Books in July 2022

Only three books in July. Normally that would be a fairly solid month, but it’s down a bit since recent months, partly because the two fiction books were a bit underwhelming.

Victoria Mas – The Mad Women’s Ball
I think there’s something about books in translation that sometimes loses the magic spark that makes the difference between words on a page and a story in your imagination. I can’t imagine how hard translating a book is so I’m not judging! I usually find these kind of gothic novels easy to get lost in, but this one just never really connected. The building blocks were all there, but it just didn’t sing to me.

Alyssa Mastromonaco and Lauren Oyler – Who Thought This Was a Good Idea
If you’re looking for a really detailed retelling of life in the Obama White House, or a critical analysis of that period of American Politics, this is not the book for you. However if you are interested in the personal point of view of the experiences of a woman working in a unique environment then this is DEFINITELY the book for you. Alyssa Mastromonaco has had some incredible roles and writes incredibly openly about what she has learnt along the way. Her humour and humility shine through the random anecdotes, and while I might have occasionally wished for a little more about the details, I really enjoyed the experience of spending some time with her.

Jennifer Saint – Ariadne
Another solid entry for female led retelling of Greek myths. I do wonder whether the handful of authors in this space have divided up the stories between them or if it’s a race to publish and hope no one else has picked the same one. I struggled at first to get into Ariadne, the characters aren’t as well rounded as in Madeline Miller’s Circe and it reads a bit more like a fairy tale with broad “good” and “bad” characters. But the story and characters develop gradually and tells an interesting end to end version of Ariadne’s story.

Films in July (2022)

Another very quiet month for films. I failed to make it to the cinema to see Thor, but I did make it to see Minions!

Minions: The Rise of Gru
I was a little apprehensive going in for a number of reasons. 1) Minions wasn’t amazing, the little yellow guys are hilarious and adorable in shorts, but struggled to carry a whole film. 2) Sequels are hard. 3) I really, really needed a fun film, disappointment might be terminal.
I wasn’t disappointed. I loved it. Having mini-Gru grounded the film and gave the minions something to bounce off of and bounce, giggle and babble their way through they did. I adored it, and I have a whole new set of animated gifs to play with. 9 / 10

Scream (2022)
25 years after the original Scream (give or take a pandemic delay) and the gang’s all back. This time it’s a self-referential take on the “re-quel”, returning to an old concept, blending old and new casts, and everyone being aware of the rules they all need to follow. It’s a solid idea that keeps the series fresh and moving forward, certainly better than the 3rd film. However it still can’t capture the magic of the original, it occasionally stumbles too far from reality and satire into self parody (I was particularly frustrated by the level of injury people kept fighting with). 6 / 10

Venom: Let There Be Carnage
This was much, much more fun than I had expected. Where the first filmM/a> couldn’t work out whether it wanted to be dark, daft or just CGI action, this one settles firmly that it wants to be an odd couple comedy (with a scattering of CGI action. The relationship between Venom and his reluctant host is just brilliant, and stunningly played by Tom Hardy. The story doesn’t really matter that much, but gets the job done neatly, but everyone involved understands where the real gold is and just lets it shine. 8 / 10

The Sea Beast
This Netflix animation was clearly trying to capture some of the magic of How to Train Your Dragon – it’s got a similar story, similar tone and similar visual style, but it falls a bit flat on the charm. It’s a fun enough film to watch, there’s absolutely nothing that I can really point to and identify as ‘wrong’ but it just doesn’t have that special spark to it and the similarities to How to Train Your Dragon just draw attention to that absence. 7 / 10

Thor: Ragnarok
Finally a Thor film that worked for me. The first two were a bit bogged down for me, all a bit “Shakespeare in the Park”. There were flashes of humour in them, but nowhere near enough to overcome some plodding plots. However Thor post Avengers is a much more interesting character making the most of the considerable comic talents of Chris Hemsworth while letting the dramatic elements be shown rather than said for a change. Loki, Hulk, Banner, Dr Strange and Valkyrie all have substantial supporting roles, each with a similar blend of humour and tragedy, although it’s Korg who steals the show at every available opportunity. While there’s some pretty heavy stuff going on in this film, it is primarily just fun,8 / 10

Hugo
I thought this was going to be about the history of cinema, but hardly any mention of that was made until an hour in! It was as if they jammed two films together, one a story about machines and what it means to be someone who fixes them, and the other about the early pioneers of cinema and what happened to them. Both were interesting themes, but I found the muddling of the two ideas together clumsy and a bit of a waste.
I wouldn’t say the film was awful by any stretch, the characters were lovely, the storylines were interesting and the design was beautiful, but I was disappointed that the themes seemed to just meander about a bit. 7 / 10

Books in June 2022

I read 11 books this month! But they really just came in three chunks, one non-fiction, and then two fiction series from Kindle Unlimited, the first 3 of the fairly well known Cadfael series, and all 7 of the probably very unknown Honor Raconteur series. Those 10 books would give very good value for the Kindle subscription, and it was even better given that I got the month for free!

David Rooney – About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks
It’s important to really read the title of this book, it’s NOT a history of clocks, it’s a history of civilisation told via the stories of twelve clocks. It’s a big ambition, civilisation has a LOT of history and the book somewhat struggles under the weight. There’s so much ground to cover that it’s hard to really get the richness of anything, the 12 clocks really only get a few pages each before the discussion of sociology and politics take over. It is an interesting attempt, and raised some ideas and connections that I really hadn’t heard before. However I think it tries to do a little too much and ends up spread a bit thin.

Ellis Peters – Cadfael 1: A Morbid Taste For Bones
I remember watching Derek Jacobi as Cadfael on Sunday nights as a kid and although I’ve had a nostalgic soft spot for the series, I’ve never actually read the books. I spotted however that they’re available on Kindle Unlimited and I figured I’d give it a go. I was not in the slightest bit disappointed. They’re like Sunday evening tv in paper format (or pixel format in this case). Peters finds just the right balance between easy to read, lightness and not trivialising death and the impact on everyone involved. It would be easy for these books to become bogged down in historical detail, but somehow while they still feel authentic and well researched, they’re a lovely easy read and the history and religion are just lightly sprinkled on top, I hesitate to say this, but they may replace Agatha Christie as my go to, easy reading mysteries.

2: One Corpse Too Many
Another very readable Cadfael story. This one has a bit more history going on, and although there were enough details to make the context of the plot clear, I found myself wanting to know more than my spotty historical knowledge and the book itself provided. Some of the twists of the book were slightly spoiled by knowing the characters from the TV series, but it’s still a lot of fun to read.

3: Monk’s Hood – I read this book in a single day, completely immersing myself into it and shutting out the world and it was exactly the right level of intrigue and gentleness.

Honor Raconteur – The Case Files of Henri Davenforth
Another fun, light, fantasy series available on Kindle Unlimited. An FBI agent is transported to another world, at roughly 1910s level of technology (cars and home telephones just coming in) but with magic thrown into the mix. She becomes a detective and partners with the magical examiner and starts bringing modern Earth procedures and ideas to the investigations. the set up is solid, and the characters and mysteries enjoyable to spend time with. The blending of periods, technologies and magic is well handled and while the main characters have a respect and curiousity that’s uplifting, there’s enuogh challenge to make some drama. I read all 7 available books in just a couple of weeks and this will definitely be another series/author that drive me to subscribe to kindle unlimited periodically.
1: Magic and the Shinigami Detective – The first book launches the series with a lot of energy, introducing the world and characters well, showing off the potential of the set up and delivering a solid mystery as well.
2: Charms and Death and Explosions (Oh My!) – Without the ‘newness’ it’s a little less exciting, but is a solidly entertaining mystery novel that continues to expand the world and characters.
3: Magic Outside the Box – The team take a case outside the city so we get to see a bit more of the world and a slightly personal twist to the story brings something new as well.
4: Breaking and Entering – The plot suffers a bit in this novel. It felt like the team were missing obvious clues, going round in circles and not being as systematic as they usually are. One of the key interesting things about the series is what happens when a modern day detective brings the knowledge and experience from Earth to a world about 100 years behind. So the procedures should be solid and I was frustrated that they didn’t quite seem to be here. BUT the story is still fun to read, the characters fun to spend time with, and it’s hard not to love a book with a purple, talking cat working on cases.
5: Three Charms for Murder – While the book is still very enjoyable, like the previous novel it feels like the mysteries may be getting away from the author a bit. There are a few inconsistencies and holes that don’t completely ruin things, but do start to niggle a bit. I also worry about the ‘moonlighting effect’ that putting the two main characters together romantically might spoil things (I’m always far more interested in professional respect and friendship than I am with romance, but maybe that’s just me being a cummudgeon). Still, there are now talking kittens to brighten the day and the fact that the trio are named for a slightly niche corner of Marvel Avengers fandom just makes me smile.
6: Grimoires and Where to Find Them – I’m happy to see that the romantic pairing of the two lead characters hasn’t negatively impacted this series. If anything, other than occasional gushing musings the relationship is pretty much invisible which if anything feels a little too coy even for the period setting. Still, I’ll not complain that the fun elements of the book remain undiluted. The case is an interesting one, playing more in the magical space which makes a nice change.
7: Death over the Garden Wall – This felt a lot more like an Agatha Christie novel than anything particularly fantasy or steam punk. It was a solidly put together murder mystery, but it felt rather generic and predictable (I guessed who did it very near the beginning) and lacking anything that really made use of the vivid world that’s been created. An entertaining enough book, but a bit of a let down.

Films in June 2022

Only 13 films watched in June, and most of them were re-watches as I worked my way through all the Jurassic Parks and Despicable Me films in advance of new installments at the cinema. I never got round to posting my review of Jurassic World Dominion as it’s own post, so here it is.

Jurassic World: Dominion
I rewatched all five previous Jurassic Pak films in the run up to going to see this at the cinema and that made me very aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the previous films, and made me appreciate the consistency. I’ve struggled a bit to write this review because it just doesn’t feel like there’s much to say about the film, it’s a good closure for the series, brings back lots of ideas and faces and does a solid job of tidying things up neatly. The only thing I can really think of to call out is that it occasionally gets a bit crowded, and that the principle villain doesn’t make much sense. But then none of it really makes sense, so it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the effects are good, the characters engaging and the action sequences bounce along. It was a great cinema experience and a solid ending to the series. 7 / 10

Mothering Sunday
A quietly powerful film that took me slightly by surprise. Set after the first world war it’s a snapshot of life focussing on Jane, a maid in a relatively small house. This isn’t Downton Abbey with dozens of servants and strict rules, everything is a little more relaxed. We focus on her, and her secret relationship, but we also see into the lives of the owners of the house and the lasting impact that the war has had on everyone. The performances are excellent, the direction intimate and I was completely gripped. The only problem came in a few scenes that bracket the film, jumping forward to Jane’s future. It did show the longer term impacts that events have on her, but it felt a bit unnecessary to me, and I would have been more interested potentially to see more of the stories of the other characters. 7 / 10

REWATCHES
Enola Holmes
I’m not sure whether the world of Sherlock Holmes just naturally lends itself to quirky film making, or whether once it’s been done that way once, everyone else has to follow. This is Holmes in the style that’s become familiar through the BBC series and the Robert Downey Jnr films, full of spark, and speed; bouncing around and zipping along at the speed of the genius’ mind and bringing the audience along for the ride. It’s just that this time the Holmes isn’t Sherlock, it’s his 16 year old sister, and without a Watson to explain everything to, she talks (or just rolls her eyes) at the audience directly. Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame more than carries the film, she’s charming, smart, witty, subtle and original; playing a character with all the intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, but with added emotion that is a very welcome addition. I actually really loved this film, the twists and turns of the plot were satisfying without being too challenging and although it maybe drags on a little bit and lacks some focus, I really enjoyed it and really hope that the open ending means this will turn into a series. 8 / 10

Tenet
I have no problem with complex films, I purposely go to the cinema and watch films to distract my brain from the world around me and so a film where I have to concentrate helps that. Christopher Nolan films push complexity to the limit, respecting that the audience is more intelligent than many films suppose and that they want to be challenged. The problem I found with Tenet wasn’t that I couldn’t understand it, it was that I was never given the chance to. There was no breathing room, explanations were rushed through and swiftly followed by action, I just wanted things to pause for 30 seconds to allow me to really sink into the ideas, but I was always being rushed on. Then in the middle of action sequences I wasn’t quite sure whether things were going to plan or not, because I’d never quite grasped the plan, so I didn’t understand the jeopardy and lost the emotional connection. Also in thinking about the film since watching, I’m not entirely sure it hangs together – did the stuff at the start about the bullets actually make sense and/or matter? A second watch hasn’t helped on any of this.
There are secondary problems with the film that are similar to other Nolan films as well. Dialogue was often mumbled and overwhelmed by some terrible sound mixing. The lead female character was depressingly poorly-written, little agency of her own and an object for the male characters to engage with. However the cast were very good, the stunt work superb and the creativity is certainly refreshing. 6 / 10

Despicable Me
The film that spawned a thousand merchandising opportunities! My house is full of minions and they just never fail to make me smile. They are beautifully introduced and utilised with a combination of slapstick and silly noises/words being laugh out loud funny. Although the minions are the standout stars, the film itself is very well put together, with a sweet and engaging plot that holds up to multiple viewings. 8 / 10

Despicable Me 2
The producers of Despicable Me clearly learnt from the first film that while the story was enjoyable enough, what audiences went absolutely nuts about were the little yellow minions. So not only has Despicable Me 2 been accompanied by dozens of trailers and shorts featuring the minions, but they take a much larger role in the film too. And it really works. I love those little guys. As soon as they appear I laugh and I hardly stop for breath. The rest of the film is perfectly servicable, and by itself would have been entertaining enough, but whenever you go more than five minutes without a minion, it feels like an eternity. 8 / 10

Despicable Me 3
Not enough minions. I know the point of the Despicable Me films isn’t the minions, but I can’t be the only one that is mostly watching these films for the minions. It didn’t even really feel like there was enough Gru in the film. The other characters (with the exception of Agnes) are all just a bit bland, or on the edge of irritating (Lucy). The plot is just about ok but I didn’t really like the twin brother bit. Mostly though I just found myself constantly hunting the backgrounds for minions and not finding them. 6 / 10

Minions
I love the minions. I adore them. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch their clips on youtube, I laugh every time. They can literally bring me out of a bad mood. I just can’t resist them. So I was equal parts excited and terrified by there being a whole Minion film, they couldn’t just be the comedy sidekicks, they had to carry the whole thing. The potential for disappointment was huge.
Going in with that knowledge was something of a shield, so when the film was not the greatest thing I’d ever seen, I was braced. The minions were their usual charming and funny selves when they were just left to play about. When they could do little skits, little observations and do hilarious stuff in the background. When they were needed to drive the plot forward however, they just weren’t so great. When they talked for too long, it edged from cute into irritating and the individual personalities of the minions didn’t quite stick in place all the time. The plot and characters around the minions just didn’t quite live up to those of Despicable Me, it just felt a bit by the numbers and lacking in the heart that those films did with Gru and the girls.
None of that about the overall quality of the film should really distract from the fact that I still laughed and loved the little yellow guys. But, just like with the Despicable Me films, what I loved about them were the little moments (the chandelier, the historical sketches at the start, the torture chamber), but the glue to hold those together just wasn’t as strong. 7 / 10

Jurassic Park
I can’t believe how old this film is (1993) and how good it still is. The effects still look good, thanks to some very careful direction and editing so that ropey bits are hidden behind lighting and dramatic music. There’s a decent plot behind the running and screaming, but it doesn’t get in the way of the death and maiming and even the small kids aren’t too irritating. The music is possibly the best soundtrack ever, and the moment they first see the dinosaurs and the music swells makes me beam with joy no matter how many times I’ve seen it. 9 / 10

Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World
This film should have been good, it would probably have never been as good as the first, but there was more than enough material to play with, a cast and budget to die for and yet it ends up being insulting bad. The biggest issue was the plot. The first half of the film is entirely driven by characters doing stupid things (particularly the lead female unfortunately who loudly proclaims to be an expert on these things and then does absolutely everything wrong). Then the second half when they leave the island is so riddled with plot holes that you can drive a sauropod through them. Then the crappy icing on the rubbish cake is that somehow, 4 years after the original, the special effects are substantially worse. Jeff Goldbloom is the only thing better in this film than the last, as the lead he evoloves his character from the sleazy irritation of the first to something really very watchable. 5 / 10

Jurassic Park 3
Jurassic Park 3 is not as bad as Jurassic Park 2. While it’s not a high bar to step over, it is something to celebrate. This film keeps things relatively simple, just a small number of people trying to get away from the dinosaurs through a series of set pieces that felt rather less organic than they could have done. Everything about the film is fine – it’s playing up the humour rather more than the first one did, and so it feels quite light in comparison, bordering on flimsy. I didn’t have any particular emotional investment in any of the characters but the action sequences barreled along. Some cheaper special effects were hidden away behind things being dark rather too often, but at least they were hidden I suppose. It’s fine, but it’s nothing special. 7 / 10

Jurassic World
I was particularly harsh about this film the first time I watched it in the cinema. I felt that they’d over-commercialised the idea and lost the heart and soul of it. I called out the moment early in the film where it lost me – the music swelled into the familiar theme, one that in the first film played as the helicopter swept over the beautiful landscape, eventually coming to a climax as the herd of brontosaurus are revealed to audience and characters for the first time. John Williams’ genius score carried us along with the power of nature, the joy of the paleontologists seeing dinosaurs walking around – the majesty, the surprise, the delight, the wonder. In Jurassic World, it plays as we pass over a sweeping landscape of shops at a theme park. The music automatically made me feel all the old emotions and then made me hate myself because I was connecting them with commercialisation. I acknowledged that this was possibly done deliberately to show us the wonder being turned into a dollar sign, the product placement being ironic… but it just felt hypocritical and smug rather than self-aware.
However. I’ve just watched it straight after watching the original trilogy, and while it isn’t in the same league as the first one, it’s a definite step back in the right direction compared to 2 and 3. At least this film was made with competence and even some heart, where the previous two felt like absolute cash ins that they couldn’t even be bothered to make any effort at all with.
The plot and characters make sense here, the action sequences and special effects are really well done (and mostly in the daylight rather than hidden in shadows) and the way some of the ideas have evolved shows thought rather than lazily rehashing the same things. Chris Pratt is rapidly turning into the go-to guy for this kind of charming, slightly insufferable hero. He injects an energy and a heart to the film that is otherwise sadly absent. And Bryce Dallas Howard is a perfect partner for him.
It’s not the original, but it ain’t terrible. 7 / 10

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
This film manages to find some of the heart that was missing from the previous films, raising some interesting questions about the dinosaurs and tug at the heart strings. The mixture of actual plot and action sequences is just right, never leaving it too long without some excitement, but also not dragging sequences out until they get dull. Yes, there’s plenty of cheesy moments, and the plot doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but the characters are fun, the cast charismatic and the special effects convincing. There wasn’t a single moment of the film when I was bored or my brain escaped back to the real world. Exactly what I’m looking for in Jurassic Park films. 8 / 10

Books in May 2022

Thanks to the tail end of my holiday and some very lazy weekends, I’ve read nine books in May, mostly just sitting in my garden for hours on end utterly failing to do any of my grown up chores. All but the first two books below were from Kindle Unlimited, and represent the handful of authors that are regularly putting their series up there and making it a good investment for a couple of months a year. There’s nothing there that really sets the world alight for me, but they’re firmly in the entertaining category, perfect for lazy afternoons.

T Kingfisher – Nettle and Bone
Another excellent book by T Kingfisher. Exactly like her other books it features perfectly rounded characters, concepts that are familiar but feel fresh, some very sweet romance, some imagery and ideas that are really very disturbing if you think about it too hard, and a sprinkling of absolutely bonkers ideas that somehow work perfectly. It’s hard to think of new things to say to be honest, I adore everything she does.

Tim Harford – How to Make the World Add Up
Tim Harford has a lovely writing style that conveys not only information, but also the complexities and joy behind the information. Here he gives us the 10 fundamental elements we should consider whenever presented with numbers. It’s a guide to how much ‘simple’ figures can be misrepresented either deliberately or accidentally and frankly this kind of thing should be on the national curriculum for everyone. That would be no chore because it’s very well written with plenty of examples and anecdotes that make it not only an education, but a pleasure to read.

Agatha Christie – Murder in Mesopotamia
Not one of Agatha Christie’s best novels. It has a good concept with an interesting location at an archeological dig, a good collection of characters, plenty of tension building and then a solid locked room mystery. But it’s not very well delivered. There are too many characters that are all introduced in a rush and it has a clunky narrative structure that is supposedly being retold after the fact by someone, with occasional “little did I know at the time” nods, but it doesn’t quite sit right because character introductions and things aren’t done by someone who knows the outcome of the mystery. I also found the chunks of psychology quite uncomfortable, it may be “of its time” but the casual misogyny made me squirm.

Agatha Christie – Appointment with Death
An entertaining Agatha Christie novel. I prefer murder mysteries like this one where the victim isn’t a very nice person, so as a reader I can just relish the mystery without having to feel any pesky sympathy. The book is very nicely structured, an introductory section, the murder itself and then the investigation filling in various gaps in the events to gradually paint the complete picture. The ending is, as usual, a bit forced, but it was satisfying and twisty enough that it held my attention very well.

Lydia Kang – The Half-Life of Ruby Fielding
Lydia Kang has a real talent for creating vibrant period settings that are slightly off the beaten track of the normal settings. Here we are in 1940’s New York with a pair of siblings one of whom is a trainee physicist working as an odd job man for the Manhattan Project and his sister who’s starting as a welder in the Navy Yard. Their lives are unexpectedly entwined with some of more higher society lives, but the story is very much from their point of view and how their lives continue during the war with normal family problems. The mystery elements are solidly done, Kang’s medical and science backgrounds shine through, but the science doesn’t overwhelm the story and the characters. I did find the conclusion of the story a bit clunky, I’m not 100% sure it was ‘right’, but I enjoyed the ride enough to not be overly bothered.

Eva St. John – The Quantum Curators and the Missing Codex
This fun and easy to read series continues. There’s a solid concept at the heart of the series and each book expands and pushes the world and the characters within it. I’d read the first two books back to back last year and I did find it a little hard to pick up who everyone was, the nature of the book being about betrayals and conspiracy theories makes that even harder, but by letting the details wash over me a bit I was soon back into it. The series isn’t going to be one I necessarily re-read, but it is one that makes it worth getting a kindle unlimited subscription for every so often.

Mark Hayden – King’s Watch 9: Five Leaf Clover
This is a 13 book series, and each book (and a few additional novellas) adds more characters, more mythology, and more complexity and the whole thing is really starting to struggle under the weight. Hayden is putting out the books very quickly, but I tend to catch up once a year or so (saving them up to make the Kindle Unlimited subscription worth it). I enjoyed reading this book and settled into the specifics of the story fairly comfortably, but I was distinctly aware that I was missing a huge amount of connections and richness to how everything fits together.

Mark Hayden – King’s Watch 10: Four Roads Cross
Previous challenges with the complexity of the world really came to a head in this book and it’s probably the weakest I’ve read yet, and also the longest which is an unfortunate combination. I get the feeling this was the big set up for the final 3 books of the series, laying out politics and alliances, getting pieces into place but it meant very little really happened for most of the book. Then when things finally do happen, I still didn’t follow them and when stuff finally did start to happen character choices didn’t quite sit right and left me sad and frustrated. I was quite disappointed in this book, although it’s not enough for me to give up on the series at this point, I’m hoping it was a blip before a rousing finish. But I’ll definitely be waiting until I can read the rest of the series back to back.

Lucy Campbell – Arrow in the Dark (A King’s Watch Story Book 7)
Mark Hayden’s King’s Watch series can get a bit bogged down in the weight of its own universe, so the novellas are often a bit of respite in the complexity, focusing on standalone incidents and side characters. The fact that there’s now a collaboration, with a author playing in the world is really interesting. In particular Campbell brings a interesting voice to Karina, a much quieter character then most of the massive personalities in the books. This is a fun story, expanding the (don’t call them) werewolves and I found this 120 pages or so much more engaging than the 500+ pages of Four Roads Cross.

Films in May 2022

A pretty quiet month for film watching, although I did make it to the cinema for TWO multiverse films. The excellent Doctor Strange and the Multiverse (reviewed here) and the disappointing Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (reviewed here).

All the Old Knives
This is a fairly quiet thriller, but it really worked for me. It plays out mostly in two timelines – in the past a group of CIA agents reacting to a terrorist incident, and a present day investigation into what happened. The multiple timelines were well juggled, gradually building up the different threads of the incident in the past, different points of view and substories and then tying it all together in the future to get to the ‘answer’ of what happened. Thandiwe Newton and Chris Pine are excellent, very understated performances that make even the simple scenes of them having dinner in a restaurant sizzle with tension. 8 / 10

The Ice King
I had heard of the British Ice Skater John Curry, I knew he was an Olympic gold medalist (one of only a dozen) but that was it. The documentary focusses on how he revolutionized men’s figure skating, integrating art into the sport and creating something beautiful and impressive. He was also one of the first out gay athletes and the documentary is also candid about his struggles with depression and drugs. The film is made of a combination of present day interviews and archive footage which is well combined, and while it’s wonderful there are so many interviews with Curry, and he’s very frank in them, it’s a shame there isn’t better footage of the stunning works of art he created on the ice. 8 / 10

The Magnificent Ambersons
I didn’t actually know when I put this on that it was an Orson Welles film, his follow up to Citizen Kane and I don’t think I would have connected the two if not for the credits. The subject matter is similar, telling the story of a quintessential American family, but it just doesn’t quite have the shine that Citizen Kane did. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but after the opening potted history of the family, everything just felt a bit flat and disconnected, more like things were just bumbling from point to point than a smooth narrative of a great story. I’m not sure that the actors really understood either, I could never get a handle on what their motivations and feelings were so struggled to have any engagement at all. 5 / 10

Muriel’s Wedding
I was looking for a easy going comedy, and I spotted Muriel’s Wedding on Amazon Prime and remembered it as feel-good comedy with a bit of ABBA thrown in. The start and end match that, but the middle is incredibly bleak – there’s suicide, depression, cancer and some pretty serious mental health issues going on. It’s all done with the kind of irreverent Aussie style that seems to make it a bit lighter, but at heart, it’s really a bit bleak. It’s not BAD, not at all, but it isn’t frothy fun and disconnect between style and subject is either genius or mis-judged and I’m not sure which. There is some ABBA though. 6 / 10

Trolls 2: World Tour
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the first trolls film, and I’m surprised at how much less I enjoyed the second one. It just didn’t ping for me in the same way as the first. It just felt a bit untidy, a bit forced, and the music less catchy. The idea of having different types of trolls compared to just the ‘pop trolls’ overcomplicated everything – the music, the visuals and the character list. The first one overwhelmed in a good way that made me feel immersed in a positive, happy experience. This one overwhelmed and left me underwhelmed. 5 / 10

Fantastic Mr Fox
I liked this a lot more the first time than the second. I think it was because on the first viewing I was expecting a children’s film, rather than what I now know as a Wes Anderson film. My first review commented on how fast, intricate, enjoyable and clever it was. But on the second viewing I found the film, and the main character, just too too smug and annoying. I didn’t like the way the animals were simultaneously anthropomorphized but retained key animal features (eg showing teetch), and I really didn’t get on with the casting where I couldn’t settle into the characters, too aware that they were George Clooney, Bill Murray et al. It looked beautiful, the animation and the style really something, but I just didn’t get on with it. 6 / 10

Gosford Park
A great film that really benefits from multiple viewings. There’s about 30 different characters to try and track and most of the first viewing is spent trying to work out who’s who and how they relate to each other. However they are all well developed and have their own stories to tell, with overlapping dialogue and multiple things happening in every scene. It’s definitely worth giving it a chance as it is a truly superb film with so many great performances and different layers to it. This is one of my top picks for a sofa day and I watch it almost annually and I never fail to be entertained and gripped. 9 / 10

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

The idea of parallel universes is hardly a new one, but it certainly seems to be a popular trope at the moment, mostly thanks to Marvel I guess. But coming out at exactly the same time are two big films. One is Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness – a massive spectacular powered by the all the money the Marvel behemoth can throw at it. The other is Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, a heavily subtitled independent film costing a 10th of the budget of Dr Strange. David and Goliath. And I’m voting for Goliath.

There’s a lot of potential and a lot that’s good about Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. For a start the title is much better than the clunky Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, still rather long, but at least there’s poetry to it. I really enjoyed the opening sections of EEAaO (as no one is calling it), thown into the world of the Wang family living not quite the America Dream. I liked the improbable hero in Evelyn Wang, played wonderfully by the always amazing Michelle Yeoh and really appreciated the realistic approach to someone being pulled out of a tax audit to be told she’s got to save the universe.

However, the mechanics then just overwhelmed the whole thing. Action sequences got bogged down, characters got lost, comic fell flat and I couldn’t get into the rhythm of it. Each time I just tried to go with the flow and not worry about the logic, another chunk of exposition appeared; just as I got the hang of that, we were thrown into another action sequence. And then the worse crime of all… it was at least 30 minutes too long.

Now I must confess, that about 90 minutes into the film I realised I wanted to go to the bathroom. I decided to tough it out, thinking there couldn’t be that much more of it left and there really wasn’t any sense of breaks that would make acceptable gaps. But it just went on and on, I did eventually nip out, not least because I had so completely lost the plot and was so bored, that I seriously considered not coming back for what proved to be ANOTHER 15 minutes. It just kept going on and on. Doctor Strange may be many things, but it was never anything other than 100% engaging. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once… more like Too Much, All Over the Shop, On and On.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Well first things first – the film is a lot better than the title, which is an uninspiring mess of a thing. It’s also a lot better than the first Doctor Strange film, this one is considerably more coherent and more interesting than both predecessor and title. I went in completely un-spoiled and I highly recommend doing the same, even the cast list is a spoiler that will really spoil some great reveals in the film. I’ll not spoil anything here.

With Iron Man and Captain America out of the picture, Doctor Strange is now the de-facto leader and elder statesman of the MCU despite the fact that he didn’t appear until film 14. He fits quite neatly into the gap left by Tony Stark, smart but arrogant, an aloof exterior but a heart full of emotions. Benedict Cumberbatch has grown into the role a bit, it no longer feels like a variation on Sherlock and I really enjoyed both his performance and the character. Although I’m still not a massive fan of the mid-atlantic accent.

The plot… I’m not even going to try to explain. Suffice to say that the concept of the multi-verse basically opens everything up as fair game, but can make things a bit complicated to follow. The film does a solid job of explaining what you need, without drowning in too much exposition like the first Doctor Strange film did. Spider Man No Way Home and the animated tv series What If are both good bits of revision (which isn’t a hardship as both are excellent).

The thing that surprised me most was how much this is Wanda’s film as much as Strange’s. WandaVision is an absolute must pre-watch, and I rather regret not re-watching it before going in as there were elements that I wasn’t quite sure of as I watched it when it came out. My memory of how WandaVision finished didn’t quite tally with the direction of the character arc here and I’m not convinced that it was ‘fair’ which has left a bit of a bad taste.

It’s easy though to overlook the significant events and impacts of the film on the MCU and individual characters, because the film is just such a fun ride. It’s a little over 2 hours, but I never once looked at my watch and throughout I was entertained and engaged and at points genuinely thrilled. It’s only afterwards on the way home that I started thinking about what bits of it meant and getting a little frustrated and sad. I’m looking forward to watching it again and joining it all together.

Books I read in Apr 2022

After a disappointing two books in March, April is an utterly triumphant TEN! I had two weeks off work after Easter, desperately needing to relax and de-stress. Thankfully it it coincided with some lovely weather so I basically spent the whole time sat in my garden reading and it was utterly glorious. I even went to the library to get more books out and there’s another 2 books read during my holiday that fell into May.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 12: Amongst Our Weapons
This series is impressively consistent, it’s hard to think of anything original to say for the 12th book in the series. Everything just jumps out of the page into your head, the narrative from Peter is completely natural, driving the story on, providing all the exposition and conveying his personality flawlessly. The supporting characters are all equally vibrant, whether recurring characters, or new ones for this mystery. The only thing I struggle with a little is keeping track of the story itself, but to be honest, I don’t try that hard, because even if I’m not really getting the nuances of who is plotting what against who, it’s such a fun journey that I don’t really care that much.

Malcolm Gladwell – Talking to Strangers
This is not Gladwell’s best book. It still has all the wonderful storytelling and journalism, bringing a range of histories and science to life through carefully crafted narratives and humanising everyone involved. Usually however those anecdotes and explanations connect together into central themes and this time it didn’t land. The subtitle is “what we should know about people we don’t know” but the book focused mostly on how we can’t actually know whether someone is lying. I felt disappointed that there wasn’t more depth on things like cultural differences, contexts, body language, even understanding what you bring to any meeting yourself. There didn’t seem to be any kind of core message beyond – you can’t know why people are acting as they are, which was kind of depressing. It’s still an interesting read, but it just fell flat without a stronger theme to bring it together.

Tom Holt – An Orc on the Wild Side
Tom Holt has an impressive bibliography of over 40 books since the late 80’s. I read a lot of his books in college, finding him a very enjoyable read, although lacking the world building skills, depth and elegance of Pratchett. I hadn’t read one of his books in ages, but spotted this in the library so gave it a go. It’s everything I remember about Holt, thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster journey, with some nice observational stuff and really vibrant characters. The plot and world felt fairly solidly put together actually, helped by borrowing/riffing on Tolkien’s Middle Earth and also being part of a series (not that I knew that while reading, so it can clearly be read stand alone). I’m going to make a mental note to read more of his work.

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls
I had been meaning to read this for a while and was slightly disappointed. I’m a big fan of the recent trend in retelling classics and myths from a more female point of view, and having studied Homer’s Iliad in detail at school thought this would be really interesting. Unfortunately I think my knowledge was a downside for this book, because although I liked the storytelling and where details were added, it didn’t do much to develop the story. It didn’t feel like there was enough richness or depth to it to really sustain even the relatively restrained 320 pages. I would have liked to see more of the characters, maybe interweaving with someone inside Troy. It’s very well written, easy to read and adds some depth to the story from The Iliad, but I think it missed an opportunity.

Pat Barker – The Women of Troy
I enjoyed this sequel to Silence of the Girls a bit more than the first book, I at least didn’t have the problem that I knew exactly what was going to happen. I felt the story was richer here, more depth and complexity, but that may just have been that it was new to me. There are more characters although there could still be more development of them. It frustrated me that more of the women weren’t given the opportunity to narrate, the majority is still from Briseis, while Pyrrhus gets a few chapters here and there. It seems ironic that so few of the women are given their voices and it would have really added to the book. As in the ( book the historical descriptions of the camp and war are vivid and feel very credible.

Jane Austen – Persuasion
Every now and then I feel obliged to pick up a ‘classic’ book and at least 50% of the time all I get out of it is a small amount of smugness that I tried. I’ve read a few Brontes and Austens and haven’t like a single one of them. Persuasion is probably the least offensive of them. The lead character is actually quite likeable, and although many of the supporting characters are very irritating, at least the central character feels that way too. I did find the plot a bit convoluted and confusing, but that probably wasn’t helped by the fact I was struggling to stay focused. At least it’s fairly short.

Claire North – The Gameshouse
Claire North’s books are a bit hit and miss. I love her concepts, she has a rare ability to take a concept like body swapping, or being forgotten by everyone that meets you and developing it into a complete narrative, fully fleshed out and believable. However her story telling sometimes lets her down, she experiments with different styles of writing and some of them really haven’t worked. This book falls somewhere in the middle. The story follows the players of games, part of a century spanning Gameshouse where the stakes can be anything from years of your life, your memories or even your name. The game of Hide and Seek may span an entire country, the pieces in a game of chess are generals, bishops and prime ministers and taking a piece could mean a death, an institution collapsing, or a coup. It’s a great concept. However I didn’t get on with the writing style which had a kind of independent observer narrating it as if we were all watching. It was interesting at first, but became grating after a while and meant I didn’t connect with the story or characters as much as if it had been told more first person. I didn’t et lost in the book, the stakes were so high and the moving parts so epic that it felt a bit unreal and I just never sank into it.

Terry Pratchett – Discworld 21: Jingo
This isn’t the best of Pratchett’s City Watch novels. It lacks the adventure and mystery of the earlier books. The story and messages about the stupidity of war isn’t delivered with much subtlety and it feels a little like the Guards just got thrown in for the ride and the story compromised in order to include them. I’d actually have preferred it I think if it were a book ‘starring’ Vetinari rather than Vimes and make it a full on political satire. It’s not a bad book, there are plenty of Pratchett zingers and clever observations, but it’s not one of his best.

Mark Rowlands – Everything I Know, I Learned from TV – DIDN’T FINISH
The title of this book obviously really spoke to me, but digging in a bit it actually sounded even better. It’s actually a book about philosophy. That’s a subject that I’ve always wanted to know more about but really struggle to find an entrance too. Well, unfortunately this is another one I struggled with, so much that I gave up after 2 chapters. It has the same problem that every other book on philosophy I’ve ever tried, it just lost me. The problem is it’s very very heavy on the philosophy and just sprinkles some TV in as examples. But the concepts were either too complicated, too poorly explained, or just too much for me because I was lost by about page 10. For once, I’m not going to keep going through a book I don’t like and am not getting anything from, so I gave up. Off to the charity shop it goes.

Agatha Christie – The Hollow
A perfectly serviceable Poirot story. The characters are all a bit over the top (as usual) and the mystery meanders about a little bit, but it’s a pleasing enough read.

Films I Watched in Apr 2022

This was a better month for films with fourteen watches, partly thanks to a couple of weeks holiday. I managed 3 trips to the cinema – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (very middling, not enough beasts), Downton Abbey: A New Era (great for fans of the show) and a re-release of Encanto, which grows on me every time I see it. On top of that were seven films that were new to me, and four rewatches, including a couple of James Bond from the new collection on Amazon.

The Adam Project
It’s a Ryan Reynolds film. That kind of covers not only the who, but the what, and to a certain extent the review as well. If you like Ryan Reynolds, you’ll probably like this film, if you don’t you won’t because it’s 75% just him doing his thing. Personally I enjoy that, he’s funny, charming and his characters have a depth and humanity to them even when they’re pretending not to. The story itself, like most time travel stories, possibly doesn’t make sense if you think about it too much; so you just shouldn’t think about it too much. Just enjoy the ride. 8 / 10

Motherless Brooklyn
A really good noir mystery film. The nuts and bolts are all there, a just-about-followable political conspiracy with a dash of violence and a splash of romance in a beautifully rich 1950s New York. The noir tropes are all there and played straight without falling into parody. The twist in the set up is that the lead character has Tourette’s Syndrome, with physical tics and outbursts of random words and at first that felt gimicky, but it was (I think) well played by Edward Norton and the way the character used and managed his condition, and the way others interacted with him, was really interesting. On top of that performance Norton also wrote and directed the film and it’s quite an achievement. 8 / 10

Cats
I wasn’t going to pay good money to see Cats, but when it appeared on Netflix I figured I’d give it a try, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as everyone said. Shockingly, it really was. I honestly don’t know what they were thinking, everything about it is terrible. The visuals were just wrong even if they hadn’t been done poorly. The weird combination of human and cat, CGI fur, ears and tails on top of motion captured actors was just unsettling. The backgrounds were so badly built and rendered they were embarrassing and nothing connected together at all. Even the scale was all over the place. The unknown actors actually were more believable, but as soon as big names are appearing it’s just completely unsettling. The performances are equally all over the place – caricatures and over-egged. Many of them can’t sing (I’m sorry to say it, but Judi Dench was TERRIBLE) and even those that can are struggling through the acting elements. The music is still great, but I don’t remember the stage version struggling so much with a clunky plot.
An absolute shambles that was doomed from the start and should never have been released. 3 / 10

The House
This is an anthology of 3 discrete stop motion animations, each centered on a house. Usually a house in a place of safety, a home; but here the houses are something different, more sinister or trapping. I found the film deeply unsettling, and in fact took a few days break between the first two stories and the third. The animation is beautiful and really interesting, they’re all in the same broad style, but applied to different settings almost a past, present and future (although it’s a run down future rather than a shiny science fiction one). It’s certainly interesting, although my personal tastes at the moment meant that I didn’t enjoy the creepiness. 7 / 10

The Bubble
Despite all the horribleness, there’s still a sliver of fun to be had from the pandemic. David Tennant’s and Michael Sheen’s Staged was a hilarious take on life in lockdown for actors. The Bubble throws probably 100x the cash at the same subject and makes something without a single solitary laugh. The concept and actors are all solid, it just somehow managed to fall completely flat. I think they tried to make it too big, they took things too far and it got silly, then stupid, then annoying and eventually just turned into noise. 5 / 10

The Sparks Brothers
I had never heard of Sparks – the band led by Ron and Russell Mael. They’ve been around for 5 decades, had 26 albums, 49 singles and even after watching the documentary the only song I’d heard of was “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”. As a subject for a documentary they’re very interesting thanks to their longevity, their influence, their quirkiness and the number of times they’ve reinvented themselves. I did grow to like them, and respect them. The documentary is made by Edgar Wright, a talented director but a massive Sparks fan and that turns it more into a love letter than a good documentary. There are elements of conflict that are skimmed over (the rest of the band seems to be treated as largely disposable) and the editing could be a lot tighter as 2 hours 20 really tries the patience when there’s no real narrative. Also the multiple visual gimmicks are a bit much, more dedication to just one or two would have been better. It’s a nice watch, but I suspect fans of Sparks won’t learn much and the rest of us won’t really care. 7 / 10

Wolfwalkers
A really lovely animation. The story is original, like Song of the Sea demonstrating the breadth of mythology/fairy tale in even just western Europe beyond Hans Christian Anderson and Grimm. The animation is equally original, and while it didn’t always work for me (I didn’t like the flat backgrounds) I still respected it. The other thing that didn’t quite work for me unfortunately was Sean Bean, he’s very talented and does excellent voice work, but I could never forget that it was Sean Bean. 7 / 10

REWATCHES
Casino Royale
All the elements of a James Bond film were here and fairly well done, but as a whole the film didn’t really work for me. Each element was ok but nothing more than just ok, and they didn’t bond together into a particularly cohesive whole. The villain was very underwhelming and there were at least 2 plot elements too many, leading to a film that’s 1/2 an hour too long but still leaves several aspects incomplete. Daniel Craig is a good Bond, ticks all the boxes, but I’m never entirely convinced by the franchise. 6 / 10

Quantum of Solace
The more Bond films I watch, the more I wish they’d just ditch Bond and do a film all about M. Judi Dench is far and away the most watchable thing in these films, funny and scary, a professionally cold, yet not impersonal character and her interactions with Bond are almost the only thing that make him human. Meanwhile everything else goes on in usual Bond style – I have no idea what the plot was about and the whole thing was just a collection of thinly connected stunts, which to be honest I found pretty dull. 5 / 10

Lilo and Stitch
A thoroughly enjoyable film for kids and adults alike. A very well scripted film that has a solid narrative with depth to the characters, complexity to the issues and plenty of laughs from slapstick and visual humour, wit and sarcasm and impeccably delivered lines and subtle animation. It doesn’t bother covering plot holes, it just kinda ploughs straight through them bringing the audience in on the joke. It’s beautifully animated so the characters (both human and alien) really burst off the screen. Plus for the Elvis songs really felt like part of the film rather than squashed in as an after-thought. Really utterly charming.
Gantu: You are vile, you are flawed, you are foul.
Stitch: Also cute and fluffy!
9 / 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. On my first watch in the cinema, it did not work for me. There was 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. However, I liked it more when I watched it at home, and then even more when I caught it a second time in the cinema after it won the Oscar. Nothing’s really changed, it’s just that each viewing makes it less overwhelming and I was able to really fall in love with the characters (all of them) and the songs (most of them – I still think the opening song is just too busy and the sappy one is just meh). But, Disney films shouldn’t need multiple viewings though, even complex films like Inside Out worked on the first viewing and then continued to grow more. 8 / 10

Downton Abbey
I once wrote of the TV series “Downton is an autumnal Sunday evening drama. You curl up under a blanket on the sofa with a nice cup of tea and a packet of biscuits and relax. It’s not gritty or challenging, you’re not expected to think or relate it to the reality of life, it’s a last vestige of calm before the crashing arrival of Monday morning.” And that’s pretty much what the film does. Other than a few more expensive and lingering drone shots, very little has been changed to adapt the film to the big screen. This would not have been misplaced as a Christmas special, in fact it could have been even better as two extended episodes for Christmas and New Year to give a bit more time to the crowded number of characters and plots. I’m really pleased that they resisted the urge to go too big with anything, there’s no huge world ending dramas, no stunt casting and nothing particularly life changing. Yes the King and Queen visit, but they’re fairly under-stated for royalty and the focus is still 100% on the lives of the characters we’ve known and loved all along.
I saw it with a packed cinema that absolutely loved it. There was plenty of laughter, some audible ‘aws’, a bit of sniffling, and stifled applause for the cringe inducing Mr Molesley in *that* scene (which when I rewatched on dvd I had to fast forward). It wasn’t much more than a polished up television episode, but it was lovely to see it with a large appreciative audience for once. 8 / 10