Film in June 2020

Dating Amber – A really solid entry into the growing mainstream genre of coming of age LGBTQ+ films. The film starts on the gentler end of the spectrum, with lots of charm, plenty of comedy and some entertainingly ridiculous supporting characters. But the balance gradually shifts as the film goes on and the reality of the uncertainty and desperation these young people experience becomes increasingly heartbreaking. There’s a lot going on in the film and it’s beautifully crafted and I think has the potential to be a real classic.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – About 50% of this film is perfectly pitched to match Eurovision’s sense of glorious awfulness. It has outrageously ridiculous spectacle combined with a sense of joy and connection that made my jaw drop and my mouth grin. But that’s only 50% of the film, and the other half is painful, trying too hard, awkward and uncomfortable. Even more unfortunately a lot of that is up front and I came quite close to giving up on the film before it reached the redemptive second half. The second half would get an 8/10, but the first half gets a 5/10.
I’d say a lot of the problem lies with Will Ferrell who I’ve never really warmed to, and is just continuing to ply the same old man-child shtick in a way that is really tedious for a man in his 50’s. Rachel McAdams has good comic skills, but didn’t seem to connect with Ferrell’s improvised style, and their age gap made the love story elements uncomfortable (particularly given Ferrell’s writing credit). I don’t know why they wasted so much time pre-Eurovision, and why they didn’t make the whole thing a jukebox musical (the big music number in the middle was wonderful and made me realise what the first half had been missing). It’s also a real shame that McAdams and the superb Dan Stevens are obviously not doing their own singing, and I’m not sure how the Icelandic will appreciate the cheesy accents.

Older Films
Monos – This is a Columbian film following a group of teenagers trained as soldiers and left to guard an American hostage on a remote mountaintop. The eight main characters are a group of little more than children left to their own devices, making up thei own rituals, bullying each other, having crushes and doing stupid things. But they’re dealing with responsibilities and events that are on a completely different level, heavily armed and under real life-and-death pressures. This film is extraordinary. I had heard many reviews saying that it was very special, but I still started watching it with a sense of duty rather than anticipation. It immediately grabbed me and held on to me throughout. On a technical level it is superb, the locations create a sense simultaneously of both space and claustrophobia. The young actors are incredible, blending child and soldier, innocence and brutality, victim and oppressor; they are heartbreaking and terrifying. I don’t know that any of my words can come close to describing this film and the impact of it, it’s something truly special.

Citizen Kane – Being frequently labelled the best film of all time is a blessing and a curse; I wouldn’t have watched it without that tag, but with it came some pretty high expectations. Unfortunately it was never going to be able to live up to those. Don’t get me wrong the film is great, but it doesn’t seem outstanding unless you continually remind yourself it was made in 1941 by a first time director. The film itself is enjoyable to watch, a well crafted biography that brings together all the elements you’d expect to find in someone’s life – love, drama, humour and angst. The direction is interesting, occasionally a bit too ‘different’ but some of it’s adventurous ideas work well. Whether it’s the best film of all time, I don’t know, but it is a great film.

American Beauty – This is a very delicate mixture in this film that maximizes appeal. It’s definitely a full on film with drama, grit and artyness to it that appeal to the critics and make it’s Oscar win understandable. But it’s also very enjoyable and accessible, with laughs and relatability. Everything is carefully judged and yet feels fairly effortless – writing, direction and acting switching between extreme and subtle and somehow all just working. It’s just a shame that the film will be forever tainted by the presence of Kevin Spacey – his performance is superb and it’s hard to imagine anyone as good at playing on the boundaries of everyman and arsehole. But his horrific behaviour now blights all his works and this one is particularly uncomfortable given the subject matter of the film.

Ophelia – I don’t know the story of Hamlet. In fact, I know so little about it that I didn’t even realise that this film WAS Hamlet until he turned up and I thought “that’s a weird name”. However this is Hamlet told from the point of view of Ophelia, and therefore gives a much stronger emphasis to the female characters. I can’t compare it to the original work, but I would say that I enjoyed watching this more than I enjoy most Shakespeare. The language still feels Shakespearean and I assume there are some sections that are lifted directly, but between the words and the actors I found it easy to understand what the characters meant and felt (which I often struggle with in Shakespeare). Daisy Ridley has a fascinating screen presence although it’s a shame that the male characters are a little one-dimensional, but that may just be a pointed dig at Shakespeare.

Demolition Man – Somehow I’ve never seen this film, and in the 25+ years since it was made I’d also never realised that it wasn’t a simple action film. The posters and descriptions are all moody grey and macho blah blah blah, and that’s where the film starts with Stallone and Snipes in full on violent cliche mode fighting and blowing things up before both being arrested and put in suspended animation as punishment (a clumsy setup). We jump to a hippy-like future where violence is completely irradiated and when Snipes is accidentally unfrozen and starts creating mayhem, the modern cops can’t even begin to handle him, so unfreeze Stallone. From there on the core of the film is really a buddy cop comedy pairing Stallone with Sandra Bullock and both of them having a lot of fun. Stallone cheerfully pokes fun at himself and the genre he’s used to, Sandra Bullock gives as good as she gets, and Snipes gets some great material as well. It’s pretty clumsy in places and falls back a little too often on tedious action sequences, but rather than being just another brainless action film, it’s trying to do something more interesting and I wish I’d seen it sooner.

Rampage – This film has Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson in it and there’s really very little else that needs to be said. If forced I would say that although the special effects are impressive, the plot is ridiculous and the supporting cast is mostly hamming it up (Naomi Harris being the notable exception). But it doesn’t matter, because The Rock is in it and he’s charming and hilarious and exciting to watch and so nothing else matters.

Hercules – Easily the best thing about this film is the songs, as soon as they start playing (actually as soon as I even think about them playing) I get a big smile on my face and want to sing along. The mixture of ancient Greek setting and the gospel music is absolutely genius. The rest of the film is solid enough with some good comedy from the familiar side-kick slots and a satisfyingly spunky female lead, but it’s the music that’s the real joy.

The Secret Life of Pets – From the studio that brought you Despicable Me… and it’s just not that good I’m afraid. It has some really great observational bits about pets, really capturing dogs and cats as animals while still anthropomorphising them for the story. The attitudes and actions are perfectly captured. Unfortunately the story just isn’t anything special. Actually, it was something special when it was done in Toy Story, but fundamentally the whole pitch of Secret Life of Pets is to retell Toy Story with pets not toys. It just wasn’t original enough to hold the attention. BUT the pet stuff did make me laugh the whole way through, so it’s still fun to watch.

Skyscraper – I had a Dwayne Johnson double bill and this was the much weaker film compared with Rampage, frankly because there was just insufficient Rock in it. I mean, there was plenty of Rock jumping and swinging and running and punching but there wasn’t enough real character and personality coming through. All the stunts and action sequences were very well done (if completely preposterous) and if I were watching in a cinema I probably would have been gripped, but at home on the sofa I just found myself a bit bored. The start of the film had some really good stuff, and it was wonderful to see Neve Campbell in a strong role that was far more than ‘just the wife’. But overall it just felt like there was a bit of a lack of personality.

The Addams Family – This is absolutely fine. There’s a lot of detail and care gone into making this a new version of the original series, with lots of direct lifts (as far as I can tell). The style is interesting, somehow managing to make it simultaneously gothic dark appear vibrant in the animation. But for all that, for some reason it just didn’t really charm me.

Interview with the Vampire – As a teenage girl in the 90’s it was almost obligatory to be completely obsessed with Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and yet I took great pride in not reading them and not watching the film. By the time I was no longer making a specific point by not watching/reading, every indication was that they weren’t very good so I didn’t bother catching up. Jump to 25 years later and I spotted Interview with the Vampire on Amazon and thought I’d give it a go. Wow, it’s bad. The story meanders about, missing opportunties to look at the different time periods in any depth beyond the opportunity to spend a lot of money on the sets and fashion. The biggest problem is that the casting is just plain bad. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise are utterly wrong, and clearly bored by the whole thing, both are categorically out-acted by the startling 12 year old Kirsten Dunst. Cruise goes for manic incoherence while Pitt aims for deep melancholy and hits bored apathy. I mean the idea of broody vampires appeals to me no more today then it did as a teenager, it’s a crowded genre these days, but I think even at the time this wasn’t doing anything interesting. I guess it looks pretty, but that’s it.

Books in June 2020

Five books this month! That’s mostly thanks to a few incredibly lazy days just sitting in the garden reading, and also a couple of really entertaining reads. Even the couple that weren’t necessarily very good were diverting enough to keep me settled in my deckchair, and Agrappina has gone straight to the top of my favourite books of the year and made a pretty high entry on my top non-fiction books ever.

agrippinaEmma Southon – Agrippina
The period of the first few emperors of Rome is absolutely fascinating, and has been studied, written about, mythologised and dramatised pretty much ever since it happened. It’s a transformative period for a massive civilisation that ripples through history today; but it also plays out like a spectacular melodrama with endless plotting, scandals, betrayals and murders. However as Southon points out throughout this book, the lure of a good story has frequently overpowered what we today would consider ‘good history’. With very few direct primary sources (even the Roman writers we’d probably think of as primary sources were often writing hundreds of years after events) everything is suspicious.
This is particularly true of a person like Agrappina. A woman in a completely male world. Historians throughout history have interpreted her as manipulative, self-serving and power-mad, but Southon brings a fresh approach questioning absolutely everything, going back to the sources and considering the agendas of the writers. These were people to whom the idea of a woman looking out for herself was horrifying, whereas Agrappina’s action’s take on a rather different spin when you consider that most of her family had been exiled and/or murdered, including young children who’s only crime was inconvenient location in the family tree. I’m not going to call it a ‘feminist’ take, because that’s incredibly patronising, it’s a ‘fair’ take, respectful of the context and acknowledging the many things that just can’t be known.
The biggest thing I can praise about the book though is that the author’s voice is loud, proud and HILARIOUS. There is no dry academic language here, she grumbles about confusing naming practices, swears about sources, calls out respected historians for their double standards, she makes off hand pop culture references and freely admits when she isn’t sure of something. I absolutely loved spending time in her company and I came away informed, intrigued, challenged and hugely entertained. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

venetian gothicPhilip Gwynne Jones – Venetian Gothic
Another very solid thriller from Philip Gwynne Jones. The mystery element is maybe not as strong as some other writers, but it’s more than made up for by the incredibly rich description of Venice, not as a glamourised romantic vision, but as a real place where people live. The central characters are also well formed with flaws and eccentricities alongside their charms. This is not a series that will ever set the world alight, but they are good fun reads and a lot less disposable than the average thriller. And they really make me want to visit Venice again.

early riserJasper Fforde – Early Riser
I was just reading back through my reviews of previous Jasper Fforde books and I’ve been pretty critical of him in the past, in a way that makes me wonder why I keep picking his books up. There’s a four year gap in his bibliography before this book was published, and he’s come back in better form than ever. Early Riser hung together better than I think any of his other novels have. There’s a characteristically weird world, but this one feels completely real, it’s fully formed and makes sense (in a nonsense kind of way). Also the plot is smoothly developed through the book, with twists and turns on a coherent journey and a cast of characters that are entertaining and curious. I was pretty gripped through the whole thing and ended up completely satisfied.

terra twoTemi Oh – Do You Dream of Terra-Two
I’m afraid that I don’t think this is a very good book. On a surface level it’s a solid page turner with a fundamentally interesting idea, good pace, diverse characters and lots going on. But unfortunately anything beyond the very superficial starts to fall apart. The story revolves around a group of astronauts sent on a 20+ year mission to another planet. OK, solid idea, but the details are all ridiculous. 6 of the crew are teenagers who’ve gone through years of highly accelerated training that seems to have completely overlooked even the most basic psychology and mental health considerations leaving the whole set up completely ridiculous. I kept suspending more and more of my disbelief and switching my brain off until there was almost nothing left. I’ve got nothing against a book that’s dumb and fun, but this book isn’t presenting that way, it’s trying to be full on science fiction, and it’s sadly just not good enough.

henri pickDavid Foenkinos – The Mystery of Henri Pick
Walter Presents is a collection hosted by Channel 4 which curates the best in international television, and this is the first in a book series trying to reach a larger audience for books not originally written in English. Despite my best intentions, I’ve never actually watched anything on Walter Presents, but this book caught my eye. It’s by a French author and from my incredibly limited experience of French cinema I’d say it certainly feels French. Despite being entirely based in the real world, there’s a slightly fantastical feel to the story.
From a plot point of view, nothing much happens – an abandoned book is found and turns out to be a masterpiece. We then drop in with various characters who are connected to the story, meandering through their connections and how the publication of the book slightly changes their lives. It’s a book that encourages words like “gentle”, “charming” and the ultimate in faint praise -“nice”. It’s engaging enough while reading, but not impactful enough to really linger. The only thing I will say is that I would recommend not reading the epilogue, it felt like the author slightly chickened out of deciding which end to have and included an alternate one that would have been a much darker story than the one the rest of the book tells. That was a real disappointment right at the very end.

Films in May 2020

A solid month of film watching, with 23 films watched through the power of netflix and amazon prime, but I am really missing going to the cinema. I’m gonna start with the review that would normally come last – the very worst film. But it’s so offensively awful that I wanted to put it at the top.

Sabrina (1995)
What a truly awful film. I know that this film was made 25 years ago, but even in 1995 I don’t think the crimes against feminism were considered appropriate. Look at the poster, that’s pretty indicative. Although the ages of the characters are never given, Julia Ormond was about 30, and Harrison Ford 53, that’s already a pretty uncomfortable age gap for a rom-com, but Sabrina is presented as much much younger. Initially she is more like a teenager with a crush, then magically after a year in Paris and a haircut she seems to have aged considerably. Ford’s character then deliberately seduces her to get her away from his younger brother (played by Greg Kinnear, only 2 years older than Ormond), who may have been a shameless womaniser, but at least seemed genuine in the moment. Harrison Ford can’t quite seem to work out whether he’s supposed to be playing evil (as the plot indicates) or charming (as the tone and dialogue indicate), so he settles for an utterly wooden middle ground of nothingness. Of all the female characters, only Nancy Marchand playing the formidable mother raises her character above being a shameless object to be maneuvered about. Marchand and Kinnear bring some light to the darkness, but the rest of the film is an insulting mess.
Ranking: 3 / 10

Educating Rita
I enjoyed the maturity of this film. It could have been a very trite film – pragmatic working class girl meets stuffy academic lecturer and they change each other’s lives and ride off into the sunset together to live happily ever after. But the film (based on a play) acknowledges that life isn’t that simple, you can’t change your life without losing things; and having a happily ever after implies that there is one ‘correct’ answer to all the questions of life. The young Julie Walters is fresh, vibrant and just bursting from the screen; Michael Caine somehow makes a world weary character hum with just as much energy and potential. I was not expecting much, and I was hugely impressed. The only thing wrong with the film was the awful synthesizer sound track.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Circus of Books
Karen and Barry Mason are a nice Jewish couple from LA, well into their 70’s now I would think. He is quiet and jovial, she is more firm. They’ve raised three children, one of whom is the writer/director of this documentary. Oh, and since the 1970s they have been running a sex shop specialising in gay porn. It’s the kind of story you couldn’t make up. But while the documentary may start off looking at the unlikely circumstances that led to them setting the shop up, it quickly becomes a really interesting look at gay history and the history of censorship being used to persecute communities. The documentary never loses connection to the personal stories and issues of those involved though, and there is some particularly insightful and challenging psychology to unpick. I thought this was going to be a little bit of fun, but I learnt a lot and was really very moved.
Ranking: 9 / 10

Split
I’m not sure how I’ve missed this film, maybe because I was expecting a film with a powerful central performance and not much else. James McAvoy was impressive as expected playing about half a dozen very different characters. However I was surprised to find there was a lot more to the film. For a start, it’s really Anya Taylor-Joy who’s the central character, and she manages to give her character with just as much depth and complexity. Also the film has more than enough plot, structure and drama to stand up as a really engrossing thriller. It did run a little long, and I did get a bit lost in the idea of the beast, but I was pretty engrossed for most of it.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Porco Rosso
This is an unexpectedly different style of Studio Ghibli film. With the exception of the fact the main character has been cursed and turned into a pig, the rest of the story is played fairly straight and somehow manages to blend a more adult noir-esque film with the Ghibli vibrancy and childlike energy. It really shouldn’t work, but it really really does. I was completely engrossed, frequently laughing out loud and utterly charmed.
Ranking: 8 / 10

No Country for Old Men
I was quite dismissive of this film the first time I saw it in 2008, but rewatching it 12 years later I was more impressed. What I’d previously described as “a slightly uncomfortable mix of a cat and mouse thriller with slow moving thoughtful drama”, I now see as a well balanced mixture of a slick thriller and a grounding thread of characters making sure that the true impacts of these horrors aren’t forgotten. It’s not melodramatic, there is no wailing about the unfairness of life, just a quiet reflection on the reality of the world the events are happening in. I do still feel a bit disappointed in the ending, but can see that the only ‘right’ way to end the story is to not actually have an ending. the performances of all three lead actors are very different and very fine, but for me it’s Tommy Lee Jones that absolutely steals every moment he’s on screen.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Funny Girl
There’s a film here, and there’s a performance. Barbra Streisand’s performance is just phenomenal. She lives up to the title of ‘funny girl’ with beautiful timing and originality, but she also delivers an emotional performance, making it abundantly clear that the label of ‘funny girl’ can be just as much a burden as a celebration. The audience is never in doubt that there is a complex woman beneath the persona. The production values help support the sense of misdirection and illusion and it’s to Streisand’s credit that even the spectacle cannot overwhelm her story. I’ll probably get shouted at for this, but the only thing I didn’t like about it were the songs. I didn’t think it was necessary to make it a musical, and I didn’t feel the songs blended into the story.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Book Club
Really, all you should need to say is that the film stars Diane Keaton,Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen and that should really be enough for anyone. They are playing a group of long time friends who are all very different but have a wonderful bond that just shines off the screen. Frankly I would just watch them all drinking wine and chatting and that would be a very entertaining 2 hours. The icing on the cake is that they are all connecting in different ways with the book Fifty Shades of Grey, and hence these absolutely legends are making dirty jokes and innuendos that had me roaring with laughter. And the cherry on the cake… Richard Dreyfuss turns up for a couple of scenes.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Paradise Hills
This was a bit of a surprise. I was drawn to it by the title card on Netflix which had a beautiful and unusual visual style to it that is carried through the film making it visually incredibly interesting. It’s one of those films that’s a bit hard to categorise and that’s part of its charm, so I’m not really going to try and explain it as I’d recommend you experience it yourself. I don’t think it’s necessarily an amazing film, but it kept me solidly entertained for it’s run time and I think you will get more out of it by not knowing what’s going on.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Beetlejuice
I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen Beetlejuice. I’m not sure how that’s happened, I think because the clips etc have always focused on the wacky central character and irritating goth teenager and I’ve just never been interested. But it turns out the core of the film is actually a really interesting idea as Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin adjust to being dead and having to share their house with people they don’t like. Their slightly inept attempts to deal with the bureaucracy of being dead, and get rid of the unwanted housemates was more easy going fun. I tended to zone out a bit for the more extreme antics of Beetlejuice himself, and tried very hard to ignore the deliberately shoddy special effects pieces that were just a bit much for me. But the rest of it was actually quite nice.
Ranking: 7 / 10

The Vast of Night
I watch a lot of films and it’s not often that there’s something that I feel is markedly different and unusual. The strange thing about The Vast of Night is that while it feels original, it also feels classic, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Unfortunately, I have to admit that it didn’t entirely work for me. I did like the very natural feeling dialogue, but the sound mixing wasn’t quite good enough and I struggled to make out what the characters were saying until I resorted to subtitles. There were also sections that the music was too overwhelming. However, I did respect the originality of it and the ambition.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
Generic teenage fantasy series. I’ll be honest I didn’t really track the plot that much something about demons and angels and shadowhunters and runes and werewolves and vampires… basically the same old building blocks all thrown in together. Plus of course the whole saving the world thing has to be done in between establishing various overlapping romances. It was a perfectly serviceable film to have on in the background while playing with Lego, the only moment I really took offense to was an overly obvious and loud piece of cheesy pop music to accompany the big kiss in the middle. However it will fade into memory so quickly that in 6 months time, without this review, I would have completely forgotten I ever saw it.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Hannibal
I rewatched Silence of the Lambs a couple of weeks ago and, while it may have been exceptional when it was made, now it’s just a solid and unremarkable thriller. This sequel is just as unremarkable now, except that I think it was born unremarkable rather than slowly being overtaken by newer films. It was perfectly fine, plenty of twists and turns, some stupid characters to drive the plot where it needed to go, deliberately shocking gore that was actually a bit eye-rolly, and a big chunk of hammy overacting.
Ranking: 6 / 10

You’ve Got Mail
1998. Different times. The technology, the fashions and what was considered romantic and acceptable behaviour. I’m sorry but I just can’t find entertainment in a person (male or female) trying to get someone (male or female) to fall in love with them by lying. Even when one of those people is the utterly lovely Tom Hanks. Entrapping someone into a relationship, using the fact that you know more than they do do manipulate them is just creepy. That the film went in that direction is a real shame, because the rest of it was great, with a charismatic pairing, some solid supports and a lovely sense of time and place that has seamlessly moved from being present day to being a period piece. I can think of a couple of ways the writers could have avoided the imbalances, that would actually have made a lot more sense for the characters as well. I was really disappointed.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Top Hat
Eh. I guess it’s fine? I struggled to really engage with the film to be honest, which meant for a big chunk I lost track of the plot and logistics of how the identities were mistaken and why everyone was making such a fuss. It’s fine, there’s some funny bits and nice dancing, but nothing to really write home about. At least it’s short.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Extraction
I don’t really understand the business logic of these big action films that Netflix is premiering. They must be incredibly expensive to make, but I can’t imagine that they’re ever going to be what finally convinces someone to get a Netflix subscription, or to not cancel it for another month. You’d have to be a pretty huge Chris Hemsworth fan to think that this was worth paying a subscription for. In a cinema this kind of big dumb action film works because the stunt sequences on the big screen and the soundtrack through the massive sound system keep you fully engaged. But on the small thing it’s just not good enough and you can’t help but get bored by the daft plot, and frustrated by the poor dialogue (what little there is of it between grunts). It passes the time but it’s perilously close to being laughably bad.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this film. It was certainly a very interesting film to look at with an utterly unique style to it, I was mesmerised watching it. Unfortunately that was about the only thing that really grabbed me because the plot and characters left me cold. I never really emotionally engaged in the story, it just felt like an itinerary bouncing between different locations. Similarly the characters never quite connected and I felt slightly uncomfortable with the amount of violence and guns in an otherwise inoffensive children’s film. But then I was always an Asterix kinda girl growing up rather than a Tintin one.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Silence of the Lambs
I think this is probably one of those films that at the time of making it was really something very special, but in the intervening decades has been completely eclipsed not just by other films, but frankly by a fair number of TV shows. The structure is interesting, the interweaving stories of two different serial killers and following not the main investigations, but a small side story. However everything else about the film is a bit dreary now – performances that feel completely over-egged, obvious direction and a completely lack of subtlety throughout. It’s an important step in the history of film/TV, but watching it now the interest is more in its place in history than actually as a film for entertainment.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Crimson Peak
I was looking forward to Guillermo del Toro’s new film. Pan’s Labyrinth, while not necessarily enjoyable, was incredibly original; full of character, creepiness and gorgeous design work. Crimson Peak came with the bonus of not having to be distracted by reading subtitles and another bonus of Tom Hiddleston. Of all that, the only thing that actually carried through was the gorgeous design (well, and Tom Hiddleston being pretty). The house in particular is an incredible piece of work, so complicated and textured as it falls down around the characters. It’s such an integral part of the story and it’s by far the most interesting thing on screen.
Everything else was, frankly, fairly dull. It was neither creepy enough, nor romantic enough to be a true gothic romance. The plot is incredibly predictable, I kept coming up with more adventurous and interesting explanations and then being disappointed when the real answers were so much more trite. The characters are single note giving the talented cast very little to work with, even Tom Hiddleston couldn’t quite elevate his character to anything particularly interesting. To top it all off there are unfortunate moments that reminded me of 80’s comedies such as The Money Pit and Death Becomes Her. After the first half hour or so I was just chanting in my head “get on with it” and if I were limited to a one word review it would be “dull”. If I had a couple more it would be “pretty, but dull”.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Space Jam
I think the most that can be said about this film is that it is only bad, it’s not as catastrophically awful as it could have been. By all rights, the worst thing about this film should have been Michael Jordan who I’m sure is an incredibly talented basketball player, but has absolutely no right to be leading a blockbuster movie. As it turns out, his innate charm is one of the brighter spots of the film, he (and the other basketball stars featured) are sort of adorably amateur but soldier through with self-deprecating humour. Beyond that though it’s miserable. The plot is ridiculous which wouldn’t matter if they didn’t spend quite so much time trying to explain it, and Looney Toon characters should be left in small screen, short cartoons. And the biggest crime – starting and ending the film with R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Red Dragon
It’s interesting how the Silence of the Lambs series has gone steadily downhill. This is a really bargain basement entry that feels incredibly clumsy, predictable and charmless from the very get go. The story seemed to rely heavily on the belief that Edward Norton’s character was some kind of genius investigator, but instead it just made all the other investigators look stupid that they’d missed the clues that anyone who’s seen a season of Criminal Minds would pick up on. Edward Norton is an actor I struggle to get on with, particularly when he’s trying to play sincere and likable and rather failing. Ralph Fiennes delivers and over-the-top performance in keeping with the writing and Anthony Hopkins’ standard. It’s dull and unremarkable.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Coco Before Chanel
On one hand, a fascinating insight into someone I knew absolutely nothing about. I was amazed to learn that the famous fashion designer started out in such desperate struggles, seeking out opportunities where she could. But this isn’t the story of someone with a dream, an artist with a passion, desperately fighting to realise it. In fact the biggest problem with the film for me was that I could never quite work out how Coco felt about anything, what she wanted either long or short term. She seemed to have a low level disdain for absolutely everything and everyone. The moments where she truly emotes (either positively or negatively) are the high points of the film, but they were too few and far between, and too unpredictable. I found her, and therefore the film, incredibly frustrating.
Ranking: 5 / 10

Pitch Perfect 3
The things I love about the original Pitch Perfect are that Anna Kendrick is perfection, the song and dance numbers are joyous, and there are verbal and visual jokes that have me laughing out loud. Unfortunately, the thing I don’t like about the series is Rebel Wilson. I simply don’t find her funny. Her character is just too much, overwhelming the ensemble, upping the cringe-factor and stepping on quieter moments. Unfortunately I felt Pitch Perfect 3 built up her role, and the whole balance was broken. Also it didn’t feel like there were as many songs!
Ranking: 5 / 10

Books in May

I’m finally getting into a bit of a rhythm working from home and thanks to the lovely weather and the complete lack of anything else to do, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading in my garden. Two big hits, 1 middling and two misses this month, but the hits were really good.

Susan Cain – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
If ever I was in any doubt as to whether I was an introvert or not, two things have recently made me certain. The first is living alone during the current lockdown and really not actually feeling that stressed about my lack of companionship. The second is this book.
The initial chapters come across as a “them and us”, a bit of a moan that the world is built by and for extroverts. It felt a little like the expectation was that only introverts would read the book and so we could have a bit of a moan together. That sort of thing makes me a bit uncomfortable, even when the book is actually doing a solid job in evidencing it’s claim that introverts are discriminated against.
Either the conflict elements were toned down, or I got used to them though because the rest of the book made me feel less uncomfortable and more… seen. I could recognise myself in many of the anecdotes and examples, I could see where I would probably fall in the experiments that are described. Each section delved deeper into presenting possible explanations for why I am how I am – culture, neurology, nature/nurture and I felt more understood. Even the sections on advice for how to manage situations to reduce your stress were gentle and supportive, not patronising.
I still have a slight discomfort with the “them and us” aspect. I’m not sure how many extroverts would read this book, and I’m not sure whether they’d really get it, or just feel like they were being told off a bit. That’s a bit of a shame, because I think beneath the thin layer of (justifiable) chip on shoulder, there’s a fascinating and useful book underneath.

Samantha Shannon – The Priory of the Orange Tree
Someone must have recommended this to me as it ended up on my wish list, and I ordered it online in a big stack of books to help me get through lockdown. However I forgot one of the key rules of impulse buying books online – check the page count. This came in at over 800 pages and a devastating 2 inches thick. Still, not like there’s much else to do and at least it’s all in one book not turning into an endless series.
I think this is a book that suits itself very well to being read in big chunks, curled up in an armchair, or laying out on a deckchair looking for an escape from the real world. It’s a true epic fantasy (it even comes with maps in the front and a character list at the back). There are half a dozen different kingdoms, multiple legends/religions, good dragons and evil dragons, pirates, magic, war and romance. Absolutely everything is thrown into the mix and emerges as a well constructed world with interesting characters and a well paced story. It could have been shorter and tighter, but removing some of the padding may have made it feel rushed. My only other criticism would be that if you look too closely, two of the lead women are basically the same character which can make their stories blend together a bit. I’m not sure it was completely worth the page count if you’ve got more limited reading time, but I did thoroughly enjoy it and am grateful for it taking me out of the real world for a while.

Kate Atkinson – A God in Ruins
Do not read this book.
I don’t like making that kind of blanket statement, but the end of this book made me so spitting mad, that I’m going to straight out say you shouldn’t read it. I know what the author was saying with the ending of the book, I can even respect the powerful message. I’m not saying she was necessarily wrong to tell that story and end it that way (it’s her book after all, she can do what she likes). The book itself is a hard read, full of small sadnessses, focusing on the small frustrations and disappointments in life rather than giving any space to the joys and triumphs. It is well written with excellent observation and a lovely turn of phrase, although I found the jumping references to past and future kept disconnecting me slightly from the moment. After reading through those difficult times I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, but I was at least expecting a closing. Instead I got a twist that was a slap in the face that left me feeling angry, cold and empty. It’s well written, possibly even brilliantly written, but I wish I hadn’t read it.

Michelle Paver – Wakenhyrst
The blurb is rather misleading as it implies this is a book spanning multiple time periods, when in reality there are there are just a couple of very short sections in the 20th century and the majority of the book spans a few years in the 1900’s. That both disappointed me and unsettled me when reading it as I kept expecting to jump time periods and there to be more complexity to the story than there turned out to be. I would probably have been perfectly satisfied with the book without that confusion, although I don’t think even then I would have been blown away by it. The central character has an interesting and well developed voice and the diary sections are well used to provide an alternate voice. The story itself is ok, but nothing outstanding, so while I enjoyed it enough as I read it, I expect it to fade into memory fairly quickly.

Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee – Rama II
Rendezvous with Rama is an absolute classic of science fiction – elegant, understated and original. Rama II is none of those things. I suspect the main issue lies in the double author credit, and it would seem that actually Clarke was really little more than an editor. The first book written exclusively by Clarke focuses on the story, the mystery of Rama. The characters are secondary, there to perform roles – captain, engineer, sailor etc. That’s not to say they don’t have personality, but that’s incidental to the story. Rama II feels like it’s taken entirely the opposite approach, focusing on the characters and their relationships. But the characters aren’t very good. Most of the book reads like a badly constructed reality TV series, where despite years in planning the powers-that-be have decided to send a group of complete ill-suited misfits on the most important mission mankind has ever had. It’s a recipe for disaster that’s predictable, unrealistic and frankly not very interesting. There’s also a layer of mysticism that I could completely live without. Sadly I found this book unsatisfying and a bit of a trudge.

Picard: Season 1

It’s been well over a month since I watched Picard and it has taken me this long to summon up even enough enthusiasm about it to bother writing a review. I had been really looking forward to it, but wavered around a bit while watching. Maybe my hopes were too high, but I never really settled into it. Despite some lovely moments where I really felt part of the epic Star Trek universe, mostly I was frustrated and sad.

On one hand the series has a lot of nostalgic charm to it. There are plenty of connections back to the Next Generation, the series which introduced me to Star Trek, and to a certain extent to science fiction television as a whole. It’s hard not to smile as small refrains of the music come through, the glimpse of a familiar communicator, at Picard’s familiar mannerisms, or outright grin when Jonathan Frakes bounds on to screen as Riker. There are nods to the other series as well, it’s satisfying to see the ongoing growth of Seven of Nine’s character.

But with this nostalgia comes sadness for things that are lost, seeing once mighty characters and ideas become smaller, weaker and less relevant. Picard himself is a shadow of his former self and although it may be accurate to show him aging into a slightly doddery and occasionally foolish old man, I don’t really want to see that. Similarly the Federation and Star Fleet itself, Gene Roddenberry’s great ideas, seem to have floundered. The messages of hope and optimism seem a little lost. I can see what the writers are doing, the Next Generation is now thoroughly the Previous Generation, and it would be slightly ridiculous to not look at the themes of aging and being left behind. But I didn’t like seeing something I loved so reduced.

That may be my personal taste, the bigger problem I had with the series though was that it just didn’t always seem very good. It felt forced, lacking the organic flow that we’ve come to expect from modern TV series. It felt rushed, and that played out most heavily with the characters and relationships. The new characters mostly had little more than basic personalities built off just a couple of key traits or big mysteries about them, none of them really had any depth, and often their behavior just felt inconsistent. There wasn’t sufficient distinction between the depth of these new relationships, and the longer ones built on decades of shared experiences, I could understand Picard being desperate to find a new mission and a new crew, but the others just felt muddled. I think there were opportunities missed to make more connections to the previous series so there was more familiarity for everyone.

I suppose I should talk about the plot a bit, but it almost feels like it doesn’t matter. It certainly felt to me that the writers were mostly making things up as they went along in order to get characters together in locations that suited them. It starts off very slowly with a lot of mysteries, and then has to wedge in a lot of exposition later on – lots of flashbacks or explanations of something that happened offscreen previously. It felt clumsy and gave a very uneven pace. The level of mysticism also felt a little heavy for Star Trek (certainly the amount demonstrated by groups/races that are usually shown as more pragmatic). And I didn’t like the way it ended at all.

I’m disappointed I can’t write a more favourable review. When it was announced, the concept sounded amazing and there were plenty of Star Trek alumni in front and behind the camera to give any Trekkie a warm glow. But I think it was let down by some depressing story choices and some inelegant writing.

Films in April

I’m still finding it a bit difficult to pick films that I want to watch at the moment, generally I’m looking for things that are engaging enough to distract from the world, but not too challenging or melancholy. Although every now and then I embrace the drama and seek out a horror film to completely overwhelm my brain. The list below are almost exclusively older films that are available on Netflix, Amazon Prime or occasionally on television; the only “new release” is the first film which premiered on Netflix so jumps to the top of the list, even though it was hardly a ‘big’ name.

The Willoughbys (Netflix)
A perfectly fine animation, but it felt like it could have been something a bit more impressive. The story is solid, the animation is lovely with an original style and creativity and the voice work very good. I think my disappointment was that it wasn’t quite dark enough. It has some fairly dark ideas that reminded me of Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket or Tim Burton, but it just doesn’t quite follow through. Maybe it’s because the visuals are so colourful that it instinctively feels less creepy. It’s solidly entertaining, and maybe it’s just me and others will enjoy it a lot more, but it just seemed not quite all there to me. 7/10

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Amazon)
An absolute classic of a film, a defining moment for the Spy genre. It’s not flashy secret agents with guns and car chases, but quiet, slow and thoughtful. The story is beautifully crafted so I always thought I knew what was happening, but also had an element of suspicion that meant I was never completely sure. My uncertainty and nervousness mirrored the paranoia of the characters and worked perfectly to bring a sense of unease to the film. The way the story eventually unwound was immensely satisfying. 9/10

Death on the Nile (TV)
Agatha Christie is the rightful queen of the murder mystery and this is one of her absolute best stories, beautifully constructed with twists and turns. Here it is brought to life beautifully; some of the best character actors around at the time bring the drama and the cheesiness at all the right points. The icing on the cake are the stunning locations of Egypt. 8/10

Three Identical Strangers (Netflix)
The documentary starts with a seemingly miraculous story, a boy going to college only to find that everyone seems to recognise him, and the rapid discovery that he’s got a twin brother who he never knew about, split up when they were adopted and neither family knowing the other. Then a third brother is found. That story in itself is incredible enough to make a decent film, but the story continues to develop, as the clickbait headline would go “in ways you’ll never believe” and I’ll not spoil. The events in this film are absolutely incredible, everyone on screen says they wouldn’t believe it if they hadn’t lived it. The film makers do a very solid job unraveling the story, always giving the individuals time and space to express how they felt and the very human impact that these sensational events had. It’s a shocking story that had a real impact on me. 8 / 10

Operation Petticoat (Amazon)
A Cary Grant classic! Pink submarines, women, goats, babies, bombs and thieves all conspiring to make Grant cranky. The combination of Tony Curtis and Cary Grant is an hilarious one, one never stops talking and the other one doesn’t need to say a word. It’s not exactly aged perfectly with a fair amount of leering at the women, but actually it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been and the women do a good job standing up for themselves. One of my favourite films when I was a kid and still absolutely hilarious. 8 / 10

Bumblebee (TV)
I am rather amazed to say, I really enjoyed this Tranformers film. I haven’t seen the most recent ones I don’t think, I don’t even really know how many of them there have been, but I’d heard suggestions that as a more standalone film (and a prequel I think) this one was something different. It felt like it was harking back to solid old tropes of aliens/monsters befriending young people who help keep them secret and safe. Bumblebee the character is beautifully created to be part child, part scary fighter; the complicated animation really communicates his feelings even when he has no voice, I felt real sympathy and joy with him at times. Hailee Steinfeld is an excellent lead, also delivering charm and emotional punches, creating chemistry with the animation. I even liked the way the 80’s period setting was used, the pop culture references making me laugh rather than cringe. The script is nicely knowing about the cliches they’re playing (“They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?”). Okay, so the plot is a bit predictable and the emotions laid on too thick at times, but for a piece of family entertainment, it really delivers. 8 / 10

The Current War (Amazon)
Once upon a time, I studied the history of science, and this film is exactly the type of story that got me interested in the subject. On the surface the idea of a film about whether AC or DC electricity would ‘win’ is really not that exciting sounding. But what this film captures is the complex components of that decision, the combination of all the personal, political and sociological issues that play out along the actual science. One of the things they teach you about studying history is that it’s important to not fall into the trap of thinking of people as heroes and villains, even people who are pushing for a theory that we now know is wrong aren’t (usually) villains and this film really shows that. Both Edison and Westinghouse demonstrate greatness and underhandedness, both have beliefs, passions, curiosity and ambition, and the film follows them as they wax and wane. On top of a fascinating story being told very well, the film is beautifully shot and there are some very well placed stylistic elements that really stood out. I wasn’t expecting much from this film and I was very pleasantly surprised. 8 / 10

Julie and Julia (Netflix)
I found this film utterly charming! I was really surprised at how much I loved it, I thought the modern half of the story would be filler to Meryl Streep’s impression of the slightly ridiculous Julia Child. But if anything it was the Streep half that felt like filler. I loved Julie and all her (many) trials, tribulations and failings, cookery based and otherwise. I haven’t laughed this hard at a film in a very long time or been so sad when it counted down to it’s final recipe. 8 / 10

Midsommar (Amazon)
This film brings two things the sub-genre of horror films about creepy cults that I really liked. The first was the fact that the whole thing is set in big open spaces in the sunshine. Horror films are too often set in dark and claustrophic spaces, where I frequently find myself struggling to be able to actually see what’s going on. But here there are bright blue skies and wide open fields, that by the end of the film feel just as threatening. The second thing I very much like is the wonderful Florence Pugh who brought an intense believability, that grounded even the weirdest of scenes. There’s a great blend of all the major horror styles, there are jump scares, creepy oddness, edge of seat suspense and visual gore. I would say that in order to get all that in the film does drag on a little with a nearly 2.5 hour runtime, which meant by the end I was rather willing it to be over. 8 / 10

Good Night, and Good Luck (DVD)
This is a strangely intimate feeling film considering the depth of the history it’s covering, journalists finally standing up against the bully that was Senator McCarthy. Most of the story is told through discussions in the newsroom, and the remainder is told through historical clips of McCarthy and the hearings. I was a bit skeptical of the black and white at first, but I think it actually helped focus on the words and imbue the whole film with a sense of history (I guess having black and white clips in a colour film wouldn’t have worked). David Strathairn isn’t a well known actor but he’s perfect as Edward Murrow and George Clooney brings his charm and integrity to Fred Friendly. An entertaining film, and a fascinating insight. The film’s plot/history was well crafted and the use of period footage was very powerful. It’s not often I say this but I think the film could actually have been a little longer (run time 93minutes) to explain things a little more. A fascinating film with some bold choices in direction, most of which work but some of which are just plain irritating. 8 / 10

Filmed in Supermarionation (Amazon)
I grew up with several of Gerry Anderson’s series, and still think that Thunderbirds is one of the best concepts for a TV series there has been (although not necessarily the best delivered). This is a very un-flashy documentary that would be very at home on Sunday evening TV, but does fit the history of the production company that was run by a small group of people in glamorous locations like Slough. It’s a straightforward chronologically told story with plenty of clips of the series, behind the scenes footage, pieces to camera by the people that were there and even a group of the original teams going back to where they used to work. It’s very charming, and a fascinating story for anyone that has a fondness for these series, or an interest in the history of television. I could have lived without the new snippets of the puppets as if they were part of the documentary, that was just too cheesy. 7 / 10

Animals (Amazon)
I think to really appreciate this film you need to connect to the characters, to feel some kind of familiarity to some part of them, and I just didn’t feel that. I don’t think that’s because the film wasn’t good, I think the characters were well written and performed and I’m sure a lot of people will really connect to them, it’s just that the passions that drove them were ones that don’t really speak to me. So I felt myself a bit frustrated and bored of them, rather than sympathetic. Even without that connection though there were still moments that did speak to me, enough that I could see the talent behind the film. It just wasn’t for me. 7 / 10

Coyote Ugly (DVD)
A fun enough film with a great soundtrack and a tolerable enough plot in between. The Coyote Ugly bar is an interesting idea and it’s a shame it wasn’t in more of the film. Some likeable performances by a collection of pretty unremarkable actresses, although the characters are pretty one dimensional. 7 / 10

Magic Mike (DVD)
I’m a sucker for any of these films, any of those ‘struggling artist finds a home and a purpose by performing’, it’s just they’re usually about girls. And not usually about stripping. But my fondness carried through and I loved Magic Mike. The way the story turns some elements on its head brings freshness to the genre (the new guy isn’t the hero, it’s the older teacher that gets the better story) and the insight into the practical business of stripping is fascinating. For all that there’s actually a very strong story and interesting characters though, they also don’t shy away from the stripping, but if you’re just watching for that, I think you’re missing the true strengths of the film. Well, some of them anyway. 7 / 10

Children of the Corn (Amazon)
A classic of the horror genre that flip flops a bit between ideas and scenes that are still genuinely creepy, and ones that have dated very badly and just seem funny now. The story still holds up as a concept, murderous children are alwasy going to be unsettling. Given it was made in 1984, it’s not that surprising that it looks a little rubbish now, incredibly low quality effects and weirdly non-creepy looking deserted streets. I do wonder if the voice of Isaac was ever anything other than funny. 7 / 10

21 Bridges (Amazon)
This is a pretty good brainless action film that’s got a bit more depth to it than usual. Unfortunately I think the film is presenting itself as a smart thriller and there were two problems with that. There is too much reliance on suspension of disbelief that is normally used for mindless action films. The main characters lead charmed lives where every shot they take hits their target, but they walk unharmed through hails of bullets unscratched. It just didn’t feel like the villains had the level of skill to create the carnage and chaos they did, they’re presented as not much more than thugs for hire and yet they take down half a dozen cops with relative ease. The second problem is that I felt it was a bit of a waste of the premise. Shutting down the island of Manhattan is a great dramatic moment (and an opportunity for a rousing speech from Chadwick Boseman) but it didn’t feel like it actually played a huge part of the story. I mean Manhattan is huge, surely two guys could have hidden and waited it out? It didn’t really feel like it added anything to the film at all. So if you go in expecting a smart thriller I think you’ll be disappointed. But as an action film with some solid character work and performances, it’s pretty entertaining. 6 / 10

Chicken Run (Amazon)
This isn’t as stand out as many of Aardman’s other movies, it doesn’t feel as rich or detailed as something like Pirates an Adventure with Scientists, and it doesn’t have as much charm as Wallace and Grommit. But it is still entertaining, really playing up the ideas of The Great Escape and delivering them in chicken form. It’s funny and charming, and beautiful to look at. However there’s a big problem with the concept that can never really be overcome. It’s a children’s film about a chicken farm. There’s an early scene of a chicken being killed for the kitchen table and the other chickens being aware of that fate, which doesn’t quite blend with the quirky adventure tone of the rest of the film, and I certainly wouldn’t feel like explaining what’s happening to any younger children. 6 / 10

Booksmart (Amazon)
There was a lot about this film that I was impressed by. It felt like a very current entry to the coming of age genre, with a mixture of genders and sexuality that would have been remarkable a few years ago but here is just accepted as normal. But it still has all the usual elements of a coming of age film, and I’m not a big fan of those. There’s a lot of cringing humour, characters making fools of themselves, disasters that can be seen coming from a mile off. Many of the characters are quite annoying a lot of the time, which does make their moments of nice-ness a lot more impactful, but for the most part they’re just not fun to spend time with. I respect this film a lot, but I didn’t particularly like it. 6 / 10

Hustlers (Amazon)
I’d been disappointed to miss this film at the cinema and was excited to see it appear on Amazon Prime, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the expectations. I was immediately on edge with the level of nudity and sexualisation in the opening scenes. I’m not being a prude about it, but it felt exploitative rather than narrative, the full pole dance routine Jennifer Lopez does wasn’t about establishing her character, motivation or backstory, it was just about JLo in a skimpy outfit doing a pole dance. I’m not sure the film ever came back from that. There were plenty of opportunities for the film to be a proper drama, looking at the deeper stories of the women and how they felt, what they wanted and why their stories played out that way, but it never felt like it got beyond the tight dresses, leering and intrusive cameras and one dimensional characters. As a caper movie with strippers, it wasn’t un-entertaining, but I thought it was going to be more than that. 6 / 10

Diego Maradona (TV)
After Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentaries Senna and Amy, I had high hopes that he could bring the same level of insight to the world of football and someone I knew of only because of the ‘hand of god’ cheating. Sadly, I was disappointed. Not just disappointed but bored and frustrated. The film focuses on his time playing in Italy and I never felt like I understood where he came from, the interviews and voiceovers said stuff, but I never felt like we saw evidence to support anything. I didn’t get an understanding of how his football playing was special and I never understood the reactions of the fans and people around him. On top of that much of the footage was really dated and almost the whole thing was subtitled so as my attention wavered I completely lost track. I just don’t think this was anywhere near as good a piece of work as Kapadia’s previous works. 5 / 10

Shutter Island (Netflix)
A thriller without the thrills, and mystery without much mystery. The period setting is intriguing and beautifully created, but the film as a whole was a bit too much style over substance. It’s trying to present itself as gritty and grounded but there are so many obviously daft plot elements that it’s easy to see that there’s more going on. That’s made even clearly by the horrific soundtrack that tramples over any remaining subtlety, literally honking a horn every time something weird happens. 5 / 10

Van Helsing (DVD)
What on earth was that? I didn’t have high expectations of it, but I figured it had Hugh Jackman so how bad could it be? The answer is that it could be really really bad. I don’t know whether they were aiming for serious and made it bad, or they were aiming for funny and forgot to put the jokes in, but either way it completely missed the mark. Most of the actors seemed equally unsure what sort of film they were in because I know most of them can do a lot better, although unfortunately there were also some actors that clearly would not have been able to deliver a more nuanced performance even if the script had provided the material. Even the special effects were clunky and painful. The whole film was utterly without redemption. 4 / 10

Books in March and April 2020

Matthew Syed – Rebel Ideas
Matthew Syed takes on the subject of diversity, in its broadest definition – why it’s important to bring together people who think differently; whether that’s because they have different races, genders, backgrounds, training, specialisms or styles – you’ll get better results if people think differently and (just as importantly) can express themselves and be heard. As with all Syed’s books it’s fantastically well researched and grounds scientific explanations with vibrant anecdotes and personal accounts. It did start to lose me a bit towards the end when the theory got a little bit too heavy and theoretical, but the rest of it was interesting and entertaining to read.

Bridget Collins – The Binding
The book is divided into three sections and my enjoyment level varied significantly between the three. The book starts in a fairly classic way a young man with some sort of trauma in his past is apprenticed to a mysterious woman who may or may not be a witch. The fact that the blurb on the back of the book gives away the mystery is a bit of a shame, but it’s a well developed idea and the character is interesting. The second section becomes a lot less interesting, losing most of the fantasy elements that were the only reason I had picked up the book. The third section then turns into a bit of a jumble, with a new first person narrator that never quite felt coherent to me. A good start, that just didn’t work out so well.

Kate Atkinson – Big Sky
It’s been a long wait for a new Jackson Brodie novel, so long that I’d half forgotten the series. I suddenly remembered though that I had the dvd of the BBC series starring (hello to) Jason Isaacs so I recapped via that first. It was a good job I had because there were a lot of call outs in Big Sky to the previous works. It wasn’t until after I’d finished the book that I looked up my reviews of the previous works and realised that I had been less than glowing about a lot of them, which completely matched how I felt about Big Sky. On one hand, it’s a rich collection of characters and stories that gradually come together into something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. But on the other hand, it’s a mess of too many disparate elements that are brought together through completely unlikely coincidences (oh and there’s really not enough Jackson Brodie in it). I think as a disposable, relatively low impact thriller, it’s a satisfying read. But I went in expecting more and was a bit disappointed.

Harlan Coben – The Woods
If you’re looking for a solid thriller, Harlan Coben is the place to go. This book certainly kept me turning the pages and coming up with various new ideas and solutions every few chapters, and still managed to surprise me at the end. I did have a few moments of wanting to shout at characters for poor decision makers (the lawyer who doesn’t report the attempts to blackmail him seems particularly stupid) but I got better at just shushing that inner voice and enjoying the journey.

Anthony Horowitz – Moriarty
I suspect if I were a fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels I’d appreciate this book a bit more. I know enough to be able to spot that the style and tone were referencing the style of the original series, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy the style. There’s a smugness to the writing and many of the characters, the sense that the characters and the writer know more than the reader and are quietly gloating about that. That pushed me in the opposite direction a bit, and I found myself looking for the inconsistencies and errors even more than I usually would, and of course found plenty that either the characters or the writer overlooked. Just as I was getting very bored of the book though, there’s a twist at the end that was genuinely shocking and turns everything on its head in a way that was really very clever. So I’m torn, the excellent ending doesn’t change the fact that most of the book is fairly unremarkable and occasionally irritating.

Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson – Starchild
I was given three months subscription to a service that sends you random books from charity shops, and this was one of them. It’s a solid 60’s SF book that’s got some interesting stuff going on, some weird stuff going on and some incoherent stuff going on. It’s short enough to burn through and gloss over the things that make sense and it’s an ok read, but nothing to really write home about. It also turns out that this was book 2 of a trilogy, so maybe it would have made more sense read in the right order. I don’t mind random books, but not so random as to be midway through a series that is no longer in print.

Films in March 2020

Well isn’t the world very odd at the moment? I’ve not got the abundance of free time that some people seem to have, so I’ve not had a dramatic uptick in film watching, and my choices of films are tending more towards the low imapct end of the spectrum. I managed to get one last cinema trip in before they closed, and at least I ended on a high note.

Onward (cinema)
The concept behind Onward is that magic has been lost from the realm of fairy tale-esque creatures, they may be elves and centaurs, but they now live in a world of cars and smart phones. Ian and Barley are mismatched brothers who get the chance to spend one day with their father who died when they were very young, but they have to work together and rediscover magic in order to do it. It’s a really well crafted and fun story. Although all the familiar “tropes” of a magical quest are there, they’re approached in a fresh and self aware way. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland are wonderful as the two brothers, having a lot of fun but delivering real heart as well. I laughed out loud at both the spoken jokes and the visual ones, and teared up appropriately for the lovely emotional conclusion.
The problem is that if any other studio, even Disney Studios itself had made Onward all that praise would have been enough. But Pixar have set themselves an impossibly high standard, their films when at their best are works of art, creating vivid new worlds that offer stunning insight into our own. Onward is not that film. It felt like there was more that could have been done, more richness and detail in the magical world (compare with Zootopia), or creativity in visual style, or even in the soundtrack. I did enjoy the film immensely, but I don’t think it will stay with me and be one that I either reach down from the DVD shelf again and again over the years.

Alien Quaudrilogy
I watched my way through the Alien box set. Watching them back to back is quite interesting, as it highlights the similarities and differences. The first film in 1979 almost defined the whole genre, but by the fourth, nearly 20 years later the genre has left the series behind a bit.
Alien – Many of the special effects and even just film style now feel very clunky, even if they were groundbreaking. However the fundamentals of the story and how it feels to watch it haven’t changed. It’s still thrilling, and even after dozens of references and parodies over the years, it still gets the adrenaline going.
Aliens – Everything is bigger than in Alien – the sets, the size of the cast, and the explosions, the only thing that isn’t bigger is the brains. I felt it had turned this into more or a classic action film going from one set piece to another rather than telling a mapped out suspenseful story. Then to add insult to injury, they added a small child in, as if they realised that the marines were all utterly unengaging and both Ripley and the audience needed someone to actually connect with. It’s an exciting adventure, but I don’t think it does anything creative or special, unlike the first film.
Aliens 3 – At the end of this film it’s clear that this was supposed to be the end of a trilogy. Ironically when they eventually made the 4th film, it made this film be the one that’s most irrelevant. Opening by unceremoniously killing off the characters that Ripley had previously established relationships with, and the film never really finds that level of emotion and humanity again. Ripley is emotionally shut down, which is understandable but very boring, and the prisoners she finds herself with are hard to tell about. There’s just nothing here that jumps out or gives any personality.
Alien Resurrection – The nuts and bolts of the film bring absolutely nothing new to the franchise, with yet another rag-tag group fighting to survive against the alien menace and the usual selection of human antagonists. Fortunately Sigourney Weaver has something new to chew on, with the resurrected Ripley changed by her experiences, and a bit of Alien DNA. That iteration on her character actually makes this film rise above the previously unremarkable Alien 3.

The Boxtrolls (Netflix)
A really lovely, charming film that’s thoroughly original. It’s grungier than most Disney, perfectly suited to the intricate detail of the stop motion animation of Laika studios. The story is a classic one, but the details and specifics are rich and original. The voice cast is familiar, it’s hard to not see Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and Jared Harris when you hear their voices, but that also means their characters are richer for their inherited histories. It’s a lovely film that I can see watching over and over again.

Julie and Julia (Netflix)
I found this film utterly charming! I was really surprised at how much I loved it, I thought the modern half of the story would be filler to Meryl Streep’s impression of the slightly ridiculous Julia Child. But if anything it was the Streep half that felt like filler. I loved Julie and all her (many) trials, tribulations and failings, cookery based and otherwise. I haven’t laughed this hard at a film in a very long time or been so sad when it counted down to it’s final recipe.

Midsommar (Amazon)
This film brings two things the sub-genre of horror films about creepy cults that I really liked. The first was the fact that the whole thing is set in big open spaces in the sunshine. Horror films are too often set in dark and claustrophic spaces, where I frequently find myself struggling to be able to actually see what’s going on. But here there are bright blue skies and wide open fields, that by the end of the film feel just as threatening. The second thing I very much like is the wonderful Florence Pugh who brought an intense believability, that grounded even the weirdest of scenes. There’s a great blend of all the major horror styles, there are jump scares, creepy oddness, edge of seat suspense and visual gore. I would say that in order to get all that in the film does drag on a little with a nearly 2.5 hour runtime, which meant by the end I was rather willing it to be over.

A Cock and Bull Story (Amazon)
What an incredibly odd film. All I knew going in was that it was a film of the supposedly “unfilmable” Tristram Shandy, it quickly became clear that this was much stranger and a blend of actual film, and a fictional account of the making of that film. I don’t know whether they tried to write that film and then realised they couldn’t or always set out to make this behind the scenes film, but either way I think the result is possibly inspired. Possibly. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon don’t hold back playing extreme versions of themselves. All the characters walk a fine line between parody and tender observation which gives the film a real heart beneath some of the cheap laughs. I wasn’t expecting a film with quite so many layers to it, and would actually quite like to watch it again now I know what to expect.

The Aeronauts (Amazon)
This is one of those films that is quite deceptive. It appears to be quite a straightforward period adventure story of two people trying to fly a hot air balloon higher than anyone has gone before in the 1860’s, with plenty of extreme weather, clambering through ropes, and life and death peril. But the character studies going on at the same time are what bring the film to life. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne create rich and fascinating individuals and then bring them together in a relationship that’s adversarial, respectful, and challenging. I’m glad the film was structured with the balloon journey playing out in approximately real time through the film, while the story of how they got there is told through flashbacks, as a linear story it would have been predictable and probably felt too slow, but jumping around in time gave the story a lot more life. The film is beautifully shot, with period details on the ground and scenes on the balloon that are both claustrophobic and spacious. I wish I’d seen this on the big screen; even on a TV the shots of the balloon flying were beautiful, and I think at the cinema they would have been really breathtaking. It’s a lovely film that I think could easily be overlooked.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Netflix)
I was lucky enough to see this during the Picturehouse’s Studio Ghibli season and it’s a lovely film to see on the big screen. Some animations work on the big screen because of the amount of detail (Zootopia or Big Hero 6 for example), but this one works because of the simplicity of the animation. The simplicity of the lines, character design and the colours are so elegant on the big screen. It’s a pure kids film, a slow burning fairy tale but there’s enough touches of humour to keep it interesting for adults too. The majority of the film is a very gentle, slow ride which builds to an ending which felt a little rushed, but maybe watching things play out over the titles is the best way to gently break away from the lovely world.

Shrek (Netflix)
Learning from the Toy Story school of making animation fun for adults and taking it even further this Dreamworks CGI is a lot of fun. It’s not as subtle as Pixar at its best, but there’s plenty of jokes that made me laugh out loud. I think the biggest thing I remember about this film is the soundtrack that hits all the right points. The story is nothing special, but the injokes, side comments and references make this just as entertaining the 6th time as the 1st.

Intolerable Cruelty (Amazon)
A romantic comedy from the Coen brothers. Meaning it’s pretty black, deeply bizarre, very quirky and very funny in places. George Clooney is dialling up the smarmy charm and Catherine Zeta Jones the aloof manipulator; both playing their characters very carefully so they’re extreme, but don’t quite fall over into completely unbelievable. The looping of the plot did get a little tiresome, particular if you can see the steps coming, but the utter weirdness of the characters, and some great supporting characters keep it enjoyable.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Netflix)
As I was scrolling endlessly through Netflix, this this documentary caught my eye because I’d recently seen the Tom Hanks film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and I thought I’d try to get a little more insight. If you’re looking for hard hitting journalism here, you’re going to be disappointed and I didn’t really get anything more than I did from the dramatisation. There is some interesting insight into how he got into children’s television and then how he left it for a while before feeling he needed to return. However most of it is just a group of people talking about a very nice person. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but I think I’d prefer to watch Tom Hanks.

Blinded by the Light (Amazon)
Labels like “feel good film of the year” are frequently misapplied, either to films that are trying way too hard, or to films where there’s a lot of misery before the feel good. On the plus side, this film doesn’t have too much trauma, just enough to get the characters moving, and the feel good tunes kick in pretty early. But I never fully engaged with the characters, their stories, or the music itself and so never got the full benefits of the positivity. I felt like an awful lot of energy was expended in telling me how everyone felt and how amazing Bruce Springsteen’s music were, but I never actually felt it, so was just left a bit bored.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (DVD)
I remember this film incredibly fondly from my childhood, but actually haven’t seen it in decades. It’s hard not to compare it to Mary Poppins, despite being 7 years younger they had interweaving production timelines and shared several cast and crew, and most notably the songs for each were done by the Sherman Brothers. Mary Poppins clearly has the stronger cultural history and it’s sadly quite clear why when re-watching Bedknobs as an adult. If Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Poppins was dubious, the children in Bedknobs are an absolute horror which it’s very hard to get over. The wonderful Angela Landsbury is painfully wooden and delivers lines like someone that’s wondering what happened to her career. That’s a shame, because the story itself is charming, the characters are fun (David Tomlinson the only member of the cast seemingly having fun) and the animation is fun (the football match in particular). But the real standout are the Sherman brothers’ songs which are just as catchy as the Mary Poppins ones, and all the lyrics came flooding back as soon as I heard the overture (“Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee”). It’s still a fun film, but not nearly as timeless as it’s older sister.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (Netflix)
I just went back and reread my review of Pacific Rim and it’s interesting that while I absolutely loved the action and described it as loud, cool and fun in the cinema when I re-watched it on tv I downgraded it because the spectacle just wasn’t as good and started to reveal some poor scripting. I didn’t see Pacific Rim: Uprising at the cinema and maybe I would have thought more fondly if I had. One of the strengths of the original was that it didn’t have big name hollywood stars which gave the characters more individuality, here the lack of big stars just felt like it lacked talent. John Boyega was the notable exception, creating an interesting lead (the icecream scene was a standout), but the rest were a bit flat and failed to bring personality to either their own characters, or the massive robots that they were powering. The onscreen action sequences weren’t enough to distract from the fact that the plot and even the music didn’t give me the same punch of adrenaline. The whole thing felt like it lacked heart, didn’t have the same sense of jeopardy and desperation that the first did and just left me feeling flat.

Jabberwocky (Amazon)
I had a lot of complicated thoughts while watching this film, mostly because the film itself was so utterly boring and unentertaining that my brain desperately went looking for something else to do. I was trying to work out why I didn’t like this, but I do like Monty Python. There’s so much that overlaps with Python (people and style) and yet while I find Python hilarious, this just seemed ridiculous. I did have to wonder whether it was because I’d been TOLD Python was funny, and have seen it so often in the context of it being wonderful, whereas Jabberwocky was forgotten and overlooked. I guess I’ll never really know, but I certainly won’t be watching Jabberwocky again to give it another try.

Locke and Key: Season 1

This series has been a long time coming. Based on a highly regarded comic series started in 2008 the rights bounced around various companies it was originally loudly announced as a film trilogy, before converting to a TV series and having pilots made in both 2011 and 2017. Off that second pilot, Netflix picked up the show and then recast almost everyone and making the 10 part series that eventually landed in Feb 2020 and ending up with something that is perfectly fine, but I’m not sure was really worth the wait.

The series starts with Nina Locke and her three kids trying to get a fresh start following the murder of their husband/father the improbably named Rendell Locke. They’re returning to his family home – Key House, a massive rambling old house that looks exactly like the house in any horror or mystery film with massive rooms, antique fixtures, sweeping staircases and doors everywhere. My main thought is that it’s going to be a nightmare to heat.

It doesn’t take long for weird stuff to start and we learn that the house is home to a series of magical keys, each with its own exciting powers. It’s a nice gimmick and the series uses it well to have some fun, provide character insight and drive the plot forward. It does occasionally get a bit hard to track the number of keys, what they do, what the rules are and who has them, but generally when I found I was losing track a character would helpfully recap.

It is more teen drama than adult series, I’d liken it in tone to the later books of Harry Potter, not as childish as the early books because it deals with serious issues like alcoholism, grief and trauma, but still with a fair dollop of teenage ‘shenanigans’ like flirting and dealing with bullies. Given that it’s a story about kids, there’s no way it could go as ‘grown up’ as series like Game of Thrones, but it did feel like it was holding back on some of the more serious issues that could have been pushed darker. The kids aren’t too irritating, and the central trio of the Locke children have some fun sibling dynamics going on, but if you’re not a fan of teenage dramas, then you’re going to get frustrated.

The series is solidly put together, pacing fairly well through the 10 episodes. I did occasionally get frustrated with the frequent flashbacks (particularly because I found Rendell Locke a very annoying character), but it did feel like the history was revealed at a natural rate rather than people frustratingly keeping secrets just to drag the story out. Given the number of time periods, characters and keys to keep track of, it’s an achievement that it works as well as it does. There’s also some nice design work going on using the lock and key motifs (which I’m sure is straight from the graphic novel) which elevates the early episodes but feels like it fades out later in the series. The younger members of the cast are doing a good job with some complex roles, but disappointingly there’s something about a lot of the adult actors that just feels a little low impact, a little bit second tier and by the numbers.

I enjoyed watching Locke and Key a lot, but it’s not the kind of series that really stays with you and makes you want to re-watch it or desperately want another season. I do find myself wondering if there was a missed opportunity with the source material to make something superb, maybe by making it more grown up? As soon as there’s a story with teenagers though it feels difficult to make anything other than a teen drama which (apparently) requires cliches of love triangles and teenage uncertainties. But if you go in knowing what it is, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Books in January and February 2020

Oh dear, I’m off to a very slow start reading this year. I set myself the target of averaging one book a week and I’m waaaaay behind that, without even the excuse that the books were particularly long, although 2 out of the 5 books did turn out to be pretty bad.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 10: False Value
The previous book in the Rivers of London series saw the big ongoing storyline wrapped up fairly conclusively and I actually worried that it might be the end of the series overall. Thankfully Aaronovitch is clearly not done. False Value builds from what has gone previously and continues to extend the world, but is a fairly standalone story, and I’m actually quite happy he didn’t launch straight into a new big storyline. Peter is quite removed from his usual environment and although it’s fun to see him out on his own and sharing his more geeky side, I did miss the familiar supporting characters who were reduced to not much more than cameos. I found it easier than usual to keep track of the story (probably as it was so self contained) and as usual, found plenty of charm and fun in the writing.

Mark Hayden – Tom Morton Series: A Serpent in Paradise and Another Place to Die
Mark Hayden is creating a fairly well put together, if not hugely remarkable collection of characters. While it’s the King’s Watch urban fantasy series that is the more creative, he’s also got a nice side line in solid crime thrillers. It was the Operation Jigsaw trilogy that spawned the two main characters for each series and although the morally dubious Conrad Clarke gets the bigger adventures in the King’s Watch spin off, I actually prefer the more straight laced Tom Morton in this straight forward crime drama. On paper he may seem a bit dull, more likely to solve crimes with spreadsheets that with running about, and more likely to quote the rule book than shout in interrogations. However he’s passionate and good at what he does and with some more lively supporting characters the books are very satisfying.
The first book, A Serpent in Paradise has a great set up with a murder in a gated community full of highly paid sports people, plenty of room for intrigue, high emotions and drama. Tom’s more steady pace is a perfect contrast to the setting and the cast of suspects, witnesses and those in between is diverse and fascinating.
The plot of the second novel, Another Place to Die, is a little more forgettable, but Tom is working with a larger team here that makes things a bit more interesting and it’s another enjoyable ride. I was a little sad to find out it was only a pair of books not the familiar trilogy structure, but I can see how the author (and readers) got distracted with the more flashy King’s Watch.

Erin Morgenstern – The Starless Sea
Eight years is a long time to wait for a second novel, and sadly this was really not worth the wait. I loved The Night Circus for the beautiful world it created, and The Starless Sea is attempting to do the same thing, this time around… ok this is where the book failed. I genuinely have no idea what it was about. It starts off well with ideas of secret societies, hidden libraries, fairy tales and stories weaving together with reality. There was some initial satisfactions as things connected together, but then I lost the threads and everything unraveled. I ended the book not knowing how the timelines worked, what the rules were, what anyone was trying to do and unsure whether it was my fault for not paying attention, or whether it really did just make no sense. I found myself cross and looking for faults (most of the characters come across as bland, either because they’re under-developed or because they’re so mysterious that you never get a sense of them. The flashes of solidity give points of hope, but they slip away and you’re left trying to track a dozen different threads to try and work out the pattern and by the end, I’d either failed, or it turned out the pattern was a blur anyway. I was incredibly disappointed.

Karen Joy Fowler – Sister Noon
There are some nice characters and set ups here, but then absolutely nothing happens with them. Reading the author note at the end it turns out much of it is based on real people of whom there is much uncertainty between fact and fabrication. While I admire the author’s determination to not ‘guess’ about true history, it does not make for a satisfying book as without any certainty it’s just a book of rumour and hinting. I never felt fully grounded in the period (elements felt slightly anachronistic, but maybe that’s just my ignorance showing) and I was very bored by the end.