Saint Frances

Available on Netflix and video on demand.

Directed by Alex Thompson, written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan who plays Bridget, a 34 year old who realises she is unfilled with aspects of her life, who gets the opportunity to be a nanny for a 6 year old, Francis (Ramona Edith-Williams).

Francis can be challenging, so when her Mum’s Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu) have another child and their previous Nanny leaves they relise they need a replacement. As much as Bridget needs this opportunity, the family need Bridget, as they all come to terms with change,  emotional and physical, mental health and the emotional impact of their life decisions.

I really liked this, it’s a warm, funny and heartfelt slice of normal life, there’s no grandstanding moments, it’s life unfolding in front of you as each of the characters come to terms with change, frustration, ambition and growing up. The performances are subtle and engaging, all revolving around the positive spirit and energy of Frances. There are moments of fun and gentle humour alongside some emotional heart string tugging, all nicely balanced by a smart script.

Saint Frances is uncomplicated story telling, with lovely natural performances that create characters who all brought something to a story that charmed me throughout its 100 minutes.

Treat yourself and give it a watch.

Soul

Available on Disney +.

Written and directed by Pete Docter, Kemp Powers and Mike Jones we have Pixar’s latest, Soul. Jamie Foxx plays Joe, a frustrated musician, who has settled on been a middle school music teacher to make ends meet as he chases his big chance. When his big chance comes he finds it taken from him in an untimely accident, but Joe isn’t ready to give up, so rather than his soul heading to the great beyond, he finds himself in the great before as a mentor to new souls. It’s here he is paired with troublesome soul 22 (Tina Fey) to help her find her spark, the thing that will make this soul ready to live, the problem is 22 doesn’t want to and is happy with the life in the great before. All of this while Joe tries to find a way of getting his soul back into his body.

What Pixar do, at their best, is take on complex topics and package them in engaging stories that hit home for children and adults alike and Soul joins that fine history of original and touching animation.

Soul sets out to answer perhaps the biggest of questions “why are we here?” as Joe tries to help 22 find a purpose, a reason to live. It tackles that in a way only animation can, immersing us in the strangest of worlds, the real world is brilliantly created and as you’d expect from Pixar, a natural recreation of New York City the people and place, is of the highest quality. Alongside this we get the strange existential great before, with its brilliantly crazy Picasso inspired bosses guiding the small amorphous blobs that are the undeveloped souls, with just enough features to provide a personality and warmth.

Soul is a beautiful piece of work, it looks incredible, it is full of warmth and humour and as the very best animations do, especially Pixar, it treats its audience as intelligent enough to understand the complexities of its topic, as it reminds us of the wonder to be found in the smallest of things and how we often will miss them in pursuit of a great purpose, losing sight of the joy of life itself.

A strong voice cast that sees Foxx and Fey well supported by an eclectic group including the likes of Richard Ayeode, Graham Norton and Rachel House, gorgeous animation and a fine Jazz inspired soundtrack, all come together to take on its complex question with the warmth, wit and heart that Pixar do so well and show us the only way to know if life is worth living, is to live it.

The Midnight Sky

New to Netflix.

George Clooney directs and stars in this adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book. Set in 2049 we find Clooney’s Augustine, alone on an abandoned science base in the Arctic, a survivor of a seemingly extinction event that has impacted the planet. Clooney has to set off on a treacherous journey across the Arctic to a more poweful broadcast station to get a warning to the crew of Ether, a space craft returning to earth from K23 a moon of Jupiter successfully explored as a planet capable of sustaining life, and get them to turn back.

Clooney has already described The Midnight Sky as Gravity meets The Revenant and there’s the challenge, they are two quite different stories can you mix them together to provide a cohesive narrative?

The film does have issues and you can see why questions over plot holes and pacing exist, but, much of that didn’t bother me. The story telling is certainly patient, but for me it worked well in building tension and bringing the two narratives together. We have Augustine’s journey across the frozen lands a slow burning adventure in which he is joined by Iris (Caoilinn Springall) a young girl abandoned at the station. Alongside it we have the journey on Ether, heading back to earth with no contact and no idea why, captained by Adewoe (David Oyelowo) with communications officer Sully (Felicity Jones) soon to be a mother to their child and crew trying to understand the silence from Earth.

The story is one of loss, regret and hope and personally I enjoyed it, Clooney’s grizzled world weary scientist inspired to continue by Iris, plays well against the hope and optimism of Ethers crew.

While it’s not perfect, its good performances and patient storytelling helped to build tension while its solid emotional core gave me characters to care about and keep me engaged to the end.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

On Netflix.

Denzil Washington brings to the screen the second of August Wilson’s plays after 2016’s Fences. Directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman in his final role. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom focuses on a single recording session in a Chicago studio, where unfolds a story of influence, ambition and frustration between Rainey the studio, her band and the tensions between them.

One of the criticisms of Fences was how “stagey” it felt and while I never felt that with Fences, Ma Rainey’s stage roots are clear to see. Played out between the recording studio and rehearsal room in almost real time. It’s full of powerful “soliloquy” projected at the screen and movement is slow and deliberate and that is reflected in the entire piece.

This is not a look at Rainey’s life, but a snippet that uses Rainey to explore the life of black artists of the time. Rainey uses the session as a way of exercising a level of control and influence that is not afforded to her outside of this small sphere. Boseman’s Levee is an ambitious, trumpet player in Rainey’s band who wants to show his individuality and become an artist in his own right, but is frustrated by his own lack of influence and control.

Unfortunately this didn’t work for me as a movie as I couldn’t escape that feeling of watching a play.

As you’d expect from Davis we get a powerful and admirable performance¬† and Boseman reminds you of the fantastic talent that has been lost as he balances the arrogance and vulnerability his character needed. The leads are well supported with strong cast around them.

But ultimately this was an adaptation that didn’t work for me and while the performances are worth watching it never escapes that “staginess” and that is a pity.

Wonder Woman 1984

In UK cinemas. Spoiler free review.

Patty Jenkins directs and Gal Gadot returns in the title role for the follow up to 2017’s Wonder Woman reboot. This time we find Diana Prince in 1984 where she meets Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) a smart but shy colleague, who is asked to look at an artifact by the FBI. There is more than meets the eye with this mysterious stone as it attracts the attention of business man and TV personality Max Lord (Pedro Pascal). Once the stones “power” is unlocked, however, we discover the risks that come with its rewards, including for Diana as she has to deal with the personal consequences of the stones power.

I had mixed views of the 2017 film and those same reservations exist with this follow up. There are certainly things to enjoy, as well as some of the flaws that tend to come with DC’s superhero films.

Let’s start with the flaws and they are all related. Firstly it’s much too long at 2 1/2 hours and this reflects in the pacing problems, while at times there is fast paced fun it often creaks under its own weight of story. And there is the other problem, as so often with DC they struggle for balance, while they occasionally want fun, they so often find themselves wanting to be oh so serious.

But that said there is enjoyment, Gadot again is hugely engaging and watchable as Wonder Woman and Pedro Pascal finds the balance of misguided bad guy perfectly. At times there are bits of real fun as well especially in the first 20 minutes , as well as some at the expense of the 80’s. And while the story itself gives the film some tonal issues, I did admire the attempt to tell a story focussing on the impacts of a greed is good culture alongside a prevailing attitude of taking without any thoughts of the consequence.

I think ultimately it was the attempt to tell that story that I liked and admired. It’s certainly flawed, but with Gal Gadot in the role it’s always watchable and overall an enjoyable enough reason to head to the cinema too see it if you can.

The Christmas Chronicles

Available on Netflix.

Clay Kaytis’s The Christmas Chronicles appeared on Netflix a couple of years ago, with a sequel appearing this year, It seemed to time to catch the original.

In true Christmas movie style Kate and Teddie Pierce a teen brother and his young sister have had a tough year. However, when they sneakily find themselves with Santa, they end up in a race against time to save Christmas.

What Christmas Chronicles does is give us a bit of classic Christmas film fare, the story is one you’ve seen many times before, a sad backstory, a lack of belief in the big man and a saccharine sweet ending to make us all smile. However, what this does have is Kurt Russell’s Santa, played as a street wise, wise cracking, blues singing, gym going St. Nick.

Russell’s portrayal brings a real bit of fun to the central role, the kids are fine Darby Camp is appropriately wide eyed and sweet as Kate, with Judah Lewis just with the right balance of cynicism, tempered by that big brother love for his sister. There is also fun to be had with Martin Roach and Lamorne Morris as two Chicago cops who get embroiled in Santa’s problem.

There’s some nice insights into Santa magic, a selection of Gremlin esque Elves to help out, a fine jailhouse music number and a lesson in what happens to bad boys and girls.

In the end it’s not highly original, even with a couple of nice twists, but it’s good natured, warm hearted and a bit of tinsel filled fun and who doesn’t want that at Christmas.

The Prom

New to Netflix.

Wriiten by Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar. Ryan Murphy directs this adaptation of the broadway musical of the same name, which tells the story of 4 stage actors in need of a P.R. win after their latest broadway “failure”. After briefly scouring social media they find the story of Emma, a teenage girl in Indiana, who’s school have chosen to cancel their prom rather than let her attend with her girlfriend. Our “liberal” Broadway stars decide they are going to head to Indiana to put right this act of small minded bigotry, give Emma her prom and educate those behind the act about the error of their intolerant ways.

Before we start, it’s best you know I’m a fan of much of Murphy’s work his TV shows particularly. That said, I don’t think he is wholly successful here as he and his star studded cast deliver an uneven film. At times, especially in its opening third, it’s a light hearted and fun musical ride, with Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), Barry (James Corden), Angie (Nicole Kidman) and Trent (Andrew Rannels) bringing to screen some fun musical numbers that lightly poke fun at their own industry, themselves and the small mindedness of the schools decision to ban the prom. All of this interspersed by more heartfelt numbers from Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma.

However, this mainly light hearted fun ride, takes a clunky turn in the middle as our central characters do some soul searching and come to terms with their past, before the film heads back to its more effective fun, highly predictable, yet suitably lovely and positive ending.

The Prom is a passable musical, there are solid performances from Streep and Kidman, well supported by Keegan-Michael Key, but it’s a nicely balanced Jo Ellen Pellman who steals the show from her more illustrious colleagues. It is at its best delivering its glitzy fun numbers, but gets bogged down trying to find more emotional depth and this is reflected in an overly long 2hrs 15 running time.

While it didn’t fully work for me its heart is in the right place and there is probably enough glitz, fun and enjoyable musical numbers to keep you onside until the end, but not something you’ll be rushing back to see again.

Jingle Jangle : A Christmas Journey

Available on Netflix.

‘Tis the season, so time to begin on the festive film selection.

David E. Talbert writes and directs a fantastical story, set in the 19th century workshop of Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whittaker) a place of wonder and magical inventions. We join him as he finishes his greatest invention, Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin). However during the celebrations it is taken by Jeronicus’s frustrated apprentice Gustafson (Keegan Michael Key). With his greatest invention gone Jangle’s career and life takes a downturn. We pick up the story when Jangle’s granddaughter, a gifted mathematician, Journey (Madalen Mills) comes to visit and she wants to help her grandfather rediscover his magic.

If you’ve ever wondered what you’d get if you crossed Charlie and the Chocolate factory, Short Circuit,  The Polar Express and set it in Mr Magoriums wonder Emporium, then this film is the answer and if you thought that those films mashed together sounds like it would be a bit of a mess, sadly you’d be right.

I’ve seen a lot of love for Jingle Jangle, but for me it didn’t really work, the storyline, while simple seemed all over the place, punctuated with Greatest Showmen type big song and dance numbers, that while well choreographed on the whole seemed to turn up at the most jarring of places.

While it didn’t work for me, it’s not a complete right off, it looks fantastic and the performances are fine and for a younger audience there is plenty of colour and excitement.

While I really didn’t connect with it, don’t be put off. It is colourful and musical and if that’s what you want it perhaps will work better for you.

Uncle Frank

New on Amazon Prime Video.

Written and directed by Alan Ball, Uncle Frank is set in 1972 where we find Beth heading to New York and university a decision she made when inspired to try to be the person she wanted to be by her lecturer Uncle, Frank. While in New York she visits him at a party and discovers he is gay, a secret he has kept from his South Carolina family. When Frank discovers his father, Beth’s grandfather, has passed away, they chose to take a road trip to the funeral. Throughout the journey and the funeral Frank has to confront his past and his relationship with his family.

Uncle Frank isn’t surprising and really is the film you expect, a road trip, a journey of discovery, the painful reliving of past trauma and its uncomfortable impact on the present, all wrapped up with suitably pleasing ending.

However, none of its predictability detracted from a film I really enjoyed, while it unmercifully tugs on your heartstrings, I didn’t mind a bit, the performances are beautiful, fantastically balanced, Paul Bettany as the titular Frank, Sophia Lillis as Beth and Peter Macdissi as Frank’s partner Wally, all juggling emotion and humour seamlessly. While those three carry most of the film, the support throughout is excellent.

What Uncle Frank lacks for in originality, for me, it makes up for in warmth and heart, with a selection of characters who you care for and care about and while it ticks all of the boxes you expect it does it in a very enjoyable way.

Enjoyed it lots, give it a spin.

Out of Time

Available on Amazon Prime Video.

Directed by Leon Lopez, written and starring Kerry Williams, Out of Time is a low budget, British independent film about a young family. Father Danny (Jamie Cousins) just released from prison returns home to wife Sam (Williams) and son Connor (Frankie Friend) a loving family but one with a secret and a dark past. The film tells the story of coming to terms with that past and handling the impact of their secret.

This is clearly a tiny production and a cast made up of first time and inexperienced performers, alongside a mix of more seasoned ones does not always work delivering some shaky moments.

But it would be wrong to be overly harsh on this as there is much to admire, the fact that it has been made at all should always be admired and the story is an interesting one to tell.

It is the story that kept me engaged and while the family its built around is a little obvious, that doesn’t detract from it, there are two sensitive and difficult stories at the heart of the film and both are dealt with, with an effective realism.

At its core Out of Time is a well meaning and heartfelt piece of story telling and while its performances are uneven, with a short 72 minute running time, it remains engaging throughout.

It won’t appeal to everyone, but for me there is a lot to admire in putting a piece like this on screen and the story is touching and engaging, so if you are into supporting small independent productions, this is worth a look.

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