Films in August

New Films
Christopher Robin
I really wanted to love this film, but it did make it hard. I found the opening half hour or so of the film incredibly bleak. We start with Christopher Robin saying goodbye to all his friends in Hundred Acre Wood as he goes to boarding school then we see a collection of flashbacks including the death of his father and going to war, while the toys slowly fades away as he forgets them. There’s a flash of cheeriness as he marries Hayley Atwell, but then he becomes obsessed with work and providing for his family, losing sight of fun and being present for those he loves. By this point I was pretty miserable to be honest.
The second half picks up as the toys come back into his life, but Christopher Robin still takes a lot of convincing to be a decent human being and is pretty mean to poor old Pooh. There’s eventual redemption, but it’s a very long time coming.
It is a truly stunning film to look at, with hints of arthouse style direction and technically beautiful animation, even if it didn’t always feel quite grounded in the landscape. The same with the voices, even with members of the original Disney voice cast, it felt like a slightly off copy. There is some lovely stuff going on, but it just doesn’t all mesh together. It’s very much a film of two halves, with the first half really not being much fun for kids (or adults really), but then the second half being a bit too much of an easy fix for it to really work as just a grown up film.

Mission Impossible: Fallout – I went to the cinema in search of distraction, to quiet the anxious voices in my head and just escape the world for a bit. I figured a Mission Impossible film would be almost perfect for that. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of the films, but I do think they’re good at what they are. I was slightly disappointed with Fallout compared to previous MI films. The plot seemed even less coherent than usual and it felt like they spent too long trying to explain it which just slowed the film and drew attention to the nonsense of it all. It doesn’t matter if the plot makes no sense (or even if there isn’t much plot at all) but don’t waste so much time on it and leave the audience enough time to spot the holes. I also didn’t feel that it had the humour or character of previous films. Obviously Tom Cruise is the star under the thin disguise of his character Ethan Hunt, but I’d like a bit more interaction with the more than capable supporting actors (both good guys, bad guys, and somewhere-in-the-middle). The action sequences were utterly spectacular, but everything in between was mediocre and bordering on dull, it therefore failed on its basic mission to distract me.

Ant-Man and the Wasp – The Marvel universe always manages to impress me with the sheer variety it brings in its different threads of the franchise (and then astonish me when it weaves the threads together to form an even vaguely coherent joint offering). Ant Man is on the comedy end of the spectrum and it knows it. It is just plain FUN. I was utterly immersed from the first scene to the last, there was always something going on for the eye, the ear, and the heart, although the brain can happily take a bit of a nap for a lot of it. Often I am bored watching fight scenes, but the creativity here had me watching every second and even wishing I could re-wind to catch more detail. I love how everyone involved plays with the ideas and possibilities, fully exploring the potential. But the characters are never forgotten and Marvel’s stunning casting strikes again, with everyone delivering a rich portrayal of everyone as somewhere in the middle of the hero-villain spectrum. It’s a nice change that it’s not the end of the world being threatened; the more intimate stakes make a nice change and fit in the wider pacing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe perfectly. This was exactly the distraction and the entertainment I was looking for.

New to Me
Spider-Man: Homecoming – I didn’t bother going to see this in the cinema because frankly I was bored of going to see Spider-Man films. I eventually picked it up on dvd after being relentlessly told how good it was by people, and they were right. It did manage to be a fresh take on the story and felt more like an actual teenager than I think the previous ones did. It’s interesting how Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has been pre-embedded in the Marvel universe BEFORE getting his own film, and having Tony Stark appear in this film further grounds him in a known universe so his character makes more sense and is both more accepting and more acceptable as a teenager with superpowers. Despite having so much behind it, the film still felt fresh, original and vibrant and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rewatches
The Hobbit films – ITV have been showing all the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, so I decided to marathon my way through the Hobbit films on a wet bank holiday as I haven’t seen them since I was somewhat disappointed by them in the cinema. I remain disappointed. I won’t bother reviewing each one individually, as it’ll be quite repetitive, just like the films. It feels like they missed all the heart and soul that was present in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and just shamelessly tried to make as much money as possible. Primarily, that meant dragging a very limited story out into three over-long films and forcing in cameos and references that just didn’t feel right. I also think they skimped on the special and visual effects, more scenes were obviously green-screened and CGI’ed and it didn’t feel like there was the richness that the original trilogy had. The actors are doing their best and there are some nice moments but it mostly felt cold and mercenary.

Kiki’s Delivery Service – 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.

Heathers – This film has had a cinema re-release for its 30th anniversary, which makes me feel a bit old because it was one of the films when I was at school that would do the rounds on vhs for sleepovers and the like. Admittedly it was already a few years old at that point, but it certainly spoke to teenage girls even in the early 90’s. The messages at the heart of the film are still somewhat relevant even if the styles are now horrifically dated. It’s a weird film wandering between fantasy and reality in a way that didn’t feel entirely coherent. It suffers as many of these films do by having actors who are clearly far older than the characters they are meant to portray, and not all are quite up to the depths that the writers may have been aiming for. It’s certainly not a great film, and I’m not really sure it deserves a ‘classic’ label either, but it is interesting to think where it fits into the overall timeline of teen films and how it inspired films after it.

Doctor Strange – A film of missed opportunities. Benedict Cumberbatch was perfectly cast, except for the fact that he’s perfect casting because he’s basically been playing a small variant of the character in Sherlock, so all you’ve really added is magic and a weird accent (it sounded just like Hugh Laurie on House to me, that odd mid-atlantic non-specific american accent that doesn’t quite work). Then the magic stuff. OK, it’s an interesting add on to the Marvel universe, but stop trying to explain it! There was SO much exposition and explaining of things that really didn’t make any sense, I kept getting bored. Then I struggled to really follow the action sequences, maybe it’s something about my eyes, but I found them too complicated, too fast moving and too layered to really focus on and get a hang of what was going on (I think if I’d seen it in 3d it would probably have made me feel ill). The bits that weren’t action OR exposition were quite interesting, but I just kept zoning out of the rest of it. On the plus side – Tilda Swinton was absolutely fantastic and the line about the ‘mantra’ is possibly the funniest thing I’ve heard all year. But I think the rest of it was a bit mediocre, and it shouldn’t have been.

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.

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Books in August

Hans Rosling and Ola Rosling – Factfulness
Like many, many thousands of people I discovered Hans Rosling through his Ted talks using data and statistics in simple yet visually creative ways to present a richer pictures of things we assume we know. His utterly charming personality, passion and energy come across perfectly in this book. I didn’t put the full title above, which is “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think” but the book does rather do what it says on the tin. Unlike some books of this type there is a powerful and simple structure running through it, each chapter presenting a different way that it is incredibly easy to get things wrong. There is a mix of anecdotes, data, psychology, statistics and sociology in every chapter that carefully reinforces each key point. Not a chapter went by without me being surprised and enlightened. It’s a relatively short book and a phenomenally easy read that will open your mind and genuinely make you feel a bit better about the world. Everyone should read this.

Claire North – The End of the Day
Looking back, I adored Claire North’s first two books (The First 15 Lives of Harry August and Touch) but the last two (this one and Sudden Appearance of Hope) have frustrated me. All her books have in common an incredible richness of central idea, they are all playing with sci-fi like abilities/powers/curses and North has built them in a way that fully embraces and plays with all the implications that they bring. But I feel that she doesn’t always embed them in a good story. The End of the Day in fact doesn’t seem to have much in the way of story at all. It’s a huge collection of small stories that don’t really seem to go anywhere. The characters and settings involved are all interesting to spend time with, so it’s not a disaster, but I was always aware of the fact that it didn’t seem to be coming together. There’s a lot of observation about the world today that if I’d known was going to be there, I probably wouldn’t have read the book (“warning – this book contains social commentary and observation that may make you angry and sad”). Despite the great concept at the centre of the book, I just came away unsatisfied and frankly a little depressed.

T Kingfisher – Summer in Orcus
If you read the author’s notes at the end she explains that this book ended up a home for a lot of the stray ideas she’d had that hadn’t made it into another book. That could make for a bit of a mess, but I think it just about works here. It’s held together with a familiar structure of a child transported to another world, but but writer and the child herself are aware of those tropes and so it feels like it’s moving the ideas forward rather than just retelling them. The collection of ideas are beautifully collected, and you can see how each grew out of either a phrase, a visual image (the valet birds are my favourite), or even a pun. I don’t think it’s her best work, it lacks some punch and it’s more of a children’s book than most of her other fairy tales, but it’s a lovely tale to read.

Agatha Christie – A Murder is Announced
With my increased commute, my reading time has multiplied dramatically and as I’m powering through books so fast I’ve started using my local library rather than bankrupt myself buying books. The selection is quite erratic, but I can always rely on finding an Agatha Christie. I haven’t read many Miss Marple’s but there’s something very comforting about the slow pace of them, easy going detective work and village life and relatively low impact crimes being investigated. There are lots of elements to the mystery, so even if you see through one or two early on as I did, there’s still more surprises to come. It does get somewhat more brutal towards the end, but it’s slightly swept away which left me feeling a bit bruised and feeling slightly less satisfied than I might otherwise have done.

David Thomson – How to Watch a Movie
The author makes a point of explaining that he is not looking to reduce the enjoyment of films through over-analysis, and I could completely get behind that message. I find that my enjoyment and respect for films is often improved by knowing a bit about the context of their production, their place in history and the complexities of producing them. So I was completely with him. Then I read the book and he actually had me doubting the whole idea. The book is STUNNINGLY boring to read, weirdly too dry to be entertaining, but too flimsy to feel educational. It wanders all over the place with little coherent messaging. I got no sense of love or joy from any of it and ended up just turning the pages as fast as I possibly could.

Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep
A classic. Hmmm. I can see the charm of the writing style, the turns of phrases and dry wit are beautifully written and really leap off the page. But I didn’t feel like I was pulled into the book at all, like I was observing something at a difference. Maybe it’s because the central voice is so dry and emotionally distant, and the rest of the characters are all fairly unlikable so it’s hard to really engage, but I found myself just turning the pages rather than really sinking into it.

Philip Gwynne Jones – Vengeance in Venice
It’s not long since I read the first book in this series and I can see it becoming a series that I happily return to with each new work, but rather forget in between. The characters are charming and real, all with their own flaws and eccentricities (particularly the cat). The plot on the other hand is a bit so-so, as a murder mystery it relies on too many coincidences and even though the writer ‘hangs a lamp’ on those issues, it doesn’t excuse that you don’t have to try too hard to pull the story apart. But really, the star of the book is Venice itself. I’ve only been there once myself but I can certainly recognise it from the book – both the wonder of the place and the insanity of it. As mindless reads go – it’s great fun, as a quality murder mystery – it’s a bit mediocre, but as a promotion for the Venetian tourist board – it’s beyond compare.

Westworld: Season 2

I allowed the whole of season 2 of Westworld to stack up so I could box set through it (yes, I’m embracing ‘to box set’ as a verb). Within about 15 seconds of starting to watch I realised that I had utterly no memory of what happened in season 1. After a bit of reading wikipedia and a couple of youtube catchup videos I settled in feeling a bit more confident that I was caught up. I wasn’t, and I pretty much never caught up during the whole of the season, having little understanding of where we’d been, where we were going and why I was on the journey at all. The only thing I really liked about the series was the technical beauty of it. The cinematography and design of the sets and settings are absolutely stunning. I also want to call out the music which beautifully references both modern and period.

Sadly though, neither story nor characters grabbed me. I am still undecided about whether I didn’t enjoy the story because I couldn’t follow it, or whether I didn’t follow the story because I wasn’t enjoying it. Re-reading my review of season 1 I remember how the first season gradually drew me in as it revealed some clever tricks with the timelines, it even tempted me to re-watch the season to unpick how it all hung together. The second season tried to repeat the trick while everyone was watching for it, and it felt smug and confused and left me absolutely no desire to see how it worked.

Many of the characters (both host and human) felt even more one dimensional and their single minded motivations just felt contrived (even for those that weren’t programmed that way). There are only a handful of characters that felt more rounded and they were often relegated frustratingly to the background (Teddy the host, Elsie the engineer, Lee the plot writer and Ashley the security officer), they felt like people complete with mixed motivations, conflicting emotions and a sense of both bafflement and wonder. I would have liked to say Bernard is an interesting character, but he spent so much of the season confused and confusing, central to the shenanigans with timelines that made it impossible to actually follow his thread. It’s no criticism of any of the actors involved, all of whom do very fine work.

As with the first season, I’m sure a lot of the elements that I complain about, could be considered The Point of the whole thing – the lack of humanity of the humans, born vs programmed etc etc etc. But the elements of message absolutely must be entwined with the story so elegantly that you can’t see the join. The narrative needs to flow (even if it’s not told in order). This felt overly constructed, with elements put in just to pad the series out (the whole Japanese park bit), and bits fast-forwarded through because they didn’t deliver Message (there’s little sense of location and space and the timelines are so tangled I never felt grounded).

I think in some ways this is a series that’s a victim of the current success of television. I think back to something like Babylon 5 which had a giant story to tell, and it spent well over hundred episodes to tell it, giving the audience space and time to settle into the universe and each time it changed. It took its time, there were entertaining diversions and dead ends (accidental or deliberate). Westworld is trying to build, destroy and rebuild the entire universe in (from the looks of it) 30 episodes over 3 seasons. It’s just too fast and I’m afraid it’s left me behind.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 5

There are shows that I love the big stories but get a little bored in the actual watching, and then there are shows like Agents of SHIELD where I adore the little moments and am bored by the big stuff. There are few shows out there at the moment that I find charming, where I love the characters and their interactions and genuinely want to spend time with them. I would cheerfully watch these characters build IKEA furniture together. In fact a lot of the time I’d rather watch them undertake a simple task like that than watch them get bogged down in clumsy attempts to save the world.

This season had some big STUFF going on – time travel, the destruction of the world, aliens and complicated theories about the nature of time and destiny. The problem is that I’m not sure any of it actually hung together. Every time I tried to work it out, it felt like it was heading in an incoherent direction so I stopped. Maybe if I’d kept trying to work it out, I would have got through it to something that made sense, but I couldn’t be bothered. I always thought it was a shame that the series tried to do these big stories, thereby trying and failing to compete with the Marvel movies it spun off from, or the various other hero shows. I wanted it to be about the more day-to-day, the daily grind of the agents behind the heroes, tidying up their mess or dealing with the stuff it wasn’t worth calling them for. I like stories about the little people, heroes are all well and good, but the little people deserve some love too.

The writing for the characters and the performances remain superb. The dialogue isn’t quite up there with Joss Whedon’s best, even after 5 seasons it still feels a little like Whedon-lite, but it still has that underlying sparkle. Characters snip and snark, make pop culture references, and most importantly have strong senses of self and their own history. They all remember how ridiculous their lives are, how they’ve all made mistakes and all lost things. They talk like normal people, and when one of them occasionally slips into hero speak, the others aren’t afraid to call them on it. It’s laugh out loud funny, and heartbreakingly emotional.

It’s a long wait to the next season which is only set to be 13 episodes long and doesn’t start until next year. I think there’s a good chance it will be the last season as the ratings have never been very good, but I will miss these characters.

Books in July

I continue to enjoy reading on my commute (although I wouldn’t mind the temperatures dropping by a dozen degrees or so) and am ploughing through books. To save my bank balance a bit I went and investigated the library! What a wonderful place – they just let you take books away! The selection is a bit limited, but thus far I’ve been managing to find some classics and some random picks.

Sarah Whitfield – Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables
Full disclosure – the author of this book is one of my best friends and I’m even mentioned in the acknowledgements (!) so this isn’t exactly an unbiased review. Also I should note you will probably struggle a bit to follow some sections if you have not at least passingly familiar with the musical itself, or at least look up a few youtube clips as you read.
This little book tries to explain why people are such fans of Les Misérables by looking at a number of factors – the story, the music, the marketing, the history of the production and a little bit on fandom itself. Although Sarah is an academic expert in musical theatre, this book is never dry. Peppered throughout the book are quotes and anecdotes from fans of Les Misérables who were surveyed as part of the research for the book. The analysis of the musical techniques, or emotional manipulation to hook audiences is always balanced with the voice of that audience expressing how much it means to them. Sarah doesn’t stand back from this as a passive observer – she also shares her own anecdotes about growing up with a father who loved Les Misérables, and who passed away while Sarah was writing the book. The sharing of powerful emotions throughout the book is a perfect match for Les Misérables, which as Sarah says, only an Easter Island statue could fail to be moved by.
At only 60 odd pages long, the biggest problem with the book is that it’s too short. There’s plenty of room for expansion and I was a little disappointed that some areas weren’t probed a little deeper – particularly the bubbling counterpoint of why “serious” theatre people look down on the musical (and maybe by extension the fans). But as it is, it’s a charming little love letter to a musical, its fans, and a father.

Derek Thompson – Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular
Any book advertised as picking up from Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point is setting a high bar, but also makes itself an easy sell to me. I find this kind of subject fascinating, it sort of spans marketing, business and economics, psychology, sociology and history. The trick that people like Gladwell, Seth Godin and Matthew Syed pull off is to blend in just the right number of case studies and stories and write the whole thing like a human being, rather than a dry text book. Thompson is a worthy addition to this pantheon. Hit Makers was not only a fascinating read, but also a fun one. The structure is clear and tidy, told with a journalist’s respect for grabbing attention, retaining it and landing messages deliberately and forcefully. The stories being told are a mixture of the familiar and the unusual, finding people and emotions that are relatable and inspiring. Thompson delivers a book that both explains why things are popular, explains why we’ll never understand why things are popular, and uses all the tricks he’s identified to write something that should be popular (except for the cover, which is stunningly poor). One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a very long time.

T. Kingfisher – Clocktaur War 1: The Wonder Engine, and 2: Clockwork Boys.
T. Kingfisher is one of my favourite authors and I’ve never seen a physical copy of her book. I’ve just checked and some of her books are available as physical books, but they’re far more aggressively priced as ebooks, so I don’t think anyone is really wanting us to buy the actual books. That means they have to rely more on word of mouth to sell and I continue to do my bit on that front. There’s something effortlessly simple and pure about her writing, which is of course anything other than effortless and far from common. Her stories are straightforward, retelling fairy tales, or in this case a fairly standard quest story. But the characters, worlds, and plots always sparkle. I read the two books back to back and I suggest you do the same as a) they’re impossible to put down and b) it’s really a continuous story and the first book by itself just sort of stops in the middle.
The story is a fairly straightforward quest set up with an unlikely team of experts sent off on an apparently impossible mission and a few heists and bumps along the road, plus the slightly inevitable romance of course. It’s all quite standard – the world has some magic and some steam punk type stuff going on, the team all have individual specialisms but aren’t used to working in a team and are a mixture of heroic rogues and roguish heroes. Everything jumps off the page, dialogue and thoughts of characters are immediately real, it’s laugh out loud funny, un-put-down-able action, a romance that even my cold heart fell in love with and some “unfortunate events” that had me reaching for the tissues. I cannot recommend this author highly enough and the ebooks are embarrassingly cheap so you really have no excuse to not read them.

Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
I’m not sure about this book. The writing style is refreshing, bluntly honest (although maybe not quite right for a sheltered 15 year old) and laugh out loud funny while also gut-wrenchingly painful. It’s the kind of book that is both hard to put down and difficult to keep reading because the emotions are so powerful at times, and various disasters loom like icebergs on the horizon. I can see why some people would love it and connect incredibly deeply with it, but it didn’t quite work for me on that level. It’s the kind of book that I respect more than I like. (573)

Agatha Christie – By the Pricking of My Thumbs
Another random Agatha Christie, but not one of her better ones. I did enjoy the characters of Tommy and Tuppence for the most part, although they occasionally got a little too smug and prim. Unfortunately the story itself let the book down, the mystery was slow to develop, relying on epic numbers of coincidences to keep things moving and come up with reasons that the characters should keep searching for a crime that was completely hidden. Then there was a rush of exposition at the end to bring everything together and explain the solution to a puzzle that I still didn’t quite believe was there. It’s as if Christie started writing hoping the plot would come to her, and then when she eventually found one, she didn’t bother going back to the beginning so that it made sense.

Seni Glaister – The Museum of Things Left Behind
A random pick from the library based mostly on the title, which then proved to be completely inappropriate as the Museum in question makes barely 2 appearances and even as a metaphor is pretty far stretched. The quirkiness sort of matches the book for the most part and it’s an interesting set up, but about half way through the author seems to decide they don’t want just a nice little story and tries to add more depth with more pointed political and social satire. The bait and switch unsettled me, I wanted something nice and quirky, not something that made me sad and thoughtful. I think the author was capable of delivering either approach interestingly, but the mixture was ill judged.

Films in July

New Films
Incredibles 2 – I have always felt that The Incredibles was one of Pixar’s quietest gems (see review further down the page). For some reason it never seemed to get the rabid response that Toy Story or Finding Nemo got, but for me it was always one of my favourites. The story, the characters, the voice work, the understated humour, and most of all the visual style all just really spoke to me and I was thrilled when I heard a sequel was on the way. I’m even more thrilled that it was everything I hoped for and more. The story and the quality pick up seamlessly from the end of the first film and just keep improving. I can’t remember the last film where I laughed out loud so much; scenes, phrases and even just wordless looks became instant classics. At two hours long, it’s apparently the longest Pixar film yet and I didn’t notice time passing at all, I would have cheerfully sat there for another 2 hours. Absolutely wonderful.

New to me
A Ghost Story – I sort of sank into this film. At first I was a bit eye-rolly and bored by it. Everything took so long, each scene lingered and dragged, and although the cinematography was very beautiful, rather than pull me into the story and the characters, it pushed me away from an emotional engagement. But the film went in a direction I wasn’t expecting and that drew me back in a bit. I wouldn’t say I entirely fell in love with it, or thought it was a revelation, but I didn’t hate it anywhere near as much as I thought I would.

Dark Skies – I seem to have watched a few of these theme of film recently, family terrorised by supernatural and/or aliens and/or their own paranoia. They’re all much-of-a-muchness with most of the success resting on whether the kids are annoying and whether the parents make dumb choices. Dark Skies is a middling success. The kids are just slightly the wrong side of the line, but the parents are sufficiently sensible to average it out. There are some genuinely creepy setups, a couple of acceptable jump scares and a fairly well managed conclusion. But I suspect in a few days time I will have completely forgotten it.

Frida – I knew nothing about the artist Frida Kahlo’s life and to be honest I don’t much like her art. But this is well put together character study of a very interesting woman. I was a little frustrated that so much of the story of her life was told as the story of her relationship with Diego Rivera, I’m not entirely convinced it actually passes the Bechdel test. But I was completely engaged with the film throughout, the little animated sections providing an interesting contrast, and was inspired to read a little bit more about her life.

Get Shorty – I probably wasn’t in the right mood to watch this. From very early on I lost track of the plot and couldn’t be bothered to pick it up again. I really do think this is more me than the film, because I liked the idea of the story a lot, and the characters all seemed to work, I just didn’t engage with it at all.

Misery – A quite minimalist and very well constructed creepy horror film. The gradually building tension and unpleasantness is well paced although slightly undermined now by the fact that it’s been parodied so many times. I particularly liked the well timed interjections of lightness from the local sheriff which broke the tension. Kathy Bates is superb.

Rewatches
The Social Network – When I read a few years ago that my favourite writer, Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, Sports Night, The American President) was going to move on from the flop of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (I liked it a lot more than most, but could still see it had big problems) with a film about Facebook, I really thought it was a joke. A couple of years later and I’m watching the unlikely scene of a fast paced coding and hacking session unmistakably written by Aaron Sorkin. I was engrossed from start to finish. The different ‘truths’ are intertwined flawlessly, jumping points of view and back and forth in time effortlessly. It’s not a simple film to watch, you will need to pay attention to keep track, but if you do, you will understand. The only problem the film has is that it’s a bit difficult to feel sorry for most of the characters, while they’re not necessarily assholes, they all have reasons for behaving as they do, they’re not particularly pleasant to be around. And by the end of the film all these extremely young, arrogant, fairly obnoxious characters are all richer than you will ever be.

The Incredibles – Remembering that this film came years before the Marvel cinematic universe really re-energised the superhero genre makes it even more impressive. It fits into the modern take on superheroes so well, simultaneously respecting and parodying the tropes and cliches. Rewatching it for the nth time, there are still lots of little moments, references and background bits that surprise and delight. The animation is a little dated and over simplified compared to current films, but given it was made in 2004, that’s not surprising. While the movements and the textures may be basic though, the style is still gorgeous and the voice acting is everything you’d expect from Pixar.

Wind River – I was extremely satisfied by this film. For a start, it’s beautiful to look at, with a dramatic setting that looks great on the big screen. Another thing I found very satisfying was the treatment of the principle characters. None of them were stupid or small minded, they all had respect for each other and behaved professionally and competently. Too often that’s not the case, petty rivalries or incompetencies are used to drive the plot along or create tension. The personal weaknesses and issues of the characters were well deployed into the story without feeling like they were being overly manipulative. The crime itself maybe lacked originality or sufficiently credible motivations, and I think the reveal could have been made a lot more elegantly, rather than degenerating into flashback and way too big gun battle. All-in-all however it was a really satisfying watch.

Star Trek: Beyond – When I was going to the cinema to see this the first time, I re-watched the previous two Star Trek films before going to see this one at the cinema, and my expectations were therefore mixed. I anticipated a continuation of the big blockbuster pop-corn flicks that we’d been getting. Big effects, respectful nostalgia, excellent casting, not quite enough one liners, and dumb as rocks plot. Happily though, they seem to have managed to keep the good and actually fix the problems with the writing! This film actually makes some sense, or at least it made enough sense while I was actually watching it, which is more that the last two did. It’s still fun, it’s still spectacular (although the effects are all a bit digital and over-processed for my tastes), the characters all still have soul and it really felt like a Star Trek film.

Notting Hill – Sometimes you have to decide whether you’re going to enjoy a Richard Curtis film before you really start watching it. Most of them have a central problem that they’re about rich people having problems that we could only really dream of having. if you go with the posh charm than all is well and they’re funny, sweet and like a warm blanket. But if you can’t let it go they can be massively frustrating. The Julia Robert’s character at the heart of Notting Hill makes it extremely hard to just let the irritation go by complaining about her massively successful but demanding job, while making no movement to actually take control of her own life. Of course seemingly successful people can be miserable, but it never seems to occur to her that she is choosing to remain in the miserable situations and instead just grumbles and snaps at people around her. Everything beyond that character manages to be lovely, but the black hole at the centre really dragged this film down for me.

The Boat That Rocked – This is possibly the least Richard Curtis of Richard Curtis’ films. I enjoyed this film a lot, it’s hard not to get swept along by the feel good soundtrack but the collection of characters were also just fun to spend time with. I found myself wishing that it was a sitcom instead of a film as it was almost more fun to just see the little day-to-day activities than it was to pay attention to the plot. It avoids Curtis’ usual problems of “posh people problems” and felt like there was something important at the heart of it. It’s very silly in places, which I’d usually find irritating, but for whatever reason, it worked for me here.

The Death of Stalin – An odd film. Armando Iannucci is a superb comedy writer and this is certainly a laugh out loud funny. The hilarity of a well timed swear word, of a well timed silence, of physical comedy, farce and wordplay – it’s a masterclass. There are loads of characters with complicated backstories and relationships that can be a little hard to track, but thanks to some brilliant ‘character actors’ they all leap off the screen. The problem is that, while the farcical elements of the grabs for power are inherently funny, the overall situation is not. The film doesn’t entirely shy away from the fact that thousands of people are being routinely rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed; but by interspersing it with comedy it does be-little it and leave a very bad taste in the mouth. It’s not like you can watch the film and ignore it, because it’s integral to the story; so I’m not quite sure what reaction we’re supposed to have. Overall I think I just wish that Iannucci and the cast made a different film.

Big Hero 6 – Like Wreck it Ralph, this is a film that doesn’t look like a Disney film, but actually when you think about the story and the characters, it’s Disney through-and-through. It’s a lovely story looking at loss and what it means to be a hero, it’s quite heart breaking at times, but balances it with some good-old-school superheroes and robots. The animation is absolutely beautiful, the level of detail on the city is contrasted with the minimalist style used for the characters. You completely forget that Baymax is nothing more than a couple of eyes, he’s so elegantly expressive. Another really great movie from Disney.

My Best Friend’s Wedding – What a horrible film. On the surface it appears frothy and fun, big characters played well, a snappy script and some great actors and Rupert Everett absolutely stealing the film. But when you actually pay attention to the plot and the characters – they’re almost all horrific. The central story is pretty nasty – a woman realises she’s in love with her best friend just as he’s about to marry someone else, so she decides to split them up. The tactics she uses are awful, and her acknowledgement that she’s being horrible don’t excuse that. Even worse though was actually the relationship between the best friend and his fiance, which felt even more uncomfortable. She is a student, considerably younger than him and seems pretty sweet and lovely. But she’s going to drop out of school and ‘suspend’ her dreams to be with him while he travels for work and when she tries to present an alternative, he shouts at her in a crowded restaurant until she cries and promises to never mention it again. I’m sorry, but that’s not something I want to see presented as absolutely ok. The fiance should have run for the hills and left the two horrible people to each other.

Good Will Hunting – I’d forgotten how good this film was, even more outstanding considering how early in Damon and Affleck’s career it was. I wish they would write again to see whether this was the only story they could tell. The acting of all parties was inspired with Robin Williams doing an outstanding job playing it (mostly) straight and Stellan Skarsgard also doing a good supporting role.

Romancing the Stone – Twee 80’s action/romance. Indiana Jones with slightly more smarm, slightly less charm, a bit less humour and a lot less polish. Passes the time.

Station 19: Season 1

Despite my unashamed love for Grey’s Anatomy (with the exception of a few plot lines that I try to forget about) I’ve never found the same level of joy for the rest of Shonda Rhime’s work. I stuck with Scandal for a few years but it just got too ridiculous, I barely made it through the pilot for How to Get Away with Murder and even the direct spinoff from Grey’s, Private Practice, didn’t really land with me. As I’ve made it through the full season of Station 19 that makes it the most successful of the bunch, but this isn’t exactly going to be a glowing review.

The first problem is that I’ve never really understood the American emergency services structure which seems to merge paramedics and the fire service into one shared skill set (although this may be an affectation of TV/films based on the way things work in LA and may not be representative of the country as a whole). Station 19 adopts this, meaning that all the firefighters also act as medical first responders and it left me constantly bemused at the different skills and roles that the characters fell into, making them slightly hard to differentiate.

Sometimes the characters seemed to be able to do everything, but other times they were startling inept with storylines being driven by characters making mistakes. Grey’s Anatomy started with, and tries to maintain, a tiered approach to its characters with people at all stages of their careers. The new people understandably make mistakes for drama or entertainment, while the more senior staff can teach both audience and characters while picking up the pieces. Station 19 seems to lack that hierarchy as the only person treated as having significant experience is quickly sidelined.

The rest of the season is structured around a leadership contest between two people who are clearly completely unsuited to lead. Neither has the required experience, neither can put aside stupid quarrels even in literal life and death situations, and neither gives or receives sufficient respect to inspire confidence. Too many of the stories were driven by the mistakes of the characters rather than the inherent challenge of battling fires and disasters. People died because of their pettiness and ineptness and we were supposed to feel sorry for those that made the mistakes.

The personal elements have flashes of the Grey’s strengths, but only flashes. There are some interesting and well delivered relationships (both romantic and otherwise) and some hints at rich backstories that could be developed. Sadly the voiceover doesn’t work, Herrera just doesn’t have as strong a voice as Meredith Grey and everything she says comes across as trite. I also wasn’t a big fan of the flashes of future moments that top and tail each advert break, they just felt like padding and a cheap way to build drama. As a whole, it just doesn’t reach the standards that Grey’s has set and I’m not sure it’s adding anything to a TV landscape that already has Chicago Fire (and its siblings).

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