The Society – Season 1

Unoriginal. I’m sure the creators of this show would be deeply disappointed that this is the first word I think about with this show, and I’m pretty disappointed too, although in fairness I didn’t have particularly high expectations. There’s almost nothing here that even the most charitable person could highlight as innovative, the only thing that I could really think of was that one of the main characters is deaf and that’s an integral part of him and the community around him and is almost unremarked on. Even the fact that he’s also gay feels a little generic in the modern young adult landscape (thankfully!). Beyond these positive steps forward in representation, which less charitably could be seen as remedying a failure of the rest of the world rather than a great step forward, there’s nothing going on here that hasn’t been seen dozens of times since Lord of the Flies in the 1950’s, and I doubt even that was entirely original.

Fundamentally we’ve got a group of teenagers left to fend for themselves after their town is cut off from the world and all the adults disappear. From there you could probably take a pretty good shot at working out how things will go, with a predictable bunch of high school stereotypes (jocks, partiers, rich kids, student council nerds, science geeks, neighborhood psychopath) in predictable relationships (high school sweethearts, bullies, sibling rivalries) and inevitable scenarios (dealing with crime, rationing, establishing democracy). Even the supposed twists are predictable. The TV Tropes page is quite the list.

Part of feeling generic is that it doesn’t feel modern. Other than the improved representation, this series could be set almost any time in the last 50 years. It would have been nice to see a more positive message – us grown ups are doing such a crap job at leading the world, wouldn’t it be good to have a version of the world run by the next generation, learning from our mistakes and making a better job of it? Rather than falling back to domestic violence, class-ism, violence, backstabbing and short-sightedness couldn’t we have seen a group of people working together to make something better? It feels like this is a show written by adults, and I’m not sure that anyone old enough to be sitting in a writing room can fully understand what it is like to be a 17 year old today in a world where all information, media and communication has always been at their finger tips, and climate change, (non)equal rights, and gun control have always been front of mind. Other than very fleeting references there’s hardly any discussion of how much of a struggle it would be for kids to no longer have working mobiles, or how much of an opportunity to have power to improve on things. Whether it’s true or not, it’s depressing that nothing seems to move forward.

It’s not that it’s badly made or anything, it’s perfectly fine. The actors are all good enough (although few are convincing as actually being teen aged) and the writing may be unoriginal, but it’s competent. It’s just that it’s very hard to get excited about something so generic.

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Books in April and May

I bundled two months of book reviews up together again, because I once again had a very slow couple of months reading. Partially because of my circumstances, but also because most of the books I’ve been reading just haven’t really grabbed me. The big exception being the first book below, which not only had me turning the pages, but adding loads to me to-read list.

Lucy Mangan – Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading
I seem to read a fair number of books about reading, and this is the first one that has really truly captured the joy of books and reading. I was sold on this book as soon as I saw the list of books that it covered because almost all of them I remember from my childhood, even just reading the titles made me feel warm and nostalgic. Although there are plenty of autobiographical elements in it, it never deviates from being completely about books, giving little bits of information about the authors and how their works were received. It even throws in some history and sociology, reflecting on the different way people have written for children over the centuries. Lucy Mangan has a lovely writing style, natural and unforced, with heart and humour. Even reading this book on a busy tube, I felt like I was snuggled under a blanket on a sofa with my favourite books for company.

Kate Mascarenhas – The Psychology of Time Travel
You can tell from the appendices of the book that a huge amount of effort has gone into the background of time travel, building up vocabulary and slang that would work in a community of people for whom time is fluid. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite translate into a solid book. I think the decision to tell the story from the point of view of people outside of the time travel community critically damaged the narrative, it meant that the science, logistics and (crucially) psychology of time travel was always slightly hedged in rumor and hear-say. It never felt like it was completely coherent. It would have been so much better to tell the story from within the time travel conclave, to fully immerse in it and be swept along with the way that people act within this context. Interestingly, I see the author is actually a psychologist. I wish she’d stuck to her strengths and really focused on getting in the heads of the characters, rather than getting bogged down in a murder mystery that didn’t really engage.

Tom Hanks – Uncommon Type: Some Stories
This book is exactly what I expected Tom Hanks to write, once I got over the slightly improbable idea of him writing short stories. If you know anything about the actor and his work, his choices of settings and themes will not surprise you – they’re about normal people, mostly living normal lives that are made extraordinary just because of the heart that goes into describing them. Hanks has an un-fussy approach that is really easy to settle into and carries you along. There’s nothing shocking here, minimal tension and hardly any drama so you can just relax into it and enjoy it. Just what I needed.

Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few
The core concept of this book is incredibly good. A fleet of ships that have fled a dying planet on a multi-generational search for a new home, but centuries later the ships ARE the home and although there are other options available, and some people leave, the fleet goes on. That’s a great set up. There are also some beautiful details of the culture and philosophies that have developed in the fleet, some passages really moved me. It’s also a good idea to follow a small number of fairly disconnected characters and cycle through their first person point of views, illustrating different aspects of the world. The problem is that there’s no plot. Each character is well established and has an interesting day-to-day life, and even some small elements of arc, but there’s just nothing substantial enough. I found it a book that was quite easy to put down and not very tempting to pick up.

Stephen King – The Shining
I’ve made it to a really quite considerable age before reading a Stephen King novel, and I find I really haven’t been missing that much. I can see why he’s such a good source for films/tv series because the ideas and characters he creates (at least as evidenced by this one work) are rich, interesting and vibrant. But I did not get on with his writing style at all. For a start it’s just so drawn out! Ironically when I reviewed the film of The Shining I complained that we “could have spent more time at the start when they’re ‘normal’ before the craziness starts”, well maybe that was a response to the book which took FOREVER to get there. I also didn’t like the disjointed nature of the writing, short chapters bouncing between different characters, most of whom were having some sort of hallucination or were half in flashback. I found it very hard to get lost in the book and kept reading faster and faster just to get through.

Films in May

New Releases
Rocketman – I was a bit nervous of this film going in. I’m not a particular fan of Elton John and I’d been frustrated by Bohemian Rhapsody which I’d found entertaining, but compromised in terms of addressing the full story of Queen and Freddie Mercury. Rocketman however managed to satisfy me on all fronts. The two films do share a director in Dexter Fletcher (who took over, uncredited, on Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer left) so there’s definitely been a learning path that Rocketman has been the beneficiary of.
A key thing that’s different is that this is a musical, not a film with music in it, but a film that immediately reveals that it will break into massive song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat. No excuses are needed for it, and they are utterly shameless in manipulating the emotions. Music can make you feel joy, sadness, anger, and connection almost immediately, and Elton John’s music is exemplary and used to tremendous effect. I was completely emotionally connected to the characters, utterly immersed and entwined with them.
One of the cleverest tricks Lee Hall the writer has done is to frame the biography as Elton’s own telling of his story. This is a bit of a get out of jail free card for any over-simplification of people or events or any overly “on the nose” dialogue; that’s just how he remembers it and presents it. Elton John doesn’t come across as a saint by any means, but it is still a one sided story with most of the supporting characters coming across as rather one-dimensional (particularly the ‘villains’ of the piece). But while that frustrated me hugely with Bohemian Rhapsody (lesson – managers are all terrible), it was absolutely fine here because it was all framed as Elton’s point of view. The only other rich character was the lyricist Bernie Taupin, who I didn’t know anything about and was played with beautiful understatement by Jamie Bell. Their relationship was just another of the points of joy of the film.
None of this would have worked without the breath-taking performance of Taron Egerton. He signs, he dances, he struts, he melts down and he does that thing that I just can’t even fathom – plays a character who’s playing a character, continually trying to present a different persona to the world and losing track of who is real. The only negative thing I can think to say is that I was occasionally distracted about how they were managing to dub in the original voice of Elton John because I couldn’t believe Egerton was actually managing to match him. He was. He’s just that good.
The word that I keep thinking of is ‘joy’. That may be a bit odd, because there’s a lot of heartbreak and darkness in Elton’s life and this film doesn’t shy away from that. But there’s a thread of joy running through it that never gets lost – Elton and Bernie love music, love creating it together and love the performance, and the audiences (both within the film and watching the film) love their music. I dare anyone to think of Crocodile Rock, or Pinball Wizard or Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting and not grin. I’m off to buy a soundtrack.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu
I’ve got no idea about Pokemon. I’ve never played any of the games or watched any of the cartoons, so I came with zero baggage. My cinema companions on the other hand are moderately obsessed with pokemon go and quite well versed in the details of the series. I think it’s really quite impressive that both them and I enjoyed the film thoroughly, it quite slickly delivers both the basics for newbies and the richness for fans. I wouldn’t say I understood everything completely, but it was a kind of happy lack of understanding as it all just bubbled over me. The universe of the film feels utterly credible even if it is bonkers, it all seems to have just about enough internal consistency to let you go with it. The plot is well paced and even if elements are predictable, and twists are telegraphed it manages to put enough spin on old tropes to get the job done. But if all that sounds a bit underwhelming, the most important thing is that it’s really fun. I laughed loads and was charmed even more; Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds both have such a natural delivery that it’s impossible not to be charmed into going with whatever they say. It’s also visually absolutely stunning, there’s so much going on (I love the use of famous buildings from around the world all blended in the new city), which makes it well worth a trip to see on the big screen.

Eighth Grade – I went in with big expectations based on lots of critical praise, and people saying how much of a revelation it was to see a presentation of a ‘normal’ 13/14 year old, someone quiet, anxious, uncertain and struggling. I wish I could say I liked it as much as others did. I certainly felt for the main character and could recognise parts of my own childhood, but as a whole I didn’t get lost in her like some people seem to. From an intellectual point of view it was interesting to see what it’s like being a 13 year old American today (specifically a white, reasonably affluent one) – with phones, pool parties, malls and changing schools at 14 rather than 11 as in the UK. Maybe it was just that there were too many differences for me to really connect to her. It definitely wasn’t a fault of the performance, that was very impressive for someone actually that age.
I often don’t get on with films that just kind of noodle along, not really having much of an arc, I often don’t find them very satisfying and that as true here. Obviously a swift resolution to the themes wouldn’t have been realistic at all, but it made me think again of how strong the concept of Boyhood was – jumping through periods of someone’s life to show things do change, just not quickly.

New to me
Lars and the Real Girl – The name of this film rang a bell, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good bell or a bad bell. The synopsis “a delusional young man strikes up an unconventional relationship with a doll he finds on the internet” is a bit risky and I wasn’t really in the mood to watch a film about people being cruel. I relaxed a bit when I saw Emily Mortimer was in it, as she can’t be anything other than lovely. And that’s what the film is, just lovely. It somehow manages to neither make fun of Lars, nor become too dark with the mental health issues being raised. It just deals with them, like people would (or at least as you hope people would) with kindness, empathy and humour. I came away feeling genuinely uplifted.

The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu) – I came incredibly close to switching this film off about 1/2 hour in, it was only really my lack of enthusiasm to find something else to watch that kept me with it. For a change my disengagement with the film came from the fact there was too MUCH going on, everything was thrown at the audience full tilt, exposition was delivered in intense ‘briefings’ rather than naturally and I felt like I should be taking notes. There were just too many characters, locations, timeframes, and plot threads. All of it was interesting, it was just so overwhelming that I never felt settled and confident that I was getting everything. This is a particular challenge when trying to follow very fast paced subtitles, I kept missing the beautiful visuals, or vice versa. Things didn’t make sense, but I think that was just because I was missing bits. All the ingredients were solid, it was just completely overwhelming.

Murder by Numbers – I figured I couldn’t go too wrong with a thriller starring Sandra Bullock, how wrong I was. This is TERRIBLE. It’s badly written, badly directed and even the charm of Sandra Bullock and a young Ryan Gosling cannot rescue it. There is no elegance to anything, no layers to anything. Characters are single note, plot twists are obvious, there’s no subtext or subtlety. The final indignity is the dramatic conclusion which has some of the worst blue-screening I’ve ever seen. If no one in the production could be bothered to put any effort in, then I don’t recommend any audiences do either.

Cafe Society – I remain, as ever, underwhelmed by Woody Allen. Cafe Society just kind of bumbles along, never being funny enough for a comedy, or challenging enough for a drama. I didn’t like or care about any of the characters, and was uncertain where anything was going. The only thing that really engaged me was pondering whether it was misogynistic or not, and while I didn’t come to a conclusion, the fact that I was thinking it is probably enough.

Good Omens

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are individually two of my favourite authors, and their joint work Good Omens has always been one of my absolutely favourites. Since hearing the announcement that it was being made into a TV series I was almost equal parts excited and anxious. Every bit of news that trickled out raised my hopes – Neil Gaiman’s involvement, each bit of absolutely perfect casting, every behind the scenes photo – they just seemed right. But even as I sat down to watch on the day of release I was scared. Previous television versions of Pratchett’s work just haven’t worked for me despite having all the right ingredients. Maybe what makes Pratchett’s words so perfect to read, just doesn’t work for screen.

I stayed a bit nervous until the title sequence rolled and then I started to relax.

Good Omens works. I’d been half expecting a really glossy, shiny, expensive Americanised series like American Gods; but Good Omens is none of these things. It’s quirky, quaint, a little shabby around the edges and incredibly British. It’s Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Enid Blyton (without the now dodgy bits), Vicar of Dibley, Dr Who. It’s charming and a little bit naff in places.

I burnt through 4 episodes on the Friday night it was released, and polished off the final 2 episodes before 10 am on Saturday morning. Frankly I’m a bit annoyed about that because I’d set aside all of Saturday to watch it and found myself at a bit of a loose end before it was even time for elevenses. The length is perfect though, it gets on with the plot without feeling like anything was dragged out or padding with red herrings. There was maybe another episode worth of fun to be had, particularly with the supporting angels, demons and horsemen, but that’s more me wanting to spend more time enjoying the series than it is about the quality of the pacing.

The casting is superb, full of names, voices and faces that are incredibly familiar, bringing instant chemistry and security. There’s a lot of hamming it up going on, at times it feels a little in danger of tipping over into an amateur dramatics production with people having a lot of fun. The special effects don’t help on that front, the CGI is often a little on the low budget side. The locations and sets also feel a little easy too, as if someone said, “you know what, there’s a building at the end of my road that would do for this”. But again, that kind of works. Shots of small village churches, London garden squares, shiny office lobbies all felt familiar and comfortable. They’re well shot, creatively framed with plenty of expensive crane and drone shots; it’s just they all feel a bit… quaint.

And that’s what the series needed. It’s exactly the right setting for Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s story of big events in small places. It gives all the space to the words from the page, delivered by exactly the right people. It was everything I could have hoped for and I absolutely loved it.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – Season 2

I was pretty negative in my review of the first season of Sabrina. My biggest complaint was that there was no real commitment, everyone was claiming they were dark and satanic, but in reality no one was actually doing anything. The series claimed Sabrina was being forced to make an impossible choice between being a mortal and being a witch, and yet there seemed to be no restrictions on her actions based on what she chose. At the end of my review I wrote:

One of the weird powers that Netflix seems to have is that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t like the series, I still watched the whole thing, and may well end up watching the second season. It’s like some kind of dark spell, because heaven/hell knows, there’s nothing in this series that actually rewards the time.

And yup, I came back and found all the same problems present and some exciting new ones.

One thing that was maybe implied, but not called out explicitly for season 1 was that I don’t really like Sabrina. She’s an annoying little princess who swans through life as the centre of attention. She is sanctimonious, goes looking for arguments, doesn’t listen to those around her and digs holes that make chaos for her friends and family. She’s a terrible friend – using people when she needs to, and making decisions for those around her, jumping to conclusions about what is right for other people without actually talking to them. I know she’s the star of the show, but the character doesn’t know that and yet always makes herself the centre of any story.

There’s a similar lack of charm in the other main characters, who are clunkily presented. Lord Blackwood is a pantomime villain, while Hilda and Zelda are given little to work with. In the background some of the supporting characters are actually having very interesting stories of their own. The three Weird Sisters get a bit more material and Prudence in particular is a much richer character; the developing relationship between Roz and Harvey is well told (even if Harvey is still a boring drip), Mary Wardwell has an interesting arc and the portrayal of Susie’s transition into Theo is carefully delivered. There are some very talented actors doing good work. They just don’t get to do it very often.

There’s a lot of meandering about for the first 2/3 of the season, stories that I can barely remember. There’s something about a prophecy, a lot of boys and girls chasing each other, an obligatory weird dream episode and not much actual Evil (or school work). Everything came to a bit of a head when the last couple of episodes seemed to have some kind of breakdown. It felt like everyone suddenly realised they’d been bumbling along all season and run out of time to build anything up gradually. The lurching gear change came so suddenly and awkwardly that I actually spent a lot of time assuming it was going to pull a magic trick – reveal that it was all a hallucination, or an alternate reality or something. It wasn’t, it was just bad writing. On the plus side at least it meant something actually happened… but it didn’t make much sense.

Still, I’m sure I’ll be back for Season 3 and will have yet another chance to complain.

Films in April

New Releases
Avengers: Endgame – I have written entire essays about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the individual films within it, and I could write at similar length about this one. But to do that I’d need to include spoilers and probably watch it another half dozen times. So I’ll keep it (relatively) brief and vague.
The biggest triumph of Endgame is that it stays true to the foundations of the MCU and the Marvel franchise as a whole. Yes, the stakes and scope are yet again take a step up from previous films (even the seemingly un-top-able Infinity War), but it never loses sight of the core foundations of characters, heart and fun. Somehow Endgame delivers not only a universe spanning plot and the conclusion of character arcs decades in the making, but it finds time for humour. It doesn’t even feel like it’s squeezing the humour in, it’s all completely entwined with the drama and the action, I’d be laughing, crying, gasping and cheering all at the same time. With the weight of expectations and quantity of stuff it needed to get through, it should have felt heavy; but the film had a lightness and elegance that in hindsight was missing from Infinity War. The only reason that the film really felt 3 hours long was because I made the mistake of drinking a large cup of tea before going in. Throw in an intermission and I would cheerfully have watched another couple of hours.
This is a film that I think any fan would be hard pressed to not like, because it was so clearly written for the fans. There were so many satisfying call backs and references that I found myself tearing up out of pure satisfaction. It’s not perfect, but given the scale of the ambition it was never going to be. I’m trying to resist thinking too hard about the mechanics of the plot because it may not stand up to interrogation. I suspect every fan will all have a couple of characters that they feel were under-served by either the film or the series as a whole, there are opportunities that have been missed and I almost need to grieve for those as much as for the arcs that were actually resolved.
I’ll often come out of these films wanting to go straight back in, but I think it may be a while before I can re-watch this one. I feel like I need to respect the film by allowing it to settle. I know the MCU is continuing, but Endgame marks the end of an era that I have absolutely adored and I need to allow myself some time to accept that ending. Just like when you finish reading a great book, there’s a sadness that there is no more, that almost feels like it overwhelms the joy that you had while reading it. “All good things must come to an end” and Endgame was a near perfect ending to a very good thing indeed.

The Highwaymen (Netflix) – The Bonnie and Clyde story from the side of the law is a great story that I can’t remember seeing done anywhere before. The film makers really committed to that perspective and the choice to have the criminal pair and their gang as little more than figures in the distance worked very well. The mixed feelings of people towards the criminals makes a really interesting backdrop to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward chase movie. It’s great casting of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the aging buddy-cup pairing. They are both charismatic actors playing to type, with Costner reserved and thoughtful, and Harrelson rambling and personable. They are immediately charming and believable as long standing colleagues who respect each other while also winding each other up. But somehow the film ends up being slightly less than the sum of its parts and it felt a little disposable, not really digging far enough into any of the issues to be satisfying. I was loading up wikipedia long before the film had finished to allow me to dig more into the events, people and issues of the time.

Unicorn Store (Netflix) – I think this was aiming for cute and whimsical but I didn’t settle into it enough to be charmed. The very thing that attracted me to it was unfortunately the downfall of the film for me – Brie Larson is a great actress but she was miscast here. I spent the whole film unable to work out what age the main character was supposed to be. I *think* she was supposed to be about 20, freshly dropped out of college and that would have just about worked for a coming of age film, someone who has chosen, or has been protected from having to become a dreary adult. But Brie Larson is closer to 30 and so I spent all my time feeling uncomfortable that she wasn’t getting the help/support/challenge she needed to deal with the real world appropriately.

Guava Island (Amazon) – I’m not really sure what this is. It’s 55 minutes long, so it’s not a feature film, but it’s a bit long for a short film. There are a few sections that felt like music videos. It has a slight other-worldly tone to it (eg the use of colour) that makes it feel a bit fantasy, but not quite enough for me to be certain. It’s mostly fairly light, but the end is quite dark. It feels a bit like a short film that got out of hand while they were having fun and the names involved could just carry it along to do what they wanted. It’s not bad, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I just couldn’t really get a handle on it.

New to Me
Shimmer Lake – This had been loitering at the bottom of my Netflix watchlist for ages and I had pretty low expectations, which led to a very pleasant surprise. It’s not the most expensive or the most polished of films, but it is a film that’s “enough” – funny enough, clever enough, speedy enough, original enough and satisfying enough. The trick the film plays with the time structure is a smartly delivered one that makes the film worth watching.

Northern Soul – Good grief this was a slog. I really had to force myself to keep watching and paying attention. I don’t quite know why it didn’t work for me, all the ingredients seemed ok and it’s had some solid reviews. I found myself bored by it all though, not engaging with the characters or their circumstances, or even really being able to track them. I didn’t feel the situations and cultures were really explained well enough for me to fully understand where everyone was coming from, it all just seemed a bit one dimensional and childish.

Kong: Skull Island – This was a lot better than I was expecting. Actually, “better” is probably the wrong word, I’m not sure that the quality was particularly good, with plenty of incoherence and predictability in the plot and some middling dialogue. But it was very entertaining, thanks to the great cast all having a lot of fun. The special effects were also impressive, giving a real sense of scale and solidity, and a true sense of character for Kong. It’s hardly the best film of all time, but it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

The Children Act – This is a film of two halves. The first half is a very interesting legal drama combined with the presentation of an interesting conundrum in a relationship. Both aspects are presented with respect and thoughtfulness. I found it particularly satisfying that there was very little made of the fact that the main protagonist was female, the type of decisions she’s making, the power that she has is just presented naturally, not as any kind of gender issue. In fact, I suspect that the film would be largely unchanged if any of the roles were recast in different genders.
The problem is that the second half of the film drifted slightly off the beaten track and made less sense. It subtly switched from being an exploration of rational people with conflicting ideas, to people making more irrational and emotional choices. It’s not that it’s badly written, and it’s certainly not badly acted as all concerned give impressive performances, I just didn’t like it as much. I wanted the more intellectual debate which is much less commonly done. I was just less interested in the melodrama.

Hereditary – I was going to write that “I don’t like horror films”, but that’s not really true. I don’t like films that are just scary for the sake of being scary, but I do like films that are using scary elements to tell a story about really interesting people. Hereditary falls into the trap that I quite often see in horror films (most recently notable – Us) where the horror is handled well, the character development is fascinating, and then it screws it all up by trying to explain what was happening. If not for the final act of the film, this could be an award worthy exploration of grief and anger. Toni Collette is exceptional, as is Alex Wolff with the difficult task of playing someone emotionally shut down. There are moments and scenes which will stick in my memory for the utter horror and shock, with very impressive coordination of effects, acting, direction, editing and music all working together for maximum effect. But then it just didn’t stick the landing. I completely lost track of what was going on, the steps the characters were going through made no sense and the action started to overwhelm the time needed to watch the characters.

Trois couleurs: Bleu – There were moments in this film that I was spellbound by the beautiful images and the complexity of the central character. Sadly those moments were hugely outnumbered by times when I was bored, disengaged and even frustrated by the obviousness. Everything moved so slowly that I kept wondering if I was missing something, conspiracies and hidden complexity. But there wasn’t. Things that I think I was supposed to find arty (the fade to and from black in the middle of a scene, the loud music, the use of blue) I found far too pointed and the lack of subtlety annoyed me.

The House with a Clock in its Walls – Perfectly fine kid’s adventure film. All the nuts and bolts are there, but there’s a slight lack of spark, even Jack Black felt a little off his game, maybe too much exposition and acting to wade through and not enough improvisation? Cate Blanchett was the standout really, delivering a beautiful character that was eccentric but grounded, closed off but emotional, and lovely chemistry with the other characters. It’s worth watching the film just to see a true master at work, bringing her A game even if it’s “just” a kids’ film.

Fyre – This is a well put together documentary telling some of the story of the disastrous Fyre Festival. There are are a lot of different elements discussed in the film, raising questions and presenting evidence and counterpoint to most of them. As a project manager I almost watched this as learning and development as it demonstrates just how badly things can go wrong if simple elements of planning are ignored. The power of a charismatic leader, group think, optimism bias and the damage that “can do” attitudes can cause if not tempered with pragmatism. With that in mind I found it a little disappointing that the ‘ending’ was all focused on the financial aspects and revelation of the levels of fraud one of the leaders committed. That skipped over the shared culpability of the other professionals involved (and talking frankly to camera without taking a huge amount of responsibility) for the entirely predictable failure. It’s a fascinating case study, and I could frankly run training sessions using the content of this documentary.

An Inspector Calls – A classic that holds up to its status. It’s a well put together story, or collection of stories – each individually is fairly predictable, but the overall idea was quite elegantly done and I didn’t know, or really guess what was going on until near the end when it came as quite a satisfying realisation. The only problem I had was that the last few minutes felt unnecessary and it would have been a stronger ending if it hadn’t added a final additional resolution.

Loving Vincent – The technical and artistic achievement of this film is absolutely incredible. According to imdb every one of the 65,000 frames is painted in oils on canvas, painting and repainting 853 different canvases to make 853 shots. Watching the film is a completely unique experience and really does take the breath away from the opening credits to the closing ones. Using the style and techniques of Van Gogh to tell his story is inspiring. However, it did not actually work for me as a compelling film. The visuals and the audio never felt like they merged together, it never felt like the voices were coming from the people on screen. I don’t know whether it was just my brain failing to engage in the unusual style, or if it was something to do with the reduced frame rate… I just couldn’t settle. I found myself wanting to close my eyes and just listen to the voices, or mute the volume and watch the images. Maybe I should have just watched with the subtitles on. An incredible film making achievement, but sadly not one I liked.

On Chesil Beach – Interesting. This feels the kind of film that should be studied more than enjoyed, although I think if you were going to do that you’d probably be better going back to the source book. I wasn’t quite sure that I was getting the full experience with the film. The actors did a fine job portraying the emotions of all the stages of the story – the charm and connection of the early romance, the awkward nervousness of the wedding night and then the anger afterwards. But I’m not sure that the events and actions of the characters were quite fully earned. Aspects were hinted at, but almost off hand, fleeting possibilities that felt shoehorned in. After spending a fair amount of time showing the establishment of the relationship, it didn’t feel like an equal amount was spent on the fallout, leaving the film feeling unbalanced and incomplete.

Rewatches
The Martian – A good old science fiction disaster movie, like Gravity and Apollo 13 this is pure geeky entertainment. Great characters and cast, great story, great emotion, great action, great humour. I was on the edge of my seat, I wept messily, and laughed out loud – and the blending of that is near perfect, the film never felt ‘heavy’, everything was done with incredible efficiency of show don’t tell and the diary narration conveyed all the action and emotion effectively. The presentation of all the science was completely credible, but better than that it was joyous – the science was all interesting, fun and heroic – not dry excuses and technobable. There were sections that dragged a bit and it maybe got a bit too bonkers towards the end, but those are fairly minor niggles. I’ve watched it multiple times (and read the book) and the emotional impacts are barely dimmed, if anything it’s even more satisfying and is turning into one of my very favourite films.

Sideways – The film just about manages to find the sweet spot between sappy, funny, touching and arty, never once drifting too far into one area. The character’s leaped off the screen and seemed so natural in their conflicts and feelings that their pain and embarrassment actually hurt. The direction was beautiful managing to be arty without feeling forced. The theme of wine and the setting of the Californian vineyards opened up a landscape and world that I’ve not seen before and added another layer of interest onto the film. I was impressed that the ending was ‘right’ rather than necessarily what the audience wants – it ends at exactly the right moment and exemplifies the way that this movie never says more than it has to.

The Cabin in the Woods – I don’t really like slasher type films because they’re dumb. BUT when a smart slasher movie comes along I’m the biggest fan in the world, so Scream is easily my favourite horror series. Cabin in the Woods is like Scream. But better, because it’s written by Joss Whedon. It’s a film that manages to mock the genre while respecting it, and ask deep and meaningful questions while still being rollicking good fun.
I’ll dutifully avoid the spoilers because they’re not necessary to understand that this is a great film. It does both the horror and the smart stuff really well, with hilarious dialogue, edge of seat tension and startling jumps tripping over each other. The icing on the cake is the cast with Whedon stalwarts like Fran Kranz and Amy Acker teaming up with complete unknowns (some of whom are a lot less unknown now – Chris Hemsworth has done alright for himself) and the mighty Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Absolutely brilliant! It reminds me a lot of LA Confidential, another great example of the genre, this time with a lot more humour. I laughed almost all the way through, particularly at the narrator. The cast are superbly charismatic and really exciting to watch. It’s fun, it’s different, it’s clever and it’s satisfying.

Up in the Air – I’m a sucker for a George Clooney film and this one was no disappointment. He is utterly charming in this (as in all things); even when he’s playing someone who on paper should be pretty annoying, he manages to make you care. There’s good chemistry with all the women around him, the romantic and the not, each relationship develops nicely through the film and everyone grows. I liked the style a lot with the little pieces to camera and the less-than-glamorous travel and locations. The ending threw me a bit, it’s not what I expected, but actually a really good choice for the film.

The Wedding Singer – It’s dated a little badly in places, making me flinch a couple of times, but the overall charm carry it through. The soundtrack alone is enough to make it worth watching, and Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are enough to make it fun.

Star Trek: Discovery – Season 2

I was unsettled by the first season of Discovery, unable to quite decide whether I liked it or not. I even watched it a second time before watching the second season and I’m STILL not sure whether it was good or not. I think if I can’t decide, it probably wasn’t; but the cast, spectacle and nostalgia for the franchise make it watchable. What did give me a bit more confidence was the series of shorts that were released between the seasons, which were not only very well written, but are eventually revealed to be quite important backstory for season 2.

Thankfully, that trend was continued and I’m a lot more confident in saying that season 2 was Good. It felt more like Star Trek, both in terms of the stories and the way the characters behaved. The crew actually felt like they were all pulling in the same direction and wanted to be there, that’s not a requirement for all series, but for me it’s a crucial part of Star Trek. Anson Mount as Captain Pike was the Captain that the crew and the show desperately needed – charismatic, leaderly, and fun. Trying to have the series without the Captain as the main character can work, but the Captain still sets the tone for the show. The set up for the first season didn’t work because Burnham was not only not in charge, but she was disconnected from everyone else. There was no one leading and bringing the ensemble together, they were just disparate people, few of whom really wanted to be there. In one of Pike’s first scenes he actually asked the names of the bridge crew and immediately the show became more about an ensemble of people. The ship was actually a real place.

Michael Burnham also finally felt settled in, she has found the crew and the position that she needs – she has responsibilities, respect and connections. From there she starts to come to terms with her family and her past. It felt a bit of a cheap trick at first to make her Spock’s never-before-referenced sister, but the complex relationship between Sarek, Amanda and Spock was interesting to see revealed. It also gave an emotional thread to the early episodes which were otherwise a bit random chasing mysterious red lights. Sonequa Martin-Green had some great scenes throughout the series and she’s a powerful leading lady creating a fascinating character. The setup for next season should provide plenty more interesting opportunities.

I’m still not convinced about whether the series really fits in with wider canon, even with the get out of jail free card that’s played at the end. To be honest, I’m not going to bother to look up what fandom thinks, I’m sure there’s a lot of well thought through analysis (and a lot that isn’t so coherent) but I don’t care that much. I guess that’s part of the problem with Discovery, I still don’t care that much. I look forward to the episodes each week, but I don’t feel particularly invested. I think that may be because of the way it sits in the middle of all the canon that makes it feel slightly irrelevant to the bigger picture. Future characters never mentioned Discovery, so it’s like the series is in a bubble. Making me care more about the crew as a whole is a good start though and the set up for next year looks like it has lots of potential for continued improvement.