During the COVID-19 lock-down, film and television were part of the life savers in our household, together with cooking new and experimental dishes, cleaning, sorting and sleeping. Several novels were also read and a great deal of writing was done. Here I make observations about film and TV focusing on films made 2018 onwards.

The Gentlemen (2020)

Guy Ritchie’s comedy and mayhem story was something I was looking forward to. It had good reviews and it had Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Michelle Dockery and others. Since Hugh Grant became a multimillionaire and had settled into a relationship, he has been making really good role choices and has had some terrific performances. This isn’t one. I couldn’t get past the first thirty minutes. It is done as a kind of documentary drama and it doesn’t work. One star of five for the first thirty minutes. Sad.

The Banker (2020)

The film stars Anthony Mackie, Nicholas Hoult, Nia Long, Jessie T. Usher and Samuel L. Jackson in a well-told, focused and true story of Joe Morris (Jackson) and Bernard Garrett (Mackie), two of the first African-American bankers in the United States. They bought two banks in Texas, using a white front man, so that they could lend money to black entrepreneurs and emerging black middle classes at a time when banks would not do this in Texas. They also owned a whole raft of properties in LA.

A solid story, well told in a fascinating story line which also raises the issue of how women (especially black women) were treated at the time. Samuel L Jackson and Anthony Machie have real chemistry in this film and they clearly enjoyed their roles, as did Nicholas Hoult who is convincing in his role as the hapless white stooge guy with a few brains.

Liked this movie. A great story, well told. Four stars of five.

Emma (2020)

Jane Austen has a lot to answer for, it seems to me. This silly story is an example. Emma is a busy body with too much wealth, too many brain cells and nothing to do but interfere in the lives of others by matchmaking (badly).

Anya Taylor-Joy takes the title role and admirably plays the part of the very attractive busy-body who gets in the way of people’s lives. Bill Nighy (who I will watch in anything) is her father and plays it for full comedic value. The priest Mr. Elton has Josh O’Connor (ex The Durrells) in a slimy role and all in all everything is as expected – a Jane Austin dull farce. An appearance by Miranda Hart as Miss Bates completes the picture.

A usual Austin production – lush and rich – with quality performances as a pretty average Austin story. Three stars of five.

Coda (2020)

Sir Patrick Stewart (a fellow Yorkshireman) gives a near perfect performance as a concert pianist who is returning to performance after a period of absence taken because of the death of his wife. Trouble is, his debut performances are marred by his sudden and unexpected experience of stage fright (something similar happened to Horowitz, though he stopped performing followed a truly dreadful review – his wife lived on). He is nursed back on stage by the music critic of the New Yorker who is writing a long piece about him – she is played by Katie Holmes in a very sympathetic portrayal. His agent, played by Giancarlo Esposito, is acting as a go between for the pianist, the critic and the concert halls. Its all very well done and Stewart is outstanding and convincing in this role.

Four stars out of five.

Belgravia (TV, 2020)

Lord Julian Fellowes’ (Barron Fellowes of West Stafford) new TV drama (dubbed Downtown II by some wags) is based on his own novel about middle class and wealthy families around the time of Waterloo. It is essentially a “toffs” versus trades story, with twists and turns. As such its fine, but predictable (as Downtown was). We are missing the wonderful one liners wonderfully delivered by Maggie Smith (Dowager Lady Crawley) and the upstairs vs downstairs intrigue, but it is a competent production.

Three and half stars of five (so far).

Knives Out (2019)

A classic murder mystery. Exceptionally well done with some wonderful people in the cast – Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Colette, Don Johnson. Hopkins plays a wealthy writer whose family are all living off his royalties. The key is his will. Who will he leave his fortune to?

He is not well. He is cared for by a nurse played by Ana de Armas. In a combination of farce-like plot twists, Hopkins kills himself and leaves his fortune to the nurse. Then the plot hots up.

It is engaging, funny and smart. You will like it. Five stars of five.

Mr. Jones (2019)

True story of the Welsh journalist (Jones) who visited Russia and Ukraine at the time of the Stalin famine and came back to report the truth. Harrowing, dramatic and powerful film (sometimes difficult to watch as it touches on the real depravity of Stalin’s regime) with quality performances, especially from James Norton as Gareth Jones. Five stars of five.

Adults in the Room (2019)

I really enjoyed the book on which this film is based. It is the story of the Greek finance minister – Yanis Varoufakis – and his attempt to secure a sensible, practical financial settlements with the EU, IMF and European Central Bank (the troika) during the early stages of the Greek financial crisis. Having just won an election on the promise of not implementing the austerity measures which the troika had demanded, he offered other routes to common sense response. Deceit, downright skullduggery, saying one thing in private and another in public within seconds this true story is powerful. The story switches languages a fair bit (subtitles are there), but is nonetheless compelling.

It wont be for everyone. But for political junkies, it’s a good account of the book. Three and a half stars of five.

Little Women (2019)

We’re supposed to like this film because it was directed by a women (Greta Gerwig), stars some very smart women actresses (including the very talented Saorise Ronan, Emma Watson and Lorna Dern) and is a modern twist on the tired and reasonably dull novel by Louisa May Alcott. Meryl Streep also plays the elderly aunt.

The film skips time a few times, the story is changed to give a nicer ending and is still a dull story. I didn’t like it. My wife didn’t like it. Others thought it was Oscar quality (it wasn’t) and I got in trouble for being blunt about it (am used to getting in trouble for being blunt). Two stars of five, three if you give me good scotch.

The Postcard Killings (2020)

A sick couple kill other couples (usually just married) and then pose them with their body parts mutulated in poses linked to famous works of art. One of the couples includes the daughter of an NYPD / FBI police officer who insists on investigating these murders across Europe. The title comes from the fact that the killers always send a postcard to a journalist in the city the murder takes place in with a short message.

Solid story line with an interesting plot twist, but is essentially a police procedural. Good acting from some (and wooden acting from others) with the lead role played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

Three stars of five.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Tom Hanks, currently stuck in Australia with a diagnosis of COVID-19, plays Mr Rogers – the creepy TV personality who occupied children’s TV for many years in the US. Trained as a pastor with a degree in theology, he developed a persona on TV that was intended to demonstrate compassion, love and care for others. He shared space with people of colour, accepted differences between people as normal and developed a view that we are all made in the likeness and with the spirit of God.

I sometimes watched Mr. Rogers. I didnt like the real one – I found it creepy and stilted – but he was more than popular. He was a legend.

Hanks does a great job of capturing both the character and the essence of Fred Rogers and does so through a compelling story of the relationship he developed with a reporter sent to write a profile. It’s a good story, well told and the performances are true to character. I just never liked Mr Rogers and this film reminds me why.

Four stars out of five.

Two Popes (2019)

Since school I have been fascinated by the papacy. I have written about it, read about it, studied it seriously. I predicted, two weeks before it happened at a formal presentation, the election of Benedict and also the election of Francis. I went to Catholic schools (K-12) and enjoyed my time there. So I looked forward to this film which looks at the way in which Francis came to be and his relationship with Pope Emeritus Benedict.

It’s a good film. Sir Anthony Hopkins is excellent as Benedict – focused, severe and Germanic. But the stand out performance here – nominated for an Oscar – was Jonathan Pryce as Francis. Francis is a fascinating man – in public a populist and sensitive, in private a difficult and sometimes angry man. Widely seen as a reformer, many of his reforms are stalled or failed.

He also has a history, which this film thoroughly explores.

Five stars of five. A must see film.

The Tiger Who Came for Tea (2019)

We watched this at Xmas with the grandkids. It is one of those ageless stories that fascinates and this animation is excellently done. Five stars.

For adults, I also like the 8 Out of Ten Cats version – The Tiger Who Came for a Pint:

Official Secrets (2019)

Keira Knightley does a great job in this movie, based entirely on actual events, portraying Katharine Gun who betrayed official secrets to draw attention to the way in which the US lied to the UN so as to secure their support for the 2003 Iraq invasion. Some great work by the cast as a whole, especially Ralph Fiennes and Rhys Ifans. The plot is well paced and the story is powerful. Colin Firth was an executive producer on this film.

Four stars out of five.

The Guard of Auschwitz (2018)

An SS officer, who is serving alongside his father, gets an attack of conscience at Aushwitz and decides not to follow orders and has to deal with the consequences, which involve him having to shoot his father. Lewis Kirk has fifteen ways of showing angst and three for anger. It’s one of those films. You have to watch to the end, whether you want to or not, just to see how he deals with it all, but it is predictable.

Three stars of five.

The Windermere Children (2020)

Shortly after the war, some British jews arranged for a number of children to come to the UK after they were liberated from Nazi camps, like Auschwitz. Of the 750 children the UK government admitted, 300 arrived in the Lake District to be housed in a former army / munitions camp. They were scared, had no english, were resented by some local adults and children. Over time, they were engaged in learning and development activities, received counselling and therapy (including the then new form of art therapy) and were able to play in the wonderful setting of the Lake District.

The film is a documentary based recreation of the experience of these children and ends with short interviews of some of those, now in their 80’s and 90’s, who lived the experience.

I loved this movie. Moving, insightful and telling. Five stars out of five.

The White Crow (2019)

The defection of Nureyev was a remarkable thing – I remember it well ( I was 11 in 1961). It just seemed remarkable to me that such a famous dancer could defect and chose to do so in Paris. It is a story that has fascinated David Hare, who wrote about about it, and Ralph Fiennes, who produced and directed this film. Fiennes also plays the part of Nureyev’s teacher Alexander Pushkin. (Pushkin was also the teacher of Barishnykov, who also defected).

The young man playing Nureyev – Oleg Ivenko – had never acted before and was in fact a dancer (and a very good one). He is simply superb in this part and convincing.

A great and engrossing movie. Five stars out of five.

The Night Clerk (2020)

Portrayals on film of a person with aspergers syndrome (or anyone on the spectrum) that work are rare. This one works. Our main character is Bart Bromley played by Tye Sheridan – he is employed as a night clerk in a hotel. He has installed cameras and microphones in all of the rooms and happens to record a murder. He becomes a suspect, but didn’t do it. Soke very solid acting here by Tye, his mother (Helen Hunt) and the detective (John Leguziamo). Also a wonderful romantic interest (Ana de Armas). It’s not a fast action movie – the plot is built carefully (slow) but powerfully. Four stars of five.

1917 (2019)

A simple story. In the middle of the great war, two soldiers are tasked with the mission of reaching the front line with an order to stop an advance / attack scheduled for two days time. AMongst those who would be certainly killed in the attack is the brother of one of the soldiers on the mission. There are a number of plot twists and turns which keep this a fast paced movie.

It is simply a superbly made film. Powerful and effective CGI, quality performances from the principal characters (Dean Charles Chapman and George McKay) with strong cameos from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, this is a must see award winning film written and directed by Sam Mendes based on a story his father experienced in that war.

The film also has an appearance by Billy Postlethwaite, son of the great character and dramatic actor Peter. Billy was also in Tomb Raider and Game of Thrones.

Late Night (2019)

Emma Thompson is either brilliant or intensely annoying. In this film she is brilliant. A fading talk show host hires a new writer – Mindy Kaling – who turns the show around. There are sub-plots (affairs, a dying husband, writer jealousy), but the film moves along a story line which is well developed and works. Mindy wrote the script for this film and is very solid in her role. Emma dominates but shows real vulnerability and sensitivity in the part. A fun and sometime funny movie, well worth watching. Four stars of five.

Judy (2019)

Renee Zellweger nails the character of Judy Garland in this movie, centred around her 1968 appearances in London. She deserved the Oscar and Golden Globe and BAFTA for this work. Outstanding movie, showing the real ups and downs of this troubled person. Nice cameo from Michael Gambon and good performances all round. Five stars of five.

Red Joan (2019)

I often wonder what will happen to drama when Judi Dench dies. A fellow Yorkshireperson, she is an outstanding actress despite now being almost blind. Yet here she is. Acting in a true story about a woman who decided that keeping things secret was a bad idea, especially when what was at stake was the future of mankind and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Red Joan gave US/UK secrets to the Russians and managed to hide this fact for many years until her secret was revealed. This is the story of Joan Stanley who is living in retirement when she is busted by MI5. Sophie Cookson plays Joan as the younger lady in the 1930’s who falls in love with Leo, who is a Russian agent and a physicist. Directed by Trevor Nun it is well paced, powerful story which will intrigue. There are lovely moments between Joan and her son (an establishment lawyer) and her former husband. Five stars of five.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

Ted Bundy was exactly what this film title said he was – evil and vile (the movie title comes from the summing up from the Texas judge who convicted him, played brilliantly here by John Malkovich). This is the story of Bundy told through the eyes of his long time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins). It’s a gripping drama, based on her book and well told here. Great cast – though I wasn’t sure at first about Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) role as a prosecuting lawyer, but he grows on you here. Good film. Four out of five stars.

Vita and Virginia (2018)

Dame Eileen Atkins had wanted to make this film for a long time (she wrote it based on Virginia Woolf’s letters) and finally got to do so. Trouble is, its a patchy story poorly told. What is clear is that neither Vita Sackville-West or Virginia Woolf were never really stable characters and both had bi-sexual inclinations (fine by me). But this film is strangely unsatisfactory and doesn’t quite work, but I am not sure why.

Good performances by Elizabeth Debicki (Woolf), Gemma Arterton (Vita), Isabella Rossellini (Lady Sacville) and Rupert Penry-Jones (Henryv Nicholson) ensure the film is compelling yet somehow..

Three stars from five.

Cold Pursuit (2019)

Liam Neeson plays Liam Neeson being angry and hurt and in pursuit of whoever is responsible for the death of his son (sound familiar). What I liked about this film was that my friend Tom is in it. Tom Jackson plays White Bull – an indigenous drug Lord – and its a pivotol role in this movie. Also here are Laura Dern (seems to be in everything!) and Wesley McInnes. A good story – murder mystery in the snow and cold (I do live in Alberta). Three and half stars of five.

Tolkien (2019)

The story of his early life and the way in which, though failing initially as an academic, he found his forte and excelled. Wonderful performances (especially by Nicholas Hoult in the lead role and Harry Gilby as the younger version), with nice roles for Pam Ferris, Lily Collins and Derek Jacobi). Five stars of five.

Miss. Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

A totally dreadful, pointless and painful movie to watch. Even Miriam Margoyles part os weak and poorly written. Such dreadful tosh. The tears in the title come from having to watch it. No stars of five.

Stan and Ollie (2019)

A fun film, if sad. It follows Stan and Ollie at the end of their career during their tour of the UK. Steve Coogan and John Reilly are outstanding in the lead roles here – very convincing. There are some good scenes and funny material, but this is a tragi-comedy. I liked the script and pace. Five stars of five.

The Perfection (2019)

A very odd film. An outstanding violist has a father who she does not really know who was a world class composer. He dies. Leaves her an odd mansion in France in which she finds he has written her a violin concerto which, when played, summons up the devil. Quite. Very silly. Interesting. But very silly. Good performances, a very silly story (have I mentioned this). Two and half stars of five.

The Upside (2019)

Kevin Hart, Brian Cranston and Nicole Kidman play a wonderfully funny set of characters and Hart has some brilliant one liners in this medical comedy. Cranston is disabled from the neck down and needs constant nursing. Hart gets the job, hired by Kidman, saying that he can do and has all sorts of experience when he has none. It is a very funny film – saw it in Balek (Turkey) with friends and we laughed until we needed more wine. It is based on a true story and was made by Harvey Winestain – one of the few decent things he did. Five out of five stars.

The Professor and the Madman (2019)

Sean Penn and Mel Gibson work well in this true story of a US doctor who goes bonkers and is hospitalized for insanity at Broadmoor. Gibson is working on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and Penn becomes one of the great contributors of words and their definitions – over 10,000 entries. This is the story of their relationship and bond. Solid performances and quality film work. Five out of five stars.

Sometimes, Always, Never (2018)

Bill Nighy is wonderful in this movie (but then he does not do poor performances). A love of words shown by Nighy helps connect him back to his long lost son, played by Sam Riley. They had been separated when the son storms out of the family home as a result of a dispute over a word in a game of scrabble (seems reasonable to me). Nighy loves words and plays online and starts to encounter an online player who he thinks must be his son. He tracks him down to a caravan and they connect again. Nice drama, mystery with some levels of dry humour. Four and half stars of five.

The Aftermath (2019)

A British colonel is posted to Hamburg at the end of WWII to oversee reconstruction and to maintain law and order. He commandeers a house, where the former owner (and a Nazi and his daughter) remain in a part of the property. The colonel (Ned Wills) is joined by his wife (Keira Knightley) and various plots and sub plots ensue, most of which revolve around brits vs germans, sex and germans versus germans. Plot is meandering and Knightley is not on top form. Good performances by Alexander Skarsgard. Three stars of five.

The Highwaymen (2019)

Kevin Costner goes after Bonnie and Clyde. We know the story and the ending, yet Costner makes this pretty solid and compelling movie, helped by Woody Harrelson who plays his morose sidekick. I liked this, though some think it slow. Four stars of five.

The Repair Shop (TV Series)

I love a good cry. This does it every-time. My dad was a joiner / carpenter and was wonderfully clever with his hands. Everyone on this show is a craftsperson who restore items of genuine sentimental value. To see such wonderful craftsmanship at work and to see the delight in the restoration, well it is wonderful full stop. But it also reminds me of my dad. Every time. Now on US television, but it comes from the BBC.