Films in June

Toy Story 4
The ‘original trilogy’ told the story of the toys lives with Andy and seemed like a complete story, that had us saying goodbye to all the characters moving on to the next stages in their lives. When a fourth film was announced it seemed unnecessary. The trilogy was near perfect, it didn’t need more, and I was worried it would be an unnecessary blight on perfection. I’m not sure whether it was or not.
On one hand, it is a wonderful film. It has great new characters (although that did turn many of the ‘old’ characters into borderline cameos), creative ideas, a solid story, lots of laughs, plenty of action and a huge amount of heart. It looks absolutely stunning with Pixar continuing to push the boundaries of the the technology (the textures, the rain, the lighting), but also designing shots that have the sort of directorial artistry of framing, composition and lighting that any live action director would be seeking.
On the other hand, I wish I’d never seen it. The third film ended on the closing of on chapter of the toys’ lives and the opening of a new chapter. This film shows that it’s not quite that simple, and Woody is put in a situation where he has to chose what he wants to do. It’s tough to explain without spoiling it, but I did not like the choice that was engineered and the option that was taken. I hated it. I just about held off the full on heaving crying in the cinema, but even a week on, just thinking about it leaves me quietly devastated. While Toy Story 3 made me cry as well, I was left with an overall sense of happiness, Toy Story 4 left me very sad. So, an excellent film, that I don’t want to think about any more and I think may mean I can never watch any of the films again.

Late Night
Emma Thompson as an acerbic late night talk show host is everything I could have hoped for. She is biting and cruel with just enough humanity hidden under the surface to make her likable. Mindy Kaling is the perfect opposite – positive and hopeful with a layer of grit hiding underneath to make her not a simpering push over. The film touches on some very interesting ideas about how to appeal to the masses without undermining your principles, and what discrimination and inclusion look like now. But I think it slightly shied away from those issues before really getting to the crux of them. The film is hugely entertaining, but I found myself a little irritated that it didn’t take some of it didn’t push the issues as far as it could and tied everything up with a nice bow at the end.

New to me
Free Solo: This is one of those classic documentaries that looks like it is about one thing, but is in fact a character study of the person that is doing the thing. The thing in question is the absolutely bonkers idea of climbing nearly 3000ft of cliff face without the aid of any equipment or safety ropes – you fall you die. The film is beautifully shot to really give you a sense of the scale and the difficulty of this challenge and it’s not one for those suffering from vertigo. But, all the way through the film, the real focus is on Alex Honnold as he prepares physically and mentally. Honnold is very good company – introspective, warm and open. I can simultaneously completely relate to him, while also not understanding how he could chose to do the things he does. The people surrounding him (including the film crew) who share fly on the wall scenes and short interviews grounds both Honnold and the film as a whole, showing how ‘normal’ people react to the extreme elements of Honnold’s activities. I was completely gripped throughout the film, blown away by the Honnold’s phenomenal physical and mental achievement and grateful to have been given this insight into an incredible experience and person.

The Beguiled: A film that makes me want to read the original book, because the concepts are so fascinating, but sadly the delivery of them in the film is underwhelming. The twists and complexities of the characters were undermined by a collection of alternately bland and over the top characters, and a script that lurched from ambiguous to overly pointed every few minutes. The whole thing felt quite muddled in tone with most of it trying to be subtle and understated, but occasional characters or scenes trampling through. To add insult to injury, I didn’t get on with the directorial style either, too much of it was in shadows and darkness to hold my attention.

Charade: A really twisting ride where I was pretty unsure at which direction anything was going and who was really on which side. I did spot the ending a fair way off, but there were still plenty of smaller mysteries along the way. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are both wonderful to watch and their bantering chemistry is lovely and almost enough to overcome the discomfort of the 25 year old age gap, but sadly not quite.

American Animals: There’s a couple of strong ideas at the heart of this film, but I don’t think it quite managed to deliver on either of them. The film is based on a true story of a group of college students who decide to pull a heist, based mostly on their knowledge from film and TV. The story is more than sufficient to carry the film along, it starts as a lot of fun but grows darker in a very satisfying way. The story telling is augmented by pieces to camera by the real people, and touches upon the fact that different people remember, or tell events differently, which is a really interesting idea but I don’t think it quite lands fully. The pieces to camera interrupted the flow and didn’t quite align with the tone of the film, making the fun bits suddenly serious, and the darker bits more irreverent. Not enough was really made of the potential for different versions of the truth, at first it was treated more for laughs and quirkiness and then it was suddenly thrown in towards the end as a serious point that kind of undermined a lot that had gone before. I did enjoy the film, and it’s worth certainly worth watching, but I think there might have been something truly outstanding possible that didn’t quite stick the landing which left me frustrated.

RBG: It’s quite hard sometimes to separate the subject of a documentary from the quality of the documentary, and this is one of those cases. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an absolute legend, one of the few people that can genuinely be said to have changed the world within her own lifetime. She has fought her whole life for civil rights, battling from within the system that is restricting her, to make it better for herself, those that are victims of discrimination, and for the whole country. She fights not just because it’s not fair, but because the outcome is better for everyone. The story of her life (and those around her, most notably her husband) is a true inspiration. The documentary itself is fairly unremarkable, it’s played completely straight with little embellishment or style, but when the subject stands for itself so strongly, it doesn’t need anything more. I should probably complain a bit about the fact there is minimal attempt to criticise Justice Ginsburg or show any other point of view, but I don’t really want to see that, so I’m happy to just celebrate her amazing life.

Beast: Wow. This is the kind of film best served by a vague review, because the film is best watched if you know little about it. It’s a film that you should fall into, getting sucked into the characters and story as it gradually builds and adds layers and layers of complexity. I didn’t know what the film was going to do and every time I thought I knew where it was heading, it did something a lot more interesting. The performances are very carefully measured to make sure the nuance and uncertainty is embedded rather than deceiving. Just go and watch it.

The Program: The level of systematic cheating and bullying present in cycling in the early 2000’s was truly mindblowing. This dramatisation of that period, focusing on Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall, shows a level of corruptness, bullying and self-denial that is really quite scary. The way that all the people involved justified themselves is well presented, with Chris O’Dowd a charismatic counter voice passionate about the sport that he sees as being destroyed. Ben Foster portrays Armstrong as a complexly ambitious person, the film doesn’t present him as a simple villain, but also doesn’t excuse that he lied and made choices for himself and others that he knew were wrong. The drama is occasionally a little forced, some plot lines should have been either dropped or more developed, and I struggled to keep track of characters sometimes. But overall, a really well put together drama that entertains, engages and informs.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Wow, apparently I have never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m really not sure how I’ve managed that. Surprisingly after leaving it so long, I was still actually quite impressed with the film. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and has dated surprisingly well. I think that’s down to two factors – the first is that there’s a strong fantasy element to it anyway, the level of complexity of the capers are far from logical anyway, so it’s obviously pointless to challenge the realism of it. The second is that the emotions of the characters are pretty universal – independent of decade or even age of the audience. My only frustration was that while Matthew Broderick was a star turn, the supporting characters got slightly short shrift, with Mia Sara’s Sloane getting little to work with and Alan Ruck’s Cameron clearly having huge potential that felt unresolved.

The Craft: I watched this on the same day as Ferris Beuller’s day off, having somehow missed both films. While Ferris Beuller was a surprisingly entertaining watch with some impressively timeless, the same cannot be said for The Craft. I just found it rather naff and cheesy, the cast lacked spark, the ideas felt weary and it dragged. I didn’t think it was terrible or anything, but it just sort of trudged through without feeling like it really added anything beyond checking tropes previously delivered by things like Heathers, and updating the soundtrack.

Bright Young Things: I spent the whole of this film going “oh it’s so-and-so” as a parade of actors I like passed by the screen without ever actually managing to engage me. Maybe it’s because, weirdly, the only actor I didn’t recognise was the lead character who was completely bland other than his ability to make stupid decisions. Maybe it’s because there’s very little in the way of plot. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to feel connection, let alone sympathy, for willfully ignorant rich people. Or maybe it’s just not very good.

The Mummy: What a load of rubbish. I’m completely bored by Tom Cruise action hero, there’s not much in the way of acting going on, just the same ‘character’ over and over again and while his commitment for stunts is impressive, I don’t find him charming enough to want to watch him. Some films manage to work around this by providing engaging supporting characters to provide interest (Simon Pegg in Mission Impossible for example) but sadly no one in The Mummy manages that. The plot is dumb, the supporting characters bland, and even the action sequences are flat and unremarkable. So all there really seems to be to the film is Tom Cruise, and that’s really just not enough.

Crooked House: A thoroughly hammy Agatha Christie that’s solid entertaining for a dreary afternoon. The majority of the cast are familiar faces taking the chance to be over the top, and sensibly balanced out by a fairly straight performance from the lead investigator. Being a Christie, the nuts and bolts of the mystery are solid, with enough red herrings and twists to keep the plot moving along. The resolution is one of the darker ones, which is maybe a little disjointed from the overall tone, but overall I enjoyed myself almost as much as the cast seemed to.

To Catch a Thief: Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock, should be a no brainer success, but sadly it’s dull, artificial and flat. The director seems more in love with the scenery than the plot; there’s little creativity to the style and there are some rookie mistakes like bad dubbing. Cary Grant’s usual charm is sadly muted and the 25 year age gap between the romantic leads doesn’t help. Really disappointing.

Rewatches
Despicable Me: The film that spawned a thousand merchandising opportunities! My house is full of minions and they just never fail to make me smile. They are beautifully introduced and utilised with a combination of slapstick and silly noises/words being laugh out loud funny. Although the minions are the standout stars, the film itself is very well put together, with a sweet and engaging plot that holds up to multiple viewings.
Despicable Me 2: The producers of Despicable Me clearly learnt from the first film that while the story was enjoyable enough, what audiences went absolutely nuts about were the little yellow minions, so they take a much larger role in the film too. And it really works. I love those little guys. As soon as they appear I laugh and I hardly stop for breath. The rest of the film is perfectly servicable, and by itself would have been entertaining enough, but whenever you go more than five minutes without a minion, it feels like an eternity.
Despicable Me 3: Not enough minions. I know the point of the Despicable Me films isn’t the minions, but I can’t be the only one that’s mostly watching these films for the minions. I mean the other characters are ok (the little girls are pretty funny and Agnes is really pretty adorable), and the plot is just about ok but I did find myself constantly hunting the backgrounds for minions and generally didn’t find them.

Sense and Sensibility: I’m not a big fan of these sorts of period romances as I tend to find the characters rather soppy and tiresome, but Sense and Sensibility brings just enough spunk to make them tolerable. The wit in the writing and performances brings life to some familiar tropes and I even found myself engaged in the twists and turns of the relationships, unsure where they would actually end up. While the cast is all superb, I’m not sure that they actually work together as some of the ages didn’t seem to match and left some relationships that I wanted to root for, a little unsettling.

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Books in June

Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
It wasn’t until I read the blurb just now that I realised that the story is based on Rumpelstiltskin, making this book another entry in the growing genre of retellings of classic fairy tales. The story starts out simple, with a couple of young girls taking agency to deal with their own local problems, even though they should be powerless. Gradually the story adds more threads, expanding as events involve more groups of people, expertly building up a complex and vibrant world of politics and magic, with a core group of strong , yet human women at the centre. I do think it maybe got a little too complex and went on a bit too long with more and more levels of pan that left me a bit overwhelmed at times. The story is all told first person, but there are a few too many people who take a turn (I’m never a fan of young children acting as narrator, they’re just too unreliable and drawn out) and it gets a little crowded. However even though technically I can see those flaws, I enjoyed reading every page, so it seems a bit silly to complain that the enjoyment went on too long.

Jessica Fellowes – Bright Young Dead
Not gripping unfortunately. There were too many characters, too many cases and too much meandering about. Everyone seemed to lose track of what was actually being investigated, characters made stupid mistakes and obvious routes of investigation were completely ignored until at the last minute someone asked the obvious questions. The first book in the series felt a little different as it was more from the maid’s point of view, but this novel felt like the writer had to keep engineering situations so that she could see the lives of the rich from the point of view of the maid who would never have been there. It just felt clumsy and unsatisfying, I don’t think I’ll bother with any further books in the series.

Philip Gwynne Jones – The Venetian Masquerade
Another thoroughly entertaining entry in this series. Venice is still the star, the descriptions of the city so vibrant and personal, but the rest of the elements of the book are no slouch either. A bit of time has passed since the last book and the recurring characters have all grown and settled and are lots of fun to spend time with. The mystery itself is solid, and although the world of opera does nothing for me, it gives a justification for some rather over the top characters to play out the mystery. A comfortable page turner that was just nice to settle in with.

The Society – Season 1

Unoriginal. I’m sure the creators of this show would be deeply disappointed that this is the first word I think about with this show, and I’m pretty disappointed too, although in fairness I didn’t have particularly high expectations. There’s almost nothing here that even the most charitable person could highlight as innovative, the only thing that I could really think of was that one of the main characters is deaf and that’s an integral part of him and the community around him and is almost unremarked on. Even the fact that he’s also gay feels a little generic in the modern young adult landscape (thankfully!). Beyond these positive steps forward in representation, which less charitably could be seen as remedying a failure of the rest of the world rather than a great step forward, there’s nothing going on here that hasn’t been seen dozens of times since Lord of the Flies in the 1950’s, and I doubt even that was entirely original.

Fundamentally we’ve got a group of teenagers left to fend for themselves after their town is cut off from the world and all the adults disappear. From there you could probably take a pretty good shot at working out how things will go, with a predictable bunch of high school stereotypes (jocks, partiers, rich kids, student council nerds, science geeks, neighborhood psychopath) in predictable relationships (high school sweethearts, bullies, sibling rivalries) and inevitable scenarios (dealing with crime, rationing, establishing democracy). Even the supposed twists are predictable. The TV Tropes page is quite the list.

Part of feeling generic is that it doesn’t feel modern. Other than the improved representation, this series could be set almost any time in the last 50 years. It would have been nice to see a more positive message – us grown ups are doing such a crap job at leading the world, wouldn’t it be good to have a version of the world run by the next generation, learning from our mistakes and making a better job of it? Rather than falling back to domestic violence, class-ism, violence, backstabbing and short-sightedness couldn’t we have seen a group of people working together to make something better? It feels like this is a show written by adults, and I’m not sure that anyone old enough to be sitting in a writing room can fully understand what it is like to be a 17 year old today in a world where all information, media and communication has always been at their finger tips, and climate change, (non)equal rights, and gun control have always been front of mind. Other than very fleeting references there’s hardly any discussion of how much of a struggle it would be for kids to no longer have working mobiles, or how much of an opportunity to have power to improve on things. Whether it’s true or not, it’s depressing that nothing seems to move forward.

It’s not that it’s badly made or anything, it’s perfectly fine. The actors are all good enough (although few are convincing as actually being teen aged) and the writing may be unoriginal, but it’s competent. It’s just that it’s very hard to get excited about something so generic.

Books in April and May

I bundled two months of book reviews up together again, because I once again had a very slow couple of months reading. Partially because of my circumstances, but also because most of the books I’ve been reading just haven’t really grabbed me. The big exception being the first book below, which not only had me turning the pages, but adding loads to me to-read list.

Lucy Mangan – Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading
I seem to read a fair number of books about reading, and this is the first one that has really truly captured the joy of books and reading. I was sold on this book as soon as I saw the list of books that it covered because almost all of them I remember from my childhood, even just reading the titles made me feel warm and nostalgic. Although there are plenty of autobiographical elements in it, it never deviates from being completely about books, giving little bits of information about the authors and how their works were received. It even throws in some history and sociology, reflecting on the different way people have written for children over the centuries. Lucy Mangan has a lovely writing style, natural and unforced, with heart and humour. Even reading this book on a busy tube, I felt like I was snuggled under a blanket on a sofa with my favourite books for company.

Kate Mascarenhas – The Psychology of Time Travel
You can tell from the appendices of the book that a huge amount of effort has gone into the background of time travel, building up vocabulary and slang that would work in a community of people for whom time is fluid. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite translate into a solid book. I think the decision to tell the story from the point of view of people outside of the time travel community critically damaged the narrative, it meant that the science, logistics and (crucially) psychology of time travel was always slightly hedged in rumor and hear-say. It never felt like it was completely coherent. It would have been so much better to tell the story from within the time travel conclave, to fully immerse in it and be swept along with the way that people act within this context. Interestingly, I see the author is actually a psychologist. I wish she’d stuck to her strengths and really focused on getting in the heads of the characters, rather than getting bogged down in a murder mystery that didn’t really engage.

Tom Hanks – Uncommon Type: Some Stories
This book is exactly what I expected Tom Hanks to write, once I got over the slightly improbable idea of him writing short stories. If you know anything about the actor and his work, his choices of settings and themes will not surprise you – they’re about normal people, mostly living normal lives that are made extraordinary just because of the heart that goes into describing them. Hanks has an un-fussy approach that is really easy to settle into and carries you along. There’s nothing shocking here, minimal tension and hardly any drama so you can just relax into it and enjoy it. Just what I needed.

Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few
The core concept of this book is incredibly good. A fleet of ships that have fled a dying planet on a multi-generational search for a new home, but centuries later the ships ARE the home and although there are other options available, and some people leave, the fleet goes on. That’s a great set up. There are also some beautiful details of the culture and philosophies that have developed in the fleet, some passages really moved me. It’s also a good idea to follow a small number of fairly disconnected characters and cycle through their first person point of views, illustrating different aspects of the world. The problem is that there’s no plot. Each character is well established and has an interesting day-to-day life, and even some small elements of arc, but there’s just nothing substantial enough. I found it a book that was quite easy to put down and not very tempting to pick up.

Stephen King – The Shining
I’ve made it to a really quite considerable age before reading a Stephen King novel, and I find I really haven’t been missing that much. I can see why he’s such a good source for films/tv series because the ideas and characters he creates (at least as evidenced by this one work) are rich, interesting and vibrant. But I did not get on with his writing style at all. For a start it’s just so drawn out! Ironically when I reviewed the film of The Shining I complained that we “could have spent more time at the start when they’re ‘normal’ before the craziness starts”, well maybe that was a response to the book which took FOREVER to get there. I also didn’t like the disjointed nature of the writing, short chapters bouncing between different characters, most of whom were having some sort of hallucination or were half in flashback. I found it very hard to get lost in the book and kept reading faster and faster just to get through.

Films in May

New Releases
Rocketman – I was a bit nervous of this film going in. I’m not a particular fan of Elton John and I’d been frustrated by Bohemian Rhapsody which I’d found entertaining, but compromised in terms of addressing the full story of Queen and Freddie Mercury. Rocketman however managed to satisfy me on all fronts. The two films do share a director in Dexter Fletcher (who took over, uncredited, on Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer left) so there’s definitely been a learning path that Rocketman has been the beneficiary of.
A key thing that’s different is that this is a musical, not a film with music in it, but a film that immediately reveals that it will break into massive song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat. No excuses are needed for it, and they are utterly shameless in manipulating the emotions. Music can make you feel joy, sadness, anger, and connection almost immediately, and Elton John’s music is exemplary and used to tremendous effect. I was completely emotionally connected to the characters, utterly immersed and entwined with them.
One of the cleverest tricks Lee Hall the writer has done is to frame the biography as Elton’s own telling of his story. This is a bit of a get out of jail free card for any over-simplification of people or events or any overly “on the nose” dialogue; that’s just how he remembers it and presents it. Elton John doesn’t come across as a saint by any means, but it is still a one sided story with most of the supporting characters coming across as rather one-dimensional (particularly the ‘villains’ of the piece). But while that frustrated me hugely with Bohemian Rhapsody (lesson – managers are all terrible), it was absolutely fine here because it was all framed as Elton’s point of view. The only other rich character was the lyricist Bernie Taupin, who I didn’t know anything about and was played with beautiful understatement by Jamie Bell. Their relationship was just another of the points of joy of the film.
None of this would have worked without the breath-taking performance of Taron Egerton. He signs, he dances, he struts, he melts down and he does that thing that I just can’t even fathom – plays a character who’s playing a character, continually trying to present a different persona to the world and losing track of who is real. The only negative thing I can think to say is that I was occasionally distracted about how they were managing to dub in the original voice of Elton John because I couldn’t believe Egerton was actually managing to match him. He was. He’s just that good.
The word that I keep thinking of is ‘joy’. That may be a bit odd, because there’s a lot of heartbreak and darkness in Elton’s life and this film doesn’t shy away from that. But there’s a thread of joy running through it that never gets lost – Elton and Bernie love music, love creating it together and love the performance, and the audiences (both within the film and watching the film) love their music. I dare anyone to think of Crocodile Rock, or Pinball Wizard or Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting and not grin. I’m off to buy a soundtrack.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu
I’ve got no idea about Pokemon. I’ve never played any of the games or watched any of the cartoons, so I came with zero baggage. My cinema companions on the other hand are moderately obsessed with pokemon go and quite well versed in the details of the series. I think it’s really quite impressive that both them and I enjoyed the film thoroughly, it quite slickly delivers both the basics for newbies and the richness for fans. I wouldn’t say I understood everything completely, but it was a kind of happy lack of understanding as it all just bubbled over me. The universe of the film feels utterly credible even if it is bonkers, it all seems to have just about enough internal consistency to let you go with it. The plot is well paced and even if elements are predictable, and twists are telegraphed it manages to put enough spin on old tropes to get the job done. But if all that sounds a bit underwhelming, the most important thing is that it’s really fun. I laughed loads and was charmed even more; Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds both have such a natural delivery that it’s impossible not to be charmed into going with whatever they say. It’s also visually absolutely stunning, there’s so much going on (I love the use of famous buildings from around the world all blended in the new city), which makes it well worth a trip to see on the big screen.

Eighth Grade – I went in with big expectations based on lots of critical praise, and people saying how much of a revelation it was to see a presentation of a ‘normal’ 13/14 year old, someone quiet, anxious, uncertain and struggling. I wish I could say I liked it as much as others did. I certainly felt for the main character and could recognise parts of my own childhood, but as a whole I didn’t get lost in her like some people seem to. From an intellectual point of view it was interesting to see what it’s like being a 13 year old American today (specifically a white, reasonably affluent one) – with phones, pool parties, malls and changing schools at 14 rather than 11 as in the UK. Maybe it was just that there were too many differences for me to really connect to her. It definitely wasn’t a fault of the performance, that was very impressive for someone actually that age.
I often don’t get on with films that just kind of noodle along, not really having much of an arc, I often don’t find them very satisfying and that as true here. Obviously a swift resolution to the themes wouldn’t have been realistic at all, but it made me think again of how strong the concept of Boyhood was – jumping through periods of someone’s life to show things do change, just not quickly.

New to me
Lars and the Real Girl – The name of this film rang a bell, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good bell or a bad bell. The synopsis “a delusional young man strikes up an unconventional relationship with a doll he finds on the internet” is a bit risky and I wasn’t really in the mood to watch a film about people being cruel. I relaxed a bit when I saw Emily Mortimer was in it, as she can’t be anything other than lovely. And that’s what the film is, just lovely. It somehow manages to neither make fun of Lars, nor become too dark with the mental health issues being raised. It just deals with them, like people would (or at least as you hope people would) with kindness, empathy and humour. I came away feeling genuinely uplifted.

The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu) – I came incredibly close to switching this film off about 1/2 hour in, it was only really my lack of enthusiasm to find something else to watch that kept me with it. For a change my disengagement with the film came from the fact there was too MUCH going on, everything was thrown at the audience full tilt, exposition was delivered in intense ‘briefings’ rather than naturally and I felt like I should be taking notes. There were just too many characters, locations, timeframes, and plot threads. All of it was interesting, it was just so overwhelming that I never felt settled and confident that I was getting everything. This is a particular challenge when trying to follow very fast paced subtitles, I kept missing the beautiful visuals, or vice versa. Things didn’t make sense, but I think that was just because I was missing bits. All the ingredients were solid, it was just completely overwhelming.

Murder by Numbers – I figured I couldn’t go too wrong with a thriller starring Sandra Bullock, how wrong I was. This is TERRIBLE. It’s badly written, badly directed and even the charm of Sandra Bullock and a young Ryan Gosling cannot rescue it. There is no elegance to anything, no layers to anything. Characters are single note, plot twists are obvious, there’s no subtext or subtlety. The final indignity is the dramatic conclusion which has some of the worst blue-screening I’ve ever seen. If no one in the production could be bothered to put any effort in, then I don’t recommend any audiences do either.

Cafe Society – I remain, as ever, underwhelmed by Woody Allen. Cafe Society just kind of bumbles along, never being funny enough for a comedy, or challenging enough for a drama. I didn’t like or care about any of the characters, and was uncertain where anything was going. The only thing that really engaged me was pondering whether it was misogynistic or not, and while I didn’t come to a conclusion, the fact that I was thinking it is probably enough.

Good Omens

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are individually two of my favourite authors, and their joint work Good Omens has always been one of my absolutely favourites. Since hearing the announcement that it was being made into a TV series I was almost equal parts excited and anxious. Every bit of news that trickled out raised my hopes – Neil Gaiman’s involvement, each bit of absolutely perfect casting, every behind the scenes photo – they just seemed right. But even as I sat down to watch on the day of release I was scared. Previous television versions of Pratchett’s work just haven’t worked for me despite having all the right ingredients. Maybe what makes Pratchett’s words so perfect to read, just doesn’t work for screen.

I stayed a bit nervous until the title sequence rolled and then I started to relax.

Good Omens works. I’d been half expecting a really glossy, shiny, expensive Americanised series like American Gods; but Good Omens is none of these things. It’s quirky, quaint, a little shabby around the edges and incredibly British. It’s Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Enid Blyton (without the now dodgy bits), Vicar of Dibley, Dr Who. It’s charming and a little bit naff in places.

I burnt through 4 episodes on the Friday night it was released, and polished off the final 2 episodes before 10 am on Saturday morning. Frankly I’m a bit annoyed about that because I’d set aside all of Saturday to watch it and found myself at a bit of a loose end before it was even time for elevenses. The length is perfect though, it gets on with the plot without feeling like anything was dragged out or padding with red herrings. There was maybe another episode worth of fun to be had, particularly with the supporting angels, demons and horsemen, but that’s more me wanting to spend more time enjoying the series than it is about the quality of the pacing.

The casting is superb, full of names, voices and faces that are incredibly familiar, bringing instant chemistry and security. There’s a lot of hamming it up going on, at times it feels a little in danger of tipping over into an amateur dramatics production with people having a lot of fun. The special effects don’t help on that front, the CGI is often a little on the low budget side. The locations and sets also feel a little easy too, as if someone said, “you know what, there’s a building at the end of my road that would do for this”. But again, that kind of works. Shots of small village churches, London garden squares, shiny office lobbies all felt familiar and comfortable. They’re well shot, creatively framed with plenty of expensive crane and drone shots; it’s just they all feel a bit… quaint.

And that’s what the series needed. It’s exactly the right setting for Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s story of big events in small places. It gives all the space to the words from the page, delivered by exactly the right people. It was everything I could have hoped for and I absolutely loved it.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – Season 2

I was pretty negative in my review of the first season of Sabrina. My biggest complaint was that there was no real commitment, everyone was claiming they were dark and satanic, but in reality no one was actually doing anything. The series claimed Sabrina was being forced to make an impossible choice between being a mortal and being a witch, and yet there seemed to be no restrictions on her actions based on what she chose. At the end of my review I wrote:

One of the weird powers that Netflix seems to have is that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t like the series, I still watched the whole thing, and may well end up watching the second season. It’s like some kind of dark spell, because heaven/hell knows, there’s nothing in this series that actually rewards the time.

And yup, I came back and found all the same problems present and some exciting new ones.

One thing that was maybe implied, but not called out explicitly for season 1 was that I don’t really like Sabrina. She’s an annoying little princess who swans through life as the centre of attention. She is sanctimonious, goes looking for arguments, doesn’t listen to those around her and digs holes that make chaos for her friends and family. She’s a terrible friend – using people when she needs to, and making decisions for those around her, jumping to conclusions about what is right for other people without actually talking to them. I know she’s the star of the show, but the character doesn’t know that and yet always makes herself the centre of any story.

There’s a similar lack of charm in the other main characters, who are clunkily presented. Lord Blackwood is a pantomime villain, while Hilda and Zelda are given little to work with. In the background some of the supporting characters are actually having very interesting stories of their own. The three Weird Sisters get a bit more material and Prudence in particular is a much richer character; the developing relationship between Roz and Harvey is well told (even if Harvey is still a boring drip), Mary Wardwell has an interesting arc and the portrayal of Susie’s transition into Theo is carefully delivered. There are some very talented actors doing good work. They just don’t get to do it very often.

There’s a lot of meandering about for the first 2/3 of the season, stories that I can barely remember. There’s something about a prophecy, a lot of boys and girls chasing each other, an obligatory weird dream episode and not much actual Evil (or school work). Everything came to a bit of a head when the last couple of episodes seemed to have some kind of breakdown. It felt like everyone suddenly realised they’d been bumbling along all season and run out of time to build anything up gradually. The lurching gear change came so suddenly and awkwardly that I actually spent a lot of time assuming it was going to pull a magic trick – reveal that it was all a hallucination, or an alternate reality or something. It wasn’t, it was just bad writing. On the plus side at least it meant something actually happened… but it didn’t make much sense.

Still, I’m sure I’ll be back for Season 3 and will have yet another chance to complain.