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

Books in March and April 2020

Matthew Syed – Rebel Ideas
Matthew Syed takes on the subject of diversity, in its broadest definition – why it’s important to bring together people who think differently; whether that’s because they have different races, genders, backgrounds, training, specialisms or styles – you’ll get better results if people think differently and (just as importantly) can express themselves and be heard. As with all Syed’s books it’s fantastically well researched and grounds scientific explanations with vibrant anecdotes and personal accounts. It did start to lose me a bit towards the end when the theory got a little bit too heavy and theoretical, but the rest of it was interesting and entertaining to read.

Bridget Collins – The Binding
The book is divided into three sections and my enjoyment level varied significantly between the three. The book starts in a fairly classic way a young man with some sort of trauma in his past is apprenticed to a mysterious woman who may or may not be a witch. The fact that the blurb on the back of the book gives away the mystery is a bit of a shame, but it’s a well developed idea and the character is interesting. The second section becomes a lot less interesting, losing most of the fantasy elements that were the only reason I had picked up the book. The third section then turns into a bit of a jumble, with a new first person narrator that never quite felt coherent to me. A good start, that just didn’t work out so well.

Kate Atkinson – Big Sky
It’s been a long wait for a new Jackson Brodie novel, so long that I’d half forgotten the series. I suddenly remembered though that I had the dvd of the BBC series starring (hello to) Jason Isaacs so I recapped via that first. It was a good job I had because there were a lot of call outs in Big Sky to the previous works. It wasn’t until after I’d finished the book that I looked up my reviews of the previous works and realised that I had been less than glowing about a lot of them, which completely matched how I felt about Big Sky. On one hand, it’s a rich collection of characters and stories that gradually come together into something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. But on the other hand, it’s a mess of too many disparate elements that are brought together through completely unlikely coincidences (oh and there’s really not enough Jackson Brodie in it). I think as a disposable, relatively low impact thriller, it’s a satisfying read. But I went in expecting more and was a bit disappointed.

Harlan Coben – The Woods
If you’re looking for a solid thriller, Harlan Coben is the place to go. This book certainly kept me turning the pages and coming up with various new ideas and solutions every few chapters, and still managed to surprise me at the end. I did have a few moments of wanting to shout at characters for poor decision makers (the lawyer who doesn’t report the attempts to blackmail him seems particularly stupid) but I got better at just shushing that inner voice and enjoying the journey.

Anthony Horowitz – Moriarty
I suspect if I were a fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels I’d appreciate this book a bit more. I know enough to be able to spot that the style and tone were referencing the style of the original series, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy the style. There’s a smugness to the writing and many of the characters, the sense that the characters and the writer know more than the reader and are quietly gloating about that. That pushed me in the opposite direction a bit, and I found myself looking for the inconsistencies and errors even more than I usually would, and of course found plenty that either the characters or the writer overlooked. Just as I was getting very bored of the book though, there’s a twist at the end that was genuinely shocking and turns everything on its head in a way that was really very clever. So I’m torn, the excellent ending doesn’t change the fact that most of the book is fairly unremarkable and occasionally irritating.

Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson – Starchild
I was given three months subscription to a service that sends you random books from charity shops, and this was one of them. It’s a solid 60’s SF book that’s got some interesting stuff going on, some weird stuff going on and some incoherent stuff going on. It’s short enough to burn through and gloss over the things that make sense and it’s an ok read, but nothing to really write home about. It also turns out that this was book 2 of a trilogy, so maybe it would have made more sense read in the right order. I don’t mind random books, but not so random as to be midway through a series that is no longer in print.

Films in March 2020

Well isn’t the world very odd at the moment? I’ve not got the abundance of free time that some people seem to have, so I’ve not had a dramatic uptick in film watching, and my choices of films are tending more towards the low imapct end of the spectrum. I managed to get one last cinema trip in before they closed, and at least I ended on a high note.

Onward (cinema)
The concept behind Onward is that magic has been lost from the realm of fairy tale-esque creatures, they may be elves and centaurs, but they now live in a world of cars and smart phones. Ian and Barley are mismatched brothers who get the chance to spend one day with their father who died when they were very young, but they have to work together and rediscover magic in order to do it. It’s a really well crafted and fun story. Although all the familiar “tropes” of a magical quest are there, they’re approached in a fresh and self aware way. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland are wonderful as the two brothers, having a lot of fun but delivering real heart as well. I laughed out loud at both the spoken jokes and the visual ones, and teared up appropriately for the lovely emotional conclusion.
The problem is that if any other studio, even Disney Studios itself had made Onward all that praise would have been enough. But Pixar have set themselves an impossibly high standard, their films when at their best are works of art, creating vivid new worlds that offer stunning insight into our own. Onward is not that film. It felt like there was more that could have been done, more richness and detail in the magical world (compare with Zootopia), or creativity in visual style, or even in the soundtrack. I did enjoy the film immensely, but I don’t think it will stay with me and be one that I either reach down from the DVD shelf again and again over the years.

Alien Quaudrilogy
I watched my way through the Alien box set. Watching them back to back is quite interesting, as it highlights the similarities and differences. The first film in 1979 almost defined the whole genre, but by the fourth, nearly 20 years later the genre has left the series behind a bit.
Alien – Many of the special effects and even just film style now feel very clunky, even if they were groundbreaking. However the fundamentals of the story and how it feels to watch it haven’t changed. It’s still thrilling, and even after dozens of references and parodies over the years, it still gets the adrenaline going.
Aliens – Everything is bigger than in Alien – the sets, the size of the cast, and the explosions, the only thing that isn’t bigger is the brains. I felt it had turned this into more or a classic action film going from one set piece to another rather than telling a mapped out suspenseful story. Then to add insult to injury, they added a small child in, as if they realised that the marines were all utterly unengaging and both Ripley and the audience needed someone to actually connect with. It’s an exciting adventure, but I don’t think it does anything creative or special, unlike the first film.
Aliens 3 – At the end of this film it’s clear that this was supposed to be the end of a trilogy. Ironically when they eventually made the 4th film, it made this film be the one that’s most irrelevant. Opening by unceremoniously killing off the characters that Ripley had previously established relationships with, and the film never really finds that level of emotion and humanity again. Ripley is emotionally shut down, which is understandable but very boring, and the prisoners she finds herself with are hard to tell about. There’s just nothing here that jumps out or gives any personality.
Alien Resurrection – The nuts and bolts of the film bring absolutely nothing new to the franchise, with yet another rag-tag group fighting to survive against the alien menace and the usual selection of human antagonists. Fortunately Sigourney Weaver has something new to chew on, with the resurrected Ripley changed by her experiences, and a bit of Alien DNA. That iteration on her character actually makes this film rise above the previously unremarkable Alien 3.

The Boxtrolls (Netflix)
A really lovely, charming film that’s thoroughly original. It’s grungier than most Disney, perfectly suited to the intricate detail of the stop motion animation of Laika studios. The story is a classic one, but the details and specifics are rich and original. The voice cast is familiar, it’s hard to not see Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost and Jared Harris when you hear their voices, but that also means their characters are richer for their inherited histories. It’s a lovely film that I can see watching over and over again.

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.

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.

A Cock and Bull Story (Amazon)
What an incredibly odd film. All I knew going in was that it was a film of the supposedly “unfilmable” Tristram Shandy, it quickly became clear that this was much stranger and a blend of actual film, and a fictional account of the making of that film. I don’t know whether they tried to write that film and then realised they couldn’t or always set out to make this behind the scenes film, but either way I think the result is possibly inspired. Possibly. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon don’t hold back playing extreme versions of themselves. All the characters walk a fine line between parody and tender observation which gives the film a real heart beneath some of the cheap laughs. I wasn’t expecting a film with quite so many layers to it, and would actually quite like to watch it again now I know what to expect.

The Aeronauts (Amazon)
This is one of those films that is quite deceptive. It appears to be quite a straightforward period adventure story of two people trying to fly a hot air balloon higher than anyone has gone before in the 1860’s, with plenty of extreme weather, clambering through ropes, and life and death peril. But the character studies going on at the same time are what bring the film to life. Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne create rich and fascinating individuals and then bring them together in a relationship that’s adversarial, respectful, and challenging. I’m glad the film was structured with the balloon journey playing out in approximately real time through the film, while the story of how they got there is told through flashbacks, as a linear story it would have been predictable and probably felt too slow, but jumping around in time gave the story a lot more life. The film is beautifully shot, with period details on the ground and scenes on the balloon that are both claustrophobic and spacious. I wish I’d seen this on the big screen; even on a TV the shots of the balloon flying were beautiful, and I think at the cinema they would have been really breathtaking. It’s a lovely film that I think could easily be overlooked.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Netflix)
I was lucky enough to see this during the Picturehouse’s Studio Ghibli season and it’s a lovely film to see on the big screen. Some animations work on the big screen because of the amount of detail (Zootopia or Big Hero 6 for example), but this one works because of the simplicity of the animation. The simplicity of the lines, character design and the colours are so elegant on the big screen. It’s a pure kids film, a slow burning fairy tale but there’s enough touches of humour to keep it interesting for adults too. The majority of the film is a very gentle, slow ride which builds to an ending which felt a little rushed, but maybe watching things play out over the titles is the best way to gently break away from the lovely world.

Shrek (Netflix)
Learning from the Toy Story school of making animation fun for adults and taking it even further this Dreamworks CGI is a lot of fun. It’s not as subtle as Pixar at its best, but there’s plenty of jokes that made me laugh out loud. I think the biggest thing I remember about this film is the soundtrack that hits all the right points. The story is nothing special, but the injokes, side comments and references make this just as entertaining the 6th time as the 1st.

Intolerable Cruelty (Amazon)
A romantic comedy from the Coen brothers. Meaning it’s pretty black, deeply bizarre, very quirky and very funny in places. George Clooney is dialling up the smarmy charm and Catherine Zeta Jones the aloof manipulator; both playing their characters very carefully so they’re extreme, but don’t quite fall over into completely unbelievable. The looping of the plot did get a little tiresome, particular if you can see the steps coming, but the utter weirdness of the characters, and some great supporting characters keep it enjoyable.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Netflix)
As I was scrolling endlessly through Netflix, this this documentary caught my eye because I’d recently seen the Tom Hanks film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and I thought I’d try to get a little more insight. If you’re looking for hard hitting journalism here, you’re going to be disappointed and I didn’t really get anything more than I did from the dramatisation. There is some interesting insight into how he got into children’s television and then how he left it for a while before feeling he needed to return. However most of it is just a group of people talking about a very nice person. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but I think I’d prefer to watch Tom Hanks.

Blinded by the Light (Amazon)
Labels like “feel good film of the year” are frequently misapplied, either to films that are trying way too hard, or to films where there’s a lot of misery before the feel good. On the plus side, this film doesn’t have too much trauma, just enough to get the characters moving, and the feel good tunes kick in pretty early. But I never fully engaged with the characters, their stories, or the music itself and so never got the full benefits of the positivity. I felt like an awful lot of energy was expended in telling me how everyone felt and how amazing Bruce Springsteen’s music were, but I never actually felt it, so was just left a bit bored.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (DVD)
I remember this film incredibly fondly from my childhood, but actually haven’t seen it in decades. It’s hard not to compare it to Mary Poppins, despite being 7 years younger they had interweaving production timelines and shared several cast and crew, and most notably the songs for each were done by the Sherman Brothers. Mary Poppins clearly has the stronger cultural history and it’s sadly quite clear why when re-watching Bedknobs as an adult. If Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Poppins was dubious, the children in Bedknobs are an absolute horror which it’s very hard to get over. The wonderful Angela Landsbury is painfully wooden and delivers lines like someone that’s wondering what happened to her career. That’s a shame, because the story itself is charming, the characters are fun (David Tomlinson the only member of the cast seemingly having fun) and the animation is fun (the football match in particular). But the real standout are the Sherman brothers’ songs which are just as catchy as the Mary Poppins ones, and all the lyrics came flooding back as soon as I heard the overture (“Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee”). It’s still a fun film, but not nearly as timeless as it’s older sister.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (Netflix)
I just went back and reread my review of Pacific Rim and it’s interesting that while I absolutely loved the action and described it as loud, cool and fun in the cinema when I re-watched it on tv I downgraded it because the spectacle just wasn’t as good and started to reveal some poor scripting. I didn’t see Pacific Rim: Uprising at the cinema and maybe I would have thought more fondly if I had. One of the strengths of the original was that it didn’t have big name hollywood stars which gave the characters more individuality, here the lack of big stars just felt like it lacked talent. John Boyega was the notable exception, creating an interesting lead (the icecream scene was a standout), but the rest were a bit flat and failed to bring personality to either their own characters, or the massive robots that they were powering. The onscreen action sequences weren’t enough to distract from the fact that the plot and even the music didn’t give me the same punch of adrenaline. The whole thing felt like it lacked heart, didn’t have the same sense of jeopardy and desperation that the first did and just left me feeling flat.

Jabberwocky (Amazon)
I had a lot of complicated thoughts while watching this film, mostly because the film itself was so utterly boring and unentertaining that my brain desperately went looking for something else to do. I was trying to work out why I didn’t like this, but I do like Monty Python. There’s so much that overlaps with Python (people and style) and yet while I find Python hilarious, this just seemed ridiculous. I did have to wonder whether it was because I’d been TOLD Python was funny, and have seen it so often in the context of it being wonderful, whereas Jabberwocky was forgotten and overlooked. I guess I’ll never really know, but I certainly won’t be watching Jabberwocky again to give it another try.

Locke and Key: Season 1

This series has been a long time coming. Based on a highly regarded comic series started in 2008 the rights bounced around various companies it was originally loudly announced as a film trilogy, before converting to a TV series and having pilots made in both 2011 and 2017. Off that second pilot, Netflix picked up the show and then recast almost everyone and making the 10 part series that eventually landed in Feb 2020 and ending up with something that is perfectly fine, but I’m not sure was really worth the wait.

The series starts with Nina Locke and her three kids trying to get a fresh start following the murder of their husband/father the improbably named Rendell Locke. They’re returning to his family home – Key House, a massive rambling old house that looks exactly like the house in any horror or mystery film with massive rooms, antique fixtures, sweeping staircases and doors everywhere. My main thought is that it’s going to be a nightmare to heat.

It doesn’t take long for weird stuff to start and we learn that the house is home to a series of magical keys, each with its own exciting powers. It’s a nice gimmick and the series uses it well to have some fun, provide character insight and drive the plot forward. It does occasionally get a bit hard to track the number of keys, what they do, what the rules are and who has them, but generally when I found I was losing track a character would helpfully recap.

It is more teen drama than adult series, I’d liken it in tone to the later books of Harry Potter, not as childish as the early books because it deals with serious issues like alcoholism, grief and trauma, but still with a fair dollop of teenage ‘shenanigans’ like flirting and dealing with bullies. Given that it’s a story about kids, there’s no way it could go as ‘grown up’ as series like Game of Thrones, but it did feel like it was holding back on some of the more serious issues that could have been pushed darker. The kids aren’t too irritating, and the central trio of the Locke children have some fun sibling dynamics going on, but if you’re not a fan of teenage dramas, then you’re going to get frustrated.

The series is solidly put together, pacing fairly well through the 10 episodes. I did occasionally get frustrated with the frequent flashbacks (particularly because I found Rendell Locke a very annoying character), but it did feel like the history was revealed at a natural rate rather than people frustratingly keeping secrets just to drag the story out. Given the number of time periods, characters and keys to keep track of, it’s an achievement that it works as well as it does. There’s also some nice design work going on using the lock and key motifs (which I’m sure is straight from the graphic novel) which elevates the early episodes but feels like it fades out later in the series. The younger members of the cast are doing a good job with some complex roles, but disappointingly there’s something about a lot of the adult actors that just feels a little low impact, a little bit second tier and by the numbers.

I enjoyed watching Locke and Key a lot, but it’s not the kind of series that really stays with you and makes you want to re-watch it or desperately want another season. I do find myself wondering if there was a missed opportunity with the source material to make something superb, maybe by making it more grown up? As soon as there’s a story with teenagers though it feels difficult to make anything other than a teen drama which (apparently) requires cliches of love triangles and teenage uncertainties. But if you go in knowing what it is, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Books in January and February 2020

Oh dear, I’m off to a very slow start reading this year. I set myself the target of averaging one book a week and I’m waaaaay behind that, without even the excuse that the books were particularly long, although 2 out of the 5 books did turn out to be pretty bad.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 10: False Value
The previous book in the Rivers of London series saw the big ongoing storyline wrapped up fairly conclusively and I actually worried that it might be the end of the series overall. Thankfully Aaronovitch is clearly not done. False Value builds from what has gone previously and continues to extend the world, but is a fairly standalone story, and I’m actually quite happy he didn’t launch straight into a new big storyline. Peter is quite removed from his usual environment and although it’s fun to see him out on his own and sharing his more geeky side, I did miss the familiar supporting characters who were reduced to not much more than cameos. I found it easier than usual to keep track of the story (probably as it was so self contained) and as usual, found plenty of charm and fun in the writing.

Mark Hayden – Tom Morton Series: A Serpent in Paradise and Another Place to Die
Mark Hayden is creating a fairly well put together, if not hugely remarkable collection of characters. While it’s the King’s Watch urban fantasy series that is the more creative, he’s also got a nice side line in solid crime thrillers. It was the Operation Jigsaw trilogy that spawned the two main characters for each series and although the morally dubious Conrad Clarke gets the bigger adventures in the King’s Watch spin off, I actually prefer the more straight laced Tom Morton in this straight forward crime drama. On paper he may seem a bit dull, more likely to solve crimes with spreadsheets that with running about, and more likely to quote the rule book than shout in interrogations. However he’s passionate and good at what he does and with some more lively supporting characters the books are very satisfying.
The first book, A Serpent in Paradise has a great set up with a murder in a gated community full of highly paid sports people, plenty of room for intrigue, high emotions and drama. Tom’s more steady pace is a perfect contrast to the setting and the cast of suspects, witnesses and those in between is diverse and fascinating.
The plot of the second novel, Another Place to Die, is a little more forgettable, but Tom is working with a larger team here that makes things a bit more interesting and it’s another enjoyable ride. I was a little sad to find out it was only a pair of books not the familiar trilogy structure, but I can see how the author (and readers) got distracted with the more flashy King’s Watch.

Erin Morgenstern – The Starless Sea
Eight years is a long time to wait for a second novel, and sadly this was really not worth the wait. I loved The Night Circus for the beautiful world it created, and The Starless Sea is attempting to do the same thing, this time around… ok this is where the book failed. I genuinely have no idea what it was about. It starts off well with ideas of secret societies, hidden libraries, fairy tales and stories weaving together with reality. There was some initial satisfactions as things connected together, but then I lost the threads and everything unraveled. I ended the book not knowing how the timelines worked, what the rules were, what anyone was trying to do and unsure whether it was my fault for not paying attention, or whether it really did just make no sense. I found myself cross and looking for faults (most of the characters come across as bland, either because they’re under-developed or because they’re so mysterious that you never get a sense of them. The flashes of solidity give points of hope, but they slip away and you’re left trying to track a dozen different threads to try and work out the pattern and by the end, I’d either failed, or it turned out the pattern was a blur anyway. I was incredibly disappointed.

Karen Joy Fowler – Sister Noon
There are some nice characters and set ups here, but then absolutely nothing happens with them. Reading the author note at the end it turns out much of it is based on real people of whom there is much uncertainty between fact and fabrication. While I admire the author’s determination to not ‘guess’ about true history, it does not make for a satisfying book as without any certainty it’s just a book of rumour and hinting. I never felt fully grounded in the period (elements felt slightly anachronistic, but maybe that’s just my ignorance showing) and I was very bored by the end.

Films in February 2020

NEW RELEASES
Parasite (Cinema)
I didn’t see Parasite until after it had won all the awards, so I had fairly high expectations but had thankfully avoided all spoilers about the content and even the style. That freedom from preconception is really important for this film, so I’ll stay equally vague. Sadly there’s no way to get around the fact that everyone knows the film is supposed to be superb and that in itself can damage a film. It’s easy to watch the film looking for reasons why it should or shouldn’t have won awards than actually just watching the film. That’s especially true of a film like Parasite that on the surface doesn’t scream out that it’s doing something special. But it is. The more I sank into the film while watching it, and in the time I’ve been thinking about it since, there are layers upon layers of pure quality. It’s absolutely packed with everything anyone could hope for. The story is timeless but completely fresh, entertaining and engaging on the surface, but with levels and levels of depth and complexity. The direction and production design of the film is beautiful, but looks effortless rather than fussy or contrived. My only problem with the film is that being in Korean I felt I was missing out on some of the richness of the performances, struggling to identify the inflections and subtleties in the language. But even without that nuance, the ensemble cast still shone and connected.
This film not only thoroughly deserved its Oscar win, but it’s win gives me hope for the awards and cinema as a whole.

Birds of Prey (Cinema)
I’d like to say that I went to see this to make a point about seeing films (particularly action / superhero films) written and directed by women, but I’m afraid I didn’t. I went to see this on a complete whim, I came out of one cinema screen and didn’t feel like going home, and this was the next thing on. I was very happy with my choice. OK, it’s not a masterpiece that’s going to be winning academy awards, but it was exactly what it needed to be and should be – bright, exciting, engaging and with just enough substance to it to raise it above disposable fluff. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is mesmerising, she may seem bonkers, but she’s actually seeing things possibly more clearly than anyone else. The world she lives in is insane and she’s just reacting accordingly. The rest of the Birds of Prey can’t quite find the space to shine for most of the film, which is a little disappointing as for most of the film any scene without Harley in it is just a little duller and starts to lag. In the unchallenging competition of the DC cinematic universe, this is the first one that hasn’t disappointed me.

Uncut Gems (Netflix)
When I see the name Adam Sandler attached to a film I expect something somewhere between an inoffensively charming rom com and an unbearabley awkward comedy. This is absolutely nothing like anything he’s ever done, and he’s amazing in it. He plays a gem dealer dodging from one slightly dodgy deal to the next, but the edges of his world are closing in, the deals are getting tighter, the risks are getting higher. The sense of pace and claustrophobia of the film are incredible, I spent the whole thing thinking disaster was around every corner and each time he just about negotiates a way through it just got more intense. I didn’t actually enjoy watching it because of that tension, but I was very impressed by it.

OLDER FILMS (roughly ordered good to bad)
For Sama (TV)
I’ve passed on multiple opportunities to see this film but eventually, after it won the BAFTA and the people behind the film spoke so powerfully, I figured it wasn’t something I should avoid. I’m so glad I did. I’m woefully under-informed on why there is a conflict in Syria, and this film does not do much to fill that gap. However the film isn’t about that, it’s about what it’s like to be on one side of the conflict, to live, work and raise a family in the city that has always been your home and is now a battleground. Waad Al-Kateab is a journalist and film maker, her husband Hamza Al-Khateab is one of the few doctors left in Aleppo and he is trying to keep a hospital running. When Waad becomes pregnant they decide to stay in the city they love, fighting for what they believe, and helping their friends and community. The footage in the documentary is intense, brutal and at times almost unbearable. But also intimate, gentle and occasionally even joyous. It is an absolutely unparalleled look into what individuals actually experience in these situations, behind the news footage and the headlines and it is the kind of film that everyone should watch.

The Favourite (rewatch, DVD)
What an odd film. I mean from the director of The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Dear, that’s hardly surprising. In fact the only thing that’s surprising is the fact that such a weird movie is getting such a huge mainstream release. Of course that’s mostly down to national treasure Olivia Colman who is perfectly cast and perfectly delivers the complex heart of the film – a farcical character driven by incredible tragedy. There are few actresses that could manage to imbue a character with such strength, childishness, pride, rage, loneliness and just all round complexity. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone have relatively simple roles beside that, but the triangle of the three of them is only as strong because of all three points. That complexity and confusion occasionally lurches in the film, and while the ending was ‘right’ it maybe wasn’t as satisfying as I might have wanted. But I was impressed, entertained and quietly stunned through the whole film and can’t think of anything that compares.

The Post (rewatch, Amazon Prime)
It’s somewhat astonishing that Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have never worked together before, and when you add on an excellent supporting cast and an interesting, and topical, historical event you’re on to a winning formula. I would suggest that the film doesn’t really do much more than put those ingredients together and let it go, there’s not much in the way of embellishment or decoration to it, but then good ingredients do speak for themselves. Everyone is on solid form and the whole thing trips along nicely, just about keeping me understanding a story and background that I knew almost nothing about. I don’t think there’s anything particularly remarkable about the film, but when it brings so many greats together, it can’t help but be something a little bit special.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (rewatch, DVD)
I had issues with the previous film failing to capture the wonder and excitement of the original Jurassic Park and feeling rather soul-less. With my expectations lowered accordingly, I was actually pleasantly surprised that Fallen Kingdom does manage to do something new, to raise some interesting questions about the dinosaurs and tug at the heart strings. The mixture of actual plot and action sequences is just right, never leaving it too long without some excitement, but also not dragging sequences out until they get dull. Yes, there’s plenty of cheesy moments, and the plot doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but the characters are fun, the cast charismatic and the special effects convincing. There wasn’t a single moment of the film when I was bored or my brain escaped back to the real world. Exactly what I’m looking for in Jurassic Park films.

Long Shot (Netflix)
A comedy starring Seth Rogen was not something I instinctively thought I’d enjoy, but Mark Kermode said that it was not what you’d expect and I thought I’d give him, and the always excellent Charlize Theron the benefit of the doubt. They weren’t wrong. Both Theron and Rogen are perfect for their roles, her as the ambitious politician who still has plenty of humour, heart and humanity underneath her perfect exterior; him as the crass and scruffy but principled journalist. They’re an unlikely partnering, but the chemistry is immediate and enjoyable to watch, powering through the rest of the film and the usual unlikely rom-com events pushing them together and pulling them apart. I wouldn’t say it’s a complete classic, but it’s a rare adult comedy film that really did make me laugh.

Deadwood (DVD)
This isn’t really a film. It’s really a double episode finale of the TV series that we’ve just had to THIRTEEN YEARS to. Mind you the TV series was always pretty cinematic anyway, as one of the grandfathers of the latest ‘golden age’ of television that saw series like The Wire and The Sopranos start to show what could be done on cable channels with big commitments, big budgets and allowing the series creators far more autonomy than was found on networks. If this film had played out as the series’ fourth season it would have been a perfect fit, as a film it’s a bit odd. There are little clips of moments from the original series that are a bit clumsy if you know the series (I rewatched it recently) and it’s all wrapped up a little too neatly for a series that is so uncompromising. Still, it was lovely to see the cast together again (no small feat) and if my biggest complaint is that I was left feeling happy and satisfied, than I should probably keep my mouth shut.

My Neighbour Totoro (rewatch, Netflix)
Despite some beautiful visuals, I’m afraid I was unimpressed by this film. I was certain I must have seen it before, but I either completely forgot it or actually have missed it when I’ve watched other Studio Ghibli films. There were some scenes and individual frames that I would happily have as prints on my wall, the softness and detail of the backgrounds, combined with the simple impact of the characters are really breathtaking. But the story just didn’t sing to me. Maybe it was the quality of the dub, but I never quite lost myself in the characters, they always felt like voices and animation, not that I was watching whole people. It is however very clear how other future Ghibli works grew from these foundations.

Mrs Lowry and Son (Netflix)
Timothy Spall’s second excellent performance as a British painter, but yet again in a film that is nowhere near as good as his performance. I knew nothing about Lowry and the film portrays a fascinating relationship with his elderly, bullying mother (played by the wonderful Vanessa Redgrave). But the writing is painfully poor at places. Incredibly on-the-nose dialogue that even these talented actors can’t quite make feel natural, clunky flashbacks and overly malodramatic sequences that just make the whole thing feel slightly cheap. There are some powerful and beautiful moments, but those are largely either when the actors have no words to say, or the director is seeking out the artistic visuals.