Something-To-Watch Saturday #14

This will be the last edition of STWS of 2020, and we’re going out with a banger of a list. Thank you so much for reading these, I do hope they’ve been useful! Here’s the back catalogue: – #1#2#3, #4#5#6#7#8#9 , #10#11#12 and #13.

Their Finest (2016 – 117 mins – BBC iPlayer)

I’m cheating a little here when it comes to this week’s Underseen Romcom – as this is technically more of a rom-com-drama. However, it features my favourite all-time favourite trope of hate-to-love with two of the UKs finest (in both senses of the word!) actors – Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin. She plays a former secretary, newly appointed as a scriptwriter for propaganda films, who joins the cast and crew of a major production while the Blitz rages around them. He’s the established talented writer who feels put-out being forced to work with her. The fact this story is propelled by an superb chemistry, an epic supporting cast (Richard E. Grant, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Jeremy Irons, Jake Lacy and Rachael Stirling) and is a film about making a fim – well it’s close to cinema perfection in my eyes.

Far From The Madding Crowd (2015 – 119 mins – BBC iPlayer)

Forget Darcy. Forget Rochester. You’re sleeping on Gabriel Oak. Played by Matthias Schoenaerts in this version, he’s just wonderful. He’s one of three suitors pursing Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a woman whose headstrong and independent nature is atypical for Victorian England. Alongside Gabriel there’s the older, prosperous and dependable bachelor William (Michael Sheen) and the young, reckless & hedonistic Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). An excellent adaptation with one of Mulligan’s finest & most underrated performances.

Bumblebee (2018 – 114 mins – Netflix & SkyGo)

When is a Transformer movie not really a Transformer movie? When it’s this movie. This is a wonderful action/sci-fi/adventure movie rooted in the traditions of Spielberg & other 80s classics. Nostalgia is dialled up to 11 courtesy of an epic soundtrack (The Smiths, Duran Duran, Tears For Fears and Steve Winwood to name but a few). It’s 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small California beach town. On the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. Such a charming delight.

Stage Mother (2020 – 93 mins – Netflix)

By no means a flawless movie (Adrian Grenier being one of it’s multiple issues) this is a really sweet, low budget indie about a conservative church choir director (Jacki Weaver) who inherits her late son’s San Francisco drag club. The by-numbers fish-out-of-water culture-clash narrative isn’t the reason to watch, the reason to give this a go is the moving performances by the club performers (Mya Taylor, Allister MacDonald and Anthony Skordi) who each portray all-too real storylines. Taylor in particular is a stand-out who hasn’t been given nearly enough opportunities since 2015’s Tangerine.

Frances Ha (2012 – 86 mins – Amazon Prime)

We don’t talk nearly enough about friendship break-ups. Speaking from personal experience, they hurt just as much – if not more – as romantic break-ups. This fim, about a New York woman played by Greta Gerwig (who doesn’t really have an apartment) who apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer) and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as the possibility of realizing them dwindles, is one of the few that depicts the painful disintegration of friendship. Funny, sad and bittersweet – one of Noah Baumbach‘s finest. Also, there’s some Adam Driver for all you stans out there (I see you Bleakley!)

Mary & The Witch’s Flower (2017 – 103 mins – All4)

Based on “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart, a strange flower grants a girl magic powers. The less said about this one, the better. A really charming coming-of-age fantasy story that will linger with you long after watching.

I’m Your Woman (2020 – 120 mins – Amazon Prime)

There’s something wonderfully old fashioned yet brilliantly refreshing about this one. In this 1970s set crime drama, a woman (Rachel Brosnahan, unrecognisable from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is forced to go on the run after her husband betrays his partners, sending her and her baby on a dangerous journey. Arinzé Kene (a man who isn’t yet as big a star as he deserves to be) is the man tasked with helping them on their journey. A slowburn packed with unexpected moments that makes for utterly enthralling watching.

2020: The 72 books of the year

2020 has been awful on so many levels, but there’s been some truly amazing books to help escape into. With all that’s been going on, lots of authors made their debuts to little fanfare and many returning authors produced exciting follow-ups that didn’t get the recognition they deserve. So, I hope this list helps you find your next read or Christmas present – for yourself or for others! I’ve split them up into three categories – Middle Grade (9-12 year olds), Young Adult (13+) and adult (16/18+).

Middle Grade
Adult

P.S It’s only been 22 hours since I put this list together, and I’m already kicking myself for some of my omissions. (So far, special mention has to go to The Foundling by Stacey Halls (Adult)which is phenomenal).

Tv Tuesday #7

One sentence summary – 3 suggestions of tv shows you may have missed and will probably love. Are you not entertained? Give #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 and #6 a try.

Twenties (2020- : 8 x 30 mins : BBC iPlayer)

Hattie (Jonica T. Gibbs), a queer African American woman, hangs out with her two straight best friends Marie (Christina Elmore) and Nia (Gabrielle Graham), as they all try to make their dreams come true. The end result is as show that is as funny as it is scathing, with some of the most honest portrayals of twenty-something relationships, friendships and careers that tv has ever seen. The representation within this show doesn’t get seen enough on tv, with a show as good as this we can but hope it’s the first of many.

Home (2020 – : 12 x 27 minutes : All4)

Peter (Rufus Jones), his new partner Katy (Rebekah Staton) and her son John (Oaklee Pendergast) return home to Dorking from their first holiday together in France. Hiding in the boot of their car is Sami (Youssef Kerkour), a Syrian refugee. It is near-impossible to do this wonderful show justice – it’s so charming, compassionate and well-written. It’s feelgood without being saccharine, sentimental but honest and extremely well informed – unafraid to portray the labyrinthian bureaucracy of the UK immigration system. Staton is phenomenal as matriarch Katy, just as good as she was in the criminally underseen Raised by Wolves (which will have to be a future TV Tuesday pick). Kerkour is fantastic as Sami, countless moving moments come to mind – most involving his friendship with Aaron Neil‘s Raj. Sharp, refreshing and rather brilliant – you really won’t regret watching this one.

Upload (2020 – : 10 x 30 minutes : Amazon Prime)

Sci-fi related dramas can be a bit of a hard-sell, thankfully this one is a sci-fi romantic comedy with a side of mystery thriller. A man (Robbie Amell) is able to choose his own afterlife after his untimely death by having his consciousness uploaded into a virtual world. As he gets used to his new life and befriends his ‘angel’, Nora (Andy Allo), questions about his death arise. The fact this show isn”t spoken about really is mind-boggling. It’s speculative exploration of virtual afterlife is incredibly imaginative and thought-provoking, the relationships and character development immensely well-plotted within some pacey storytelling. Witty and winning – this is one I’m definitely counting down the days till season 2 for.

Something-To-Watch Saturday #13

It’s Saturday and you’ve come for some movie-watching ideas. Here’s 7 more and here’s the back catalogue if they’ve not scratched that itch – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9 , #10, #11 and #12.

Official Secrets (2020 – 112 mins – Amazon Prime)

The true story of a British whistleblower (Keira Knightley) who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Along with a fantastic supporting cast (Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes and Conleth Hill) this might be one of Knightley’s finest performances, understated yet powerful. A steely and tense thriller, made all the more haunting as it really did happen.

Boys State (2020- 109 mins – Apple TV+)

A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up – and the results need to be seen to be believed. A truly outstanding documentary that ends up revealing so much about present day politics and 21st masculinity.

Wolfwalkers (2020- 103 mins – Apple TV+)

Cartoon Saloon is an animation studio that has a truly enviable hit-rate, with Song of the Sea , The Secret of Kells and The Breadwinner each being examples of pure perfection. And now we have this addition, a young apprentice hunter (Honor Kneafsey) and her father (Sean Bean) journey to Ireland to help wipe out the last wolf pack. But everything changes when she befriends a free-spirited girl (Eva Whittaker) from a mysterious tribe rumored to transform into wolves by night. The animation is sumptuous, the story wonderfully told and the performances just magnificent. There’s also some of the finest animated hair we’ve ever seen. If there’s any justice in the world, this film will be recognised in awards season as the best animated film of 2020.

EMMA. (2020- 122 mins – Sky/Now TV)

This might just be the finest Austen adaptation we’ve ever had. At the very least there’s no point ever adapting Emma again, as it cannot beat this one. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma, a woman who is well-meaning but selfish, who decides to play matchmaker out of boredom but ends up playing havoc with the lives of those around her. Taylor-Joy plays Emma wonderfully, every expression being layered in meaning and revealing so much about exactly what she is thinking but is unable to say. Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley has ruined me for men. A magnificent ensemble cast (Angus Imrie, Gemma Whelan, Bill Nighy, Rupert Graves, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Mia Goth, Oliver Chris and Callum Turner) all bring their A-game to deliver this superb screwball comedy.

120BPM (2017 – 143 mins – Film4)

This French film, following members of the advocacy group ACT UP Paris as they demand action by the government and pharmaceutical companies to combat the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s, is sublime. At times funny, heart-shattering at others – it’s simply unmissable.

Wild Rose (2018- 101 mins – Netflix)

One of 2018’s best films, this story – Rose-Lynn(Jessie Buckley) is a troubled young Glaswegian who dreams of becoming a Nashville country star – is a total must-see. Buckley’s central performance is extraordinary, with an immeasurable amount of depth, balancing light and shade with ease. Julie Walters is simply fantastic in the supporting role as Rose’s mother. Click here to read my full review.

Set It Up (2018 – 118 mins – Amazon Prime)

In recent years, Netflix has been at the forefront of the resurgence of the romcom whilst also dropping some of the worst of the genre. This week’s underseen romcom is a gem, that uses the tropes we know & love yet plays around with them a little. Two corporate executive assistants (Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell) hatch a plan to match-make their two bosses (Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs). Deutch and Powell have fantastic chemistry, believable and easy to root for. The end result is a charming and sweet romcom.

Tv Tuesday #6

One sentence summary – 3 suggestions of tv shows you may have missed and will probably love. Are you not entertained? Give #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5 a try.

Big Mouth (2013-2016 : 43 x 30 mins : Netflix )

In the space of a week, in two separate conversations, I had two loved ones voice genuine disbelief that I had never seen Big Mouth. Both were adamant I’d love it. Semi-reluctantly I gave it a go and, I really hate to say it, Matt and Sam were both right. I love this show so hard. I’d go into battle and fight for this show, for many reasons. There’s the comedy, it’s superbly funny with an epic voice cast (Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jason Mantzoukas, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph, Jordan Peele, Jenny Slate, Andrew Rannells and all manner of guest stars). There’s the colourful and inventive animation. And then there’s the story and content itself. Big Mouth tackles hugely important issues in an effortless, tender yet hilarious and often audacious way. I struggle to think of another show that examines sexuality, mental health, gender, body image and family dynamics to such a magnificent extent. This is a show that isn’t for teens and yet all teens need to see it.

I Hate Suzie (2020 – : 8 x 35 minutes : SKY / Now TV)

Now this is one that has a summary that doesn’t do it justice. A female celebrity (Billie Piper) has her whole life upended when her phone is hacked and a photo of her emerges in an extremely compromising position. The outcomes are regularly unexpected, sad, funny, mad and devastating. Piper is extraordinary in the lead role, with fantastic support from Daniel Ings as awful husband Cob and Leila Farzad as best friend/assistant/enabler Naomi. Click here for my full review, written for VODzilla.

Trying (2020 – : 8 x 30 minutes : Apple Tv+)

Apple TV is still in it’s infancy, but it has some gems that really do make it worth checking out. This was the first I watched and it’s still my favourite. All Nikki (Esther Smith) and Jason (Rafe Spall) want is a baby. They’ve been together for several years and it’s just not happening, till medical treatment shows it’s unlikely to ever happen. So, they decide to adopt. With their dysfunctional friends, screwball family, and chaotic lives will the adoption panel think they’re ready to be parents? With another superb ensemble cast (Ophelia Lovibond, Oliver Chris, Phil Davis, Imelda Staunton to name but a few) Trying is an effortless watch, a comedy drama as witty as it is warm.

Something-To-Watch Saturday #12

It’s Saturday and you’ve come for some movie-watching ideas. Here’s 7 more and here’s the back catalogue if they’ve not scratched that itch – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9 , #10 and #11.

Uncle Frank (2020 – 95 mins – Amazon Prime)

One of the few joys to arise in 2020 has been the amount of fantastic indie movies, which arguably have had a little bit more space this year with blockbusters having been near-universally postponed till 2021 at the earliest. Uncle Frank is very much one of the cream of the crop with a lead performance by Paul Bettany, as the eponymous Uncle Frank, that deserves awards recognition. In 1973, when Frank Bledsoe and his 18-year-old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) take a road trip from Manhattan to Creekville, South Carolina, for the family patriarch’s funeral, they’re unexpectedly joined by Frank’s lover, Walid (Peter Macdissi). The film’s focus is Frank aligning his past trauma with his present, and his fears over his family finding out about his sexuality. The end result is a film that is softly moving, immensely charming and bittersweetly emotive. Such a delight.

Monsoon (2019 – 85 mins – BBC iPlayer)

Kit (Henry Golding) a British Vietnamese man, returns to Saigon for the first time in over 30 years, after fleeing during the Vietnam-American War. A beautifully empathetic look at the immigrant experiences, of being of two places but feeling like you belong to neither. Thoughtful, delicate and graceful.

Crazy Rich Aisans (2018- 120 mins – Amazon Prime)

This week’s underseen romcom slot also serves as a Henry Golding double bill. Here he plays the heir to an immense fortune, not that his girlfriend Rachel (Constance Wu) has any idea just how rich he is as she finds out on the way to meet his family for the first time. All the romcom tropes we know and love are here, featuring a terrific and diverse cast and some spectacular riches. A really likeable and very sweet addition to the canon. Click here to read my full review.

Galaxy Quest (1999- 102 mins – Netflix)

‘Never give up, never surrender’ – that was the catchphrase of cult tv series Galaxy Quest. It’s a phrase the show’s cast Jason (Tim Allen), Gwen (Sigourney Weaver), Alexander (Alan Rickman), Fred (Tony Shalhoub) and co. know all to well. They’ve been churning out for years at various fan conventions and promo appearances. But when they’re visited by actual aliens who think the series is an accurate documentary they quickly become drawn in a very real intergalactic conflict with thousands of lives at risk. This is one of the finest comedy films, possibly ever. It’s fantastically written, parodying fandom with much love and affection, and so well performed by a cast of total icons.

Arthur Christmas (2011 – 97 mins – Netflix)

Another Christmas gem for you, this time we’re with Santa’s (Jim Broadbent) clumsy son Arthur (James McAvoy) as he sets out on a mission with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) to give out a present they misplaced to a young girl before it’s too late and her Christmas is ruined. A sweet and heart-warming tale, with some inventive animation and charming voice cast.

Shame (2011- 101 mins – All4)

A sex addict’s (Michael Fassbender) carefully cultivated private life falls apart after his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives for an indefinite stay. The directorial debut of Steve McQueen (who currently has a phenomenal miniseries airing on BBC every Sunday, Small Axe – five films that are love letters to Black London history) this is an astonishing and haunting film about addiction & it’s concealment under artifice. Wonderfully shot and performed, this is a total must-see.

Pan’s Labyrinth (206 – 118 mins – Amazon Prime)

Without a doubt, one of the greatest films of the 21st century, Guillermo del Toro‘s film is set in the Falangist Spain of 1944, where the bookish young stepdaughter (Ivana Baquero)of a sadistic army officer (Sergi López) escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world when a magical creature (Doug Jones) gives her the chance to save her pregnant mother’s life. Insert list of superlatives here – I just love this film so so so so much. (Also, any English teachers reading this, I have a great resource using the Pale Man scene to teach GCSE English Language Paper 1, Q3 – slide into my DMs if interested…)

Mank

‘This is the business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory’

A proposal – how much you enjoy a film and how much you appreciate it can provide distinctly different answers. David Fincher return to the big screen, 6 years after Gone Girl, is the epitome of this. It’s already something of a hard sell, a film following screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz‘s tumultuous development of Orson Welles‘ iconic 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Although having watched Citizen Kane isn’t a requirement or prerequisite, prior knowledge does help certain narrative beats and jokes land. (If 119 minutes of classic cinema doesn’t appeal, The Simpsons parody ‘Rosebud’ from the show’s fifth season is one of the finest episodes it’s ever made.)

We open on Mank’s present day in 1940, with an injured and rather-down-on-his-luck Mank (Gary Oldman) pitching up to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. He’s there to write a script for new Hollywood Wonder Kid Orson Welles (Tom Burke) and he’s only got 60 days to do it, with two assistants (Lily Collins and Monika Gossmann) to aid him and decades worth of issues to get in his way. The main narrative tension is the rather age-old trope of struggling writer battling his demons – the fact we know he manages it as Citizen Kane is an actual film that exists (and is regularly voted the Greatest Film Of All Time in industry polls) does slightly undercut proceedings. Instead the drama comes from his past, the things and battles he has faced in his past that have lead him to his now – bedridden and determined to write a scathing take down of media baron William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Even if it means hurting close friend, and Heart’s lover, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) in the process – not to mention destroying his own reputation and any hope of a career.

It’s clear from the outset that this is a passion project for Fincher, with the screenplay itself having been written by his father (who passed away in 2003). Every frame feels personal, as if there’s a direct link between what is being told and the story behind it. Visually how that story is told is spectacular, the cinematography has such wondrous depth and full of cigarette-tinted sumptuous. The soundtrack, by long-time collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is moody and atmospheric – superbly enhancing the paranoia and uncertainty that plagued 1930 and 40s Hollywood, with concerns over Hitler’s rise in Germany and the homegrown fears surrounding socialism, which would go onto leading to an actual Hollywood blacklist in the late 40s. The cast mirror this tone perfectly – with Oldman disappearing into the role as the likeable but hugely flawed writer, Seyfried delivering a femme fatale-esque dame with a steely edge and a career-finest Dance as the elusive tycoon. Burke also deserves a mention for being able to capture a young and righteously indignant Welles so perfectly with not-that-much screen time.

While there are some really great scenes here, they feel too-much like a patchwork pastiche to the work that inspired. Just as with Citizen Kane, the flashbacks are used to flesh out our main character – in a search to both expose faults but also create empathy – some are more interesting or purposeful seeming that others. But the problem is it’s nigh-on impossible to form an attachment to any of these characters. Following them around is entertaining enough, but there’s something of a block between us and them that leaves the viewer feeling cold. There’s also an unevenness about the film’s tone, shifting between drama and comedy of sorts with little prep or transition time. It’s as if it’s not quite sure what it wants to be, beyond a love letter to Golden Hollywood. (Which in turn just made me want to dig out Hail Caesar (2016))

Mank is going to be the kind of film that has a limited audience, but that audience will be ardent and love it dearly. That audience will be enamoured with it’s swoony yet intellectual take on cinematic myth. The rest may just struggle with a film that isn’t quite sure what it is, other than a dense and slow-burn meditative biopic.

[3/5 stars]

Mank is out in selected UK cinemas now and on Netflix worldwide from Friday 4th December.

Tv Tuesday #5

One sentence summary – 3 suggestions of tv shows you may have missed and will probably love. Are you not entertained? Give #1, #2, #3 and #4 a try.

The Vow (2013-2016 : 9 x 60 mins : Sky/Now TV )

This documentary series may just have been the most compelling thing I have watched all year. I’d been vaguely aware of the story about self-improvement group NXIVM due to the involvement of Alison Mack, who I’d loved in early years of Superman show Smallville. But there is so, so much more the story – it really does have to be seen to be believed. In episode one we met some central members of the group who are deciding to leave, all-too aware of the consequences they may face if they do. With each episode more is revealed and unravelled. What this series does so fantastically is destroy the myth of people who believe they’re ‘too smart’ to ‘fall for’ a cult. Here we see the how and why people join such groups, and the insidious reach this group had. Darkly unnerving and hard to shake off.

Hindsight (2015: 10 x 30 minutes : Amazon Prime)

On the Pilot Tv podcast, the team end each episode with a chance to Banshee a show of their choice – a show that was cancelled too soon and/or is little scene. This would be my pick, both a show cancelled too early and that wasn’t seen by enough people, with a concept I think about a lot. Becca, as she nears 40, is about to embark on her second wedding to Andy Kelly, but her joy is tempered by the absence of her old best friend Lolly who’s a no-show, having dropped out of their relationship years ago. And so, courtesy of a time travelling lift, Becca awakes in 1995 – knowing everything about her future and with chance to change it all for the better. A wonderful story about friendship, love and choices – with also some of the best uses of 90s nostalgia in recent tv history.

Industry (2020 – : 8 x 50 minutes : BBC iPlayer)

The plot summary for this is ‘Young bankers and traders make their way in the financial world in the aftermath of the 2008 collapse.’ In all honesty, having seen all 8 episodes, I have no memory of any substantial plot-impacting mention of the 2008 collapse. Instead we follow a group of young and sexy people who work in a bank be young and sexy as they work in a bank. It shouldn’t be so engrossing, yet it really is. The main reason for that is the development of both character and story over the course of the 8 episodes. The characters become more interesting, more developed yet varying degrees of incomprehensible. The story begins to get braver, saying scathing things about the industry that finds value in everything but human lives. It’s mad, ludicrous, mostly unbelievable and yet I find myself already looking forward to season 2.