Films in August 2020

I’m a little disappointed in myself for not actually making it back to the cinema this month. I did mean to, but the timings never quite worked and my plans to see Tenet fell into September. I didn’t even watch any new releases on netflix/amazon, so instead the below are all just re-watches or random catch ups. There’s an absolute classic at both the top AND bottom of the list, and I don’t think everyone would be happy with the bottom one, but I found it insufferable. The only other notable thing is that I accidentally watched two shark films and two Jason Statham films, you shouldn’t read too much into that.

Rebecca – A brilliant film that manages to create a creepy, uncomfortable, engaging mystery without ever laying it on too thick. The lead characters are beautifully crafted, even the one that never actually appears but guides the whole story. The sets are amazing and the way the different characters slot into them is managed so smoothly with just a few glances and movements. This film is all about what isn’t said and seen and it is pretty nearly perfect. 9 / 10

Moon – Proper old school science fiction – completely story and concept driven. I’m continually complaining about films being too long the editing on this was absolutely superb, the plot never feels rushed, but at the end you realise that not a second was wasted, no shot lasted longer than it had to and no lines were used that couldn’t be replaced with a perfect expression. Sam Rockwell is superb, although I felt Kevin Spacey’s voice was too recognisable for the computer and that dropped the illusion a bit. My favourite thing about the film though was the design of it all, from the lived in work spaces to the bleak lunar landscape, there was always something fascinating to look at that made perfect sense in the environment. A really wonderful film.9 / 10

El orfanato (The Orphanage) – I love a creepy horror film, and this is a great one. The build up of tension and creepiness is very well judged, well timed jumps give shots of adrenaline to the ongoing unsettled feelings. The ending is also very satisfying, revealing the truth at just the right moment and then playing out the fallout to leave the film properly finished off. A true classic. 8 / 10

Peanut Butter Falcon – A nice film. What with one thing and another this is the kind of film that I needed to watch at the moment. It’s sweet and funny, with just enough drama and sadness to it to give it body, but not so much that it brings down the overall feel good warmth. Yes it’s slow, but the scenery is beautiful to look at and the direction understated but effective. The trio of lead actors have wonderful chemistry and the whole film was just a nice way to spend some time. 8 / 10

Knives Out – I LOVE a good who-done-it, and this is a great one. It could easily have been written by Agatha Christie, but also lives easily in the present day with appropriate technology and social issues. The collection of characters are entertaining, extreme but not caricatures and funny but not ridiculous all expertly delivered by a great ensemble cast. The structure of the plot was very well done, the mystery itself really kept me guessing with different options, and the twists and turns kept things interesting and plenty of laughs along the way. When I saw it in the cinema I complained that the cinematography was too dark to fully luxuriate in the locations and sets, but on the smaller screen I didn’t have that problem at all, so it was even better. 8 / 10

The Meg – A wonderful stupid action film about a giant shark terrorizing some scientists and Jason Statham. I mean obviously Jason Statham isn’t really terrorized, because he’s Jason Statham, but the shark is ridiculously big and gives even The Stath some challenges. The film is gloriously dumb and completely aware of how ridiculous it is; everyone in the cast is playing it consistently and there’s no one trying to be too big, or play it too straight. It plays a little bit with some of the tropes of the genre, but it’s not pushing any boundaries making it a comfortable, fun, and fairly disposable watch. 8 / 10

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – I was a big fan of the television series growing up and could never quite understand why in the endless series of remakes, this classic had never made it to the big screen, but it was worth the wait as this is spot on. The key word is ‘entertaining’. The style is dialed up and the complexity is dialed down and the focus is on the great characters, snappy dialogue and fun banter. The introduction of Alicia Vikander to make the duo a trio is inspired. The period details are incredible with great costumes, locations and music, although the grainy film style and split screens were maybe a little overdone. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this, even on a third watch on a small screen. I’m a bit disappointed that it didn’t turn into an ongoing series, but maybe ‘one and done’ is safer. 8 / 10

Emma. – I am not a fan of Jane Austen et al. I keep trying the books, and different film and TV adaptions but for the most part I find them fairly insufferable, in fact the best rated one in my reviews is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This production of Emma is probably going to be the next highest rated. I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say I *liked* it, but I certainly found it tolerable, and at times even entertaining. I think the biggest success is that the eponymous lead character is presented as fairly annoying and ridiculous so I couldn’t really get cross about it. I don’t know how much is in the original and how much is the adapter and director, but the whole thing is all just on edge of parody, overly bright colours, over blown characters and big acting; and as it’s all coherent it works. The only slight frustration was that as per usual I didn’t buy into the main pairing and if anything that romance felt bodged in rather than an integral part of the story. 7 / 10

Hitch – I was torn on this film. On the one hand, Will Smith is perfect – charming without being smarmy, sweet without being pathetic and a big screen presence without being unrealistic. The supporting cast are all just as perfectly played and there wasn’t a single irritating character, a rarity in romantic comedies – even Kevin James wasn’t annoying! But I did spend most of the film trying to work out whether it was problematic. It felt like they were putting a label on issues in a humorous way, rather than being part of the problem, but I could never quite be certain. I’m not going to look up whether I should have been offended or not, because I rather enjoyed it so I don’t want to spoil that. 7 / 10

My Big Fat Greek Wedding – A good fun film that moves the inevitable “frumpy girl turns into surprise beauty” to the very start of the film and then just kinda gets on with it. There’s a lot of fun, but also a lot of love in the over-the-top family and although it’s a bit dated in places now, the central ideas are pretty timeless. 7 / 10

Minority Report – The film holds up pretty well 18 years after it was made, it still looks suitably futuristic and creative, even if some of the effects have dated a smidgen. The twists of the plot are well balanced to involve some thought but not to Nolan-esque complexity levels that make your brain hurt. 7 / 10

Venom – A film of thirds. The first third is dull. We’re introduced to Tom Hardy’s annoying journalist who screws up his life and then wallows, and Riz Ahmed’s ludicrously over the top villain. Just as I was mentally checking out of the film though, suddenly the film bursts into life with the arrival of Venom. Tom Hardy’s acting skills come to the fore, both in terms of physical performance and action sequences and also finding both the humour and horror in the situation. The plot got interesting, the effects were interesting to watch and the whole thing gained pace and fun. And then the third section turned into an action sequence that overdid the CGI, under did the character and left me zoning out a bit again. Overall the film was better than I expected, but it’s a shame it didn’t really play to the strengths. 6 / 10

True History of the Kelly Gang – Eighty percent of this film is really well put together and has great depth, but sadly it’s ruined by twenty percent of laziness. There were a lot of interesting characters, even if they were only small parts of this film, I got the sense there was a lot going on with each of them, no one was cleanly a hero or a villain. But unfortunately I completely lost track of what was going on when the story got to the actual Kelly Gang bit. Suddenly the subtlety was lost and it felt like Kelly turned from a well developed and complex character into an incoherent ‘legend’ that made no sense. On top of that, much of the action took place in the dark and made it impossible to follow. That section really spoiled the rest of an otherwise interesting film. 6 / 10

The Expendables – I don’t think this film quite knew what it wanted to be. On one hand there’s a lot of fun banter between characters, a slight world weariness of the action tropes that the characters find themselves in. But they didn’t quite completely commit to that, so most of the action sequences are played straight, just like you’d see in any action film with drawn out sequences and utterly improbable violence. The main plot was also dumb as anything and Stallone still seemed to want to write dramatic moments for him and an ill advised and weird romantic implication that they then bottled out of. So I would zone in for the banter and zone out for the rest of it, but naturally the climax of the film was an extended action sequence and I basically zoned out for the final third of the film. 6 / 10

Deadpool 2 – This is unfortunately two films mushed together and it doesn’t work. On the plus side, there’s the Deadpool bits. The hilariously inappropriate violence, language, crudeness, breaking of the 4th wall and in jokes are still there. So many elements of the film work so well together and still feel fresh and original, everything from the music choices to the brilliantly directed and choreographed action sequences that were genuinely interesting to watch for a change.
But you know there’s a ‘but’ coming, and it’s a big one. There’s just too much emotion at the forefront of the story. From the ‘unfortunate event’ and the theme of parenthood that runs through the film it just didn’t feel like Deadpool. There were a lot of scenes that I was waiting for the punch line and was left with just a pure emotional moment that didn’t feel at all in the right film. It wasn’t even done very well, it was utterly lacking in subtlety and the kind of story that we’ve seen play out hundreds of times before.
There were plenty of scenes and moments that were brilliant, but there were a number of places that I was bored and the film dragged and overall I came away feeling rather disappointed. 6 / 10

A Canterbury Tale – I thought this was going to be a proper version of The Canterbury Tale, so at least even if it were rubbish I could count it as educational. I guess the “A” in the title should have clued me in. The problem was that nothing really happened for most of the film. Towards the end there’s some more drama, but by then it just felt a bit over the top. The film is I guess a picturesque and diverting view of village life in England during the second world war, although the positive glow and charming locals come across a little more propaganda than realistic presentation. It’s not terrible to watch with a cup of tea and a crossword, but I’ll be honest that I didn’t really see the point of it. 6 / 10

Puzzle – I went in expecting a nice, low impact little film, the sort of thing that can be watched on an easy Saturday afternoon while doing a jigsaw puzzle. This isn’t quite that film. It’s not what I’d call massively hard hitting, but it is toward that end of the spectrum, with some quite deep things to say about loneliness, expectations and finding a voice. Unfortunately I’m not sure that the deeper elements really landed, there were a couple of long speeches that felt contrived, and some of the characters weren’t as well rounded as they needed to be. That’s a shame because other bits were very well observed and delivered; it’s just a shame all the pieces didn’t quite seem to come from the same puzzle.6 / 10

Remains of the Day – If this film went any slower it would actually move backwards. In fact thanks to the bulk of the story being told in flashback, I guess it does actually go backwards. I loved the book but don’t think it translated very well to film, there isn’t much going on. The cast do a very good job getting inside the characters heads, but I couldn’t help but compare the film to Gosford Park, and it doesn’t come up very well. 5 / 10

Deep Blue Sea – Wow, what a disaster. It’s like they took half of a great film – a solid disaster movie set up, expensive sets and animatronics, Samuel L. Jackson, and LL Cool J, and then ran out of money and put two lead actors in who lacked charisma, chemistry and any real acting talent. Charitably the script didn’t give them a huge amount to go on, but the same people were writing for Jackson and Cool J and they did absolutely fine. Maybe there was different direction given and the two leads were told to play it straight, when no one really wants that in a film about super smart sharks. It passes the time, and it’s worth watching for the good bits, but it’s a missed opportunity. 5 / 10

2001: A Space Odyssey – I’m amazed to find that there is no review of 2001 on my site already, meaning I haven’t watched it since at least 2002 when I started compulsively reviewing everything. I decided that was too big a gap to have so picked up a dvd and settled in.
Wow, that was BORING.What seems to have happened is that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick have taken Clarke’s original short story and then turned it into a 2.5 hour saga to show off some special effects and forgotten to add any additional plot. In fact they probably removed some of the plot from the short story in order to make it deliberately more weird and cryptic. The special effects are definitely impressive, even over FIFTY years later but they’re then so dragged out that I got utterly bored. Accompanying some those sequences are some beautiful music choices, but there are also some horrendous shrieking bits that had me turning the volume down to almost nothing. The plot and characters are so minimal that they’re almost not worth mentioning. The whole film could probably be boiled down to 45 minutes, not only not losing anything of substance, but actually adding to the overall impact. 4 / 10

Books in July and August

I didn’t do my reviews in July, not because I hadn’t read enough books, but actually because I was in the middle of reading a series of books by the same author and I wanted to review them all together. It’s actually been a busy couple of months for reading, partly because the weather encouraged sitting in the garden with a book, and partly because I finally replaced my kindle.

T. Kingfisher
I rather feel that if the only thing I ever read on my kindle was T. Kingfisher, it would still be worth the investment. All her works have a core of realistic characters, bucket loads of charm and a dark sense of humour poking through – whether a well developed spin on a classic fairytale, a straightforward adventure story, or something a little more experimental. They’re not on kindle unlimited but they’re all only a few pounds and very well worth the investment.

Paladin’s Grace – A completely and utterly lovely book. I’ve read a lot of T. K. Kingfisher’s books and she’s never disappointed me but this may actually be my favourite. While the storyline of the book is about assassins, conspiracies, soldiers, spies, poisons and perfumes, really the book is a romance story. Normally I’m not a fan of those, but this one is so gentle and awkward, between two ‘normal’ people who aren’t heroes and heroines, or stunningly beautiful, but just click together when they’re thrown together. Every single page made me smile and warmed my heart. Just lovely.

Minor Mage – The notes at the end of this book explain that it’s a story that’s been floating around in her head for a number of years and has only now been turned into a fully formed book. I think that does show a bit, there are a couple of fun ideas, but the book as a whole lacks substance. It’s a shame, because the nuggets of ideas are really fun and charming (a sarcastic armadillo as a familiar and a mage with really quite minor skills) and there are some nicely demonstrated ideas about what is right/reasonable in different circumstances and depending on if you’re an individual or in a crowd. But the plot feels a little flimsy and it feels like there are some gaps and dead ends. It’s still an enjoyable read, but it felt a little under-done.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – Mona is a wizard of bread. I mean, how wonderful a pitch is that?! This is a bit of a companion to Minor Mage and continues to play with the idea that not all magic users get the ability to control lightning, or raise the dead, some just get the ability to make dough do what what they want it to and just have to make do. Mona is moderately content in her life persuading the scones they don’t want to burn, making gingerbread men dance and feeding the grumpy sourdough starter called Bob that lives in the cellar and eats rats if they get too close. But this is a fairy tale so Mona gets thrown into a bigger adventure and as always Kingfisher gets the emotions of that SPOT ON. There’s darkness in fairy tales, bravery in being scared, weakness in the most powerful and strength in the smallest of people (with or without magic). I adored every single little thing about this book. (677)

Hilary Mantel – The Giant, O’Brien (kindle unlimited)
I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and really hated the writing style, but was a bit worried that it was me being an idiot. How could an author and book with so much praise be so frustrating to read? I spotted this short story on kindle unlimited so thought this would be a good way to give her another try. It just confirmed my previous opinion. While Wolf Hall at least had a fascinating story to tell (thank you history), The Giant O’Brien didn’t even have that. It had a wafer thin story which was then incredibly badly told. The style was hard to read – hard to keep track of who was talking and what they were actually trying to say; and even if I persevered and worked it out, it was ultimately un-rewarding. I turned the pages as quickly as possible and I won’t be giving Mantel another attempt.

Rachel Burge – The Twisted Tree (kindle unlimited)
A solid, if slightly unremarkable fantasy/coming of age story. A seventeen year old girl starts developing weird abilities after an accident and runs away to her grandmother who she hopes will be able to explain everything. The characters are vivid and the setting on a remote Norwegian island is original but all feel a bit underused. The specifics of the magic and the mythology are a little over-complicated and random. But as a quick and easy read it was was a success.

Mark Hayden – The King’s Watch Series (kindle unlimited)
I read the first 5 books of this series over the span of about 3 weeks and looking back on my reviews it’s clear that I was enjoying them, but they all blurred into one a bit. Since then I’ve also read the “sister” trilogy that explains Conrad Clarke’s mysterious past and it’s rather tainted this series as it’s impossible to not interpret him in a slightly different way. Where once he was commanding and competent, now he is rather more bullying, patronising, self serving and ruthless. But the way he’s written, I’m not entirely sure the author feels the same way. Some of the other characters also now seem a bit crueler – more manipulative and clique-y. But the core ideas are still solid enough to keep me reading them. Eight Kings is good fun and takes us to yet another location and introduces yet another section of the world of magic, a bit more politics and a good old stately home murder mystery to round it all off which is quite satisfying.
The Seventh Star – This is a slightly more straight forward crime story, so much so that the police get involved which sees the welcome introduction of Tom Morton from Hayden’s other series. The only bad news about that is that it slightly shows up that Morton is actually a more realistic and interesting lead character than Conrad is. For all Conrad’s cunning and planning his strategy in this book is never entirely clear and that doesn’t feel quite right, certainly compared to the very methodical approach of Morton and the police. I like so much about this series, it’s just a shame that the central two characters of Conrad and Meena are becoming increasingly smug and frustrating.
Haydon has a slightly irritating habit of pulling a chunk of storyline out of each books, putting them in separate novellas and then referencing them in the main book with “if you want to hear how this happened you’ll have to read this other thing”. That’s frustrating and clumsy, often hard to time the reading of those in the right order. The novellas themselves (French Leave and Ring of Troth for these books) are perfectly solid side stories that I’m sure could have been entwined in the main books with a bit of effort.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs Series
The Oddjobs series is a classic interesting idea with two entertaining first books and then it goes too fast and falls off the rails as the author(s) take a direction away from what made the first books so entertaining. Book 3 of the series (You Only Live Once) is okay, but one of the original characters is missing and leaves a notable hole in the team. However book 4 (Out of Hours) completely loses the way. Previous installments have been set well and truly in modern Birmingham, with the weird and occult an accepted addition to our world; but this book moves completely into the worlds of the weird and wacky and loses any sense of observation and satire. Adding to the disappointment, most of the time the characters are all separated and telling individual stories (or sometimes even multiple stories in different timelines) and that makes the book even more fragmented. I just found myself turning the pages faster and faster. Really disappointing.

Charles Bukowski – Hollywood
The first time I sat down with this book I hated it. I got about 50 pages in and I was bored by the story (not that there was much of it), irritated by the characters and easily distracted from the wordy style. The second time I sat down (because I’ve got a stupid *thing* about having to finish all books) I decided to just read really quickly and actually found myself weirdly engrossed. Reading it quickly like this gave an engaging version of a behind the scenes of the movie process and the extremes of the people involved in it – none of whom you’d want to spend any real time with at all. I’m sure I could come up with something deep about how that very surface level attention is cleverly done to mimic the surface nature of Hollywood, but that would be way more pretentious than I think the book really deserves.

Christina Dalcher – Vox
I picked this up very randomly in 3 for £5 deal with very low expectations and discovered a little gem. It clearly owes a lot to The Handmaids Tale, and isn’t anywhere near as impressive, but it does a solid job of combining a challenging subject with a passable thriller. The logic of the book doesn’t really hold up. That America turned within just a couple of years from Obama’s presidency to a country where women aren’t allowed to speak is rather a stretch, but however they got there, it’s an interesting (and horrible) concept. Somewhat less well handled are the details of the thriller aspect of the book, and the cogs of the plot definitely got away from the author in the end. However the central character has a great voice (as it were) and the pacing of the book kept me wanting to keep reading even when the world of the book was such an unpleasant thing to think about.

Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 4: Lethal White
A rare re-read. I was looking for something that I knew I could get lost in, and with the next book in the series due in Sept this was a great pick. I read all 650 pages in one weekend in the garden and it was wonderful. Even the second time, I found the slow build of the cases alongside the tumultuous personal lives of Strike and Robin utterly engrossing. The book is carefully balanced between personal stories and the cases, with the different threads intertwining and continually delivering satisfying moments. I’m not so naive I can’t see that I’m being manipulated by cheap tricks like cliffhangers at the end of the chapters and “Come and meet me, I need to tell you something urgently” tropes, but the tricks are delivered very well and they just work. At the end I had that deep joy and satisfaction of a great book, but that sadness and almost emptiness of having run out of pages. Roll on the next one.

The Greatest Great British…

It can’t have escape your notice that there are a lot of Great British… shows about, not to mention all the others that build on the concept with increasingly daft applications. I seem to have been on a bit of a binge of these recently, they tend to be just the right level of engaging for a tired brain that wants to ignore the world for a bit. So here’s my rundown of the various options, and the all important question – which has the most innuendo?

The Great British Bake Off (BBC / C4)
Amateur bakers in a tent, shepherded through by amiable comedians and judged by experts. This is where it all seemed to begin, something about the niceness of it all, the contestants are supportive to each other and the judges encouraging. Over the years the challenges have gradually got more obscure and the contestants less amateur – macarons started out as the ultimate test, now they’re merely thrown in as a decoration. Mel and Sue set the tone for the series, I read somewhere that if a contestant was getting too upset or stressed, Mel and/or Sue would swear so that the footage couldn’t be used. Moving to Channel 4 saw the handover to the unexpected combo of Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding who turned out to be amazing together. Steely eyed Paul Hollywood has been with the series throughout and still has a look of “what on earth am I doing here” about him. legendary Mary Berry was on the BBC and replaced by the less legendary Pru Leith and have a shared taste in horrible clothing. The contestants are fairly universally nice, although with a heavy theme of white middle classedness.

  • Innuendo level: Mel and Sue are the queens of innuendo and there are plenty of buns to be fondled and dubiously shaped eclairs. Plus the squirrel with his nuts.
  • Disaster quotient: The time limits on challenges have become increasingly ridiculous. “Can you make and decorate a fruit cake in 2 hours?”. No. No you can’t, because it takes an hour to cook it, let alone make the mixture and it will never cool quickly enough to ice it. Inevitably contestants don’t practice to time, make things too complicated, don’t understand gravity and KEEP trying to make mouse sets (it NEVER sets, DO NOT MAKE MOUSE).
  • Overall: The sweet grandmother of all the rest, but every now and then Granny gets mean and I am getting increasingly frustrated with the near impossible challenges.
  • The Great British Bake Off: The Professionals (BBC / C4) – Like Bake off, but with people that know what they’re doing. Theoretically.
    This series also moved from BBC (where it was painfully called Creme de la Creme). The judges are currently the terrifying Cherish Finden and incredibly French Benoit Blin. When they don’t like something they are utterly unforgiving and leach all joy out of food, but when they like something they bring it all back again. The presenters are currently Liam Charles (Series 8 of Bake Off) and Tom Allen who form a fun duo but seem at odds with the tone the show is trying to set.

  • Innuendo level: It should be low, there isn’t time for that kind of nonsense, except that Liam and Tom keep trying to inject innuendo into the proceedings and everyone just looks embarrassed about it.
  • Disaster quotient: Incredibly high. There’s no time allowance for any mistakes. The showstoppers they make are generally pretty catastrophic with chocolate melting, and sugar shattering. But these are supposed to be professionals and if they can’t plan, or don’t understand how gravity and temperature work, they shouldn’t be there.
  • Overall: This doesn’t really work. On one hand you’ve got professional chefs putting their reputations on the line (and their employers’ as they are named too), and appropriately high expectations from the judges. But then you’ve got Liam and Tom making smutty gags.
  • The Great British Sewing BeeLike Bake Off, but with sewing machines instead of KitchenAids
    I’ve only recently started watching this and have seen the first season and the most recent one and I love it! It follows the same pattern (ha!) as Bake Off and has the same tone of very gentle competition between lovely people with some combination of talent and passion. Claudia Winklemen started it off, and she is wonderful in absolutely everything (up to and including a head and shoulders advert) and the most recent series had Joe Lycett who is weirdly endearing. The judges are uncompromising but always encouraging, they seem genuinely sad when they have to give negative feedback, and have a joy and open mindedness that is very positive and a step above the Bake Off judges.

  • Innuendo factor: Oddly, not as high as it could be given the number of body parts that actually have to be dealt with. There’s a fair amount of camp humour with Joe Lycett, but it’s gentle and sweet.
  • Disaster quotient: Fairly low despite attempts to hike up the drama. Timing is tight, but generally it just means a scruffy hem or some missing buttons rather than a complete disaster. I haven’t seen any half naked models yet. Although there have been some pretty horrendous ‘fashions’ on display.
  • Overall: I wish I’d been watching this all along.
  • The Great Pottery Throwdown (BBC / C4) – Like Bake Off but replacing the KitchenAids with pottery wheels
    Another one that I’m new to only watching the latest series which has successfully moved from BBC to Channel 4 where it’s presented by the lovely Mel Sykes. However the star of the show is judge Keith Brymer Jones who is a giant bloke who bursts into tears at the weirdest of things. He’s friendly, encouraging, supportive and absolutely wonderful. There’s a second judge too but I have no memory of her. The contestants do tend a little bit towards the posh end of the spectrum and can sometimes be a little bit irritating in their pretentiousness about Art. But I grew to like them.

  • Innuendo: OFF THE SCALE. It’s positively filthy.
  • Disaster quotient: Theoretically quite high. Clay goes splat on the floor a lot, things crack in the kiln and stuff come out looking very different to plans, but that’s pretty much par for the course with pottery so everyone takes it in their stride and there’s not too many meltdowns or complete failures.
  • Overall: I love it, I now need someone to rerun it so I can watch all the older episodes.
  • The Great British MenuLike Bake Off but with Michelin stars
    I’ve only watched the latest series of this, because I was lured in by Susan Calman who is wonderful and I won’t hear a word said against her. The series is a bit of a slog with 3 episodes a week, over 9 weeks; if not for the fact that it coincided with lockdown, I might not have made it all the way through. The contestants and the judges are all professional chefs and can come across as rather dry, and everyone (including the judge for 2 of the 3 days) rotates out each week so there’s not much opportunity to form a connection. There’s also a fundamental structural problem where the judge during the week decides who’s going through to the head-to-head. The two remaining chefs cook pretty much the same meals yet again and then you get a trio of judges, who suck all the joy out of food and who often completely disagree with the previous judge, giving away the fact that taste in food is entirely subjective and at this level, picking between dishes is pretty bonkers.

  • Innuendo: Very low. Susan tries occasionally, but most of the competitors are so dull it goes straight past them.
  • Disaster: The series tries to make a drama of it, but these chefs are professionals and even when a mouse doesn’t set, they tend to find a workaround.
  • Overall: There are a LOT of episodes, and it can get repetitive at times and has real structural problems. If the chefs don’t have a bit of charisma to them it can be a bit of a slog. But Susan is lovely.
  • Britain’s Best Home Cook (BBC) – Like Bake Off, but you have to eat vegetables
    The first season was lovely, nice people making nice food, with Claudia Winkleman floating around like an overenthusiastic puppy just stealing food whenever she could. The second season (which also dropped the “Britain’s” from the title) took a turn for the miserable. They kept setting unreasonable time limits and critiquing food as if they were on Masterchef rather than celebrating food for the family. Mary Berry and Angela Hartnett are brutal in their critiques and I frequently shouted at the screen, Chris Bavin tries to be a bit nicer but is usually drowned out. They’ve completely missed a trick by not having at least some of the judging done by families and the people who are actually eating normal food in normal homes.

  • Innuendo: Claudia has some moments, but generally low.
  • Disaster: It’s stressful because of the judges who pick on any tiny little thing, they’re the disasters not the cooks.
  • Overall: The first season was lovely, the second season made me incredibly cross.
  • Next in Fashion (Netflix) – Like Sewing Bee but with professionals (theoretically)
    There’s an interesting structure in that the contestants are paired up for most of the show, some of the teams know each other but others are complete strangers which is a recipe for some interesting psychology and some absolute disasters. The contestants are international and have lots of variation in their styles and experience levels and in their annoyingness which some of them really excel on. The stars of the show for me were expectation busting Marco and Ashton who present as tattooed, leather wearing LA fetish wear designers and are the nicest, sweetest, most supportive pair of people I’ve seen on one of these shows. Tan France and Alexa Chung are an absolute hoot as hosts, but are a little more stand-offish than some other presenters as they are also involved in the judging.

  • Innuendo: Pretty much non-existent, it doesn’t really translate internationally.
  • Disaster potential: High. Some of the designers are incredibly highly strung and have some total meltdowns.
  • Overall: I didn’t get most of the stuff they were making, and some of the contestants made me want to punch them, but Tan and Alexa were wonderful.
  • Blown Away (Netflix) – Like Pottery Throwdown, but with glass
    This is a Canadian series but with an American host and international contestants, and it leads to a blend of styles and attitudes that can feel muddled. The glass blowers are all very experienced in their field (this isn’t exactly a hobby to do in the kitchen) and many know each other, so there are some interesting relationships already established. Some of the contestants are zero fun to spend time with – obnoxiously competitive, judgemental of others and highly defensive of their art; while others are more easy going and probably more relaxed then they should be around face meltingly hot equipment. The contestnats have such big personalities that the judges and presenter completely fade into the background.

  • Innuendo level: None. I don’t think the American audience really do that.
  • Disaster: REALLY high. There’s incredibly high temperatures, glass shattering and “artistic visions” dying all over the place.
  • Overall: Oddly compelling for one series, but I think that was probably enough.
  • Zumbo’s Great Desserts (Netflix) – Like Bake Off but with insane Australians
    Zumbo is like some Heston Blumenthal-esque Willy Wonka but without any of the actual charisma. His creations are incredible and it’s a good concept that each episode has the two lowest placed contestants trying to recreate one of his concoctions. The first round is just the contestants making their own offering on a theme and showing off their personalities, which is where many of them fall down. It’s hyped up and over-blown with contestants clearly egged on to be over the top and competitive and that makes them very hard to warm to as they’re all very fake.

  • Innuendo: Not a smidge
  • Disaster quotient: there’s a lot of time pressure and the highly strung contestants have a fair few meltdowns, but I mostly just rolled my eyes at them.
  • Overall: it looks amazing, but the substance isn’t really there.
  • The Big Flower Fight (Netflix) – Like Bake Off but with ridiculous flower arranging
    Pairs of people making giant sculptures out of plants and flowers. Yes, really. The international pairs of contestants have clearly been chosen because they are wacky and overly dramatic, and I don’t think I would survive more than 30 seconds in a room with any of them. Vic Reeves plods through like he’s having an out of body experience and Natasia Demetriou is visibly trying to work out what happened to her career. The regular judge is the fabulously dressed and equally fabulously named Kristen Griffith-Vanderyacht who is as confused as the audience about what on earth this show is doing. There’s a revolving door of guest judges having an even more baffling time.

  • Innuendo: Vic Reeves gives it a go a couple of times but it’s confusing and uncomfortable for everyone involved.
  • Disaster quotient: there’s a lot of time pressure but they all seem to get it done, there are less structural collapses than I’d expect at the scale they’re working at. I think the chances of any of those poor plants surviving a week is negligible.
  • Overall: Pretty rubbish. A daft idea, too much artificial conflict and time pressure
  • Films in July 2020

    New Releases – only one this month, and it wasn’t very good. I did try to watch How to Build a Girl but I lasted just 10 minutes before the cringiness and the accent drove me away (I checked with someone who lives near Wolverhampton and they agreed the accent was poor).

    The Old Guard
    A small band of immortals come together to make the world a better place. Good concept, unremarkable execution. There’s some nice ideas about what it means to be 100’s of years old, and how you approach combat (and life) if you can’t die. The fight scenes are impressive and really play with the idea that if you’ve been fighting side by side with the same people for hundreds of years your team work is on a different level. But it didn’t quite come together, I think maybe if it had been a more starry cast, a more polished script, a big screen experience, it might have been a really interesting addition to the super hero genre… but it just felt a bit too unremarkable. Fine, but nothing more.
    Ranking: 6 / 10

    Older films / Rewatches in ranked order
    Prevenge
    This is so good! I had so many emotions while watching it. Alice Lowe wrote, directed and starred in it and she excels in all three aspects. The script is a with a beautifully judged script mixing tones classic horror film types with incredible creepiness, genuine gore and plenty of psychological unpleasantness. But there’s also some really funny observational comedy blending seamlessly with the other aspects. The directing is just interesting enough to make it interesting but not intrusive (the scene in the tunnel for example). But it’s the acting that most impressed me, playing a character that’s both complex and simple, committed and uncertain, playing roles but still herself. And all that packed into just 88 minutes. This film is an absolute masterpiece.
    Ranking: 9 / 10

    Little Women
    Little Women is probably my favourite book of all time, I’ve read it more times than I can count and know the characters, storyline, dialogue and even the descriptions incredibly well. It feels like there’s an adaption of it for pretty much every generation of actors and I can’t actually remember any of them disappointing.
    Greta Gerwig clearly knows and loves the book just as well as I do and it shows in every single frame of this movie. The book is beautifully, faithfully and lovingly retold, finding aspects that could be highlighted and emphasised to connect to themes of feminism and freedom that feel modern, but are in fact universal. The only significant change from the book is to shake the linear narrative up and use overlapping timelines and flashbacks. The first time I watched, it didn’t work for me as I felt it spoilered some of the storylines, big moments of character development were lost because we already knew how things would turn out. My companion didn’t like it either, he wasn’t familiar with the story and lost track of characters and ‘when’ we were. But on the second watch through (and with the help of some DVD extras) I understand what Gerwig was doing, focusing on the women that the characters would become, rather than getting bogged down in the childhood events that shaped them.
    This film brought me an overwhelming sense of joy – at the quality of Gerwig’s writing, the talented performances of everyone in the cast, the beautiful design of the period setting and the stunning cinematography. The only word of warning is that, while watching in the privacy of my own home I cried so hard I gave myself a headache.
    Ranking: 9 / 10

    Behind the Candelabra
    This film immediately grabs you, filling the screen with sequins and the other-worldly behavior in Las Vegas. The film was engrossing from the very first few moments, the directions the characters and their relationships went was absolutely fascinating. The most phenomenal thing however were the performances. I’ve never really rated Michael Douglas that highly, but he was incredible in this role. The highest praise I can give him is that I forgot who the actor was. I’ve been a fan of Matt Damon for longer, so never quite lost sight of the actor behind the action roles, but it was also a transformative performance. The actors and writers gave depth and empathy to the complex relationship, never taking the easy route of making one party the ‘bad guy’. If there’s one criticism of the film it would be that it didn’t always seem to know what it was – comedy or drama, biopic or romance. But then that’s what life is, a muddle of everything thrown together. It may make the film less satisfying in the end, but it certainly makes it interesting.
    Ranking: 8 / 10

    The AristoCats
    I doubt this Disney film is top of anyone’s favourites, but The AristoCats is one I come back to every now and then since my childhood – never outstanding, but consistently watchable. The story and characters are charming, the songs relatively few but still fun and the moralistic elements are fairly discrete. As an adult though two things stand out, firstly the beautiful style of the artwork which is slightly more hand-drawn feeling then certainly recent Disney films, the animation of the cats is stunning – carefully observed and then delivered with an absolute minimum of pencil lines. The other thing was the amount that was re-used from other films of the era – voices, music snippets, even whole animation sections from films like Jungle Book and Robin Hood. I don’t blame them for the efficiencies, and it doesn’t diminish the film, but it does make it slightly disconcerting in places.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    Trolls
    I went into this film pretty cynical, I mean the Trolls were annoying enough as toys the first time round, turning them into a film of peppy singing creatures… how could that possibly work. The main way it worked was by putting a character in that basically had exactly the same attitude as I did and having him mercilessly negate all the perkiness. And by doing that, completely selling the cheerfulness. On top of that, the voice acting was spot on and the design and style of it absolutely gorgeous. It was impossible to not be charmed by it, and believe me I tried.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    Brave
    Here’s the review if this film had been made by anyone but Pixar: Brave is a very solid little animation. While the over-exaggerated Scottishness gets a bit grating at times, the voice acting just about carries it off. The story is a little clumsy at times, but gets the job done and bounces along with enthusiasm. The ‘princess’ is a suitably modern offering, rebelling against tradition and handsome princes and wanting to make her own way in the world. The animation itself is absolutely gorgeous.
    BUT because the film is a Pixar production, I found myself disappointed. I was asked on Twitter whether I cried, and had to say that I really didn’t. I rather expect a Pixar film to have me in embarrassing floods of tears, but this one just didn’t have that level of connection for some reason. It’s not that the film was bad at all, it just wasn’t the sort of ‘special’ that I’ve come to expect from Pixar.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    Ocean’s Eight
    I’m a huge fan of the Clooney/Pitt/Damon et al Ocean’s 11, even if 12 and 13 did then get progressively sillier, so I was quite looking forward to a female installment and the cast was more than enough to inspire enthusiasm. I sadly found myself a little underwhelmed. The first half was a little slow (someone a few rows back in the cinema was snoring!) and then the heist itself was a little fast, then slow again for the post-heist follow ups, and then a final twist that came too far out of nowhere. The comedy wasn’t quite as easy as Ocean’s 11, and one of the early reveals about the connection to the previous films (staying vague for spoilers) actually struck quite a negative blow that really felt like the wrong tone to set. The plot was fairly precarious (I was spotting holes/needless complexity as it went) and overall neither characters nor movie as a whole felt quite as smooth and slick as they needed to be. Oh and who’s idea was Helena Bonham Carter’s terrible accent? Was that supposed to be an homage to Don Cheadle’s terrible cockney? Solidly entertaining, but the cast can do a lot better and I was wanting more.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    O Brother, Where Art Thou
    I rather odd film, but I think I liked it, it’s one of those films that I can’t really be sure. The combination of offbeat ramblings and oddly formal dialogue matches pretty well for a modern(ish) retelling of The Odyssey with the mixture of hard reality and whimsical fantasy. It occasionally gets a bit bogged down, the pacing is maybe a little off, and there are rather too many bit part characters that are a bit hard to track, but overall it’s pretty entertaining, and the soundtrack is worth the price of admission (free on Netflix) alone.
    Ranking: 6 / 10

    Silver Linings Playbook
    This film absolutely monstered the awards nominations in 2013, it was nominated for all 4 acting categories, as well as best film, directing and adapted screenplay at the Oscars, but in the end the awards themselves were a bit thin on the ground. And that’s I think because the film isn’t actually very good. It never seemed to know whether it wanted to be a hard hitting drama on mental illness, an improbable but sweet romance, or a comedic look at how crazy absolutely everyone is regardless of whether they have a diagnosis or not. Although the actors were all doing their very best with the material, I just don’t think they were able to rise above the inconsistencies. The final act did sort of suck me back in, finally seeming to settle into a more standard and quite lovely romantic comedy. Unfortunately that doesn’t really balance out the first two thirds of the film where I could have been very tempted to switch off altogether.
    Ranking: 6 / 10

    Straight Story
    The most accessible David Lynch film, although that’s not a particularly hard challenge to win, and while he’s taken out a lot of the weird that puts me off his films, I think he forgot to really replace it with anything. I think we were supposed to be hypnotised by the scenery, or the music, or the grizzlyness of the main character, but to be honest none of those held my attention at all. There are some nice scenes as the main character encounters a few people on his travels, but those interesting points were surrounded by endless boring scenery, and irritating music.
    Ranking: 5 / 10

    Battle Beyond the Stars
    There’s a lot going on here. It’s obviously The Magnificent Seven (or Seven Samurai) in Space, but it feels a little like each character was from a slightly different version of the film and the actors, makeup, costumes and script went with each variation. There were people playing it straight, people playing it for laughs, a character that seemed like she came straight out of Barbarella and people playing it as if they were had a tax bill due and this was the best their agent could find. Some of those elements worked well in isolation, and some of them even worked together in a contrasting way, but as a whole it was a bit of an incoherent mess.
    Ranking: 5 / 10

    Roadhouse
    This starts off ok, I mean it’s cheesy as anything and so 80’s it hurts, but the idea is solid and Patrick Swayze is charmingly monosyllabic as the bouncer (sorry – ‘cooler’) who comes in to clean up a dive bar through professionalism and calm. But just as I was settling in, two terrible things happen. The first was Kelly Lynch who delivered a performance that was wooden even by trashy 80’s standards and infected Swayze with her lack of spark. The second problem was that the film decided it wanted to be a mindless action film instead with increasingly ridiculous fights and a complete break from all the rules that it had originally set itself. As a laughably stupid 80’s action film it was probably ok but I’d foolishly thought it was going to be more than that.
    Ranking: 5 / 10

    Radioactive
    I’d been looking forward to this for three reasons – Marie Curie, Rosamund Pike, and that it’s based on a graphic novel and used the same graphic style. Of those three, only Marie Curie didn’t disappoint. She is a fascinating person, her scientific achievement alone is incredible, but the fact that she was a she makes her story worthy of telling. The relationship (personal and professional) with her husband, and her daughters brings the emotion to the story and is equally original. Unfortunately everything else about the film was a bit mediocre. Rosamund Pike is doing her best, but the script is so clunky that she comes over very hammy at times, and Sam Riley as Pierre Curie is just a bit bland. With the exception of one scene, I really didn’t see any attempt at any visual style at all and the opportunities to explain and showcase the science visually were completely missed. A wasted opportunity.
    Ranking: 4 / 10

    The Seven Year Itch
    A film made famous by the scene where Marilyn Monroe stands on a grating and her dress blows up. One of the most iconic visuals in movie history and the full shot doesn’t even actually appear in the film, only close ups. Which pretty much sums up this film. It’s supposed to be a comedy and yet frankly isn’t funny at all. The wry voiceover and Monroe’s quirky performance are doing their best, but I struggled to find any humour in a man carefully deciding to cheat on his wife and a female character that’s simply there to wear tight clothes and act ditzy.
    Ranking: 4 / 10

    Film in June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Books in June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Films in May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Books in May

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Picard: Season 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Films in April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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