The Plain, Simple Review of the Month: October 2021

Boo. OK, obligatory Halloween bit over, let’s talk about films and TV shows.

2021 Releases

Summer of Soul (. . . or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

This is a film that I heard about when it was praised most generously by Mark Kermode on the Film Review show – him proclaiming it to be the greatest concert film that he’s ever seen and one of his top films of 2021 so far – but while it didn’t have nearly as much of an impact on me, I still found Summer of Soul to be an enlightening and important documentary.

The documentary/concert film tells of the 1969 Harlem cultural festival that took place at the almost exact same time as Woodstock and although it was a huge, week long event, featuring big name performers such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and Fifth Dimension, footage of the festival was shelved for almost fifty years, only appearing now in Questlove’s project. When you witness just how big and groundbreaking this festival was, it really boggles the mind to learn that the event has essentially been completely forgotten about and the documentary really is at its best when it looks at the cultural revolution that was occurring at the time: how Harlem was made up of so many different cultures and ethnicities, and how the music, fashion and political landscape was gradually changing.

I’m not the biggest fan of the type of music involved (though I do, in fact, like to hear it now and again) and this film will strike the biggest chord with those who are fans of artists like Nina Simone or Sly and the Family Stone but I appreciated this film nonetheless (I wouldn’t use the word “enjoyed” here) and I’m glad that something this monumental, a well attended cultural festival that has previously been lost to the annals of time, has been brought to the attention of a 21st century audience; the music is great and it’s all well constructed.

The Green Knight (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

ANOTHER glowing Mark Kermode recommendation and yet ANOTHER one which I liked but clearly not as much as the great man, Ghost Story director David Lowrey’s patiently paced and artistic telling of the legend of Gawain and the Green Knight sees Dev Patel step into the role of Gawain: a young man, desperate to prove himself, who finds himself compelled to travel across the land in order to face both the Green Knight and quite possibly his inevitable demise, encountering all sorts of different characters along the way who will all shape his personality and either help or hinder him; Patel is, as you might expect, a strong lead and he confidently carries the film on his shoulders, starting off as a green (ha!), inexperienced and directionless soul but gradually being shaped by his quest and coming to terms with what awaits him at the end. In supporting roles, actors like Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson and Joel Edgerton also do good work but for me, Barry Keoghan is the biggest standout as he plays the role of the darkly playful and merciless thief with great panache and with a dark twinkle in the eye.

As for the rest of the film, I’d have to say that it starts off unevenly – with several dark (lighting-wise, that is) scenes as well as the initial confrontation with the titular Green Knight that wasn’t as compelling as it could have been – but the film thankfully comes to life when Gawain embarks on his quest and it’s all bolstered by Lowrey’s patient direction, some really nice cinematography, and most importantly of all, the writing and character development: because although Gawain is at first determined to become an honourable knight, he later goes on to make some bad and dishonourable decisions and turns his back on certain characters who have helped him, eventually trying to weasel out of his unenviable predicament, and all of this is shown with a very effective final sequence which shows us his reign that has been built on betrayal, selfishness and cowardice.

All in all, though I didn’t enjoy The Green Knight as much as the sensational A Ghost Story, I still found it to be a really great film and I wish that I had had the opportunity to view it in the cinema.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)

★ ★ ★

When it comes to Saw, I’m admittedly a little out of the loop as I’ve only seen the first three (is it even worth watching all the others?) but as this May (or so) release was available for only £1.99, and made available during the spooky season no less, I thought that it wouldn’t do any harm to give it a go. Especially since it’s an offshoot of the popular horror franchise and not an official Saw film, per se.

And my thoughts on it? Meh.

It gets off to an alright start as the investigation initially appears to be an interesting one, straying away from conventional Saw fare, and it does give Chris Rock some more dramatic material to work with (he fares alright in this film) but eventually, I just lost interest as it all got too repetitive and boring, I didn’t care about what happened to the characters, and additionally, the traps were too uninventive and underwhelming, the kills occurring far too quickly, and the eventual reveal was too obvious. Even though, according to the filmmakers, the antagonist’s plan and motive was the true reveal.

Pig (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

As one of those releases that I inevitably hear a great deal of praise being directed towards but one which, of course, is too “small” and niche to make an appearance in my local cinema, I made the decision to rent Pig on one of my days off so that I could see what all the fuss was about and the end result sure was a satisfying one, albeit one that can’t compete with a lot of other films that I’ve seen this year.

People expecting a violent revenge thriller, or a film where the big guy goes “full Cage”, need not apply because Pig is a film that’s surprisingly about a former star chef, now a reclusive hermit, who embarks on a mission to find his beloved truffle pig and, as the previous words would suggest, I really was surprised to discover that Cage’s character turned out to be a former superstar of the restaurant business and that he maintained an unflappable and calm demeanour throughout (apart from in one scene wherein he attacks a car); the film does well in subverting expectations and it tells a very engrossing and interesting story about a damaged soul on a mission – a story that’s easy to get absorbed and invested in – and regarding the performances, Nicolas Cage puts in a quietly powerful and emotional performance as the haunted man of very few words, proof that he can really act, and Alex Wolff is an equally strong supporting performer, further demonstrating his growing maturity as an actor.

Censor (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

Another much talked about film, another no-show at any cinema near me, and another rental, Prano Bailey-Bond (yay, Welsh directors!) directs this Black Mirror-y story about a (quite literally) buttoned-up film censor who views a very unique film that calls to mind a very disturbing incident from her past, leading her down a dark hole, increasingly unable to ascertain the difference between reality and fiction, and although I ultimately expected more from it, I dug the uncomfortable and dark atmosphere that the director and her team created, I thought the story was intriguing, and leading actress Niamh Algar, who previously impressed with terrific turns in The Virtues and Calm With Horses, here put in a really great performance. A lovely face, that girl has.

Ron’s Gone Wrong (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

This was a film that I wasn’t intending to see straight away (at least not until I had seen Dune) but after hearing a positive review, I made an effort to squeeze it in and ultimately, iffy title aside, Ron’s Gone Wrong proved to be a delightful film and I’m so glad that I gave it a go.

Much like the exquisite Mitchells vs. The Machines, this is a film that looks at our reliance on technology and social media and here, we’re introduced to “B-Bots” who are designed to be the ideal friends, machines/devices that know all your interests and can connect you to other people who share your interests, thus making the establishments of friendships (supposedly) easier but when awkward teen Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) is gifted one that doesn’t work properly, he and his bot Ron (Zack Galifanakis) must make a friendship the old fashioned way: by actually spending time with each other and gradually learning about themselves.

Even though the main message of “we’re all too addicted to social media and technology and we need to switch off our devices, spend time with people, and see the world through our eyes, not our screens” is nothing new in film, Ron is nonetheless a sweet film that will get even the most jaded cynics to raise a smile and at its heart, the budding friendship between Barney and Ron is really endearing and the film does have an admirable message about friendship: that it’s truly a two way street and a lot of hard work must be put into it. Elsewhere, the animation is good and the voice cast is solid (yay – more Olivia Colman!) but on the flip side, the villain is weak and the film also goes on for too long – it could’ve used some trimming.

Halloween Kills (2021)

★ ★ ★

The twelfth Halloween film (although I’ve so far only seen four – are they even worth watching?), Halloween Kills picks up where it’s predecessor left off – with Michael Myers trapped in the basement of a burning building and the Strode women riding off into the sunset (sunrise?) but, wouldn’t you know it, the terrifying masked villain isn’t dead and, after easily escaping his irksome confinement (to quote Drax), he sets off on yet another murderous rampage while on the path to his childhood home.

Despite having watched it a couple of years after it was released in cinemas, I liked David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween as I found it to be a good “back to basics” slasher film that wisely ignored all the many many sequels and reintroduced the world to the indestructible Michael Myers and gave Jamie Lee Curtis the opportunity to go “full Sarah Connor” and proactively kick some butt, but I’d say that Halloween Kills is a step back for the franchise because the finished product is unoriginal, testing, and quite boring. Much like Halloween II, this one also sees Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode confined to a hospital bed while the killings go on around her (a huge no-no) and even though the film initially does something different by giving us a group of minor characters who have all previously survived encounters with Myers, these characters eventually become too unbearable, unreasonable and a bit dim and through their actions, we are given some sort of message about what fear does to people (makes them succumb to hate and turns them into an angry mob, I guess) but in these moments, when the film attempts to “go deep” and to make an emotional connection, it falls flat because the po-faced monologues end up being preachy and only serve to slow the film down and to avoid actual scares.

Halloween Kills is indeed a little too long and it’s certainly sluggishly paced and in other areas, the kills aren’t anything special – not shocking or scary – the film is unintentionally funny when we see characters do or say some really stupid things, there aren’t many characters who are worth caring about (most are either too dim, aggressive or just plain annoying), the fact that Myers is, as Mark Kermode has said, unkillable makes everything quite pointless, and at the end of the day, Halloween Kills is simply a stepping stone to Halloween Ends, the middle part of a trilogy that sets things up for the big conclusion, rather than being a solid horror film in its own right.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)

★ ★ ★

2018’s Venom was a film which I think divided a lot of people, with many thinking unfavourably of it, but despite its flaws (below average writing, poor villain, slight unpleasantness in the tone), I actually liked it as I thought that, despite having a throwaway story and writing that didn’t exactly set the screen on fire, it really came to life when it finally started Venom-ing and I really liked those sequences involving Venom as well as the action sequences.

Let There Be Carnage is almost certainly a better film that fixes the problems of its predecessor but somehow it also feels . . . less satisfying?

Starting with the positives, Carnage has a much better villain in Cletus Kassady as he has far more personality than Carlton Drake and Woody Harrelson plays him with admirable manic glee and additionally, the film has a remarkably zippy pace, truly hitting the ground running at the start and not stopping until the end of its lean runtime, and it’s certainly more lighthearted with plenty of good jokes, the emphasis this time around being on Eddie and Venom’s tumultuous love/hate friendship/relationship (yes, it’s a rom-com) and this central relationship is what makes Carnage different from most other comic book films.

But on the flip side, Carnage does indeed feel less satisfying and, as I’ve noticed others observe, this is probably because of the frantic pace; for loads of films, I’ve called them out for being “sluggish” and I guess I’ve always assumed that a “quick” film would be preferable but after this, I now realise that a film which rushes, rather than drags, can be equally as problematic. This film really does feel like a rollercoaster ride, not wasting time with any exposition or trying to catch audiences up with what happened before, but like a rollercoaster ride, the film is fun and frantic when you’re on it but afterwards, it’s a bit of a struggle to remember just what happened. Elsewhere, Michelle Williams and Naomi Harris aren’t given much to do (Carnage is 100% the Tom Hardy and Woody Harrelson show) and the story, though decent, is a little predictable and the stakes are smaller than in the previous film. Plus, there isn’t much at stake in the final “boss battle” because Eddie and Venom never seem to be in any real peril.

At the end of the day, you could argue that Carnage is a better film than its predecessor – it’s definitely less flawed and considerably more lighthearted – but some big part of me just prefers the 2018 original; it was messy and flawed but those Venom action sequences really worked for me. I appreciated the mess, I guess.

The Last Duel (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

Writing a review, however brief, for The Last Duel is a bit of a tricky task for me because honestly, I’m not 100% sure how I feel about it; I definitely see it as a good film and it has a lot going for it but at the same time, I wouldn’t exactly give it a hearty recommendation and I had real trouble placing it within my “order of personal preference” below.

Let’s look at the positives: despite a hefty runtime and a repetitive nature (though this is intentional), the film was never boring and did a good job in keeping me interested and invested and visually, the film is top notch – with everything looking immaculate (well, apart from Matt Damon’s mullet) and the fight sequences being remarkably visceral and brutal. The use of Rashomon style multiple perspectives was also brilliantly done and the little changes that we witness throughout – including differences in dialogue and in the actors’ facial expressions and mannerisms – really give each “chapter” a different feel and meaning, although I think that having Lady Marguerite’s telling of events being specifically referred to as “the truth” was a little naughty and renders the whole “truth is objective, we’ll never know the full story” ultimately redundant. Finally, the story that’s presented is a powerful and absorbing one and regarding the performances, the cast all do a stellar job, with Jodie Comer and Adam Driver being the standouts.

I don’t actually think that I could come up with any major negatives but I will say that The Last Duel is perhaps not a film that you would watch again anytime soon (mostly because of the repeated scenes – heck, you see this film once, you’ll feel as though you’ve seen it three times) and maybe it is a little long. But hey, that’s just nit picking.

So all in all? Yeah, it was a very well made feature and was written, directed, designed, and performed very well. I just don’t think I’ll ever want to see it again.

Dune (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

First, we had David Lynch’s unique but incredibly messy and incomprehensible of Frank Herbert’s famous novel and now, it’s the turn of critically acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve to tackle the “unfilmable novel” (do people call it that?) and straight away, I will say that it’s easily better than the 1984 version, which I found impossible to understand, but as with almost all Villeneuve films, it’s also a “cold” film and despite others having proclaimed their love for it, I myself wasn’t completely won over.

But don’t let that make you think that I didn’t like and appreciate the film because I definitely did; it’s an undeniable sci-fi epic and as such, the film really does feel like a big, important and spectacular space opera, with expert cinematography, production design, costuming, direction, score and visual effects that benefit the film greatly and which go a long way to providing audiences with a fulfilling cinema experience. Performances are all respectable across the board – even Timothée Chalamet, with whom I seem to have a love/hate relationship – and many sequences in the film, which include the first glimpse of a Worm as well as a late night invasion, are admirably thrilling; bringing this mighty epic to the big screen can’t have been an easy job but Villeneuve has proved himself to be the man for the job as it’s all perfectly easy to understand, it all looks immaculate, and when “the big stuff” happens, it entices and entertains.

That said, I still didn’t fall in love with the film and for me, it fell short of being a true five star feature, though certain moments in the film led me to believe that it ultimately would be; I think the problem for me is the source material and I think that, no matter how talented the filmmakers involved, the story isn’t anything truly special and far more exciting and imaginative sci-fi stories can be found elsewhere. Also, Dune really feels like a long film and for me, I really felt the length and and thought that certain stretches dragged a little bit.

So here’s my ranking of all 10:

  1. The Green Knight
  2. Dune
  3. Pig
  4. Ron’s Gone Wrong
  5. The Last Duel
  6. Summer of Soul
  7. Venom: Let There Be Carnage
  8. Censor
  9. Halloween Kills
  10. Spiral: From the Book of Saw

2021 Television

What If . . . ?

★ ★ ★

The Marvel televisual universe is undoubtedly now in full swing and here, we have a nine episode animated anthology series (though it actually all ties together by the end) that “flips the script on the MCU” and shows us how well known Marvel events could’ve occurred differently and how certain characters could’ve gone on a completely different path by exploring the multiverse, which is all watched over by Jeffrey Wright’s Watcher, and although there’s some degree of imagination in the premise, this series being more creative and different than the underwhelming Falcon and The Winter Soldier, I was never completely won over by the series because it just seemed to be too geared towards younger viewers (or fully committed CBM fans) and I often found it to be a bit too silly, with scripts that weren’t that clever, funny or exciting and with an overwhelming feeling of, not “what if” but rather “so what?” Too much of a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon show, I’d say.

But on the positive side, I do rate it higher than Falcon and additionally, the cast (wherein we see nearly all of the big names from previous Marvel films) all do a good job (Chris Hemsworth made a particular impact for me – so, so funny), some of the episodes provide some absorbing “action”, and the episodes that feature “Party Thor”, Strange Supreme, and “Ultron Vision” were the best of the bunch.

Star Trek: Lower Decks (Series Two)

★ ★ ★ ★

From one animated series to another, this was a series that I was so eager to see return, the first series having impressed me with its sense of fun as well as its colourful animation and crazy characters, and series two is, thankfully, yet another delightful treat.

There’s not much more I can say about it that I didn’t already say in my review for the previous series but here, the programme makers do a good job in further developing their characters and making sure that they “mix it up” by playing around with different combinations of characters (something that is playfully brought up when Mariner and Tendi are paired up for their first mission together) and in this series, Tendi and Rutherford are given “meatier” material to work with, an improvement from the preceeding series wherein they simply both fulfilled the role of “the nice one”.

This series is also a little less episodic and we have an ongoing storyline that involves the increasingly powerful Pakleds and moreover, this series proves its worth in the slower, more emotionally charged moments, where the show is allowed to “take a breath” and we get to feel for and like the characters a little more – a particular closing scene involving Mariner and Boimler at a bar is, for me, one of the best moments of the series. But concerning negative points, I will say that the series falls into the trap of being too lewd at certain moments, a scene that references “The Naked Time” and “The Naked Now” already having caused quite a stir among fans on social media and yes, I’ll agree that it was a little uncomfortable.

This series has been, and hopefully will continue to be, a show that I’m always so eager to watch, as well as being one that saddens me to see finish, and yes, Ensign Beckett Mariner still rules and yes, I’m still crushing hard on that particular “Kirk style free spirit who kicks butt”.

Lupin (Series Two)

★ ★ ★

Series one (or “part one”, to be precise) of this French Netflix series introduced us to Assane Diop (Omar Sy), a “gentleman thief” who takes inspiration from the character of Arsène Lupin and who was on a quest for justice, attempting to bring down the man who had his father falsely imprisoned but who ultimately had his own son taken away from him at the very end of the series. Part two continues straight on from where we left off, with Assane working with a reluctant ally cop to get his son back, and over the following five episodes, he continues to work against the powerful and corrupt Pellegrini, this time finding himself as public enemy number one and having to rely on support from ally cop and fellow Lupin fan Guédira, childhood friend and master hacker Benjamin, ex-wife Claire, and Pellegrini’s daughter Juliette.

In giving this second series a star rating, I’ve landed on three – maybe it deserves a little more than that – as this second part doesn’t quite have the same amount of pizzazz that its predecessor had and it kind of falters without the imaginative direction of Louis Leterrier; part one was so enjoyable because we got to see Assane assume so many disguises and get the better of the cops at every opportunity but we get less of that here as the story is more serious and almost repeats what came before. I hope that part three gives Assane a new opponent to battle against (and I REALLY hope that they don’t cop out and continue to make Pellegrini the main baddie), as well as letting him dress up a lot more, but one thing’s for sure: Omar Sy is still the series’ biggest asset as, like before, he is just naturally so cool, charismatic and easily likeable and he brings both humour and emotional depth to the main character. Bravo.

The Best of the Rest

Fantastic Planet (1973)

This was a most unique animation – one that’s surprisingly dark and chilling, but with glimpses of hope in there as well – about a race of tiny people who rebel against their towering alien overlords who treat them like pets and/or slaves and it has some remarkable animation, an enticing story, and an eerie Jeff Wayne-type score.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

For the most part, this was a truly excellent musical – filled with toe-tapping numbers that demonstrated such wonderful music and dance – but the more serious second half kind of lost me a bit, what with its noticeably gloomier atmosphere, even though it did pack an emotional punch; I wish that it could’ve been a beginning-to-end musical but still, I loved that first half and Topol was sensational.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

While it isn’t quite as naturally clever as the kind of Howard Hawks type comedy that you could see Cary Grant and/or Katherine Hepburn starring in, Peter Bogdanovich’s madcap caper is a fun and entertaining romp with a zippy script, a great final car chase sequence, and a praiseworthy performance from Barbra Streisand.

28 Weeks Later (2007)

Is it better than the first one? (Whispers) I think so!

True, the carnage ensues because certain characters make some truly boneheaded decisions but the film is so engrossing, enjoyable and well made/directed – great late night entertainment.

All That Jazz (1979)

Like 8 1/2, this film is also about a popular director, suffering from a creative block, who has to deal with his own mortality and to look back on his life and his relationships, all the time blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and even though the film goes on a bit too long and didn’t enthrall me like I’d hoped it would, it’s still a passionately directed (semi-autobiographical?) piece with imaginative sequences, very well choreographed song and dance numbers, and a great leading performance from Roy Scheider.

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