Chernobyl

It wasn’t an easy sell to watch a drama about the Chernobyl disaster, I didn’t know much about the incident before watching, but the word ‘disaster’ is rarely indicative of light and positive easy watching. However there’s also been a huge amount of praise for the show and it swept best series, director and writing Emmys in the limited series categories, so I took a deep breath and settled in.

First up, the praise was right. This is truly superb television. I cannot imagine the amount of material that the writers had to work from, and they’ve boiled it down to a tight 5 episodes, each just a bit over an hour. They’ve clearly had to simplify, amalgamate, and I’m sure occasionally outright make stuff up, but the result is a compelling narrative, just enough technical information and exposition, but also plenty of breathing space for the characters to tell representative stories of all the different types of people involved. We come to understand what happened, and all the reasons why it happened, the complex collection of cultural, technical and personal issues that coalesced to cause the disaster and shape the response to it. You’ll come out knowing more about nuclear power, the Soviet Union and what villains and heroes look like.

The speed of the timeline is also very carefully paced, early episodes playing out over the space of just a few hours, while later ones step through months. The series starts at the very moment of the explosion and for the most part the events are told completely linearly, from there, it’s only the final episode that includes flashbacks to explain what happened. There must have been dozens of approaches the writers could have taken with interweaving timelines, or starting earlier to build the tension, but this presentation worked incredibly well. It meant we could follow along with the characters as we never knew more than them (except for whatever knowledge we went in with). At each point we were focused on exactly what the characters were – putting out a fire, stopping the next problem, working out what happened. The characters and audience are united in living in the moment, the immediate decisions that must be made with only the knowledge available at that instant. It’s incredibly gripping and that tension and pace would have been lost if there were jumping timelines to keep track of. When they eventually start using them in the final episode it is an equally good choice, taking us back before the start of the first episode to see what happened, now that we have the breath to reflect.

The cast is absolutely jam packed with acting talent and one of the things that made me want to watch were the headliners of Jared Harris, Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, all actors that I always really enjoy watching and they are all at the top of their games here. The wider cast are all outstanding, many with minimal screentime to convey what it would feel like to be in the centre of something completely unimaginable. The only thing I wasn’t entirely certain about were the accents, everyone staying with their usual accent rather than attempting a Russian accent which was easier to connect with, but it then seemed a bit weird that all the signs and background writing were in Russian.

I was truly impressed with this series. It didn’t help my anxiety much as I was completely engrossed in it, wondering what I would pack if given only a few minutes to evacuate my home, what I would do if I knew something was seriously wrong but everyone was saying it was fine, how I would decide on the horrible choices people had to make. It’s utterly horrible and completely compelling. You may not want to watch it, but you really should.

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Fosse/Verdon

I would consider myself someone who likes musicals, but I’m not really a fan. I think to be a fan you need to have at least a small element of obsession about something, it’s not enough to just watch and enjoy them, you need to really dig into them which is something that I don’t really do. So although I’d heard of Bob Fosse and could probably (at a push) have identified that he worked on Chicago and Cabaret, I knew nothing more of him and I had never even heard of Gwen Verdon. The latter I can at least partially blame on the long tradition of overlooking and burying women’s contributions.

The Fosse Verdon mini-series is an important step to rebalance that. Importantly it doesn’t just swing in the opposite direction and portray Verdon herself as a hero or a martyr, the series presents both characters warts and all, and there are a lot of warts for both of them. It clearly shows the unfairness Verdon encountered in the industry and in her private life, but it also shows her as manipulative and conniving, working within the system to get at least some of what she wants. The performances from Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell are utterly mesmerizing, shining through the inevitably slightly strained age makeup. The relationship between them was fascinating, both using each other with varying levels of self-awareness, the relationship is at times toxic and at times beautiful. It doesn’t really change over time, it’s just the small adjustments in power that make things interesting, although the circular nature of their relationship does become frustrating at times, every time it feels like things are reaching a finishing point, they manage to produce something beautiful and the cycle starts again.

The series is very much about MAKING musicals, rather than the musicals themselves, in fact if anything I would have liked to see a bit more about the productions. The rehearsal process was really interesting, but the supporting characters came and went very quickly and it was hard to connect to them, or see them as anything other than a means to an end to drive Fosse and Verdon. The series never set out to do anything but tell their two entwined stories, but it felt quite a very blinkered view, one that continues the concept of isolated genius – jut a partnership of two, rather than an individual. I know enough from studying history that it’s a very regressive approach to look for individual stories, bound to ignore the many and varied contributions (particularly from ‘minorities’).

There are also some hints at really troublesome aspects of the story, that are not really surprising given what has gradually trickled out about the discrimination and abuses that have been inherent in the arts for so long. There are classic “casting couch” situations with Bob Fosse sleeping with young members of his cast who then get better parts, and those that refuse him pushed aside. The presentation of this is troublesome, it’s not exactly excused, but Fosse is still made a sympathetic character and plenty of people around him (including Verdon) dismiss his actions, or only feel about them from their own point of view, not the victims. While the series relishes in the complexity of Verdon and Fosse, it still in the end falls into the trap of celebrating their creations as troubled geniuses. The final moments of the series celebrate their creations, successes and impacts on culture, not of the people that helped them, or the people that were damaged by them – there’s enough subtext in the series to see it if you look, but it’s easy to overlook. Even the first draft of my review didn’t mention it and it wasn’t until I thought a bit more that I realised what I’d missed.

I think as a piece of entertainment the series works very well and the performances from Williams and Rockwell are something special. It starts to open a door on some interesting questions of artistic creation, and the fact that it does it in a mainstream way is very important. However, I was left feeling a bit frustrated that it didn’t push the door open further.

Books in September

Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs 1 and Oddjobs 2: This time it’s Personnel
I’m not even going to try to review these books without referencing Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series. I know I should review things on their own merits, but there is so much in common here that I just can’t help but compare the two. For the most part the comparison is quite positive, Oddjobs has the same dry humour as the Rivers of London and that really works for me, there’s a world weariness to the characters and story, but rather than be depressing and bring the book down, it raises it up. A spirit of “oh well, this is a mess, let’s get on with it and see if we can have a laugh while sorting it out”. The other similarity that jumped out at me is a complete grounding in the locality, where Aaronovich’s London really felt like MY London, Goody and Grant’s Birmingham seemed just as grounded to me, although I’m only an occasional visitor to Birmingham (my dad and some close friends live there). The concept and story are also fairly in line with Rivers of London, and also what little I’ve read of The Laundry series, opening up a huge world of potential dramatic and comedic storylines and characters.
I thoroughly enjoyed these two books. I can’t say they were as funny as Aaronovich, but it tripped along and I really enjoyed spending the time with the characters. There’s no obvious arc storyline, or ‘big bad’ but I like that the two books are more self contained and are giving us a chance to see lots of different bits of the world that they’re building. The second book in particular did an admirable job presenting lots of smaller stories that gradually came together to a satisfying tangle. These are now definitely on my watch list for future releases.

L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
This was written in 1900, and the film that everyone knows was made in 1939, with any number of versions, homages and parodies since, making the story completely ingrained. The book is really not very long, wasting absolutely no time on developing anything beyond the absolute minimum to hammer home the messages at its core. I was a bit disappointed that there was so little sense of wonder or magic to it. There’s also a lot more violence and death in it that we’d usually expect in modern children’s stories, but thanks to the light tone it seems a lot less substantial which is a bit odd when you notice it.

Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Ticking off another classic. It’s always a bit odd to finally read the originals of stories that you’re incredibly familiar with, and I’m not sure it’s ever going to be a hugely positive experience. There was little left of this that could be surprising, between the famous illustrations in the book itself and the Disney cartoon, I was intensely familiar with most of the episodes and characters that make up the story. In fact the only thing that was slightly surprising was just how irritating Alice is. The bits of the story don’t really join up particularly well, it’s just stepping from one weird dream sequence to another so it’s hard to get any real momentum going.

T.J. Brown – The Unhappy Medium
I seemed to take an unreasonable dislike to this book fairly early on and I don’t really know why. It was a little oversold in how hilarious it was, but there were still some nice moments of dry humour scattered throughout. The set up was a long time in development and had a few glaring inconsistencies, but was solid enough and once it finally arrived the plot itself was ok. Maybe it was just that it had raised my expectations by putting quotes like “A very funny book, in the spirit of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens” on the front cover, a lofty height which it was unlikely to reach.

Emily Organ – Penny Green 1: Limelight
A fairly solid period set murder mystery. The characters are vibrant and interesting, the period detail nicely done and the case itself engaging. My only frustration came from the quality of the investigation which was painfully slow, no one actually asking the obvious questions or seeming to do much investigating at all. It’s an ok book to churn through, but it’s unlikely to stay with me and I’m not particularly likely to pick up further books in the series unless I’m looking for something incredibly low impact.

Films in September

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

New to me
Vice
Adam McKay has a very specific style – smart, fast and creative. When applied well (eg Ant Man), I really like it, but it takes a bit of getting used to and can trip over into smug (The Big Short). It is applied a bit more carefully in Vice, making a more mainstream drama with just moments of flare to it that raise the film up above the dry political drama that it could have been. The cast is all nicely aligned, all perfectly playing their characters at the very limits of credibility without tripping into something that feels unbelievable (although my limit for what is believable for politicians is nowhere near as high as it used to be). Vice does drag a little in places, but I struggled to keep up in others, but the performances really elevate it to something a bit special.

It
I was expecting a horror film, what I actually got was an 80’s kids adventure with a 15 rating level of creepiness and jump scares. And it worked really well! The kids are suitably energetic, spunky and acting their age with stupid mistakes and ill-managed feelings. The gang is maybe a little too large making it hard to get engaged with all of them, but there are some great performances from the young cast. The lack of adults makes the horror seem more real somehow, it makes sense that the kids would accept weird activity and go and investigate it when any normal grown up would assume everything was a hoax and deny everything. Pennywise is genuinely creepy and unexpected, the use of practical and visual effects blending well. The whole film very well done, but I can’t say I was completely lost in it (maybe because I was watching at home) and I did get a bit bored towards the end of the final ‘battle’.

Mother!
This review is a bit more spoilery than I usually write, because it’s basically impossible to talk about what I think of the film without giving away the direction it goes in, despite that being one of the interesting mysteries of the film. For the first hour or so I was quite enjoying it. The film starts with a couple of disturbing flashes which set a tone of disquiet which carries through into the opening scenes of an otherwise tranquil seeming existence. As the tension builds I was constantly guessing whether what we were seeing was normal, or whether there was something more going on, and how those initial scenes tied in. Jennifer Lawrence is always charming and interesting to watch, and she is a perfect choice for someone that the audience can empathise with as she too questions whether she’s being unreasonable, paranoid, or if there really is something weird going on. It’s a fantastic performance.
Problems started at about an hour in where it started to get a bit boring. Too many threads of ideas that had been teased at were just abandoned without exploration while other bits went round in circles that started to get boring rather than sinister. After a slightly jarring time jump, the film enters another repetition which does actually move towards an ending, but it just lost me somewhere along the way. After dragging things out, the resolution felt too sudden and I was uncertain whether I was seeing something real or hallucinated, and that uncertainty was no longer interesting, but annoying. Maybe there was too much subtext and allegory to really make it satisfying; everything was hinted at and implied and it wasn’t until I read imdb that I really got what Aronofsky was trying to achieve. That frustration undermined the rest of the film for me and left me with a negative feeling, which is a real shame because there was a lot of good in it and it was very close to being something special, but with any movie around a mystery, it lives and dies with its reveal and this one sadly didn’t land it.

The Seventh Veil
This is a pretty good psychological thriller, with a fatal flaw. It follows the fall proof structure of starting three quarters of the way through the story as a character hits rock bottom, and then showing how she got there (via a narrative device of hypnosis driven flashback) before resolving the character’s story in the final act. There were two problems – the first was just about survivable in that the same actress plays the central character from the age of about 16 to (I’d guess) about 30 and the actress was 36, it made it quite hard to tell how old the character is supposed to be at any point so it never quite feels right. Also the “older” relative is played by an actor exactly the same age. The unforgivable problem however is literally the last minute of the film where the character resolves her story by picking ABSOLUTELY the wrong man, and it’s treated as a romantic conclusion, thereby completely nullifying any arc for either characters or audience and leaving a really very bad taste.

Jamaica Inn
Apparently Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t very happy with this film, and I have to say neither was I. It’s just a bit all over the place, with script and actors all pulling in different directions between drama, farce and pantomime. None of it really worked and it was frankly frustrating and boring to watch.

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

Cowboys and Aliens
How can you resist a film with a title like that? Well, maybe I should have remembered that while I love alien films, I’m really not a fan of cowboy films. Unfortunately there was way too much cowboy and not enough alien, so it did all the things that frustrate me with cowboy films – chief among them the strong and silent type lead characters. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are two of the biggest names in cinema and boy are they mediocre in this, both playing gruff and broody characters who only really let the tiniest slivers of actual personality and charm show through. It made a lot of the film a bit of a slog, counting the minutes until one of the more interesting supporting characters or a vicious alien attack showed up. I am being a little harsh on the film, it certainly wasn’t awful and there were some fun ideas in it and as a western it was certainly one of the better ones I’ve seen, but overall I was disappointed.

The Princess and the Frog
Despite having a lot of really strong elements, this film just doesn’t quite gel together to form anything special, at least not by recent Disney standards. I think it is let down a bit by a storyline that’s quite fragmented (very much a series of small adventures and incidental characters) and some instantly forgettable songs. Around that though is some very beautiful design and animation, and some encouraging steps towards representing diverse cultures. It’s ok to watch, but quite forgettable.

Another Life: Season 1

There’s a special place in my heart for good old fashioned naff science fiction set on spaceships. Whether in film or TV form, they generally manage to delude themselves into thinking they’re doing something original while hitting every single cliche in the book. I’m not claiming that this doesn’t happen in plenty of other genres, superheroes, series set in high school, procedurals – they’re all just a subset of character and plot tropes pulled out of a jumbled bag. Maybe I just notice it more for space shows because I’ve watched so many of them.

Another Life is a Netflix series that is so utterly forgettable and uncharismatic that I keep forgetting what it’s called. The concept is that an alien ship has landed on Earth and we in turn send a spaceship back to where it came from. Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) is captain of the ship which (of course) hits some obstacles on it’s travels. For some utterly inexplicable reason her crew is made up of a bunch of twenty-somethings who immediately start bitching, whining and shagging. A chunk of time is also spent on Earth with Nico’s husband (Justin Chatwin) who is trying to communicate with the ship, oh and there’s an annoying reporter buzzing around as well.

There are a couple of nice little ideas. The ship carries a full reserve crew in stasis, so it’s possible to inject new faces into the otherwise isolated crew. That also means that the show has no qualms about killing people off in what is probably meant to be a distressing fashion, but given most of the crew are incredibly annoying it’s actually quite nice to see them go. The fluidity of relationships and gender are uncommented on in a way that makes sense for the future and the use of swearing feels quite natural. The AI on the ship (Samuel Anderson) is an interesting character too (although one that’s a disaster waiting to happen), and alongside Sackhoff and Chatwin provide some solid, grown up, acting talent.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast is not the strongest and not helped by the fact that their characters make little sense; even the best actors in the world is going to struggle to play characters that are supposedly hand picked for an incredibly important the mission but written as panicked children barely out of training. There’s a lot of shouting about the peril that Earth is in, it never really feels like there’s any scale to anything, just a handful of scientists on the ground and a ship full of junior officers sent off. The logic repeatedly falls down and the plot holes, inconsistencies and contrivances are so epic that you could drive space ships through them.

It makes it very hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy the series, even as mindless fluff. The little glimmers of potential were just about enough to hold my attention through ten episodes, but it was touch and go a few times. It’s just seems such a waste to spend all this time making something but not bother to find a way to address the insulting holes in the story.

Catch-22


I have read Catch-22, but it was in 2006 and I have no direct memories of it. Fortunately I’ve been obsessively reviewing things for a long time so can look up what I thought of it:

I didn’t actually like this book very much, and to be honest, didn’t really think it was that good. There were definitely some funny and some powerful scenes, but as a whole I found the book overly complicated and poorly structured. I continuously lost track of which character was which and how the various incidents fit together in the time line and while I’m sure with a bit more effort it would have become clearer, I didn’t really feel it was worth the effort. The whole thing just left me with a craving to watch M*A*S*H again.

The good news is that I liked the mini-series a lot more. Although I still struggled a little bit with the characters (I’ve got a poor memory for faces and they’re all fairly similar 20 something white boys in the same uniforms) the jumping timelines were smoothed out and a lot clearer, and I had no problems tracking the events.

The tone of the series is rich and unusual, there’s absurdist humour, irony and satire; but also psychological drama, action sequences, gory horror and jump shocks. Sometimes they blend together, and sometimes they smash into one another. It managed to find some interesting place between credible reality and absurdist fantasy that somehow really worked, each reinforcing the other. So the visceral brutality of the war is simultaneously emphasised and reduced, while the ridiculous situations are made both more ridiculous and yet more believable. If vibrant lives can be snuffed out in an instant in front of your eyes and people can justify that as “heroic” or “not in vain”, how is anything unbelievable?

Tying everything together is Christopher Abbott as Yossarian. Even as his character falls apart, he holds everything together and is a voice of sanity (or maybe the voice of understandable insanity) throughout grounding the series as the ‘normal’ person struggling to remain normal by becoming abnormal.

I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed the series, there are plenty of laughs to be had, and beautiful direction and cinematography to get lost in, but the heart of it is quite depressing. There were also moments that genuinely shocked me, leaving me open mouthed and unable to move from the sofa even if I’d wanted to. At only 6 episodes long it doesn’t drag things out and is best binge watched in a couple of sessions rather than lingering on it too much. I do think it’s one of the few times that I can confidently say that I preferred it to the book, and it’s unusualness makes it worth a watch even if you do then need to try and forget what it’s saying about the world.

Stranger Things: Season 3

strangerthingsWhile many hailed season 1 of this series as some sort of incredible phenomena I couldn’t really summon up much more than ambivalence towards it. It was absolutely fine, even good, but I failed to experience the magic that some others had. Season 2 faired even more poorly as I didn’t connect with either the characters or the plot. So I wasn’t particularly enthused by season 3. It did however perfectly match my mood for a weekend where I couldn’t summon the energy to really commit to anything and just wanted something to put on that I wasn’t really invested in and wouldn’t challenge me too much.

I’m not sure whether it was those changed expectations, or a change in the series, but I enjoyed season 3 a lot more than I remember enjoying the previous series. I think there was a bit of a change of scale, although the situation the kids found themselves in did end up being pretty serious, it didn’t feel quite as emotionally intense as previous seasons. It felt like there was time to breath and muck about, that interludes of teenage relationships weren’t just a distraction. In fact while the plot itself was absolutely fine (and less confusing than the whole upside down thing), it was these relationships that are the heart of the season.

These relationships covered the whole lifecycle of romance and friendship. There’s the initial flirting and crushes, first love, relationships moving beyond high school, marriages on the rocks and grown ups acting like teenagers circling round each other. There are also some beautiful moments of friendship, new pairings, changing relationships and even the sadness of groups that are drifting apart. There’s heartbreak and humour, silliness and real heart. All the actors are charismatic individually, and together, with some great additions to the cast and I really found myself enjoying spending time with them regardless of what they were doing.

Without spoiling, I will say that I wasn’t a big fan of the ending as I think it reverted a little to the darker side of storylines which I didn’t really want. I like the easy going adventure style, where although in the moment it seems perilous there’s a safety that nothing bad will really happen. The ending made sense, it wasn’t forced or anything, I just didn’t think it was really necessary and was disappointed that a season I’d enjoyed so much actually left me feeling sad.