Books in Aug and Sept 2022

A very slow couple of months for reading, although the top book was probably thick enough to count for at least 3 books.

Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 6: The Ink Black Heart
When each of these books come out, I roll my eyes at the size and weight, grumble about poor editing and over indulgent authors… and then thoroughly enjoy every single page wishing it would go on longer. Somehow Galbraith/Rowling manages to give pace and energy to a glacially slow story which drags out both the mystery itself and the relationships between the characters. I do get a bit tired of the will-they-won’t-they relationship, but it is at least realistically told. The twist in the mystery featuring lots of social media aspects was well handled, with tweets and message boards compellingly integrated to the narrative. Despite its length I read it in just a few days, quite unable to put it down.

Elizabeth Macneal – Circus of Wonders
Set in a Victorian ‘freak show’, following the triangle of the ambitious circus owner, his brother and the unlikely new star of the show. The shifting balances of power, desire and need are carefully played out. But I found the whole thing a bit light. I didn’t really get the wonder or the emotions, I just didn’t get lost in it.

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

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Films in Aug and Sept 2022

I’ve had a fair amount of life stuff going on recently which means I’m very behind on writing up reviews, but I’ve also not been watching much, so at least it matches.

See How They Run
There’s a kind of sub-sub-genre that could be vaguely described as Agatha Christie murder mysteries but not taken seriously, but not a completely stupid parody, so still a proper murder mystery, just emphasising the slightly ridiculous characters. Think Knives Out. See How They Run is more directly connected to Agatha Christie as it’s set around the early days of the Mouse Trap (it doesn’t spoil the show, and you don’t have to have seen it, but there are a couple of jokes you may miss). I really enjoyed the whole thing, the mystery was solid, the characters large but believable, and I chuckled fairly consistently. I really wish there were more films like this, just easy going solid entertainment. 8 / 10

Do Revenge
I really enjoyed this! It’s a high school spin on Strangers on a Train and knowingly plays up to all the tropes of high school movies – ‘kids’ blatantly played by 20-somethings, with too much money, no schoolwork, overworked cliches and overblown relationships. There isn’t an ounce of realism in this film and it was therefore a brilliant bit of escapism. The actors are all charismatic and utterly believable playing preposterous characters; the twists of the plot are both predictable and ridiculous and it’s a riot of colour and energy. Exactly what I needed. 8 / 10

Persuasion
Coincidentally I read Persuasion earlier this year and given that I usually hate this kind of book, gave this one the dubious positive review of being “the best one I’ve read” with a “quite likeable” lead character. I therefore went into the film tentatively, particularly given that it seemed to be getting terrible reviews, but I actually rather liked it! It didn’t take itself too seriously, and I thought the breaking of the 4th wall and Dakota Johnson’s performance was actually really fitting for the book and brought a nice energy to the whole thing. There were a few too many characters to keep track of (the same problem I had with the book), but the more comic characters were played beautifully. 8 / 10

Lightyear
There’s quite a clever idea behind this film – the toy Buzz Lightyear is tie-in merchandise to a film, and this is that film. I like the meta-ness of that. I also loved the trailer, set to David Bowie and absolutely beautiful. Sometimes Pixar manages to pull off that balance (Inside Out, Wall-e), but here the two ideas just fight each other. On one hand you’ve got a kids’ film with an overblown (and frankly annoying) lead character, a robot cat and band of misfits. On the other hand you’ve got a complicated plot relying on understanding Special Relativity and ethical dilemas about when you should fight a situation, and when you should make the best of it. the film does look absolutely beautiful, but as a whole, it just didn’t work. 5 / 10

Dog
A former soldier with a lot of stuff going on is forced into a road trip with a former military service dog who also has a lot of stuff going on. It’s not exactly challenging to guess where this story will go and it doesn’t even try to subvert the genre in the slightest. But this sort of story works for a reason, and so long as you’ve got a charismatic lead (Channing Tatum – tick) and an excellent dog (tick) then you’ve got a recipe for success. Plenty of humour, plenty of emotion. Big tick. 7 / 10

Moonfall
This is a terrible film. If not for some of the names attached (Roland Emmerich, Halle Berry) and the scale of the budget and effects, you would assume it was knocked together in a basement somewhere. The plot makes very little sense even if you can ignore the horrifically bad science, the script is clunky and the acting hammy. It is at least pretty to look at, but it completely fails to capture any of the energy or entertainment of Independence Day and it makes even Day After Tomorrow look like a masterpiece. The only thing it has going for it is that it’s not offensive in any way except for the waste of some money and a small amount of talent. 4 / 10

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
I don’t know why I decided to give this film a second try, maybe because the concept of making a sort of superhero team out a random collection of literary characters in a steam punk setting is so good. But the reality is a mess. The script is absolutely dire, a messy plot, inconsistent characters and just terrible dialogue. The look of it is also a problem because everything is so dark it’s hard to understand what’s going on, and to be honest just not worth the effort. An absolute waste. 4 / 10

The Wind
I feel like I should write something really carefully considered about this film, but I just can’t seem to be bothered. It’s supposed to be a horror film, and it’s relying on the unsettling nature of the utterly desolate setting of the edges of America in the late 1800’s, a pair of couples trying to make their way surrounded by frankly nothing. But within about 10 minutes my attention wandered and I disengaged. The cinematography was beautiful and maybe in a cinema would have been enough, but the story and characters were fairly unremarkable, and the jumping timeline kind of ruined any sense of surprise. It’s not terrible, and at least it’s under 90mins, but it could probably have been under an hour and not lost 6 / 10

Sister Act
A thoroughly entertaining and feel good film. Yeah, it’s a bit dated now and there are plenty of daft moments, but when I stumbled across it on television I still found myself laughing, smiling, and singing along. The only thing that surprised me was that it was actually a bit light on the songs, particularly as most of them get reprised. 7 / 10

Prometheus
There’s absolutely no reason this film shouldn’t have been great, it had a massive budget, an excellent cast, talented crew and the kind of creative freedom only a name that Ridley Scott can bring; it had “how can it possibly fail?” written all over it.
The answer is apparently that it can fail through sheer laziness on the script writers parts. The story made no sense! Plot holes you could drive moons through, astronomically stupid characters, bludgeoning the ‘suspension of disbelief’ barriers until they break and a casual disregard for science, health and safety, or common sense that is just offensive. Maybe they forgot the basics while they were droning on with “where do we all come from” mystycism. Alien was just about some believable people trying to survive and that was why it was tense and engaging, idiots trying to find the answers to life’s eternal questions… who cares.
If you can’t make the plot work without characters making stupid and random decisions, the plot doesn’t work. If you insist on your characters being stupid and random, then I’m not going to care when they get splattered, in fact I’ll likely give a little cheer. Oh and insisting on putting female characters in their underwear (and utterly impractical underwear at that) isn’t going to help your case either.
The only positive thing I will say for the film is that the cast did their best with awful material. Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender were superb, Idris Elba was charming (with the exception of his meandering accent) and Charlize Theron took her idiotic character and made her interesting for a little while. The cast deserved better. As did the viewer. 5 / 10

Alien: Covenant
Given how utterly awful I found Alien Prometheus, I didn’t have high hopes for Covenant, and yet somehow I think they actually managed to make something worse. Just like Prometheus, we’ve got an incoherent plot, stupid characters and interminable mysticism and talking, when all I really wanted was running and screaming. There’s also way too many characters to keep track of, a lot of stuff happening in dark uninteresting caves and a slightly under-whelming hero. The only positive is that there were a lot less gratuitous underwear shots, so at least it only insulted my intelligence not my morals. 5 / 10

Birds of Prey
This 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. 8 / 10

Books in July 2022

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

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

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

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

Films in July (2022)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books in June 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

Films in June 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books in May 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Films in May 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

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

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

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

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

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

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

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

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

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

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