A to Z in April 2022

Reflections on the A-Z Challenge 2022 Edition

Another April has gone by and it’s been another successful A-Z Challenge here on ElenaSquareEyes.

This was the ninth year in a row I’ve taken part in and completed this challenge and I think this was the year I was closest to failing. I refused to fail because I don’t like failing anything and while I had the best intentions and had over half of the posts written and scheduled before April came around, the latter half of the month got away from me. It feels somewhat apt that I’m only just putting together my reflections post, days after the so called deadline, because the last few weeks have definitely blurred into one another for me.

I do enjoy writing film reviews but I seem to always forget how long they take and watching and reviewing 26 films in a relatively short space of time does take a while. I watched some films I’d been putting off for ages so this challenge was a success plus I watched some that I liked for more than I expected to like Letters from Iwo Jima and Rope. Rope especially is a film I can see myself revisiting often.

The most popular posts/reviews were of House of Flying Daggers, Space Cowboys, and Blue Steel which is an interesting mix of genres. Funnily enough the most popular film review of the month was XXY which was featured in 2020’s April A-Z Challenge. That was the last time I did film reviews for the challenge and after two years of it I’m not sure if I’ll manage a third.

I didn’t visit and comment on as many blogs as I hopped to but I did enjoy reading the ones I did visit and I really appreciate all the comments I received. I think next year I will aim to get all my posts written and scheduled before April actually begins, that way I’ll have far more time to visit all the other blogs taking part. I don’t know what my theme will be for my tenth year doing this challenge. I’ve done film reviews, favourite characters, favourite songs, favourite anything, and I have a whole year to figure it out. I say this and watch me panic about it in March 2023 so if you have any suggestions for a theme please do share!

I hope all of you who took part in the challenge had fun and a successful A-Z in April. Thanks to those who stopped by my blog and liked or commented – it always means a lot. For more information on the A-Z in April Challenge visit the website.

Z is for Zoe (2018)

Cole (Ewan McGregor) and Zoe (Léa Seydoux) are colleagues at a research lab that designs drugs and technology to improve and perfect romantic relationships. As they become close, their relationship is threatened when Zoe discovers the truth about their relationship, sending them into a spiral of confusion, betrayal and the most intense of human emotions, love.

Zoe is such a sweet, thoughtful take on relationships, romance and what it means to be human. It’s that kind of near-future sci-fi that I love where everything is as we’d expect bar one aspect. In this instance, that thing is how evolved AI is and that androids, or “synthetics” as they’re called here, can be so lifelike that they can fool humans. They can be programmed to feel and connect with people so humans never have to be lonely.

Ash (Theo James) is one such synthetic and seeing him learn and adapt and feel does make you question the differences between humans and machines. While his code is his foundation, he’s been given memories and personality and is able to decide things for himself. Theo James does a good job at adding little hesitations to Ash’s movements and showing that as he learns, he mostly appears “human” but there’s still the odd moment with him that’s a little unsettling.

The romance between Cole and Zoe is interesting as they both seem so isolated but for different reasons. There’s a hesitancy about both of them and as more of their pasts are revealed, you begin to understand why they act that way.

As a sidenote, I really liked the relationship between Cole and his ex-wife Emma (Rashida Jones). So often you see an antagonistic relationship between ex’s, even when they’re coparenting like these two are. While there still is the odd moment of awkwardness between the two of them, it’s clear that they both still care about each other and want the other to be happy, even if it’s not with themselves.

Zoe is an interesting sci-fi/romance film. The central performances are all great and the romance between Cole and Zoe is believable. Similarities can be made between Zoe and Her, and both films have a similar melancholy vibe to them. So if you like one of those films, there’s a good chance you’d like the other. 4/5.

Y is for The Year of Spectacular Men (2017)

After graduating and kind of breaking up with her boyfriend, Izzy Klein (Madelyn Deutch) decides to move back to LA from New York and move in with her successful younger sister Sabrina (Zoey Deutch). As Izzy tries to figure out what she wants from life she makes the most of her freedom and binge watches The X-Files and meets many guys who could possibly be “the one”.

I feel after I highlighted the potential nepotism in Quincy, I have to give The Year of Spectacular Men equal treatment. It’s directed by Lea Thompson (who also plays Izzy and Sabrina’s mother) and stars her real-life daughters and while they both have acting experience prior to this film, it’s interesting to think if some of the scenes between the daughters and mother would have the same natural and comforting vibe as these three do.

The Year of Spectacular Men is kind of a combination of coming-of-age story, rom-com, and family drama and as it tries to be so many things at once, it doesn’t always nail each one. I think the aspect that works best is the coming-of-age one as Izzy is at a crossroads in her life, trying to figure out what she wants to do after university. She’s had many different ideas or interests that she’s picked up and then dropped and she is sort of in limbo when it comes to romance. She seems to simultaneously get really attached to a guy while also doing what she can to push them away. It’s as if because she’s so unsure of herself, she’s unsure of any relationship in her life.

Perhaps it’s a given as they are real life sisters but the scenes with Izzy and Sabrina are the highlight of tis film. Their relationship is the heart of the film and it’s interesting how though Sabrina is the younger one, she seems to have her life more together as she has a home, a boyfriend, and a blossoming career as an actress/model. It’d be easy to have Izzy be resentful of her little sister but instead she admires her, helps her and always wants to protect her – even from things that she really shouldn’t. it’s still an interesting dynamic as Sabrina is the one encouraging Izzy to find a job, helps her make connections, and just try and get her out of her spare room.

The humour in The Year of Spectacular Men is more of the quirky and sometimes absurd kind rather than huge laughs. Izzy see things in an unusual way at times and how she acts around other people is sometimes awkward as she’s not totally comfortable in herself.

The Year of Spectacular Men is a pretty breezy rom-com/drama. The familial dynamics are the best and it’s always nice seeing films about messy twentysomething women who don’t have everything figured out. 3/5.

X is for X+Y (2014)

Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a socially awkward teenage math prodigy finds new confidence and new friendships when he lands a spot on the British squad at the International Mathematics Olympiad.

Saying Nathan is socially awkward might be a bit of a disservice to him but that’s how IMDb phrased it. In actuality Nathan is Autistic. He’s quiet and likes things a certain way, he loves maths but isn’t good at physical touch. Autism is a spectrum and while Nathan is certainly reserved in social situations, it’s almost like he can pass it off as being shy, especially compared to Luke (Jake Davies). Luke is also on the British squad and he’s the almost stereotypical type of Autistic character. He doesn’t get any social cues, is abrupt and doesn’t fit in. At times it feels like X+Y is showing that Nathan’s Autism is the “acceptable” or “good” version when compared to Luke, especially as other boys on the team make comments about Luke and how obvious it is that he’s Autism to Nathan’s face, showing they haven’t picked up any supposedly obvious traits from him.

It’d be interesting to here from Autistic people to see how good or bad a job the filmmakers and actors did with regards to Autism. Both young actors are pretty great but how truthfully each of their depictions are, I’m not sure.

X+Y is as much Nathan’s story as it is his mum, Julie’s (Sally Hawkins). She struggles to connect with her son and she’s still grieving for her husband who died in an accident when Nathan was younger. As Nathan starts to make connections, noticeably with rival Chinese mathematician Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), it allows him to open up more and between them he and his mother start to bridge the gap between them.

X+Y is a bit of a formulaic film and hits a lot of the usual narrative beats but the stellar British cast does a good job at elevating it most of the time. X+Y is one of those films that’s tinged with melancholy and hope and is decent though predictable. 3/5.

W is for White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

White Hunter Black Heart is thinly inspired by director John Huston and the experience he and his crew had while making The African Queen. Renowned filmmaker John Wilson (Clint Eastwood) travels to Africa to direct a new movie, but his desire to hunt down an elephant turns into a grim situation with his movie crew, putting production behind and lives on the line.

This is honestly one of the best performances I’ve seen from Clint Eastwood. John Wilson is such a charming guy but he’s also reckless and selfish. He clearly has a moral backbone as he picks fights with racists and insults antisemites to their faces but when he becomes obsessed with hunting a huge elephant it’s like any of his likable qualities fade away. Though, were those supposedly admirable qualities really there, or was it all his ego? Using when his friend is belittled to make a point and appear smarter than others or using when a black waiter is mistreated to start a fight and get out some of his pent-up aggression. While in a roundabout way he stood up for those people, did he do it just to make himself feel good or from a sense of justice? These are the things you’re left wondering about John Wilson.

Eastwood plays him to perfection. It probably helps that through his long career Eastwood has played his fair share of toxic male characters but here the toxic masculinity isn’t something to be admired but to be cautious of. Combined with the ego and insecurity of an artist, John is a captivating character and someone you’re never too sure what he’s going to do next.

Pete (Jeff Fahey) is the film’s writer and John’s friend. He’s the voice of reason to a lot of John’s suggestions, or rather he attempts to be but John is so strong-willed that he often barely registers Pete’s objections.

Personally, I enjoyed seeing Brit Alun Armstrong in this. He played Ralph Lockhart who works for one of the producers of the film John and Peter are supposed to be finishing writing and scouting locations. There’s some good banter between Ralph and John as they have opposing ideas and as Ralph gets more used to John’s obsession and almost gives up on the film being made, he has some funny lines. Just the disbelief and grim acceptance of the film productions situation is amusing as he’s one of the first to realise how potentially bad a situation the cast and crew could be in thanks to John.

White Hunter Black Heart is a gripping film thanks to Eastwood’s performance. He plays a fascinating character and there’s a sense of foreboding throughout as he gets more and more obsessed with hunting a bull elephant. It’s very reminiscent of Moby Dick with the elephant being John’s white whale and woe betide anyone who stands in his way. 4/5.

V is for Vita & Virginia (2018)

The love affair between socialite and popular author Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and literary icon Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki).

Vita & Virginia is one of those films I chose to watch for two reasons and neither of them was because I thought I’d really enjoy the film. Those two reasons were one; it had an actor I liked a lot in it (in this case, Gemma Arterton) and two; it’s directed by a woman so can count towards my 52 Films by Women challenge. I didn’t go into Vita & Virginia thinking I’d hate it (and I didn’t) but equally, it wasn’t a story I was particularly interested in.

Based upon their real letters Vita & Virginia tells the story of how these two women met and became entangled in each other’s lives. There are many times where the letters are just read out by the actresses and the camera lingers on the face of the recipient as they register the words. This was an interesting way to show how they kept in touch and felt about one another to begin with, but the repetition soon got old.

It’s unfortunate that while the two leads do a decent job with what they’re given, it’s their relationships with their husbands that is far more touching and interesting than their forbidden love affair. Arterton and Debicki don’t have great chemistry whereas the support and care both Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando) show their respected wives feels more real. Both couple’s marriages are unconventional in different ways and it’s a shame that’s what interested me more than what was happening between the titular characters.

The cast is good, it’s just how the film is put together (and a sometimes-dry script) that lets them down. How Vita & Virginia is edited feels weird. Some scenes or moments are cut too short so any intended emotional impact is lost while others meander or build to something that never happens. It makes this one hour and 50 minutes film often feel a lot longer than that. The music is also a bit strange at times, with almost techno, dance music playing during a party. It kind of feels it was going for the Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette anachronistic vibe of clashing the historical and the modern but as it wasn’t consistent in Vita & Virginia, it’s just more jarring and feels out of place.

Overall, while the cast does what they can with what they’re given, the lack of chemistry between the leads and its slow-pace makes Vita & Virginia feel far longer and duller than what it probably was. 2/5.

U is for Upside-Down Magic (2020)

Nory (Izabela Rose) and her best friend Reina (Siena Agudong) enter the Sage Academy for Magical Studies, where Nory’s unconventional powers land her in a class for those with wonky, or “upside-down,” magic. Undaunted, Nory sets out to prove that that upside-down magic can be just as powerful as right-side-up.

As I near the end of my A-Z Challenge I wanted to watching something that wouldn’t be too taxing and found this Disney Channel Original movie on Disney+. It’s based on a book (which I haven’t read) and it’s almost a combination of Harry Potter and Sky High but that works surprisingly well.

Reina’s power is creating fire and she is good at it but lacks confidence, especially when Nory is no longer with her to be her hype woman. Those two are some of the best tween best friends I’ve seen in media for ages. Both young actresses were great and I really believed in their friendship. Nory’s power is that she can change into a creature, but not just one, she always ends up as a mixture of two or more animals which doesn’t fit in with the neat aesthetic of Sage Academy.

Honestly, the teachers at Sage Academy are the worst. So many of them are super strict and expect perfection all the time that it makes the kids unsure of themselves. Plus, as the sort of moral of the story is embracing all your weirdness and differences, there’s a lot of adults who are against that and the headmistress especially is dismissive of Nory. Skriff (Kyle Howard) is the groundskeeper/teacher for Nory and the three other kids whose powers don’t fit into the neat normal and he’s a bit jaded too to begin with but once he starts to help Nory and the others too, he becomes a lot more likeable.

Upside-Down Magic feels like one of the Disney Channel Original Movies that they actually spent some money and effort on. The young cast are all pretty great, the special effects don’t look terrible, and it’s a film with a good message and themes. The villain of the film is interesting and looks pretty good too, and how they build the weirdness and make a book super creepy is admirable.

Overall, Upside-Down Magic is a fun, easy-watch kind of kid’s film. There’s a lot of great friendships between various characters, like the bond formed between Nory and the other kids with upside-down magic, but really, it’s Nory and Reina’s friendship that’s at the heart of this film. They really are the best of friends. 3/5.

T is for The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The trouble with Harry is that he is dead and, while no one really minds, everyone feels responsible. After Harry’s body is found in the woods, several locals must determine not only how and why he was killed but what to do with the body.

Because some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well know films like Psycho, The Birds, and Rear Window (only one of which I’ve seen but their reputations precede them) are horror or thriller films, I always get a bit surprised when I watch one of his films and find it’s a comedy. There’s still a dead body and the mystery of who killed him, but The Trouble with Harry is a much more light hearted film than I expected.

While everything does revolve around a murder the dialogue is often quite witty. As the characters try and figure out what happened to Harry and who was really to blame, the situation surrounding Harry’s body gets more absurd as by trying to save themselves, they might actually be making themselves look more and more guilty.

The Trouble with Harry is Shirley MacLaine’s first feature film and it’s so interesting to see her in a role like this when all the films I’ve previously seen her in she’s been a cranky and/of humorous older lady, granting wisdom or causing mischief. It’s clear she had her comic timing from the beginning and she has good chemistry with John Forsythe – even if their characters romance seemed a bit rushed. Though that’s probably because the events of The Trouble with Harry all take place across just a couple of days, meaning any reveals or blossoming romance between characters does feel a bit quick.

Even though there’s a corpse at the centre of The Trouble with Harry, thanks to where it’s set and all the scenes outside, it feels like a very autumnal film. It has a charm to it that I wasn’t expecting and is a very family friendly murder mystery. 3/5.

S is for Space Cowboys (2000)

When an aging Russian satellite suffers a system failure that could set it on a collision course for Earth, retired engineer Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) is called into help as his now outdated guidance system is what the satellite runs on. He blackmails his former boss Bob Gerson (James Cromwell) in order to get his old team back together to complete the mission, and soon Frank, pilot William “Hawk” Hawkings (Tommy Lee Jones), flight engineer Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) and navigator Tank Sullivan (James Garner) are all going through training at NASA to prove their fitness for the mission.

I love a good space movie, especially ones that focus on the technical aspects of space travel and have all the usual tropes with interesting characters in ground control as well as in space, office politics, and things not going to plan – Apollo 13 and The Martian are my favourite space films. Space Cowboys ticks all those boxes so I had a great time with this film.

The friendship between the old teammates is what really made Space Cowboys for me. So many of the scenes when they’re all together, just chatting, or messing around during their training were fun to watch. It all seemed so natural as they took the mick out of one another but also clearly cared about one another. Some of them hadn’t seen each other for years but the sign of a good friendship is being able to easily fall back into the old rhythms of a friendship like no time had passed at all.

The first two acts of Space Cowboys are Frank getting the team back together and them going through training together. There are the usual clichés of clashes between the old, would-be astronauts and the young, trained professionals but things never turn too nasty and as their training progresses you can see there’s a grudging respect between the two generations. The third act is the mission into space and naturally just about everything that could go wrong, does. There’s a bit of a farfetched reveal about the satellite but besides from that the mission in space is tense and action-packed.

As someone who grew up watching James Cromwell as the nice and gentle farmer in Babe, it’s been a weird experience watching the rest of his filmography as I get older, especially when he plays characters who aren’t that nice at all. Whenever he and Eastwood butt heads it’s fun to see but Cromwell’s character has such a shifty undertone to him it’s a bit disconcerting.

Have to mention the needle drop of *NSYNC’s Space Cowboy which was not a song I’d ever think would be in a Clint Eastwood movie but when the title works, it’d be a crime not to use it.

Overall Space Cowboys is a fun film with engaging characters. Sure, the main plot is saving a failing satellite but really it’s a film about friendship, loyalty, and trust and it has one of the most believable group of friends I’ve seen in film in a while. 4/5.

R is for Rope (1948)

Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) attempt to prove they’ve committed the perfect crime by hosting a dinner party after strangling their former classmate to death.

I’ve currently only watched like three Hitchcock films but this is definitely my favourite. It has so many tropes I love like the plot just being contained to one location and disaster gays because yep, this film from the 1940s is one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I went into Rope knowing nothing about it and 10 minutes in I had to pause it and google “Rope Hitchcock gay” as I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into it from a modern perspective but nope, turns out it was understood to be pretty gay in the 40s too.

This comes from the relationship between Brandon and Phillip, two friends and flatmates. Dall and Granger have great chemistry and their relationship is fascinating. While Phillip slowly starts to unravel as the guilt and tension gets to him, Brandon relishes in their crime and the fact their dinner guests are unaware that the missing guest is currently dead and in a chest in the middle of the living room they’re all sitting in.

Rope is so gripping as you spend most of the film in the murders shoes and not wanting them to get caught because they are both very likable. Brandon’s effortlessly charming, though he can make a biting comment now and then, and Phillip is sweet and as he gets stressed about their situation, so do you.

It’s Rupert (James Stewart), their former school housemaster, who poses the biggest threat to the murderers. A lot of the theories about morality that Brandon buys into he learnt from Rupert and as he knew them both when they were younger, Rupert is likely to be the one to figure out when something’s not quite right.

Filmmaking-wise Rope is just great. It’s just set in their New York apartment and so much of the action takes place in the living room, with the chest with a body inside a presence in the room that as the viewer, you’re always aware of. Rope is comprised of a lot of long takes, each are often five minutes long or more, and it’s so interesting when you realise what’s happening. It makes the film feel like everything’s happening in real time and therefore the tension builds organically. The way the camera and actors move around the set is like a dance and a lot of the cuts are “hidden” so it zooms into the back of someone’s jacket before moving out again or something similar.

While obviously Dall, Granger, and Stewart are the main focus of Rope (though Stewart doesn’t actually appear on screen until almost 30 minutes into this 80-minute film) the supporting cast are a good too and the characters feel and act as they would at a slightly awkward dinner party. I loved Janet (Joan Chandler), Phillip and Brandon’s friend and the girlfriend of the missing party guest. She has a wry sense of humour and isn’t afraid to call out Brandon’s sly comments.

Rope is just a really interesting film. It’s a tense film with a great cast and the homoerotic subtext between Brandon and Phillip just adds extra layers to it all. 5/5.