Films in October 2020

A bit of a rubbish short list of films watched this month. I’m finding it a bit hard to get into films, and find something that matches my mood. I did make it to the cinema once though, and a couple of new releases online.

Saint Maud (Cinema)
I’m a devoted Wittertainment listener, but I really should remember that when Mark recommends something and says it’s going to be one of his top films of the year, I should probably walk the other way. He absolutely raved about Saint Maud, and when I spotted a showing at a convenient time I decided to go and support my local cinema. I think I would have been happier just giving them the ticket price and leaving after the trailers. The film is a tense drama/horror playing on standard themes of how medical carers and religion can go very badly wrong. Both are let into our lives in a way that are supposed to be supportive and nurturing, but if mishandled can be controlling and terrifying. Saint Maud thumps these messages home without a great deal of subtlety (certainly not in the honking soundtrack). My overwhelming feelings were unsettledness, discomfort and a growing boredom and wish for the film to be over. I’m not sure that the filmmakers did anything wrong necessarily (certainly the acting was very good), but there was just nothing in the film that I can see as enjoyable or interesting to watch – it’s got themes that are unoriginal, gory bits that are truly nauseating, and a general tone that’s just unpleasant. It’s not particularly bad, it’s just got nothing positive going for it.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Rebecca (Netflix)
I’m a big fan of the original novel and the Alfred Hitchcock film, which I re-watched only recently and I’d been looking forward to seeing this new version in the cinema, but sadly had to settle for watching on Netflix. Lily James is very well cast as the second Mrs De Winter, there’s a fragile surface to her, but an underlying strength that eventually comes through. Kristin Scott Thomas is also perfectly cast as Mrs Danvers as well. I’m not so sure about Armie Hammer’s Max De Winter who seems a little more insubstantial, but it’s a weird role and this film deals slightly better with the inconsistencies of the character – swinging from joyous new romance to distant, inconsiderate, and frankly a bit of an arsehole. I don’t think it’s a huge departure from the Hitchcock version to be honest, and I think it’s not really much more than a remake of a film that didn’t really need remaking. I wish the talent involved had done something more original with the material (set it in a different time period, used a different point of view, done more with the supporting characters, play around with the timelines) as I think that would have been really interesting.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb (Netflix)
I’m simultaneously impressed and mystified by Netflix, who not only made this slightly dry documentary about Egyptian archaeologists (often with subtitles), but also heavily promoted it. Despite the rather dramatic name, and some very well shot opening sequences, most of the film is a pretty straightforward documentary following a dig season focused on exploring and explaining a beautifully preserved tomb. The narrative is well crafted and seems well grounded in science and history from a team of experts who are clearly passionate, respectful and excited. There are a couple of nice explanatory animated sequences, but I wish they’d used a bit more creativity to really connect things up (eg maps, timelines, drones, overlays etc). I felt I got a bit of depth in a couple of areas, but can’t really join up how it all fits together.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Gentlemen (Amazon)
Guy Ritchie is playing to his strengths here and he’s produced a slick and entertaining British gangster movie. The large number of characters and branches of the plot are handled elegantly, the narrative device of a narrator telling the story is well used and holds everything together. The tone is very carefully balanced with plenty of laughs, a dark centre and a really well judged sense of its own ridiculousness. The cast are all perfectly on note, I was going to call out Hugh Grant but to be honest there isn’t a bum note in the cast. If I were going to be picky and a bit prudish, I thought the language was maybe a little too crude and I wish a more creative approach had been found rather than the absolutely gratuitous use of the C word.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Murder on the Orient Express (TV)
An absolutely stunning cast (and Jonny Depp) combined with Agatha Christie’s most iconic work, and Kenneth Branagh as star and director was an easy sell and delivered beautifully to high expectations. What I didn’t anticipate though was how stunning gorgeous the cinematography would be, or how funny it was. I think a criticism could be made that there’s a few lurches in the reveals, and it may be quite easy to lose track of characters (I read the book recently so didn’t have a problem). Overall it’s an absolute delight of a film, just like curling up with a good book.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Aladdin (DVD)
Seeing that this film was made in 1992 makes me feel old. I remember it as one of the ‘new’ Disney films, distinct from the more traditional ones. I remember feeling that as a teenager it was still ok for me to enjoy Aladdin, while something like Fox and the Hound was more for children.
Even though it’s now nearly 30 years old, Aladdin still holds up pretty well as a ‘modern’ animation that’s got things to interest kids and adults alike. The dialogue is witty (largely, but not exclusively driven by the spark of Robin Williams), the music catchy, the characters lively, the female lead has as much agency as historically appropriate, and the whole thing feels vibrant.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Hotel Transylvania (Netflix)
A cute animation with enough moral centre to give it some depth, but not so much it gets too bogged down and sanctimonious. The concept is good, and the details of the characters and the world are well developed. There’s plenty of visual and audio references for the monster movie fans and plenty of silliness for the kids (or young at heart). The voice cast is really good, and doesn’t fall into the trap of just sounding like the known actors rather than the characters. A nice film to watch on Halloween.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Halloween (2018) (Netflix)
It wasn’t until I was about half way through this film that I realised that I’ve never actually seen the original Halloween or any of its many sequels before this one. It really didn’t make any difference (in fact that’s an interesting idea for a horror film, the ‘aftermath’ of a slasher movie that you never actually see). You could describe it negatively as being very generic, hitting all the beats that you’d expect (even the inevitable ‘twists’), but you could also put a positive spin on it that it’s being classic rather than generic. I thought it was absolutely fine but really nothing more than that. If you’re looking for a classic slasher with the women taking control rather than being powerless victims, then this film will do absolutely fine. But there’s not really much to get excited about.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (Netflix)
This is an absolutely terrible film. The only reason it’s mustered 3/10 not lower is because those scores are reserved for films that offend me on a moral level, whereas this one just offends me on a competency level. Things start badly with the title, which is so utterly unmemorable that I forgot it between viewing the IMDB page and switching tabs to write this review. I don’t even remember there being a hill in the film, there’s a lake and a waterfall, but no hill. Then there’s the lead character who is a pathological liar, but that’s never really explored or explained, she just choses to lie about ridiculous things. There’s interesting psychology, but it’s just ignored and instead we have a central narrator who you absolutely cannot trust. But she’s so dominant in the film that there’s no counterpoint to that and so the narrative is just confused. Then you’ve got multiple levels of conspiracy going on (which I didn’t care about), some magicians with terrible French accents, a plot with holes in it so big I actually rewound a couple of times to check I hadn’t missed something. I actually gave up on the film and skipped about half an hour to get to the end which was just as ridiculous as the rest of it and then ended on a cryptic scene that undermined what little plot they’d committed to. A truly terrible film that wasn’t worth the effort of downloading, let alone making it.
Ranking: 3 / 10

Books in October 2020

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
Based on the evidence of two novels, Susanna Clarke writes the kind of books that are rather hard to describe, ignoring some of the standard ‘rules’ of storytelling. She creates weird and wonderful worlds, but doesn’t introduce the readers to them, just throws them into them and leaves them to figure out what is the same and what is different. With Piranesi this sucked me in completely, I was utterly lost in the world, in a way that at times genuinely felt like I was lost in an unsettling way struggling to spot familiar landmarks to cling on to. The narrating character has a childlike sense of adventure, but the fact that they are actually in their 30’s makes that naivety unsettling. I’m not sure that the conclusion of the book and the solving of the puzzles is as well done as the set up, it was a bit drawn out and the way the ‘answers’ sort of destroys the childlike world is deliberate but sad. It’s a fascinating book, and is a third the length of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell so that definitely counts in its favour!

Emma Southon – A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Following on from her fascinating book focused on a single woman and her connections to the first few emperors of Rome, Emma Southon here takes a broader look at life in ancient Rome through the lens of murder. It’s a catchy concept, as Southon says – who doesn’t love reading about murder and mayhem? It turns out the concept of murder is a complicated one and it’s actually a route in to much wider historical and philosophical issues, really getting into the challenges that there are to assess a completely different culture through the presumptions our modern, western mindset. There are still plenty of gruesome, funny and touching anecdotes throughout, and Southon’s accessible tone keeps even complex discussions light and engaging. It’s so rare for non-fiction to be so well grounded in high quality academic research and also such fun to read, and I’m really glad I’ve found this author.

Stacey Halls – The Foundling
I enjoyed this book, it’s not the grim and gritty historical novel that I was expecting, and to be honest I’m actually a bit glad about that as while I feel I *should* read stuff like that, I’m not really in the mood at the moment. There is some challenging content in here, particularly at the very start, around the reality of women’s lives in Georgian England when the gaps between the rich and the poor were so immense. However while there’s that dark thread, there’s also a fair amount of cheesy plot going on, which makes the novel feel a little lighter and more like a caper or puzzle at some points. The ending ties everything up in a very neat and utterly improbable bow at the end which is maybe not ‘right’ but it was nicer to read than what the reality would have been.

Lucy Foley Double Bill
The Guest List – An entertaining and solid thriller, with a solid level of “un-put-down-ability” and a satisfying conclusion that tied everything together. It’s not a masterpiece – the jumping timelines got a bit annoying at times and the characters were slightly on the wrong side of credibility. But if you’re looking for a book to hold your attention while read under a blanket on an autumn evening, and then never really think of again, then this will hit the spot.

The Hunting Party – I was looking for a quick, fairly disposable read and having just finished Lucy Foley’s most recent novel, so thought I’d pick her previous one up. It’s exactly the same, the same overall structure with jumping timelines and holding the reveal of the crime and the victim until very near the end, the same combination of posh and annoying old friends slightly on the wrong side of credibility with more grounded ‘staff’ observing them. As a one off structure it works, but as a repeated gimmick it’s already very old after just two books. It’s still a solid read for a dreary autumn evening, but it’s disappointing that the author doesn’t have more creativity.

The Haunting of Bly Manor

The Haunting of Hill House really hit the spot for me, it was a well put together horror series, perfect for box setting on a dreary and low enthusiasm weekend. So I was quite excited when the next entry in the anthology series popped up on Netflix.

Unfortunately alarm bells started going off as soon as the characters opened their mouths.

I can understand the allure of setting a horror series in England – the glamour of a large manor house, the stiff-upper lip and ridiculous traditions of the nobility, inherent creepiness of servants beavering away while also being invisible, and the long history that gives plenty of time for gruesome deaths to leave behind supernatural ripples. However if you’re going to do it, you need to make sure that your cast can actually deliver the accents! If you’ve constrained yourself with using the same ensemble cast for multiple settings they either need to be flexible or you need to work your stories around their capabilities. There were several truly terrible accents on offer here, and the worst offender was the narrator who interjected with an accent that drifted all over the western hemisphere in the span of every sentence. Even the American actress playing an American character seemed to have picked up the problem and was also massively distracting.

In fact almost everything in the series was distracting, making it impossible to lose yourself in the characters, stories and settings. It was often hard to tell whether characters were supposed to be unsettling, or if it was just over the top acting. I’m afraid particular examples of this were the two children, who were I’m sure doing their absolute best, but playing “are they possessed, weird, or just upper class English?” is a hard balancing act that the adult actors were struggling with, so the children really had no chance.

The nuts and bolts of the plot were fine, and the horror elements were a nice combination of creepiness, action, jump scares, tension and the sort of horror that just gets worse the more you think about how it. For all that the English setting gave problems to the actors, it was a gift to the cinematography, and the Bly Manor of the title was a characterful setting used to very good effect. If not for the ever present issue of the accents, I think it would have been almost as enjoyable as the Haunting of Hill House.

Books in September 2020

I’ve bought more hardbacks this month then I think I buy most whole years. I’m not sure whether that’s about my reading habits during Covid (overwhelming desire to curl up in an armchair/deckchair and lose myself in a book) or if all the authors are condensing releases targeting for Christmas. Either way it’s a bit expensive and a bit harder on the wrists and hand muscles to read them. Particularly when they are absolute beasts like….

Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 5: Troubled Blood
If JK Rowling had managed to keep a secret that she was writing these books, I think the increasing page counts would probably have given her away by now. This book thuds in at 940 pages, nearly half as long again as the previous one, and in hardback it was actually a physical challenge to read at times. The book does cover a full year, and multiple cases, but it still feels like a good edit would have substantially tightened up without losing anything important. Still, given that I enjoy the company of the characters and even the meandering side plots are well developed, it seems a bit silly to complain about the experience lasting longer. I’m still frustrated by the “will-they-won’t-they” relationship and am firmly in the camp that they “shouldn’t” so feel it’s all a bit manipulative.

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club
This is a lovely little murder mystery novel. Set in and around a retirement village, a group of residents regularly review cold cases supplied for a retired police officer and then find themselves involved in a present day murder. It’s a lovely idea and all the characters are vibrant and large, usually just the right side of credibility. It’s on the lighter side of crime fiction, but also has some real emotion in it and doesn’t gloss over the wide ranging effects. I think if I had picked this book up randomly I would have nothing but praise for it, but with the name Richard Osman on it I was expecting a little more. There were occasional flashes of his wit, and there were some lovely bits of observation, but they were a bit few and far between when I was hoping for more. Still, an excellent first novel and I look forward to reading more.

Thomas Erikson – Surrounded by Idiots
Another business psychology book that tries to group everyone into a limited number of categories to help us all manage our day to day lives. The title resonated with me, and I am also familiar with the ‘Success Insights’ categories and have found them really useful for understanding both myself and others, and using them to improve my working relationships and team dynamics. Unfortunately this book is not a great advert for the system. I found the book depressingly negative, talking extensively about the negative aspects of each colour type, and how frustrating other colours find their counterparts. Too much weight was put on weaknesses rather than how to channel traits effectively. Also the book talks exclusively about single colour types, but points out that by far the majority of people in the real world are a blend of at least two colours, so the examples felt like stereotypes pushed too far. The book isn’t without value as the underlying approach is solid and even the broad strokes are helpful, but by the end I really didn’t want to spend any time with any of the colours, including my own. (680)

Jennifer Bell – Wonderscape
Three young teenagers are randomly transported into the future and into a virtual reality game where they have to solve puzzles and challenges to return home. It’s a solid idea and competently told, but some reason I just didn’t quite connect with it. I always felt that if I looked too closely at anything it would fall apart, characters and world were all a little flimsy feeling, lacking in depth and solidity. I can’t really point at anything specific that was wrong with the book, so it may well just be me.

Neil Gaiman – Stardust
I think this may be one of the rare occasions that the film is superior to the book. To be fair, I’ve loved the film for many years before finally getting round to reading the book, so it was impossible for me to read it without automatically connecting bits to the film. It’s also one of the rare occasions where I think content was added for the film (eg the extended section on the lightning ship) and aspects such as the ghostly brothers played better in visual media. The book is still a lovely read, and obviously the film wouldn’t have existed without it, but in this case I’d say there’s not really much to gain from reading the book over watching the film.

Films in September 2020

The timing of this post is slightly odd. If I’d written it yesterday as I intended, I’d be focusing on the fact that after a nearly 6 month gap (4 days short) I went back to the cinema and the experience was everything I wanted it to be, given a couple of constraints. The Cineworld in South Ruislip was clean, welcoming and felt safe. The showing I went to on a Saturday morning only had a dozen or so people in, well spaced out so I didn’t feel bad that I wasn’t wearing a mask (supported by the fact that I was shoving food in my mouth for most of the showing). I’ve often referred to the cinema as ‘my happy place’, a place to switch off from the outside world, and for the most part I could do that (some of the adverts really wanted to remind you of reality, which I could have lived without).

But instead, I’m writing this post today. With the announcement yesterday that the Bond film was being pushed to April, Cineworld have had to make the horrible choice to completely close. With no big films to pull audiences back in, and get into a regular cinema pattern, closing their doors is the only option. It does feel there’s a bit of an element of studios letting the side down (Disney not releasing Mulan on the big screens, the new delay to Bond), but everyone has to do what they have to do I guess. I guess it’s also likely that with film production shut down, there are concerns about how sustainable the film calendar is this year.

Maybe I didn’t do my bit enough, I only went to the cinema once. I did keep meaning to go and see some of the re-releases of older classics, but just never quite managed it. Now it looks like that option will be gone for another 6 months. I know in the grand scheme of suffering out there at the moment, my loss is pretty minimal; and I am thinking of the thousands of people who’s livelihood have been impacted. But the sustained loss of my ‘happy place’ has sent me into quite the funk.

And what makes that even worse, is that the next bit of this post explains why I think the biggest and most important of film of the year is actually a bit rubbish.

Tenet
I have no problem with complex films, I purposely go to the cinema and watch films to distract my brain from the world around me and so a film where I have to concentrate helps that. Christopher Nolan films push complexity to the limit, respecting that the audience is more intelligent than many suppose and that they want to be challenged. The problem I found with Tenet wasn’t that I couldn’t understand it, it was that I was never given the chance to. There was no breathing room, explanations were rushed through and swiftly followed by action, I just wanted things to pause for 30 seconds to allow me to really sink into the ideas, but I was always being rushed on. Then in the middle of action sequences I wasn’t quite sure whether things were going to plan or not, because I’d never quite grasped the plan, so I didn’t understand the jeopardy and lost the emotional connection. Also in thinking about the film since watching, I’m not entirely sure it hangs together – did the stuff at the start about the bullets actually make sense and/or matter?

There are secondary problems with the film, many of which I complained about for Interstellar too. Dialogue was often mumbled and overwhelmed by some terrible sound mixing. The lead female character was depressingly poorly-written, little agency of her own and an object for the male characters to engage with, that’s just depressing these days. However the cast were very good, the stunt work superb and the creativity is certainly refreshing. The great irony is, that for a film that’s been tasked with saving cinema, I think it’s actually a film best watched on dvd where you can pause to think through the explanations, put the subtitles on to catch the dialogue, and rewind to check what on earth is happening.

I went back to the DVD collection for a couple of Nolan’s older works, and confirmed what I thought, his older films were better. Inception is absolutely a challenging film that requires you to pay attention, but if you do, it does mostly make sense… mostly. I’ve watched the film multiple times and lose the plot at about the same point each time. I’m still not entirely certain whether that’s my understanding, the writers’ explanations or in fact that it doesn’t all hang together at all. But the key difference with Inception over Tenet is that it doesn’t really matter that you’re not completely following it while you’re watching – the action, character moments and emotional connections are strong enough by the point it gets too confusing that I’m just happy to ride it to the end and then agonise over it once it’s finished.

The Prestige is the oldest and by far the best of the Nolan films I re-watched (I didn’t bother with Interstellar because I find it deeply frustrating – but it’s reviewed on my website). The start of this film is slightly hard work as you try to get the hang of the different timelines and points of view, but after a while you realise that you’re no longer having to think about it and it’s all just flowing naturally. It’s a very satisfying film, I was actually grinning at the end of it, so pleased at how the different layers interacted and mirrored everything. Unlike more recent Nolan films that have left me with more questions than answers, this one ties it all together without handing it to the audience on a plate. It’s a film that you want to re-watch because you can see more, not that you HAVE to rewatch in order to understand it. It’s an incredibly clever, elegant film, that actually manages to be better than the source book as it intertwines the story lines much better.

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

Bombshell
Bombshell is the story of some of the events of 2016 which saw the chairman of Fox News accused of sexual assault. It also features Donald Trump’s harassment of news anchor Megyn Kelly in the run up to the presidential election. I had a lot of emotions watching this film. There were moments that I literally shouted at the television in disgust at what the characters were saying, attitudes that should just be laughably incomprehensible, but sadly even a couple of years after #metoo are still depressingly unsurprising. But there are also moments that made me want to cheer, and many moments of interesting nuance that start to touch on some of the more complex aspects of the issues. Crucially however, it’s also an excellent film with a truly stunning cast of women (Margot Robbie was robbed at awards season), an interesting directorial style and a vibrancy and originality that really kept me utterly engrossed throughout.
Ranking: 9 / 10

The Shining
I can certainly see why this is considered a classic, it’s the king of slow burning creepy horror film that I like, as opposed to the “make you jump” kind of horror, or a gory one, although there are elements of that as well. Kubrick is famous for taking dozens of takes to get shots perfect and it really pays off here, there isn’t a single element of a scene that’s mediocre, it all looks absolutely perfect. The two leads are really good, although having recently read the book, I did miss the more psychological elements with the characters starting out more ‘normal’ and showing a more ambiguous decent into paranoia and craziness. The book and the film are very different, but each is a classic.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Speed
Speed is over 25 years old. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made there about car insurance. It has actually aged really really well. That’s because fundamentally the building blocks of the action film are all incredibly solid – a simple concept with incremental set pieces and solid characters running through it. Keanu Reaves isn’t the most versatile of actors, but he’s playing to his strengths here and Sandra Bullock is the one really carrying the emotions of the film. So much of the stunts and effects are live that they haven’t really aged, only some of the camera quality now looks sadly grainy. Even the soundtrack is still really great.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Cool Runnings
I’m a sucker for an under-dog sports film and this one is utterly charming from start to finish. It’s bright and colourful, funny and exciting, touching and inspiring. I laughed and cried more than once and was thoroughly entertaining for a couple of hours.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Ready Player One
I really loved the book, but I can’t say I remember any of the details, so I didn’t feel frustrated by any of the changes. I was excited when I heard that Steven Spielberg was making it and what has resulted is a good, fun Spielberg film. It’s a family adventure film with bright lights, large performances, wit and excitement. I can see that some might be frustrated at the popcorn-ness of the whole thing, but I found it a really entertaining romp. I was never bored, I smiled at the references I got and didn’t notice the ones I didn’t. I think there was maybe the potential to do more, the cast in particular felt a little ‘television’ level, rather than blockbuster names, but it does what it sets out to do.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Crazy Rich Asians
I tend to not like comedies that much, so when I say that this one was absolutely fine, that’s actually pretty good going. There was a pretty good mixture of melodrama and actual drama. There were characters that were comedic, ones that were over the top, and some playing it pretty straight – but also enough twists where comedy characters would cut the truth of a drama, or straight characters would be put into a ridiculous situation. The only thing that I felt let it down slightly was sometimes it felt a little forced – I never quite worked out whether it was clumsy dialogue, or actors that couldn’t quite land the nuance, but it just felt a bit clunky at times.
Ranking: 7 / 10

The Monuments Men
There are a lot of great ingredients in this film, not least a great cast and a strong concept, but they just don’t come together. The biggest problem with the film is tone. Many of the characters and scenes (and the trailer) are played for laughs, large personalities played by great character actors and a slightly wacky set up. But there’s also a lot of real tragedy and hard hitting content, which while well performed are somewhat simplistically written and just disconnected from the rest of the tone. Sadly the writing and direction just isn’t very good. The moments of light and dark are not intertwined, they’re switched back and forth. Serious points are delivered via heartfelt speeches, lightness is confined to specific scenes. Everything is obvious, predictable and clunky – the dialogue, characters, structure, framing, even the way scenes are lit. It’s not a terrible film, but it is a horrible waste, it’s an amazing story and this cast could have made something truly special.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Juliet, Naked
The film gets off to a slightly bumpy start as it seems slightly uncertain and inconsistent in tone. Chris O’Dowd’s and a few other characters are played large and verging on ridiculous, which just didn’t sit right alongside Rose Byrne’s more low key performance. However, Ethan Hawke is on exactly the same wavelength as Byrne, and as their connection grows and O’Dowd’s falls away, the film becomes a lot more settled and really very charming. The story that develops is believably complicated, and builds on interesting ideas of the things we regret either doing, or not doing. I really loved their story together, but the film itself kept trying to force annoying and embarrassing comedy characters in that just spoilt things.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Hippopotamus
This is the most Stephen Fry movie that has ever existed, and I’m afraid that’s not quite a good thing. A little bit of Fry is a wonderful thing, an elegant turn of phrase, a broad knowledge base and a cheeky sense of humour. However, when dialed up as much as the writing in this film is that turns into needlessly pretentious and utterly overblown dialogue, a meandering plot and a schoolboy crudeness. Even the glorious Roger Allam couldn’t elevate this film to anything other than painful.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Films in August 2020

I’m a little disappointed in myself for not actually making it back to the cinema this month. I did mean to, but the timings never quite worked and my plans to see Tenet fell into September. I didn’t even watch any new releases on netflix/amazon, so instead the below are all just re-watches or random catch ups. There’s an absolute classic at both the top AND bottom of the list, and I don’t think everyone would be happy with the bottom one, but I found it insufferable. The only other notable thing is that I accidentally watched two shark films and two Jason Statham films, you shouldn’t read too much into that.

Rebecca – A brilliant film that manages to create a creepy, uncomfortable, engaging mystery without ever laying it on too thick. The lead characters are beautifully crafted, even the one that never actually appears but guides the whole story. The sets are amazing and the way the different characters slot into them is managed so smoothly with just a few glances and movements. This film is all about what isn’t said and seen and it is pretty nearly perfect. 9 / 10

Moon – Proper old school science fiction – completely story and concept driven. I’m continually complaining about films being too long the editing on this was absolutely superb, the plot never feels rushed, but at the end you realise that not a second was wasted, no shot lasted longer than it had to and no lines were used that couldn’t be replaced with a perfect expression. Sam Rockwell is superb, although I felt Kevin Spacey’s voice was too recognisable for the computer and that dropped the illusion a bit. My favourite thing about the film though was the design of it all, from the lived in work spaces to the bleak lunar landscape, there was always something fascinating to look at that made perfect sense in the environment. A really wonderful film.9 / 10

El orfanato (The Orphanage) – I love a creepy horror film, and this is a great one. The build up of tension and creepiness is very well judged, well timed jumps give shots of adrenaline to the ongoing unsettled feelings. The ending is also very satisfying, revealing the truth at just the right moment and then playing out the fallout to leave the film properly finished off. A true classic. 8 / 10

Peanut Butter Falcon – A nice film. What with one thing and another this is the kind of film that I needed to watch at the moment. It’s sweet and funny, with just enough drama and sadness to it to give it body, but not so much that it brings down the overall feel good warmth. Yes it’s slow, but the scenery is beautiful to look at and the direction understated but effective. The trio of lead actors have wonderful chemistry and the whole film was just a nice way to spend some time. 8 / 10

Knives Out – 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. When I saw it in the cinema I complained that the cinematography was too dark to fully luxuriate in the locations and sets, but on the smaller screen I didn’t have that problem at all, so it was even better. 8 / 10

The Meg – A wonderful stupid action film about a giant shark terrorizing some scientists and Jason Statham. I mean obviously Jason Statham isn’t really terrorized, because he’s Jason Statham, but the shark is ridiculously big and gives even The Stath some challenges. The film is gloriously dumb and completely aware of how ridiculous it is; everyone in the cast is playing it consistently and there’s no one trying to be too big, or play it too straight. It plays a little bit with some of the tropes of the genre, but it’s not pushing any boundaries making it a comfortable, fun, and fairly disposable watch. 8 / 10

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – I was a big fan of the television series growing up and could never quite understand why in the endless series of remakes, this classic had never made it to the big screen, but it was worth the wait as this is spot on. The key word is ‘entertaining’. The style is dialed up and the complexity is dialed down and the focus is on the great characters, snappy dialogue and fun banter. The introduction of Alicia Vikander to make the duo a trio is inspired. The period details are incredible with great costumes, locations and music, although the grainy film style and split screens were maybe a little overdone. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this, even on a third watch on a small screen. I’m a bit disappointed that it didn’t turn into an ongoing series, but maybe ‘one and done’ is safer. 8 / 10

Emma. – I am not a fan of Jane Austen et al. I keep trying the books, and different film and TV adaptions but for the most part I find them fairly insufferable, in fact the best rated one in my reviews is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This production of Emma is probably going to be the next highest rated. I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say I *liked* it, but I certainly found it tolerable, and at times even entertaining. I think the biggest success is that the eponymous lead character is presented as fairly annoying and ridiculous so I couldn’t really get cross about it. I don’t know how much is in the original and how much is the adapter and director, but the whole thing is all just on edge of parody, overly bright colours, over blown characters and big acting; and as it’s all coherent it works. The only slight frustration was that as per usual I didn’t buy into the main pairing and if anything that romance felt bodged in rather than an integral part of the story. 7 / 10

Hitch – I was torn on this film. On the one hand, Will Smith is perfect – charming without being smarmy, sweet without being pathetic and a big screen presence without being unrealistic. The supporting cast are all just as perfectly played and there wasn’t a single irritating character, a rarity in romantic comedies – even Kevin James wasn’t annoying! But I did spend most of the film trying to work out whether it was problematic. It felt like they were putting a label on issues in a humorous way, rather than being part of the problem, but I could never quite be certain. I’m not going to look up whether I should have been offended or not, because I rather enjoyed it so I don’t want to spoil that. 7 / 10

My Big Fat Greek Wedding – A good fun film that moves the inevitable “frumpy girl turns into surprise beauty” to the very start of the film and then just kinda gets on with it. There’s a lot of fun, but also a lot of love in the over-the-top family and although it’s a bit dated in places now, the central ideas are pretty timeless. 7 / 10

Minority Report – The film holds up pretty well 18 years after it was made, it still looks suitably futuristic and creative, even if some of the effects have dated a smidgen. The twists of the plot are well balanced to involve some thought but not to Nolan-esque complexity levels that make your brain hurt. 7 / 10

Venom – A film of thirds. The first third is dull. We’re introduced to Tom Hardy’s annoying journalist who screws up his life and then wallows, and Riz Ahmed’s ludicrously over the top villain. Just as I was mentally checking out of the film though, suddenly the film bursts into life with the arrival of Venom. Tom Hardy’s acting skills come to the fore, both in terms of physical performance and action sequences and also finding both the humour and horror in the situation. The plot got interesting, the effects were interesting to watch and the whole thing gained pace and fun. And then the third section turned into an action sequence that overdid the CGI, under did the character and left me zoning out a bit again. Overall the film was better than I expected, but it’s a shame it didn’t really play to the strengths. 6 / 10

True History of the Kelly Gang – Eighty percent of this film is really well put together and has great depth, but sadly it’s ruined by twenty percent of laziness. There were a lot of interesting characters, even if they were only small parts of this film, I got the sense there was a lot going on with each of them, no one was cleanly a hero or a villain. But unfortunately I completely lost track of what was going on when the story got to the actual Kelly Gang bit. Suddenly the subtlety was lost and it felt like Kelly turned from a well developed and complex character into an incoherent ‘legend’ that made no sense. On top of that, much of the action took place in the dark and made it impossible to follow. That section really spoiled the rest of an otherwise interesting film. 6 / 10

The Expendables – I don’t think this film quite knew what it wanted to be. On one hand there’s a lot of fun banter between characters, a slight world weariness of the action tropes that the characters find themselves in. But they didn’t quite completely commit to that, so most of the action sequences are played straight, just like you’d see in any action film with drawn out sequences and utterly improbable violence. The main plot was also dumb as anything and Stallone still seemed to want to write dramatic moments for him and an ill advised and weird romantic implication that they then bottled out of. So I would zone in for the banter and zone out for the rest of it, but naturally the climax of the film was an extended action sequence and I basically zoned out for the final third of the film. 6 / 10

Deadpool 2 – This is unfortunately two films mushed together and it doesn’t work. On the plus side, there’s the Deadpool bits. The hilariously inappropriate violence, language, crudeness, breaking of the 4th wall and in jokes are still there. So many elements of the film work so well together and still feel fresh and original, everything from the music choices to the brilliantly directed and choreographed action sequences that were genuinely interesting to watch for a change.
But you know there’s a ‘but’ coming, and it’s a big one. There’s just too much emotion at the forefront of the story. From the ‘unfortunate event’ and the theme of parenthood that runs through the film it just didn’t feel like Deadpool. There were a lot of scenes that I was waiting for the punch line and was left with just a pure emotional moment that didn’t feel at all in the right film. It wasn’t even done very well, it was utterly lacking in subtlety and the kind of story that we’ve seen play out hundreds of times before.
There were plenty of scenes and moments that were brilliant, but there were a number of places that I was bored and the film dragged and overall I came away feeling rather disappointed. 6 / 10

A Canterbury Tale – I thought this was going to be a proper version of The Canterbury Tale, so at least even if it were rubbish I could count it as educational. I guess the “A” in the title should have clued me in. The problem was that nothing really happened for most of the film. Towards the end there’s some more drama, but by then it just felt a bit over the top. The film is I guess a picturesque and diverting view of village life in England during the second world war, although the positive glow and charming locals come across a little more propaganda than realistic presentation. It’s not terrible to watch with a cup of tea and a crossword, but I’ll be honest that I didn’t really see the point of it. 6 / 10

Puzzle – I went in expecting a nice, low impact little film, the sort of thing that can be watched on an easy Saturday afternoon while doing a jigsaw puzzle. This isn’t quite that film. It’s not what I’d call massively hard hitting, but it is toward that end of the spectrum, with some quite deep things to say about loneliness, expectations and finding a voice. Unfortunately I’m not sure that the deeper elements really landed, there were a couple of long speeches that felt contrived, and some of the characters weren’t as well rounded as they needed to be. That’s a shame because other bits were very well observed and delivered; it’s just a shame all the pieces didn’t quite seem to come from the same puzzle.6 / 10

Remains of the Day – If this film went any slower it would actually move backwards. In fact thanks to the bulk of the story being told in flashback, I guess it does actually go backwards. I loved the book but don’t think it translated very well to film, there isn’t much going on. The cast do a very good job getting inside the characters heads, but I couldn’t help but compare the film to Gosford Park, and it doesn’t come up very well. 5 / 10

Deep Blue Sea – Wow, what a disaster. It’s like they took half of a great film – a solid disaster movie set up, expensive sets and animatronics, Samuel L. Jackson, and LL Cool J, and then ran out of money and put two lead actors in who lacked charisma, chemistry and any real acting talent. Charitably the script didn’t give them a huge amount to go on, but the same people were writing for Jackson and Cool J and they did absolutely fine. Maybe there was different direction given and the two leads were told to play it straight, when no one really wants that in a film about super smart sharks. It passes the time, and it’s worth watching for the good bits, but it’s a missed opportunity. 5 / 10

2001: A Space Odyssey – I’m amazed to find that there is no review of 2001 on my site already, meaning I haven’t watched it since at least 2002 when I started compulsively reviewing everything. I decided that was too big a gap to have so picked up a dvd and settled in.
Wow, that was BORING.What seems to have happened is that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick have taken Clarke’s original short story and then turned it into a 2.5 hour saga to show off some special effects and forgotten to add any additional plot. In fact they probably removed some of the plot from the short story in order to make it deliberately more weird and cryptic. The special effects are definitely impressive, even over FIFTY years later but they’re then so dragged out that I got utterly bored. Accompanying some those sequences are some beautiful music choices, but there are also some horrendous shrieking bits that had me turning the volume down to almost nothing. The plot and characters are so minimal that they’re almost not worth mentioning. The whole film could probably be boiled down to 45 minutes, not only not losing anything of substance, but actually adding to the overall impact. 4 / 10

Books in July and August

I didn’t do my reviews in July, not because I hadn’t read enough books, but actually because I was in the middle of reading a series of books by the same author and I wanted to review them all together. It’s actually been a busy couple of months for reading, partly because the weather encouraged sitting in the garden with a book, and partly because I finally replaced my kindle.

T. Kingfisher
I rather feel that if the only thing I ever read on my kindle was T. Kingfisher, it would still be worth the investment. All her works have a core of realistic characters, bucket loads of charm and a dark sense of humour poking through – whether a well developed spin on a classic fairytale, a straightforward adventure story, or something a little more experimental. They’re not on kindle unlimited but they’re all only a few pounds and very well worth the investment.

Paladin’s Grace – A completely and utterly lovely book. I’ve read a lot of T. K. Kingfisher’s books and she’s never disappointed me but this may actually be my favourite. While the storyline of the book is about assassins, conspiracies, soldiers, spies, poisons and perfumes, really the book is a romance story. Normally I’m not a fan of those, but this one is so gentle and awkward, between two ‘normal’ people who aren’t heroes and heroines, or stunningly beautiful, but just click together when they’re thrown together. Every single page made me smile and warmed my heart. Just lovely.

Minor Mage – The notes at the end of this book explain that it’s a story that’s been floating around in her head for a number of years and has only now been turned into a fully formed book. I think that does show a bit, there are a couple of fun ideas, but the book as a whole lacks substance. It’s a shame, because the nuggets of ideas are really fun and charming (a sarcastic armadillo as a familiar and a mage with really quite minor skills) and there are some nicely demonstrated ideas about what is right/reasonable in different circumstances and depending on if you’re an individual or in a crowd. But the plot feels a little flimsy and it feels like there are some gaps and dead ends. It’s still an enjoyable read, but it felt a little under-done.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – Mona is a wizard of bread. I mean, how wonderful a pitch is that?! This is a bit of a companion to Minor Mage and continues to play with the idea that not all magic users get the ability to control lightning, or raise the dead, some just get the ability to make dough do what what they want it to and just have to make do. Mona is moderately content in her life persuading the scones they don’t want to burn, making gingerbread men dance and feeding the grumpy sourdough starter called Bob that lives in the cellar and eats rats if they get too close. But this is a fairy tale so Mona gets thrown into a bigger adventure and as always Kingfisher gets the emotions of that SPOT ON. There’s darkness in fairy tales, bravery in being scared, weakness in the most powerful and strength in the smallest of people (with or without magic). I adored every single little thing about this book. (677)

Hilary Mantel – The Giant, O’Brien (kindle unlimited)
I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and really hated the writing style, but was a bit worried that it was me being an idiot. How could an author and book with so much praise be so frustrating to read? I spotted this short story on kindle unlimited so thought this would be a good way to give her another try. It just confirmed my previous opinion. While Wolf Hall at least had a fascinating story to tell (thank you history), The Giant O’Brien didn’t even have that. It had a wafer thin story which was then incredibly badly told. The style was hard to read – hard to keep track of who was talking and what they were actually trying to say; and even if I persevered and worked it out, it was ultimately un-rewarding. I turned the pages as quickly as possible and I won’t be giving Mantel another attempt.

Rachel Burge – The Twisted Tree (kindle unlimited)
A solid, if slightly unremarkable fantasy/coming of age story. A seventeen year old girl starts developing weird abilities after an accident and runs away to her grandmother who she hopes will be able to explain everything. The characters are vivid and the setting on a remote Norwegian island is original but all feel a bit underused. The specifics of the magic and the mythology are a little over-complicated and random. But as a quick and easy read it was was a success.

Mark Hayden – The King’s Watch Series (kindle unlimited)
I read the first 5 books of this series over the span of about 3 weeks and looking back on my reviews it’s clear that I was enjoying them, but they all blurred into one a bit. Since then I’ve also read the “sister” trilogy that explains Conrad Clarke’s mysterious past and it’s rather tainted this series as it’s impossible to not interpret him in a slightly different way. Where once he was commanding and competent, now he is rather more bullying, patronising, self serving and ruthless. But the way he’s written, I’m not entirely sure the author feels the same way. Some of the other characters also now seem a bit crueler – more manipulative and clique-y. But the core ideas are still solid enough to keep me reading them. Eight Kings is good fun and takes us to yet another location and introduces yet another section of the world of magic, a bit more politics and a good old stately home murder mystery to round it all off which is quite satisfying.
The Seventh Star – This is a slightly more straight forward crime story, so much so that the police get involved which sees the welcome introduction of Tom Morton from Hayden’s other series. The only bad news about that is that it slightly shows up that Morton is actually a more realistic and interesting lead character than Conrad is. For all Conrad’s cunning and planning his strategy in this book is never entirely clear and that doesn’t feel quite right, certainly compared to the very methodical approach of Morton and the police. I like so much about this series, it’s just a shame that the central two characters of Conrad and Meena are becoming increasingly smug and frustrating.
Haydon has a slightly irritating habit of pulling a chunk of storyline out of each books, putting them in separate novellas and then referencing them in the main book with “if you want to hear how this happened you’ll have to read this other thing”. That’s frustrating and clumsy, often hard to time the reading of those in the right order. The novellas themselves (French Leave and Ring of Troth for these books) are perfectly solid side stories that I’m sure could have been entwined in the main books with a bit of effort.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs Series
The Oddjobs series is a classic interesting idea with two entertaining first books and then it goes too fast and falls off the rails as the author(s) take a direction away from what made the first books so entertaining. Book 3 of the series (You Only Live Once) is okay, but one of the original characters is missing and leaves a notable hole in the team. However book 4 (Out of Hours) completely loses the way. Previous installments have been set well and truly in modern Birmingham, with the weird and occult an accepted addition to our world; but this book moves completely into the worlds of the weird and wacky and loses any sense of observation and satire. Adding to the disappointment, most of the time the characters are all separated and telling individual stories (or sometimes even multiple stories in different timelines) and that makes the book even more fragmented. I just found myself turning the pages faster and faster. Really disappointing.

Charles Bukowski – Hollywood
The first time I sat down with this book I hated it. I got about 50 pages in and I was bored by the story (not that there was much of it), irritated by the characters and easily distracted from the wordy style. The second time I sat down (because I’ve got a stupid *thing* about having to finish all books) I decided to just read really quickly and actually found myself weirdly engrossed. Reading it quickly like this gave an engaging version of a behind the scenes of the movie process and the extremes of the people involved in it – none of whom you’d want to spend any real time with at all. I’m sure I could come up with something deep about how that very surface level attention is cleverly done to mimic the surface nature of Hollywood, but that would be way more pretentious than I think the book really deserves.

Christina Dalcher – Vox
I picked this up very randomly in 3 for £5 deal with very low expectations and discovered a little gem. It clearly owes a lot to The Handmaids Tale, and isn’t anywhere near as impressive, but it does a solid job of combining a challenging subject with a passable thriller. The logic of the book doesn’t really hold up. That America turned within just a couple of years from Obama’s presidency to a country where women aren’t allowed to speak is rather a stretch, but however they got there, it’s an interesting (and horrible) concept. Somewhat less well handled are the details of the thriller aspect of the book, and the cogs of the plot definitely got away from the author in the end. However the central character has a great voice (as it were) and the pacing of the book kept me wanting to keep reading even when the world of the book was such an unpleasant thing to think about.

Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 4: Lethal White
A rare re-read. I was looking for something that I knew I could get lost in, and with the next book in the series due in Sept this was a great pick. I read all 650 pages in one weekend in the garden and it was wonderful. Even the second time, I found the slow build of the cases alongside the tumultuous personal lives of Strike and Robin utterly engrossing. The book is carefully balanced between personal stories and the cases, with the different threads intertwining and continually delivering satisfying moments. I’m not so naive I can’t see that I’m being manipulated by cheap tricks like cliffhangers at the end of the chapters and “Come and meet me, I need to tell you something urgently” tropes, but the tricks are delivered very well and they just work. At the end I had that deep joy and satisfaction of a great book, but that sadness and almost emptiness of having run out of pages. Roll on the next one.

The Greatest Great British…

It can’t have escape your notice that there are a lot of Great British… shows about, not to mention all the others that build on the concept with increasingly daft applications. I seem to have been on a bit of a binge of these recently, they tend to be just the right level of engaging for a tired brain that wants to ignore the world for a bit. So here’s my rundown of the various options, and the all important question – which has the most innuendo?

The Great British Bake Off (BBC / C4)
Amateur bakers in a tent, shepherded through by amiable comedians and judged by experts. This is where it all seemed to begin, something about the niceness of it all, the contestants are supportive to each other and the judges encouraging. Over the years the challenges have gradually got more obscure and the contestants less amateur – macarons started out as the ultimate test, now they’re merely thrown in as a decoration. Mel and Sue set the tone for the series, I read somewhere that if a contestant was getting too upset or stressed, Mel and/or Sue would swear so that the footage couldn’t be used. Moving to Channel 4 saw the handover to the unexpected combo of Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding who turned out to be amazing together. Steely eyed Paul Hollywood has been with the series throughout and still has a look of “what on earth am I doing here” about him. legendary Mary Berry was on the BBC and replaced by the less legendary Pru Leith and have a shared taste in horrible clothing. The contestants are fairly universally nice, although with a heavy theme of white middle classedness.

  • Innuendo level: Mel and Sue are the queens of innuendo and there are plenty of buns to be fondled and dubiously shaped eclairs. Plus the squirrel with his nuts.
  • Disaster quotient: The time limits on challenges have become increasingly ridiculous. “Can you make and decorate a fruit cake in 2 hours?”. No. No you can’t, because it takes an hour to cook it, let alone make the mixture and it will never cool quickly enough to ice it. Inevitably contestants don’t practice to time, make things too complicated, don’t understand gravity and KEEP trying to make mouse sets (it NEVER sets, DO NOT MAKE MOUSE).
  • Overall: The sweet grandmother of all the rest, but every now and then Granny gets mean and I am getting increasingly frustrated with the near impossible challenges.
  • The Great British Bake Off: The Professionals (BBC / C4) – Like Bake off, but with people that know what they’re doing. Theoretically.
    This series also moved from BBC (where it was painfully called Creme de la Creme). The judges are currently the terrifying Cherish Finden and incredibly French Benoit Blin. When they don’t like something they are utterly unforgiving and leach all joy out of food, but when they like something they bring it all back again. The presenters are currently Liam Charles (Series 8 of Bake Off) and Tom Allen who form a fun duo but seem at odds with the tone the show is trying to set.

  • Innuendo level: It should be low, there isn’t time for that kind of nonsense, except that Liam and Tom keep trying to inject innuendo into the proceedings and everyone just looks embarrassed about it.
  • Disaster quotient: Incredibly high. There’s no time allowance for any mistakes. The showstoppers they make are generally pretty catastrophic with chocolate melting, and sugar shattering. But these are supposed to be professionals and if they can’t plan, or don’t understand how gravity and temperature work, they shouldn’t be there.
  • Overall: This doesn’t really work. On one hand you’ve got professional chefs putting their reputations on the line (and their employers’ as they are named too), and appropriately high expectations from the judges. But then you’ve got Liam and Tom making smutty gags.
  • The Great British Sewing BeeLike Bake Off, but with sewing machines instead of KitchenAids
    I’ve only recently started watching this and have seen the first season and the most recent one and I love it! It follows the same pattern (ha!) as Bake Off and has the same tone of very gentle competition between lovely people with some combination of talent and passion. Claudia Winklemen started it off, and she is wonderful in absolutely everything (up to and including a head and shoulders advert) and the most recent series had Joe Lycett who is weirdly endearing. The judges are uncompromising but always encouraging, they seem genuinely sad when they have to give negative feedback, and have a joy and open mindedness that is very positive and a step above the Bake Off judges.

  • Innuendo factor: Oddly, not as high as it could be given the number of body parts that actually have to be dealt with. There’s a fair amount of camp humour with Joe Lycett, but it’s gentle and sweet.
  • Disaster quotient: Fairly low despite attempts to hike up the drama. Timing is tight, but generally it just means a scruffy hem or some missing buttons rather than a complete disaster. I haven’t seen any half naked models yet. Although there have been some pretty horrendous ‘fashions’ on display.
  • Overall: I wish I’d been watching this all along.
  • The Great Pottery Throwdown (BBC / C4) – Like Bake Off but replacing the KitchenAids with pottery wheels
    Another one that I’m new to only watching the latest series which has successfully moved from BBC to Channel 4 where it’s presented by the lovely Mel Sykes. However the star of the show is judge Keith Brymer Jones who is a giant bloke who bursts into tears at the weirdest of things. He’s friendly, encouraging, supportive and absolutely wonderful. There’s a second judge too but I have no memory of her. The contestants do tend a little bit towards the posh end of the spectrum and can sometimes be a little bit irritating in their pretentiousness about Art. But I grew to like them.

  • Innuendo: OFF THE SCALE. It’s positively filthy.
  • Disaster quotient: Theoretically quite high. Clay goes splat on the floor a lot, things crack in the kiln and stuff come out looking very different to plans, but that’s pretty much par for the course with pottery so everyone takes it in their stride and there’s not too many meltdowns or complete failures.
  • Overall: I love it, I now need someone to rerun it so I can watch all the older episodes.
  • The Great British MenuLike Bake Off but with Michelin stars
    I’ve only watched the latest series of this, because I was lured in by Susan Calman who is wonderful and I won’t hear a word said against her. The series is a bit of a slog with 3 episodes a week, over 9 weeks; if not for the fact that it coincided with lockdown, I might not have made it all the way through. The contestants and the judges are all professional chefs and can come across as rather dry, and everyone (including the judge for 2 of the 3 days) rotates out each week so there’s not much opportunity to form a connection. There’s also a fundamental structural problem where the judge during the week decides who’s going through to the head-to-head. The two remaining chefs cook pretty much the same meals yet again and then you get a trio of judges, who suck all the joy out of food and who often completely disagree with the previous judge, giving away the fact that taste in food is entirely subjective and at this level, picking between dishes is pretty bonkers.

  • Innuendo: Very low. Susan tries occasionally, but most of the competitors are so dull it goes straight past them.
  • Disaster: The series tries to make a drama of it, but these chefs are professionals and even when a mouse doesn’t set, they tend to find a workaround.
  • Overall: There are a LOT of episodes, and it can get repetitive at times and has real structural problems. If the chefs don’t have a bit of charisma to them it can be a bit of a slog. But Susan is lovely.
  • Britain’s Best Home Cook (BBC) – Like Bake Off, but you have to eat vegetables
    The first season was lovely, nice people making nice food, with Claudia Winkleman floating around like an overenthusiastic puppy just stealing food whenever she could. The second season (which also dropped the “Britain’s” from the title) took a turn for the miserable. They kept setting unreasonable time limits and critiquing food as if they were on Masterchef rather than celebrating food for the family. Mary Berry and Angela Hartnett are brutal in their critiques and I frequently shouted at the screen, Chris Bavin tries to be a bit nicer but is usually drowned out. They’ve completely missed a trick by not having at least some of the judging done by families and the people who are actually eating normal food in normal homes.

  • Innuendo: Claudia has some moments, but generally low.
  • Disaster: It’s stressful because of the judges who pick on any tiny little thing, they’re the disasters not the cooks.
  • Overall: The first season was lovely, the second season made me incredibly cross.
  • Next in Fashion (Netflix) – Like Sewing Bee but with professionals (theoretically)
    There’s an interesting structure in that the contestants are paired up for most of the show, some of the teams know each other but others are complete strangers which is a recipe for some interesting psychology and some absolute disasters. The contestants are international and have lots of variation in their styles and experience levels and in their annoyingness which some of them really excel on. The stars of the show for me were expectation busting Marco and Ashton who present as tattooed, leather wearing LA fetish wear designers and are the nicest, sweetest, most supportive pair of people I’ve seen on one of these shows. Tan France and Alexa Chung are an absolute hoot as hosts, but are a little more stand-offish than some other presenters as they are also involved in the judging.

  • Innuendo: Pretty much non-existent, it doesn’t really translate internationally.
  • Disaster potential: High. Some of the designers are incredibly highly strung and have some total meltdowns.
  • Overall: I didn’t get most of the stuff they were making, and some of the contestants made me want to punch them, but Tan and Alexa were wonderful.
  • Blown Away (Netflix) – Like Pottery Throwdown, but with glass
    This is a Canadian series but with an American host and international contestants, and it leads to a blend of styles and attitudes that can feel muddled. The glass blowers are all very experienced in their field (this isn’t exactly a hobby to do in the kitchen) and many know each other, so there are some interesting relationships already established. Some of the contestants are zero fun to spend time with – obnoxiously competitive, judgemental of others and highly defensive of their art; while others are more easy going and probably more relaxed then they should be around face meltingly hot equipment. The contestnats have such big personalities that the judges and presenter completely fade into the background.

  • Innuendo level: None. I don’t think the American audience really do that.
  • Disaster: REALLY high. There’s incredibly high temperatures, glass shattering and “artistic visions” dying all over the place.
  • Overall: Oddly compelling for one series, but I think that was probably enough.
  • Zumbo’s Great Desserts (Netflix) – Like Bake Off but with insane Australians
    Zumbo is like some Heston Blumenthal-esque Willy Wonka but without any of the actual charisma. His creations are incredible and it’s a good concept that each episode has the two lowest placed contestants trying to recreate one of his concoctions. The first round is just the contestants making their own offering on a theme and showing off their personalities, which is where many of them fall down. It’s hyped up and over-blown with contestants clearly egged on to be over the top and competitive and that makes them very hard to warm to as they’re all very fake.

  • Innuendo: Not a smidge
  • Disaster quotient: there’s a lot of time pressure and the highly strung contestants have a fair few meltdowns, but I mostly just rolled my eyes at them.
  • Overall: it looks amazing, but the substance isn’t really there.
  • The Big Flower Fight (Netflix) – Like Bake Off but with ridiculous flower arranging
    Pairs of people making giant sculptures out of plants and flowers. Yes, really. The international pairs of contestants have clearly been chosen because they are wacky and overly dramatic, and I don’t think I would survive more than 30 seconds in a room with any of them. Vic Reeves plods through like he’s having an out of body experience and Natasia Demetriou is visibly trying to work out what happened to her career. The regular judge is the fabulously dressed and equally fabulously named Kristen Griffith-Vanderyacht who is as confused as the audience about what on earth this show is doing. There’s a revolving door of guest judges having an even more baffling time.

  • Innuendo: Vic Reeves gives it a go a couple of times but it’s confusing and uncomfortable for everyone involved.
  • Disaster quotient: there’s a lot of time pressure but they all seem to get it done, there are less structural collapses than I’d expect at the scale they’re working at. I think the chances of any of those poor plants surviving a week is negligible.
  • Overall: Pretty rubbish. A daft idea, too much artificial conflict and time pressure
  • Films in July 2020

    New Releases – only one this month, and it wasn’t very good. I did try to watch How to Build a Girl but I lasted just 10 minutes before the cringiness and the accent drove me away (I checked with someone who lives near Wolverhampton and they agreed the accent was poor).

    The Old Guard
    A small band of immortals come together to make the world a better place. Good concept, unremarkable execution. There’s some nice ideas about what it means to be 100’s of years old, and how you approach combat (and life) if you can’t die. The fight scenes are impressive and really play with the idea that if you’ve been fighting side by side with the same people for hundreds of years your team work is on a different level. But it didn’t quite come together, I think maybe if it had been a more starry cast, a more polished script, a big screen experience, it might have been a really interesting addition to the super hero genre… but it just felt a bit too unremarkable. Fine, but nothing more.
    Ranking: 6 / 10

    Older films / Rewatches in ranked order
    Prevenge
    This is so good! I had so many emotions while watching it. Alice Lowe wrote, directed and starred in it and she excels in all three aspects. The script is a with a beautifully judged script mixing tones classic horror film types with incredible creepiness, genuine gore and plenty of psychological unpleasantness. But there’s also some really funny observational comedy blending seamlessly with the other aspects. The directing is just interesting enough to make it interesting but not intrusive (the scene in the tunnel for example). But it’s the acting that most impressed me, playing a character that’s both complex and simple, committed and uncertain, playing roles but still herself. And all that packed into just 88 minutes. This film is an absolute masterpiece.
    Ranking: 9 / 10

    Little Women
    Little Women 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 clearly knows and loves the book just as well as I do and it shows in every single frame of this movie. The book is beautifully, faithfully and lovingly retold, finding aspects that could be highlighted and emphasised to connect to themes of feminism and freedom that feel modern, but are in fact universal. The only significant change from the book is to shake the linear narrative up and use overlapping timelines and flashbacks. The first time I watched, it didn’t work for me as I felt it spoilered 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. But on the second watch through (and with the help of some DVD extras) I understand what Gerwig was doing, focusing on the women that the characters would become, rather than getting bogged down in the childhood events that shaped them.
    This film brought me an overwhelming sense of joy – at the quality of Gerwig’s writing, the talented performances of everyone in the cast, the beautiful design of the period setting and the stunning cinematography. The only word of warning is that, while watching in the privacy of my own home I cried so hard I gave myself a headache.
    Ranking: 9 / 10

    Behind the Candelabra
    This film immediately grabs you, filling the screen with sequins and the other-worldly behavior in Las Vegas. The film was engrossing from the very first few moments, the directions the characters and their relationships went was absolutely fascinating. The most phenomenal thing however were the performances. I’ve never really rated Michael Douglas that highly, but he was incredible in this role. The highest praise I can give him is that I forgot who the actor was. I’ve been a fan of Matt Damon for longer, so never quite lost sight of the actor behind the action roles, but it was also a transformative performance. The actors and writers gave depth and empathy to the complex relationship, never taking the easy route of making one party the ‘bad guy’. If there’s one criticism of the film it would be that it didn’t always seem to know what it was – comedy or drama, biopic or romance. But then that’s what life is, a muddle of everything thrown together. It may make the film less satisfying in the end, but it certainly makes it interesting.
    Ranking: 8 / 10

    The AristoCats
    I doubt this Disney film is top of anyone’s favourites, but The AristoCats is one I come back to every now and then since my childhood – never outstanding, but consistently watchable. The story and characters are charming, the songs relatively few but still fun and the moralistic elements are fairly discrete. As an adult though two things stand out, firstly the beautiful style of the artwork which is slightly more hand-drawn feeling then certainly recent Disney films, the animation of the cats is stunning – carefully observed and then delivered with an absolute minimum of pencil lines. The other thing was the amount that was re-used from other films of the era – voices, music snippets, even whole animation sections from films like Jungle Book and Robin Hood. I don’t blame them for the efficiencies, and it doesn’t diminish the film, but it does make it slightly disconcerting in places.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    Trolls
    I went into this film pretty cynical, I mean the Trolls were annoying enough as toys the first time round, turning them into a film of peppy singing creatures… how could that possibly work. The main way it worked was by putting a character in that basically had exactly the same attitude as I did and having him mercilessly negate all the perkiness. And by doing that, completely selling the cheerfulness. On top of that, the voice acting was spot on and the design and style of it absolutely gorgeous. It was impossible to not be charmed by it, and believe me I tried.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    Brave
    Here’s the review if this film had been made by anyone but Pixar: Brave is a very solid little animation. While the over-exaggerated Scottishness gets a bit grating at times, the voice acting just about carries it off. The story is a little clumsy at times, but gets the job done and bounces along with enthusiasm. The ‘princess’ is a suitably modern offering, rebelling against tradition and handsome princes and wanting to make her own way in the world. The animation itself is absolutely gorgeous.
    BUT because the film is a Pixar production, I found myself disappointed. I was asked on Twitter whether I cried, and had to say that I really didn’t. I rather expect a Pixar film to have me in embarrassing floods of tears, but this one just didn’t have that level of connection for some reason. It’s not that the film was bad at all, it just wasn’t the sort of ‘special’ that I’ve come to expect from Pixar.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    Ocean’s Eight
    I’m a huge fan of the Clooney/Pitt/Damon et al Ocean’s 11, even if 12 and 13 did then get progressively sillier, so I was quite looking forward to a female installment and the cast was more than enough to inspire enthusiasm. I sadly found myself a little underwhelmed. The first half was a little slow (someone a few rows back in the cinema was snoring!) and then the heist itself was a little fast, then slow again for the post-heist follow ups, and then a final twist that came too far out of nowhere. The comedy wasn’t quite as easy as Ocean’s 11, and one of the early reveals about the connection to the previous films (staying vague for spoilers) actually struck quite a negative blow that really felt like the wrong tone to set. The plot was fairly precarious (I was spotting holes/needless complexity as it went) and overall neither characters nor movie as a whole felt quite as smooth and slick as they needed to be. Oh and who’s idea was Helena Bonham Carter’s terrible accent? Was that supposed to be an homage to Don Cheadle’s terrible cockney? Solidly entertaining, but the cast can do a lot better and I was wanting more.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    O Brother, Where Art Thou
    I rather odd film, but I think I liked it, it’s one of those films that I can’t really be sure. The combination of offbeat ramblings and oddly formal dialogue matches pretty well for a modern(ish) retelling of The Odyssey with the mixture of hard reality and whimsical fantasy. It occasionally gets a bit bogged down, the pacing is maybe a little off, and there are rather too many bit part characters that are a bit hard to track, but overall it’s pretty entertaining, and the soundtrack is worth the price of admission (free on Netflix) alone.
    Ranking: 6 / 10

    Silver Linings Playbook
    This film absolutely monstered the awards nominations in 2013, it was nominated for all 4 acting categories, as well as best film, directing and adapted screenplay at the Oscars, but in the end the awards themselves were a bit thin on the ground. And that’s I think because the film isn’t actually very good. It never seemed to know whether it wanted to be a hard hitting drama on mental illness, an improbable but sweet romance, or a comedic look at how crazy absolutely everyone is regardless of whether they have a diagnosis or not. Although the actors were all doing their very best with the material, I just don’t think they were able to rise above the inconsistencies. The final act did sort of suck me back in, finally seeming to settle into a more standard and quite lovely romantic comedy. Unfortunately that doesn’t really balance out the first two thirds of the film where I could have been very tempted to switch off altogether.
    Ranking: 6 / 10

    Straight Story
    The most accessible David Lynch film, although that’s not a particularly hard challenge to win, and while he’s taken out a lot of the weird that puts me off his films, I think he forgot to really replace it with anything. I think we were supposed to be hypnotised by the scenery, or the music, or the grizzlyness of the main character, but to be honest none of those held my attention at all. There are some nice scenes as the main character encounters a few people on his travels, but those interesting points were surrounded by endless boring scenery, and irritating music.
    Ranking: 5 / 10

    Battle Beyond the Stars
    There’s a lot going on here. It’s obviously The Magnificent Seven (or Seven Samurai) in Space, but it feels a little like each character was from a slightly different version of the film and the actors, makeup, costumes and script went with each variation. There were people playing it straight, people playing it for laughs, a character that seemed like she came straight out of Barbarella and people playing it as if they were had a tax bill due and this was the best their agent could find. Some of those elements worked well in isolation, and some of them even worked together in a contrasting way, but as a whole it was a bit of an incoherent mess.
    Ranking: 5 / 10

    Roadhouse
    This starts off ok, I mean it’s cheesy as anything and so 80’s it hurts, but the idea is solid and Patrick Swayze is charmingly monosyllabic as the bouncer (sorry – ‘cooler’) who comes in to clean up a dive bar through professionalism and calm. But just as I was settling in, two terrible things happen. The first was Kelly Lynch who delivered a performance that was wooden even by trashy 80’s standards and infected Swayze with her lack of spark. The second problem was that the film decided it wanted to be a mindless action film instead with increasingly ridiculous fights and a complete break from all the rules that it had originally set itself. As a laughably stupid 80’s action film it was probably ok but I’d foolishly thought it was going to be more than that.
    Ranking: 5 / 10

    Radioactive
    I’d been looking forward to this for three reasons – Marie Curie, Rosamund Pike, and that it’s based on a graphic novel and used the same graphic style. Of those three, only Marie Curie didn’t disappoint. She is a fascinating person, her scientific achievement alone is incredible, but the fact that she was a she makes her story worthy of telling. The relationship (personal and professional) with her husband, and her daughters brings the emotion to the story and is equally original. Unfortunately everything else about the film was a bit mediocre. Rosamund Pike is doing her best, but the script is so clunky that she comes over very hammy at times, and Sam Riley as Pierre Curie is just a bit bland. With the exception of one scene, I really didn’t see any attempt at any visual style at all and the opportunities to explain and showcase the science visually were completely missed. A wasted opportunity.
    Ranking: 4 / 10

    The Seven Year Itch
    A film made famous by the scene where Marilyn Monroe stands on a grating and her dress blows up. One of the most iconic visuals in movie history and the full shot doesn’t even actually appear in the film, only close ups. Which pretty much sums up this film. It’s supposed to be a comedy and yet frankly isn’t funny at all. The wry voiceover and Monroe’s quirky performance are doing their best, but I struggled to find any humour in a man carefully deciding to cheat on his wife and a female character that’s simply there to wear tight clothes and act ditzy.
    Ranking: 4 / 10

    Film in June 2020

    Dating Amber – A really solid entry into the growing mainstream genre of coming of age LGBTQ+ films. The film starts on the gentler end of the spectrum, with lots of charm, plenty of comedy and some entertainingly ridiculous supporting characters. But the balance gradually shifts as the film goes on and the reality of the uncertainty and desperation these young people experience becomes increasingly heartbreaking. There’s a lot going on in the film and it’s beautifully crafted and I think has the potential to be a real classic.

    Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – About 50% of this film is perfectly pitched to match Eurovision’s sense of glorious awfulness. It has outrageously ridiculous spectacle combined with a sense of joy and connection that made my jaw drop and my mouth grin. But that’s only 50% of the film, and the other half is painful, trying too hard, awkward and uncomfortable. Even more unfortunately a lot of that is up front and I came quite close to giving up on the film before it reached the redemptive second half. The second half would get an 8/10, but the first half gets a 5/10.
    I’d say a lot of the problem lies with Will Ferrell who I’ve never really warmed to, and is just continuing to ply the same old man-child shtick in a way that is really tedious for a man in his 50’s. Rachel McAdams has good comic skills, but didn’t seem to connect with Ferrell’s improvised style, and their age gap made the love story elements uncomfortable (particularly given Ferrell’s writing credit). I don’t know why they wasted so much time pre-Eurovision, and why they didn’t make the whole thing a jukebox musical (the big music number in the middle was wonderful and made me realise what the first half had been missing). It’s also a real shame that McAdams and the superb Dan Stevens are obviously not doing their own singing, and I’m not sure how the Icelandic will appreciate the cheesy accents.

    Older Films
    Monos – This is a Columbian film following a group of teenagers trained as soldiers and left to guard an American hostage on a remote mountaintop. The eight main characters are a group of little more than children left to their own devices, making up thei own rituals, bullying each other, having crushes and doing stupid things. But they’re dealing with responsibilities and events that are on a completely different level, heavily armed and under real life-and-death pressures. This film is extraordinary. I had heard many reviews saying that it was very special, but I still started watching it with a sense of duty rather than anticipation. It immediately grabbed me and held on to me throughout. On a technical level it is superb, the locations create a sense simultaneously of both space and claustrophobia. The young actors are incredible, blending child and soldier, innocence and brutality, victim and oppressor; they are heartbreaking and terrifying. I don’t know that any of my words can come close to describing this film and the impact of it, it’s something truly special.

    Citizen Kane – Being frequently labelled the best film of all time is a blessing and a curse; I wouldn’t have watched it without that tag, but with it came some pretty high expectations. Unfortunately it was never going to be able to live up to those. Don’t get me wrong the film is great, but it doesn’t seem outstanding unless you continually remind yourself it was made in 1941 by a first time director. The film itself is enjoyable to watch, a well crafted biography that brings together all the elements you’d expect to find in someone’s life – love, drama, humour and angst. The direction is interesting, occasionally a bit too ‘different’ but some of it’s adventurous ideas work well. Whether it’s the best film of all time, I don’t know, but it is a great film.

    American Beauty – This is a very delicate mixture in this film that maximizes appeal. It’s definitely a full on film with drama, grit and artyness to it that appeal to the critics and make it’s Oscar win understandable. But it’s also very enjoyable and accessible, with laughs and relatability. Everything is carefully judged and yet feels fairly effortless – writing, direction and acting switching between extreme and subtle and somehow all just working. It’s just a shame that the film will be forever tainted by the presence of Kevin Spacey – his performance is superb and it’s hard to imagine anyone as good at playing on the boundaries of everyman and arsehole. But his horrific behaviour now blights all his works and this one is particularly uncomfortable given the subject matter of the film.

    Ophelia – I don’t know the story of Hamlet. In fact, I know so little about it that I didn’t even realise that this film WAS Hamlet until he turned up and I thought “that’s a weird name”. However this is Hamlet told from the point of view of Ophelia, and therefore gives a much stronger emphasis to the female characters. I can’t compare it to the original work, but I would say that I enjoyed watching this more than I enjoy most Shakespeare. The language still feels Shakespearean and I assume there are some sections that are lifted directly, but between the words and the actors I found it easy to understand what the characters meant and felt (which I often struggle with in Shakespeare). Daisy Ridley has a fascinating screen presence although it’s a shame that the male characters are a little one-dimensional, but that may just be a pointed dig at Shakespeare.

    Demolition Man – Somehow I’ve never seen this film, and in the 25+ years since it was made I’d also never realised that it wasn’t a simple action film. The posters and descriptions are all moody grey and macho blah blah blah, and that’s where the film starts with Stallone and Snipes in full on violent cliche mode fighting and blowing things up before both being arrested and put in suspended animation as punishment (a clumsy setup). We jump to a hippy-like future where violence is completely irradiated and when Snipes is accidentally unfrozen and starts creating mayhem, the modern cops can’t even begin to handle him, so unfreeze Stallone. From there on the core of the film is really a buddy cop comedy pairing Stallone with Sandra Bullock and both of them having a lot of fun. Stallone cheerfully pokes fun at himself and the genre he’s used to, Sandra Bullock gives as good as she gets, and Snipes gets some great material as well. It’s pretty clumsy in places and falls back a little too often on tedious action sequences, but rather than being just another brainless action film, it’s trying to do something more interesting and I wish I’d seen it sooner.

    Rampage – This film has Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson in it and there’s really very little else that needs to be said. If forced I would say that although the special effects are impressive, the plot is ridiculous and the supporting cast is mostly hamming it up (Naomi Harris being the notable exception). But it doesn’t matter, because The Rock is in it and he’s charming and hilarious and exciting to watch and so nothing else matters.

    Hercules – Easily the best thing about this film is the songs, as soon as they start playing (actually as soon as I even think about them playing) I get a big smile on my face and want to sing along. The mixture of ancient Greek setting and the gospel music is absolutely genius. The rest of the film is solid enough with some good comedy from the familiar side-kick slots and a satisfyingly spunky female lead, but it’s the music that’s the real joy.

    The Secret Life of Pets – From the studio that brought you Despicable Me… and it’s just not that good I’m afraid. It has some really great observational bits about pets, really capturing dogs and cats as animals while still anthropomorphising them for the story. The attitudes and actions are perfectly captured. Unfortunately the story just isn’t anything special. Actually, it was something special when it was done in Toy Story, but fundamentally the whole pitch of Secret Life of Pets is to retell Toy Story with pets not toys. It just wasn’t original enough to hold the attention. BUT the pet stuff did make me laugh the whole way through, so it’s still fun to watch.

    Skyscraper – I had a Dwayne Johnson double bill and this was the much weaker film compared with Rampage, frankly because there was just insufficient Rock in it. I mean, there was plenty of Rock jumping and swinging and running and punching but there wasn’t enough real character and personality coming through. All the stunts and action sequences were very well done (if completely preposterous) and if I were watching in a cinema I probably would have been gripped, but at home on the sofa I just found myself a bit bored. The start of the film had some really good stuff, and it was wonderful to see Neve Campbell in a strong role that was far more than ‘just the wife’. But overall it just felt like there was a bit of a lack of personality.

    The Addams Family – This is absolutely fine. There’s a lot of detail and care gone into making this a new version of the original series, with lots of direct lifts (as far as I can tell). The style is interesting, somehow managing to make it simultaneously gothic dark appear vibrant in the animation. But for all that, for some reason it just didn’t really charm me.

    Interview with the Vampire – As a teenage girl in the 90’s it was almost obligatory to be completely obsessed with Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and yet I took great pride in not reading them and not watching the film. By the time I was no longer making a specific point by not watching/reading, every indication was that they weren’t very good so I didn’t bother catching up. Jump to 25 years later and I spotted Interview with the Vampire on Amazon and thought I’d give it a go. Wow, it’s bad. The story meanders about, missing opportunties to look at the different time periods in any depth beyond the opportunity to spend a lot of money on the sets and fashion. The biggest problem is that the casting is just plain bad. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise are utterly wrong, and clearly bored by the whole thing, both are categorically out-acted by the startling 12 year old Kirsten Dunst. Cruise goes for manic incoherence while Pitt aims for deep melancholy and hits bored apathy. I mean the idea of broody vampires appeals to me no more today then it did as a teenager, it’s a crowded genre these days, but I think even at the time this wasn’t doing anything interesting. I guess it looks pretty, but that’s it.