Film Roundup from March 2020

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Here’s my rundown of most of the films I saw in March and please be aware that this post does include some minor spoilers along the way.

Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest (2019) is directed by long-time collaborator Anton Corbijn (who can forget the painfully grainy arty-farty videos he did for the singles from their classic album Violator?). The movie is a mixture of interview footage from a group of fans from around the world invited to a concert in Berlin and bits from that concert (and as these things are done I think some footage from the previous night). As such is feels very much like a sequel to the band’s road trip stroke concert movie 101.

The difference this time I think is that the fans they have chosen are far more likeable with some interesting stories and of course the band, (most of) those fans and we at home are far older than the days of “guns and fucking posers“.

Dave Gahan gives a camp gibbon-like performance as he delivers the lyrics of fan favourites and newer tracks off the last album Spirit such as ‘Where’s the Revolution’. Martin Gore seems to take as much of a back seat as Andrew Fletcher who melts into the background among the two new touring band members. The songs are rearranged in delightfully new ways and the addition of a live drummer adds another dimension to songs desperate to rock but often grounded in Eighties new romanticism.

Knives Out (2019) is a film by writer/director Rian Johnson – you know, the guy who ‘broke’ Star Wars before J. J. Abrams’ feeble attempt at putting it back together again. I bought the film on Amazon, because I am a big fan of Rian Johnson’s films (The Last Jedi included).

The ensemble cast is impressive and so too are all the performances. As a modern ode to the whodunnit stories of Agatha Christie the film works very well. However, for me it was lacking that one final shock twist. It’s a solid piece of entertainment but part of me regrets not just renting it, as unlike Brick, Looper, and the aforementioned Star Wars film, it has very little repeat playability.

Wild (2014) was a random selection from Film4’s late night film slot starring Reese Witherspoon as a woman hiking a 1,100 America trail. The story co-written by Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed is based on her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed is not a particularly likeable character as it happens, but Hornby has done well to push a lot of the particularly dubious parts of Strayed’s back-story deep into the timeline of the film – by which time Witherspoon has won us over with her great portrayal of a woman searching for some kind of inner peace and as the Americans put it ‘closure’ on some of her mistakes.

It’s a somewhat of a cliche to say that the real star of the show is the Pacific Crest Trail. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) provides what amounts to a stunning advert for the American landscape and range of climates that can be found along the 1,100 miles Strayed walked.

Despite Amazon’s recent batch of COVID-19 induced ‘Home Premieres’, Netflix has been far more interesting to me recently than Amazon or Film4 as a source for movie magic, and five of the films I saw in March were on there. These were as follows:

Horse Girl (2020) looks to all intents and purposes like a fairly typical angsty / quirky independent American dark comedy starring GLOW‘s Alison Brie. However, it’s more of a drama about mental health than anything. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film but don’t expect many laughs. Brie’s loner character Sarah has a loose grasp on reality and mixes it up with her dreams – a problem exasperated by her sleep-walking.

Her tendency to obsess about a supernatural crime TV show and alien conspiracy theories builds and builds until her life spirals out of control. It seems to be a fairly well-observed portrayal of what can happen if these kind of issue aren’t spotted and dealt with sooner by trained professionals with prescription pads. Brie, who co-wrote the film with director Jeff Baena (I Heart Huckabees), is excellent in this and it’s well worth a look.

Night is Short, Walk on Girl (2017) is another film well worth a watch, although a completely different kettle of fish. It’s a Japanese anime based on book about Otome a girl with a taste for booze and partying. She meets a strange bunch of people as she walks from bar, to restaurant, to book fair, to open air theatre and strange places between. In some ways it is a love story between Otome and her stalker Senpai who has been trying to get closer to her by accidentally-on-purpose repeatedly running into her.

There’s a couple of interesting sub-plots among the weird characters and some genuinely laugh out loud funny moments. Unlike the next film…

The Hustle (2019) is a fairly unremarkable comedy about a couple of competing confidence tricksters – low class Penny played by typecast Rebel Wilson (and she’ll sue you if you don’t believe it) and Josephine played by Anne Hathaway. Unfortunately Hathaway doesn’t really play her character as the straight ‘man’ to Wilson’s buffoonery and as a result it just comes across as two actors trying to compete for laughs.

There’s a vague attempt at some kind of social commentary about body shaming and the masses against the classes, but it’s lost among the rather stupid story and a plot full of inconsistencies. I guess what I’m saying is don’t waste your time and watch Sausage Party instead.

Dolemite Is My Name (2019) is in some ways similar to The Disaster Artist in the way that a lot of the film is dedicated to a low budget film production by an ambitious individual in the form of Rudy (Eddie Murphy) and is based on a true story.

Rudy has tried his hand at all sorts of things including singing and stand-up comedy. It’s only when he creates the larger than life character of Dolemite, based on the rap-like stories of the homeless, that he sees his life transformed. He releases a number of comedy albums and then embarks on making his first feature film.

The production is plagued by problems but Rudy and his friends overcome them in the end. Snoop Dog, Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Wesley Snipes stand out in the cast along with a great performance by Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Empire). However, for me Eddie Murphy is on another level, reminding me what a great comedy actor he is.

Shaft (2019) sees Samuel L. Jackson reprise his titular role from the 2000 movie of the same name. He is joined (late in the third act) by original Shaft actor Richard Roundtree (who laughably played his uncle in the 2000 film) as his father and Jesse T Usher (The Boys) as his son.

The film certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously and you shouldn’t either. Taken for what it is – a silly comedy action film with lots of violence and swearing – it’s very enjoyable. There’s some good stunts and the soundtrack is great, and I certainly enjoyed it more than let’s say Fast & Furious 8.

Something I have been holding out for months, and which has helped cheer me up while we all endure the various social distancing or lock-down measures imposed on us due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is the new streaming service Disney Plus. I signed up early to get a discount in my eagerness to get legal access to the new Star Wars shows everyone else has been bleating on about and spoiling for months. I was disappointed to find Resistance to be completely absent and only a couple of episodes of The Mandalorian and The Clone Wars Final Season available to watch, but got over it quickly enough when I saw what else was available e.g. every episode of The Simpsons!

Among this treasure trove of feel-good movies and shows were a handful of films I’ve been genuinely eager to see. As it turns out, the animated sequels were somewhat disappointing, but the live action films were pretty good.

Christopher Robin (2018) is directed by German-born filmmaker Marc Forster who has ‘previous’ with this kind of tale from Finding Neverland. In the film Ewan McGregor plays the titular character who has grown up and become an office drone at a suitcase manufacturer in London. He has a wife and daughter who rarely see him because he spends so much time at work. Meanwhile Pooh Bear, Piglet, Tigger and the gang live forgotten in Five Acre Wood.

In a storyline which seemed reminiscent of the recent Paddington movies, Pooh enters the real world and is reunited with Robin. However, the child inside Robin takes most of the film to emerge while he helps his old friend to search for his friends. The film has a very melancholic feel to it early on and of course Eeyore is there to make sure your spirits stay low until the final fun third act where everything turns out okay.

The animated characters sometimes come across as rather creepy but are very much in keeping with both A. A. Milne’s books but also Disney’s series of animated films.

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) is a fun sequel to Wreck It Ralph with a good message but far too much product placement and blatant advertising for Disney. John C. Reilly reprises his role as the big man and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) is back too. Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) also voices driving gang leader Shank, but it’s not a particularly notable performance.

There’s not a lot else to say about it really. It’s a kid’s film basically telling kids that it’s okay to find your own way in life. Very familiar territory for any Disney fan I feel.

Incredibles 2 (2018) is a rather formulaic sequel that does benefit greatly from a brilliant voice performance by Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as entrepreneur Winston Deavor. It does very little to develop any of the characters beyond the first film but does have some fun observations about parenting along the way. Also the animated is top notch.

Aladdin (2019) is a very enjoyable live-action remake of the classic Disney animation which starred Robin Williams as the genie. Guy Ritchie, has come a very long way from Lock, Stock and two Smoking Barrels and Snatch and has good go at topping what many think is one of Disney’s best films. Casting Will Smith as the genie was certainly a wise choice and Smith is really very good in this especially when delivering updated or new songs – because don’t forget this is a musical. Unlike The Jungle Book remake there are a lot of songs and most are good, although listening to Naomi Scott sing was not really an experience I want to repeat any time soon.

Mena Massoud makes a good Aladdin with all the streetwise cockiness you’d expect from the character. Apart from her singing Naomi Scott is good as Jasmine, and Marwan Kenzari is an interesting choice as Jafar. The film is definitely one of the better ‘reimaginings’ Disney have been churning out of late with lots of eye-candy effects, some catchy tunes and a well-tried and tested story of family and friendship (which I think tend to be at the heart of all Disney’s films these days – animations, MCU and Star Wars cash-cows alike).

Image by yumiko124 from Pixabay

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