PREVIEW: January 2019

2018 is already coming to an end…WHAT THE HECK!?! It does not feel that long since it started (yes, I say that every year, but that does not make it any less true). Anyway, I have done a fair number of reviews this year and have loved every minute of blogging here. Long may it continue! My goal with the blog for 2019 is to continue reviewing films (primarily new releases), but to also get a bit more in the way of television, literature and video game reviews done than I managed in 2018.

To start it all off, I have a number of new releases that I plan to see in January, the majority of which have already been released in the USA. The later arrivals of the majority of films to our shores is one of my longest standing pet peeves with living in the UK, although it is by no means my most significant one. Anyway, the new releases that I have lined up to see include The FavouriteWelcome to MarwenThe UpsideBeautiful Boy, Mary, Queen of ScotsGlassColetteStan & OllieThe Front Runner and Vice. I will endeavour to get reviews for all of these up.

I am sure that many of you are wondering when I will post a Top 10 Films of 2018 list, which would be understandable. Well, here is the thing, I have a lot of oddities, one of which being that if I make a Top 10 of the year list then the films on it must all be films that premiered that year. As most of the major Awards’ contenders do not get UK cinema releases until January-March 2019, at the end of March I will list my Top 10 of 2018, as by that point I will (hopefully) have been able to see all of the major Awards contenders. Unlike UK newspapers and magazines, there will not be a list until then as films like The Shape of Water are officially 2017 films, therefore I could only include them in a Top 10 of 2017 list as opposed to Top 10 of 2018.

In the meantime, I wish you all a Happy New Year. Thank you, as always, for reading the content of my blog, and for the month and year ahead I, as ever, wish you Happy Reading!

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FILM: Bumblebee (2018, Travis Knight)

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Science-fiction film Bumblebee is a spin-off/prequel to Transformers and the sixth film in the live-action franchise. It is 1987, and as the Autobots prepare to evacuate Cybertron, they are ambushed by Decepticons, and Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) is sent into a crash landing on an Earth military base. He escapes and disguises himself as a Volkswagen Beetle, before coming into the possession of teenager Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld). After she discovers what he really is, the two begin to bond, but matters are further complicated as Bumblebee is being hunted by both Decepticons and Sector 7, the latter operation being led by Agent Burns (John Cena).

PROS

  • After five films by Michael Bay, the direction of Travis Knight is a breath of fresh air, as he is a director who gets what the franchise should be (clearly from watching all things 1980s). He ultimately pays tribute to the fact that it is a franchise that works best as something fun and somewhat cheesy from the 1980s (a.k.a. the golden era of science-fiction), but also that it is a franchise that should be family friendly. There are no shots that objectify women, no parents talking about masturbation or accidentally getting stoned and no racist stereotypes.
  • The screenplay by Christina Hodson is also refreshing, not just for the aforementioned lack of Bayisms (it is not a real word, but I am making it one), but because it fleshes out and develops the main human characters well and focuses on the relationship between human and robot, with less in the way of robot fights. Oh, and not to mention some nice 1980s’ pop culture references.
  • Hailee Steinfeld gives a solid leading turn, realising Charlie’s emotional complexity very well and conveys a great chemistry with Bumblebee, showing that as an actress she can interact very well with something CGI, which many actors struggle to do. She is backed by a solid supporting cast, the memorable turns coming from Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, Pamela Adlon and Jason Drucker.
  • Excellent visual effects create the robots, their transformations and their battles, and are done to a far less heavy-handed extent than anything from Michael Bay’s films.

CONS

  • There are some not so positive messages to convey in a family film, as Bumblebee helps Charlie get revenge on her bullies and they also break the law together without any real consequence. I get that those moments were done for comedic effect more that anything, but that does not change the fact that it is a bad message to send out to younger (and more easily influenced) audience members.
  • The film’s primary weakness is in the scenes focused on Sector 7, which are highly predictable and are carried by quite flat/underwhelming gags and generally clunky dialogue.
  • Some quite one-sided supporting characters, some of whom could have been more memorable had the film just been five minutes longer.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: Holmes & Watson (2018, Etan Cohen)

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Comedy Holmes & Watson is distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing. A murder happens at Buckingham Palace, and now Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) have four days to catch the killer, or Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) will be killed.

CONS

  • Director/screenwriter Etan Cohen has done an appalling job here with his worst screenplay to date. None of the verbal gags are funny and the physical (primarily slapstick) gags are nothing short of appallingly done. He relies far too much on slapstick and innuendos, and even resorts to a running vomit gag, although that is nowhere near as bad as the fact that he uses the film as a platform to make dreary, half-hearted insults towards Donald Trump. His direction is incredibly ham-fisted, rather childish and, frankly, the 90 minutes running time felt like triple that. If you want an indication of how bad it was, within 15 minutes people were walking out of my screening. I stuck it out though, because I will not review a film unless I have watched it in its entirety.
  • Holmes and Watson are two awfully created characters here and nothing less than a massive insult to the iconic creations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Bumbling, somewhat misogynistic, uncouth idiots, the former having no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, the latter blindly hero-worshipping the former and having no regard for boundaries and little for dignity.
  • A unanimously appalling cast. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly give two very childish performances that are incredibly irritating to have to endure, and (along with Rob Brydon) cannot do a good English accent to save their lives. Appalling support is provided by Kelly Macdonald, Rebecca Hall, Lauren Lapkus and Steve Coogan (among others), while Pam Ferris and Ralph Fiennes give what can be best known as “pay cheque performances” – which means that you can tell in their performance that they are simply going ahead with it for the sake of the pay cheque at the end.
  • Very sloppy cinematography and editing make the poorly choreographed action and slapstick sequences even more of a drag to have to endure, while the accompanying musical score is no better (not least due to the fact that more modern rock music comes into the equation at various points).
  • Following some enormous historical inaccuracies (including RMS Titanic sailing and sinking 30 years before it launch), the film ends with a rather blatant set-up for a sequel, and one can only hope that it is a big enough box office flop that the studio decide not to make a sequel.

PROS

  • I mean, there have been less accurate designs for Victorian period clothing in cinema than these, even though the ones here are a little too colourful.

VERDICT: 1/10

FILM: Peter Rabbit (2018, Will Gluck)

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Adapted (loosely) from Beatrix Potter’s beloved childrens’ tales, Peter Rabbit comes to us from Sony Pictures Animation (despite being mostly live-action). Peter Rabbit (James Corden) and his family share a close relationship with artist Bea (Rose Byrne). However, she starts to develop an attraction to her new neighbour Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), who does not like the Rabbits, so Peter and his friends and family decide to get rid of him.

CONS

  • Director Will Gluck (along with co-screenwriter Rob Lieber) does a very heavy-handed and quite ham-fisted job of bringing Beatrix Potter’s beloved tales to the big screen, their primary focus being on frankly atrocious slapstick (much of which relies on dreadful running gags) and therefore ignoring the need for character development and adventure. The final product is a dreary headache for adults to watch and something that insults the intelligence of children.
  • A fundamental issue is that there is no character to obviously want to come out on top. Peter is a highly obnoxious, quite selfish character who is willing to cause Thomas a potentially fatal allergic reaction (I mean, what kind of example is that to set for kids?). Meanwhile, Thomas is self-centred and arrogant, thinking that he is superior to country folk as he has previously had a successful career in London.
  • The voice acting is not good. James Corden is highly irritating as Peter, there is nothing really of merit from Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Debicki’s voice roles Cottontail, Flopsy and Mopsy, and the singing voices for the Singing Sparrows just simply are not good. The live-action acting is just as bad, with Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne giving irritating, overly sappy turns and lacking in chemistry.
  • The CGI creation of the various animals is not memorable. Although there is a reasonable amount of texture to their fur, their expressiveness and movements are not that well done, reflecting the fact that these days a $50 million budget really is not that much for a blockbuster such as this.

PROS

  • A combined total of about five minutes use hand-drawn animation, and these moments are beautifully crafted and perfectly recreate the illustrations from the original stories.

VERDICT: 1/10

FILM: Mary Poppins Returns (2018, Rob Marshall)

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Musical-fantasy Mary Poppins Returns is the sequel to Disney’s 1964 classic. It is 1935 and London has been hugely impacted by the Great Depression (or “Great Slump”). Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is now a widower who desperately needs to raise the money to save his family home from repossession. After 25 years, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to the Banks’ house to look after Michael’s children John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Along with lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) they go on all sorts of fantastical adventures, while also looking for a way to help their father raise the money.

PROS

  • A wonderful sense of fantasy and a very exciting sense of adventure makes this a very engaging film that shows good imagination from screenwriter David Magee, who manages to sneak in some lovely references to the original.
  • Emily Blunt is the perfect casting choice for the quintessentially English Nanny and has great chemistry with the charming Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as the three natural talents that are the child actors. The supporting cast are a memorable bunch, particularly David Warner as Admiral Boom and Julie Walters as Ellen.
  • A visually stunning and colourful film, which blends CGI and practical effects very well, while the animated sequence in the Royal Doulton bowl is spectacularly designed and the five live-action cast members in it interact perfectly with the animated world.
  • The songs may not be quite as memorable or catchy as many of those from the original, but they are musical sequences are terrifically well choreographed and have real energy, making them very fun viewing.

CONS

  • The subplot of a budding romance between Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) and Jack feels somewhat shoehorned in and does not meet the potential that it has; while the film wraps-up a bit too quickly and conveniently (even if doing so did give us a lovely cameo from Dick Van Dyke).
  • The narrative is at times a little predictable as it follows a similar formula to the original, but with less in the way of substantial character development than the original.

VERDICT: 8/10

FILM: Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)

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Science-fiction/horror Annihilation was distributed by Paramount in North America and by Netflix internationally. A year after going missing and being presumed dead, Special Forces soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns from a secret government mission with no real memory. His wife Lena (Natalie Portman), a scientist, gets involved with the government operation that he had been part of that is investigating the mysterious “Shimmer”. Lena joins a team in entering it and finds a mysterious quarantined zone of mutating landscapes and transforming creatures.

PROS

  • Director/writer Alex Garland has crafted both a very interesting and clever slow-burn science-fiction as well as a tense piece of horror, which surpasses the quality of his directorial debut Ex Machina. The sense of mystery that he creates with “The Shimmer” and his clever use of themes such as grief, depression and the man’s ability to be self-destructive reflects both his imagination and his skill as a screenwriter, while the clarity of his vision comes through in his meticulous direction.
  • Natalie Portman gives an outstanding leading performance, rich in nuance and emotional maturity. She is ably supported by an excellent supporting cast, with memorable turns coming from Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny.
  • Very well realised characters, whose personalities the cast convey clearly and whose chemistry and relationships are very well realised. They all come with their own arcs, and for some there is a degree of ambiguity, as Alex Garland shows his respect for his audience by trusting them to put the pieces together themselves and come to the conclusion.
  • A visually stunning film, the special effects are rich in colour and detail, while the designs of the creatures inside “The Shimmer” have intriguing designs and are given great texture. The sense of horror and mystery is well exacerbated by the excellent use of shadows and night-time shooting by cinematographer Rob Hardy, as well as the vivid use of make-up and fake blood.

CONS

  • The fact that the narrative is told in flashback is detrimental to the overall tension of the film as we are aware of at least some characters who survive, while the ending does not have quite the degree of mystery that it could have done.

VERDICT: 9/10

FILM: The Little Mermaid (2018, Blake Harris)

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Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s classic, this version of The Little Mermaid is a Netflix original. Reporter Cam Harrison (William Moseley) and his niece Elle (Loreto Peralta) go to Mississippi for his work. There they go to a circus and meet a real mermaid named Elizabeth (Poppy Drayton). However, the circus master Locke (Armando Gutierrez) is an evil wizard who has enslaved her and holds her soul hostage. Can Cam and Elle save her?

CONS

  • With regards to the screenplay, it is bad enough that this is a charmless and completely flat re-imagining of such an iconic story that would entice neither child nor adult due to its poor tone and lack of wonder and romance for the majority of the running time. However, the poorly realised and developed characters add insult to injury, but nothing is as appalling as the stereotypes of African-Americans that one may find in a film in the 1930s…WHO DECIDED THAT THAT WAS ACCEPTABLE?
  • The constraints of the $5 million budget are very visible in the appalling quality CGI, the flimsy sets, shoddy quality props and costumes, and the lack of detail in the make-up.
  • A unanimously appalling cast, fulled to bursting with wooden performances as even these professional actors cannot fake passion for this awful film, though nothing is quite as bad to sit through as the non-existent chemistry between William Moseley and Poppy Drayton.

PROS

  • The opening illustrations that give us Elizabeth’s backstory are to a good enough standard that they could easily be in a children’s book, which is the point after all.

VERDICT: 1/10