Books in October and November

Oops, I missed a month out!

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

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

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

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

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

Films in October and November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chernobyl

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

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

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

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

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

Fosse/Verdon

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

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

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

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

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

Books in September

Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs 1 and Oddjobs 2: This time it’s Personnel
I’m not even going to try to review these books without referencing Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series. I know I should review things on their own merits, but there is so much in common here that I just can’t help but compare the two. For the most part the comparison is quite positive, Oddjobs has the same dry humour as the Rivers of London and that really works for me, there’s a world weariness to the characters and story, but rather than be depressing and bring the book down, it raises it up. A spirit of “oh well, this is a mess, let’s get on with it and see if we can have a laugh while sorting it out”. The other similarity that jumped out at me is a complete grounding in the locality, where Aaronovich’s London really felt like MY London, Goody and Grant’s Birmingham seemed just as grounded to me, although I’m only an occasional visitor to Birmingham (my dad and some close friends live there). The concept and story are also fairly in line with Rivers of London, and also what little I’ve read of The Laundry series, opening up a huge world of potential dramatic and comedic storylines and characters.
I thoroughly enjoyed these two books. I can’t say they were as funny as Aaronovich, but it tripped along and I really enjoyed spending the time with the characters. There’s no obvious arc storyline, or ‘big bad’ but I like that the two books are more self contained and are giving us a chance to see lots of different bits of the world that they’re building. The second book in particular did an admirable job presenting lots of smaller stories that gradually came together to a satisfying tangle. These are now definitely on my watch list for future releases.

L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
This was written in 1900, and the film that everyone knows was made in 1939, with any number of versions, homages and parodies since, making the story completely ingrained. The book is really not very long, wasting absolutely no time on developing anything beyond the absolute minimum to hammer home the messages at its core. I was a bit disappointed that there was so little sense of wonder or magic to it. There’s also a lot more violence and death in it that we’d usually expect in modern children’s stories, but thanks to the light tone it seems a lot less substantial which is a bit odd when you notice it.

Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Ticking off another classic. It’s always a bit odd to finally read the originals of stories that you’re incredibly familiar with, and I’m not sure it’s ever going to be a hugely positive experience. There was little left of this that could be surprising, between the famous illustrations in the book itself and the Disney cartoon, I was intensely familiar with most of the episodes and characters that make up the story. In fact the only thing that was slightly surprising was just how irritating Alice is. The bits of the story don’t really join up particularly well, it’s just stepping from one weird dream sequence to another so it’s hard to get any real momentum going.

T.J. Brown – The Unhappy Medium
I seemed to take an unreasonable dislike to this book fairly early on and I don’t really know why. It was a little oversold in how hilarious it was, but there were still some nice moments of dry humour scattered throughout. The set up was a long time in development and had a few glaring inconsistencies, but was solid enough and once it finally arrived the plot itself was ok. Maybe it was just that it had raised my expectations by putting quotes like “A very funny book, in the spirit of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens” on the front cover, a lofty height which it was unlikely to reach.

Emily Organ – Penny Green 1: Limelight
A fairly solid period set murder mystery. The characters are vibrant and interesting, the period detail nicely done and the case itself engaging. My only frustration came from the quality of the investigation which was painfully slow, no one actually asking the obvious questions or seeming to do much investigating at all. It’s an ok book to churn through, but it’s unlikely to stay with me and I’m not particularly likely to pick up further books in the series unless I’m looking for something incredibly low impact.

Films in September

New releases
Downton Abbey
I once wrote of the TV series “Downton is an autumnal Sunday evening drama. You curl up under a blanket on the sofa with a nice cup of tea and a packet of biscuits and relax. It’s not gritty or challenging, you’re not expected to think or relate it to the reality of life, it’s a last vestige of calm before the crashing arrival of Monday morning.” And that’s pretty much what the film does. Other than a few more expensive and lingering drone shots, very little has been changed to adapt the film to the big screen. This would not have been misplaced as a Christmas special, in fact it could have been even better as two extended episodes for Christmas and New Year to give a bit more time to the crowded number of characters and plots. I’m really pleased that they resisted the urge to go too big with anything, there’s no huge world ending dramas, no stunt casting and nothing particularly life changing. Yes the Kind and Queen visit, but they’re fairly under-stated for royalty and the focus is still 100% on the lives of the characters we’ve known and loved all along.
I saw it with a packed cinema that absolutely loved it. There was plenty of laughter, some audible ‘aws’, a bit of sniffling, and stifled applause for the cringe inducing Mr Molesley in *that* scene. It wasn’t much more than a polished up television episode, but it was lovely to see it with a large appreciative audience for once.

New to me
Vice
Adam McKay has a very specific style – smart, fast and creative. When applied well (eg Ant Man), I really like it, but it takes a bit of getting used to and can trip over into smug (The Big Short). It is applied a bit more carefully in Vice, making a more mainstream drama with just moments of flare to it that raise the film up above the dry political drama that it could have been. The cast is all nicely aligned, all perfectly playing their characters at the very limits of credibility without tripping into something that feels unbelievable (although my limit for what is believable for politicians is nowhere near as high as it used to be). Vice does drag a little in places, but I struggled to keep up in others, but the performances really elevate it to something a bit special.

It
I was expecting a horror film, what I actually got was an 80’s kids adventure with a 15 rating level of creepiness and jump scares. And it worked really well! The kids are suitably energetic, spunky and acting their age with stupid mistakes and ill-managed feelings. The gang is maybe a little too large making it hard to get engaged with all of them, but there are some great performances from the young cast. The lack of adults makes the horror seem more real somehow, it makes sense that the kids would accept weird activity and go and investigate it when any normal grown up would assume everything was a hoax and deny everything. Pennywise is genuinely creepy and unexpected, the use of practical and visual effects blending well. The whole film very well done, but I can’t say I was completely lost in it (maybe because I was watching at home) and I did get a bit bored towards the end of the final ‘battle’.

Mother!
This review is a bit more spoilery than I usually write, because it’s basically impossible to talk about what I think of the film without giving away the direction it goes in, despite that being one of the interesting mysteries of the film. For the first hour or so I was quite enjoying it. The film starts with a couple of disturbing flashes which set a tone of disquiet which carries through into the opening scenes of an otherwise tranquil seeming existence. As the tension builds I was constantly guessing whether what we were seeing was normal, or whether there was something more going on, and how those initial scenes tied in. Jennifer Lawrence is always charming and interesting to watch, and she is a perfect choice for someone that the audience can empathise with as she too questions whether she’s being unreasonable, paranoid, or if there really is something weird going on. It’s a fantastic performance.
Problems started at about an hour in where it started to get a bit boring. Too many threads of ideas that had been teased at were just abandoned without exploration while other bits went round in circles that started to get boring rather than sinister. After a slightly jarring time jump, the film enters another repetition which does actually move towards an ending, but it just lost me somewhere along the way. After dragging things out, the resolution felt too sudden and I was uncertain whether I was seeing something real or hallucinated, and that uncertainty was no longer interesting, but annoying. Maybe there was too much subtext and allegory to really make it satisfying; everything was hinted at and implied and it wasn’t until I read imdb that I really got what Aronofsky was trying to achieve. That frustration undermined the rest of the film for me and left me with a negative feeling, which is a real shame because there was a lot of good in it and it was very close to being something special, but with any movie around a mystery, it lives and dies with its reveal and this one sadly didn’t land it.

The Seventh Veil
This is a pretty good psychological thriller, with a fatal flaw. It follows the fall proof structure of starting three quarters of the way through the story as a character hits rock bottom, and then showing how she got there (via a narrative device of hypnosis driven flashback) before resolving the character’s story in the final act. There were two problems – the first was just about survivable in that the same actress plays the central character from the age of about 16 to (I’d guess) about 30 and the actress was 36, it made it quite hard to tell how old the character is supposed to be at any point so it never quite feels right. Also the “older” relative is played by an actor exactly the same age. The unforgivable problem however is literally the last minute of the film where the character resolves her story by picking ABSOLUTELY the wrong man, and it’s treated as a romantic conclusion, thereby completely nullifying any arc for either characters or audience and leaving a really very bad taste.

Jamaica Inn
Apparently Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t very happy with this film, and I have to say neither was I. It’s just a bit all over the place, with script and actors all pulling in different directions between drama, farce and pantomime. None of it really worked and it was frankly frustrating and boring to watch.

Rewatches
The Incredibles 2
I have always felt that The Incredibles was one of Pixar’s quietest gems. For some reason it never seemed to get the rabid response that Toy Story or Finding Nemo got, but for me it was always one of my favourites. The story, the characters, the voice work, the understated humour, and most of all the visual style all just really spoke to me and I was thrilled when I heard a sequel was on the way. I’m even more thrilled that it was everything I hoped for and more. The story and the quality pick up seamlessly from the end of the first film and just keep improving. I can’t remember the last film where I laughed out loud so much; scenes, phrases and even just wordless looks became instant classics. At two hours long, it’s apparently the longest Pixar film yet and I didn’t notice time passing at all, I would have cheerfully sat there for another 2 hours. Absolutely wonderful.

Cowboys and Aliens
How can you resist a film with a title like that? Well, maybe I should have remembered that while I love alien films, I’m really not a fan of cowboy films. Unfortunately there was way too much cowboy and not enough alien, so it did all the things that frustrate me with cowboy films – chief among them the strong and silent type lead characters. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are two of the biggest names in cinema and boy are they mediocre in this, both playing gruff and broody characters who only really let the tiniest slivers of actual personality and charm show through. It made a lot of the film a bit of a slog, counting the minutes until one of the more interesting supporting characters or a vicious alien attack showed up. I am being a little harsh on the film, it certainly wasn’t awful and there were some fun ideas in it and as a western it was certainly one of the better ones I’ve seen, but overall I was disappointed.

The Princess and the Frog
Despite having a lot of really strong elements, this film just doesn’t quite gel together to form anything special, at least not by recent Disney standards. I think it is let down a bit by a storyline that’s quite fragmented (very much a series of small adventures and incidental characters) and some instantly forgettable songs. Around that though is some very beautiful design and animation, and some encouraging steps towards representing diverse cultures. It’s ok to watch, but quite forgettable.

Another Life: Season 1

There’s a special place in my heart for good old fashioned naff science fiction set on spaceships. Whether in film or TV form, they generally manage to delude themselves into thinking they’re doing something original while hitting every single cliche in the book. I’m not claiming that this doesn’t happen in plenty of other genres, superheroes, series set in high school, procedurals – they’re all just a subset of character and plot tropes pulled out of a jumbled bag. Maybe I just notice it more for space shows because I’ve watched so many of them.

Another Life is a Netflix series that is so utterly forgettable and uncharismatic that I keep forgetting what it’s called. The concept is that an alien ship has landed on Earth and we in turn send a spaceship back to where it came from. Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) is captain of the ship which (of course) hits some obstacles on it’s travels. For some utterly inexplicable reason her crew is made up of a bunch of twenty-somethings who immediately start bitching, whining and shagging. A chunk of time is also spent on Earth with Nico’s husband (Justin Chatwin) who is trying to communicate with the ship, oh and there’s an annoying reporter buzzing around as well.

There are a couple of nice little ideas. The ship carries a full reserve crew in stasis, so it’s possible to inject new faces into the otherwise isolated crew. That also means that the show has no qualms about killing people off in what is probably meant to be a distressing fashion, but given most of the crew are incredibly annoying it’s actually quite nice to see them go. The fluidity of relationships and gender are uncommented on in a way that makes sense for the future and the use of swearing feels quite natural. The AI on the ship (Samuel Anderson) is an interesting character too (although one that’s a disaster waiting to happen), and alongside Sackhoff and Chatwin provide some solid, grown up, acting talent.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast is not the strongest and not helped by the fact that their characters make little sense; even the best actors in the world is going to struggle to play characters that are supposedly hand picked for an incredibly important the mission but written as panicked children barely out of training. There’s a lot of shouting about the peril that Earth is in, it never really feels like there’s any scale to anything, just a handful of scientists on the ground and a ship full of junior officers sent off. The logic repeatedly falls down and the plot holes, inconsistencies and contrivances are so epic that you could drive space ships through them.

It makes it very hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy the series, even as mindless fluff. The little glimmers of potential were just about enough to hold my attention through ten episodes, but it was touch and go a few times. It’s just seems such a waste to spend all this time making something but not bother to find a way to address the insulting holes in the story.