December midpoint movie roundup

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Well yes, I know this is a week late but I’ve been busy doing the ‘retrospective’ posts for this year, but better late than never eh? As is perhaps usual there are some minor spoilers below, but I’ll try and avoid any biggies.

Wolfwalkers (2020) is a beautiful looking animated film on AppleTV+ and feels like a cross between Disney’s Brave, the scary anime Attack on Titan and a werewolf movie if it was for kids. It tells the story of a young apprentice hunter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and her father, expert hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), who live in a fortified town in Ireland. Bill has been contracted to hunt down and kill the last wolf pack in the forests around the town. Robyn discovers that there is more to the wolves than first meets the eye and befriends a free-spirited Irish girl Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who is a member of an indigenous tribe living in the depths of the forest.

While the story is fairly formulaic the animation is a joy to watch – almost every scene could be a brilliant piece of static art and since I am big fan of both symmetrical and naturalistic design I was happily spellbound. The voice acting is excellent from a cast mostly unknown to me, and I will be keeping an eye out for other, similar-looking animations, from producer Tomm Moore –  Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells.

Ava (2020) recently landed on Netflix and stars Jessica Chastain, most recently seen by me in It: Chapter Two, as a disillusioned and disenfranchised female assassin. This is kind of turning into a film genre in its own right there’s so many of these films around at the moment e.g. Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow to name a couple. Ava is not quite as good as either of those two films but certainly better than The Courier.

John Malkovich and Colin Farrell are both pretty good as members of the black ops organisation Ava works for. One wants to protect Ava from being scrubbed off their books, the other wants to get rid of her. The film has a good mixture of dialogue and action, and while some of the action is a little comic book at times (Farrell’s character in particular takes some hits that would leave you dead on the floor) it had a kind of Bourne Identity vibe to it – which is a good measure of quality.

Apocalypse Now: Final Cut (2019) is as the title would imply Francis Ford Coppola’s final attempt at a definitive version of his classic journey into the heart of darkness during the Vietnam war. This version has a shorter run time than the previously supposedly definitive Redux version, which I actually prefer, but is still longer than the original 1979 theatrical version. The French plantation scene is still in there in a tighter form as too is a tighter version of the Playboy bunnies scene. The biggest difference I could see off the top of my head is to the ending where in this final cut Colonel Kurtz’s base is not bombed.

Final Cut is visually stunning in 4K, with only a few scenes really showing no benefit from restoration, and the film sounds really great if you have a Dolby Atmos amp. You can appreciate the tightness of the film which was left sprawling in the Redux, however there still seem to be some odd choices – for example Willard’s prank of stealing of Kilgore’s surfboard totally goes against the stoical character’s nature. Perhaps it’s time for Coppola to release all the footage into the public domain and let fans like me cut together our own versions? Otherwise I doubt we’re ever going to be happy.

Mary Queen of Scots (2018) stars a perfectly cast Saoirse Ronan in the title role (check out some old portraits and you’ll see what I mean) and an almost unrecognisable Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I. Robbie is not only physically very different from usual (e.g. Birds of Prey) but her performance is remarkably good. Perhaps I have previously not seen her true acting ability because the likes of the aforementioned comic book film don’t give her the platform and so this historical role was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Saoirse Ronan for once actually seemed to be the weaker actor of the two, but perhaps that because of the roles they were playing rather than talent.

The film itself is an emotionally-charged retelling of the historical story of Mary Stuart’s return to Scotland and unsuccessful claim to the English throne. I feel there may be some 2020’s revisionism going on in the amount of ethnic minorities in the film and the Catholic queen’s attitude toward homosexuality, but all in all the attention to detail, especially in the costumes, was really good. Oftentimes the film felt like a stage play – perhaps due to director Josie Rourke’s thespian background – but it certainly benefited from some very good performances from both lead actors but also supporting cast members such as Guy Pearce and David Tennant. It also felt like it ran out of time – Mary’s time in hiding in England and the subsequent arrest for treason were not really covered and before you know it her head is on the chopping block. Come on, that’s not really a spoiler if you know your Sixteenth-century history!

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) tells the story of Clara, a young girl transported like Alice in Wonderland into a Narnia-ish fantasy world populated by bizarre characters. Loosely based on the ballet originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov scored by Tchaikovsky, it is a visually stunning tour de force of computer generated special effects and costumery. It’s ostensibly a kids film but there is something for the dads in the form of Keira Knightley making the most of her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is also the only Christmas film I’ll be watching this year unless I decide to watch Die Hard again. As you might gather, I’m not a huge fan of this kind of saccharine stuff, but this was actually okay.

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018) is a comedy horror based in a British boarding school. The pupils are attacked by creatures from beneath the earth let loose because of fracking. It’s directed by Crispian Mills who is better known to me as the lead singer of the band Kula Shaker, and he does an okay job.

Margot Robbie has a bit part on the end of some video calls as the estranged girlfriend of one of the teachers played by Simon Pegg, and his comedy buddy Nick Frost also makes an appearance toward the end of the film. David Tennant’s Staged pal Michael Sheen plays the headmaster and so it’s not without it’s established comedy actors. The weakness is perhaps in the main characters i.e. the school pupils, who leave a little to be desired.

Man of Tai Chi (2013) is a little-known martial arts film directed by and starring a beardless Keanu Reeves looking more like a bad Neo than Jon Wick. I bought the Blu-ray of this for Siggy as a stocking-filler perhaps last Christmas and we hadn’t seen it until now after I spotted it while I was arranged Christmas cards on our shelving. Produced I think mainly for a Chinese audience with the hope of some success in America, this film follows a tried and tested plot of a gifted young Tai Chi student (Tiger Hu Chen) making money from illegal fights while discovering the true value of his learnings. Reeves is in full wooden mode for this, but his delivery of lines suits the role of bad guy.

Hu Chen’s skills are undeniable and the wire-work is kept to a minimum. I was hoping The Raid‘s Iko Uwais was going to have more of a role in the film, but he’s only in for what feels like about five minutes. I think the most interesting thing in the film is the presentation of Tai Chi as a fighting style and this is on show quite clearly in the first few fight sequences. What’s disappointing later on is that the style is replaced by a style all of Hu Chen’s design which looks more like an adaptation Kung Fu.

1984 (1984) is the film adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian future novel and is as grim as the source material. 1984 is one of my favourite books and I’ve seen this film before on TV. It was going cheap in HD on Amazon, so I thought it time I added it to me digital collection and watch it again. John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton are great as the clandestine lovers, Winston and Julia, trying to be together under the nose of Big Brother and his spies, and Richard Burton is surprisingly good as the authoritarian figure who entraps them.

For a 2020s viewer I think the most notable thing here is not Hamilton’s bush – come on guys grow up! – but Winston’s work revising the news to suit the government’s current agenda – helping to change facts and erase people from history. I’m sure Orwell back in 1948 was using the Soviet regime or Nazi Germany as a basis for his projections, but these days it seems like this kind of behaviour could equally apply to any regime be it communist or democratic. Access to reliable information is a fundamental human right which could be being violated on a daily basis IRL never mind in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Who really knows?

Image by PixxlTeufel from Pixabay

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