The Plain, Simple Review of the Month: November 2021

Not long now until we head into the festive season and, come the end of the year, talk about the best films that 2021 had to offer (putting together the Plain, Simple Review of the Year is always a treat for me) but until then, let’s look at some (mostly) November releases . . .

2021 Releases

Last Night in Soho (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

A film that apparently had scores of London Film Festival attendees queueing around the block at stupid o’clock in the morning, popular director Edgar Wright’s latest film sees Thomasin McKenzie’s young and wide-eyed aspiring fashion designer Ellie travel to the big city in order to study and to achieve her dreams, soon finding herself surrounded by all sorts of awful, inconsiderate and stuck-up people and later, after falling asleep, finding herself apparently back in the 1960s where she sees the world through the eyes of Anya Taylor-Joy’s hopeful young singer, only to soon discover that she met a nasty fate, leaving Ellie determined to bring the guilty party to justice.

Better reviewers than me will most certainly do a better job analysing the pros and cons of this long-awaited film but to put it briefly (it’s been such a long time since I saw this film – that’s why it’s so hard for me to write down my thoughts), I’ll say that I liked and appreciated the film. As with most of Wright’s films, it’s technically proficient (the dance scene in which Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy switch places, using a practical “Texas switch” rather than special effects, is a prime example) and the crew involved have done such a good job in bringing the sixties to the screen: with excellent production design, costuming, and make-up and hair.

The story is an engaging and interesting one, although it does become too predictable towards the end and there’s a long stretch in the middle that’s repetitive and sluggish, and Wright does a fine job in establishing an increasingly tense and unnerving atmosphere; at the beginning, I really felt so much anger towards those horrible, inconsiderate students – really feeling for poor Ellie – and when events take a sinister turn, the vibe of the film really does turn slightly uneasy, though it’s hardly the most nerve-wracking film you’ll ever see. Plus, going back to a negative, the recurring sight of Thomasin McKenzie being reflected in mirrors was used far too often.

The Harder They Fall (2021)

★ ★ ★

Another film that was apparently quite popular with the LFF crowd, this film from director Jeymes Samuel (who sounded like such an energetic and passionate person when he gave an interview on Kermode and Mayo) tells a fictitious story about a group of real life, but now apparently long forgotten about, outlaws and lawmen, utilising a largely African American cast which makes quite a change to the Western genre, and on the whole, it is a cool film as it benefits from an up-tempo soundtrack as well as bright and colourful production and costume design, electric shootouts, and a very able and willing cast but now, at the end of the month, I actually don’t remember a whole lot about the story and it’s a shame that with this film, there’s not a whole lot to be found beneath the surface; the honestly unoriginal story is too thin, stretched out over a generous runtime, and the pacing is just a little too leisurely. It’s all too easy to lose interest at certain moments throughout the film.

But it sure is something to hear Regina King say “unscrupulous” in that most unique manner.

Army of Thieves (2021)

★ ★ ★

What to say about the prequel to Army of the Dead? A film that many of us have already forgotten about and one that surely didn’t have that many people screaming out for another instalment?

Well, this one’s a slight step up from the aforementioned Snyder film as it’s more lighthearted and it has some commendable performances from the very likable Matthias Schweighöfer, the kick-ass Natalie Emmanuel, and the scene stealing Ruby O. Fee (who I later learned was that poor actress who was made to suffer so much indignity and putrid male gazing in the abhorrent Polar), the heist sequences were cool – though also a little too risk-free – and the story was entertaining. The main problems would seem to be that the main character’s nervousness and complaining started to grate after a while and that, lighthearted though it is, the film just doesn’t do enough to justify its existence.

An okay one-time watch, one to carry on the story of Army of The Dead, but it’s one that will most certainly be forgotten about in time.

Cinderella (2021)

★ ★

Before going in, I was of course aware of the mostly negative reception that this film had received but I was also aware of some positive feedback, most noticeably from popular critic Mark Kermode, so I decided to give it a go.

Well, I ended up agreeing with the majority because Kay Cannon’s Cinderella was weak, weak, weak and just utterly exhausting.

The film is essentially an embarrassing Christmas pantomime that tries so hard to be relevant and ultra modern – with its anachronisms, modern dialogue, themes, flashmob type dance sequences, and annoying music mashups and cover versions – and it also fails because the writing is poor, with a script that attempts to be funny when it really isn’t and one which shoehorns in those topical themes, and Camila Cabello is a bit too obnoxious in the leading role, not helped at all by the sub par supporting cast, which includes the much maligned James Corden who, yes, does prove to be a hindrance to proceedings.

I did like Pierce Brosnan though and he clearly knows he’s in a bad film and just doesn’t care. And Ben Bailey Smith as the town crier. The two stars are for them alone.

Eternals (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

This is surely a film that requires a full length review but honestly, I don’t actually think that I have too many thoughts and opinions about it and attempting to talk at length about it would be doing it a disservice.

But I will say that I liked it. It takes the ongoing story of the MCU in its new direction, always getting us to question just what will happen to these characters next, and to its credit, it is probably one of the better looking Marvel films of recent memory, the cinematography, effects and production design all looking gorgeous and grand. The story is a good and intriguing one, managing to remain interesting throughout its runtime, and the characters are good; I don’t think that they’re as colourful or as exciting as previous Marvel heroes and I don’t feel they were particularly developed ones but they were still a supportable bunch and Gemma Chan did well in the leading role.

But I didn’t much care for [REDACTED – SPOILER], who showed up during the post-credits sequence, and I really worry about his inclusion in future MCU films.

Vivo (2021)

★ ★ ★

It’s no secret that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a talented songwriter – his music for Moana, Hamilton and In The Heights all demonstrate his impressive skill – and with Vivo, he once again gives us a few good songs that prove to be the best part of this film, even though they don’t reach the heights of the aforementioned films. Vivo really does have up-tempo songs as well as some bright animation and a decent story about flavourful music, obscure animals, and Cuban culture but at the same time, it’s not a film that will linger long in the memory, although the song about “marching to the beat of your own drum” will most likely be stuck in your head after viewing. But the jury is out over whether that’s a good thing or not.

Boss Level (2021)

★ ★ ★

Another day, another film with a Groundhog Day scenario to join the likes of Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day, Arq, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things and Palm Springs but is this one any good? Well yeah, it’s alright. Worth a watch.

I would’ve preferred it if the film was about a videogame, one where the main protagonist is perhaps the final “big bad” who decides to rebel and stop getting defeated all the time, but as it is, it’s an entertaining and humorous film about an ex-soldier who has to continually dodge a group of psychopathic assassins and to get to the bottom of a universe shattering plot. It lags towards the end and I’m not sure that I liked how the story progressed but the film does have a sense of humour and Frank Grillo is great.

The Simpsons in Plusaversary (2021)

The third Simpsons short film that Disney Plus has given us this year and it’s the worst one yet. But what’s it about? Well, Disney Plus is celebrating its two year anniversary (me, I mark “Disney Day” in March – on the anniversary of its UK release date) and so Homer attends an event at Moe’s Tavern, in which a whole bunch of Disney characters are also attending, and Lisa sings a song about how great Disney Plus is. Long story short: isn’t Disney Plus great?

Plusaversary is a soulless and totally joke-free affair that only exists for one purpose: to advertise Disney Plus and to go on and on about how great it is (which doesn’t make much sense because, as viewers of this film will already be subscribed, there’s no need to advertise) and the animation is unappealing and there’s no humour to be found at all. Oh Simpsons, what happened to you?

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

★ ★ ★

Following on from the classic original (I watched it again the other night and it still rocks), the so-so sequel, and the bad 2016 reboot, here we are now with yet another reboot/sequel but how does it stack up against the others? Well, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is better than Ghostbusters II and Paul Feig’s 2016 version and the film itself is entertaining and visually interesting, though it also has some big flaws.

On the positive side, the look of the film is worth the price of admission as all the special effects and ghostbusting action are all pleasing and sleek and this film is clearly the best looking and most technically proficient one so far; they’ve really brought the classic story into the 21st century and the film should be applauded for that. Elsewhere, the story is decent and there are several good performances from the likes of Sexiest Man Alive Paul Rudd and Mckenna Grace, who is here given the rare opportunity to play an original character – not yet another young version of the leading protagonist!

But while Afterlife has enough entertainment value, it is also a flawed film because it is unoriginal, sluggish, and overly sentimental. The film is determined to include a great many callbacks and references to the original film but as noble an intention as that is, it soon becomes clear that the film is too reliant on these references, eventually making sure to include a reference every five minutes or so, and furthermore, the film ends up totally recycling the plot from the first film – villains included – and eventually, the viewer is able to ascertain exactly what will happen next because it all plays out just as it did in ’84. The film had an opportunity to bring us a fresh and original plot to complement the modern filmmaking technology on display but unfortunately, it is too reliant on references and callbacks that it ultimately forgets to do its own thing, instead giving us exactly what came before, which is a real shame.

The film is also sluggishly paced, not being infused with quite enough “zip” or genuine thrills, and the film is also hindered by its sentimental sequences which, though touching and honourable, are laid on too thick and which slow the film down too much and encourage eye rolling from the audience. I sure found it a bit too much.

Spencer (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

Before going in to Spencer, I was of course aware of the high praise that had already been directed towards it, with special kudos going to leading actress Kristen Stewart and with much talk of an Academy Award nomination inevitably coming her way, and having now seen it, I will admit that it is indeed an impressive film (I liked it more than Jackie, at least – a film that others loved but it’s one that I honestly found quite boring), though it’s still not without it’s problems.

Regarding the positives, I can clearly see that Spencer is a “handsome” film in that it’s visually and aesthetically pleasing. In particular, the cinematography is lovely as it makes great use of the locations (often making those palace interiors seem so foreboding and lonely as the rooms all seem to loom over our main character) and the colour scheme is appealing and additionally, the production design is impressive and the music is excellent, often using chaotic jazz to signify Diana’s deteriorating mental state. Jonny Greenwood really can do no wrong.

Looking at the performances, the film benefits from several fine supporting turns from actors like Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins and, perhaps most of all, Sean Harris, who plays the down-to-earth and supportive head chef, and when it comes to the woman of the hour, Kristen Stewart really does put in a transformative performance as Diana, visibly showing frustration at all the ridiculous customs and traditions, fright and unease when her world seems to be falling apart, and confidence and love in those rare moments when she spends time with her kids or with her friend Maggie. Her performance is perhaps a little too dramatic and exaggerated but still, it’s a commanding performance nonetheless, particularly when she almost goes “full Joker” at the end!

The film has a good story, one that wisely avoids being a straight up and obvious biopic and instead looks at three specific days in her life, but I’m not sure how I felt about so much of it focusing on her deteriorating mental state. The film mostly presents Diana as a constantly exposed nerve and an undeniably damaged individual, never able to walk into a room or eat a meal without breaking down and looking jittery, and all of this is perhaps laid on a bit too thick – I would’ve preferred it if Diana was given the opportunity to display a little more strength, backbone and perhaps even a bit more rebelliousness in the face of all the absurd traditions and snooty royals.

Far From the Tree (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

The short film that plays directly before Encanto, Far From the Tree is a really charming little animation about a young raccoon who is eager to step out from the shadows and to experience the wide world, but who is also forced to stay out of sight by her harsh and overly protective parent, later on finding herself as a parent. It’s a film that boasts some absolutely lovely (hand drawn?) animation and it tells an effective story about how harsh treatment and overprotectiveness can negatively influence our children, saying that there’s a better way: that we should communicate more and work together in order to overcome the dangers of life.

It is indeed a brief film but, full disclosure, (WHISPERS) I liked it more than Encanto.

Encanto (2021)

★ ★ ★

Disney’s 60th animated feature takes place in a most rose-tinted Columbia and tells of the bright and loving young Mirabelle (voiced by the wonderful Stephanie Beatriz) who is the “ungifted” one in a family of, what are essentially, superheroes who have all kinds of special powers and who all live in a Beauty and the Beast inspired house but when all the magic starts fading, Mirabelle takes it upon herself to save both the magic and her family.

The animation in Encanto is, of course, very accomplished and the film is indeed very bright and colourful with spotless effects and in addition, the music is good, the cast is strong, and the story is decent. But, while watching, I felt that there was something very “off” about this film and I think I can explain why: I found it difficult to connect with many of the characters (with the exception of Mirabelle, Uncle Bruno, and the young kid who can talk to animals) and I found Mirabelle’s family to be too mean spirited, self absorbed and unreasonable; it was frankly awful to watch them ignore and look down on Mirabelle, all the time being constantly in love with their own abilities and always trying to prevent her from taking part in the family celebrations. Granted, all of this provided some obstacles for our lead protagonist to overcome but the family’s pigheadedness was just too much to bear and they kept me from getting emotionally involved in the film. I unfortunately also found Mirabelle, pure hearted though she was, to be an honestly so-so protagonist.

King Richard (2021)

★ ★ ★ ★

Not being a huge fan of tennis and not knowing an awful lot about Venus and Serena Williams and their dad, this film was a bit of a punt for me but despite not initially considering myself to be within the film’s target audience, I was ultimately very impressed with King Richard; I feel as though I learned quite a bit about the early lives of the famous Williams sisters and it was quite something to see what kind of man their father was: a man of principle who made sure that education was prioritised and that the girls showed good sportsmanship and humility, surely a strong role model in this regard, but also a man who was very often stubborn, unreasonable and self-promoting, holding the girls back somewhat by keeping them out of matches until they were ready. But although Richard is essentially the main focus of this film, the filmmakers also make sure to include an equally strong maternal figure in the Williams sisters’ mother; usually in a film like this, there would be a basic “wife role” – a “woman behind the man” who gets a few scenes in which to shine but who ends up being superfluous to the story – but the Williams matriarch plays an important part as she goes toe-to-toe with the staunch Richard a lot of the time and teaches Serena how to improve her game.

I was fully engaged for the vast majority of the film, my interest only beginning to lag towards the very end, and it would seem that the film has a strong script that educates its audience about the sisters’ rise to fame and which also gets emotional and thought provoking much of the time. Will Smith plays the title character excellently and in supporting roles, young actresses Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are very impressive as Venus and Serena, Aunjanue Ellis is formidable as Brandi Williams, and Jon Bernthal is refreshingly charismatic and brings a lot of energy to his role of tennis coach Rick Macci.

And here’s my ranking of all 13:

  1. King Richard
  2. Eternals
  3. Spencer
  4. Last Night in Soho
  5. Far From the Tree
  6. Ghostbusters: Afterlife
  7. Encanto
  8. The Harder They Fall
  9. Boss Level
  10. Army of Thieves
  11. Vivo
  12. Cinderella
  13. The Simpsons in Plusaversary

2021 Television

This is the part of the post where I do my mini reviews of the series that I watched this month but frankly, I can’t summon up the energy to talk about them this time. I will say that I finally caught up with the latest series of Inside No. 9 (thought it was another good series although I don’t love it as many do and thought that the comedic fourth wall breaking in the first episode was annoying), the third series of What We Do in the Shadows (another strong series of the comedic show – absolutely no complaints at all), and the latest Sex Education, which continues to impress and delight with its strong writing and colourful characters.

The Best of the Rest

Full disclosure: I didn’t watch a lot of films this month but still, here were two of my favourite non-2021 releases.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

A very popular horror remake that I hadn’t seen before, Zack Snyder’s film is an entertaining blast with a winning sense of humour, great action, and a satisfying soundtrack.

The Rock (1996)

Much like Con Air and Face/Off, this was another of those seminal nineties action blockbusters starring Nicolas Cage that I took a long time to finally watch, the three films recently being made available to view on Disney Plus, and this really was a good one: an entertaining popcorn flick with fun performances from Cage and Sean Connery.

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