The Book of Life

The Book of Life ⭐⭐⭐

Director: Jorge R. Gutiérrez. Cast:

I’ve been hearing a lot about this one, but I’ve only got around to watch it. Produced by Guillermo del Toro (you can just about see his imprint in some of it) , this has always been eclipsed by the similar-themed Pixar Coco (even though that was released 3 years later). Comparing the two of them comes rather natural : they are both beautifully animated (though two different styles), they are both set in Mexico, the both take place on the “Day of the Dead”, they both deal with the “other world”. However this one seems to cram so much storyline in it that it feels like it would have needed at least 3 hours to allow it to breath and given it the time a subject and a story like this deserves.

This film seems to run so fast that you hardly have time to catch your breath. Not a moment goes by without an action scene, a sudden twist, a slapstick gag (often a quick side one, coming in just about in the corner of the screen), people screaming, fighting, running. Whether it’s doing this because it thinks its viewers have a short attention span and it’s afraid of losing them if it slows down, or whether because there is just too much story in it, or possibly because they’re afraid that dealing with such a subject like death might feel too gloomy if it wasn’t counterbalanced by all the rest, or maybe all of the above. Whatever the reason, the result is something which is yes beautiful to look at, yes brave, well-intentioned and potentially deep, but it’s so crammed with stuff that unfortunately it doesn’t give you the time to digest it and crucially to “feel” it. There’s no reflective moment to realise the importance of what we are seeing, no time to feel sorry for the dead or happy for a son finally being able to see his deceased mother again, nor to enjoy the amazing colours and beautifully designed world, nor the costumes or details of the characters, just because everything moves so fast.

The music by the usually reliable Gustavo Santaoalla (who does his best for the understated cues) never seem to stop blasting through, once again contributing to the “cacophony” and feeling of everything being “overstuffed”.

But I don’t want to sound too down on it. In fact I quite liked it and there’s certainly a lot to take away from it, but Pixar’s Coco is just on completely different level, emotionally and in terms the message it’s carrying and how it’s delivering it.

A Night in Miami

A Night in Miami ⭐⭐⭐

Director: Regina King. Cast: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick

An extraordinary night in 1964 when 4 amazing men (Cassius Clay, Malcom X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown) met to celebrate the unexpected victory of Clay. It will be the night that will mark a sort of turning point in all the men’s lives. After a very dynamic and lush beginning, the film soon settles down into a more claustrophobic setting, inside a hotel room, clearly exposing its stagey origins (it is based on a play). It is indeed a very dialogue-heavy film, not all of it very subtle (and some feels actually a bit forced and some slightly impenetrable), but there are undoubtedly some very powerful moments too. And by the time you get to the epilogue you feel like you’ve witnessed something quite profound. It is obviously a very timely film with all the talk about #BlackLivesMatter, and it’s clearly screaming to be noticed at the forthcoming Award Season (It’s going to be released at Xmas in the cinema and later in January on Amazon Prime to capitalise on that too).It’s not completely success as a film in my view, but the charismatic performances and a very controlled, un-showy direction by Regina King (here on her debut film) remind us all about these extraordinary people in an extraordinary time.

Collective

Collective (Colectiv) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Director: Alexander Nanau. Cast: Razvan LutacMirela NeagCatalin Tolontan 

This is an astonishing piece of work about the power that freedom of press can still have in uncovering the shocking truths about a whole nation rotten to the core: from scandals within the health care (patients left abandoned on their beds for days to the point that worms start to grow on them!), to criminal pharmaceutical companies, right to government itself. In doing so it exposes the corruption, the mob mentality, the lies, the cover-up, the hypocrisy, the cynicism on which the whole Romanian system seems to have been built on over the past decades. Filmed, edited, constructed and paced like a political thriller, this documentary manages to tell a rather complicated story in the clearest of ways, without ever resorting to voiceover, captions or talking heads: it’s exciting, gripping, infuriating, mind-blowing and incredibly sad. Every now and then we keep on cutting back to one of the survivors from a massive fire during a concert (the “Colectiv’’ of the title) where 80 young people died. A scene where she tries on a prosthetic hand is not just incredibly moving, but also a reminder that beyond all the criminal corporations, all the lies, money stolen and the political agendas, there are human lives at stakes here. Towards the second half, unexpectedly the film-makes go beyond closed doors, behind the scenes within the Goverment itself as we follow a newly appointed minister of Health, crusading to expose the corruption that came before him: maybe a little glimmer of hope that things one day might improve a little bit.

One of the best documentaries of the year.

On streaming platform right now (Amazon, Apple+, Sky)

Host

Host ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Director: Rob Savage. Cast: Haley BishopJemma MooreEmma Louise Webb Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Alan Emrys.

I’ll come out clean straight away: Host is one of the best horror of the last few years and definitely one scariest films I’ve seen in a long long time. In my life I’ve seen more horror films that I’d care to admit. I think I’ve now become sort of immune to most of them these days (mainly because most of them are actually quite bad, but also because the tropes are pretty much always always the same), but this one caught me by surprise and had me glued to the screen, terrified and delighted at the same time (I know… I’m a bit weird: I love to be scared)It is incredibly timely: it was made during the lockdown and it capitalises on our fear and paranoia of being stuck at home alone with such ingeniousness and intelligence. Yes, it does rely on the “usual” jump scare tactics, but it’s so well executed that you can’t help by admire it. I loved how it slowly builds the tension, how real it all feels (well, up to a point: it probably goes slightly over the top in a few places towards the end), how each person is being framed within their screen and how your eyes are constantly moving from one person to the next, checking for those suspicious lights in the background, for that open door right at the back… and so on. Of course it’s not a masterpiece, but I had so much fun with this that it deserves to be up there with the best of this awful 2020.

The film is out on the 4th of December

and it’s available on Shudder.

And this is a lovely interview with the makers and my friend Mike

Fireball: visitors from darker worlds

Fireball: visitors from darker worlds (⭐⭐)

Directorsç Werner HerzogClive Oppenheimer

Those familiar with Herzog’s documentaries will know what to expect: somebody may call them ‘indulgent mental masturbation’, others deep and philosophical reflections… I’ve always been more towards the first lot of people, though I do recognise at times there are some fantastic moments. The same goes with this one. In among the various detour and pointless jokes, some of this is undoubtedly fascinating. I know that if at work I came up with a documentary so unfocused and meandering like this one I would probably get my ass fired. But because it’s Herzog, all is forgiven (very unfair, but that’s how is is): lines like “I will not bore you with the details of what’s he said…” interrupting an interview with an expert or “I couldn’t resist interrupting the interview…” are just some of the most pointless flourishes from Herzog and come across pretentious and uninteresting. All we want to see is gorgeous shots of meteors, of the sky and listen to the voices of the experts. But the film doesn’t have too much of that, so it’s even interspersed with clips from other movies including deep impact to make it more visual.Also the film seems to belong less and less to him as most of it is given to interviews and led by Oppenheimer, so when his deadpan growls… erm I mean voiceover, comes in, at times it feels like it belongs to a different film… and one that’s really not as good as the rest and not as interesting as the subject it’s trying to cover. In the end there was just not enough to hold my attention.

On Apple+

If Anything Happens I Love You

If Anything Happens I Love You ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Writers & Directors: Michael GovierWill McCormack

I’m cheating a bit here: this is not quite a “movie” and yet this animated short packs more in its 12 minutes than at least 90% of the other films I’ve seen this year.

The strength of this is in its simplicity: not a line of dialogue, simple beautiful drawings and yet perfectly expressive, with stark black and white with just a few glimpses of colours.

This is heartbreaking and almost unbearable for any parent to watch (and not just for them). I was already tearing up within the first few minutes and by the end I was pretty much a wreck… In fact I’m still a bit shaken right now, a good half hour after watching it. A work of beauty, that somehow manages to feel emotional and more real (hence more impactful) than many films on the subject. Co-written and co-directed by the writer of Toy Story 4, Will McCormack and a little-known actor Michael Govier, this will certainly be heading to the Oscars, especially given its anti-gun message and I seriously hope it wins too.

On #Netflix right now (though try not to read anything about it, not even the synopsis on the Netflix page)

The Borrowers (1997)

The Borrowers ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Director: Peter Hewitt. Cast: John GoodmanMark WilliamsJim Broadbent 

Here’s a pleasant surprise I had completely missed when it was first released in 1997: a film aimed unashamedly at children (and all the better for it) and yet with production values as high as any big blockbuster of the time. The attention to details particularly in the set design and props is one of the things that makes this such a joy to watch as an adult, while the children will enjoy the action romp, the great pacing throughout with flashes of “Honey I shrunk the kids” and a lot of “Home alone” in it, lots of quirky little cameo roles from known faces (including a very young Tom Felton, the future Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies), all wrapped up in one of the many score by Hans Zimmer at the time.

One could not really ask for a lot more in a family flick.

“The Borrowers” was made in 1997, at the height of good practical visual effects which had yet been completely spoilt by the over-use (or abuse) of CGI: film-makers still had to find clever ways to actually stage their actions scenes, as opposed to lazily and slavishly relying on the computer. I was quite surprised by how well some of the effects actually still held up today. My only slight quibble was with Jim Broadbent’s performance. I usually like the guy both in comedies and dramas, but on this one I felt he was miscast as he was on a different register as everybody else, over-acting his way through as if to compensate for the small size of his character.

Other than that a big thumb up if you want to watch something with your kids.

The Rescuers

The Rescuers ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directors: John LounsberyWolfgang ReithermanArt Stevens . Cast: Bob NewhartEva GaborGeraldine Page 

I’ve always had very fond memories of this one. I remember watching it in the cinema when it was first released in ’77 and taking my little brother to watch it again in ’83 when it was re-released (accompanied by one of my ultimate favourite short “Mickey’s Christmas Carol”). Back then it was Disney’s first box office success in over 10 years (and it would be another 12 before the next big hit with “The Little Mermaid”) and interestingly it would be the first animated feature to have a sequel in the early 90s.Today it still considered as a (minor) classic, mainly for the lovely characterizations and expressiveness of the two mice-leads, the arrays of secondary characters (the albatross Orvel, and dragonfly Evinrude among the best), one of Disney’s scariest baddie (Medusa, a cardbon copy of Cruela De Vil, in fact in an easlier draft of the film Cruela herself was meant to be the in it) and while It may not be on the same league of those big early classic, its simple and effective story-telling, the edge-of-your seat thrills and the humour that infuse the whole film make it very pleasant one. The animation itself is a bit up and down (this was a time when they were trying to save money), some of the sequences are beautifully drawn and the backgrounds with their pastel palette are very moody and beautiful, but clearly the animators took often some shortcuts and some of the sequences are slightly rougher. The songs, performed by Shelby Flint are also fairly forgettable and definitely not up to the levels of the old (or new for that matter) classics. But hey, who cares about all that. Watching it tonight as a family, we enjoyed it immensely, my son loved it and was on the edge of the sofa. A big winner in the house.

Finally, a little bit of a trivia footnote. The film became also famous (or infamous) for 2 frames where you could see a topless woman from a window (google it if you don’t believe me 🤣).

On Disney +

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