PREVIEW: April 2021

Well, another month has come and gone, and things are slowly but surely getting closer to a return to normality! I can only apologise for the lack of posts this past month on the blog – I had hoped to get more done, but it was a busier month than expected plus – if I am being wholly honest – the ongoing and extensive amounts of time in front of my laptop has made me less eager to blog than usual. I know myself well enough to know that this is a blip on the radar, and that I will be back to my usual frequent blogging self before I am that much older.

I will continue to blog (at the very least semi-)regularly during April, so do not worry, the lack of my usual uncontainable eagerness to do so will not result in me vanishing. I cannot hand-on-heart promise what the content will concern, but it shall arrive and I look forward to writing it.

Thank you as always for visiting this blog and, as always, I wish you Happy Reading for the month ahead, but most of all I hope that you stay healthy and safe!

FILM: Summerland (2020, Jessica Swale)

Romantic-drama film Summerland was distributed by Lionsgate. During World War II, reclusive writer Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) reluctantly takes in evacuee Frank (Lucas Bond). Although initially angry that guardianship of him has been sprung upon her, she and Frank begin to bond and she becomes attached to him. However, the real reason why Alice was given Frank to look after is of far greater significance than she could have imagined and is uniquely linked to a past heartbreak.

PROS

  • A generally charming film which depicts the impact which people can have upon each other’s lives, even without realising it, as the sweet Frank helps Alice let go of anger and bitterness, and we become invested in these characters as they not only develop, but are given backstories which add more nuance to them.
  • Two excellent leading turns from Gemma Arterton and Lucas Bond, the latter of whom is a natural talent, and the pair develop a charming and rather beautiful bond with each other over the course of the narrative.
  • A visually charming and authentic recreation of 1940s’ England, with excellent attention-to-detail in the costumes, props, use of vintage cars and steam engines, and excellent use of filming locations in rural Sussex and Kent.

CONS

  • The narrative is altogether rather saccharine, particularly the conclusion, and some of the more serious subject-matters of wartime Britain are not treated with the weight, gravitas or nuance which they should be.
  • The film could have benefitted from being a bit longer to flesh out the final events and give them a bit more emotional weight and a less abrupt ending. Equally a bit more length could have given more screentime to Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Penelope Wilton.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: Wonder Woman 1984 (2020, Patty Jenkins)

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Superhero film Wonder Woman 1984 is the sequel to Wonder Woman and ninth film in the DC Extended Universe. During the Cold War, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) reunites with her past love Steve Trevor (Gal Gadot) after she accidentally uses the Dreamstone to wish him back to life. Truly overjoyed to be together again, their reunion may end up being short-lived as they are forced to contend with Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) and Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), whose hunger and desperation for power as they wield the Dreamstone threaten the future of the entire world.

PROS

  • Some enjoyable moments of escapism, such as a prologue depicting Diana as a child and some aerial sequences, which boast excellent cinematography, editing and visual effects in a film which presents a quite eye-catching recreation of the 1980s.
  • Gal Gadot and Chris Pine reprise their roles well, playing their parts with enthusiasm and the pair once again have a good chemistry with each other.

CONS

  • Director Patty Jenkins simultaneously tries to make a superhero-action flick and an ’80s comedy, but never succeeds in finding a balance between the two.
  • The narrative is a total mess as it has enough ideas for at least two films and fails to balance them in any way, shape or form, and ultimately goes for action and humour over cohesive plot and characterisation, while the film’s moral is incredibly underwhelming.
  • Max Lord and Barbara Minerva are ultimately very underwhelming antagonists due to how cliché their goals are and how uninspired their descents into evil and madness are.
  • Very underwhelming action scenes which are quite slowly paced and lack intensity, feeling overly rehearsed and incredibly cheesy – nothing like those of the previous Wonder Woman film.
  • A very forgettable supporting cast, with a particularly disappointing and overly hammy turn from Kristen Wiig.

VERDICT: 3/10

TELEVISION: Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006)

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American sitcom series Malcolm in the Middle ran for 151 episodes on Fox. The titular Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) is a schoolboy with a genius level IQ. While a genius, he is socially-awkward and has a very dysfunctional home life. His eldest brother Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson) is at military school, his older brother Reese (Justin Berfield) is dimwitted and violent, his younger brother Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan) is picked upon, and the brothers frequently evoke the wrath of their mother Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), while their father Hal (Bryan Cranston) is more lenient but regularly causes havoc himself.

PROS

  • A brilliant premise for a sitcom, the series as a whole achieves an excellent balance between the home antics and the school antics, showing multiple facets of Malcolm’s life with just the right level of absurdity.
  • An excellent familial dynamic, which is made especially more interesting in Seasons 1-2 by the fact that Francis helps his younger brothers achieve chaos over the phone.
  • The characters develop well over the 6-year-run becoming far more nuanced and multi-layered with time, while the family dynamic develops nicely as the boys get older and Jamie (James and Lukas Rodriguez) is born in Season 4.
  • The series generally achieves a generally strong balance between clever verbal gags and highly energetic and often very clever slapstick humour, while Malcolm’s breaking of the fourth wall is very witty.
  • A unanimously strong central cast. While Bryan Cranston is a scene-stealing comedic actor, it is the youngsters who are most impressive, with Frankie Muniz, Justin Berfield and Erik Per Sullivan proving themselves to be natural talents from the very first episode.

CONS

  • A number of continuity errors over the years, but most prevalently in latter seasons regarding the characters’ ages, employment and the length of time that Hal and Lois have been married.
  • Francis’s demotion to a recurring character in Seasons 6-7 does change the series’ dynamic for the worse as there is more in the way of filler to make up for his lack of presence, which is missed in the central familial dynamic.
  • While Hal’s antics are often amusing, there are times when they are just a bit too mean-spirited to be amusing.

VERDICT: 8/10

THOUGHTS: Nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards

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On Monday, the nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards were announced, and like every year I have some thoughts after mulling them over. I have been dreading this year’s Academy Awards for a while now, not just because the pandemic made 2020 a very different and tricky year for film, but because the ceremony was postponed to April so that films released in early-2021 would be eligible to compete. That totally defeats the point in commemorating a year of cinema, especially as the Academy are now a lot more willing to consider films released on streaming services. I have said my piece on that, so I will not grumble about it in the points below. I am still yet to review several of the films nominated – it has been a busy few weeks, so I have just not got around to it, but it will happen. It is also worth mentioning that I have not seen a lot of the Best Picture nominees, but that is not my fault – The Father, Minari, Nomadland and Promising Young Woman are not yet available to stream in the UK, and I am waiting until HBO Max launches here in May to watch Judas and the Black Messiah – I am not paying £16 to rent it for the weekend, were it on Blu-ray then that would be a totally different matter. Anyway, here are a few thoughts…

  • I am delighted that two of the Best Director nominees are women – the first time there has ever been more than one woman competing. This is long, long overdue quite frankly, as the last few years have seen multiple outstanding films directed by women who did not even receive a nomination for their work.
  • I am also delighted that Chadwick Boseman got a well deserved posthumous Best Actor nomination for his outstanding performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Having already received a posthumous Golden Globe for the role, my money is on him to win.
  • Speaking of actors, although I am yet to see the film, I was surprised that the two top-billed actors for Judas and the Black Messiah both received Best Supporting Actor nods and neither of them got a Best Actor nod. Assuming that both Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield get a decent amount of screentime in that film, then it is almost a reverse of Anthony Hopkins and The Silence of the Lambs. Equally, I am gutted that Delroy Lindo did not get a much deserved nomination for his excellent performance in Da 5 Bloods.
  • It just feels weird to see the Sound Mixing and Sound Editing awards be merged into a single Best Sound award. They are ultimately different practices, hence most years at least two films gets nominated for one but not the other.

Okay, so those were a few thoughts. As you can see, this is another year where I am not wholly satisfied by the nominations – I cannot think of a single year where I was wholly satisfied though to be fair. Still, once it is done with then it is done with, and hopefully things will look better for awards ceremonies as a whole if not next year then in 2023.

LITERATURE: Later (Stephen King, 2021)

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American crime novel Later is published by Hard Case Crime. Since he was a little kid, teenager Jamie Conklin has been able to see and communicate with the spirits of the recently deceased, who are unable to lie if he asks them a question. Desperate to keep her job, his mother’s ex-partner Liz (a crooked NYPD Detective) exploits this gift in order to prevent an act of terror. However, her forcing Jamie to do this has life-changing consequences for both of them.

PROS

  • The prose is in first-person as Jamie reflects upon these events from his childhood as a man in his twenties, and in doing so we not only see the events as they unfold, but also come to understand how they both impacted his life in the long term and how his perspective on them has changed with age and life experience.
  • Stephen King takes a good amount of time to establish the main characters by depicting several years of their lives, so we come to understand their dynamic and its ebbs and flows, we see how Jamie’s understanding and use of his abilities change with age, and increasingly come to realise that Liz may pose a genuine threat to Jamie.
  • Stephen King pens the crime aspects of the novel with real grit and intensity, exploring the power-hunger and sadism of the criminals very well, and what motivates people (even those in law enforcement) to resort to it.
  • Stephen King also plays wonderfully to his true strengths as a horror writer, partly by gradually increasing the sense of threat and danger, but predominantly in his vivid descriptions of the horrifying fatal injuries of the dead people whom Jamie encounters and how they died.

CONS

  • Some of the most intense moments, including the climax, are quite rushed which (when coupled with a number of typos) makes it feel like Stephen King wrote this one in a hurry. In fairness to him, anyone can make typos, so the fact that so many made it to print reflects poorly on the editors and publishers.
  • An unnecessary epilogue which really just exists as page-filler as it ties up loose ends which did not even need to be tied up and opens up a whole new can of worms which no reader is going to be desperate to read.
  • Through the first-person prose, Stephen King is self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, but the humour often fails to land, plus he does this just a bit too often for a relatively short novel (around 250 pages).

VERDICT: 6/10

FILM: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

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Legal drama To Kill a Mockingbird is adapted from Harper Lee’s novel and distributed by Universal. Set during the 1930s, the lives of young “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham), her brother “Jem” (Phillip Alford) and their friend “Dill” (John Megna) change forever when Scout and Jem’s father – lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) – defends Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), an African-American man falsely accused of rape. This proves to be the defining event of Scout and Jem’s childhood growing up in Alabama, as they truly come to learn the truth about race relations and social class statuses in a segregated, Depression-era America.

PROS

  • The narrative is a thoroughly engaging and clever depiction of how a specific thing from one’s childhood can result in one’s loss of innocence and childish naivety as Scout gradually comes to realise how unjust and unfair the world is. We become invested due to the believability and the relatability of this as it is a realisation which we will all come to somehow.
  • A very timely film (the Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership was happening at this point) which shows to a shocking and uncomfortable level how ingrained racial prejudice is, how unjust and cruel it is, how it blinds people to doing what is right and fair, and the awful suffering which this causes for African-Americans.
  • The heart of the narrative is found in Atticus and Scout’s bond, as their love is so sincere and dynamic is unique. Atticus is the moral compass of the film and helps Scout to come to terms with how unjust the world is, how you cannot judge people based on rumours, and how it is better to do what is right than to go along with popular opinion/mob mentality.
  • A unanimously strong cast, but the standouts are Gregory Peck and Mary Badham. Peck gives a perfectly subdued and very nuanced performance as Atticus Finch; while Badham is very naturalistic as Scout, and realises her heart-breaking character arc magnificently. She also has a wonderfully engaging and heart-warming chemistry with Peck.
  • Cinematographer Russell Harlan captures the character-driven aspects of the narrative and the relationship at its heart through masterful use of mid-shots and close-ups. He also makes masterful use of shadows, dimly lit interiors and the darkness of night-time to further emphasise how genuinely dark and serious the subject matter is.

CONS

  • Several scenes in the episodic narrative are either a little faster than necessary or end quite abruptly, with these moments feeling more like watching a play than a film.
  • Some genuinely horrifying events in the final part of the narrative are not as gritty or intense as one would expect.

VERDICT: 9/10

TRIVIA: Gregory Peck and Mary Badham remained friends for the rest of Peck’s life, and always addressed each other as “Atticus” and “Scout”.

FILM: To Olivia (2021, John Hay)

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Biopic To Olivia is distributed by Sky Cinema. In 1962, 7-year-old Olivia Dahl (Darcey Ewart) dies from measles, leaving her parents – writer Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) and actress Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes) – utterly distraught. Roald struggles to deal with his grief and starts lashing out at his family as a result. This is enough to convince Patricia to accept a role in the upcoming Hollywood film Hud, and Roald has to learn to cope with his feelings if he wants to avoid losing his family for good.

PROS

  • Although it feels somewhat restrained by some biopic clichés and an effort to keep the film family-friendly, the narrative is a moving and suitably subdued and respectful depiction of the pain and turmoil which loss causes, the struggles people have in dealing with it and the devastating impact which that can have on a familial dynamic.
  • A solid cast led wonderfully by Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes, who give nuanced performances that are rich in emotional complexity, while Darcey Ewart and Isabella Jonsson give very naturalistic turns as the Dahl daughters.
  • The scenes set in Buckinghamshire have a charming, quaint quality due to the lovely use of the locations which the exterior scenes are filmed at, and the wonderful period production design which is used for the interiors of the Dahl house.

CONS

  • Director/co-writer John Hay dips his toe into the darker aspects of dealing with grief and lashing out at loved ones, but does not explore them with as much depth and focus as they merit, instead doing his utmost to keep the film very family-friendly.
  • The scenes set in Los Angeles – particularly the exterior ones – feel very artificial due to their overly bright and saturated visual quality and what is (presumably) poor quality CGI.

VERDICT: 6/10

FILM: The Witches (2020, Robert Zemeckis)

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Dark fantasy The Witches is adapted from Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same title and distributed internationally by Warner Bros. After an encounter with a witch (Josette Simon), an orphan (Jahzir Bruno) is taken to a luxury hotel by his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) for his safety. What they do not realise, however, is that the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) is holding a witches’ convention there, where she unveils her plan to turn all of the world’s children into rodents. She does this very thing to the boy and Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), so they join forces with fellow human-turned-mouse Daisy (Kristin Chenoweth) to sabotage the witches’ plans and defeat them once and for all.

PROS

  • A warm and engaging performance from Octavia Spencer, while Jahzir Bruno gives a decent performance, and Anne Hathaway relishes her scenes, which she steals with real energy.
  • Excellent production design and costume design recreates the late-1960s with real attention-to-detail and a charming visual quality.

CONS

  • Director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis goes far too much for camp charm and humour and completely fails to implement a more serious tone for the darker scenes, while also having a minimal focus on the darker moments.
  • Robert Zemeckis directs with far too much in the way of frenetic energy in multiple scenes which just makes them a bit too farcical and quite a mess, particularly given their inconsistency with the much more subdued scenes.
  • Outside of the aforementioned turns, the performances are pretty weak all-round, with too many people trying to do camp and creepy but making a total mess of it all, while Codie-Lei Eastick is quite wooden.
  • The production design may be good, but in too many scenes there is an abundance of CGI, and unfortunately it is of a poor quality, standing out like a sore thumb in multiple scenes.

VERDICT: 3/10

ALTERNATE ENDING: Suits (2011-2019)

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Two years ago, the final season of Suits began to air, and sadly many of us had become desperate for it to end. The real drama of the first five seasons had been wondering how long Mike Ross could avoid being caught out and imprisoned for practising law without a licence. Season 6 had a little drama as Harvey Specter, Jessica Pearson and Louis Litt tried to salvage the firm, while trying to find a legitimate way to get Mike an early release (which they managed). After that, the writers were desperate to keep the series going, and did so in a contrived manner by having Mike get accepted to the New York Bar… WHAT!?! It would have been one thing for Mike to get accepted to the Bar without a Law degree, but for him to be accepted when he has just served jailtime for practising law without a licence was absolutely ridiculous and wholly contrived.

Seasons 7-8 were just a series of increasingly irritating power struggles within the firm, the latter without Mike after he and Rachel Zane left the series, following Meghan Markle’s marriage to Prince Harry. Season 8 also saw a plethora of new characters to try and fill shoes which could not be filled, so when they announced that Season 9 would be the final one, I will be the first to admit that I was relieved. I loved the early seasons of Suits and was sorry to see it go downhill so I want to propose an alternate ending, which is how I think the series could have and should have ended. Do note, that these are just my thoughts and although I think that it should have ended this way, I am by no means saying that my idea for how it should have ended is perfect. So here goes…

While Seasons 4 and 5 were not quite as strong as Seasons 1-3, they were still solid television, and I think that the ending of Season 5 should have been the series finale. For those who want a refresher, Mike was imprisoned for 2 years for practising law without a licence, Rachel promised to wait for him and that they would marry upon his release, and the staff at Pearson Specter Litt left en masse. End it there! The main piece of drama which had kept us all invested for five years had now come to a conclusion. For Mike to accept his jailtime showed his morality and sincerity of character, and for Rachel to declare that she would wait for him showed the strength of their love. I would have just left it there, basically unchanged except for one thing…

For the final scene, I would have had Harvey, Louis, Jessica, Donna and Rachel sit in Jessica’s office and vow to do everything in their power to salvage the firm and its reputation. We the viewers would not need to see several (contrived, lesser) seasons of them trying to do that, rather we would have been satisfied knowing that these confident, powerful men and women were not going to go down without a fight. And, having followed these characters for five years, we would have been confident that they would manage to do what they were setting out to achieve. Had Season 5 been the finale then we wouldn’t have had Mike’s truly implausible acceptance to the New York Bar in Season 6 or the tedious power battles of Seasons 7-9. Suits may have ended as a weaker series than when it began, but the series as a whole would have been stronger than it ultimately was by the time it ended for real. So that is how I think Suits should have ended back in 2016.