Books I Read in 2021

I read 42 books this year, which is pretty consistent with most years but down on last year’s nice round number of 50 and another chunk down on my record round number of 60. Now that I (apparently) work from home full time I don’t get the enforced dedicated reading time each day on the underground, which I really miss, it was the definite silver lining of the commute. Most of the year I have to remind myself to read regularly rather than just slumping in front of the TV. The page count was just shy of 14,500 an average of 39.7 per day which is frustratingly short of the target of 40, and a good chunk down on last year’s average of 50.2.

42 is a good number in total so I’m happy with that, but the range of books was a bit lacking. With the exception of a couple of Agatha Christies, I only tried one classic and absolutely hated it (Lady Chatterley’s Lover is mindnumbingly boring and has not aged well). 10 of the books were published this year (24%) and another 15 (36%) were from last year.

Subject wise, like my film watching I was steering clear of anything too deep and challenging for the most part, sticking with pretty easy going safe reads for comfort escapism, and entertainment. I’m clearly not alone given the immense success of like Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice. Most of my reads fell into the vague genres of crime, fantasy/SF and a weirdly specific string of gothic horrors. Even the fantasy/SF was on the fantasy end, with hardly a space ship or alien to be seen.

AUTHORS
The 42 books were spread between 35 authors, although 4 of them were in pairs. 47% female is slightly below equal, and 52% were British, 21% American and even those that weren’t British or American were 2 Australians and 2 Irish, so it’s not exactly a very broad parish. But 19 of the authors were new to me so there’s at least that.

My favourite author of the year was T. Kingfisher, helped enormously by being quite prolific with 2 books published this year and 3 last year giving me 4 new books this year, and two re-reads. Paladin’s Strength started the year and then Paladin’s Hope towards the end and both were as lovely as the first book. In fact I enjoyed Hope so much that I went back and read the previous two novels again, meaning I read Paladin’s Strength twice in one year! I also read both of Kingfisher’s horror novels The Twisted Ones and The Hollow Places which had all of her strong characters and easy writing style, but I didn’t enjoy the plots as much as her fantasy work.

FICTION – 34 (81%)
The most impressive book I read this year was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s one of those generic drama/life books that sounds small when described (so I won’t) but is a beautiful story of people’s lives. It’s also a great advert for the power of bookshops. I was wandering around Waterstones looking for another buy-one-get-one-half-price and a bookseller enthusiastically recommended this to me.

Highly recommended:

  • As called out above, T. Kingfisher’s Paladins of Steel series is an absolute warm hug of a series, it has plenty of emotional and narrative heft to it, but it is also overwhelmingly lovely.
  • Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate is another great story from her, building from the first novel loses some of the original novelty of the concept, but it still continues to grow and surprise and has THE MOST annoying last sentence in history. It’s also incidentally the top book published in 2021 that I read and I had it pre-ordered and read on the weekend it released.

  • Circe by Madeline Miller – there’s a brilliant sub-genre of feminist classical history developing and I LOVE it, this is fiction but is no less important than the non-fiction which put a different slant on the classical stories told by men (and pairs nicely with Pandora’s Jar above). The history isn’t changed, but the inflection is and it’s fascinating and hugley engaging.
  • High Fire by Eoin Colfer – my only dragon book of the year, and this is like no dragon you’ve ever met before. It’s creative, hilarious and surprisingly sweet. Ignore the terrible cover which put me off for a very long time and give it a chance. You’ve really never met a dragon like this.
  • NON-FICTION – 8 (19%)
    Eight is exactly the same number of non-fiction as I read last year, but the reduced overall total means that makes up a higher percentage. There’s also a good range of subjects! 3 history, 3 science/maths, 1 self improvement book, and 1 by Claudia Winkleman. What more could anyone want. If I were forced to pick one, I’d probably say Atomic Habits by James Clear was the best as it was both informative about how people think and full of useful things that I’ve actually put into practice this year. What If? by xkcd’s Randall Munroe and Ask a Historian by Greg Jenner were both wonderfully entertaining while also covering loads of different subjects. Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes was fascinating in how it looked at how Greek myths about women have been retold over the centuries, and what that tells us about historians and artists through time.

    Humble Pi by Matt Parker, The Planets by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen and Underground, Overground by Andrew Martin all had a lot of interesting stuff in them but suffered slightly because of the writing style and the lack of diagrams, pictures and maps. Quite by Claudia Winkleman was just a hugely entertaining insight into the brain of someone lovely.

    Books in Oct-Dec 2021

    Oops, it looks like I failed to post about the books I read in either October OR November so now have a bumper crop for the end of the year.

    Naomi Novik – The Last Graduate
    Another brilliant novel from Naomi Novik. The second entry in the series has maybe lost a little bit of its originality now that the hero is more welcomed into the class, it has a risk this just turns into a ‘normal’ story of teenagers in a school trying to kill them with monsters. But Novik manages to keep the originality going organically as the rules of the game shuffle about in response to what happened in the previous book. There’s so much spark, life and colour here the book is an utter delight right up until the final sentence which is a massive cliffhanger. 

    Alex Pavesi – Eight Detectives
    I was attracted to this book by the idea of a mathematical model for murder mysteries, and that element of the book is quite innovative and interestingly told. The book is structured with an overarching story and then eight short stories within it, and each of the shorts demonstrates an element of the model and are varied and engaging. The overarching one is a bit less well done, the mystery a little bit forced and clunky and I was not a fan of the resolution of that one; [vague spoiler] it undermined some of the previous mysteries, basically indicating how fickle the conclusions of murder mysteries can be and how easy it is to have a different ‘solution’. It was an engaging and different read, but ultimately a little irritating.

    Andrew Martin – Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube
    This is a quite dense history of the London Underground from the very earliest beginnings to the fairly recent (it was published 2013, just as Crossrail was starting). The evolution of the tube is extremely complicated, driven by geography, sociology, engineering innovations and an incredibly complex series of businesses and entrepreneurs. What is now one massive network grew out of a multitude of different businesses and lines with constantly shifting (and overlapping) names. The book often fails to deliver that in a clear, or even engaging way, some sections slightly degenerated into a list of place names. More pictures, maps and charts would have really helped, the fact that it’s a book about the tube and doesn’t have a single copy of the tube map in it is a real problem. However, other bits of it are really interesting and well done, when the author’s voice and geeky joy shine through then it’s a really good read that makes it clear just how incredible the tube is.

    Greg Jenner – Ask a Historian
    Greg Jenner asked people what questions they’d always wanted to ask of historians and got back a massively eclectic collection of questions which provides a book that covers different time periods, different geographies (although he acknowledges a discrimination towards his areas of knowledge on western history) and all sorts of topics. Whether discussing how historians agree on defining historical periods (spoiler alert – they don’t), championing the reversal of previously biased histories or just talking about poop in medieval times the entries are all vibrant, educational and hugely fun. I learnt a lot and I laughed a lot.

    Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 11: What Abigail Did That Summer
    Unusually for me I didn’t pick up this Rivers of London book as soon as it was published, partly because it was only a novella, and partly because it didn’t feature Peter Grant at all, just Abigail, his precocious young cousin. I shouldn’t have been sniffy though because it was a really great read. At 175 pages it’s a pretty chunky novella and certainly tells a complete story, with a range of characters and ideas. Being inside Abigail’s head for the story is also surprisingly fun, Aaronovich gives her all the spark and realness that he manages for Peter, but also the sense of a black teenager from a London estate. Add on to that some adorable talking foxes and it was a really fun read. 

    T Kingfisher – Paladin’s Hope
    I adore this series. So much so that after I finished this book I went back and re-read the first two in the series. Hope, like the previous books is a romance dressed up as a fantasy horror. The romance (like previous pairings) is so beautifully, carefully, genuinely and honestly told that it’s just a complete joy to follow along. There’s so much going on, elegantly blended together – it’s a world of magic and gods, noble paladins called by gods, driven by duty… who also really fancy people and want to have sex. The mixture is immersive, often hilarious and completely gripping. This series (and all of T. Kingfisher’s works) are ones that I wait for eagerly and literally clear my diary for release day so that I can jump straight on them. They make me extremely happy. 

    It was so good, I went back and re-read Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength again and both are still just warm hugs of novels. Reading them all together also shows just how carefully Kingfisher has created her characters, the Paladins all have completely different personalities and responses to the trauma they have faced, but they still form a coherent group and I can’t wait to hear the rest of their stories.

    Gareth Nix – The Left Handed Booksellers of London
    I loved the idea of a secret (ish) band of booksellers standing against various mythological/supernatural beings, but found the reality of the book a bit of a slog. There’s a fine line between “rich worldbuilding” and completely overloading a book with masses of explanations and mechanics, and this fell into the latter with an over long list of different types of creatures and explanations for where they come from, what they do and how to fight them. Then there’s all the mechanics of the booksellers, and how they interact with the normal world. And THEN there’s the fact that all the characters also have uniquenesses and quirks that need to be followed. Oh and it’s set in the 80’s so there are some period elements to keep track of too. It’s all just too much and too muddled, and there’s no subtlety to any of it, it’s all what you see is what you get, it just that you’re seeing a LOT. I struggled to extract and/or care about the main thread of the story.

    Films I saw in 2021

    In 2020 I watched 211 films, beating my previous record, and I suspect that may stand for
    a long time. This year I watched a far smaller, but still respectable 134 films.

    I did often find myself hunting around for something to watch and being a bit underwhelmed. A few times I fancied a trip to the cinema but couldn’t find anything I wanted to see and in the end only saw 11 films in the cinema, which is one less than even 2020 and about half what I used to do in ‘normal times’. Cinemas being closed at the start of the year made a big difference as I usually make a push to see Oscar films, then blockbusters were delayed further. Things are looking up for 2022 though and I’ve already seen two films in the cinema.

    Despite that though, I still saw 46 films released in 2021, which is up from the 33 in 2020 and almost exactly the same as in 2019 which I’m quite pleased with. so obviously most of those were on streaming services. Even as a big cinema fan, I still found myself just going for the easy option of waiting a couple of weeks for the streaming releases. There were a further 48 films that were new to me from previous years, meaning 70% of my watching for the year was new.

    I watched 82 films (62%) on subscription services, half of those were on Netflix (40), a third on Amazon (28) and a sixth on Disney+ (13). Netflix is the clear top of the pile for value and quality with a great range of genres (and a lot of TV shows too), Disney isn’t amazing value for me, but the Marvel and Star Wars TV series make it worth it. Amazon is probably the one that I’d give up, except of course for the other shop elements. I also made good use of my dvd collection to watch 27 films (20% of the total) and watched 12 (9%) on the TV just to prove that old media isn’t dead to everyone.

    Only 13% of the films were from pre-2000 and only 2 films were pre 1980, which is pretty poor to be honest. Also pretty poor is that I only watched four films not in the English language. Other than that I had a pretty good range of genres with a roughly even split of comedy, sf/f, drama, and action.

    2021 Releases
    I don’t think 2021 will go down as a banner year for film, which is hardly surprising. The average rating for 2021 releases was 6.7, and 7.0 in 2019, so there’s a definite step down. and it’s also down against the average across the whole collection which was 6.9. Thinking back over the year I struggled to remember any particular highlights, and big names like Bond, or Oscar winner Nomadland (released in the UK in 2021) didn’t really connected with me. There are 3 films however that while they may not have stuck with me long term, did get 9/10.

    • Sound of Metal – rich characters and a well paced story with innovative film-making and use of sound. It’s not always a pleasant watch because of the sounds, but I felt part of the character’s experience in a way I really haven’t in many films.
    • tick, tick… BOOM! – the most musical of musicals ever and I loved it. Everything about it worked, there wasn’t a dud song, performance or story thread in the whole thing and I was deeply moved and completely entertained.
    • Palm Springs – I am as surprised as anyone to see a comedy film here, I went in with very low expectations of another go around of the groundhog day format, but this film evolved the idea and managed to deliver interesting philosophical thought, sweet romance and a good spread of laughs as well.

    Honorable mentions – 11 films got 8/10, Dune was easily my best cinema experience of the year with stunning visuals and sound. Stowaway is a really solid science fiction film that may have flown under the radar, taking a Twilight Zone style proposition and seeing how it plays out with some very good actors and solid visuals (albeit a slight craziness towards the end). Love and Monsters is similar to Palm Springs in that it takes the familiar movie tropes and gently evolves them into a knowing blend of SF and romcom. If you want to watch a funny, sweet, heartbreaking, and riotous film about middle aged men getting blind drunk, then Druk (Another Round) is definitely for you. If you’re looking for some mindless fun, Cruella and Jungle Cruise are both a good laugh, Woman in the Window is an excellent variation on a theme of Vertigo, and if everything’s a bit much, The Dig is the gentlest film that you can imagine.

    Dishonourable mentions – The Green Knight is one of the most boring films I’ve ever seen and Army of the Dead was not only bad, but it was LONG and bad. Raya and the Last Dragon was a rare miss-step for Disney lacking in charm and coherence. On paper the new version of Cinderella was great, but the reality was mediocre acting, zero chemistry, cheap production and a poor selection of songs. Moxie took the massively complicated area of discrimination, assault, ritualized harassment and horror that exists in schools and oversimplified them to such an extent I wanted to scream. And I’m sorry, but No Time to Die was boring and indulgent; I did like the developed roles for women, but they were still incidental and I didn’t think the stunts or action sequences made up for the lackluster villain, confused plot and way too long runtime.

    Genres (including 2021 films and older ones)
    Documentaries – I watched eight documentaries and four of them were absolutely brilliant. Crip Camp, Rising Phoenix, Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary and My Octopus Teacher (this year’s Oscar winner). All treated their subjects with respect, curiosity and open mindedness, whether that was (respectively) a 1970’s camp for disable children that changed civil rights, the Paralympics, a science fiction film and its fans, or an octopus. Each of these educated, moved and inspired me. Other documentaries miss-fired despite being interesting and well made films, becoming problematic because of the lack of balance. The Schumacher documentary was very interesting until you realise just how many voices are missing and then it starts to feel more marketing than documentary, and the Bob Ross documentary was also one sided.

    Films not in the English Language – a truly embarrassing 4 films, which I’m going to try to improve in 2022. Druk (Another Round) is easily the best, and coincidentally the Oscar winner, but Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is also worthy of note as it’s the type of noodling, slow film that would usually bore me, but this one didn’t for some undefinable reason. Minari, which probably would have won the Oscar if it hadn’t been nominated in the best film category rather than the foreign language category was a lovely idea which I found absolutely mind-numbingly boring.

    Science Fiction/Fantasy – I hate trying to decide what sits were, so with a fairly broad interpretation of the genre there are 33 films somewhere on the spectrum (mostly on the SF end). Dune is easily the outstanding film of the year here, an intense cinema experience with stunning cinematography and sound and a faithful retelling of the book. I went back to rewatch The Matrix trilogy in preparation for going to see the 4th installment and it’s impressive how good the first movie still is, but unfortunately 2 and 3 were so poor I was no longer inspired to go to the cinema for the 4th. I re-watched all the Jurassic Parks and it’s similarly interesting how they’re all over the spectrum too (1 and 5 great, 2 awful, 3 and 4 in the middle). I re-watched Avatar and for all the spoofs and baggage, it’s still a really amazing film.

    Horror – frankly I didn’t feel that I needed the additional stress and adrenaline from watching horror and that’s reflected in the truly pathetic 3 horrors I watched, 1 good, 1 middling and 1 awful. Somehow I’d never seen An American Werewolf in London and there was a lot more to it than I expected, Zombieland: Double Tap was fine, and Army of the Dead was truly terrible.

    Animations – I watched 15 animations this year (surprisingly low given how often I just wanted to watch something nice and easy. Almost all of them were re-watches of films that everyone already knows are excellent – Moana, Frozen, Inside Out, Shaun the Sheep, Lego Movie 2 and the less well known Klaus. I was a little underwhelmed by most of the new releases, Luca and Encanto from Pixar/Disney were fine but didn’t stand out (although I should say I watched Encanto again last week and liked it a lot more), Ron’s Gone Wrong was very sweet though and some of the messages there are sticking with me, more so than the very similar but poorly done Mitchells vs the Machines.

    Musicals – 10 musicals (many of which are also animations of course) and the outstanding was tick, tick… Boom! as mentioned above, the most musical of musicals and truly brilliant. Also worth highlighting is In the Heights which was a joyous experience, particularly in the summer in a cinema with a good crowd for the first time in ages. I want to mention The Muppets, because not only is it a lovely film, but the songs are incredibly clever, as are the ones in Mary Poppins Returns, both cleverly developing from the previous films. I re-watched La La Land to see if I’d been unfair, and I hadn’t, it’s still annoying.

    Comedy – 30 comedy films this year with varying levels of actual comedy. It’s very rare that a comedy film will get a high rating from me because it’s funny, it’s usually the other bits that are blended well with the comedy that would make it score highly for me. So Palm Springs does something new and interesting with the timeloop idea, and Instant Family shows both the hilarity and heartache of adoption and family life. Done wrong though and you just end up with something that has insufficient laughs and not enough else going for it (The French Dispatch, The Darjeeling Limited) or is occasionally outright problematic (Sixteen Candles, The Devil Wears Prada). Somehow finding a category of it’s own mind you is Jungle Cruise where the jokes are so terrible that when I laughed at them my cinema companion looked at me in absolute horror, but *I* enjoyed it.

    Action – 34 films, exactly 25%. The best action film I saw this year that was new to me was Hotel Artemis which has a huge amount of rich backstory lurking behind some edge of seat action sequences. There’s no superhero sub category this year because I didn’t watch many, but Black Widow was definitely one of the better ones with all the ingredients (action, laughs and heart) delivered brilliantly, the only thing that makes me sad is that this film wasn’t done 15 years ago and that [Endgame spoilers]. Aquaman is  the complete counterpoint to that, as if they were TRYING to make a terrible terrible film. Then there’s the weird combo of the awful Army of the Dead which is over stuffed, overlong and features utterly needless gratuitous female nudity, and the infinitely better prequel Army of Thieves which is slick and full of charm. I also watched the first 6 Fast and Furious which ranged from terrible to mediocre.

    Drama – that leaves 29 films in the ‘miscellaneous drama’ category, generally a pretty broad group from fairly mindless fluff to films bordering on traumatic experiences, but this year I mostly couldn’t face anything too hard core avoiding anything with words like ‘intense’ or ‘moving’ or ‘challenging’. So we’ve got things like a Saint Frances and Sylvie’s Love – gentler but no less meaningful looks into people’s lives, Encounter which hops around different genres to keep you guessing. There were a pair of Sorkin’s book-ending the year showing off his usual talents of big stories in small spaces – Being the Ricardos and The Trial of the Chicago 7 were both interesting and entertaining. I re-watched a couple of favourites – Greta Gerwig’s masterful Little Women, and the utterly uplifting The Blind Side.

    I watched some real turkeys though as well. Hillbilly Elegy was hilariously over-written and over-acted, it just didn’t mean to be, The Chaperone however just looked like no one was even trying to be any good. Page Eight somehow took Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz and made a film so boring and awful that I didn’t even finish it (something I NEVER do). And Ammonite made me furious because of it’s complete disrespect for the astonishing Mary Anning, even though the film itself was very well made.

    Films in December 2021

    December watching comes in 3 buckets – the first is the new releases, although I didn’t actually make it to the cinema at all sadly, so these are all newly released on Netflix/Amazon. The second bucket is me trying to collect up a few more releases from earlier in the year so that I can include them in my review of the year and the final big bucket are all the Christmas and family films that pretty much appear on my list every year. There are also a couple of bonuses this year, a rewatch of the Matrix trilogy and a film that I knew was going to make me very angry, and did. Merry Christmas!

    tick, tick…BOOM! – This is a VERY musical-theatrey musical. It’s a film of a musical about a musical theatre writer putting on a performance of a musical. Characters move in and out of songs without blinking, dance numbers break out spontaneously, and the music isn’t the pop style of many film musicals, but is mostly the type of song you only see in musical theatres. So long as none of that makes you want to run screaming, you will LOVE this film. Unlike some other film versions of stage musicals this never felt ‘stagey’, making you miss seeing it in a theatre. It is very cleverly done, the story is complex and is masterly interwoven across times, locations, and possibly even reality (was the theatre bit all in his head?). Andrew Garfield is STUNNING, he’s an absolute natural to musical theatre and his performance moves seamlessly in and out of songs and dances, never for one minute losing the emotions of the character. Jonathan Larson was a huge talent and a fascinating ‘character’ and this film honours him. 9 / 10

    The Power of the Dog – Some of the blurbs of this film describes Benedict Cumberbatch’s ranch owner as “charismatic” and even “brutally beguiling”, but I never had that kind of reaction to him at all, I just wanted to be as far away as possible from him, and that meant I didn’t want to watch the film. Having a hateful character is one thing, but it needs to be balanced with something else to make you want to watch the film, other characters, or even just a story, but there wasn’t anything in this film I wanted to see. The other characters were all poorly developed and fairly stereotype and although the film was beautifully shot it still wasn’t enough to hold my attention. Maybe because of that wandering attention I missed some nuance because it felt like there were a couple of big character shifts that had little motivation. It’s a good performance from the actors, and a pleasing change of type for Cumberbatch, but there wasn’t enough substance to the film. 6 / 10

    Being the Ricardos – Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are 50’s television royalty for Americans and while they don’t have the cultural relevance to me, I’m aware enough of them that a film about them would be of interest even without Aaron Sorkin being attached. Sorkin brings his trademark dense script, turn of phrase, and clever construction. The film is mostly set in a 5 day shooting schedule for an episode of I Love Lucy, but also has a few flashbacks and some ‘talking head’ style interviews with people in the future (they’re all actors, it’s not documentary). The structure allows a lot to be packed in and it really worked for me, filling in the big gaps in what I knew about Lucy and Desi. I’m not 100% sure on the casting, I always find Nicole Kidman a little ephemeral and delicate, and I’m not sure she quite had the power for Lucille Ball; she wasn’t bad at all, I’m just not sure that she was quite right. I was however completely gripped by the film for the whole runtime, fascinated by the characters, the story, the period setting, and the dialogue. 8 / 10

    Single All The Way – This film is rubbish. A proper rubbish Christmas romantic comedy. It’s got massively over the top performances from a variety of “oh it’s thingy from whatsit” tv actors with a predictable and stodgy plot and chemistry in the wrong places. But the actors all know exactly what they’re doing and it’s got just the right number of scattered moments of hilarity (including a reference to Clue that made me cheer) that I actually loved it and suspect it may become a bit of staple. 6 / 10

    Ammonite I was really looking forward to a film about the incredibly Mary Anning starring the incredible Kate Winslet. Then I saw the trailer and I was angry, and that anger remained as I watched the film. This is a beautiful story about two very complex women in the 1840’s, rough and smooth, each with their own challenges and how their relationship grows and changes them. It’s beautifully shot and stunningly acted by Winslet and the equally incredible Saoirse Ronan and is a lovely but very slow film. I’d probably give it 6/10.
    But this film is about Mary Anning, and that is NOT her story. The writer and director Francis Lee said “After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?”. That’s a very interesting point, but I’d respond that two wrongs do not make a right, straightening people is wrong, but so is, um, ‘bending’ them. Mary Anning is a rich and important figure in her own right, her real story is one that deserves to be told, and if there’s no evidence of any relationship at all, then that should be respected. Maybe the lack of relationship is important to her history, she does not need a man or a woman to make her important or interesting. No one does. Mary Anning revolutionised scientific thinking despite being a working class woman in a time that meant she had no opportunities for science. She was amazing and deserves to have her story told, to have her life celebrated. This film thought she was only worthy of that if they made up a love story for her. That’s appalling and means it gets a “I’m actually angry” rating of 2 / 10

    The Matrix Trilogy I watched the Matrix trilogy over a few days in preparation for seeing the new one in the cinema. The good news is that 20 plus years later the first film is still a stone cold classic. It still plays pretty well as a straight science fiction film, the storyline and effects hold up quite well; but it’s also interesting in a historical context – “at the turn of the millennium this is what science fiction was, what we were worried about and what we thought was cool”. Despite being referenced, evolved and parodied the film is still engrossing, fun and cool to watch. The bad news is that the second one falls off a cliff, and the third one hits the rocks with a splat. It’s a bit hard to pin down where the second film went wrong, because in many ways they’re the same as the first, but the bad version. The story was poorly told, big blocks of exposition delivered badly by actors who seemed bored. A lot of the cyber punk stuff that was effortlessly cool and sexy in the first film is now trying too hard and felt sleazy. The stunts and fx are still brilliant, and there are some great edge of your seat set pieces, but many of them went on too long and I got bored. And when it drifts into the philosophical, religious wibblings I completely zoned out.

    Army of Thieves – I gave Army of the Dead just 4 out of 10 and described it as “2.5 hours of banging and crashing, atrocious dialogue, dull characters, mediocre acting, predictable story and frankly, boredom”. It’s a good job I didn’t re-read that before I watched the prequel Army of Thieves, because I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it, which would have been a shame because it’s a much better film. It’s a more classic heist film, just breaking into some safes, none of the zombies and Las Vegas stuff, just a small band of crooks and a very dull safe cracker who gets caught up with them. Matthias Schweighofer is charming as the fish out of water, and somehow also manages to direct the film with a fair bit of flair and style. It’s not amazing, it’s derivative and full of holes, but it’s a solid way to pass the time compared to the much bigger Army of the Dead. 7 / 10

    Ron’s Gone Wrong – This is a cute animation. I happened to watch it on the same day as Mitchells vs Machines, and Ron’s Gone Wrong is a much better film about the perils and positives of technology. It’s a better film in general actually, all the components are good and they all build together nicely – story, characters, animation and voice acting. The message is sweet and not overly simplified – technology isn’t evil it’s what people do with it, either deliberately like the business villain, or accidentally like the kids who are bullying or self-obsessed. I really enjoyed watching the film, although it had the familiar problem of being about 20 minutes too long. 7 / 10

    Encounter – Riz Ahmed is a great actor and this film really showcases his talents because he’s playing a character where the audience doesn’t know what’s going on with him. The film manages to create uncertainty about what is really happening but does it quite elegantly without feeling hugely forced and deliberately misleading. He’s ably supported by two young actors and the three of them are really watchable and the ups and downs of the story really connected as well. There were a couple of clunky bits, but overall the film is a really good watch. 8 / 10

    Summer of Soul – There’s something sad and marvelous about the fact that despite taking place in the same year as Woodstock, attracting thousands of attendees, featuring top name artists AND being professionally filmed… no one has ever heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival. It’s sad because it’s completely to do with racism, but marvelous because it allows us to discover it now. The documentary covers not only the festival itself, but the context it was in culturally and musically. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it sometimes gets a bit muddled or passes too quickly over interesting bits, but it’s a fascinating starting point and an education with a great soundtrack. 7 / 10

    Dave Made a Maze Dave builds a cardboard maze in his living room, and gets lost in it, requiring his friends to come in and find him. And it gets weirder. This is billed as a comedy, but I don’t think that’s a particularly good label. It’s got some humour to it, no doubt, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a fantasy/sci-fi type thing, with actually a fair bit of psychological depth to it. I wasn’t laughing about the main character and his odd maze, I was thinking it was an interesting metaphor for depression. So not what it’s billed as, but interesting and some nice design too. 7 / 10

    The Mitchells vs the Machines – This is a loud, bright, high paced, chaotic animation and I just felt overwhelmed by it. I didn’t really get on with the story, the voice cast didn’t quite work for me and it was at least 1/2 hour too long with way too many ‘final’ battles and then more endings than Lord of the Rings. The animation style was interesting and original, I will give them that, but while it worked very well in the slower moments, it was too busy for the action sequences and contributed to the overload that made me disengage. 6 / 10

    Paddington – It’s a good old fashioned story right down to the Disney style loss of the parental figures very early on (I’ll admit, I welled up somewhat), and alternates fairly blockily between heartfelt moralising and silly action sequences. Each is done well, but a little more elegance merging the two would be good. The casting is superb throughout and the cgi bear is mostly pretty well done. I’m not entirely certain about the bluntness of the messages about immigration and providing warm welcomes, it was rather too pointed at times, but their heart was in the right place. 7 / 10

    Mary Poppins Returns – The original Mary Poppins film holds a special place in my heart, as it does for huge numbers of people, so it was with some nervousness I went into Returns. Quite early on I was relieved and relaxed into the film. It was exactly what a sequel to Mary Poppins should be, the same in theme and heart (and it had SO MUCH heart) but evolving the ideas and taking different approaches. It’s like they exactly copied the blurb from the back of the dvd case but delivered everything in their own way. Emily Blunt puts her own stamp on the character, Lin-Manuel Miranda is charming as Bert-Two (including the slightly dodgy accent) and Ben Whishaw plays the new Mr Banks beautifully. I won’t say it’s a perfect film, if you look at it objectively the original wasn’t either, but as a Mary Poppins sequel it was as good as could be hoped for. 9 / 10

    The Muppet Christmas Carol – Without a doubt, the best Christmas movie of all time and a staple for my Christmas schedule for decades. The music is absolutely amazing, the mixture of Dickens and Muppet is perfect and it is great fun to watch for all the family. I’ve watched it dozens of times but I never fail to find something new. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at Christmas in 2018, with a packed audience and it made me so happy I cried. 9 / 10

    Love Actually – The proposal to follow (by my estimates) 8 different plots sounds doomed, but it works spectacularly well. The groups are all linked together some how and with all the big name actors it’s easy enough to follow “the plot with Mr Darcy in it” etc. It’s full of laughs, heart, and christmas and without the usual nauseated feeling following a romantic comedy. It’s a staple for Christmas and it brings me happiness. 8 / 10

    Klaus – The opening scenes didn’t grab me, introducing a spoiled and lazy heir to a postal service, whose father gives him one last chance and sends him to the far North as postman to an island occupied by two clans in perpetual conflict. Once we reach the island, the film really starts to shine. It’s clearly a fairy tale, but in the best tradition it has plenty of darkness running through it. The script has a perfect amount of bite to offset the soft centre, so it never becomes too sickly. It reminded me a lot of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s got a style all to itself. It was thoroughly entertaining to watch, beautiful to look at and a perfect addition to the regular Christmas catalog. 9 / 10

    Films in October and November 2021

    A really very pathetic selection of films in October, and frankly not a great deal more in November. But at least I’ve been getting back to the cinema so there are plenty of new releases at least.

    Dune (2021)
    I read the book years ago and really loved it, a proper classic sci fi novel although it occasionally drifted too far into the mystical for my tastes. Then I saw the original Dune film and was utterly underwhelmed, it had already aged very badly and seemed to focus on all the bits of the book that I didn’t like. But I was quite enthused with Denis Villeneuve taking it on, and decided to push the boat out and see it in imax. I wasn’t disappointed.
    The film is stunning to look at for a start, design work that builds from all that has gone before it, both Dune itself and every other science fiction series since. It’s definitely worth seeing on the biggest screen possible to get the scale of it. Also the soundscape is phenomenal and benefits from a massive sound system. But all that would be nothing without a decent story, characters and performances and it’s solid on that too. Frank Herbert’s world building supported an epic series of books and the film’s writers have carefully crafted something that demonstrates that richness without overloading with exposition or complexity. The acting is similarly well done, personalities, relationships and emotions shown not told.
    My only challenges to the film is that despite all that richness it sometimes felt a little flat and cold. Dream sequences are integral to the plot but can make it a bit hard to engage with emotionally – what’s real, what’s certain, what’s destiny that cannot be changed? There is a sense of wonder from the characters, and strong connections between them, and yet they lacked warmth and humour. Everyone felt like they were characters with specific roles in an epic story, rather than real people living their lives. So overall, wonderful to watch, intellectually engaging, but just a little cold to really care that much about.
    Ranking: 8 / 10

    Encanto
    There’s plenty to love about this film. The whole thing is bright and beautiful, vivid characters, a plot that charges along, full of energy and spark and with some lovely sentiment in it. But it didn’t work. I think the problem is that there’s just too much in it, too many characters, too much colour, too much backstory, too many sentiments and even too many words in the songs. It was hard to connect with the film and I felt overwhelmed rather than immersed. I think that last one was the one that made me saddest, the idea of new Lin Manuel Miranda songs makes me excited, and the reality was that they were hard to follow and also I think a little too grown up for the audience. In fact the showing that I went to one parent and child left after about 20 mins, and the other two families had frequent long bathroom visits, so it wasn’t gripping the kids either. I was disappointed, particularly because Mirabel, the hero of the film was such a lovely character that I felt she deserved better.
    6 / 10

    Ghostbusters: Afterlife
    I have fond memories of the original Ghostbusters, but also having re-watched it as an adult acknowledge that it was actually rather naff and shoddily put together in places. I thought that Afterlife actually plays perfectly to connect into that memory and nostalgia and I really enjoyed the experience of watching it in the cinema. I liked that it’s put children at the centre of the story, that feels more ‘right’ than the original’s weird mix of serious scientists and con men (was Bill Murray’s character for real?). I enjoyed the action sequences, I liked the call backs, I even laughed at the lame jokes, much to the horror of my brother. It’s not an amazing film, but if you’ve got a fondness for the original, then I think you’ll find this a lot of fun. 7 / 10

    The French Dispatch
    Wes Anderson films are incredibly obviously Wes Anderson films, between the visual style, the storytelling, the recurring cast members, the music… you can’t miss them. This is not only a VERY Wes Anderson film, but it’s actually 4 short Wes Anderson films lightly glued together. I’m not a huge Anderson film, so I knew going in that I may struggle, but I didn’t expect that about 2/3 of the way through I would be properly struggling to not fall asleep. I wasn’t even not enjoying the film, it was beautiful to look at, well directed and acted, original and charming, and yet I wanted to sleep (and so did my brother who I saw it with, so it wasn’t just me).
    I think the problem was the structure of multiple short stories, the 3rd story didn’t really spark my interest and because my brain knew it was only going to be short I think it decided to just take a bit of a nap. But the story actually went on for quite a long time and by then my brain didn’t really fancy waking up properly, even though the 4th story was more engaging. I think I’d actually have enjoyed the film a lot more split over 2 showings on tv in the evening, and throw myself into it more fully for shorter periods. 6 / 10

    The Harder They Fall
    I don’t like westerns. I keep trying to watch them but I just don’t get on with them. There’s something about the pacing, the strong silent type characters, the long lingering landscapes that just makes me disengage. The Harder They Fall is a different kind of Western, an almost entirely black cast for a start playing the types of people who absolutely existed at the time, but are written out of the history told by Hollywood westerns. The style is heading in the direction of Quentin Tarantino, with a bit more flash and less romanticism than traditional, and some better female characters at least. A lot of that worked for me, but the 2.20 runtime killed it, and I was (as usual) un-engaged and bored by the end. 6 / 10

    Red Notice
    Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot in a heist movie. I should have loved this. But I didn’t and I don’t know if it was the film, or if it were me. I can’t think of anything that was wrong with it, at least not for the type of film it is. If you’re expecting gritty realism then you’re definitely going to be disappointed, but that’s not what the film is trying to do, it’s supposed to be style over substance, the plot doesn’t need to hold up to scrutiny so long as it gets from one action sequence in a beautiful location to the next, and provides opportunity for wise cracking along the way. And it does that. So why was I bored? Maybe I was just completely in the wrong frame of mind. 6 / 10

    The Green Knight
    What on earth was that?! I watched it because of Dev Patel and it was only him that made me keep watching thinking there must be more to it than the apparent low budget, dreary looking, pontificating tedium that it started with. There wasn’t. I got all the way to the end and that was even MORE disappointing and incoherent. I genuinely have no idea what the film was talking about, why anybody made it, or why I continued to watch the whole thing. 4 / 10

    Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)
    This kind of slow burning, subtle film, particularly one with subtitles, would often have me struggling to focus and losing patience; however this one really held my attention and moved me. Maybe it was because although the focus was on the central relationship, there were a couple of other significant characters and relationships that added richness. As the central plot driver was that one character was painting a portrait of the other, the lingering visuals felt fully part of the film, rather than just indulgent or frustratingly slow. I also liked that it wasn’t really presented as a romance, but as a study of a relationship, neither the film nor the characters really lost sight of the reality of the period, which meant I felt a lot more immersed in the film, not getting distracted by a frustration of “that’s nice, but it’s not how things were for these women in the 18th century. 8 / 10

    The Blind Side
    Not what I was expecting. As I caught this on dvd a year after Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for it, I was expecting one of those films that’s their only to support the lead actor/actresses in their quest to win an award, films with superb performances at their core, but surrounded by an aura of worthiness and angst that often doesn’t lead to a very interesting package. The Blind Side however was absolutely wonderful. As the opening speech started I literally stopped eating my dinner and became engrossed. Then I rewound it to watch it again. When I got to the end of the film, I rewound it again and could happily have watched the whole thing over again. It was a really lovely film, full of far more humour and excitement than angst or worthiness. The lead character is doing something wonderful for a kid, giving him a chance, but she doesn’t want to make a fuss about it, so the film doesn’t either – it’s just the way it is. . A really, really uplifting, utterly wonderful film. 9 / 10

    Hocus Pocus
    A pretty solid Disney Halloween film. The plot is predictable and the effects and visuals look quite dated now, to be honest, I’m not sure they would have looked that great at the time. The two teenage leads are a bit meh, although the 9 year old Thora Birch was already demonstrating her talents, making this a rare occasion when the small child is NOT just there to be irritating. But Bette Middler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy are hamming it up gloriously as the three witches and it’s hard not to be swept along with their enthusiasm. 6 / 10

    We Bought a Zoo
    Utterly shameless fluff. It’s got animals, cute kids, a dad trying his best, socially inept teenagers, a little bit of heartache, happiness via hard work… it’s just a whole collection of things that make a family friendly fluffy film work, and work it does. 8 / 10

    The Darjeeling Limited
    I have a hit and miss reaction to Wes Anderson films, there are some where the weirdness works for me and I find them really charming, and then there are ones that I just don’t get. This is one of the latter. There was something unsettling about the setting in India, it felt slightly mocking, disrespectful maybe? The three central characters also felt a bit flat, none of them much fun to spend time with. 5 / 10

    The Muppets
    The only word to describe this film is “joy”. It is that extremely rare occurrence of a relaunch of an old favourite that captures all the magic of the original, all the warm feelings people have, acknowledges the flaws and then sprinkles some new energy on top. The makers all clearly respect and love the original and there’s plenty of sentimentality that had me crying throughout; but there’s also plenty of self-aware mocking and modern attitudes that make it feel like a new thing, not just a remake. I laughed and cried the whole way through and it is possibly, the most perfect thing ever. 10 / 10

    Frozen
    I’ve watched this a dozen times and it never fails to make me laugh, sing along, smile, cry and cheer. This is a great blend of humour, character, sappiness, spark and action. The relationships, particularly between the two sisters, are really wonderful and while the overall direction of the story was predictable, the detail of the twists and turns felt original and inventive. The visual style is absolutely stunning and actually made me slightly regret not seeing it in 3D. I could have done with a little more humour (maybe more use of Olaf and Sven – although it’s possible that would have been overuse) and maybe a couple less songs, but overall a wonderful addition to the Disney catalog. 9 / 10

    Frozen 2
    Frozen 2 is not quite at the same level as Frozen. It’s absolutely fine, maintaining the excellent characters, animation and humour, but it’s missing the high expectations in two areas. The first was the plot, it just felt like there was too much going on. There was new backstory, new locations, new explanations of how magic worked, and new characters. It just got a bit crowded. The second problem was that the songs aren’t as good, each one is just slightly inferior to the steady stream of solid hits. It’s still an entertaining film with a beautiful sentiment, but it’s not quite the timeless win that Frozen was. That said, I would very much like a baby reindeer and an adorable fire spirit please. 7 / 10

    Films in September 2021

    No Time to Die
    This film is too long. That’s not necessarily a great way to start a review, but overwhelmingly that was my feeling about the film both during and after. At 2.45 the film is at least 1/2 an hour too long and there would have been no challenge for the film to lose that time from the middle which was ridiculously baggy. I watch Bond films for the action and stunt sequences, and there weren’t enough of them in this film. The four or so sequences were of the expected high production value and engrossing, but the gaps between them were too big and filled with too much exposition (that I didn’t follow) and character stuff (that I didn’t care about). The main villain wasn’t very good either – I didn’t really get what he was trying to achieve and he was incredibly bland (and are we really STILL using facial scarring to indicate a bad guy?). The only really good things in the film were Paloma and Nomi – two female agents who absolutely jumped off the screen and I would very happily watch their spin off film. The rest of it however felt tired, baggy and boring. 5 / 10

    Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
    It’s hard to do a good film of a theatre musical. The bug numbers never manage to capture the joy and energy, and the softer ballads feel awkward. Sometimes that is compensated for by being able to do bigger and more varied things with sets and locations, or big name actors throwing themselves into things. But I’m afraid Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is not one of those successes. It just didn’t feel organic to me, too bitty, too flat. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure the source material was amazing, I felt the story was clunky switching from dealing with difficult issues, to oversimplifying solutions, and the music unremarkable. The couple of big numbers were good, but there were way too many dirgy ballads, and frankly, the whole thing needed a lot more drag queens. 6 / 10

    Schumacher
    I was a follower of Formula One for most of the duration of Schumacher’s domination over the sport so I was fairly familiar with his story. I was never a fan of his, he was undoubtedly a talented driver, but he and the Ferrari team around him could also be ruthless and for me didn’t feel within the spirit of the sport. That side of him is touched on very lightly in the documentary, and the absence from the documentary of his main teammates at Ferrari feels very significant. The documentary also has a problem in that the end of Schumacher’s story is veiled in secrecy. His wife and children feature in the documentary and they talk very movingly about him, but are very cryptic about how he is following his serious accident and it feels weird. If you’re going to tell someone’s story, you have to tell all of it, otherwise it just feels disingenuous. The documentary has some strong bits, good archive footage and interesting interviews, but it is really flawed. 5 / 10

    Cinderella
    Cinderella as done by the person that did Pitch Perfect. Sounds good. Unfortunately the same person did Pitch Perfect 3 and this is more at that end of the spectrum. The freshening up of the story is good, Ella is seeking to succeed as a businesswoman and the romance element is slightly incidental to her storyline. The take on the prince was also quite interesting. But the delivery was disappointing, with mediocre acting, zero chemistry, cheap production and a poor selection of songs that were then delivered with way too much auto tuning and post production. It felt more am-dram panto than Hollywood production, particularly given the random British comedians populating the supporting cast. The only saving graces were the brilliant Minnie Driver and Pierce Brosnan who are almost worth suffering through the rest of the film for. Ranking: 5 / 10

    101 Dalmations
    I’d forgotten how good this film was! The animal animation is everything you’d expect from Disney, beautifully observed and managing to find a perfect spot between making animal and human so that emotions and behaviour is clear with just the simplest of animations. It feels like a very small film in many ways, not the fate of the world or anything about destiny, just two parents trying to find their kids, and that smallness makes it all more important somehow. The scarcity of the songs is also a good thing, particularly as the two that are present (relegated to the start and end so as not to interrupt the story) aren’t that great imho. 7 / 10

    101 Dalmatians (1996)
    There are some good choices in this live action version of the cartoon. The first is that the animals do not speak, but are still all very emotive characters through what must have been incredibly patient training and filming. The other good choice is losing the songs. Much of the rest of the film remains the same, including the completely over the top villain and the really quite horrible idea that she’s going to skin all the puppies and wear them. I actually found all the talk of murdering and skinning puppies quite upsetting and no matter how cute the puppies are and how well the film is produced, I’m not sure I’d ever want to show it to children. 6 / 10

    Rising Phoenix
    This is a documentary about the Paralympics and paralympians and if you’re like me and can’t make it through a Channel 4 advert without weeping, then you’re going to need the tissues close to hand with this. The biggest fault with the documentary is one I’ve only really noticed when I came to write this review because when I thought about it I realised the subject was a little muddled and tried to do a few too many things. It’s telling the individual stories of a handful of recent paralympians, and on the way it tells a bit about the history of the Paralympics, and focusses on London 2012 (as a positive) and Rio 2016 (as a struggle). But that’s a lot to cover in 1.45 and on reflection it suffers. Individual stories are abbreviated, the history is jumpy, issues are skirted over and I keep thinking of more and more aspects that I would love to understand better. But it is a film, and it cannot do everything in depth so I think it’s chosen to do a lot of things a little bit. Some people may say that they could cut some of the artistic elements to make time for substance, but actually I think they worked well here and the subject deserves beauty and art as well. If the biggest problem that I have with a documentary film is that I wish it was longer, then I think that’s probably a good thing. Ranking: 8 / 10

    Books in September 2021

    I had a couple of weeks off work and spent a chunk of that time reading slightly trashy novels, proper holiday stuff to just get lost in without too much thought or emotional trauma, and apparently television personalities are the place to go to for that.

    Richard Osman – The Man Who Died Twice
    Because of my love of Richard Osman I read his first novel within days of publication and described it as “a lovely little murder mystery”. Well it went on to sell over a million copies and top the charts for weeks on end. Osman is a genius in many ways and whether he carefully engineered his book to be so popular or it happened by accident, he’s managed to deliver the same trick again with his second novel. It’s got vibrant, relatable characters who it’s nice to spend time with; mysteries that twist and turn; a lightness of touch that makes it very easy to read; but also some emotional punch to make it feel substantial. I read the whole thing in just a couple of sittings, perfect for curling up with on an autumn afternoon.

    Graham Norton
    Holding – I read all three of Graham Norton’s books over a couple of weeks. I started with Holding and was immediately gripped. It’s a gentle mystery/thriller set in a small Irish town with a lot of vibrant characters and a lot of history and it just leapt off the page. It’s got enough depth to it to keep it engaging and to have some impact, but not so much as to really challenge. I enjoyed getting lost in it for a few hours and it was perfect for sitting in the garden with a cup of tea and some biscuits.

    A Keeper – Of the three books I’ve read by Graham Norton this was the weakest and least interesting. The story didn’t quite ring true for me, and the construction of the novel with jumping time frames didn’t land well. All the drama was in the past but that meant they lacked jeopardy because you know how it ends, and the mystery of the details was completely predictable. Meanwhile the present day bits just felt contrived, relying on a series of random meetings and awkwardly contrived memories to fill in what was happening in the past. It’s perfectly readable, it’s well written and some of the smaller details really ring true, but the overall plot was a bit meh. (728)

    Home Stretch – This is Norton’s third book and you can see how his writing has evolved, certainly this book does a much better job playing with multiple timelines than his previous novel ‘A Keeper’ did. The plot just about hangs together, although it does rely on some coincidences and character choices that stretch belief a little bit. This is a gentle book to read; for the characters there are big dramas and mysteries, but it’s told in such a light way that as a reader I didn’t feel anywhere near that level of tension or intrigue. That worked well for me, it’s a light read, with strong characters and an evocative but easy way of describing people and places that’s really immersive and I found myself reading big chunks at a time because it was just so comfortable to keep reading.

    Claudia Winkleman – Quite
    This book is like being in Claudia Winkleman’s head, and that may not be everyone’s idea of wonderful but she’s one of my favourite people and this felt like being her friend. The book is a compilation of short pieces that are somewhere between biography and advice column, at times it feels a bit too specific (it mostly assumes the reader is a woman seeking a relationship with a man), but it’s also very sweet and kind of empowering. It’s sweet and funny and her voice absolutely rings out through the whole thing. The sections are all very short and reading it at any length feels a little bit overwhelming, but in small doses it’s lovely.

    S.J. Bennett – The Windsor Knot
    There’s a murder at Windsor Castle, the police and security services seem to be barking up the wrong tree, so the Queen starts investigating herself. Yes, the Queen. It’s a quirky idea and kind of makes sense that the Queen is extremely smart, very knowledgeable, a bit peeved about a murder in her ‘house’ and is a little bit bored. The mystery itself is solid and well paced, the writing very easy to read, the supporting characters fun and the detail about the Royal Household convincing and engaging. However I felt slightly uncomfortable about the whole thing. Maybe if it hadn’t been set in the near present day it wouldn’t have felt quite so odd and intrusive, but I felt weirdly dirty about reading it and couldn’t quite get over that.

    Books in July and August 2021

    Oh dear I’m getting very behind, and even bunching two months together I only apparently read three books! And one of them I didn’t even finish. Utterly rubbish.

    Bridget Collins – The Betrayals
    Like Collins’ first book, this had some structural problems. The book is based at a college that specialises in teaching The Game. What this Game is, why it’s so important, and how it’s played is treated as a mystery and to me it just felt like it wasn’t a pro-active choice to treat it like this, more that the author had absolutely no idea what the answers could be. The story jumps between a few different timelines and Collins does interweave them pretty well for the most part, connecting the two together and pacing the two carefully together. There are however a few glitches where things lurch, rely on characters just being a bit dumb, and a lot of building up mysteries that I found fairly obvious. The structural issues are a shame, because there are some suggestions of interesting ideas, well built characters and a strong theme – those made the book readable, but overall a little disappointing.

    D.H. Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover
    Firstly – the reason I picked this book up at all. I found it while clearing out my grandmother’s house and what made me laugh was that my slightly stuffy gran had a copy, and that she had covered it in brown paper so you couldn’t see what it was! Underneath was a beautiful 1960’s Penguin edition. Sadly that’s as exciting as it got and I didn’t finish this book. I gave up after 100 pages, and I actually struggled over whether it was therefore fair for me to post a review. But I figured an explanation for why I stopped was just as valid.
    Sadly after all that, I just couldn’t get on with the book. The language is ridiculously florid and hard to read, with some characters written in dialect that makes it more an exercise in de-coding than reading. Chunks of the book read more like philosophical and ethical debates than prose, groups of people sitting around taking different points of view on a subject. And then you’ve got the challenge that the subjects include sex, gender equality, class and women’s rights and it becomes even harder to read and less satisfying. It’s a constant thought exercise trying to work out what was ‘normal’, progressive or outrageous at the times and how that might align with modern approaches. I don’t have the historical knowledge to put the book in the context it needs. I didn’t even get as far as the sex to be honest, I was just too bored to care.

    Robert Dinsdale – The Toy Makers
    This is a tricky review to write because everything I would write about the book technically is pretty good, for some reason I just didn’t get an emotional connection with it that I think was the aim. This is a book where you’re supposed to feel the magic of the toy shop, to feel part of that magic through the central character who comes to work at the shop and finds a family and a home. But I just never really felt that the shop was substantive, that the magic was ‘real’, it just felt flimsy and not part of the world. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but the story is also about the world and how the toy shop fits within it because it does talk about war and money and practical things… but if the toy makers have magic and everyone knows it (because they’re buying the magical toys) then why isn’t the magic used more widely? How can you put a price on a paper tree that grows, and whatever that price would be, surely it would be enough to not worry about the mortgage payments. I was expecting a book of magic escapism, and instead I got a more powerful story of complicated people, relationships and a difficult world… which would have been fine, but one cannot sit within the other.

    Films in July and August

    I didn’t post in July because I’d watched so few films that it didn’t seem worth it. I did a bit better in August so it makes a bumper crop. I also powered my way through six Fast and Furious films which was quite a slog and (overlapping) I decided to have a marathon of films with Dwayne Johnson. Now The Rock is one of my favourite people and he’s a fun actor, but good grief he’s been in some really rubbish films! Although we start with his new film in the cinema, which was just a delight.

    New Releases
    Jungle Cruise (Cinema)
    I will watch just about anything The Rock is in and this is a perfect fit for his easy chemistry, charm and light touch with drama. The film isn’t going to set the Academy Awards a flutter, but it’s a lot of fun and perfect for escaping the world for a couple of hours. Yeah, the plot may not make much sense if you look too long and there’s rather more CGI than I like, but the Dwayne Johnson is his usual loveliness, Emily Blunt is practically perfect in every way and Jack Whitehall is slightly surprisingly charming as the third wheel. I laughed and smiled the whole way through, even at the terrible dad jokes lifted straight from the ride and the “did they just say that?” level of innuendo. 8 / 10

    Druk (Another Round) (Cinema)
    This is a Danish film about a group of male, middle aged teachers who decide to try to re-find their sparks of life by drinking through the day. That relatively simple description makes for a really brilliant film that’s full of layers and emotions. There were loads of laughs to be had, but also a lot of heart and some challenging questions too. I can’t remember the last time I felt so satisfied by a film, it really is just a complete package. 8 / 10

    Limbo (Cinema)
    This is a film of three parts:
    The first part is hilarious, several beautifully crafted scenes of very quiet and understated humour that blend ridiculous situations with dry responses.
    The second part the humour fades away and there’s a growing tension and frustration at the titular limbo the characters are in. This goes on a long time.
    The third part is emotionally hard, a lot of the held in emotions come out and boil over.
    The problem for me is that I would rather the comedy and drama were blended better, I found myself reaching for any tiny piece of humour desperately. The second section drags so that by the time the storylines comes to a head I was a little bored. It’s a good film and the strong sections are very strong, but I don’t think the sum is as good as the parts. 6 / 10

    The Tomorrow War (Netflix)
    30 years in the future humanity is fighting a war against invading aliens, and they’re losing. So they go back in time to conscript people from today to fight. Chris Pratt, former soldier is drafted and thrown forward on a mission that’s the possible key to winning the war. At that level, it actually makes sense (well as much as anything involving time travel makes sense) but anything further than 2 sentences and it really starts to crumble. It doesn’t even matter about the science and technicalities of time travel just the way that humans behave makes zero sense and I got increasingly frustrated with that as the film went on and everybody doubled down on stupid decisions. It’s a shame because Chris Pratt is as watchable as ever, the supporting cast is good and there’s a lot of good effects and action sequences. But the foundation of stupidity, drawn out by a clumsy structure and too long run time really annoyed me. 6 / 10

    Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greeda (Netflix)
    I’ve never watched Bob Ross, and am only really aware of him through cultural references, so thought this documentary would be an interesting way to go beyond the parodies an understand the origins. And it was. About half the documentary is about where Ross came from – what motivated him, how his art developed and how he came to be such a cultural icon. There are loads of interviews with friends, family and colleagues and tons of archive footage of his shows, other media appearances and just candid home videos. I got a strong sense of who he was and why people connected to him so much. The second half is the betrayal and greed part of the title and covers Ross’ business partners. The hypothesis of the documentary, and Ross’ son who is heavily involved is that the married couple that Ross worked with in becoming a star were more driven by the money than Ross himself, and particularly as Ross became sick with cancer they made moves to protect their interests and took control of his image and name in a way that means even his own son can’t use it. It does seem very dodgy, but the documentary suffers because a lot of people wouldn’t be involved (reportedly because they’re scared of getting sued) and Ross’ voice was notably absent. I came away feeling that I only had half the picture and everyone was using his name and he had no voice from any of them. It’s a weird documentary where Ross and his art are really uplifting but then there’s a completely sour note that even that joy has misery behind it. 7 / 10

    FAST AND FURIOUS SERIES
    ITV showed the first six Fast and Furious films and I figured I’d give them a go and see what the fuss was about. It’s astonishing to me that given how crap the first few were the franchise got as far as it did. The films did get better and turned into a passable mindless action series, but I still felt underwhelmed. Also – the naming convention is a nightmare, and the use of scantily clad women in all the racing scenes just made me cross. Are we really still not better than that?

    1. The Fast and Furious – All zoomy cars, over amplified roaring engines and testosterone but lacking in plot, character, humour and coherence. I felt the lead role was miscast, with the undercover cop being a level of bland that comes from bad acting rather than deliberate choice. Vin Diesel does his usual thing of broody machismo very well but as soon as he has to deliver the woefully bad script it falls apart. The ‘plot’ was all over the place and (spoilers) apparently we’re supposed to be fine that the characters are criminals because one of them has a sob story and his sister is attractive? There didn’t even really feel like there were great displays of driving prowess, just over-engineered cars driving fast. 5 / 10
    2. 2 Fast and 2 Furious – even worse. Plot, acting script… all a step poorer than they were the previous time around and without the brooding core of Vin Diesel there’s just no substance or talent to really hang on for. There are a few flashes of personality in the smaller roles but they’re fleeting and overwhelmed by the pure rubbish of the script and (I’m sorry) Paul Walker’s acting. Sometimes things relax a bit and it feels a little more natural but then there’ll be some plot to deliver, emotions to have, or painfully contrived “bro” relationship and it’s just awful again. And by making the car stunts bigger, they’ve made them unbelievable and that just makes everything feel completely fake and stupid. 4 / 10
    3. Toyko Drift – This film commits a classic mistake, it centres on teenagers but casts people completely obviously in their mid-twenties, there’s a constant mental battle to remember that the issues they have and the stupid choices they make are reasonable for teenagers. Mind you, in some ways it doesn’t matter because other than a couple of scenes in classrooms, they are clearly NOT teenagers because they’ve all got loads of money and loads of driving experience. If it were possible to not just switch your brain off, but lock it in a box in another room, then maybe there’s some fun in here. 5 / 10
    4. Fast and Furious – This film appears to be trying to pretend Tokyo Drift never happened (not a bad approach) and jumps backwards in time. It was made 6 years after 2 Fast 2 Furious, Paul Walker has taken some acting lessons and things actually hang together to the point where I can see why this franchise is popular. The plot still makes ZERO sense and the writing has ZERO subtlety, but it’s possible to ignore that and just appreciate the stunt and action. 6 / 10
    5. Fast Five – Much like the previous installment this film delivers well on the action sequences, has a plot and acting that isn’t completely hopeless and doesn’t fall flat on it’s face… but still for me is lacking spark. It just tries to ladle on the feeling too much (yes, yes, family blah blah blah) and the writing and acting just isn’t good enough to deliver that without coming across trite and cheesy. It’s all just engine noise, shiny cars and consequence-less action sequences. 6 / 10
    6. Fast and Furious 6 – like the previous one, mindlessly watchable. They really do seem to have given up any pretense that there’s logic behind the action sequences, I guess that makes things slightly easier and they’re usually energetic enough to not notice, but the plane one at the end went on and on and on which meant even the most ignorant of people will spot that runways aren’t that long, but also it just got boring which is not what you want in your big finale. 6 / 10

    Older films
    Instant Family
    I was really charmed by this film. The story of a couple who for reasons they don’t even fully understand themselves, decide to adopt three siblings and are instantly thrown into all chaos of young children and a teenager. There’s a lot of very real humour from the situation and an equal amount of heart and truth. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was really impressed. 8 / 10

    The Decoy Bride
    I was browsing Amazon for something easy going and David Tennant’s name drew me in and then Kelly Macdonald’s name completely sold it. She is absolutely the star of the film doing all the big work and is completely charming and wonderful. Tennant was a little underwhelming to be honest, not helped by a non-specific accent and a character that was a bit all over the place, but the two had good chemistry. The nuts and bolts of the story get the job done and the Scottish Island setting is the final piece of the very enjoyable puzzle. 7 / 10

    Spider-Man: Far from Home
    I like Tom Holland as Spider-Man a lot, it actually feels like he’s a proper teenager thrown into something over his head and this film delivers that very well. It’s a lovely mixture of normal teenage antics, ongoing delight at having super powers, a perfectly judged ongoing freak out about being a superhero with an apparent Destiny, particularly without his mentor around to guide (not that Stark was exactly a role model for that). And the coldly practical thread from Fury and Maria Hill was the perfect contrast to all that high energy. What didn’t work so well for me was the awkward introduction to the villain, I’ll not spoil it but it started out really weird and the eventual explanation didn’t change the fact that the first 1/3 or so of the film was just unsettling. In a way it was clever, but watching it wasn’t quite that satisfying. Jake Gyllenhaal was superb however and slotted right into the multiple threads beautifully. Ignore the plot, focus on the subtext and it’s a really great film. 7 / 10

    Space Sweepers
    There’s a LOT going on in this full on Korean sci fi film, probably too much to be honest. The set up and core plot are really great, even though they’re not exactly original (about 80% of it is a straight lift from Firefly for a start and that wasn’t exactly original either). A lot of the charm is from the motley collection of characters, and that’s where things went a little off for me. There was just a bit too much going on, too many big back stories, too many complicated relationships and not quite enough chemistry and it just didn’t quite come together. Some of that may be the subtitles, it’s a really busy film and script and it’s hard to read all the subtitles at pace and also keep up with the visuals on screen and trying to read body language etc. I don’t think it’s a great film, but it’s a solid one and well worth a couple of hours. 6 / 10

    Journey 2 The Mysterious Island
    I found Journey to the Centre of the Earth rather disappointing in that it didn’t feel like it did much with Verne’s material. In fairness having reread the book since then, it’s a better concept than it is actual story and maybe the film was actually being consistent with the number of plot holes. The Mysterious Island doesn’t really bother that much with the source novel and just crafted a film that’s a mash up of all sorts of ideas which, although fairly bonkers, sort of hold together just enough. The characters and performances are big and over the top, again just about working for the film and it’s hard to dislike it, although it’s also hard to love it. 6 / 10

    Fantastic Fungi
    A random documentary that I picked just because it looked completely un-challenging and uncontroversial, and was both those things. Eighty percent of the visuals are timelapse footage of fungi which is initially beautiful and impressive, but after a while slightly soporific. Voiceover narration is similarly nap inducing, particularly when it drifts into poetry. However the interviews with scientists when they actually start getting into the diversity of fungi, how they work in nature and what they can do for us are absolutely fascinating. A bit more of that would be good because I came away feeling like fungi really were fantastic, but I couldn’t really remember how or why. 6 / 10

    Shazam!
    I thought this was going to be painful but actually it was kinda sweet, kinda like The Goonies or some 80s kids film like that. The plot is daft but just about hangs together, but the charm comes from the relationships between the kids and Zachary Levi’s ability to perfectly deliver the Freaky Friday body swap of a kid into a superhero body. Good fun. 7 / 10

    R.I.P.D
    I watched this whole film and it wasn’t until I checked my review database that I realised I’d watched it before. I had absolutely zero memory of it. This so very desperately wanted to be Men in Black, but as usually happens when someone tries to recreate a ‘classic’ all that happens is the audience wants to go back a re-watch the inspiration. The building blocks of R.I.P.D were solid enough, but they were all just too similar to Men in Black and came across as a lower budget version of that, rather than its own thing. Ryan Reynolds was fun, Mary Louise Parker was excellent, and the effects were ok, but it was clearly completely forgettable. 6 / 10

    Moana
    I have watched this half a dozen times and it never ever fails to leave me laughing, crying and singing the songs for days on end. Moana’s focus on a very different culture from traditional Disney is respectful of traditions while still feeling light and progressive. Like Frozen there are complexities in who the ‘baddie’ is which adds a lot of depth to the story. The animation is stunningly beautiful and natural, and the voice acting is superb – completely integrated with the animation, never feeling like celebrities putting on voices and disjointed. The songs are catchy, and actually grow on me every time I hear them. The strength in the characters, story and messages are incredible, properly inspiring and uplifting and the film just brings me joy every single time. 9 / 10

    Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
    What a brilliant film! First up, the concept of teenagers getting transported into a video game is a solid one – plenty of opportunities for great action sequences, a built in excuse that the plot of the ‘game’ doesn’t need to make sense, and lots of teenage character building to thread through the whole thing. But there are then two important factors that raise the whole thing to another level. First is the script which is witty, charming, respectful and self-aware. The writers clearly know video games and throw in loads of nods to the genres, write teenagers that feel like present day teenagers and deliver character growth that’s honest and relevant. The second thing is the cast who take that script and deliver it pitch perfect. The adult stars all take the piss out of themselves and really feel like teenagers in other people’s bodies The film is absolutely charming, hilarious and a real joy. 9 / 10

    Jumanji: The Next Level
    I really enjoyed the previous Jumanji film, it was self aware, threw loads of stuff in, poked fun at itself and was just fun. This film does all the same things, and yet somehow fell a little flat. I think maybe the problem started when the older characters who were dragged into Jumanji just didn’t embrace it in the same way as the teenagers in the previous film. They didn’t get it in the same way, and (weirdly) just didn’t seem to have the depth. The jokes just fell a bit flat and lost strength through repetition and that whole side of things just felt like it didn’t spark as well. It’s still a fun film to watch, very well acted by everyone playing multiple characters, and the way new ideas were introduced will feel very familiar to anyone who’s played long running game series desperately throwing in new features. 7 / 10

    Crazy Rich Asians
    I tend to not like comedies that much, so when I say that this one was absolutely fine, that’s actually pretty good going. There was a pretty good mixture of melodrama and actual drama. There were characters that were comedic, ones that were over the top, and some playing it pretty straight – but also enough twists where comedy characters would cut the truth of a drama, or straight characters would be put into a ridiculous situation. The only thing that I felt let it down slightly was sometimes it felt a little forced – I never quite worked out whether it was clumsy dialogue, or actors that couldn’t quite land the nuance, but it just felt a bit clunky at times. 7 / 10

    Suicide Squad
    What a pickle. The DC comics movies keep chasing after Marvel and just missing at every step. Before Marvel got to the Avengers they had 5 films that established most of the big players. Suicide Squad rushes to try to establish about a dozen new characters all at once and although the introduction sequence kind of worked, it still felt rushed. Like a “previously on” where you realise you’ve not actually seen the previous season at all.
    DC are also starting off on the back foot, because they keep reinventing characters, which leaves me already bored by the characters and slightly confused as to which version is which. Yet another Batman and Joker – how tedious. DC just cannot seem to get its casting right. They keep taking great actors and just slightly missing the mark. Margot Robbie felt like the only one here really comfortable in her role, everyone else felt like they were trying too hard to force the darkness of the characters, endlessly confused about whether they’re heroes or villains.
    So it all comes together for a mess of a film and a wasted opportunity. I mean it’s not a disaster like Batman Vs Superman, but it was resoundingly ‘not very good’. The best thing I can say for the film is that the soundtrack is phenomenal. Sequences are incredibly well choreographed and with a thumping tune over the top it’s hard not to smile, but it’s all surface. The best things about this film are the exquisitely edited trailers. In fact I just went and rewatched them, seriously watch this and this and skip the film. 5 / 10

    The Nevers – Season 1

    neversNot that long ago, a new Joss Whedon television series would have been the most exciting thing in the whole world. These days however it’s tinged with sadness, anger and discomfort that it turns out he’s an asshole. Whedon is heavily involved in this batch of episodes as creator, writer, director and showrunner, but has since stood down and will not be involved in the next batch of episodes (technically the 2nd half of the 1st season). Given his actions (calling them ‘accusations’ would imply a lack of belief) it’s hard to not feel rather uncomfortable getting excited about his work, but in the end, it turns out that The Nevers isn’t really much to get excited about anyway.

    The Nevers is set in Victorian London where ‘something’ has happened which has given many individuals (mostly, but not exclusively, women) special powers, some of whom group together to try to understand what’s happened and to support each other against the discrimination they face. It’s like the X-Men but with more corsets.

    This is a strong concept that’s familiar ground for Whedon, most obviously the superhero films and comics he’s worked on and many elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (particularly the final season with all the potentials coming together). With HBO funding he has the budget to make steampunk London a beautiful reality and bring various superpowers to life (although there’s still some awkward greenscreen at times which is disappointing).

    There are also some talented actors involved and a large number of rich characters. The core group of women are engaging, intriguing and good to spend time with, but they don’t always have the depth that I would hope for. Towards the end we see the backstory of one of the main characters and I’m not sure that it really worked. I couldn’t quite see how the person in the flashback turned into the person in the ‘present’. That leaves me worried that the characters don’t have the depth and roundedness that they need to be fully understandable. Certainly some of the ‘villains’ came across a little pantomime like.

    One of the reasons I don’t think the loss of Whedon from the series is a disaster is that it didn’t really feel like a full Whedon series anyway. It just didn’t have the spark that made me fall in love with Buffy or Firefly. There was only the briefest flashes of wit and heart that should have been there in every moment. There were moments of humour, moments of passion, moments of power, moments of insight… but never a unified whole that wove them all together. It seems likely this may be a final note in Whedon’s career (he hasn’t seemed to make any form of apology) and it’s rather a whimper.