Books in May 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Films in May 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

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

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

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

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

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

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

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

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

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

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

Books I read in Apr 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Films I Watched in Apr 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lilo and Stitch
A thoroughly enjoyable film for kids and adults alike. A very well scripted film that has a solid narrative with depth to the characters, complexity to the issues and plenty of laughs from slapstick and visual humour, wit and sarcasm and impeccably delivered lines and subtle animation. It doesn’t bother covering plot holes, it just kinda ploughs straight through them bringing the audience in on the joke. It’s beautifully animated so the characters (both human and alien) really burst off the screen. Plus for the Elvis songs really felt like part of the film rather than squashed in as an after-thought. Really utterly charming.
Gantu: You are vile, you are flawed, you are foul.
Stitch: Also cute and fluffy!
9 / 10

Encanto
There’s plenty to love about this film. The whole thing is bright and beautiful, vivid characters, a plot that charges along, full of energy and spark and with some lovely sentiment in it. On my first watch in the cinema, it did not work for me. There was just too much in it, too many characters, too much colour, too much backstory, too many sentiments and even too many words in the songs. It was hard to connect with the film and I felt overwhelmed rather than immersed. However, I liked it more when I watched it at home, and then even more when I caught it a second time in the cinema after it won the Oscar. Nothing’s really changed, it’s just that each viewing makes it less overwhelming and I was able to really fall in love with the characters (all of them) and the songs (most of them – I still think the opening song is just too busy and the sappy one is just meh). But, Disney films shouldn’t need multiple viewings though, even complex films like Inside Out worked on the first viewing and then continued to grow more. 8 / 10

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

Downton Abbey: A New Era

It’s not often I see a film on release day, but it perfectly aligned that this film was released on the last day of some time off work and it seemed like some kind of message. Downton Abbey on a Sunday night used to be the perfect way to end a weekend with a bit of daft escapism, so ending a 2 week holiday with the film seemed to fit. I wasn’t disappointed, the second Downton Abbey film fits all the expectations you have of a Downton Abbey film, and also a fair number of the expectations you probably have for any sequel.

The most sequelly thing a sequel can do is take the characters on holiday. I don’t know whether that trope is so frequent because it’s a way to keep audiences interested, the writers having run out of ideas, or a reward for the cast and crew for proving bankable enough to justify a holiday. Either way, half of the Downton crowd end up in the South of France for an artificial story line involving a mysterious old ‘friend’ of the Dowager Countess. I never quite shook the feeling that the plot was just there as the bare minimum to justify the beautiful shots of sun and sea. It was a bit sketchy, but the sunshine was indeed lovely.

Meanwhile the unfavoured cast members got to stay in Downton and make a film. This feels another sequelly thing to do – get a bit meta. Much ‘hilarious’ irony with people bemoaning the tackiness of films, or how talking will ruin cinema. I wasn’t enthused at the plot in the trailer, but it actually ended up being quite charming and interesting, bringing some new and unusual characters to Downton, and gave some of the existing characters the opportunity to show different sides.

For all the sequel tropes on display, this film is actually better than the first. It felt more like a film, where the previous one felt like several episodic ideas cut down and then stuck together leading to an overcrowded film with odd structuring. This time the stories were better entwined and the structure flowed more organically. Somehow almost all the characters (and there are about 2 dozen of them) got a bit of development and something to do. There were still plenty of rushed bits that could have been better covered up I think, but it felt like we were missing maybe 1/2 a dozen scenes, rather than 1/2 a dozen episodes.

The film is definitely for fans of Downton Abbey, there are so many little nods and references to past events and I smiled with satisfaction at each of them. It certainly covers the full range of emotions, I beamed as characters found happiness, laughed at the wonderful Maggie Smith’s put downs and absolutely sobbed my eyes out as well. I hope we get to continue checking in for many years to come.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

I rewatched the first two films in this series a little while ago, partly to prepare for this film as I remembered finding it hard to follow the second one when I saw it. Unfortunately that just reminded me that I didn’t really like them that much and so I wasn’t actually going to bother going to the cinema for the third. But I was bored, so gave it a go anyway.

I shouldn’t have bothered.

For a start, the re-watches hadn’t helped me keep track of the plot very well, so I was still a bit confused. Or rather unengaged, because I couldn’t really be bothered to work out what was going on. Maybe I’m just not a big enough Potter fan and if I was I’d get a lot more references and how things fit together. It’s also all just a bit bleak to be honest, Harry Potter does Nazis. Even if that was something I wanted to see, which I don’t, it completely jars with the whole whimsical “fantastic beasts” title.

In fact, given the criminal underuse of the beasts, it feels like the title is a bit of a bait and switch (although I guess it’s slightly less clumsy than “Crimes of Grindelwald”). Every now and then the writers remember the film title and throw one in, but they’re utterly incidental. Even the animation of them felt a bit lackluster, some nice design, but the interaction with the actors often felt flakey and obviously just CGI additions rather than anything substantive.

The cast is solid and they are creating interesting and original characters (or adding to existing ones in Jude Law’s case), and Mads Mikkelsen is certainly an improvement on the over the top Johnny Depp. I just with that they’d taken a completely different direction with the series. Fun adventure stories, mysterious animals, lean in to the ecological message even.

As I was leaving a young boy was asked if he liked the film. He replied that he liked the stick insect. When pushed whether that meant he liked the film, he replied that no, it just meant he liked the stick insect. I couldn’t agree more.

Books I read in March 2022

Oh dear, March wasn’t a good month for books. Just two, and one of them was really bad. And really long! Why I didn’t give up on it I really can’t explain. But just to prove I’ve learnt, I’ve thrown in a third book that was technically in April, but I stopped reading it after 2 chapters. See I can learn!

THE GOOD: Greg Jenner – Dead Famous
The history of celebrity is a longer story than you might think and it’s a subject that works very well for Greg Jenner’s easy going, down to earth approach. He’s clearly done a huge amount of research on individual personalities from the past couple of thousand years and then turned it into a solid structure to look at different aspects of celebrity and how much the term can be applied to historical figures. It’s an academic approach, but the writing style is completely accessible. He does sometimes get a little stuck by his constructs and also can’t quite stick to his self imposed rule about not covering ‘modern’ celebrities, but I’m willing to forgive. It’s an entertaining and interesting read shedding light on how remarkably little has changed.

THE BAD: Elizabeth Knox – The Absolute Book
I was lured in by a shiny cover and gushing praise on the back. The first bit of the book started quite well, a fairly straightforward kind of thriller, and then it lurched towards the fantasy and it all fell apart. What I should have done is stop at that point, about 100 pages in, but I kept going for another 500 pages for some unknown reason. The book’s a mess. Nothing felt consistent, characters and plots meandered about, the world building just didn’t work for me. I never felt like anything made sense, let alone feeling immersed or getting any enjoyment out of it. The bits that are written as a straight real-world thriller actually work quite well, but as soon as the fantasy elements break through again it just felt like random words on a page. Maybe I missed something early on and once I’d disengaged there was no way back. And I’ve no one but myself to blame for not just putting it down.

THE NOPE: Mark Rowlands – Everything I Know, I Learned from TV
The title of this book obviously really spoke to me, but digging in a bit it actually sounded even better. It’s actually a book about philosophy. That’s a subject that I’ve always wanted to know more about but really struggle to find an entrance too. Well, unfortunately this is another one I struggled with, so much that I gave up after 2 chapters. It has the same problem that every other book on philosophy I’ve ever tried, it just lost me. The problem is it’s very very heavy on the philosophy and just sprinkles some TV in as examples. But the concepts were either too complicated, too poorly explained, or just too much for me because I was lost by about page 10. For once, I’m not going to keep going through a book I don’t like and am not getting anything from, so I gave up. Off to the charity shop it goes. (750)

Films I watched in March 2022

March was Oscar month, so I did a push on the nominees. I did my round up of them all in this post, and am actually pretty happy with the winners, particularly CODA being named best film, because it absolutely was. It was also good enough all by itself to justify the Apple TV+ subscription which has also brought me Ted Lasso, so it’s a double win for me.

But for all that, I only watched 8 films in March, and only one new release (Turning Red – premiering on Disney+ and reviewed here). That’s a bit poor, my excuses are that work is insane and I stupidly installed Civilisation VI.

Spencer
All the talk on this film seems to have been about Kristen Stewart’s performance, and I was expecting great things. What I wasn’t expecting was that the film would be so incredibly bad that it was a struggle to stand it enough to even watch the performance. The writing, and other performances in the film are incredibly poor, “lumpy” was the word that sprang to mind. There was no subtlety, and none of the dialogue, personalities, or situations came across as remotely believable even excusing the bizarreness of Royal life. Diana herself had such a weird way of speaking and over-blown mannerisms that any attempt to recreate them feels like a caricature even if it’s not. I think Stewart is doing a very good performance, but unfortunately it’s as an unbelievable character, in an unbelievable situation with unbelievably bad dialogue. I found the film almost completely unbearable. 4 / 10

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
This biography follows the rise and fall of Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband, two of the biggest figures in American televangelism and their eventual downfall through scandal and fraud. The problem is that I don’t think anyone quite knows whether Tammy Faye was complicit in the fraud, whether she deliberately chose to look the other way and enjoy the fame and money, or if in fact she was actually too simple to even think contemplate what was going on. Rather than pick a motivation, or even creating a complex character that maybe could have blended different ideas, I felt the film makers actually just made a bit of a mess because they didn’t want to commit. I don’t know whether the character lacked agency because Tammy Faye did, or because the writers couldn’t work out what her agency was. All the impressive makeup and excellent acting from Jessica Chastain couldn’t make up for the lack of substance at the heart of the film. It’s entertaining, but in a cheesy hallmark movie kind of way rather than anything more substantial. 6 / 10

CODA
I signed up for Apple TV+ mainly to watch this film and it was one of my better decisions. It is a brilliant film, doing all the things that a good film should do – saying something interesting, exposing you to a world different to your own, being beautiful to look at and fun to watch. The characters and locations are vibrant and immediately believable, the family are each fully rich personalities in their own rights, but with complex relationships and groupings between them. The specifics of the story are original, but the themes more universal so there’s both something new to experience and something relatable.
The only minor gripe I had was some of the nuts a bolts of Ruby’s discovery as an amazing singer felt a little bit of a stretch. I cringed at the singing teacher making the teenagers sing Lets Get it On and romantic duets. But this is a coming of age story and a feel good film so I’m not going to get that cross because the film had me utterly gripped throughout and has really stayed with me. 9 / 10

The Tragedy of Macbeth
I don’t like Shakespeare. There, I’ve said it. The stories are ok, although it tends to be the same ones done over and over again, but in the original language I find them utterly indecipherable. On the plus side for this film, I studied Macbeth at school, so at least understood the plot (and all the slightly tedious metaphor and context stuff); but that also just meant that I could zone out of the dialogue completely because I didn’t need or like it. The only two saving graces of this film then are Denzel Washington’s performance (which ALMOST made me understand) and the production design. It was a fascinating style that blended stage elements and film lighting effects to make something other-worldly. So at least there was something interesting to look at while being bored by the film. 6 / 10

West Side Story (2021)
I really didn’t like the original and there’s a mixture of that dislike carrying over into this remake and being resolved. The thing that isn’t changed is that I don’t like the songs, they’re just not to my taste, but at least this version has the actors singing and so doesn’t have the dubbing issues. The dancing I also got along with a bit better this time, the choreography and scale of it meant I stayed focused on it and could see much more the beauty in the mixture of ballet and salsa and jazz. Unfortunately I still didn’t have much enthusiasm for the story, I don’t really get the starcrossed lovers thing (“I’ve seen you across a crowded room and now I will throw away all our futures for you”). The chemistry between Tony and Maria was solid and had a joy to it that I liked, but it didn’t completely blow me away and there were some deeply questionable character choices. I understand completely the decision to keep the Spanish unsubtitled, but I hadn’t expected there to be so much of it at such key moments that I just didn’t know what people were saying and so couldn’t engage fully with their characters and stories.
The film is beautifully designed, shot and directed; the cast all very solid… but the material does not sing for me, making the two and a half hour runtime a bit of a slog. 6 / 10

Robin Hood (Disney’s 1973)
One of my favourite Disney films of all time, this was a staple on rotation in my family growing up and the simple mention of it is enough to bring a big grin to my face. With the exception of a slightly insufferable love song in the middle the film absolutely charges along with an utterly improbable collection of animals in the various roles. Even after all these years, it still makes me laugh and sing along. 8 / 10

Stranger Than Fiction
What a brilliant film! I was expecting a mediocre rom-com with a typically irritating Will Ferrell character. What I actually got was a very smart, very funny, very sweet, tragic comedy that kept me smiling and guessing the whole way through. The direction was stylish without being over the top and the writing was clever without being smarmy. 9 / 10