racehorse into various prestigious events, despite their lack of knowledge and experience and facing both disagreements within their group as well as the scorn that they face from the richer and more experienced pundits.

Yes, it’s wholly formulaic and it makes use of several emotional “speeches” when our lead character goes on about how this little horse has “completely changed all of our lives” and these are clearly too cheesy and syrupy but elsewhere, the film has a good story (one which makes the sport of horse racing at least semi-interesting), some fun characters (which include Pobol Y Cwm and Gavin and Stacey alumni), plenty of heart and good feeling, and I guess that it’s something to see a properly Welsh film getting a big screen release.

And Toni Collette’s Welsh accent wasn’t half bad, thank goodness.

Nobody (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

VERY much cut from the same cloth as John Wick albeit with a more lighthearted tone (the little thing that sets him off, a Winston-like contact, a hidden stash of gold bars, and heck, they even put “The Impossible Dream” in there. Oh, what a trailer that was . . .), eventually ending in an even more extreme version of Home AloneNobody doesn’t really do anything different (apart from bypassing the whole “guy who’s out of the game tries desperately to stay out of trouble but it seems to find him anyway” by having a main character who actively seeks out carnage and who gains satisfaction when the bad guy army comes after him) and the bad guy’s a bit naff, but it’s still a fun and enjoyable film and when it comes to the fight sequences, it does do something a little different in that it shows how the combatants aren’t exactly superhuman and as such, we see them get exhausted and the fights don’t go at a constant 100mph, as they would in other, similar films.

And regarding our pivotal nobody, Bob Odenkirk is terrific; we haven’t really seen him do anything like this before and he really proves himself up to the task of being the tough action hero, also throwing in some comedy from time to time. Plus, a gun toting Christopher Lloyd – what’s not to like?

In the Heights (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

The film that several people have apparently made their “coming back to cinemas” film (I guess that they’d already seen films like Godzilla vs. Kong and Mortal Kombat, which were my first new ones), this was surely a highly anticipated new release, given the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and having now seen it, I would say that In The Heights is a decent musical but yet, it’s one that I also found to be quite flawed.

In the plus column, Crazy Rich Asians‘ Jon M. Chu directs well and he infuses Miranda’s show with as much passion, flair and creativity as possible and in other areas, the film has a lively cast that’s largely made up of Latin American actors, impressive dancing, a few good songs, and a story that celebrates a particular area of New York, getting us to realise the importance of your home and your roots and the film succeeds in getting us to feel something for the colourful surroundings and characters (heck, I ended up missing some of them when they were no longer around. Or, more specifically, Stephanie Beatriz who I’m crushing so hard on), but truthfully, In The Heights never really excited me and I actually found it to be surprisingly lethargic and definitely too long – the interest wanes as it adopts too much of a stop/start approach – and the songs are sadly not on Hamilton‘s level; with that show, almost every song was an absolute banger but here, there were only really maybe three properly good ones and if I was listening to the soundtrack, I would probably skip several of the tracks.

It’s a four star film but honestly, it only just managed to clinch that grade.

Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)

★ ★

I would really like to compare this to the first one, a film that I counted among the worst cinematic offerings of that year but honestly, I can’t remember much about it other than the fact that it was a poor comedy with occasionally crude jokes, though not a total write-off, so with a vague recollection of its predecessor in mind, I’d say that this film is very much cut from the same cloth as said film because the comedy is wholly ineffective and often disappointingly crude (the unnecessarily shouty/sweary Salma Hayek is here burdened with the most embarrassing dialogue and, smoking hot though she is, she doesn’t handle the outrageous humour well), the editing and camerawork are way too frantic and choppy, and the story is uninspired.

Saying that though, it’s not boring, the second half makes us forget about the embarrassing crudeness of what came before, and I guess that it’s a positive that the film doesn’t waste any time in getting straight into the action – putting our hero under fire within the first ten minutes and managing to keep up the same high energy pace for the duration.

Why lie? If another sequel is made, I’ll still go and see it.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

★ ★ ★

Prior to watching this film, I think that I saw several different reviews, most of which were positive and praised the film’s wacky nature as well as Jamie Dornan’s big musical number and having now seen it, I’d say that Barb and Star is a decent enough film but it’s also the kind of feature that’s seemingly far funnier to our principal actors/screenwriters, existing as something of a feature length outing for two SNL type characters, and the two girls’ forced midwestern accents were a little hard to endure but hey, it had a lighthearted and fun story and Jamie Dornan’s seagull song really was the best bit.

Love and Monsters (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

This is one that a lot of people sank their teeth into several months ago – me, I decided to watch it so that I could catch up with 2021’s major releases before we reached the halfway point of the year – and in the end, I had a good time with this film, finding it to be an entertaining post-apocalyptic adventure with great special effects and monster designs; Dylan O’Brien is an affable and supportable lead and having Michael Rooker in your film always means that you’re in for a treat.

Luca (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

Existing as something of a blend of The Little MermaidPinocchioPonyo and Call Me By Your Name all rolled into one, Luca is another of Pixar’s “smaller scale” pictures (pun unintended) and as such, it’s not as unique, clever nor as memorable as many of its other features but it does have a sweet, though predictable, story, plenty of the studio’s expectedly great animation, and the vocal performances from Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer are top notch. It’s a shame that, like Soul, the film didn’t receive a theatrical release.

The Mauritanian (2021)

★ ★ ★

Another “everyone else has already seen it” release that I wanted to take in before the halfway point, Kevin Macdonald’s film has an important and affecting story all about a wrongly convicted man who was forced to spend over fourteen years enduring torture and interrogation in Guantanamo Bay, having never been convicted of a crime and not having the opportunity to receive a fair trial, and there are also strong performances from Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim but I have to admit that I lost interest during certain stretches and found myself checking my phone on many occasions – not a good sign when you constantly do that during a film.

Supernova (2020)

★ ★ ★ ★

Supernova is a touching film about loving married couple Sam and Tusker who face terrible times when it becomes clear that Tusker’s dementia is gradually getting worse, with Sam voicing his fierce determination to stand by him and to take care of him no matter how bad it gets, and the film is bolstered by some lovely cinematography and music as well as the excellent performances of it’s two leading gentlemen (both of whom, I have to say, just get better looking the older they get) but – though this may be my problem entirely – I regrettably found myself starting to nod off towards the end and the film didn’t affect me as much as I hoped it would and I think that this is because the film plays things a little too safe, only showing little hints of Tusker’s diminishing faculties and taking the story in a direction that Paddleton already did several years ago.

If you only see one film about dementia this year, you’d be better off with The Father, in my opinion.

Space Sweepers (2021)

★ ★ ★

Space Sweepers was a weird one.

Why? Because after about 20 minutes, I was really considering throwing in the towel, given that the film was initially assembled in a frantic and confusing way, throwing us headfirst into the story without a clear enough view of what was going on, introducing the characters in a haphazard manner, and bombarding us with a multitude of different languages, all coming one after the other, which was all a bit too much (Netflix’s subtitles didn’t help matters) and which led me to predict that I wouldn’t get anything out of the film at all.

But I decided to just keep on watching for some reason and gosh darn it, the film just grew on me; the story is fine (it’s certainly ambitious) but above all, the characters really do grow on you as they become less sleazy and selfish and learn to work together towards the goal of protecting the pivotal little girl and in the end, they proved to be a particularly endearing Rogue One type group who you just can’t help but support – Captain Jang and transgender robot Bubs (a relation of K2S0?) being the standouts.

Colour me surprised.

F9 (2021)

★ ★ ★

The first official Fast and Furious film that I’ve seen in cinemas (excluding Hobbs and Shaw), F9 provides us with the ol’ “highly armed bad guys set their sights on a McGuffin that will give them control over the world’s technology and defences, requiring our near invincible, gravity and physics defying super spies to do some insane racing s**t to take them down”, this time exploring Dom’s younger years (which is the film’s main raison d’être) and pushing the franchise into even more crazy territory by having them go to space (in a sequence that’s just too ridiculous, but not in a good way) and as such, the film doesn’t quite do enough to stand out from a lot of other entries in the franchise and it’s mostly all, by F&F standards, by the numbers, any comedy that’s used doesn’t work (there’s some metatextuality involving their near invulnerability and the absurd nature of their missions that are way too on-the-nose), and the fighting sequences are too frantic, staged and shot in such a way that it’s hard to accurately see what’s happening, but the high octane racing setpieces still manage to excite, the cast give it their all, and it was nice to see a little of Dom’s backstory.

And it’s probably the least male gaze-y entry in the franchise so far, thank goodness.

Our Friend (2019)

★ ★ ★ ★

A film that was adapted from a magazine article of (roughly) the same name, Our Friend is a touching and tender film about the realities of living with a loved one who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer (though I suppose the true horrors and difficulties have been carefully left out of the feature) and of the true friend who put his own life on hold to be there for all of them; it has strong performances from its central trio (particular kudos goes to Jason Segal and his impressive dramatic, though occasionally funny, performance here) but I have to admit that I started to lose interest past the halfway point and found the constant narrative back-and-forths to be a hindrance.

Freaky (2020)

★ ★ ★

Freaky is another Blumhouse film that comes to us from the mind of Christopher Landon, who previously gave us the entertaining and inventive Happy Death Day as well as its not-as-impressive sequel, and he here gives us a mashup of Freaky Friday, Friday the 13th, Scream and Halloween (the killer in this movie reminding me very much of Michael Myers, though he’s probably more inspired by Jason Vorhees) and while it’s not awfully original nor as funny, gory or thrilling as it could have been, it’s a decent enough story to sit through in the cinema and both Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton are capable leads – the former “doing a Jack Black” by having fun playing a teenage girl and the latter being wholesome and sweet as Millie and then all cold, calculating and intimidating as The Butcher.

I feel that I would have enjoyed this more had I not seen the trailer several times beforehand, the trailer in question being one of those that goes over all the best bits and lines and basically ruins the plot.

So in order of personal preference, it’s:

  1. The Father
  2. Nobody
  3. Luca
  4. Love and Monsters
  5. In the Heights
  6. Supernova
  7. Space Sweepers
  8. Our Friend
  9. Freaky
  10. F9
  11. The Mauritanian
  12. Dream Horse
  13. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
  14. Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

2021 Television

Master of None Presents: Moments in Love

★ ★ ★ ★

The third series of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s popular and acclaimed Netflix series does something a little different for its third series by focusing squarely on Lena Waithe’s character Denise and on her strained relationship with her wife Alicia (a particularly strong Naomi Ackie – Lady Macbeth alumni doing so well these days!) and though I have to say that I preferred the previous two full length series (this one only consists of five episodes, some lasting for just under an hour while one or two go for half the time), Moments in Love is nonetheless a beautiful series and in particular, it’s shot and directed with passion and love as the pacing is patient and it makes use of a great many beautiful shots, the aforementioned actresses put in two worthy performances, and the story provides us with plenty of warmth and good feeling, letting us share in the characters’ joy and happiness, but also a fair share of tension, drama and heartbreak and the penultimate episode, which solely features Naomi Ackie’s character Alicia, is a perfect example of this and is ultimately the very best episode in the short series – Ackie is quite mesmerising throughout and she really demonstrates her impressive acting abilities.

The Best of the Rest

Clue (1985)

I knew, going in, that this was a popular and much enjoyed film that people on social media often praise but I suppose that I was a bit sceptical going in, seeing as how this is a cinematic adaptation of a board game – how could it possibly have been good? – but I was very pleasantly surprised by Clue as I found it to be a mad, entertaining and funny madcap adventure with a wild story and a cast of actors who look like they’re having a lot of fun just goofing around.

Hot take incoming: I would rate this far higher than Knives Out.

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Surely the film that features the greatest amount of time spent amongst characters having a sing-song, musicals included, I found Terence Davies’ critically acclaimed film to be a really lovely, touching and poetic one, with an episodic, non-linear structure which works well because it manages to capture the essence of memory – how our mind will flit around various life moments from so many different years and locations – and additionally, the music is lovingly used, the writing is wholly authentic, and the direction is patient and passionate.

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