Books I read in 2020

I read a nice and tidy 50 books this year. I usually rely on my commute to get a lot of reading done, so given that I was last in the office in mid March, I’m pretty pleased with getting to that figure. After the first couple of months of working from home I set myself some better routines, and got into the habit of reading a bit over breakfast and whenever I could take a lunch break. The summer months also helped and I spent a lot of time sat in my garden with books (not much else to do). They weren’t even short books – the page count comes in at about 18,000 with an average of just over 50 pages a day. So somehow I’ve actually managed to read slightly more than last year (46 books, 41pages per day) even without having 2 hours to kill each day on the tube.

The state of ‘all this’ has influenced the books I’ve read. I’ve deliberately sought out escapist books, avoiding anything that’s “heartfelt” or “moving”. Thrillers have to be fairly disposable, and I avoided anything apocalyptic like the plague (pardon the pun). I actually thought I’d end up re-reading books I knew would be ‘safe’, but in fact only re-read 2 books.

I really missed bookshops and the library this year though. I just don’t enjoy browsing for books online as much as in person. I would probably have read more on kindle, but it took me a long time to replace the one that had been stolen at the end of last year, so I only read 13 books on it. Eight of those were through the Kindle Unlimited, which continues to be worth a month long subscription every now and then, but lacking enough quality stuff to make it permanently worth while.

I seem to have read a lot more ‘new’ books than usual. Last year I only read 4 books (9%) from the same year, and a further 9 books (20%) from the previous year. But this year I’ve had 18 books (36%) from 2020 and 14 (28%) from last year, and in fact 86% of the books I read were from the 2010s.

The 50 books were spread over 41 authors (including 2 sets of pairs writing together), and I’m pleased that 23 (59%) of them were female. Also 21 (54%) of them were new authors which I’m quite pleased with. Less impressively though only 3 of the authors were from somewhere other than UK or USA.

Non-fiction
Of the fifty books in total, only eight of them (16%) were non-fiction, that’s higher in number and percentage than last year (6 books, 13%) but still seems weirdly low to me as I usually try to have a non-fiction and a fiction on the go at the same time and I was sure I’d read more. Given the small sample set there’s not a huge amount of range, and looking at them now five of them have a feminist theme running through them. That wasn’t a deliberate choice, and in fact I usually gently avoid outright feminist works. But most of these books comes at the topics of discrimination and bias obliquely through history, psychology, business management or statistics.

My favourite non-fiction book was Agrippina by Emma Southon. I studied classical history and literature to A-Level and even elements of it through a masters in History of Science and Medicine, but Emma Southon came at the subject I slightly knew from such a completely fresh point of view that it blew me away. She shows how one sided the history telling has been, how biased from a modern and male point of view. And she’s also hilarious, the writing is so natural as if she’s just chatting over the dinner table. Her second book, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, isn’t quite as revelatory, but is still fascinating and entertaining.

The other standout for the year was Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, an impeccably researched, challenging and slightly heart breaking book that shows the inherent bias and discrimination in the world of numbers. I also recommend Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed as a great book talking about diversity in an entirely practical and logical way, it’s not about the unfairness or emotional heartbreak, but the practicalities of why businesses, countries and societies do better with greater diversity of all sorts.

The others:

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a little more “woe is us” which I found annoying, but it did explain introversion clearly and openly, it would be nice if more extroverts would read it to understand the rest of us.
  • A History of the World in 21 Women: A Personal Selection by Jenni Murray – some interesting people, but each section was too short
  • Ships Of Heaven: The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals by Christopher Somerville – a little muddled, a bit light and a bit forgettable
  • Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson – an overly simplistic approach that left me hating everyone (myself included)
  • New Fiction:
    I read 16 fiction books published this year, including seven hardbacks which is probably a record for me. Most of them were from authors that I’ve read before, and indeed all three of the new reads which I rated outstanding this year were new works from two of my very favourite authors. I not only pre-ordered A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik in hardback, but cleared my weekend to read it immediately and was not disappointed. It’s a really fun read but also has an incredible depth to it, playing with classic tropes and turning them on their head. T Kingfisher somehow managed to produce two absolutely wonderful books that had me utterly charmed from start to finish – Paladin’s Grace and the amazingly named A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (Minor Mage from last year was also very good).

    Other favoured authors who didn’t disappoint me with their 2020 publications were Ben Aaronovitch with a slightly more standalone Rivers of London book (False Value), Philip Gwynne Jones with another satisfying crime novel Venetian Gothic and Robert Galbraith’s fifth Cormoron Strike novel Troubled Blood, which is still entertaining, but is too long and therefore just not as good as the previous novels in the series (I reread Lethal White and it’s still outstanding). Richard Osman is a new author, but one of my favourite people, so it’s relieving to be able to say that his debut novel The Thursday Murder Club is a lot of fun, and an absolute hit on the sales charts.

    Sadly however I was let down by some authors I’d been eagerly awaiting new books from, weirdly while Kingfisher and Novik can pump out exceptional books every year, some of the authors I’d been waiting longest for were the most disappointing. Ernest Cline (Ready Player 1) and Erin Morgenstern (Night Circus) have both had a lot of years to work, but both Ready Player 2 and
    The Starless Sea were underwhelming and at times annoying. Susanna Clarke finally wrote another novel after Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and although Piranesi wasn’t bad, it was still rather underwhelming.

    Older books:
    None of the older books I described as ‘outstanding’. If I was forced to chose, the standout would probably be The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. At nearly 1000 pages long this is the kind of commitment that I normally avoid, but at least this is a standalone fantasy book rather than the traditional trilogy, so it’s probably shorter than most and it’s a really satisfying page turner that I found flying by and was grateful that I’d bought it online without noticing the thickness.

    Other recommendations:

  • Early Riser by Jasper Fforde, a long awaited return to old form for Fforde
  • The Foundling by Stacey Halls – as historical dramas go, it’s a bit fluffy and everything turns out very well in the end, so if you’re looking for gritty it’s not going to be satisfying, but I wasn’t looking for gritty so it worked fine.
  • A Serpent in Paradise and Another Place to Die by Mark Hayden – a solidly put together crime thriller that completely works (while the author’s King’s Watch urban fantasy series is a little more hit and miss – Eight Kings was pretty good, but The Seventh Star was a bit annoying).
  • The Woods by Harlan Coben – an absolute page turner, apparently it’s now a Polish drama on Netflix!
  • Oddjobs 3: You Only Live Once by Heide Goody and Iain Grant, another entertaining entry in the series. Sadly the next book, Out of Hours, took a swerve towards the rubbish with a poor decision to change the settings which meant the humour completely disappeared.
  • Books to avoid
    The worst book I read this year is A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson which is slightly tricky, because it’s certainly not badly written it’s just unpleasant. It spends the whole time focussing on the small sadnesses and disappointments of life and stepping quickly past any joy. And then the ending of it is so brutal and MEAN that it made me absolutely furious and wishing I had never ever opened the book.

    In comparison the other books I’d advise avoiding are just not very good and not really worth the time when there are other much better things out there. Neil Gaiman wasted his talent doing a re-telling of Norse Mythology but rather than using his creativity to make it interesting, he just told it absolutely flat as if he were doing an intellectual exercise in merging other people’s versions and wikipedia pages, he should have taken some creative liberties and actually made a proper novel.
    Do You Dream of Terra-Two by Temi Oh has a fundamentally interesting idea, good pace and diverse characters, but the details of it are utterly ridiculous and I couldn’t suspend disbelief. Pine by Francine Toon was billed as a chilling thriller and it was stunningly boring. I gave Hilary Matnel another try with the blissfully short The Giant, O’Brien which was hard to read and lacking in a decent story, so I won’t be giving her a third chance no matter how many prizes she wins.

    Continue reading “Books I read in 2020”

    Films in December 2020

    A very busy month where I watched 43 films! I was supposed to be going on holiday to Chicago at the beginning of the month but instead I stayed home and subscribed to Disney+. I watched all 12 Star Wars films over a few days and reviewed them separately and also caught up on the various remakes that Disney have been churning out. Then over Christmas holiday I’ve been catching up on some recent releases on digital platforms, I’m really missing the cinema trips of this time of year for either re-releases of Christmas classics, the big blockbusters, or the start of the award bait films. Fingers crossed we’ll be back to cinemas in 2021.

    NEW RELEASES
    The Midnight Sky (Netflix new release) – There were a lot of moments in this film that I wanted to switch it off, not because it was bad but because of the opposite. The situations it presents are ones that I don’t want to think about, the choices the characters have to make are ones that I don’t want to consider, and because the film is so well made and incredibly well acted, you really can’t hide away from them. I didn’t quite get the different elements as the film was playing out. There are two storylines and they play out pretty independently for the most part, and the flashbacks for one of the threads felt unnecessary (particularly with the oddness of younger actors playing George Clooney, but dubbed with his voice). However they did come together beautifully at the end in a way and there was a payoff that I really didn’t see coming, although that doesn’t really overcome the mild irritation that’s already been experienced. 8 / 10

    Rocks (Netflix new release) – This film is told exclusively from the point of view of a teenager, which is a really dangerous thing to do. Done well (which this film really is) makes the experience uncomfortable – it’s absolutely no fun being a teenager and having limited control over your life, but at the same time having enough power to make bad choices that are just embarrassing to watch as an adult. This film is a hard watch because it’s done so incredibly well, your empathy is pulling you in multiple directions as you know that the central character (and her friends) should make different choices, but you absolutely understand why she goes the way she does. The writing and direction are very light of touch, it feels incredibly organic, not like it came from a written page or a production team, but as if it’s just happening. I was really moved and impressed by this film. 8 / 10

    Uncle Frank (Amazon new release) – Set in the 70’s the eponymous uncle is a New York lecturer who stands apart from the rest of his South Carolina family. When his niece starts attending the same university, and then they have to travel home for a family funeral his true life gets revealed. This film could very easily have been trite and even comedic, but the film is written and directed by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, American Beauty) who makes the film straightforward and light with plenty of laughs, a simple plot and large characters. But there’s also a lot of heart, depth and impact. Paul Bettany perfectly delivers that range, there’s always something more going on within him than what is on the screen. The only downside is a truly terrible mustache. 8 / 10

    Death to 2020 (Netflix new release) – I went into this very nervously, 2020 has been depressing enough, did I really need to watch a retrospective? But Charlie Brooker and his producing partner Annabel Jones have set a high standard over the years with both Black Mirror and the ‘wipe’ documentary/review series so I gave it a chance and I’m glad I did. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches and you’re not going to come out of it feeling any better about the miserable year that we’ve all suffered through. However it plays to the fine tradition of satire and comedy through the centuries which is if you can’t beat it, laugh at it. And I laughed a lot. the blend of documentary archive footage, biting narration and spoof talking heads are mixed perfectly to highlight the insanity and the horror that this year has been. My only criticisms of it would be around the weight given to the different stories and maybe a bit of confusion about whether it’s playing to an American or a British audience. Please god don’t let us need another one of these next year. 8 / 10

    Mulan (Disney+, newish release) – What a shame that this didn’t get the big screen release that it was supposed to have, because this is definitely one of the rare hits in the Disney live action remake series. The film builds from the animated version modifying the plot, adding richness, and adjusting characters. On one hand the film is played straight – there are no animal sidekicks and no songs, but there is a magical element introduced for the power some characters have to move and fight. That took me a little bit of getting used to, it didn’t quite feel like that magic blended with the historical details that are beautifully done. Yifei Liu as Mulan is absolutely stunning, she plays the early comedy just as well as she does the heartbreaking drama and I was completely with her at every moment of the film. As I say, it’s a shame this film may fall under the radar of many, as it’s a real standout for me. 8 / 10

    Soul (Disney+ new release) – Maybe I was expecting too much, maybe the pressure of a Christmas afternoon premier was too built up, but I was really disappointed with this film. I feel Soul was trying to re-capture the astonishing achievement of Inside Out and just came across as trying too hard, missing the elegance and the lightness of touch that made Inside Out so impressive. There was too much going on in Soul, too many mechanics to understand, too much clunky chunks of exposition. The film felt bitty and rushing between those bits so everything feels like it’s only shown at a very surface level and I found it a struggle to keep up and frankly I wasn’t really engaged enough to make the effort. The eventual resolution felt equally jumbled and I don’t really understand what I was supposed to take from it. I suspect I’m being a bit harsh on it, and maybe on future watches I’ll get it a bit more, but on a first watch, it was a disappointment. 6 / 10

    Mank (Netflix new release) – I suspect a lot of people will heap praise and award nomiations on this film, because, partially because there’s nothing Hollywood likes more than self-referential films, and a bit of black and white. I’m not going to heap praise on Mank except to say that Gary Oldman is going to get a very well deserved Oscar nomination for this, and Amanda Seyfried deserves a supporting actress nomination too. Their performances were interesting and their characters well written, but the film as a whole was baggy, confusing, and ultimately boring. I see what David Fincher was trying to do – recreate the style and structure of Citizen Kane in order to tell the story of the writing of Citizen Kane, but I found it distancing and harder to keep track of the characters, settings and time frames with the jumping plot. Most critically, the film was at least 1/2 hour too long. 6 / 10

    Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix new release) – This film comes from the same playwright and the same film production team as Fences did, and I felt largely the same way about this as I did that film. Both have a problem that they fundamentally feel “stagey” – minimal settings (just two rooms for most of this film), incredibly long scenes and very large performances. It lacks fluidity, there’s no sense of movement or spontaneity in any of it, just a series of long conversations and monologues that always feel like the characters are playing to an audience rather than just existing. I did find Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom slightly more engaging than Fences, I think maybe the music added some richness that was missing in Fences and a wider supporting cast added additional points of view as well, but I can’t really say I enjoyed it unfortunately. It’s an interesting part of history, and Ma Rainey seems like a fascinating woman, and I’d rather just watch a story about her that’s actually written as a proper film. 6 / 10

    The Prom (Netflix new release) – I wanted to let myself go and just enjoy this, but for some reason I just couldn’t. Despite the big star cast it just felt a little low budget and amateury, maybe because intrinsically it’s hard to turn broadway musicals into films that feel natural. Characters are played as one-note stereotypes until they eventually get their turn to have a song and spontaneously gain depth and backstory, but by then it just feels awkward. There was just something that set my teeth on edge, like people trying too hard to poke fun at themselves, but without any real sincerity; the knowing lyrics to the songs didn’t sound self deprecating they just sounded a bit smug. I’m not sure why I’ve taken so against this film, but I really didn’t get on with it. 5 / 10

    OLDER FILMS

    Spies in Disguise (Disney+, new for me) – Will Smith is a James Bond-esqua super spy and he gets turned into a pigeon. I mean, come on who’s not already sold on that? And the excellent news is that it thoroughly delivers to that concept. The script is sharp, the voice talent is really great (Will Smith completely nailing the dry wit, and Tom Holland is adorable), the animation style is vibrant and full of visual gags. This film is an absolute joy and I can see myself coming back to it over and over. 9 / 10

    The Muppet Christmas Carol (umpteenth rewatch of a dvd) – Without a doubt, the best Christmas movie of all time and a staple for my Christmas schedule for decades. The music is absolutely amazing, the mixture of Dickens and Muppet is perfect and it is great fun to watch for all the family. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at Christmas in 2018, with a packed audience and it made me so happy I cried. 9 / 10

    Queen of Katwe (Disney+, new for me) – This is one of those “based on real events” stories that are absolutely made for film, an incredible under-dog story that celebrates talent, passion, and those that seek to provide opportunities. However it doesn’t shy away from the struggle, the brutal reality of existence in a Ugandan slum where a natural talent just cannot magically make those realities change. It’s not the talent that changes her life, it’s the commitment of people around her to give her a chance, that’s why this is a Disney family film that left me with tears of joy. It’s the kind of film that probably wouldn’t have worked if it was just written, the audience would roll their eyes at the improbability of it all, but because it’s true it’s a hit, and it’s important. 8 / 10

    Sing (rewatch of a dvd) – When I first reviewed this I said I didn’t think it was going to be a “classic for all time”, but I’ve since found myself reaching for it when I need a thoroughly feel good bit of entertainment. Although it’s a star-studded cast, no one felt like stunt casting, they were all playing the characters so well that I didn’t even notice who the voices were. It’s bright and colourful, packed with great songs and just plain fun from start to finish, leaving you with feet tapping and face grinning. 8 / 10

    The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Disney+, new for me) – A solid, but maybe slightly forgettable Christmas movie. It takes the core of the Nutcracker ballet and adds some classic Christmas/Disney tropes of a dead mother, a ‘misfit’ heroine and a quest for a magical item and some personal development. The design is stunning throughout with the different realms (including the ‘real’ world created in beautifully rich detail. Mackenzie Foy is excellent in the lead, capturing the tipping point of a teenager’s childlike delight and having to deal with grown up issues. Stealing the show is Kiera Knightly as Sugar Plum, to explain why she is so great would be a spoiler, but it’s worth watching this film for her performance alone, and I wish there was maybe a little more of that spark scattered through the film to just raise it up a little bit. 7 / 10

    Onward (Disney+, rewatch) – The concept behind Onward is that magic has been lost from the realm of fairy tale-esque creatures, they may be elves and centaurs, but they now live in a world of cars and smart phones. It’s a really well crafted and fun story. Although all the familiar “tropes” of a magical quest are there, they’re approached in a fresh and self aware way. Chris Pratt and Tom Holland are wonderful as the two brothers, having a lot of fun but delivering real heart as well. I laughed out loud at both the spoken jokes and the visual ones, and teared up appropriately for the lovely emotional conclusion.
    The problem is that if any other studio, even Disney Studios itself had made Onward all that praise would have been enough. But Pixar have set themselves an impossibly high standard, their films when at their best are works of art, creating vivid new worlds that offer stunning insight into our own. Onward is not that film. It felt like there was more that could have been done, more richness and detail in the magical world (compare with Zootopia), or creativity in visual style, or even in the soundtrack. I did enjoy the film in the cinema, but when rewatching on tv at home I was really not gripped. 7 / 10

    The Nightmare Before Christmas (rewatch of a dvd) – A wonderfully quirky christmas film, that actually manages to be christmassy without being overly sappy. It is everything that you’d expect a Tim Burton film to be (although he didn’t actually direct it) – weird, dark, bizarre, creepy yet kinda endearing. The songs are a bit mixed, some a bit ropey and forced but others are absolute classics. It’s such a visual feast, incredible amounts to look at in every frame all done with a quirky and wonderful blend of Halloween and Christmas that it works perfectly. An absolute Christmas classic. 7 / 10

    A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (rewatch on dvd) – The name Fred Rogers won’t mean much to UK audiences, but to Americans he’s an absolute institution that many of them will have watched on tv as young children. For me, I may not have that sort of connection to the subject of the film, but I do have the same fondness for Tom Hanks who is playing him, so I was really looking forward to this film. Then the film throws in Matthew Rhys who I’ve loved since Brothers and Sisters and recently excelled in The Americans. The film itself is a bit odd, Mr Rogers is a slightly other-worldly character, and that’s played up with some surreal sections and even breaking the fourth wall. But it’s offset by Rhys’ character who is based firmly in an unforgiving reality. Both leads are excellent and somehow manage to connect the different tones elegantly. It did miss a few opportunities to delve deeper into understanding Mr Rogers the person vs Mr Rogers the character, but I went in wanting something engaging and comforting and it completely delivered. 7 / 10

    The Death of Stalin (rewatch on TV) – An odd film. Armando Iannucci is a superb comedy writer and this is certainly a laugh out loud funny. The hilarity of some creative swearing, of a well timed silence, of physical comedy, farce and wordplay – it’s a masterclass. There are loads of characters with complicated backstories and relationships that can be a little hard to track, but thanks to some brilliant ‘character actors’ they all leap off the screen. The problem is that, while the farcical elements of the grabs for power are inherently funny, the overall situation is not. The film doesn’t entirely shy away from the fact that thousands of people are being routinely rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed; but by interspersing it with comedy it does be-little it and leave a bad taste in the mouth. It’s not like you can watch the film and ignore it, because it’s integral to the story; so I’m not quite sure what reaction we’re supposed to have. Overall I think I just wish that Iannucci and the cast made a different film. 7 / 10

    Lion King (2019) (Disney+, new for me) – To quote the great Ian Malcolm Disney were “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. Yes, they absolutely can create photo-realistic animals and landscapes that are STUNNINGLY beautiful, there’s barely a shot in the film that couldn’t be framed on a wall and the movement of the animals is flawless. You can tell what the characters are thinking and feeling without them saying a word. But the problem is that the characters talk and sing and it’s completely jarring and uncomfortable. Photo-realistic lions don’t talk, they don’t sing and they don’t dance and as soon as you try to make them do that it just screams out wrong. The story is of course fine, because it was fine in the original animation and it’s just a direct lift. The voice performances are mostly solid (although I’m not entirely sure about John Oliver as Zazu or Seth Rogan as Pumbaa – neither of whom can sing). I just wish they hadn’t wasted the amazing animation on a film that it fundamentally didn’t work in. 6 / 10

    Race to Witch Mountain (Disney+, new for me) – There are few things in the world more watchable than Dwayne Johnson. This is just a fundamental truth for me. It really doesn’t matter what he’s in, he lights up the screen and makes me happy. There’s not much to say about the film beyond that to be honest, it has all the nuts and bolts and gets the job done, but without The Rock it would have been utterly forgettable and a bit dull. 6 / 10

    A Wrinkle in Time (Disney+, new for me) – I thought this had a lot going for it. At the centre are a couple of really charismatic young actors and a wonderfully bright and vibrant collection of settings. I mean the plot itself made very little sense, the script was a bit spotty in places and Oprah Winfrey was weirdly terrible, but those feel like fairly minor complaints in a kids film. Personally, I switched my brain off, opened my eyes and my heart wide and just let myself go and had a pretty good time. 6 / 10

    Dumbo (Disney+, new for me) – Thankfully this isn’t just a straight recreation of the original animated feature, a film that even nearly EIGHTY years on is still a really good watch. This film takes the main story of the animated film and moves it out of ‘talking animals’ territory, adding a whole cast of humans and focusing on their story more. That’s a very good choice, because for a start there isn’t really enough plot in the original to sustain a full length film, and for a second the photo realistic CGI just looks weird for talking animals. So the producers of this film have made some good choices, and then somehow utterly failed to add the magic. I really can’t explain why, but I was completely unmoved by the film. I had no sense of wonder, joy, sadness… nothing, no emotional engagement at all. I really have no idea how they managed that, it’s technically completely fine but I was just not interested. That’s almost magical in itself. 6 / 10

    X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Disney+, new for me) – As a franchise the X-Men series are really a bit all over the place, so much potential and scope from the comic series but the delivery just doesn’t quite seem to be able to consistently hit the spot. They all have a bit a of a problem over-egging the metaphor and message, forgetting that the films need to be fun to watch and we need to care for the characters. Dark Phoenix has a great concept at the centre of the story, but it then has too many complexities piled on top of it and the characters and relationships become bogged down and lost. Too much infighting and betrayal by the good guys left me just frustrated and disengaged. It’s a great cast that has been assembled, and yet somehow they come across as stodgy a lot of the time. I think the MCU set a very high bar for superhero films, Dark Phoenix isn’t bad, it’s just not quite good enough for these days. 6 / 10

    The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Disney+, rewatch) – Narnia looked amazing – very natural, even the unusual creatures fitted in very well, although some of the cgi/blue screening was a bit ropey. The acting was superb, the young children and voice actors doing very good jobs. The film as a whole though was too long and that just took a bit of a shine off the magic. 6 / 10

    Lady and the Tramp (2019) (Disney+, new for me) – Oh dear, talking photo-realistic animals. According to the article I just read, the film was made with a combination of real animal actors and supplementary animation so that they lip-synced with the dialogue, and it just felt weird. I was utterly charmed by the animals… until they started talking and then I was just a bit creeped out each time. It wasn’t a technical problem, the animation was flawless, but it just didn’t work in my brain. The film is also way too long, the original is 1h18m and this is 1h15m and it’s just unnecessary. Cutting the songs (which also didn’t fit in with the rest of the film) would have been a good start. 6 / 10

    Descendants Trilogy (Disney+, new for me) – This is such a fun idea – all the Disney villains have been exiled to an island, while all the Disney heroes live in fairy tale luxury. Now their kids are all teenagers and four ‘villain kids’ are invited to go to school with the ‘good kids’, but they’ve got a secret mission from the parents that will release all the villains from exile. Great concept, but sadly the reality is slightly underwhelming. There’s a lot of teen film cliches going on that the occasionally sly digs at Disney can’t quite overcome. It also all looks a little cheap (it’s definitely made for TV quality) and even the colourful and original design visuals can’t quite shine when they’re done in polystyrene. Most criminally the majority of the songs are unremarkable (with the exception of Kristin Chenoweth’s Evil Like Me in the first film) and the dance numbers feel quite laboured. Things get even cheaper and worse in the second and third films, I’ve really got no idea why I kept watching them, so I’ve only got myself to blame really. They’re not terrible, but it does feel a little like a school production, and it’s just a bit of a waste of such a good idea. 6 / 10 for the first, 5/10 for the second and third.

    Secret Society of Second Born Royals (Disney+, new for me) – This has a nice concept to it, the younger siblings of heirs to the throne have superpowers and form a secret society. Cute. This gets the full on Disney TV Movie treatment though and so cute is about as far as it gets. There’s just not really any heft to it, characters are pretty cliche, the plot is pretty predictable and there’s a lack of detail and richness that make everything feel very insubstantial and surface. The younger actors are all doing their best, but the script is pretty flat and there are no charismatic leading adults to raise any of it up. It’s fine, but absolutely nothing that you’ll remember 20 minutes after it finishes. 6 / 10

    Artemis Fowl (Disney+, new for me) – I really enjoyed reading the Artemis Fowl series, for a while they were one of my picks for reading anytime I wanted something fun but not too challenging to the brain, perfect for when you want distracting from the real world. They’re well written, but could still easily disappear in a flood of children/young adult fantasy series, but the twist is that rather than following a child hero, we instead follow a child villain, and that really elevates the series above the crowd. So it’s incredibly disappointing that the film completely missed the point. Artemis is still a genius, but without the hook that he’s a villain, the film falls flat. Holly is also lacking in the spark that she has in the book, and that combo means that the relationship between them falls completely flat. I think if you don’t know the books you could enjoy the film as a disposable kids film, but it’s a complete waste of the source material and it left me very frustrated. 5 / 10

    The News Boys (Newsies) (Disney+, new for me) – Christian Bale can do many things, but I’m afraid in 1992 when this film was made he could not lead a musical, he couldn’t sing terribly well, and weirdly despite being 18 he couldn’t seem to convincingly play a teenager. He was fighting an uphill battle with a clunky script, mostly unremarkable songs and surrounded by a cast of children struggling a bit and a few adults phoning it in. I was surprised when I read up on it that it was an original film not an adaption of a stage musical (it went the other direction) as it felt incredibly stagey. It really was a bit of a slog to get through. 5 / 10

    Books in December 2020

    Three books to polish off the year, and unfortunately they were all a bit disappointing. Check back in a couple of days for my overall review of the year.

    Francine Toon – Pine
    According to the review quote on the cover of this novel it’s “A literary gothic thriller to chill the marrow” (Guardian). It’s not. It’s utterly unthrilling. I wasn’t chilled, I was bored. It’s also described as a crime novel but given that the majority of the book is vague on whether a crime has even been committed it. It’s only the last quarter or so of the book that actually has any plot happen and it’s way too little, too late and too rushed. Another problem is that the story is told from the point of view of a young girl (10ish?), a point of view I always find tedious as they’re incredibly unreliable narrators, and a lazy writing technique as it gives an easy excuse for simplifying everything and building up the mystery because they’re not part of the conversations grown ups have that would immediately fill in the gaps. It’s clumsy and boring.

    Jenni Murray – A History of the World in 21 Women: A Personal Selection
    The good thing about a book like this is that it introduces you to (or reminds you of) a lot of different people from completely different times and places. But the bad thing is that with only about 10-15 pages per person you only get a very high level summary of where they lived and what they did. It’s a bit like reading a curated set of wikipedia pages, or a weird speed dating session. Jenni Murray is not an expert on any of the people in question, or their fields, and while she is a good journalist, I did feel that a lot of the sections were more editorial exercises summarising/combining other works than they were original writing. The best sections are those later in the book with modern subjects, many of whom Murray has met and interviewed which allowed her to add a more personal touch and something more original.

    Ernest Cline – Ready Player 2
    I loved Ready Player 1. It was a fun adventure romp that managed to capture the joyous spirit of what it meant to be a geek – getting lost in the things you love and finding a group of people to share those passions with. Ready Player 2 was a huge disappointment. In my review of the first book I said that I didn’t think it was necessarily a ‘good’ one, but it was the right one and it made me happy. It’s like Cline took the opposite direction – it makes perfect sense that having got all he wanted the lead character would turn into a bit of a dick, but just because it makes sense doesn’t mean that it makes for good reading. I also got deeply bored and frustrated by the quest sections which spent way too much time in a very small number of settings that I was personally not interested in the slightest. The book eventually picked up and got some momentum, but I was really just disappointed.

    The Mandalorian: Season 1 and 2

    I held off on subscribing to Disney+ until there was a bit of a critical mass of stuff to make it worth while, and all along The Mandalorian had been the thing I was most keen to see. I powered through all of season 1 and most of season 2 in just a couple of days and then had to wait for the weekly releases for the last couple of episodes. I don’t actually think the series is helped by the weekly releases, there’s not quite enough substance in each episode by itself to make it worth the wait.

    The Mandalorian is presented as a fairly classic western – the quiet but deadly bounty hunter out at the edges of civilisation, preferring to not really have much to do with anyone and yet forced to engage with a range of characters just to complete his missions… and then getting dragged into a quest. Everything from the dusty landscapes to the music and the framing of shots play to the western theme. The good news/bad news is that The Mandalorian is a good western, which is bad news because I’m not a big western fan. I find them (and this) a little too slow and needlessly melodramatic, and I struggle to keep engaged. That’s a big problem for The Mandalorian when it’s episodes are often only 1/2 hour long, and if you’re waiting a week between each of them. I’d definitely suggest box setting to maintain some semblance of momentum.

    The Mandalorian just about kept my attention, because while the pace is slow, the moments of activity are carefully distributed and really good. Whether that’s the action sequences, character development or the gloriously dry sense of humour. And of course you’ve got the adorable little… whatever he is. The relationship between The Mandalorian and The Child is beautifully done considering one half is an expressionless helmet, and the other an animatronic that doesn’t talk. It is cute, but it’s also dark and a bit sarcastic – which I for one love.

    There are clearly a lot of connections to the rest of the Star Wars cannon, and I’m a long way from being a big enough Star Wars geek to get all of them, but even for me there were plenty of moments that made me sit up and give a little cheer. The Star Wars universe is so huge, with so many untold stories that there’s always going to be plenty of material and it’s nice to see new series being slotted into the gaps. I wouldn’t say I was blown away by the series, but I was impressed and I certainly enjoyed it enough to justify a month of subscription to Disney+ all by itself.

    Star Wars

    I had a week off at the start of December and rather than going on Chicago as planned, I got a Disney+ subscription and settled in to watch all the Star Wars films. I like Star Wars, but I’ve never been obsessive about it in the way that I can be about other sci fi. The universe is incredibly rich, and the stories that are created in the films are reasonably solid, if alternately overwhelmed with over-complicated politics, or over-simplified fantasy quests. The writing quality similarly swerves about a bit and relies on charismatic actors to try and overcome the written words. But what makes them re-watchable are the beautiful visuals, the rich details of the backgrounds, the rousing music, and the energetic action sequences.

    I watched the 11 films in chronological order within the story, rather than by release date, so started off with the dreaded prequel trilogy, before building up to finally watching The Rise of Skywalker for the first time. Oh, and look out for my review of The Mandalorian in the next few days too. I didn’t dig out the Holiday Special (I tried watching the Lego one but only lasted 10 minutes before getting too bored), and I’m also not counting the Ewok films here.

    Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace – The miss-steps in this film are painfully glaring. How did anyone think JarJar was a good idea? Every time he came on screen I just flinched. The pacing of the film is also all over the place, a weird combination of action sequences that are too drawn out (the pod racing being the key offender) and scenes that are way to short and topped and tailed with transition effects that ruin any flow. Oh and some dialogue that feels like it missed the final draft to take it from functional to realistic. But there’s good in there too, excellent effects, well choreographed action, breathtaking music, a couple of good twists and some good actors trying their best to rise above the dialogue. It just really needed a good polish all over. 6 / 10

    Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones – This whole film could have been improved hugely by removing just about any scene featuring Amidala and Anakin. I know it’s an important part of the whole story… but the scenes really were very bad. They were poorly written, poorly acted (well, Natalie Portman was doing her best, but Hayden Christensen is just not very good), it was creepy rather than romantic and the whole thing was so overblown with multiple costumes and locations that any impact of the doomed romance was truly lost. Remove those scenes and you’ve got a fairly likeable film in the finest tradition of Star Wars with some great action sequences, (Yoda with a light saber!), some funny one liners and an interesting contribution to the wider plot if you chose to pay attention to it. 5 / 10

    BONUS Star Wars: The Clone Wars – I can’t be bothered to go down the rabbit hole of whether this is cannon or not, but I’m including it here because I watched it so I want credit. It’s not very good. I did like the animation, and I also like the idea of filling in the gaps between the films and getting to see a bit more of Obi Wan and Anakin’s adventures, but it’s undermined by a not very good voice cast. I never lost awareness that it was actors in a studio reading lines and so any of the nice character moments, flashes of humour or dramatic tension just fell completely flat. Still, at least it didn’t have Anakin and Padme mooning around. 5/10

    Star Wars 3: Revenge of the Sith – This film was trapped by the plot it had to follow, i.e. flipping Anakin from hero to villain, giving characters the confrontations they needed but having everyone walk away from the fights to live for the later episodes. It sometimes felt more like the writers were plumbing in pipes to join A to B than writing satisfying narratives. I do think they did about as good a job as they could under the circumstances, but that didn’t make it amazing, particularly given that Hayden Christensen really didn’t have the acting ability to pull off the complexity needed for the character. It did a solid but unspectacular job, it had humour, action, adventure, intrigue, great special effects, interesting fights, but as usual let down by some terrible terrible dialogue that the actors did their best to chew through. The star of the film (and possibly the entire series) however was obviously R2D2 – he flies, he catches, he shoots, he sets things on fire! I think everyone does their best, but when the outstanding thing is a tin can that beeps, it’s not a great sign. 6 / 10

    Solo: A Star Wars Story – The film got off to a bad start with a pet peeve of mine – over-colourisation and dim lighting. I thought it was just to hammer home the metaphorical dinginess of Solo’s home planet, but it followed him the whole film. Scenes looked grainy, dull, indistinct and colour filtered beyond any believability. With the visual spectacle crippled, there was more reliance on the story and there was a bit of a struggle there too as too many characters came and went too quickly, and so many betrayals that it was hard to emotionally connect to anyone. The plot also felt too bitty (a common challenge with Star Wars films, and in fact fantasy films in general) – go here, get the thing, go there, get the thing. On a surface level, I was entertained by the film – some sparky dialogue, funny one liners, and good acting, which have been a struggle for some Star Wars films. But it completely failed to immerse me and overall left me underwhelmed. 6 / 10

    Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – On the plus side, this film does a much more elegant job that Episode 3 of filling in some gaps in the overall Star Wars story. It’s all a bit “B story”, but in many ways the focus here on some of the “little people” behind the scenes expands the universe even further – everyone in the background has their own story even if they’re not directly connected to a Skywalker. That sentiment is admirable and a nice idea, but the delivery was a little underwhelming. The story was another convoluted sequence of “go here, do this, go to another planet, do another thing etc etc”. It relied on an increasingly ridiculous series of activities, technology and poor decisions and any sense of credibility disappeared quite early on. The characters were all quite one-note, without getting a chance to show complexity, most annoyingly the two lead characters – sanctimonious Cassian and flip-flopping Jyn. The wider cast seemed far more interesting, but with so many people crowding the screen didn’t really get any development. 5 / 10

    Star Wars 4: A New Hope – I’ve seen this film more times than I can count, and it’s hard to review it objectively as a film rather than the foundation of a mega-empire. Sitting in the middle of my chronological watch, A New Hope is a breath of fresh air. All the other films have at struggled or completely failed to find the effortlessness of A New Hope. Maybe it was the pressure of trying to fit in and live up to a legend, whereas A New Hope could just do whatever it liked.
    The thing about the original Star Wars trilogy is that they’re fun and a spectacle. Yes there are some serious storylines and character developments going on, but they’re not bogged down by that. You’re never far from a laugh or from a stunning effects sequence that even over 40 years later still completely mesmerize. Some of the dialogue is pretty clunky, but the actors are good enough to step lightly over it and move on. The universe that is being created is introduced gradually, starting small and expanding outwards no faster than the plot needs or the audience can take. Nothing in the film overwhelms or feels like it’s trying too hard, it’s just doing its own thing without any care or pressure. Just fun. 8 / 10

    Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back – Empire Strikes Back is a great middle installment. It moves everything along, but also manages to slow down a bit and flesh out some of the details. The decision to jump the story forward by a few years is a good one, meaning we jump straight into the middle of a new adventure without getting bogged down in the details of how we got from the end of the last movie to the start of this one. It means the story and the characters have all moved on a bit and it’s like we’ve just dropped in. There’s a good blend of light and dark, plot and action, drama and comedy, big and small. Luke learning more about the force may have dragged a bit if not for the wonderful creation of Yoda an inspired choice to make a master of the mind a tiny green muppet. There’s a lot more darkness in this film than in the previous installment, which as the name implies was a lot more hopeful than this rather desperate fan. I just wish that I could get to experience the shock of the reveal of Darth Vader as that must have been truly something. 8 / 10

    Star Wars 6: Return of the Jedi – I watched all three of the original trilogy back to back, and unfortunately Return of the Jedi feels like the series stumbled at the last hurdle. I’m not sure whether they were trying to make something lighter than Empire Strikes Back and just went too far, but the whole film lost the balance of drama and comedy that the previous films had and fell straight into daft. Thankfully the overall plot with Darth Vader and the Empire is still solid and draws everything together well, and the character arcs are also well built. However the main activity of the film is just a bit too focused on cuteness, comedy, and spectacle, so you have to almost look through what is on the screen to see the richness. The first set piece with Jabba the Hutt devolves into slapstick fights (alongside the unnecessary Leia in the gold bikini issue), and the less said about the Ewoks the better. I think maybe it was a reaction to bring it back to a more family focus, and I distinctly remember this being my favourite film as a kid, but now as an adult it feels like a jarring swerve from Empire and a disappointing way to finish. 6 / 10

    Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens – This film manages to completely capture the FEEL of the original trilogy, in a way that the prequels just didn’t quite manage. Force Awakens connects into the greater cultural relevance that has grown into the franchise, it’s not just copying or referencing, it has the SOUL of a Star Wars film. As the words “A long, long time ago…” appeared on screen and John William’s still breath-taking score kicked in, a smile appeared on my face. And every time a past character, event or prop appeared or was referenced, the smile grew a bit bigger. The plot is still contrived (as my brother who only recently watched the original said, “the force is a handy little trick isn’t it?”) and either I missed or just didn’t understand how the political situation had evolved from the end of Return of the Jedi. There are also some character development questions that are rather dubious in my opinion. But it’s entertaining, the dialogue is fun, the sets and effects are gorgeous, the action well paced and the emotion hits when it needs to. 8 / 10

    Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi – I liked this film a lot. It did all the things that I think Star Wars at it’s best does – character, action, fun, and wonder. Last Jedi had me pretty much gripped throughout and never entirely certain where it was going to go, even with the rather excessive runtime. After the film I started identifying some plot holes and McGuffins, but while watching I was completely carried along. The old and new casts felt much better entwined, with almost all the characters getting development and depth, with the slight exception of Finn. This felt far more a film of it’s own, rather than trying to prove something or having to focus too much on serving lots of different fans. It still had the same nostalgia with the music and the style all there, it’s still 100% a Star Wars film; but it felt like it was being a Star Wars film on its own terms. Completely entertaining from the opening chord and title card, to the final one at the end of the credits. 9 / 10

    Star Wars 9: The Rise of the Skywalker – Once again, I think the final film of the trilogy might be the weakest one. Maybe it’s because I watched at the end of watching all 11 Star Wars films over the span of four days and I’d run out of enthusiasm. But I do feel that the plot of this film, compared to the previous, just felt a bit all over the place. There were a lot of new elements introduced that felt a little out of nowhere, and rather too much questing going from A to B to C etc and I lost track of why they needed to go to each place. In contrast though the character stories are very well told and the new cast really does carry the film completely, although the appearances from older characters are still welcome, and very moving. All the nostalgia is still there, the effects and action sequences are good, but I’m afraid overall it fell a little flat compared to the rest of the trilogy. 9 / 10

    Books in November 2020

    Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education
    Naomi Novik is one of the author’s who’s novels I pre-order the hardbacks for, that’s about as high a complement as I can offer an author. The only greater compliment is that I’m thrilled that this is the start of a new series, even the greatest authors I often prefer to get new worlds and new ideas rather than extend existing ones. But Novik has created a world that is both comfortably familiar and original. I would probably describe it as Harry Potter meets Lord of the Flies; what would it be like if Hogwarts was trying to kill its students? The book also plays with the idea of good wizards and bad wizards, what if the supposed ‘heroes’ were making things worse and the actual hero was the one who was born with all the evil power? I was completely engrossed with the characters and the set ups and cannot wait for the next book in the series.

    Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women
    I’d put off reading this book for a long time, because despite being on subjects that I’m passionate about, I thought it would make me angry. By the time I did read it I was so aware of the contents that my anger was muted down to a frustration and my overwhelming feelings were of sadness and tiredness. The contents form an overwhelming narrative of how women are discriminated against through being absent in the data. Whether it’s in politics, town planning, medicine, or design of the specialist and everyday tools, women’s voices are excluded and their absence in the data means that we can’t even understand just how serious the impacts of that is, although even the small amount of data indicates that huge numbers of lives are being lost, and economies are suffering.
    While the contents and messages in the book are outstanding, I’m afraid the writing underwhelmed me a little. The quality of the research, evidenced through the volume and range of footnotes is outstanding, but occasionally lacked the human element and I would have liked a few more deep dives with interviews and anecdotes from individuals. I also struggled at times with the structure as it seemed a little meandering at times and some of the most shocking and impactful of cases, ones that people may not think of or be familiar with (eg car safety testing without any need for female crash test dummies) felt a little buried.
    It’s a fascinating, powerful and vitally important work which I would highly recommend to anyone, even if the readability could have been improved a little bit to make it a truly outstanding package. (692)

    Neil Gaiman – Norse Mythology
    There’s something about re-writing myths that seems to make even the most talented or charismatic of writers revert to the same simplistic and flat tone. Stephen Fry was guilty of this with his Greek myths, and Gaiman does the same here. The stories themselves are fantastic, and I was less familiar with the Norse ones, but the delivery is boring. Gaiman loses all sense of world building, characterization and plotting and just retells the myths by rote. You end up with written out complicated family trees, no emotions from the characters, no relationships, no development. Maybe it’s because he was trying to stay so faithful to the myths that he felt he couldn’t embellish, or maybe the stories just don’t hang together if you go more in depth, but I want more from a novel even if it means taking some creative liberties with the myths themselves. I expect better from writers of this talent.

    Christopher Somerville – Ships Of Heaven: The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedral
    I’m fascinated by cathedrals. Wherever I travel, they’re always top of my list of places to visit. They’re just so extreme, the scale of them is completely other worldly and usually built so long ago that it seems like a miracle that the knowledge even existed on how to build something so immense to last so long. Unlike castles and skyscrapers, they’re built with love and passion, with a view to last and for appreciation through the ages by more than us mere mortals. Christopher Somerville’s book captures exactly what I find so fascinating and awe inspiring about cathedrals, including the fact that it has very little to do with religion and belief in a higher power.
    Each chapter is about a different cathedral in the UK and he talks to the aspects that are most relevant to each one – the architecture, the craft workers, the glass, the history, the art, the place in the community, the people working there, the music. The cathedrals are centres of cities and communities so the book also tells you a little about the cities and the people. The scope of the book is huge and I wasn’t always satisfied that it lingered in the right places and skipped quickly over the right ones too, and the language did tend towards the flowery which made my eye’s roll a bit. More pictures would also have been wonderful. A good whistle stop tour, particularly for the behind the scenes access and conversations with those working and supporting the cathedrals today.

    Films in November 2020

    No cinema trips, and the only ‘new’ release I saw via online platforms was a very mediocre animation on Netflix that is right down at the bottom of this list. Instead I plodded through a couple of film series – the six Mission Impossible films and the three Robert Langdon films. One of those series was much more a plod than the other…

    Mission Impossible Franchise
    On the surface the Mission Impossible films are all the same – complicated plots, Tom Cruise saving the world and convoluted stunts. But each one has some nuances, including a rotating group of sidekicks, some of which work and some don’t, there’s not actually a trend either, the series goes up and down rather than learning from the good and the bad.

    Mission Impossible: The first film is actually quite different to the later films. It’s got a lot more emphasis on spy work and plot; it feels more thoughtful and careful. Cruise feels relatively fresh and the action sequences aren’t as flashy, but they still hold up remarkably well considering they’re over 20 years old. The plot is predictable as anything and it’s a real shame the supporting cast for the majority of the movie never delivers the charisma that the team in the first sequence do. Ranking: 7 / 10

    Mission: Impossible II: Tom Cruise and director John Woo are both more focused on stunts than on plot or character leading to a charmless character and a film that is more a sequence of stunts than a coherent or interesting film. Thandi Newton is criminally underused, she starts off pretty fiery, quickly reverts to a damsel in distress. Ranking: 6 / 10

    Mission: Impossible 3: A bit of a bridge. Most of the film is very much the dumb action film that Mission Impossible 2 was, brainless action sequences, convoluted and irrelevant plots, an underwhelming supporting team, a glowering Tom Cruise and old school female characters who get kidnapped, tortured and killed just to motivate the male character. However there are some flashes of what the future holds with moments of humour, splashes of personality from the likes of Simon Pegg and a few moments of self-awareness of how daft everything is. Ranking: 6 / 10

    Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol: Ghost Protocol is the high point of the series, and one of the best action movies out there. I was properly on the edge of my seat for most of the ‘mission’ sequences, they were perfectly paced, beautifully choreographed, stylishly directed (without drawing attention to the direction) and entertainingly creative. The plot holding the missions together was fine (making enough sense without really making you have to pay attention) and the performances were all convincing and charismatic. The biggest success of the film though was remembering to make the most of humour, Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner are great at the action hero/spy thing but could have become irritatingly serious if not balanced by Simon Pegg’s banter. Ranking: 8 / 10

    Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: The plot which is as meandering, convoluted, and hole ridden, but then that’s not really the point. The giant action sequences are still some of the most impressive out there. There’s no overloading of cgi like you see in the superhero films, all the action feels painfully real. The franchise is finally addressing the failings of the first few films in its approach to women, they save the men just as much as the other way around. I wouldn’t mind a bit more of the humour and character moments that occasionally flash past, and I don’t quite know why the plot can’t make sense, but overall it’s a thrill ride from start to finish. Ranking: 7 / 10

    Mission Impossible: Fallout: A step backwards. The plot seemed even less coherent than usual and it felt like they spent too long trying to explain it which just slowed the film and drew attention to the nonsense of it all. It doesn’t matter if the plot makes no sense (or even if there isn’t much plot at all) but don’t waste so much time on it and leave the audience enough time to spot the holes. I also didn’t feel that it had the humour or character of previous films. Obviously Tom Cruise is the star under the thin disguise of his character Ethan Hunt, but I’d like a bit more interaction with the more than capable supporting actors (both good guys, bad guys, and ambiguous). The action sequences were utterly spectacular, but everything in between was mediocre and bordering on dull, it therefore failed on its basic mission to distract me. Ranking: 6 / 10

    Robert Langdon Series
    A trio of films based on Dan Brown’s novels. They are that rarest of things – bad Tom Hanks films. A lot of the problems come from the nature of the books, puzzle solving just isn’t a very cinematic affair, it’s mostly watching people think and listening to people explain what they are thinking, which just isn’t very interesting.

    The Da Vinci Code – Well, I hated the book, so at least the film is consistent. They probably actually did a pretty good job adapting it, because it’s just as clumsy, ridiculous and boring as the original is. There are so many ideas thrown in that that film feels like it’s a repeating sequence of exposition and running. At least we got to see some nice European locations I guess. Ranking: 5 / 10

    Angels and Demons – There’s a little bit more interest here than there was in The Da Vinci Code, but that’s a pretty low bar to step over. The plot of the antimatter bomb and the conspiracy to undermine the election of the Pope makes sense in a kind of movie way that makes ridiculous things acceptable, and it required considerably less exposition, and slightly less suspension of disbelief than the century old conspiracy theory at the heart of The Da Vinci Code. Ranking: 6 / 10

    Inferno – The least convoluted of the plots and Inferno also manages to deal a little bit with the issue of alternating running and puzzle solving by shaking the order up a bit to start with running and then introducing puzzles. It did at least make the start of the film a lot more engaging to throw characters and audience alike right into the middle of things with no idea what was going on. That was a very clever move. Everything else was a bit so so, but this may actually be the best of the series (which isn’t saying much). Ranking: 7 / 10

    Finding Dory
    Thirteen years after Finding Nero, a sequel eventually came along, and after that long wait, it was absolutely everything that Finding Nemo was. It’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny and it’s emotionally manipulative as anything leaving me sniffling basically from start to finish. Yeah, it gets a bit daft at times, but it’s just so much fun that it’s hard to care. The new characters and voice actors are absolutely brilliant and I didn’t even find myself missing the characters from the tank in the previous film. Heart breaking and hilarious. Everything I want from a Pixar film. Oh and Piper, the short in front, is all of those things in 5 minutes without a single line of dialogue. Perfection. Ranking: 9 / 10

    Into the Woods
    The style of this film can take a bit of getting used to, even amongst musicals the Sondheim style takes a bit of getting used to. Songs flow into each other and overlap, a lot of the music and singing sounds almost incidental rather than following traditional structures. This inter-twining matches the storyline with characters and plots coming and going, passing each other by and occasionally colliding. The tone also take some getting used to, a wry and dark take fairy tales, but incorporating some of the happy Disney elements. The first time I watched it I didn’t particularly get on with it, but this time I appreciated it a lot more. The lyrics of the songs made me laugh out loud and the performers absolutely nailed the shifting and different tones. Ranking: 8 / 10

    Aladdin (2019)
    When I reviewed the Beauty and Beast live action remake I was deeply critical. I didn’t see the point of remaking an absolute classic almost word for word, it brought absolutely nothing new, just messed some things up. Either Disney listened to me, or they struck lucky with Aladdin because it has none of the same problems (although it does have some new ones).
    The film felt like a new version, the same nuts and bolts but some new bits that made it sing. Firstly Will Smith is brilliant as the Genie, no one can replace Robin Williams, but this is a new Genie with his own style and I loved him. The rest of the cast is also absolutely superb and Naomi Scott shines as Jasmine who has a MUCH richer involvement in the story (as well as the STUNNING new song Speechless). The tweaks to the story worked well, both to flesh out characters and move things along. And the live action recreation of both the normal characters and settings and the Genie created magic were vibrant and richer than the simplistic (but effective) animation of the original. The only thing that occasionally didn’t work were the transitions into and out of the songs and a couple of the musical numbers that just felt produced rather than a natural part of the world. I think that’s probably the outcome of a having a director who although very good, had no experience of musicals. That’s a minor complaint though and I can actually see myself re-watching this as often as I do the animated film… maybe even more. Ranking: 8 / 10

    Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
    I’d been fairly convinced before I saw Spider-Man Homecoming that the last thing the world needed was yet another Spider-Man reboot. I was wrong, because they did something fresh and interesting with the concept, so I wasn’t so presumptuous as to say the same thing about the awkwardly named Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, and yet I still wasn’t going to bother seeing it in the cinema. Then the reviews started piling up and everyone said it was brilliant, so I gave it a try, and the reviews were almost entirely right. The film is great fun, it’s got the heart of Spider-Man but still manages to do lots of fun new stuff with it (all grounded in the comic lore from what people say). It’s charming, funny, sweet, exciting and completely unexpected. The only thing I’m torn over is the animation style. Most of it I really liked, it’s got a lot of different styles to it, really feeling like an animated comic book. Many of the individual frames are utterly stunning. My only problem was that I found it too much at times, particularly the odd effects used for the backgrounds which I found so distracting and weird that I actually checked to make sure I hadn’t accidentally gone into a 3D showing without glasses. I see what they were trying to do, and I completely respect the attempt, but that didn’t quite work for me and sadly slightly spoiled an otherwise utterly wonderful film. Ranking: 8 / 10

    Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)
    A completely and utterly beautiful film. The characters immediately grabbed my attention and held it throughout, I wanted to spend time with them as they just lived their lives, and I could happily have stayed in their company well beyond the 2 hour run time. This isn’t a story that has a huge amount of plot, but it’s made up for in character and relationships that evolve. The gradual revealing of the history of the direct and indirect families is elegantly paced, never feeling manipulatively secretive, but just incredibly naturalistic. It does occasionally drift into melodramatic moments towards the end, but I’ll forgive that as everything else was so constrained that a bit of a release of emotions (positive and negative) felt well deserved. I believed in these characters, fell in love a bit with the family and house and just simply adored the time I spent with them. Ranking: 8 / 10

    Game Night
    I always approach comedies with caution as I seem to be out of step with the general film audiences and am more likely to find popular comedies annoying or embarrassing than I am to find them funny. I’m not sure why I gave Game Night a try, but I’m actually glad I did. While I may not have laughed continuously or loudly, there were plenty of scenes and ideas that made me smile and mostly importantly only a couple of small moments that made me cringe. I was impressed at the number of switches in the storyline, nothing lingered too long to stretch credibility to breaking point and the plot moved along really quickly. Similarly the characters were ‘bigger’ than reality, but they weren’t completely out of touch. I enjoyed it. Ranking: 7 / 10

    Sorry to Bother You
    What an utterly bizarre film. It’s very elegantly made – gradually introducing the weirder elements, kind of continuously lulling your brain into a false sense of security then each time dialing things up a notch so you can be unsettled all over again. I’m not sure that I exactly LIKED it as it’s quite intense, jarring and challenging; but I was certainly impressed by it.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    Coco
    I went into this film with simultaneously high and low expectations. High because it’s a Pixar film and many critics have raved about it. Low because I didn’t really jump with enthusiasm at the trailer, and the whole Day of the Dead thing feels a little over-done recently. That mixed feeling going in carried through the film. It was certainly beautifully animated and voiced, and the characters were vibrant and complex. But the overall story just fell a bit flat. I saw everything coming a mile off and it felt like there were just an arbitrary number of steps in the quest – how many chunks do we need to make up a reasonable runtime? Far from a terrible film, but not up there with the best.
    Ranking: 7 / 10

    The Girl in the Spider’s Web
    The problem with having a main character who’s closed off and removed from connections is that it’s very hard to engage with her as an audience. It’s not that Claire Foy’s performance was bad, it’s just there was nothing to really connect with and I got a bit bored. I think this series is better when Lisbeth Salander is partnered with another character who can do the emoting, and connecting to the audience, for her. The film isn’t bad, there’s some good sequences and the plot is ok enough, but it’s missing a heart. Ranking: 6 / 10

    Over the Moon
    This feels slightly like an animated film made by committee, throwing all the cliches and animated staples into a pot giving them the slightest of stirs and then assuming the finished product will work. But I don’t think it did. I really liked the first section, getting to know Fei Fei and her family, the animation was beautifully detailed and it didn’t matter that nothing particularly original was happening. But then we went to the moon and I almost immediately lost interest. The style was lost, everything just became multicoloured and chaotic, characters came and went, different quests overlapped, it didn’t seem to make sense and I couldn’t be bothered to try. The final nail in the coffin was that the songs were just a bit rubbish (and notably Frozen-derivative at times). Ranking: 5 / 10

    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.