Films I Saw in 2019

By the numbers
I saw 201 films in 2019, that’s pleasingly over 200 and a long way up on last year’s 167, but frustratingly slightly short of my record of 206 films in 2016. Of those, 127 were films that were new to me, so that’s nearly 2/3 new and 1/3 comfort repeat viewings which is a pretty healthy ratio I think.

I only saw 23 films at the cinema this year (11%), a long way down from 39 (22%) last year. I just don’t think there were as many films that I felt like going out for, less big blockbusters and spectaculars that felt like they had to be seen on the big screen. The number of films on both Netflix and Amazon were higher (59/29% and 55/27% respectively). Netflix in particular had some very good and varied original releases, although I’m not sure there were any that I would have gone to the cinema to see. I had a fair number of film days at home (frequently accompanied by either lego or a jigsaw, my stress reliefs of choice). Those were often days of comfort films that I know are good, or a little more risk taking with films renowned as classics (rightly or wrongly) or complete left-field choices when I get bored surfing too far in Netflix/Amazon lists.

43 of the films I watched were released this year, 21% of all watches, and another 32 from last year to make 37% of all my viewing new-ish films (I go by UK release date, so some of the 2019 releases would have been 2018 films in the US). That’s substantially less in both number and percentage than last year, even though many more new releases are available through streaming services. It just didn’t feel there were as many films to get excited about. I wasn’t going out of my way to catch up on classics, so I’m ok with the fact that only 28% of the films were more than ten years old.

Top films of 2019
The more I look at the list of 2019 films, the less enthusiastic I am about the year for film overall, there were far fewer films that I wanted to see enough to go to the cinema for and the one’s that I did see, or catch up on via streaming services were mostly either ‘fine’, or had bits of greatness undermined by flaws. I’ve broadly labelled 15 as good (35%), 5 as bad (12%) and the rest somewhere in the middle. For comparison, last year 39% of the films I watched were ‘good’, but the same percentage (12%) were bad. So it’s just that films this year were slightly more likely to be ‘ok’ rather than great. However I’ve managed to pull together a top 10 I’m happy with, even if anything much more than 10 would have been a challenge.

1) Avengers: Endgame – For me, the film of the year, the one that I had been counting down to with equal parts excitement and dread, and I was hugely relieved that after 21 films, Marvel and the Russo Brothers completely stuck the landing with a blockbuster experience of epic proportions, grounded by beautiful characters and heartbreaking emotions. Whatever the nit-picky flaws, this film and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole is a truly stunning cinematic achievement.

2) Rocketman – From a purer point of view, for me the best film of the year was Rocketman. After the entertaining mess of Bohemian Rhapsody last year, I had low expectations of the Elton John biopic and I was completely overwhelmed by this beautiful film. It felt like a true and open account of the life of a human being – with all the joy and heartache, complexity and simplicity that is true of any individual’s life. The use of his music is perfectly integrated to make it a true musical film, and Taron Egerton is for me, the standout performance of the year.

3) Marriage Story – The story of a family struggling through divorce may not appeal when you’re skimming the endless options on Netflix, but it’s an absolute masterclass of writing and acting, both with an intense truthfulness that is really remarkable. It’s a film that hits hard and then really stays with you.

4) The Favourite – After careful checking I can include this as it was released on 1st January 2019 in the UK. On paper it probably shouldn’t work, it’s all over the place in tone, but it somehow it all comes together in a weird and wonderful way. The three leads are all fantastic, riding the waves of different tones with grace and power.

5) Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon – charming, funny, beautiful and creative, another masterclass from Aardman that works across all the generations and is a particular treat for sci-fi fans. It was pure joy, in a year when many of the most anticipated animations chose to push very different emotions.

6) Downton Abbey – took a TV staple to the big screen without getting carried away and trying to do anything too drastically different; so it was just as charming, easy going, and daft, and as much fun in a cinema with a big crowd as it was on a Sunday night on the sofa.

7) Little Women (2019) – Greta Gerwig took my favourite book and did something faithful, creative, current and loving with it. Personally I wasn’t completely sold on the inter-weaving timelines, but I really respected the care that it was done with and the additional layers it added.

8) Pokemon Detective Pikachu – a chaotic blend of classic noir detective with a bonkers universe of magic critters that shouldn’t work but really really does, even if you can’t tell your Charizard from your Psyduck (and yes, even after seeing the film twice now, I still had to look those names up).

9) Joker – I put off watching this for a long time and eventually gave into the hype and was still surprised and impressed by it. Regardless of controversy, or how it fits in with the DC universe it is still a fascinating film with an incredible performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

10) The Two Popes – A surprisingly engrossing film just full of conversations between two old men, who just happen to be the current and future pope and played by two acting legends. I was completely gripped in a way that some of the most adrenaline fueled action films haven’t managed. This is exactly the kind of thing I never imagined Netflix producing.

Worst film of the year, or maybe just my most controversial opinion of the year, was The Irishman, over-indulgent and boring, edit 90 minutes out and it would have made it up into middling, but even if it were 2 hours it would still have been boring, at 3.5 hrs it was interminable (and even at that length there still wasn’t apparently space for a meaningful female character). The other really bad films of the year are probably ones that no one will have heard of anyway – Unicorn Store (presented as a charming story of a young woman who loves unicorns, comes across as a woman with mental health problems who’s not getting the support she needs), Velvet Buzzsaw (all over the place) and Vox Lux (nice idea very badly done).

Animation – 25 films (12%), including 10 Disney films

  • Best of 2019 – Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon, a true masterclass in how to convey humour and emotion through wordless Plasticine.
  • Best of recent years – the brilliantly original Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (even if some of the animation made me feel a little motion sick).
  • Classic – slightly pointedly I’m going to pick the original animated The Lion King, I watched this instead of going to the cinema for the new one and didn’t see any need to bother going out. For non-Disney The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! or Coraline
  • To be avoided – Loving Vincent, maybe don’t avoid it completely and just watch 5 minutes, because the animation is INCREDIBLE, each frame literally an oil painting. BUT it doesn’t turn into a film, the voices are completely dissociated and I actually physically couldn’t watch and listen at the same time. Also Missing Link unfortunately which I found flat, simplistic and incredibly unremarkable which was hugely disappointing from the usually wonderful Laika studios.

A trend that I’ve spotted in children’s animations stopped me completely loving two of the big animated releases of the year – Toy Story 4 and How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World (and Frozen 2 skirts near the issue too). Trying to be vague on spoilers, they end their franchises on a decisive goodbye that left me heartbroken. It wasn’t that the outcomes were ‘wrong’ for the stories that had been told, it’s just that it didn’t seem like the writers had to take the stories in that direction and could have given the audience a “and they all continued to have adventures and lived happily ever after” ending. I don’t watch kids’ films for gritty realism, I don’t want to leave the cinema in floods of tears that mean I can’t re-watch the earlier films without knowing the sadness is coming.

Documentaries – 7 films (3.5%)

  • Best of 2019- Fyre is on the entertaining end of the documentary style, but beneath the insane personalities there is some fascinating business psychology that really spoke to me as a project manager.
  • Best of recent years – a tie of two from 2018 Free Solo and McQueen are both fascinating character studies, both incredibly tense and affecting although for different reasons.
  • Classic – Catfish has some questionable legitimacy but a surprisingly touching conclusion and is undeniably important.
  • To be avoided – I wouldn’t say avoid it necessarily, but approach The Great Hack with caution as I found it kept sidestepping the really interesting points to tell a sensational version of the story.

SF / Fantasy / Horror – 28 films (14%)

  • Best of 2019 – Pokemon Detective Pikachu, or if you want a purer SF, I Am Mother. It felt like there was a bit of a gap in the big releases here, although I should highlight that I haven’t seen Star Wars. Maybe the studios were avoiding clashing with Avengers and maybe even Game of Thrones on TV.
  • Best of recent years – Snowpiercer which did classic SF concepts very well.
  • Classic – Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 40 years on and this film still feels incredibly vibrant and relevant.
  • To be avoided – The Mummy – a truly rubbish plot and Tom Cruise at his most irritating. Also The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu) and Geostorm which were both messes.

Superheroes – 28 films (14%)

  • Best of 2019 – Avengers: Endgame – duh
  • Best of recent years – as I’ve already called out Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in the animation category, I’ll go with X-Men: Days of Future Past just to call out something that isn’t in the MCU.
  • Classic – Iron Man where it all started in 2008 (which is pretty classic as this genre goes), it was a great film then, and as the foundation of an empire, it still holds up really well. I watched all 21 of the MCU films in order and went on about it at length and ranked them from best to worst if you want to see where they all rank.
  • To be avoided – Justice League was a disastrous mess of a film and Ghost Rider wins the award for worst film that I saw in 2019.

Comedies – 38 films (19%) that I think were predominantly meant to be funny

  • Best of 2019 – The Favourite. I know many people wouldn’t consider it a comedy, but in the end I classed it as a comedy because I remember laughing out loud more than in any other film, despite there also being some heartbreaking moments and a lot of intense drama.
  • Best of recent years – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – this had no right to be anywhere near as funny or as engaging as it was, managing to do three difficult genres really well – high school, body swap AND video games
  • Classic – Life of Brian which I hadn’t seen in years, but still manages to be hilarious and surprisingly cutting
  • To be avoided – Cafe Society was Woody Allen at his noodling worst and The World’s End was a very disappointing end to the otherwise brilliant Cornetto Trilogy.

Musicals – 7 films (3.5%)

  • Best of 2019 – Rocketman, the songs are completely, and beautifully integrated with the narrative making it a true musical, rather than just a film with music in it.
  • Best of recent years – Mary Poppins Returns can be loved just as much as the original. Phew.
  • Classic – The Muppet Christmas Carol of course. With an honourable mention to Dreamgirls because Muppets is basically going to monopolise this category forever.
  • To be avoided – this may be controversial but I couldn’t stand Guys and Dolls – it was too long and lacked enough substance. Also I’d exercise caution with Richard Curtis’ love letter to The Beatles, Yesterday, it left me really uncertain whether it was a lovely feel good film, or contrived, confused and sexist.

Films not in the English Language – 8 films (4%)

  • Best of 2019 – Den skyldige (The Guilty) a very tightly put together thriller. (I know most people would put The Farewell but I was spoiled by the hype and ended up disappointing that it wasn’t as funny or as emotional as I’d expected.
  • Best of the rest – to be honest, nothing that I would bother calling out. Normally the foreign language films are self selecting as really good because otherwise we’d never hear of them, but this year has been disappointing, even with only a very small number.

[This is where I run out of well defined genres and broadly split the ‘rest’ of the films into either “films that are supposed to be entertaining” or “films that are supposed to be dramatic”. Which is a pretty fuzzy distinction, but it’s the best I’ve got at this point.]

Entertaining films – 26 films (12%) – action, romances, murder mysteries and the like

  • Best of 2019 – Downton Abbey by an easy margin and Knives Out as a runner up.
  • Best of recent years – as it’s such a broad category I’ll pick four very different films: Paddington 2 is just plain lovely and is only in this group because there weren’t enough films to make up a non-animated kids category. This is Where I Leave You is a lovely family comedy/drama. American Animals is an entertaining heist film that comes close to doing something special, and Atomic Blonde is an absolutely stunning action thriller.
  • Classic – And four more picks here, although none of them are what I’d really think of as old – Up in the Air because the trio at the heart are wonderful, US Marshals because Tommy Lee Jones is great and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Layer Cake because they are both still slick.
  • To be avoided – How to Talk to Girls at Parties was just too weird and muddled for me, maybe I was missing something. Murder by Numbers badly written, badly directed, even badly blue-screened; even Sandra Bullock and Ryan Gosling couldn’t save it.

Dramas – 41 films (20%), sorry this really is basically “and the rest”

  • Best of 2019 – Marriage Story – heart-achingly real and truthful about awful situations
  • Best of recent years – Tully – a beautiful film, stunningly well observed and delicately written and directed. Charlize Theron is astonishing, particularly given her incredibly different and no less stunning performance in the previously mentioned Atomic Blonde.
  • Classic – Tinker Tailor Sodier Spy – perfectly judged to be complex and twisty but not completely overwhelming
  • To be avoided – The Squid and the Whale – a noodle-y storyline that didn’t go anywhere and took forever to get there

Full list (2019 films in bold)
Continue reading “Films I Saw in 2019”

Books I read in 2019

The Numbers:

  • 46 books in total – rather disappointing, down on last year’s 60. I did lose a lot of reading in the first few months of the year because I was driving to work rather than getting the tube. It did pick up later once I was back on public transport for a couple of hours most work days, but there were chunks of time with uninspiring books and zoning out to phone games instead. Only 3 books were re-reads though, and even those were classics I read at school so needed to give fresh eyes to.
  • 10 books I’d consider outstanding, 17 good, 13 middling and 6 poor – rather too many in the lower groups there.
  • 14,972 pages – 41 pages per day on average, which is a respectable number
  • 6 non-fiction / 40 fiction – disappointingly low numbers of non-fiction, particularly because a lot of them weren’t very good.
  • 24 read on kindle – this high number was mostly because I bought a kindle which came with 3 months of free Kindle Unlimited and I powered through a couple of series on there. As a whole, I don’t think it’s worth the £7.99 a month, compared to just using a normal library for free (although I only got 5 books from the library this year). But if you can get it at a discount then there are a few interesting new authors in there.
  • 35 authors, 21 of them new to me – I’m quite pleased that 60% of the authors I read were new to me. Most of the authors were single books but I read 3 Meg Elison books and 8 Mark Hayden’s
  • 19 male authors / 16 female – 46% female is still not good enough.
  • 23 British authors / 9 American / 1 each French, Canadian, Australian – very little diversity here and only 1 novel not originally written in English
  • 13 new books (29%) – I’m counting that as either this year or last year, surprisingly high, and 72% of my reading was published in this decade.

Non-fiction – 6 books (13% of all books)
A disappointingly low number and a limited spread of subjects covering science, history, and literature. Sadly the quality is quite well distributed – two each really good, middling, and poor; I’d much prefer a more top heavy distribution. Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski and Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan both hit the sweet spot of being informative, fun and inspiring some passion for their respective subjects. The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison and Pursuit by Carol Baxter and Two Girls, One on Each Knee (about crosswords) by Alan Connor didn’t quite manage the same peaks, but got the job done. But A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos by Dava Sobel got too creative with the facts for my taste and Significant Figures: Lives and Works of Trailblazing Mathematicians by Ian Stewart was so boring it the only book I actually gave up on this year.

Classics – 10 books (25% of the fiction)
Every year I try to chip away at the various books that people say you ‘should’ read, and this year I picked up 10 ‘classics’ – 2 from the 1970’s, 1 from the 1930’s, 3 from 1900’s and 4 from the 19th century. Not bad. My only re-reads of the year were 3 classic SF that I read voraciously at school, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds are still both incredibly readable and evocative books, unfortunately I found Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth a bit more problematic. I’ve actually never read any Steven King so rectified that by reading The Shining which had great ideas and characters, but really dragged.

I also read four books that I probably should have read as a kid, but fell through the gaps. I quite enjoyed Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and think I would have enjoyed them as a kid. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz L. Frank Baum was alright, but disappointingly lacking in wonder and I didn’t get on with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll at all. The final classic was A Room with a View by E.M. Forster which I’ve completely forgotten about. Oh and Peril at End House another superb work from Agatha Christie.

Best new-ish books – 8 books (20% of the fiction)
My favourite book of the year comes from the unlikely name of Tom Hanks, his collection of short stories
Uncommon Type was exactly what I needed to read. They are clearly personal to him, and generally just lovely. There’s nothing shocking and his writing style is un-fussy and oozing with his voice. They made me feel warm and comfortable and were a perfect anti-dote to the outside world.

Meg Elison’s The Road to Nowhere trilogy (The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, The Book of Etta and The Book of Flora) is a flawed but fascinating series. The world that she has created is brutally believable and forms a strong foundation to explore themes and subjects that are incredibly relevant today. The writing itself lets the ideas down occasionally, but even though I was at times frustrated, I found it hard to put any of the books down and charged through each in just a couple of days each.

Some of my favourite authors put out new works that absolutely did not disappoint. Swordheart was another wonderful adventure from T Kingfisher, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver weaved a complex collection of threads together and although it was sadly only novella length. Philip Gwynne Jones had another very satisfying crime thriller set in Venice (The Venetian Masquerade) and Ben Aaronovitch took his Rivers of London series to Germany for The October Man and didn’t lose any of the magic.

Disposable fun – 10 books (25% of the fiction)
These are books that aren’t really going to set anyone’s world alight, but they are well put together and satisfying reads that will make any commute pass a bit faster, or make that armchair even harder to leave. I discovered two new series this year, both available through Kindle Unlimited and worth the monthly subscription for a bit. The first was Oddjobs by Heide Goody and Iain Grant which does for Birmingham what Aaronovitch did for London and has a lovely dry sense of humour towards the oncoming apocalypse. Mark Hayden’s The King’s Watch series is a fun urban fantasy series. His writing doesn’t jump of the page like Aaronovitch’s does, but it’s very readable with some interesting characters and ideas. I charged through the first nine books in the series (13th Witch, 12 Dragons of Albion, 11th Hour, Tenfold and Nine of Wands) in just a few weeks. I then picked up his previous trilogy Operation Jigsaw (A Piece of Blue Sky, Green for Danger and In the Red Corner) which has some overlap in characters but is a straight crime thriller which was equally well done.

Books to be avoided – 4 books (10% of the fiction)
Two authors who I regularly pick up are Becky Chambers and Claire North; both have very interesting fresh voices, but their works end up disappointing me and both did that this year. Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few had a great idea, interesting characters and some beautiful writing, but with almost no plot to hold the threads together it was ultimately unsatisfying. North had an even bigger problem in 84k which took a fairly basic idea, didn’t do enough with it and had an almost unreadable writing style.

Hugh Howey’s Wool series was one of my standouts of 2014 and I finished my review with “I can’t wait to see what he does next”. With Kindle Unlimited I got access to his back catalogue and was sadly disappointed. both Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue and Half Way Home didn’t really do much with the cliche tropes they were working with and I was just a bit bored.

Everything else – 8 books (20% of the fiction)
These are the unremarkables, I wouldn’t really recommend you read them but I’d also not recommend you avoid them. They’re just a bit meh, not much to complain about, but not much to get excited about.

  • The Unhappy Medium by T.J. Brown – not as funny as it thinks it is, or it needs to be.
  • The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans – Engaging characters, superficial plot, slightly disjointed tone.
  • Bright Young Dead by Jessica Fellowes wasn’t actively bad, it was just a slightly clumsy attempt to do something utterly unremarkable, so why bother?
  • The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas – never quite felt fully coherent, an interesting set up poorly delivered.
  • Penny Green 1: Limelight by Emily Organ – great characters, nice period detail and an engaging mystery, but the investigation builds so slowly it takes all the life out of it.
  • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – a great idea (murder mystery at a 1920’s house party with bodyswapping and time loops) but done by an inexperienced author who couldn’t hold it all together.
  • The Midnight Gang by David Walliams was a book I only really read to be able to talk to various godchildren about, it was absolutely fine for a kids book but no value add for adults.
  • Silent Nights – Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards – a nice collection of short stories, but they pretty much only work at Christmas.

Films in December

A rush to the end of the year and I’ve watched a ridiculous 43 films this month.

New Releases
Marriage Story (Netflix) – I put the film on because it appeared at the top of my Netflix page, I knew it had got some award nominations, and I couldn’t be bothered to decide what to watch. I was not expecting to be so completely gripped, moved and genuinely stunned by it. I can’t remember the last time I watched a film that felt so real, like I really was looking in on peoples’ lives. Yes, I can’t say I relate that much to an LA actress, or a New York avant garde theatre director, and I’ve not been married let alone divorced, but I really felt I was watching real emotions and behaviour. The ups and downs of the relationship are so fluid, the emotions so wide ranging and raw that I physically felt the anxiety, anger and stress that the characters were going through. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are phenomenal, in small moments, long speeches and high energy fights it never feels like they’re delivering a script but are really living it. The only thing stopping this being a 10 are that some of the supporting characters feel a little too extreme, their comic relief is much appreciated, but does slightly clash with the two main characters.

Little Women (Cinema) – This is probably my favourite book of all time, I’ve read it more times than I can count and know the characters, storyline, dialogue and even the descriptions incredibly well. It feels like there’s an adaption of it for pretty much every generation of actors and I can’t actually remember any of them disappointing. Greta Gerwig is a wonderful talent and I was excited to hear she was adapting and directing a version, with a cast headlined by the equally talented Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy). I was not disappointed.
The book is beautifully, faithfully and lovingly retold. The only innovation is to shake the story up and tell it in overlapping timelines and flashbacks. I could certainly respect the idea, but it didn’t quite work for me as I felt it spoiled some of the storylines, big moments of character development were lost because we already knew how things would turn out. My companion didn’t like it either, he wasn’t familiar with the story and lost track of characters and ‘when’ we were. However, other than that, the production is lovely – bringing out the threads of feminism without overwhelming, beautiful chemistry from the cast, and a glorious period setting. It is also just as emotional as it should be and is at least a “two tissue” picture.

The Two Popes (Netflix) – Two acting legends portraying two incredible people. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce portray Popes Benedict and Francis respectively and the film spends most of the time with the two in conversation as Pope Benedict is deciding to resign. These scenes with just the two of them are absolutely gripping, the two personalities are completely at odds, but the two also have respect for each other, for the offices they hold and just as decent human beings. The discussions on theology, religion, politics are fascinating, as are the more personal conversations about football, music and growing older. I didn’t think the flashback scenes worked as well, not having the same spark and leaving me a little bored, but the film is absolutely worth watching just to watch two actors portray two fascinating people.

Knives Out (Cinema) – I LOVE a good who-done-it, and this is a great one. It could easily have been written by Agatha Christie, but also lives easily in the present day with appropriate technology and social issues. The collection of characters are entertaining, extreme but not caricatures and funny but not ridiculous all expertly delivered by a great ensemble cast. The structure of the plot was very well done, the mystery itself really kept me guessing with different options, and the twists and turns kept things interesting and plenty of laughs along the way. The only thing I was a little disappointed by was the cinematography which I found a little dark, I’d rather everything was brighter so I could luxuriate in the locations and sets a bit more, this felt a bit washed out for the big screen. But that’s a minor quibble in a film that’s wonderful entertainment.

Joker (Cinema) – I didn’t want to see this film. Not because I didn’t think it would be good, but because I thought it probably WOULD be good, and when the subject is as hard as this one, being good just means it’s a very hard and challenging watch and I didn’t really want that. However it’s getting to awards season and I was feeling bad I wouldn’t be able to comment on it in that context, so when I stumbled on a convenient cinema showing I decided to got for it. I’m glad I saw it in the cinema as it forced me to keep paying attention, when at home I would probably have taken the easy option and started looking away to my phone.
The film was all the things I hoped (and feared) it would be. An incredibly well written, directed and acted character study. We all know where the character is going to end up and so it’s a film utterly without hope and an incredible sense of doom that makes it a really depressing watch. There’s no way out of that, it’s tense, bleak, violent and sad. Joaquin Phoenix however gives a completely compelling performance, so even when I didn’t want to be watching what was happening, the way he performed it was always interesting, surprising and fitting. It’s a film that from start to finish, I didn’t want to look at, but couldn’t take my eyes off.

6 Underground (Netflix) – This is apparently the 2nd most expensive film made by Netflix (after The Irishman) and every penny is very clear to see on the screen, in fact it’s a shame it’s not on the big screen to see that money even more clearly. This is Michael Bay (mostly) doing what he does best – massive set piece action sequences. They are absolutely spectacular – epic car chases, small scale individual fights, gadgets and gizmos, gun battles and stunts. I was so utterly glued to the screen I forgot to drink my tea. Unfortunately there is considerable attempt to add plot in between the sequences and that’s less good. Ryan Reynolds rescues a lot of it through his usual wit and charm, but the character development and overall plot is an incoherent mess; I really don’t know why they bothered with it. Still, at least you can drink your tea during those bits.

The Irishman (Netflix) – There is no escaping the fact that this ‘film’ is three and a half hour long. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t work. If Scorsese wanted to effectively tell this sort of long life story, he should have committed to a 8 part mini-series or something. If he can’t generate that amount of content then he should have shown more control and edited it down so it was at least under 3 hours. The problem is I don’t think Scorsese wanted to do either of those, and no one told him no. The result is a film that is baggy and boring, but also very narrow focus. There are plenty of ‘episodes’ that should have been edited out of a film, and plenty of characters that could have been expanded to a mini-series (not least every single woman). The acting is impressive, and I wasn’t overly bothered by the de-aging effects, but I was really bored and it felt more like an endurance challenge than an enjoyable experience.

Older Films
If Beale Street Could Talk (Amazon) – I didn’t see this film during award season, mostly because by the time it came out I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the award films and couldn’t quite face what I thought sounded like a hard hitting film about race and injustice. I was wrong. It’s actually a love story. Yes, the characters are dealing with a horrible injustice and discrimination and prejudice are a part of every second of their lives, but the driving force in the film is of love and that makes it beautiful. The direction and acting is for the most part very light, while characters are carrying huge weights, the film does not feel oppressive. The love, and the hope shine through the other bleak content, not washing away the problems or undermining them, but making them bearable for characters and audiences. A really beautiful film.

Seven Psychopaths (Netflix) – A smart film that’s playing games effectively with structures and layers. It occasionally feels a little smug, but even that has a self aware tone that I really liked. There’s a good cast, all playing to their strengths and it forms a nice double bill with In Bruges by the same writer/director Martin McDonagh

Catfish (Amazon) – This documentary was released in 2010 and I think filmed a couple of years before that, and I’d expected it to be badly dated by the time I finally watched it in 2019. Surprisingly, the central issues and story isn’t, although the filming quality shows its age. I didn’t actually know the details of the story beyond knowing that the term catfish has become the recognised term for using fake identities online to entrap someone, and the way the story played out kept me gripped. I didn’t entirely believe the documentary makers, the choices they made were clearly for the cameras rather than what real people would do. However the way the actual truth of the story was fascinating and really touching.

Support the Girls (Netflix) – The more I think about this film, the more I like it. While watching it, it’s a little meandering and unclear what it’s trying to do – whether it’s a comedy or a drama, realistic or outlandish. It’s really all of those and none of them. It just follows a couple of days in the life of a manageress of a “sports bar with curves” as she tries to keep it in the narrow grey area between a family diner and a more adult bar. She’s looking after her staff and doing her best and it’s just not really working for her. Some of the characters are a bit on the extreme side to be truly believable, but it’s mostly quietly charming and has really stayed with me.

The Whole Nine Yards (Amazon) – Matthew Perry and Bruce Willis are a surprisingly brilliant double act. Bruce Willis is playing an over the top menacing hitman, and Matthew Perry is bouncing around as the every-man dentist caught up in a suitably wacky collection of mobsters. The plot is just the right level of bonkers, with a nicely thought out subplot of Perry’s wife being horrific. Perry is on top form, throwing himself into physical slapstick and delivering dry wit with perfect timing. It’s a bit cheesy and over the top, and a very dubious bit of nudity in the middle, but on balance, I enjoyed te film.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Netflix) – What a brilliant film! First up, the concept of teenagers getting transported into a video game is a solid one – plenty of opportunities for great action sequences, a built in excuse that the plot of the ‘game’ doesn’t need to make sense, and lots of teenage character building to thread through the whole thing. But there are then two important factors that raise the whole thing to another level. First is the script which is witty, charming, respectful and self-aware. The writers clearly know video games and throw in loads of nods to the genres, write teenagers that feel like present day teenagers and deliver character growth that’s honest and relevant. The second thing is the cast who take that script and deliver it pitch perfect. The adult stars all take the piss out of themselves and really feel like teenagers in other people’s bodies The film is absolutely charming, hilarious and a real joy.

Fighting with my Family (Netflix) – I couldn’t quite settle into this film. It’s a film that I think most people will find really charming – a true story that’s just made for film, colourful characters with good hearts, a mixture of laughs and heart ache, and underdogs to root for. Florence Pugh is her usual talented self adapting yet again to a completely different style and character. But I felt on edge the whole time. There were just a few too many challenges and potential disasters for me to really relax into the film to make it a true feel good film. That doesn’t make it a bad film, it just makes it a bit hard to categorise and left me feeling unsettled rather than satisfied.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World (DVD) – Why do children’s films have to be so upsetting? I LOVE this series of films, the characters are so vibrant, the voice acting charming, the animation fluid and the scripts a lot of fun. I was immediately on edge when this was announced as the last of the films and everything indicated that it would be an ending. I didn’t want an ending. Even if they don’t make any more films I wanted to be able to imagine the characters living happily ever after and I didn’t want to see them saying goodbye. I finally plucked up the courage to see it and it did exactly what I expected. All the good was still there by the bucket load, but it also had a final section that left me a complete and utter blubbering wreck. Much like Toy Story 4, it wasn’t that the ending was ‘wrong’ it made perfect sense given the situation that had been written, I just didn’t see why that had to be the direction the series went. It left me incredibly sad, whereas the previous films had given me nothing but joy.

The Great Hack (Netflix) – I’d put off watching this documentary because I didn’t want to get any more depressed, or any more angry than I already was at the sorry state of the world this year. Finally watching it now, I found it a little hard to get worked up about it all, but I think that’s down to me becoming numb to it all rather than the content having any less impact. The film focuses on Cambridge Analytica and the growing awareness of how seriously they had influenced several elections. The story is told mostly through following the investigative journalists and human rights experts unpicking the events which is an excellent way into the story, particularly given that there are still major elements that aren’t known. It’s very compelling, and the real characters are big enough to carry a film easily.
I am always conscious in these documentaries that only one side is being told, and I felt that the film skirted over a key issue – what laws were broken, what lines were crossed? While it is clear that Cambridge Analytica definitely broke the UK data protection law when they refused to disclose someone’s personal data on request, and they seem to have lied to various investigatory bodies about deleting data… I don’t think that any of the influencing they did was actually illegal. Every marketer and politician create specific messages for key consumers/voters – it’s just that Cambridge Analytica did it better than anyone else and they were hired by specific parties. If the other side had hired them, would things have gone the other way and would this film have existed? Marketing, adverts and politics have always stretched the truth, taken things out of context and only presented one side of complicated issues; it’s the responsibility of the audience to challenge that, particularly when it comes to elections. And if the people WANT to believe what they hear, then that’s still the will of the people. It’s depressing as anything and I wish that wasn’t true, but I don’t see how you can legislate against it. Yes, we should all as individuals have better visibility and control over our data; but it doesn’t seem like that would have changed the outcome of any of this. Those that are targeted by this kind of thing will not read the privacy statements and will not question why they are being shown the ‘news’ that is appearing in their feeds. They are being shown things that they want to believe and that’s not something you can (or should?) control. Anyway, that’s more of the debate that I would have liked to see in the film.

Fisherman’s Friends (Amazon) – A film for a quiet Sunday afternoon, or when you’re feeling a bit poorly. It’s just a nice, feel good film. The plot has all the components and turns that you’d expect – romance, sadness, underdogs, characters seeing the errors of their ways… it’s perfectly predictable, but they all work. The characters and actors aren’t A-list but they’re all familiar and charming, although I wasn’t convinced by Somerset born James Purefoy laying the Cornish accent on with a trowel. It’s a nice film, with a lovely soundtrack and some beautiful shots of Cornwall.

Dolemite Is My Name (Netflix) – A role that was absolutely written for Eddie Murphy, playing to all his well known strengths playing larger than life comedic characters, but also his less commented upon dramatic skill at playing a REAL person. On paper the film is quite a straightforward comedy which isn’t particularly to my taste, but it’s purely Murphy’s talent that adds a depth to it that made me pay attention.

Bullets Over Broadway (Amazon) – I find Woody Allen films very hit and miss, but generally the older the film the better. Bullets Over Broadway definitely follows this rule. It’s fast paced and fun to watch. The story and characters are on the ridiculous end of the spectrum, but they’re all a consistent level of daft so it really works. The cast is full of great character actors throwing themselves into it and delivering Allen’s words at the pace they deserve. It wasn’t exactly laugh a minute, but I had a fairly consistent smile even if I wasn’t laughing out loud.

Horrible Histories: Rotten Romans (Amazon) – Despite many many recommendations, I’ve never seen Horrible Histories, but the film does a pretty good job of selling me on the series. The history seems pretty accurate and cleverly delivered to be both educational and entertaining. It’s got loads of details in it that reward careful watching, and it’s also really very funny. Only two things give me pause. The first is that I’m not sure I would have chosen the story of Boudicca – to maintain the family rating the horrific elements of the story are completely removed, so the Romans are slightly comedic rather than rapists. The second (on a slightly lighter note) is that I didn’t like the songs, I could see they were clever, but they felt squeezed in and they really emphasized the low budget.

Spinning Man (Netflix) – This film is playing with some very interesting ideas that don’t *quite* land. The central character (the always charming Guy Pearce) is a suspect in a missing person case and the audience follows him along as the police, his family, and even he himself wonder whether he did it. He is shown very early on having problems with his memory, and as a professor of Philosophy he talks about the concept of truth – that no one can tell the truth, only their own understanding of what is true. The ideas are all there, and the twists and turns of the plot are well paced, but it doesn’t quite all come together. The flashback memory sequences are a bit confusing and there are a number of stupid choices made by people that make it hard to fully lose yourself in the film. But it’s a solid attempt with some good turns by Pearce, Minnie Driver and Pierce Brosnan.

The Hole in the Ground (Netflix) – A well put together small scale horror film. I would imagine it didn’t cost a huge amount of money to make, but it’s effectively put together and uses creative camera work to really show off the locations. The plot itself is absolutely standard horror stuff that really doesn’t even attempt to do anything new with the ideas, but the concepts are classics for a reason and it’s creepy and chilling. I found myself disengaging a bit when the more action stuff kicked in, but as a whole it’s competently done.

The Disaster Artist (Amazon) – The Disaster Artist is about an absolutely bonkers character named Tommy Wiseau who wants to be an actor but is un-hireable because he’s terrible, so he decides to make his own film, which is also terrible. The story is utterly bizarre and completely unbelievable except for the fact that it’s apparently true. It’s one of those films that is painful to watch, but also completely hypnotic. James Franko plays Wiseau completely straight making him scary and compelling, Dave Franko meanwhile plays the slightly dreary ‘normal’ actor who is caught in Wiseau’s orbit. The whole thing is just really odd. The slightly tricky thing is that it’s true except for the fact that no one knows anything about Wiseau – where he came from, how he had enough money to fully fund the movie, or how old he was. Rather than guess at that, the film just keeps all of that as a mystery which is a bit frustrating, but is a far better choice than making something up. A very weird film.

Robin Hood (2018) (Netflix) – The legend of Robin Hood gets a film every few years and very few of them make it to the status of classic. The only 2 I can really remember are the Disney one (which is BRILLIANT) and Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves (which is not). I don’t think Taron Egerton’s version is going to be entering onto the list of classics. I’d heard pretty terrible things about it, but to be honest, I didn’t think it was that bad. Yeah, there were some meandering accents and historical accuracy has gone out the window, but how is that different to any of the others. At least there was a bit of a different take on the characters and storyline that meant I wasn’t bored and I find Egerton a likeable actor pretty much in anything he does. As a popcorn movie, I actually thought it was solidly entertaining, but I doubt I’d bother watching it again.

He’s Just Not That Into You (Netflix) – Rom-coms do not date well. The world is thankfully moving pretty fast when it comes to anything related to gender and relationships and what was acceptable and funny ten years ago can easily become creepy or unequal. I think if you see a rom-com at the time and then go back to it, you can still view it fondly, but I’ve somehow not seen He’s Just Not That Into You in the 10 years since it was released and there were a few moments that I found a bit frustrating. There’s nothing that had me cringing or shouting, so it’s relatively minor stuff, but it was enough that I couldn’t quite get comfortable watching it. Which is a shame because the cast is great, and I love the way all the storylines and characters twine together and there are a lot of really lovely bits. I just wish I could have let myself enjoy it more.

All the Money in the World (Netflix) – The problem with this film is that it’s based on a true story which is almost impossible to believe. I spent the whole thing in disbelief and reaching for my laptop to look things up. It is a fascinating story, and fascinating characters rich people behaving awfully but intersecting with ‘normal’ people; both groups look the same, but their ways of life are so completely different they can barely recognise each other. I had a problem engaging with the film as it just seemed unreal, even the most relatable character of the mother had an accent that I couldn’t get on with, although Michelle Williams was otherwise excellent.

Missing Link (DVD) – This was unfortunately a miss for Laika studios, who had yet to put a foot wrong and really impressed with works like Kubo and the Two Strings and Coraline. However this film just didn’t really come together for me. The plot and characters were too simplistic, the visual style unremarkable, the script flat and the voice acting just a bit unremarkable. None of it was particularly bad, and it passes the time amiably enough, but it didn’t absorb me in a way that their previous works really did. I was disappointed.

Wild Rose (Amazon) – A fairly standard film trope of the struggles of a talented underdog, trying to reach her dream, but the concept is maturely delivered here. The underdog isn’t really helping herself, she’s arrogant, obnoxious, selfish and makes mistakes over and over again. Jessie Buckley, and Julie Walters as her mother, create incredibly true and vibrant characters. However I think the rest of the film lets them down a bit. Other characters are a bit simplistic (the wonderful Sophie Okonedo is reduced to little more than a fairy godmother) and the final section has a very misjudged section that allowed everyone to have their cakes and eat them which completely undermined the previous drama. The excellent performances from Buckley and Walters can’t rescue the film from being too gritty at the start for a feel good film, and too cheesy at the end for a real drama. It’s still a good film, but it could have been something really special.

Lovelace (Amazon) – The ‘true’ story behind porn star Linda Lovelace and Deep Throat is fascinating but also impossible to really know. The construction of the film is interesting, showing two different interpretations of events. The first is that events unfolded around Linda and while she was fully consenting to becoming a porn star, albeit in a passive and naive way. Everything is then shown a second time (based on her autobiography) where her husband is completely controlling and abusive, forcing her into prostitution and pornography. I think the duality of the story could have been delivered better. It would have been more interesting I think to have the first half of the film shown as if Chuck Traynor was the lead character, rather than seeming like it’s telling Linda’s story and then blindsiding the audience with a different version that’s still told from Linda’s point of view. The performances are well done though, particularly Amanda Seyfried who gives believable depth to each version of Linda.

Elf (TV) – I know this ranks very highly with some people and has become a staple of some people’s Christmas playlists, but it didn’t do anything for me. Nice idea, but it just made me want to go and watch things like Big or Toys again. It wasn’t terrible, I just don’t get on with Will Ferrell

Django (Amazon) – A classic spaghetti western and although I generally don’t get on with westerns and expected to find the dubbing annoying, I actually got along ok with the film. I wouldn’t say I was blown away, but it felt like it actually got on with things, still having some of the classic beautifully framed shots, but not dragging things out like I’ve found other westerns to. I think there’s also something about the ridiculous dubbing that kind of works with the ridiculous story and characters, like it’s all almost played for laughs. Or maybe I just had incredibly low expectations.

The World’s End (Netflix) – The thematic sequel to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and unfortunately it just doesn’t live up to their pedigree. It’s a promising enough idea and the assembled cast is charming as ever, although I never quite bought into Simon Pegg as the bad boy. But after the initial entertainment from the introductions, once it actually got into the grit of the film, I found myself rather bored. The fight sequences in particularly lacked the creativity and fun of Shaun of the Dead and I just zones out. It just didn’t have the spark that the other films had.

Mid90s (Netflix) – Noodling film about skateboarding kids in the eponymous period. Maybe for people who have a connection to that time and place, it would have meant more, but I didn’t recognise anything in it and was utterly bored. It’s another film that shows the uncomfortable awkwardness of teenage years, and another one that I just didn’t enjoy because I just don’t find it fun to watch that pain, frustration and stupidity. The acting from the young cast is impressive, and there are some well observed moments, but the film as a whole did absolutely nothing for me.

Justice League (Netflix) – For all that I usually love a superhero film, I just generally do not get on with the DC films. The superheroes are too overpowered – they all have a ridiculous collection of skills that makes it hard to feel any jeopardy. The alter-egos are more interesting, but the film-makers have to be very good to find a way to blend the action heroics with the character angst. The film-makers responsible for the DC Extended Universe films are not up to the task. Justice League is the crowning glory, bringing together Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and introducing Aquaman (who then gets his own film), Flash (not the one from TV) and Cyborg (who’s name I had to look up). There are just too many things thrown into this film, each character has a complicated set of skills that make no sense and just feel like they’re made up each time a new problem needs to be solved. Wonder Woman is watchable, Flash is some very welcome comic relief and Aquaman has some potential, but the rest of them are just a bit dull. The superhero genre has huge potential for films, got right they can blend fun and action, with complex character development and heart. DC just never seems to get it right.

It’s Christmas, so there was a whole load of re-watching of classics and family films:
Wreck-It Ralph (TV) – I don’t like the title. That really is the only criticism I have of the film, everything else about it was just so bright, original, entertaining and expertly crafted that the title really is the only thing that stands out as not being completely perfect. The care and attention that went into the design of the world, the characters and the storyline created something that seems to effortless that you come out wondering why other films aren’t that good. In many ways my gushing about this film almost doesn’t seem right, because it’s not really a groundbreaking film. It doesn’t try to do anything epic like some of Pixar’s films do, but that doesn’t feel like a lack of ambition, instead it feels like all of that creativity and skill has instead gone into producing a near perfect animation.

Paddington 2 (Amazon) – Lovely. Just lovely. Laughs, tears. Everything. Pure loveliness.

Inside Out (DVD) – What an incredible film. The writers of this film have clearly done vast amounts of research on not only neuroscience, but psychology and then they’ve taken that and turned it into something truly beautiful. The simplicity of the presentation and the progression towards the overall messages of understanding the contributions of different emotions are incredibly powerful. I’m tearing up just thinking about it, and I was pretty close to a blubbery mess in the film itself. It’s a film that keeps coming back to me; when I talk to people about it they keep pointing out additional levels and interpretations. It really is an incredible achievement.

Finding Dory (TV) – How has it taken 13 years to get a sequel to Finding Nemo? Still, it was certainly worth waiting for because it was absolutely everything that Finding Nemo was. It’s laugh-out-loud funny pretty consistently and it’s emotionally manipulative as anything and had me sniffling basically from start to finish. Yeah, you have to completely suspend disbelief and it gets a bit daft at times, but it’s just so much fun. The new characters and voice actors are absolutely brilliant and I didn’t even find myself missing the characters from the tank in the previous film. Heart breaking and hilarious. Everything I want from a Pixar film.

Zootopia (DVD) – The lines between Disney and Pixar are really blurring under John Lasseter’s leadership of Disney and that’s turning into a really really great thing for Disney. Zootropolis does all the things we’ve always expected from Pixar – smart, bright, original and with a huge heart. It’s playing with classic ideas of the cop genre, taking a keen new recruit and throwing them into the reality of the city and partnering with a more worldly wise companion (in this case a conman). I laughed pretty consistently through the film thanks to the verbal and visual gags, particularly the elegantly included grown up references that in no way would detract from a child’s entertainment. There were a couple of slower segments in the middle where plot was explained and the kids in the audience got a bit fidgety. Also the moral message was really hammered home until it became a little frustrating, but given how important a message it is, I shouldn’t really complain. Another great entry into Disney’s catalogue.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (DVD) – Without a doubt, the best Christmas movie of all time and a staple for my Christmas schedule for decades. The music is absolutely amazing, the mixture of Dickens and Muppet is perfect and it is great fun to watch for all the family. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at Christmas in 2018, with a packed audience and it made me so happy I cried.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu (DVD) – I’ve got no idea about Pokemon, but when I saw this in the cinema it was with two obsessed with pokemon go players. I think it’s really quite impressive that all of us 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 stunning, there’s so much going on (I love the use of famous buildings from around the world all blended in the new city).

The Money Pit (DVD) – I’ve seen this film more times than I care to count and it always has me in absolute hysterics. The start and end can drag a little and now look extremely 80s but the centre section as the house disintegrates are absolutely hilarious. Tom Hanks and Shelley Long make a believable couple and do brilliant jobs of acting without words. I laugh so hard it hurts every single time I watch it.

Mixed Nuts (Amazon) – I find I have to be in exactly the right kind of mood to watch a farce, you have to be willing to sort of throw yourself into it like the characters, letting go of reason and dignity to just enjoy the unraveling disaster. If you approach Mixed Nuts like that I think there’s stuff to enjoy in there – the characters are all insane, but the cast throws themselves into it and hits all the notes that you expect. The bits that are played more seriously fall completely flat, but thankfully are fairly thin on the ground. It’s certainly not a classic Christmas movie, but it’s not without some charm at the right time of the year.

Happy Feet (Amazon) – A cute little film that just seems to try too hard to tick all the requirements for a great cartoon, but manages to mesh into a bit of a disjointed mess. The singing, dancing, Robin Williams, cute penguins and witty sidekicks should all add up to a fun film, but somehow it just doesn’t work. The animation felt a bit clunky, the songs felt unexciting, the accents were annoying and the plot drifted about all over the place and eventually settled on a preachy environmental issue.

Books in October and November

Oops, I missed a month out!

Mark Hayden – The King’s Watch series: The 13th Witch, The 12 Dragons of Albion, The 11th Hour, Tenfold, Nine of Wands
I discovered this series through Kindle Unlimited and have charged through the first 5 books and 2 novellas. Fundamentally it’s not hugely original – a hidden world of magic just out of sight to us mundanes/muggles to which an outsider is introduced and starts turning things upside down while trying to find his way. Conrad Clarke is an interesting central character to throw into chaos, he has a background in the RAF giving him formality and a calm approach to chaos, but also a hinted at criminal past that gives him a more dangerous edge. One thing that I really like is the respect he shows to everyone, he doesn’t arrive in a new situation and stomp about, he cautiously gathers information and defaults to politeness and open mindedness. However as the books go on and he develops more confidence I was starting to find him a little bullying, in a way that made perfect sense for the character, but did make him less likeable.
The series has a wonderfully rich and well developed universe, but it is a bit complex and the books can get bogged down in exposition, including recapping what happened in the previous books. About 3 books in I also discovered that the irritating hints at some of the characters’ histories were actually referencing another trilogy of books by the same author which was a bit frustrating. However I’m now reading that series and while the books are very good, what they reveal about Conrad put’s a very different spin on the character that makes him a much more problematic character.
The supporting characters are all very well developed and varied, and play in interesting ways with Conrad. However there are a lot of them so sometimes individuals disappear for a long time and that really does leave a gap.
The books are good fun to read and charge along at a fast pace, I found them very hard to put down. In fact one of my slight criticisms is that most of the books span only a few days of real time and they run straight into each other, giving neither characters nor readers time to breath and settle into the events and relationships. I am a little nervous now of Conrad and find myself questioning his character a lot more, but even with that slight sour note, the universe, story, and writing is good enough that I’ll continue to seek out the series.

Jules Verne – Journey to the Centre of the Earth
I remember really enjoying this book as a kid, in fact I distinctly remember doing a book report on it at school. However with a grown up eye, it’s much less pleasing and actually quite frustrating. Even though the overall concept of taking a walk to the centre of the earth is bonkers to our modern understanding, I can accept it for the book, but the problem was that it was written almost as a scientific work. So huge amounts of time was spent explaining what was going on with the physics and geology, some of which is true, some of which was thought to be true at the time of writing, and most of which was made up completely. But it was impossible to tell which was which. Plus I’ve got no real interest in reading dry science if it isn’t even correct. Take that out and there’s a fun story with some charming characters, but that was a minority.

Claire North – 84k
A really horrible book to read. For a start the plot is kind of depressing – one of those “surely this could never happen” visions of the future, that is sadly these days not as unbelievable as it should be. But mostly because the writing style is just awful. The entire 450 pages is made up of fragmented thoughts and dialogue. I understand what the author was trying to do, to reflect that people don’t really think in whole sentences, and often don’t talk in them either; but it makes a deeply unpleasant reading experience. I speed read about 80% of the book hoping that I’d get something out of the plot, even if I couldn’t stand the actual words on the page. Sadly that didn’t happen as the plot is also fragmented into jumping time streams that I lost track of and couldn’t be bothered to unpick. I really don’t know why I bothered finishing it.

Helen Czerski – Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life
I’m always on the lookout for a good popular science book and this is absolutely everything I look for.
1) It’s definitely science, it covers a huge range of subjects from large to small, across every branch of science.
2) It’s popular. Every subject is explained in an incredibly understandable way, the descriptions of what is happening are simple and visceral, experiments can be recreated or easily visualised. The explanations meanwhile are built up from simple first principals that make everything incredibly approachable to anyone that’s studied GCSE science.
3) It’s written by a human being. Helen Czerski’s voice and personality come shining through and she’s a joy to spend time with. She conveys a sense of wonder at the world and exudes a curiosity of a true scientist, both are incredibly contagious.
I loved this book. It absolutely captured for me why I wanted to study science, not to delve deeper and deeper into the world of maths, but to be able to understand and explain why everyday things happen. I read the whole thing in just 3 days and would cheerfully read a whole series of these books.

David Walliams – The Midnight Gang
A solid book for kids that reminded me a little of Roald Dahl, with very much dialed down bite. The illustrations are lovely and really bring the book to life and I can see why it would really appeal to younger readers who will get some good fun and some nice messages from it.

Films in October and November

Oops, I never uploaded my summaries in October, so a bumper crop this time. I’m also adjusting the structure a bit, so I’ll keep putting the new releases at the top, but then for the rest I’ll roughly sort them with the good ones at the top and the bad ones at the bottom.

NEW RELEASES
Frozen 2 (cinema) – I adore Frozen (see review further down the page). I’ve seen it at least half a dozen times, including twice in the last month, and I never get tired of it. I love the songs, the characters, the message and the humour. Sadly Frozen 2 is not quite at the same level. It’s absolutely fine, maintaining the excellent characters, animation and humour, but it’s missing the high expectations in two crucial areas. The first was the plot, it just felt like there was too much going on. There was new backstory, new locations, new explanations of how magic worked, and new characters. It just got a bit crowded. The second problem was that the songs are mediocre. I watched the film yesterday and have had the soundtrack on today, but they’re with the exception of the powerful (possibly overwhelming) Into the Unknown, I can’t remember any of them. Frozen is a steady stream of solid hits, but there aren’t really any here that I’d seek out. It’s still an entertaining film, but I can’t imagine myself coming back to it over and over again. That said, I would very much like a baby reindeer and an adorable fire spirit please.

J’ai perdu mon corps (I Lost my Body) (Netflix) – I wouldn’t normally do this, but I’m going to post the summary of the film from imdb – “A story of Naoufel, a young man who is in love with Gabrielle. In another part of town, a severed hand escapes from a dissection lab, determined to find its body again.” Yup, you read that right. This French animation is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from that description (and the fact it’s a french animation). It’s very sweet, but also very bizarre. The animation style is fairly minimal and artistic, but works well with the straightforward approach of the story. I was going to watch the subtitled version but spotted the English dub had the wonderful Dev Patel and it worked beautifully. It’s both very lovely and very odd.

The Farewell (cinema) – There’s a style of film, it’s not a genre as such, but more of an overall approach, I don’t know whether it’s fair but I associate it with arthouse and indie films a lot. Those that love the style seem to talk about the “show don’t tell” method, rather than have lots of dialogue the films focus on showing how characters feel generally through long lingering shots, interesting framing, and noodling music. My response is the opposite to what it should be, yes you’re showing, but you’re spending too much time showing and I get it – she’s angry, he’s conflicted, she’s sad – I don’t need to see her staring out of a car window to understand that, just get on with it.
I think I’d been over-hyped on this film, people saying how wonderful it was with lots of laughs and lots of tears and there just weren’t quite enough of either for me. There was a lot of good in it, the concept was fascinating, the characters well built and acted, and some interesting direction. But I think a more ‘mainstream’ version of this film could have kept all of that, and added a lot of richness to the supporting characters (the poor bride and groom!), bringing out more emotion and still leaving a lot of space for more laughs. I’d been expecting something really special, and I got something that was ‘only’ pretty good.

The Laundromat (Netflix) – I had high hopes for a film made by Steven Soderbergh, starring Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Meryl Streep. But the film is a mess of different bits thrown together without enough care and attention to either uniting them, or making them distinct. The way the plot sort of stepped through different sections was also a nice idea, but it wasn’t well delivered as each chapter wasn’t self contained enough, it just felt like an excuse to drop threads of the story. The ‘human story’ elements were delivered well, but felt neither removed enough, nor connected enough to the bigger story. All the actors were playing slightly differently, some hamming it up, some playing it straight; each doing a good job, but inconsistent with each other. I really loved the fourth wall breaking pieces to camera by Oldman and Banderas, they were funny, interesting and actually informative, although I could have lived without Oldman’s accent. By the end, I just didn’t feel like the film had really earned the preachy lecture it delivered and I still wasn’t entirely clear on what anyone had done wrong legally.

In the Shadow of the Moon (Netflix) – I loaded up Netflix determined to not waste all my evening trying to decide what to watch, so as so I just picked the first thing that appeared in the featured window. It’s got an incredibly overblown name, but the idea of a female serial killer was interesting and the suggestion of a sci-fi/time travel/weirdness element was slightly intriguing. It had all the ingredients of an interesting little genre film but it didn’t quite elevate itself beyond mediocrity. The plot barely held together, it was clearly made on a very limited budget, and none of the characters really felt like they had much depth to them, everyone just had 1 or 2 key characteristics and they never really evolved beyond that even when shown over multiple years. It was ok enough, but unremarkable and disposable.

OLDER FILMS (roughly best to worst)
Tully – This is a beautiful film, stunningly well observed and delicately written and directed to present the quiet, everyday struggle of being a mother. Charlize Theron is amazing. When I think of her I automatically think of her in films like Mad Max and Atomic Blonde where she’s playing incredibly powerful women. But in Tully she’s playing a woman no less powerful, but pushed to her limits. I was absolutely blown away by this film, even if the ending was a bit movie magic and I saw it coming a bit, it’s still beautifully crafted to reflect the kind of everyday experiences of millions of people that never really makes it to the big screen.

Coraline – I’ve not read the book, and I’m clearly a long way from a the target age of the audience, but I thought this was a really wonderful children’s film, on that should probably go down as a great classic of our time. It’s really beautiful – the story, the design, the structure, the music – everything about it was utterly lovely. The depth and style in the stop motion animation kept me absolutely riveted to the screen, it’s the first film by Laika studios (Kubo and the Two Strings, Boxtrolls) and it’s clear even in their first work they’re going to be an impressive. Coraline is weird and wonderful, funny and frightening and all the things a great children’s film should be.

Frozen – Another beautiful Disney film, that never fails to make we laugh, sing along, smile, tear up a little and cheer. Just like Tangled this is a great blend of humour, character, sappiness, spark and action. The relationships, particularly between the two sisters, are really wonderful and while the overall direction of the story was predictable, the detail of the twists and turns felt original and inventive. The visual style is absolutely stunning and actually made me slightly regret not seeing it in 3D. I could have done with a little more humour (maybe more use of Olaf and Sven – although it’s possible that would have been overuse) and maybe a couple less songs, but overall a wonderful addition to the Disney catalog.

This is Where I Leave You – This is one of my favourite genres, watching a group of relatively normal adults turn into moderate messes when back in the family home with their siblings and parents. There’s so much opportunity for humour, angst and love, and with a talented group of actors you can often have all three at exactly the same time. This is Where I Leave you puts all the right ingredients together and makes something hilarious, moving and really lovely. The combination of wonderful actors and careful script bring complicated networks of relationships and histories to life with elegant simplicity. My only regret was that it was over too soon.

50 First Dates– A very sweet romantic comedy. It gets a bit silly in places, but the core story line is really well played out with a fundamentally believable and reasonable journey through a complicated relationship. It managed to avoid being creepy (compared with something like Groundhog Day) and also not get repetitive. Sandler and Barrymore have wonderful chemistry together and the supporting cast are also really charming. I can’t believe I’ve missed out on this film for so long.

Colette – I had absolutely never heard of the writer Colette, which may be me showing incredible ignorance, but did mean I could be intrigued about the direction the film was going to go. The film, and Keira Knightley did a wonderful job creating a fascinating character, but I’m not sure it did as good a job guiding me through her life. It felt like there were a lot of gaps in the story, that we jumped from one stage of Colette’s life to another and I never quite understood how she got there. Each dramatic new step she took felt slightly incoherent, zigging and zagging unexpectedly. I couldn’t keep track of who the supporting characters were, and didn’t really understand the core relationship with her husband. One of those films where the parts are better than the whole.

US Marshals – This is a great film, more a spin-off than a sequel to The Fugitive focussing on Tommy Lee Jones’ team of marshals. Another great stunt gets the ball rolling with a brilliant plane crash, then it settles into chasing their fugitive across various locations. The team of characters works really well together led by the brilliant TLJ and the surprisingly understated Robert Downey Jr. Witty remarks, running around, shooting things, big stunts, intelligent plot and likeable characters… what’s not to love.

Corpse Bride – A gloriously quirky and creepy film that’s perfect Tim Burton. The animation is amazing, it’s so beautifully done that I found it hard to work out how they were doing it and works perfectly for the nature of the film. I wasn’t expecting it to be as funny as it was, but between puns, subtle visual jokes and blatant gags there’s never a dull moment. At just 75 minutes, it feels more like a tv movie than a big screen release, but that just means that you’re not given long enough to settle in and be forced to wait for things to happen. I much prefer this to Wallace and Grommit!

The History Boys – This is a strange mixture of theatre and bbc drama thrown into a big movie without losing any of its charms and passion. The cast is pulled straight from the West End play and though the young actors may not have had a lot of screen credits to their names at the time, they have certainly gone a long way since, and it’s clear why that’s the case when you see their performances here. With Richard Griffiths anchoring it the characters all absolutely jump off the screen. It’s a compelling (if slightly far-fetched) story which pulls you in and balances the different elements very well, right through to the extremely well crafted ending.

Stardust – A charming, quirky and brilliantly funny film! The only thing I can compare it to is The Princess Bride, it has a similar self-knowing attitude to it, very aware that it’s a somewhat daft fairy tale and having a lot of fun with it. The second half seemed to lose some of the spark and dragged a bit. The humour felt isolated in the bickering ghosts and the story threads more predictable. However it’s still a lovely film, and a firm entry on my comfort watch list.

Monsters – At some point it apparently became possible for just a handful of people with an off the shelf camera and a computer to put together this kind of near flawless piece of cinema. This apparently cost just $800,000 and is a brilliant piece of film making. It’s impossible to label really, it’s a monster flick, a road movie, a disaster story, a romance and it all comes together so slickly with such a light touch that you almost don’t notice how good it is until it’s finished and you want to watch it all over again immediately. The only complaint I have is that on a second viewing, the characters do come across a little underdeveloped, I didn’t get a huge sense of history to either of them, and the romance element didn’t quite resonate.

Now You See Me – This is cool, slick and fun, it’s like Ocean’s 11 but with magic. Ok, that’s overstating it a bit, it lets itself down in a few aspects, most notably the failure to develop most of the characters, particularly the magicians themselves, beyond a one sentence blurb. But that in itself is part of the layering of tricks, because eventually you realise they’re just the distractions while the main character is in fact Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent. Like Ocean’s 11 if you start studying the plot too closely there are big holes, but as a popcorn movie it’s very well done.

Vox Lux – I really liked the simple construction of this film. It’s a biography, but rather than jumping about in time, or showing a sequence of events, it just shows how the ‘story’ started and then where it gets to. The first half or so of the film shows a fourteen year old girl surviving a school shooting and the following few months as she becomes a pop star. Then we jump forward 20 years and see just a single day in her life now. Although you’ll see Natalie Portman on all the posters, it’s actually Raffey Cassidy who plays the young Celeste and then the older Celeste’s daughter who really carries the film. Unfortunately I don’t think the outcome is as strong as the idea. There were a lot of threads hinted at that I wanted more from, how did all the characters get from the first half to the second half. I think it needed stronger writing to really pull off the ambitious structure. I was left unsatisfied at the end, particularly given rather than spending time on those threads, there was just an extended concert sequence at the end.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women – I had absolutely no idea that there the story of the creation of Wonder Woman and the early years of the comic were so interesting and I’m not quite sure that this film completely does the story, and the people, justice. The film isn’t in fact about the comic itself, but in the 3 people instrumental to its creation and the relationship between them. The loving and long term relationship between the man and two women is beautifully told and the challenges they face, individually and as a family, are fascinating. The psychology behind Wonder Woman is also interesting, but (like the comic itself) gets a little too leery at times which undermines the last section of the film a bit. But it’s a window into a very interesting part of history.

Geostorm – The plot is an astonishing amount of rubbish. I mean the science is beyond ridiculous, and the levels of conspiracies make no sense at all either. If you can ignore that, and some scenery chewing from a bunch of actors who should know better, Gerard Butler just about manages to drag some entertainment out of things. The effects look pretty too I guess. It’s not offensively bad, it may have been quite entertaining on the big screen with some popcorn, but on the small screen it just about passes the time if your brain is only operating at 20%.

Sucker Punch – There was a lot to like in this film, but also a fair amount to be angered by. I really loved the style of it, the weird concept of layered reality was well done and well used. The visual style was mesmerizing at times, with the violence and gore dressed up like a music video. But the sexualisation of the scenarios and costumes made it feel dirty and exploitative rather than empowering. I almost feel like I need someone to tell me whether it’s ok to like the film or not.

Shaft – This is pretty much just an excuse to watch Samuel L. Jackson in an array of really great coats being exceptionally cool, sweary, violent and somehow also charming. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I got a bit bored of the plot towards the end when it felt like it just turned into a standard action film without enough of the trademark style, but that may just have been that I was tired, and I certainly never get bored of watching Samuel L. Jackson do his thing.

King of Thieves – A film that suffers from meandering tone. The film starts, much like the headlines from the real crime, taking great joy in the absurdity of a bunch of OAP thieves undertaking a huge heist. There’s a lot of fun merging planning the crime with suffering the challenges and indignities of old age. It’s set up like they’re cheeky heroes, proving that there’s life in the old ways. However it takes a swerve half way through – the group starts to fall apart (for no reason that I can see) and things start to get really very nasty as it becomes clear the ‘good old days’ weren’t really that pleasant. The transition could have been interesting, but it just felt disconnected. Either half of the film is well done, with the cast of legends completely living up to expectations, but the swerve in the middle is crippling.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties – I didn’t get on with this film and came close to giving up on it a couple of times. There was too much going on that I didn’t really get. Maybe if I had more awareness or appreciation of the 80s punk scene I would have connected more, but I didn’t care about any of the characters and found the alien weirdness just too weird and muddled to really engage with. I’m not sure whether there was more going on under the surface that I was missing, or if I was supposed to just wallow on the surface of it, but neither worked for me.

Chernobyl

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

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

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

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

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

Fosse/Verdon

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

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

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

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

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