Julie and the Phantoms (season 1)

julie and the phantoms poster

Sometimes you’re in need of something a little lighter in your viewing – step forward this high school musical with added ghosts!

Julie is a gifted musician, but the death of her mother has left her too traumatised with the grief to return to the music they both loved. That is until she discovers a box of memorabilia in the garage that turns out to belong to the former residents – a band that met a sticky end (we get some non-traumatic flashbacks) before their chance and the big time.

And suddenly Julie’s life comes with a spectral backing group…

I’m probably three times or more the target age group for this show, and I did find the teenage leads a tiny bit grating at times, but as a light and easy watch it was pretty good. The entire series is about four and a half hours long, and there was a lot of room in my viewing for short, sub-half hour episodes of something I didn’t have to pay too much attention to.

That said, the story isn’t half-bad. The focus is split between Julie refinding her life and love of music while dealing with grief and her relationship with her family (I love her dad – nicely supportive!) and the band members’ new reality as ghosts. Tiny spoiler, but they’ve been in limbo for much longer than they realise, so there’s also a little bit of comedy from the ‘how things have changed in the world in 30 years’.

Fair warning, there’s a lot of singing in this show. It’s impressive that they tell the story they want in what’s left of the time, really, as every episode is padded with at least one big number. Thankfully the music is pretty good, and all the cast can sing really well.

It’s not for everyone, granted, but if you don’t mind a bit of teenage-y angst and maybe a little too much music, then this was the right balance of fun but not dumb.

First broadcast: September 2020
Series: 1 (so far?)
Episodes: 9 @ ~30 mins each

My rating: 7/10

Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)

bill and ted poster

I absolutely adored Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) when I saw it as a young teen, and it made a lot more sense when I finally caught the equally fun Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) some time afterwards. The idea of a third movie, some 30 years later, was both intriguing and a bit worrying. I mean, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Bill and Ted know that it is their destiny to write the song that unites the whole world – some bodacious dude from the future told them so! But now middle age has arrived and the pair are still, quite frankly, losers. Their brief taste of fame and adulation at the end of the last movie, after winning the Battle of the Bands, clearly didn’t stick, and now it seems we might all be out of time.

With just hours left before their date with destiny (although how that works given, y’know, time travel?), the slackers hatch the obvious plan: travel forward to a point in time where they have already written the song, and bring it back. Of course, they also have to deal with a murderous time-travelling robot, Medieval Princess Babe wives who might or might not be leaving them, and two teenage daughters who have so much in common with their dads.

I’ve been looking forward to this and slightly dreading it in equal measures, so first thing: this did not poop all over my fond childhood memories! Made with a clear love of its roots, part three is an overall sweet and gentle kind of affair, which I think was the right call, especially in this day and age.

And there’s plenty to like. The duo are still being excellent to each other, still have that sense of innate goodness. There are nods back and easter eggs a-plenty. The various future versions of themselves they visit are a whole lot of fun. And the female versions of B&T, Billie and Thea, are exactly as you’d imagine them to be.

However, while I enjoyed the movie and liked a lot of it, it’s not… well, it’s not ‘excellent’. It’s fine, okay. I’m glad I saw it, and it hit enough buttons. But… hmm. Hmm. It was slightly disconcerting seeing these ‘teenage’ slackers grown to middle age, I suppose. And while they’re obviously having fun, there’s a lack of much newness here – while at the same time the things that are new feel ever so slightly out of place. I dunno, I would have been disappointed to switch the focus any more off Bill and Ted onto the daughters, for example, and yet the latter needed some more time spent with them to seem like more than just weird imitations?

All of which is asking a lot from the third in what has always been a gently dumb, fun kind of daft series. This one fits, and after such a long gap that’s quite an achievement! Still, it feels more like a loving homage to the first two movies than anything new, and to be fair, I suspect that’s probably what a lot of the audience actually wanted.

Overall: it’s as daft as expected, plays to the fans of the original, and provides a sweet and fun little break from the realities of the world. If there’s a little added pathos in there from watching cute young things remind you that life doesn’t always play out the way you expect – well, bonus.

Released: 23rd September 2020
Viewed: 31st August 2020
Running time: 91 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7.5/10

The Umbrella Academy (season 2)

umbrella academy season 2 poster

My love for The Umbrella Academy was clear from season 1, with its quirky, irreverent take on the superhero genre. Season 2 would finally solve the cliff-hanger ending, but would its appeal wane with the shifting story?

Well I’m delighted to report: absolutely not! In fact, there’s as much if not more to love here 🙂

Backing up a bit, and we’re still following the lives of the seven adopted Hargreeves siblings, each with a different super power: the ability to talk to the dead or to make people do what you say, teleportation, super strength, etc. At the end of season 1 (spoiler warning!) their attempts to save the world went a little awry, and the attempt then to save themselves ended up with Five’s time travel ability taking them all back to the 1960s – only, not the same part of the 60s.

And so we have the group split up and out of time, each facing challenges. Alison perhaps has it worse, horrified to find herself facing racial segregation. She and Vanya must both face less than ideal attitudes toward women. The boys perhaps fare a little better, with Klaus in particular… well, I’ll leave that to the viewer. Klaus is always my favourite, and his storyline here is a wonderful tonic to some of the darker things! Close second is Five, who is possibly the star of this season. As the youngest cast member, his ability to handle a complicated role is very impressive – and pretty amusing!

As the group start to drift back together, things are of course not perfect. The Commission is still after them. They may have brought a new apocalypse back with them. And then there’s the daddy issue…!

So yes: season two is still *fabulous* and bonus: it comes with a fantastic 60s soundtrack. The balance between the individual stories and the wider, Earth-destroying kind of issues, is played perfectly. By turns dark and fun, deep and wacky, there’s never a dull moment. If I had any complaints, I found one new main character rather grating, somehow, but oh – the way that could widen the story… bring on season 3!

First broadcast: August 2020 (Netflix UK)
Series: 2
Episodes: 10 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (season 1)

zoey's extraordinary playlist poster

When a strange experience in an MRI machine leaves Zoey able to hear people’s inner thoughts in the form of song and dance routines, her life becomes extraordinarily weird. Rather than a special power, it can be more of a hindrance in navigating her life as a developer in a hip software company. I mean, do you need to hear your boss’s heartache while you’re trying to go for a promotion, or discover that someone has feelings for you – when you may not feel the same?

I gave this show a go on a whim, and it ended up being one of the highlights of my week over the past few months. It’s quirky and funny and heartwarming – and heartbreaking. The last episode in particular absolutely broke me – take that as a warning, rather than a spoiler. The show deals with death, by suicide or degenerative disease, divorce, relationships, religion, gender identity – it could have been a heavy drama. But instead these are the anchor to Zoey’s fantastical new ability.

And the music is such a joy! I didn’t recognise half the songs, but I am a fan of the kind of musicals this harks back to. Her new ‘quirk’ is almost like Zoey getting her own Bollywood movie world, and it never failed to amuse me to see her try to cope when friends, colleagues, or complete strangers suddenly break into choreographed routines – usually at highly inappropriate moments. I think the cast were picked for their singing ability, as all are very good, including that-bloke-from-Pitch-Perfect who was the only familiar face, bar Zoey’s parents and a few cameos.

I acknowledge that this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. It’s not light hearted enough to appeal to those who love the escapism of light musicals – think La La Land taking a darker turn, but far more natural. And conversely, the whimsy of the singing is going to be a turn off for those who prefer their drama more series, or their comedies less dancy. For me, however, it hit a sweet spot. I’m a little ‘argh’ at the way it ends, and so far no word of a second season, but otherwise, if you like a hefty dose of whimsy in your viewing, this is highly recommended.

First broadcast: January 2020
Series: 1
Episodes: 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

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Adaptations of video games rarely go well, and even less so when the game itself didn’t really have a plot to speak of. Still, I have fond memories of my Sonic-playing days, and if nothing else, the disastrous first attempt at a look for the blue speedster piqued my interest.

So, in need of something fun and lighthearted as lockdown (and everything else) started to get to me a bit this weekend, it seemed like just the moment for this kind of fluff. Fluff that begins by telling the story of a young hedgehog who for some reason is under attack (I might have blinked a bit at the beginning) and escapes via magical portal rings to Earth, where he is living a life of painful isolation and solitude. Ah, nuts!

It gets more fun, as a Sonic-induced power outage attracts the attention of the government and psychotic scientist Doctor Robotnik. This is the main reason to watch this movie: Jim Carrey having an absolute, scenery-chewing blast. It’s been a while since we got to see the man on screen and it almost – almost – makes the movie worth watching.

Elsewhere, I didn’t mind the new CGI for the blue hedgehog, and James Marsden tries his best, poor sod. The other characters are totally flat and purely there to fill in scenery, really.

Plot-wise, it’s just a standard chase movie, with Robotnik willing to destroy anything to get his hands on Sonic. There are some ‘nice’ nods to the games, I think especially the ‘boss fight’ being unexpectedly close to what I remember and didn’t think they’d be able to actually make work. Not sure the big to-do on ‘how Sonic gets his red sneakers’ added much, right enough.

So… yeah, not so much. It wasn’t awful, I don’t regret choosing to see it, but it offers next to nothing on any level.

Released: 14th February 2020
Viewed: 16th May 2020
Running time: 99 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10 – it’s not awful, but…

Birds of Prey (2020)

birds of prey poster

Being the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn 🙂

Following the events of Suicide Squad (2016), ‘Mr J’ (Joker, but not the Joaquin Phoenix one!) and Harley Quinn have split up. She’s taking it well (!): time to adopt a new pet (hyena) and blow some stuff up. But, her party days of doing whatever she wants to whomever she wants are over – without the Joker’s protection, she’s fair game to everyone with a grudge. And there are more than a few of those…

I swithered so hard on this: DC haven’t captured my heart with their movies, and the reviews were mixed. It seems to me that audiences are split on this one more or less down gender lines. Every review I’ve seen that says, “meh, it’s not great” was written by a bloke. And every one that goes “wheee that was fun!” was by a woman. Oversimplification, perhaps, but it kind of makes sense. The women in the movie are having fun; the men are cannon fodder, idiots, or just deranged. Are male audiences just failing to find anything to identify with here? Possibly. Probably, even. Well, welcome to the flip side of the coin!

I’ve described this to a friend as a sort of all-girl version of some daft action movie, like The Expendables or Hobbs and Shaw it’s not deep, it’s not meaningful, it’s just a glorious riot of kicking ass. And there is nothing wrong with that. I say, if there’s room for a dozen mindless action movies for/with the boys in any given year, there is more than enough room for this!

That said, it’s maybe a little mean calling on such daft comparisons. Because while it is largely loud and colourful daft fun, it’s well made, decently acted, and there are a few clever little bits. For instance (tiny, non-important) spoiler: someone pointed out that the ‘fridging’ of the egg sandwich Harley is making goo-goo eyes over is exactly the kind of inciting incident the random female love interest is so often used for in these kinds of movies. Hah!!

The storytelling is also done quite cleverly, dashing back and forward on the narrative as we get the plot through Harley’s not entirely sane mind. She’s ditsy, but not dumb: the odd moment of her using her psychology degree are a nice reminder that she’s damaged, not stupid.

There are going to be those who say that if a case can’t really be made for men enjoying this more, then it’s not a great movie. Well, no it’s not ‘great’. It is a LOT of fun, though, and for once it’s more relatable to a different audience. Getting dumped and getting revenge, hitting back – literally – at catcallers and the like. Being a girl and doing whatever the F you feel like – hells, yeah!!

So. Not a masterpiece, but for the female audience, at least, a huge dollop of fun and exactly the kind of OTT wish fulfilment that the boys have had for more than long enough!

Released: 7th February 2020
Viewed: 4th March 2020
Running time: 109 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

Dolittle (2020)

dolittle poster

Following the death of his beloved wife, Dr John Dolittle has no heart left in him to continue treating the animals to which he can speak. Locked away in his home-come-nature reserve, surrounded by animal friends, what will it take to bring Dolittle back into the world?

I had very little interest in seeing this movie, to be honest, but it was a bit of a group compromise. And hey, Robert Downey Jr. And some excellent special effects with talking animals, all voiced very well by a starry cast that includes Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, and Tom Holland. And, urm… yeah, no, it did nothing for me.

Where to begin? Most of all, I just didn’t really care – not for the lead, nor the youthful hangers on, or even much for the animals (!) somehow (the squirrel lost me as soon as it opened its mouth). I most identified with the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), stroppy and not wanting to be part of things.

Visually it all looks pretty great, sure. And yet I never had a real ‘wow’ moment. Tonally, throwing in something utterly fantastical kind of felt for the sake of it, than part of the plot. And don’t get me started on the ‘exotic’ island ruled by pirates.

The voice actors and RDJ – although not his ‘hmm’ Welsh accent, that to my ears wasn’t just off (and frequently slipping) but sapped a lot of performance oomph – can probably walk away okay, but I’d suggest the rest of the human cast, including Jessie Buckley, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Sheen hamming it up to heaven, possibly just omit this one from their CVs.

I dunno. Maybe the kids will love it. Personally, while it wasn’t (as half-expected, utterly) awful – in fact, after a tough day, I did sort of appreciate the sweetness and a few of the attempts at humour – I can only suggest that you don’t bother. Overall: meh.

Released: 7th February 2020
Viewed: 14th February 2020
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

jojo rabbit poster

Ten year old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), an ardent member of the Hitler Youth, discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl in the attic. There are so many ways this scenario could have played out. But instead of a dark and gloomy slice of ‘reality’, screenwriter and director Taika Waititi has taken the opportunity to give history’s darkest moment a great big ‘F-you’. Casting himself as Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf (!), is genius, and watching the idiotic Fuhrer bumbling around the boy’s imagination is the perfect satire.

The movie’s irreverent tone could have taken a huge misstep with this and at other points, but instead it walks the line perfectly balanced between heart wrenching and completely hilarious.

The opening scene is just perfect. It starts with the Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which they also recorded in German (seeing as they started out in Hamburg, makes sense). I was so busy squee’ing over recognising the song that it took my brain a moment to realise I wasn’t watching 1960s footage of Beatlemania. That comparison, that realisation that the same fanaticism was in play in 1940s Germany – kick to the gut, and first of many.

The juxtaposition of the humour and the dark plays throughout. For instance, Stephen Merchant (brilliantly cast as the Gestapo agent, looming over everyone) is ridiculous but at the same time, the character has so much power to destroy lives that it’s terrifying. On the other hand, the growing disillusionment portrayed by Sam Rockwell’s ‘Colonel K’ challenges the pantomime baddy portrayal of Nazi officers. Even as atrocities were being carried out, real people were trying to live real lives, as best as they could manage.

There’s so much to dissect about this movie. What is says about human beings, how ‘movements’ can sweep people up, willing or otherwise. But the real genius is that you don’t have to spend 2 hours in heavy thought – you get a funny, moving, surprising movie experience, and it’s perhaps only afterwards you realise just how much it had to teach.

Absolutely recommended.

Released: 1st January 2020
Viewed: 10th January 2020
Running time: 108 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 9/10

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

jumanji 2 poster

Never a huge fan of the original Jumanji (1995), I enjoyed the reboot of the series (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)) more than I expected. This sequel is more of the same, really, although not quite hitting the same highs for fun or laughs or novelty. Most of the jokes are based on the previous film, with not too much variation on the themes. Still, you know what you’re getting.

For some unfathomably daft reason, young Spencer decides to fix the video game smashed the end of the first (reboot) movie, and re-enters the world of Jumanji. When his friends discover this they feel obliged to go back in and save him. However, not all is working perfectly, so rather than getting to pick their own avatars this time, things get a little… mixed up. Oh, and grandpa (Danny Devito) and his one-time friend (Danny Glover) are along for the ride.

The humour of the ‘old fogies’ is perhaps pushed a bit too far – it’s a bit insulting, actually. Watching the actors play with the new characters, however, is a lot of fun, even if some of the impressions are laid on a bit thick.

This time, the adventure travels out of the jungle setting of the first, but tbh I wasn’t that impressed with the ‘oh look, more Jumanji world’ – it’s all a bit… yeah, yeah, whatever.

Still. Watched this on a day of some pretty dire news, and it did exactly what I was hoping: distracted me for a few hours with a lot of daft fun. Overall I think it’s all pretty forgettable, but enjoyable enough for a mental mini-break.

Released: 11th December 2019
Viewed: 13th December 2019
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6.5/10

Hobbs and Shaw (2019)

hobbs and shaw poster

The characters of Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) have been spun-out of their bit-parts in the Fast and Furious franchise to butt heads in their own movie. F&F is big, flashy, daft fun – H&S is dafter and even more fun!

They might hate each other – see previous movies – but when a genetically engineered super-virus is stolen from a Mission: Impossible plot – I mean, from an armoured truck (ahem!) – Hobbs and Shaw are brought together (by the most unexpected cameo role!) to recover the virus and save Shaw’s sister. It won’t be that easy, though, not with Shaw’s ex-military compatriot, Brixton (Idris Elba), aiming for the virus himself – and that’s after his bullet-riddled body (courtesy of Shaw, natch) has had some serious cybernetic upgrades…!

I went into this expecting loud and flashy and daft and fun and I can confirm I got a full house of ticks on those fronts. It’s not high art or going to trouble the awards shows, but sometimes that’s exactly what you want.

The biggest draw is of course seeing the two leads facing off – and that brings a lot of fun and giggles. However, the movie is probably at least half an hour too long, and when the playing-for-laughs is shoved aside for out-and-out action, laid on as thick as the ‘message(s)’ (importance of family, in keeping with the F&F franchise , old ways over tech, the power of working together, blah blah), I turned off a bit and let the generic action movie stuff roll past.

Still, you can’t really complain about an action movie having too much action! Kudos to letting the woman, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), kick just as much ass as the boys. Idris makes a delicious baddy, although (as ever!) his character peters out a bit towards the end and could have done with more… something.

For the leads – well, the Rock is the Rock, and the Stath is the Stath. Not much more to say! Oh, apart from a couple of unexpected cameos – not quite as funny as they thought, but still amusing. Although watch out: when a familiar face starts talking during the mid-credits scene, there are some big Game of Thrones (!) finale spoilers!

There’s no subtlety here: you know from the genre if you’re likely to like it a lot, or not even slightly. I’d say it’s more fun than the F&F main movies, more hamming it up for laughs – and I quite liked that.

Viewed: 3rd August 2019
Running time: 135 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6.5/10