Films in February 2022

I didn’t watch a huge number of films in February, and then to add insult to injury I forgot to post the round-up. Two cinema trips for the underwhelming Death on the Nile (full review posted in a separate post) and to finally catch Spider-Man. Then there’s a couple of not random films that were on telly, one foreign language Oscar nominee, the trio of Kingsman films recently added to Disney+ and a rewatch of the two Fantastic Beasts films to see if I had been unreasonably harsh in my reviews (I hadn’t, they’re a missed opportunity). So, a pretty meh month all in all.

Spider-Man: No Way Home
I’m always unexcited by Spider-Man films, and then pleasantly surprised by them when I finally get around to it. I should have seen this one earlier as I may have been less spoiled, and may also have seen it in a busier cinema to experience it with a crowd. Even with those disadvantages though, the film is still great fun to watch. The plot completely passed me by to be honest, I’m not saying it didn’t make sense, because I didn’t really even listen to it to make that assessment. But the characters (old and new) are enough to carry the film. It is yet another case of 20 mins too long, the final action sequence in particular dragged as there were too many villains, and a couple of them had too little familiarity or time to really make an impact. Tom Holland continues to be outstanding, actually playing Peter Parker AND Spider-Man as a single person, and a realistic teenager at that. Zendaya is also wonderfully fresh and powerful as Mary Jane. They make it all believable, even if the plot is nuts. 8 / 10

Hand of God
Italy’s submission and nominee for Best Film not in the English Language at the 2022 Oscars is based on the life of the writer/director growing up in Naples. It does absolutely feel like the way that we remember our childhoods – random moments, events and people; comedy, drama, horror, and absurdity all blending together with no real explanations of why or how things happened. That is how our memories work, but I didn’t find it made for an engaging film. It just felt too muddled. The first third or so didn’t feel like it was going anywhere but was at least entertaining to watch, like you’d been dropped into the middle of a bonkers family. But the second half seemed to be trying to find meaning in events and how they shaped the central character. But I felt he was just a vacuum at the heart of the film, he felt flimsy and passive so there was nothing to latch onto to ground and drive the film. It may all have been true and cleverly observed, but it that doesn’t make for an enjoyable film. It was 2.10 and felt even longer. 5 / 10

The Souvenir
It’s the early 1980’s and Julie is a well off film student, and that’s about all we seem to know about her. I never really got a sense of why she wanted to make films, where she came from or where she wanted to go. She seems to fall into some kind of relationship with someone who works for the foreign office, and has demons. He’s another flat character with no sense of past or future or existence when he leaves the frame of the camera. I didn’t believe either of the characters, I certainly didn’t believe in their relationship and I just didn’t care. The whole thing felt entirely constructed and fake, without depth or richness. The only thing I liked was when Richard Ayoade turned up for a about 3 minutes with more energy than the rest of the entire production put together. 4 / 10

Personal Shopper
I’m not going to say much about this film because it’s much better to go in without knowing too much, and certainly not knowing what direction it’s going to go in. It’s a complicated film, talking about a lot of different things but somehow managing to twist them together. Kristen Stewart is very good as the focal point for the audience to travel along with as the eponymous Personal Shopper (a strange title for the film). The film isn’t necessarily a nice watch, it’s unsettling and occasionally irritating, but it is something different and that’s enough to catch my interest. 7 / 10

The film can’t quite seem to decide whether it’s parodying, or fondly referencing multiple generations of spy films. So the tone wanders around all over the shop, some deaths are treated as comedy while others are emotional; some twists are supposed to be shocking, while others are done with a nod and a wink, but they’re almost all predictable. The style however is where this film excels, the look and pacing of the fight sequences was really something else, managing to keep even me completely engrossed. I don’t think the film quite all came together, but it was original, had some excellent elements and was certainly entertaining. 7 / 10

Kingsman: The Golden Circle
More of the same from the sequel, both good and bad. The style, slickness and originality of the action is still there, I like the blend of the kind of suave cheesiness of The Man from UNCLE with the brutal violence, gore and swearing of more modern action films. But the tone is still not quite sure where it wants to land, sometimes playing violence for laughs, sometimes for drama. It’s a fun ride with a switched off brain, it would have been better if they’d not put any of the more serious stuff in at all. 7 / 10

The King’s Man
The Kingsman films (to which this is a prequel) have a real problem with not knowing quite where they sit on the cheese->drama scale, some elements are played for dramatic tragedy while others for comic caricature. That becomes even more problematic when they start taking on historical events and real people, it makes everything a bit uncomfortable. It’s a shame, because all the components of the film are pretty solid, the comic characters funny, the satirical ones interesting, the dramatic ones emotive and the action sequences well choreographed and creative. But if you try to review it all as a whole, it just doesn’t bond together. 7 / 10
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
There’s some good stuff in there – Eddie Redmayne is utterly charming, as are Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol as Kowalski and Queenie. The style of 1920’s New York is a great setting for the Harry Potter universe and the magical idea of the suitcase is beautifully elegant too. But I thought the rest of it was a little mediocre. The story was a bit of a mess, setting things up a little like a quest (find all the beasts) but then swerving about to a completely disconnected story and trying to tie into a much wider political context without bothering to really explain it. Worst though I thought the beasts were rather under-used, they were actually very tangential to the stories and the interactions felt gimmicky rather than integral.
It was still an enjoyable film, with some nice scenes and a sense of wonder to it, but where I wanted vibrant and full of fantastic beasts, I found we got dark, bleak and full of horrible humans. 7 / 10

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Underwhelming. There was nothing about this film that really sang to me. Starting from the already fairly low point of the first film, it felt like there was just less of everything – less colour, less fantastic beasts, less charm, and just less wonder. It fell into the modern pit of over colourising everything, and thinking that making things grey makes them dramatic. It doesn’t, it just makes them confusing to look at and unengaging. It felt very artificial and CGI, everything moving fast in a hope that the eye won’t see the lack of detail. The actors mostly did their best to add some depth and charm, but they were fighting a lumpy script and underwhelming visuals. And it’s got a stupid name. 5 / 10

Books in Feb 2022

I hit my page count target, although to be honest that was only because the last Sunday of the month was a beautiful sunny day and I spent almost the whole day sitting in my garden reading, looking at the daffodils, eating a packet of biscuits and drinking tea. All while wearing multiple jumpers and a warm hat because it may have been sunny bit it was still February. I also had to break out the Terry Pratchett’s because after a run of underwhelming fiction, I just needed the reliability and escapism of the Discworld Guards.

Tim Harford – The Next Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy
Another interesting and entertaining education from Tim Harford on some things that have fundamentally contributed to the way the world works today. They’re not necessarily things you would think of as important, or that you’ve ever heard of, but they’ve either driven important transformations, or they keep the world (and its money) moving. The structure makes the book very readable, each item is only a few pages and entirely standalone. Unfortunately that does mean that some of the entries are a little confusing, or leave you wanting more.

Amanda Craig – The Golden Rule
I did enjoy reading the book as a light thriller, but I think there were opportunities missed to have more meaningful discussion of some of the central issues. The main character, Hannah, is in an awful situation, a spiral that she can see no way out of. But the book doesn’t probe too deeply on the responsibilities of how she got there. Her ex-husband is no doubt an awful person, but it’s quickly shown in flashbacks that he’s pretty much always been awful and she kept choosing him over the advice of her friends and family. The end of the book also suggests some interesting contributing factors, but despite the book dragging out the ending an unnecessary 50 pages, it doesn’t explore this angle. Throughout, I found characters making sweeping statements about “men are x”, “women are y” and it never felt like it got a richer conversation about “men and women are people, and people are x and y”. Is it good writing about irritating but realistic characters, or is it mediocre writing creating limited characters? I’m not sure.

Dean Burnett – The Idiot Brain
This title really jumped out to me, and hilariously my brother and I both got it for the other for Christmas, and I wasn’t disappointed in either my giving or receiving of the gift. It’s more focused on neuroscience and biology of the brain than it is about the psychology of how we think, but the overlap of the two are fascinating – is it biology driving behaviour or the other way around? It’s a good read, well written in manageable chunks, with a very readable style, and plenty of clever metaphors and clear descriptions. However there were lots of bits that made me glaze over a bit, as soon as the descriptions of the anatomy and names of things started being listed, I just couldn’t keep them in my head. But there are still plenty of things that have stuck and I feel like I better understand things even if I can’t remember the specific name of the bit of the brain responsible for that.

Terry Pratchett – Discworld 15: Men at Arms
The Watch were always my favourite of the discworld ‘series’, and while I’ve re-read Guards! Guards! a couple of times (and listened to the excellent BBC Radio play many times) I’ve not gone further into the series for probably 20 years. Men at Arms is where the Watch really starts to grow and Pratchett’s writing and eye for observation and satire has really come into its own. There are dozens of absolute standout lines and paragraphs that other authors can only dream of writing a couple of times in their careers. If anything the satire and spoof elements have only got stronger since this book was written in 1993, TV and films really haven’t moved on that much from these tropes. The plot is clever, the characters vibrant and the writing second to none.

Terry Pratchett – Discworld 19: Feet of Clay
Another excellent Guards book. The characters and the city of Ankh Morpork are all settling into their familiar forms, the satire is firing on all cylinders and the one liners are laugh out loud funny. There’s a heart at the centre of Pratchett’s discworld novels that’s on fine display here, behind the dead pan humour, there’s actually a joy and that’s on fine display here, when Vimes gets angry about something, or when Carrot starts saying ‘stupid’ things they get to some fundamental truths that just make me want to applaud.

Death on the Nile

[For big new releases, I’m going to start posting reviews as soon as I see them, rather than waiting for the end of the month round up.]

I described Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express as like curling up with a good book, beautiful to look at, great actors and a surprising amount of humour. Unfortunately I cannot say any of the same about Death on the Nile.

I spent a good chunk of the film wondering if it was supposed to be a spoof, but I’m afraid I think it was just a bit poor – hammy acting, suspect accents, very little chemistry, a script lacking in any subtlety and although there were many beautiful;y designed and shot scenes, there was also some utterly terrible blue screening (particularly the early scenes on the pyramids) which really let it down.

The plot is solid, thanks to Agatha Christie, and any jiggling about of characters has been well managed. I knew the explanation from the outset and that didn’t spoil anything, but did highlight a couple of, not holes as such, but stretches of credulity. I do feel that the backstory for Poirot is completely unnecessary and there’s not really enough of it to really make a difference, so why bother (in fact that would have cut 10 mins from the bloated run time). Although Kenneth Branagh’s performance is easily the best thing in the film (costumes being the runner up) and he at least manages to get the right level of self awareness, ridiculousness and credibility.

There’s an interesting article on the New York Post about how this film is a publicists nightmare. It was greenlit in 2017, started filming in 2019, cost $160m, had multiple moves of release dates and since all then half the cast find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. So there’s been very little publicity for it, which doesn’t explain the poor quality, but maybe some of the final edit polish was lost too?

It’s not a terrible film, but it seems to think more itself than it should. It’s cheesy without the fun, like a melodramatic TV soap opera with a blockbuster budget. It’s cheesy but not enough fun, and trying to fake a depth it doesn’t deliver. It’s not a wasted cinema trip because it looks pretty on the big screen at least, but I would definitely recommend seeking out the 1978 version with a stunning cast including Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, David Niven, Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, and Maggie Smith.

Films in January 2022

January means lots of new films in the build up to awards seasons, both at the cinema and increasingly releasing on streaming services too. Unfortunately thus far I’ve been rather underwhelmed with the options. In fact the best film I saw at the cinema was easily the animated sequel featuring singing animals.

Sing 2 (Cinema)
I described Sing as a “thoroughly feel good bit of entertainment” and Sing 2 delivers more of the same. It’s a straightforward but solid plot, most of the original characters return (although happily not the horrible mouse) and there are some fun new ones too, and despite the crowded ensemble, everyone gets their own little story. The only negatives are almost inevitable in a sequel, it didn’t quite have the sense of wonder that the first did, the new setting wasn’t quite well enough developed to really play with the idea of completely random animals all living and working together. So I think it could have pushed things a bit more creatively, but what is there is a lot of fun. Ranking: 8 / 10

Belfast (Cinema)
It’s hard going to see films that have already got a lot of hype and buzz about awards, you go in looking for certain things, and even if you do find them, some of the magic is lost. Belfast is a solid film, an interesting story and point of view, interesting characters and very well written. But because it’s being so lauded, I dwell more on the problems. Firstly, there was no clear explanation of the politics in Belfast at the time. I shouldn’t be ignorant, but I doubt I’m the only one and it meant that I really didn’t understand where the violence and terror was coming from, it just felt quite random. I know the film is kind of told from the point of view of the child, and he wouldn’t get it either, but it didn’t make for a very satisfying experience. The other problem I had was the black and white. It just didn’t feel like it added to the film at all and the way that scenes on cinema screens were in colour made no sense to me. It’s a good film, but it felt like it was trying too hard to be too many things and didn’t quite deliver any of them as well as it could. Ranking: 7 / 10

Nightmare Alley (Cinema)
A film of three parts. The first third was really interesting, beautifully shot and creatively filmed it shows a newcomer arrive at a 1930’s freak show/carnival with a lot of emotional baggage and very little actual baggage. It’s atmospheric, the characters are larger than life and everyone has history, secrets,tricks and personal codes. I really loved it and was settling in. Then there’s a time jump and the next third is a much more traditional noir, with scam artists and multiple levels of deceipt. It was unoriginal, cliche, lacking in any subtlety and even the visual style was nothing that hasn’t been done before. I was really disappointed. The worst thing thought is that there’s a third of the film that I have no idea where it was. There was a two hour film stretched out to a two and a half hour runtime completely unnecessarily making me fidgety and frustrated as everything dragged on. So 1/3 great, 1/3 cliche and 1/3 completely unnecessary. Not a very good ratio and I expected a lot more from Guillermo del Toro. Ranking: 6 / 10

The Tender Bar (Amazon Prime)
This was exactly the film I wanted to watch, a really gentle film with engaging characters and a sweet storyline that held my attention but didn’t really challenge anything. That’s not going to win awards or get much attention, there’s a good chance I will completely forget it inside of a few months, but it was just what I needed on a random Thursday afternoon after a long day at work, and a miserable series of news cycles. Ranking: 8 / 10

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (Cinema)
I felt slightly misled and by the trailer for this film and was therefore disappointed by the film. The trailer is quirky and bright and colourful, eccentric characters, a sweet romance, and a lot of cats. That’s what you get for the first 1/3 or so of the film, and I loved it. Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy are lovely together, the film is vibrant and funny. But then there’s an ‘unfortunate event’ and the rest of the film is really quite sad and despondent. Key relationships are broken, the quirkiness slowly fades away and becomes tainted with reality. I wanted that film about eccentric characters, sweet romance and a lot of cats. There were not enough cats. Ranking: 6 / 10

Licorice Pizza (Cinema)
I did not like this film, although explaining why isn’t easy. It suffers from overlong and under plotted, an awful lot of noodling about; that can work if the characters are interesting, but I never quite got on board with them. I was constantly confused by how old everyone was and how much time was passing between scenes, and unsettled throughout by questions around the age differences and appropriateness of relationships. The acting was good, and there were some fun sequences, but overall I was left a bit bored, a bit confused and a bit creeped out. Ranking: 6 / 10

The Lost Daughter (Netflix)
It took me 4 attempts to finish this film. I have no idea why I actually persisted, eventually finishing it while doing the dusting. There were two factors combining to make me stop each time, the first was that it made me incredibly anxious watching it – the characters are incredibly unpredictable, reacting and acting in ways that did not make sense to me and seemingly without thinking through the impacts and all I wanted to do was get away from them all. That in itself isn’t bad film making, it could be very good film making in fact, but I didn’t quite feel that it was necessarily well done. Some of it just felt too ‘written’, not the way that people would really behave. The section in the past felt a bit more solid, but it was also shot with an annoying fuzzy filter effect that made me annoyed. The whole thing just made me feel uncomfortable and ultimately unsatisfied. Ranking: 5 / 10

Don’t Look Up (Netflix)
Satire is tricky. Particularly at the moment when the real world is pretty ridiculous all by itself. If you make the situations and characters too extreme then it’s just silly, if you don’t make them extreme enough, it just feels like a drama. I don’t think this one quite got the pitch right, pushing it to be too silly. The biggest problem for me was that the ‘bad guys’ didn’t seem to make any sense. I didn’t understand what their plans were, and so I couldn’t buy into it. I like the ‘straight’ characters, particularly Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. But I didn’t find the film funny enough or satirical enough to really completely enjoy it. Ranking: 6 / 10

The Father (Amazon)
I was expecting this film to be an acting masterclass, and it really was; what I wasn’t expecting was the amazingly complex storytelling and layering. I was expecting a ‘simple’ drama about a man succumbing to age – losing his memories and connections. But I didn’t expect that it would be told so completely from his point of view, timelines jumping about, people appearing differently, things changing quietly in the background without flashy side effects or drama. There are loads of thrillers playing with these ideas, victims being gaslit by manipulative ‘bad guys’, but this is just a brain betraying itself. Anthony Hopkins is astonishing (and fully deserving his Oscar) as the only ‘consistent’ character as everyone else is played from his point of view, Olivia Coleman (and Olivia Williams) play the variations of their characters flawlessly. Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell have more one-note performances, but even those make complete sense as they are only bit-parts in the brain of Hopkins’ character. It’s very clever, very powerful and incredibly impressive. Ranking: 9 / 10

Doctor Sleep (Amazon)
I put this on expecting to be a bit underwhelmed and to inevitably get distracted by my phone at some point. I was wrong. I was completely gripped for 2 and half hours. It builds on the ideas of The Shining and satisfyingly shows what those kind of experiences and powers would have on someone. Ewan McGregor is as watchable as ever, and Kyliegh Curran manages to make a potentially irritating child character really engaging. It *is* too long and the ‘bad guys’ are a little under-developed, but it was a really entertaining watch. Ranking: 8 / 10

Dora and the Lost City of Gold (Netflix)
I’d been recommended this film despite being neither a 5 year old, nor the parent of one, and the first 5 minutes had me wondering for the sanity of the person who recommended it. It’s like a cheap cartoon in live action form, including people talking to the camera and a singing backpack. But then… the genius starts. When Dora talks to the camera in front of her parents, they look confused at each other and then say “she’ll grow out of it”. Dora is exactly like she is in the cartoon (I assume) but the whole rest of the world is normal, and thinks she’s nuts. And it works. It’s still a kids film, so inevitably some of Dora’s reality comes through, with lost cities of gold, mercenaries, quicksand, over the top puzzles and an extremely helpful monkey, but the writers and actors somehow make it work. It sounds bonkers, but I really enjoyed it. Ranking: 8 / 10

Judy (TV)
I didn’t know much about Judy Garland, and this film does a very clever job of telling a whole life (albeit a tragically short one) in just a 2 hour runtime. With just a few flashbacks to Judy as a teenager, and watching her in her final years, I understood who she was, how she got there, and who everyone around her thought she was. Renee Zellweger is absolutely phenomenal, playing so many levels of a woman constantly performing for everyone around her. Zellweger doesn’t just perform the songs, but she performs the woman performing the songs and it is a truly incredibly performance. Some of the rest of the film is a bit cheesy and lacking in subtlety, but maybe that’s just what lets Zellweger shine even more. Ranking: 8 / 10

Dolittle (Netflix)
I loved the original Dr Doolittle as a child, but when I re-watched it a few years ago found that although the bits I remembered were still brilliant there was a LOT of rubbish surrounding them. So I wasn’t precious about a new version, and thought Robert Downey Jr could bring some interesting energy to it. The energy was fine, but the ‘interesting accent’ unfortunately undermined the whole thing. In fact almost all the voices didn’t work for me, I could never settle into the film and spent the whole time just feeling that it was wrong. I think the plot and the animation etc was probably actually solid, but it was lost under my brain screaming “this sounds wrong!”. A real waste. Ranking: 6 / 10

Passing (Netflix)
Set in 1920’s New York, two light-skinned black childhood friends bump into each other, one is a fairly well-to-do Doctor’s wife with two children and involved in the “Negro League”, the other is ‘passing’ as white and married to a racist man who has no idea his wife is not white. Reviewing this film just 3 days after watching it, I find myself weirdly blank on it. I feel like I should have more feelings about it, but I’m just trying to think of something to say, rather than really having any emotional response. It’s well acted and has some really interesting aspects, but it didn’t sit quite right. The black and white felt very forced and unnatural, and the characters did not always make sense to me, which all made it quite hard to connect to. Ranking: 5 / 10

Sing (Amazon Prime)
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. Ranking: 8 / 10

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Disney+)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand with new heroes, new(ish) villains, new magic and new worlds. There’s a lot thrown into this film and it can make it feel a bit overwhelming with exposition and flashbacks, however it just about all ties together and delivers an entertaining whole in the end. The studio is (finally?) embracing diversity and it’s making everything so much bigger and brighter. Ranking: 7 / 10

Encanto (Disney+)
There’s plenty to love about this film. The whole thing is bright and beautiful, vivid characters, a plot that charges along, full of energy and spark and with some lovely sentiment in it. On my first watch in the cinema, it did not work for me. There was just too much in it, too many characters, too much colour, too much backstory, too many sentiments and even too many words in the songs. It was hard to connect with the film and I felt overwhelmed rather than immersed. However, I gave it another chance at home and liked it a bit more. I suspect if I watched it a 3rd time I might like it even more. Nothing’s changed, it’s just that each viewing makes it less overwhelming and I was able to really fall in love with the characters (all of them) and the songs (most of them – I still think the opening song is just too much). Disney films shouldn’t need multiple viewings though. Ranking: 7 / 10

Books in January 2022

I’ve set myself a ‘read 40 pages a day’ target for the year, and I did an ok job in January, I hit the target 22 days and made up the difference so I averaged it out which I’m happy with. There are only three books though because I’m working through a couple of thicker books that will be finished next month. Something to look forward to, because unfortunately the three I did finish were a bit underwhelming.

Tom Allen – No Shame
I like Tom Allen, in small doses, I don’t think I’d want to see an entire show with him, but I enjoy him on panel shows and presenting Bake Off spin offs. I also prefer him when he’s being a bit more natural; when he’s performing the role of Tom Allen for too long it just gets a bit much. It seems from his autobiography that he’s been ‘a bit much’ since he was very small, and that means his book is best read in relatively short sections as well, much more than about 30 pages at a time and I started feeling like he was performing a role again, rather than being himself. I felt a bit like the whole thing was an edited performance (particularly because there were jumps in the story and gaps in the narrative). There are some lovely turns of phrase in it, nice observations of the times and places, and if you like Tom Allen, then you’ll like this; it’s just it would have been nice if there was a bit more depth to it.

Laura Purcell – The Shape of Darkness
I’m not sure whether Purcell’s books are getting worse, or whether it’s just that my enthusiasm for gothic horror is drying up, but I was not particularly engaged with the Shape of Darkness. The twists and turns were either completely predictable and took forever to be ‘revealed’ or came completely out of nowhere and just didn’t make any sense. Characters were inconsistent and everything felt very drawn out. It was ok, but it went straight on my pile of books to donate to the charity shop, and I don’t think I’ll bother with Purcell’s next work.

Jenni Fagan – Luckenbooth
This book has a very clever structure that I really liked. It’s almost a collection of short stories, tied together by the protagonists living in the same tenement building in Edinburgh through the decades. Each section tells three stories in sequential decades, three chapters each, interweaved. So it goes A-B-C-A-B-C-A-B-C-D-E-F-D-E-F etc. That’s really pleasing. The stories and characters are fairly diverse and tell you a bit about the period. Unfortunately for all that good stuff the book borders on unreadable at times because of the writing style which fully embeds you in the characters’ heads. It’s a stream of consciousness where it’s a struggle to pull out details and narrative. Most of the stories are just snapshots, and while some connect together to fill in dots, most of the stories are unfinished. A brilliant idea, done incredibly badly.

Books I Read in 2021

I read 42 books this year, which is pretty consistent with most years but down on last year’s nice round number of 50 and another chunk down on my record round number of 60. Now that I (apparently) work from home full time I don’t get the enforced dedicated reading time each day on the underground, which I really miss, it was the definite silver lining of the commute. Most of the year I have to remind myself to read regularly rather than just slumping in front of the TV. The page count was just shy of 14,500 an average of 39.7 per day which is frustratingly short of the target of 40, and a good chunk down on last year’s average of 50.2.

42 is a good number in total so I’m happy with that, but the range of books was a bit lacking. With the exception of a couple of Agatha Christies, I only tried one classic and absolutely hated it (Lady Chatterley’s Lover is mindnumbingly boring and has not aged well). 10 of the books were published this year (24%) and another 15 (36%) were from last year.

Subject wise, like my film watching I was steering clear of anything too deep and challenging for the most part, sticking with pretty easy going safe reads for comfort escapism, and entertainment. I’m clearly not alone given the immense success of like Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice. Most of my reads fell into the vague genres of crime, fantasy/SF and a weirdly specific string of gothic horrors. Even the fantasy/SF was on the fantasy end, with hardly a space ship or alien to be seen.

The 42 books were spread between 35 authors, although 4 of them were in pairs. 47% female is slightly below equal, and 52% were British, 21% American and even those that weren’t British or American were 2 Australians and 2 Irish, so it’s not exactly a very broad parish. But 19 of the authors were new to me so there’s at least that.

My favourite author of the year was T. Kingfisher, helped enormously by being quite prolific with 2 books published this year and 3 last year giving me 4 new books this year, and two re-reads. Paladin’s Strength started the year and then Paladin’s Hope towards the end and both were as lovely as the first book. In fact I enjoyed Hope so much that I went back and read the previous two novels again, meaning I read Paladin’s Strength twice in one year! I also read both of Kingfisher’s horror novels The Twisted Ones and The Hollow Places which had all of her strong characters and easy writing style, but I didn’t enjoy the plots as much as her fantasy work.

FICTION – 34 (81%)
The most impressive book I read this year was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s one of those generic drama/life books that sounds small when described (so I won’t) but is a beautiful story of people’s lives. It’s also a great advert for the power of bookshops. I was wandering around Waterstones looking for another buy-one-get-one-half-price and a bookseller enthusiastically recommended this to me.

Highly recommended:

  • As called out above, T. Kingfisher’s Paladins of Steel series is an absolute warm hug of a series, it has plenty of emotional and narrative heft to it, but it is also overwhelmingly lovely.
  • Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate is another great story from her, building from the first novel loses some of the original novelty of the concept, but it still continues to grow and surprise and has THE MOST annoying last sentence in history. It’s also incidentally the top book published in 2021 that I read and I had it pre-ordered and read on the weekend it released.

  • Circe by Madeline Miller – there’s a brilliant sub-genre of feminist classical history developing and I LOVE it, this is fiction but is no less important than the non-fiction which put a different slant on the classical stories told by men (and pairs nicely with Pandora’s Jar above). The history isn’t changed, but the inflection is and it’s fascinating and hugley engaging.
  • High Fire by Eoin Colfer – my only dragon book of the year, and this is like no dragon you’ve ever met before. It’s creative, hilarious and surprisingly sweet. Ignore the terrible cover which put me off for a very long time and give it a chance. You’ve really never met a dragon like this.
  • NON-FICTION – 8 (19%)
    Eight is exactly the same number of non-fiction as I read last year, but the reduced overall total means that makes up a higher percentage. There’s also a good range of subjects! 3 history, 3 science/maths, 1 self improvement book, and 1 by Claudia Winkleman. What more could anyone want. If I were forced to pick one, I’d probably say Atomic Habits by James Clear was the best as it was both informative about how people think and full of useful things that I’ve actually put into practice this year. What If? by xkcd’s Randall Munroe and Ask a Historian by Greg Jenner were both wonderfully entertaining while also covering loads of different subjects. Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes was fascinating in how it looked at how Greek myths about women have been retold over the centuries, and what that tells us about historians and artists through time.

    Humble Pi by Matt Parker, The Planets by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen and Underground, Overground by Andrew Martin all had a lot of interesting stuff in them but suffered slightly because of the writing style and the lack of diagrams, pictures and maps. Quite by Claudia Winkleman was just a hugely entertaining insight into the brain of someone lovely.

    Books in Oct-Dec 2021

    Oops, it looks like I failed to post about the books I read in either October OR November so now have a bumper crop for the end of the year.

    Naomi Novik – The Last Graduate
    Another brilliant novel from Naomi Novik. The second entry in the series has maybe lost a little bit of its originality now that the hero is more welcomed into the class, it has a risk this just turns into a ‘normal’ story of teenagers in a school trying to kill them with monsters. But Novik manages to keep the originality going organically as the rules of the game shuffle about in response to what happened in the previous book. There’s so much spark, life and colour here the book is an utter delight right up until the final sentence which is a massive cliffhanger. 

    Alex Pavesi – Eight Detectives
    I was attracted to this book by the idea of a mathematical model for murder mysteries, and that element of the book is quite innovative and interestingly told. The book is structured with an overarching story and then eight short stories within it, and each of the shorts demonstrates an element of the model and are varied and engaging. The overarching one is a bit less well done, the mystery a little bit forced and clunky and I was not a fan of the resolution of that one; [vague spoiler] it undermined some of the previous mysteries, basically indicating how fickle the conclusions of murder mysteries can be and how easy it is to have a different ‘solution’. It was an engaging and different read, but ultimately a little irritating.

    Andrew Martin – Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube
    This is a quite dense history of the London Underground from the very earliest beginnings to the fairly recent (it was published 2013, just as Crossrail was starting). The evolution of the tube is extremely complicated, driven by geography, sociology, engineering innovations and an incredibly complex series of businesses and entrepreneurs. What is now one massive network grew out of a multitude of different businesses and lines with constantly shifting (and overlapping) names. The book often fails to deliver that in a clear, or even engaging way, some sections slightly degenerated into a list of place names. More pictures, maps and charts would have really helped, the fact that it’s a book about the tube and doesn’t have a single copy of the tube map in it is a real problem. However, other bits of it are really interesting and well done, when the author’s voice and geeky joy shine through then it’s a really good read that makes it clear just how incredible the tube is.

    Greg Jenner – Ask a Historian
    Greg Jenner asked people what questions they’d always wanted to ask of historians and got back a massively eclectic collection of questions which provides a book that covers different time periods, different geographies (although he acknowledges a discrimination towards his areas of knowledge on western history) and all sorts of topics. Whether discussing how historians agree on defining historical periods (spoiler alert – they don’t), championing the reversal of previously biased histories or just talking about poop in medieval times the entries are all vibrant, educational and hugely fun. I learnt a lot and I laughed a lot.

    Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 11: What Abigail Did That Summer
    Unusually for me I didn’t pick up this Rivers of London book as soon as it was published, partly because it was only a novella, and partly because it didn’t feature Peter Grant at all, just Abigail, his precocious young cousin. I shouldn’t have been sniffy though because it was a really great read. At 175 pages it’s a pretty chunky novella and certainly tells a complete story, with a range of characters and ideas. Being inside Abigail’s head for the story is also surprisingly fun, Aaronovich gives her all the spark and realness that he manages for Peter, but also the sense of a black teenager from a London estate. Add on to that some adorable talking foxes and it was a really fun read. 

    T Kingfisher – Paladin’s Hope
    I adore this series. So much so that after I finished this book I went back and re-read the first two in the series. Hope, like the previous books is a romance dressed up as a fantasy horror. The romance (like previous pairings) is so beautifully, carefully, genuinely and honestly told that it’s just a complete joy to follow along. There’s so much going on, elegantly blended together – it’s a world of magic and gods, noble paladins called by gods, driven by duty… who also really fancy people and want to have sex. The mixture is immersive, often hilarious and completely gripping. This series (and all of T. Kingfisher’s works) are ones that I wait for eagerly and literally clear my diary for release day so that I can jump straight on them. They make me extremely happy. 

    It was so good, I went back and re-read Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength again and both are still just warm hugs of novels. Reading them all together also shows just how carefully Kingfisher has created her characters, the Paladins all have completely different personalities and responses to the trauma they have faced, but they still form a coherent group and I can’t wait to hear the rest of their stories.

    Gareth Nix – The Left Handed Booksellers of London
    I loved the idea of a secret (ish) band of booksellers standing against various mythological/supernatural beings, but found the reality of the book a bit of a slog. There’s a fine line between “rich worldbuilding” and completely overloading a book with masses of explanations and mechanics, and this fell into the latter with an over long list of different types of creatures and explanations for where they come from, what they do and how to fight them. Then there’s all the mechanics of the booksellers, and how they interact with the normal world. And THEN there’s the fact that all the characters also have uniquenesses and quirks that need to be followed. Oh and it’s set in the 80’s so there are some period elements to keep track of too. It’s all just too much and too muddled, and there’s no subtlety to any of it, it’s all what you see is what you get, it just that you’re seeing a LOT. I struggled to extract and/or care about the main thread of the story.

    Films I saw in 2021

    In 2020 I watched 211 films, beating my previous record, and I suspect that may stand for
    a long time. This year I watched a far smaller, but still respectable 134 films.

    I did often find myself hunting around for something to watch and being a bit underwhelmed. A few times I fancied a trip to the cinema but couldn’t find anything I wanted to see and in the end only saw 11 films in the cinema, which is one less than even 2020 and about half what I used to do in ‘normal times’. Cinemas being closed at the start of the year made a big difference as I usually make a push to see Oscar films, then blockbusters were delayed further. Things are looking up for 2022 though and I’ve already seen two films in the cinema.

    Despite that though, I still saw 46 films released in 2021, which is up from the 33 in 2020 and almost exactly the same as in 2019 which I’m quite pleased with. so obviously most of those were on streaming services. Even as a big cinema fan, I still found myself just going for the easy option of waiting a couple of weeks for the streaming releases. There were a further 48 films that were new to me from previous years, meaning 70% of my watching for the year was new.

    I watched 82 films (62%) on subscription services, half of those were on Netflix (40), a third on Amazon (28) and a sixth on Disney+ (13). Netflix is the clear top of the pile for value and quality with a great range of genres (and a lot of TV shows too), Disney isn’t amazing value for me, but the Marvel and Star Wars TV series make it worth it. Amazon is probably the one that I’d give up, except of course for the other shop elements. I also made good use of my dvd collection to watch 27 films (20% of the total) and watched 12 (9%) on the TV just to prove that old media isn’t dead to everyone.

    Only 13% of the films were from pre-2000 and only 2 films were pre 1980, which is pretty poor to be honest. Also pretty poor is that I only watched four films not in the English language. Other than that I had a pretty good range of genres with a roughly even split of comedy, sf/f, drama, and action.

    2021 Releases
    I don’t think 2021 will go down as a banner year for film, which is hardly surprising. The average rating for 2021 releases was 6.7, and 7.0 in 2019, so there’s a definite step down. and it’s also down against the average across the whole collection which was 6.9. Thinking back over the year I struggled to remember any particular highlights, and big names like Bond, or Oscar winner Nomadland (released in the UK in 2021) didn’t really connected with me. There are 3 films however that while they may not have stuck with me long term, did get 9/10.

    • Sound of Metal – rich characters and a well paced story with innovative film-making and use of sound. It’s not always a pleasant watch because of the sounds, but I felt part of the character’s experience in a way I really haven’t in many films.
    • tick, tick… BOOM! – the most musical of musicals ever and I loved it. Everything about it worked, there wasn’t a dud song, performance or story thread in the whole thing and I was deeply moved and completely entertained.
    • Palm Springs – I am as surprised as anyone to see a comedy film here, I went in with very low expectations of another go around of the groundhog day format, but this film evolved the idea and managed to deliver interesting philosophical thought, sweet romance and a good spread of laughs as well.

    Honorable mentions – 11 films got 8/10, Dune was easily my best cinema experience of the year with stunning visuals and sound. Stowaway is a really solid science fiction film that may have flown under the radar, taking a Twilight Zone style proposition and seeing how it plays out with some very good actors and solid visuals (albeit a slight craziness towards the end). Love and Monsters is similar to Palm Springs in that it takes the familiar movie tropes and gently evolves them into a knowing blend of SF and romcom. If you want to watch a funny, sweet, heartbreaking, and riotous film about middle aged men getting blind drunk, then Druk (Another Round) is definitely for you. If you’re looking for some mindless fun, Cruella and Jungle Cruise are both a good laugh, Woman in the Window is an excellent variation on a theme of Vertigo, and if everything’s a bit much, The Dig is the gentlest film that you can imagine.

    Dishonourable mentions – The Green Knight is one of the most boring films I’ve ever seen and Army of the Dead was not only bad, but it was LONG and bad. Raya and the Last Dragon was a rare miss-step for Disney lacking in charm and coherence. On paper the new version of Cinderella was great, but the reality was mediocre acting, zero chemistry, cheap production and a poor selection of songs. Moxie took the massively complicated area of discrimination, assault, ritualized harassment and horror that exists in schools and oversimplified them to such an extent I wanted to scream. And I’m sorry, but No Time to Die was boring and indulgent; I did like the developed roles for women, but they were still incidental and I didn’t think the stunts or action sequences made up for the lackluster villain, confused plot and way too long runtime.

    Genres (including 2021 films and older ones)
    Documentaries – I watched eight documentaries and four of them were absolutely brilliant. Crip Camp, Rising Phoenix, Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary and My Octopus Teacher (this year’s Oscar winner). All treated their subjects with respect, curiosity and open mindedness, whether that was (respectively) a 1970’s camp for disable children that changed civil rights, the Paralympics, a science fiction film and its fans, or an octopus. Each of these educated, moved and inspired me. Other documentaries miss-fired despite being interesting and well made films, becoming problematic because of the lack of balance. The Schumacher documentary was very interesting until you realise just how many voices are missing and then it starts to feel more marketing than documentary, and the Bob Ross documentary was also one sided.

    Films not in the English Language – a truly embarrassing 4 films, which I’m going to try to improve in 2022. Druk (Another Round) is easily the best, and coincidentally the Oscar winner, but Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is also worthy of note as it’s the type of noodling, slow film that would usually bore me, but this one didn’t for some undefinable reason. Minari, which probably would have won the Oscar if it hadn’t been nominated in the best film category rather than the foreign language category was a lovely idea which I found absolutely mind-numbingly boring.

    Science Fiction/Fantasy – I hate trying to decide what sits were, so with a fairly broad interpretation of the genre there are 33 films somewhere on the spectrum (mostly on the SF end). Dune is easily the outstanding film of the year here, an intense cinema experience with stunning cinematography and sound and a faithful retelling of the book. I went back to rewatch The Matrix trilogy in preparation for going to see the 4th installment and it’s impressive how good the first movie still is, but unfortunately 2 and 3 were so poor I was no longer inspired to go to the cinema for the 4th. I re-watched all the Jurassic Parks and it’s similarly interesting how they’re all over the spectrum too (1 and 5 great, 2 awful, 3 and 4 in the middle). I re-watched Avatar and for all the spoofs and baggage, it’s still a really amazing film.

    Horror – frankly I didn’t feel that I needed the additional stress and adrenaline from watching horror and that’s reflected in the truly pathetic 3 horrors I watched, 1 good, 1 middling and 1 awful. Somehow I’d never seen An American Werewolf in London and there was a lot more to it than I expected, Zombieland: Double Tap was fine, and Army of the Dead was truly terrible.

    Animations – I watched 15 animations this year (surprisingly low given how often I just wanted to watch something nice and easy. Almost all of them were re-watches of films that everyone already knows are excellent – Moana, Frozen, Inside Out, Shaun the Sheep, Lego Movie 2 and the less well known Klaus. I was a little underwhelmed by most of the new releases, Luca and Encanto from Pixar/Disney were fine but didn’t stand out (although I should say I watched Encanto again last week and liked it a lot more), Ron’s Gone Wrong was very sweet though and some of the messages there are sticking with me, more so than the very similar but poorly done Mitchells vs the Machines.

    Musicals – 10 musicals (many of which are also animations of course) and the outstanding was tick, tick… Boom! as mentioned above, the most musical of musicals and truly brilliant. Also worth highlighting is In the Heights which was a joyous experience, particularly in the summer in a cinema with a good crowd for the first time in ages. I want to mention The Muppets, because not only is it a lovely film, but the songs are incredibly clever, as are the ones in Mary Poppins Returns, both cleverly developing from the previous films. I re-watched La La Land to see if I’d been unfair, and I hadn’t, it’s still annoying.

    Comedy – 30 comedy films this year with varying levels of actual comedy. It’s very rare that a comedy film will get a high rating from me because it’s funny, it’s usually the other bits that are blended well with the comedy that would make it score highly for me. So Palm Springs does something new and interesting with the timeloop idea, and Instant Family shows both the hilarity and heartache of adoption and family life. Done wrong though and you just end up with something that has insufficient laughs and not enough else going for it (The French Dispatch, The Darjeeling Limited) or is occasionally outright problematic (Sixteen Candles, The Devil Wears Prada). Somehow finding a category of it’s own mind you is Jungle Cruise where the jokes are so terrible that when I laughed at them my cinema companion looked at me in absolute horror, but *I* enjoyed it.

    Action – 34 films, exactly 25%. The best action film I saw this year that was new to me was Hotel Artemis which has a huge amount of rich backstory lurking behind some edge of seat action sequences. There’s no superhero sub category this year because I didn’t watch many, but Black Widow was definitely one of the better ones with all the ingredients (action, laughs and heart) delivered brilliantly, the only thing that makes me sad is that this film wasn’t done 15 years ago and that [Endgame spoilers]. Aquaman is  the complete counterpoint to that, as if they were TRYING to make a terrible terrible film. Then there’s the weird combo of the awful Army of the Dead which is over stuffed, overlong and features utterly needless gratuitous female nudity, and the infinitely better prequel Army of Thieves which is slick and full of charm. I also watched the first 6 Fast and Furious which ranged from terrible to mediocre.

    Drama – that leaves 29 films in the ‘miscellaneous drama’ category, generally a pretty broad group from fairly mindless fluff to films bordering on traumatic experiences, but this year I mostly couldn’t face anything too hard core avoiding anything with words like ‘intense’ or ‘moving’ or ‘challenging’. So we’ve got things like a Saint Frances and Sylvie’s Love – gentler but no less meaningful looks into people’s lives, Encounter which hops around different genres to keep you guessing. There were a pair of Sorkin’s book-ending the year showing off his usual talents of big stories in small spaces – Being the Ricardos and The Trial of the Chicago 7 were both interesting and entertaining. I re-watched a couple of favourites – Greta Gerwig’s masterful Little Women, and the utterly uplifting The Blind Side.

    I watched some real turkeys though as well. Hillbilly Elegy was hilariously over-written and over-acted, it just didn’t mean to be, The Chaperone however just looked like no one was even trying to be any good. Page Eight somehow took Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz and made a film so boring and awful that I didn’t even finish it (something I NEVER do). And Ammonite made me furious because of it’s complete disrespect for the astonishing Mary Anning, even though the film itself was very well made.

    Films in December 2021

    December watching comes in 3 buckets – the first is the new releases, although I didn’t actually make it to the cinema at all sadly, so these are all newly released on Netflix/Amazon. The second bucket is me trying to collect up a few more releases from earlier in the year so that I can include them in my review of the year and the final big bucket are all the Christmas and family films that pretty much appear on my list every year. There are also a couple of bonuses this year, a rewatch of the Matrix trilogy and a film that I knew was going to make me very angry, and did. Merry Christmas!

    tick, tick…BOOM! – This is a VERY musical-theatrey musical. It’s a film of a musical about a musical theatre writer putting on a performance of a musical. Characters move in and out of songs without blinking, dance numbers break out spontaneously, and the music isn’t the pop style of many film musicals, but is mostly the type of song you only see in musical theatres. So long as none of that makes you want to run screaming, you will LOVE this film. Unlike some other film versions of stage musicals this never felt ‘stagey’, making you miss seeing it in a theatre. It is very cleverly done, the story is complex and is masterly interwoven across times, locations, and possibly even reality (was the theatre bit all in his head?). Andrew Garfield is STUNNING, he’s an absolute natural to musical theatre and his performance moves seamlessly in and out of songs and dances, never for one minute losing the emotions of the character. Jonathan Larson was a huge talent and a fascinating ‘character’ and this film honours him. 9 / 10

    The Power of the Dog – Some of the blurbs of this film describes Benedict Cumberbatch’s ranch owner as “charismatic” and even “brutally beguiling”, but I never had that kind of reaction to him at all, I just wanted to be as far away as possible from him, and that meant I didn’t want to watch the film. Having a hateful character is one thing, but it needs to be balanced with something else to make you want to watch the film, other characters, or even just a story, but there wasn’t anything in this film I wanted to see. The other characters were all poorly developed and fairly stereotype and although the film was beautifully shot it still wasn’t enough to hold my attention. Maybe because of that wandering attention I missed some nuance because it felt like there were a couple of big character shifts that had little motivation. It’s a good performance from the actors, and a pleasing change of type for Cumberbatch, but there wasn’t enough substance to the film. 6 / 10

    Being the Ricardos – Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are 50’s television royalty for Americans and while they don’t have the cultural relevance to me, I’m aware enough of them that a film about them would be of interest even without Aaron Sorkin being attached. Sorkin brings his trademark dense script, turn of phrase, and clever construction. The film is mostly set in a 5 day shooting schedule for an episode of I Love Lucy, but also has a few flashbacks and some ‘talking head’ style interviews with people in the future (they’re all actors, it’s not documentary). The structure allows a lot to be packed in and it really worked for me, filling in the big gaps in what I knew about Lucy and Desi. I’m not 100% sure on the casting, I always find Nicole Kidman a little ephemeral and delicate, and I’m not sure she quite had the power for Lucille Ball; she wasn’t bad at all, I’m just not sure that she was quite right. I was however completely gripped by the film for the whole runtime, fascinated by the characters, the story, the period setting, and the dialogue. 8 / 10

    Single All The Way – This film is rubbish. A proper rubbish Christmas romantic comedy. It’s got massively over the top performances from a variety of “oh it’s thingy from whatsit” tv actors with a predictable and stodgy plot and chemistry in the wrong places. But the actors all know exactly what they’re doing and it’s got just the right number of scattered moments of hilarity (including a reference to Clue that made me cheer) that I actually loved it and suspect it may become a bit of staple. 6 / 10

    Ammonite I was really looking forward to a film about the incredibly Mary Anning starring the incredible Kate Winslet. Then I saw the trailer and I was angry, and that anger remained as I watched the film. This is a beautiful story about two very complex women in the 1840’s, rough and smooth, each with their own challenges and how their relationship grows and changes them. It’s beautifully shot and stunningly acted by Winslet and the equally incredible Saoirse Ronan and is a lovely but very slow film. I’d probably give it 6/10.
    But this film is about Mary Anning, and that is NOT her story. The writer and director Francis Lee said “After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?”. That’s a very interesting point, but I’d respond that two wrongs do not make a right, straightening people is wrong, but so is, um, ‘bending’ them. Mary Anning is a rich and important figure in her own right, her real story is one that deserves to be told, and if there’s no evidence of any relationship at all, then that should be respected. Maybe the lack of relationship is important to her history, she does not need a man or a woman to make her important or interesting. No one does. Mary Anning revolutionised scientific thinking despite being a working class woman in a time that meant she had no opportunities for science. She was amazing and deserves to have her story told, to have her life celebrated. This film thought she was only worthy of that if they made up a love story for her. That’s appalling and means it gets a “I’m actually angry” rating of 2 / 10

    The Matrix Trilogy I watched the Matrix trilogy over a few days in preparation for seeing the new one in the cinema. The good news is that 20 plus years later the first film is still a stone cold classic. It still plays pretty well as a straight science fiction film, the storyline and effects hold up quite well; but it’s also interesting in a historical context – “at the turn of the millennium this is what science fiction was, what we were worried about and what we thought was cool”. Despite being referenced, evolved and parodied the film is still engrossing, fun and cool to watch. The bad news is that the second one falls off a cliff, and the third one hits the rocks with a splat. It’s a bit hard to pin down where the second film went wrong, because in many ways they’re the same as the first, but the bad version. The story was poorly told, big blocks of exposition delivered badly by actors who seemed bored. A lot of the cyber punk stuff that was effortlessly cool and sexy in the first film is now trying too hard and felt sleazy. The stunts and fx are still brilliant, and there are some great edge of your seat set pieces, but many of them went on too long and I got bored. And when it drifts into the philosophical, religious wibblings I completely zoned out.

    Army of Thieves – I gave Army of the Dead just 4 out of 10 and described it as “2.5 hours of banging and crashing, atrocious dialogue, dull characters, mediocre acting, predictable story and frankly, boredom”. It’s a good job I didn’t re-read that before I watched the prequel Army of Thieves, because I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it, which would have been a shame because it’s a much better film. It’s a more classic heist film, just breaking into some safes, none of the zombies and Las Vegas stuff, just a small band of crooks and a very dull safe cracker who gets caught up with them. Matthias Schweighofer is charming as the fish out of water, and somehow also manages to direct the film with a fair bit of flair and style. It’s not amazing, it’s derivative and full of holes, but it’s a solid way to pass the time compared to the much bigger Army of the Dead. 7 / 10

    Ron’s Gone Wrong – This is a cute animation. I happened to watch it on the same day as Mitchells vs Machines, and Ron’s Gone Wrong is a much better film about the perils and positives of technology. It’s a better film in general actually, all the components are good and they all build together nicely – story, characters, animation and voice acting. The message is sweet and not overly simplified – technology isn’t evil it’s what people do with it, either deliberately like the business villain, or accidentally like the kids who are bullying or self-obsessed. I really enjoyed watching the film, although it had the familiar problem of being about 20 minutes too long. 7 / 10

    Encounter – Riz Ahmed is a great actor and this film really showcases his talents because he’s playing a character where the audience doesn’t know what’s going on with him. The film manages to create uncertainty about what is really happening but does it quite elegantly without feeling hugely forced and deliberately misleading. He’s ably supported by two young actors and the three of them are really watchable and the ups and downs of the story really connected as well. There were a couple of clunky bits, but overall the film is a really good watch. 8 / 10

    Summer of Soul – There’s something sad and marvelous about the fact that despite taking place in the same year as Woodstock, attracting thousands of attendees, featuring top name artists AND being professionally filmed… no one has ever heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival. It’s sad because it’s completely to do with racism, but marvelous because it allows us to discover it now. The documentary covers not only the festival itself, but the context it was in culturally and musically. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it sometimes gets a bit muddled or passes too quickly over interesting bits, but it’s a fascinating starting point and an education with a great soundtrack. 7 / 10

    Dave Made a Maze Dave builds a cardboard maze in his living room, and gets lost in it, requiring his friends to come in and find him. And it gets weirder. This is billed as a comedy, but I don’t think that’s a particularly good label. It’s got some humour to it, no doubt, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a fantasy/sci-fi type thing, with actually a fair bit of psychological depth to it. I wasn’t laughing about the main character and his odd maze, I was thinking it was an interesting metaphor for depression. So not what it’s billed as, but interesting and some nice design too. 7 / 10

    The Mitchells vs the Machines – This is a loud, bright, high paced, chaotic animation and I just felt overwhelmed by it. I didn’t really get on with the story, the voice cast didn’t quite work for me and it was at least 1/2 hour too long with way too many ‘final’ battles and then more endings than Lord of the Rings. The animation style was interesting and original, I will give them that, but while it worked very well in the slower moments, it was too busy for the action sequences and contributed to the overload that made me disengage. 6 / 10

    Paddington – It’s a good old fashioned story right down to the Disney style loss of the parental figures very early on (I’ll admit, I welled up somewhat), and alternates fairly blockily between heartfelt moralising and silly action sequences. Each is done well, but a little more elegance merging the two would be good. The casting is superb throughout and the cgi bear is mostly pretty well done. I’m not entirely certain about the bluntness of the messages about immigration and providing warm welcomes, it was rather too pointed at times, but their heart was in the right place. 7 / 10

    Mary Poppins Returns – The original Mary Poppins film holds a special place in my heart, as it does for huge numbers of people, so it was with some nervousness I went into Returns. Quite early on I was relieved and relaxed into the film. It was exactly what a sequel to Mary Poppins should be, the same in theme and heart (and it had SO MUCH heart) but evolving the ideas and taking different approaches. It’s like they exactly copied the blurb from the back of the dvd case but delivered everything in their own way. Emily Blunt puts her own stamp on the character, Lin-Manuel Miranda is charming as Bert-Two (including the slightly dodgy accent) and Ben Whishaw plays the new Mr Banks beautifully. I won’t say it’s a perfect film, if you look at it objectively the original wasn’t either, but as a Mary Poppins sequel it was as good as could be hoped for. 9 / 10

    The Muppet Christmas Carol – 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’ve watched it dozens of times but I never fail to find something new. 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

    Love Actually – The proposal to follow (by my estimates) 8 different plots sounds doomed, but it works spectacularly well. The groups are all linked together some how and with all the big name actors it’s easy enough to follow “the plot with Mr Darcy in it” etc. It’s full of laughs, heart, and christmas and without the usual nauseated feeling following a romantic comedy. It’s a staple for Christmas and it brings me happiness. 8 / 10

    Klaus – The opening scenes didn’t grab me, introducing a spoiled and lazy heir to a postal service, whose father gives him one last chance and sends him to the far North as postman to an island occupied by two clans in perpetual conflict. Once we reach the island, the film really starts to shine. It’s clearly a fairy tale, but in the best tradition it has plenty of darkness running through it. The script has a perfect amount of bite to offset the soft centre, so it never becomes too sickly. It reminded me a lot of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s got a style all to itself. It was thoroughly entertaining to watch, beautiful to look at and a perfect addition to the regular Christmas catalog. 9 / 10

    Films in October and November 2021

    A really very pathetic selection of films in October, and frankly not a great deal more in November. But at least I’ve been getting back to the cinema so there are plenty of new releases at least.

    Dune (2021)
    I read the book years ago and really loved it, a proper classic sci fi novel although it occasionally drifted too far into the mystical for my tastes. Then I saw the original Dune film and was utterly underwhelmed, it had already aged very badly and seemed to focus on all the bits of the book that I didn’t like. But I was quite enthused with Denis Villeneuve taking it on, and decided to push the boat out and see it in imax. I wasn’t disappointed.
    The film is stunning to look at for a start, design work that builds from all that has gone before it, both Dune itself and every other science fiction series since. It’s definitely worth seeing on the biggest screen possible to get the scale of it. Also the soundscape is phenomenal and benefits from a massive sound system. But all that would be nothing without a decent story, characters and performances and it’s solid on that too. Frank Herbert’s world building supported an epic series of books and the film’s writers have carefully crafted something that demonstrates that richness without overloading with exposition or complexity. The acting is similarly well done, personalities, relationships and emotions shown not told.
    My only challenges to the film is that despite all that richness it sometimes felt a little flat and cold. Dream sequences are integral to the plot but can make it a bit hard to engage with emotionally – what’s real, what’s certain, what’s destiny that cannot be changed? There is a sense of wonder from the characters, and strong connections between them, and yet they lacked warmth and humour. Everyone felt like they were characters with specific roles in an epic story, rather than real people living their lives. So overall, wonderful to watch, intellectually engaging, but just a little cold to really care that much about.
    Ranking: 8 / 10

    There’s plenty to love about this film. The whole thing is bright and beautiful, vivid characters, a plot that charges along, full of energy and spark and with some lovely sentiment in it. But it didn’t work. I think the problem is that there’s just too much in it, too many characters, too much colour, too much backstory, too many sentiments and even too many words in the songs. It was hard to connect with the film and I felt overwhelmed rather than immersed. I think that last one was the one that made me saddest, the idea of new Lin Manuel Miranda songs makes me excited, and the reality was that they were hard to follow and also I think a little too grown up for the audience. In fact the showing that I went to one parent and child left after about 20 mins, and the other two families had frequent long bathroom visits, so it wasn’t gripping the kids either. I was disappointed, particularly because Mirabel, the hero of the film was such a lovely character that I felt she deserved better.
    6 / 10

    Ghostbusters: Afterlife
    I have fond memories of the original Ghostbusters, but also having re-watched it as an adult acknowledge that it was actually rather naff and shoddily put together in places. I thought that Afterlife actually plays perfectly to connect into that memory and nostalgia and I really enjoyed the experience of watching it in the cinema. I liked that it’s put children at the centre of the story, that feels more ‘right’ than the original’s weird mix of serious scientists and con men (was Bill Murray’s character for real?). I enjoyed the action sequences, I liked the call backs, I even laughed at the lame jokes, much to the horror of my brother. It’s not an amazing film, but if you’ve got a fondness for the original, then I think you’ll find this a lot of fun. 7 / 10

    The French Dispatch
    Wes Anderson films are incredibly obviously Wes Anderson films, between the visual style, the storytelling, the recurring cast members, the music… you can’t miss them. This is not only a VERY Wes Anderson film, but it’s actually 4 short Wes Anderson films lightly glued together. I’m not a huge Anderson film, so I knew going in that I may struggle, but I didn’t expect that about 2/3 of the way through I would be properly struggling to not fall asleep. I wasn’t even not enjoying the film, it was beautiful to look at, well directed and acted, original and charming, and yet I wanted to sleep (and so did my brother who I saw it with, so it wasn’t just me).
    I think the problem was the structure of multiple short stories, the 3rd story didn’t really spark my interest and because my brain knew it was only going to be short I think it decided to just take a bit of a nap. But the story actually went on for quite a long time and by then my brain didn’t really fancy waking up properly, even though the 4th story was more engaging. I think I’d actually have enjoyed the film a lot more split over 2 showings on tv in the evening, and throw myself into it more fully for shorter periods. 6 / 10

    The Harder They Fall
    I don’t like westerns. I keep trying to watch them but I just don’t get on with them. There’s something about the pacing, the strong silent type characters, the long lingering landscapes that just makes me disengage. The Harder They Fall is a different kind of Western, an almost entirely black cast for a start playing the types of people who absolutely existed at the time, but are written out of the history told by Hollywood westerns. The style is heading in the direction of Quentin Tarantino, with a bit more flash and less romanticism than traditional, and some better female characters at least. A lot of that worked for me, but the 2.20 runtime killed it, and I was (as usual) un-engaged and bored by the end. 6 / 10

    Red Notice
    Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot in a heist movie. I should have loved this. But I didn’t and I don’t know if it was the film, or if it were me. I can’t think of anything that was wrong with it, at least not for the type of film it is. If you’re expecting gritty realism then you’re definitely going to be disappointed, but that’s not what the film is trying to do, it’s supposed to be style over substance, the plot doesn’t need to hold up to scrutiny so long as it gets from one action sequence in a beautiful location to the next, and provides opportunity for wise cracking along the way. And it does that. So why was I bored? Maybe I was just completely in the wrong frame of mind. 6 / 10

    The Green Knight
    What on earth was that?! I watched it because of Dev Patel and it was only him that made me keep watching thinking there must be more to it than the apparent low budget, dreary looking, pontificating tedium that it started with. There wasn’t. I got all the way to the end and that was even MORE disappointing and incoherent. I genuinely have no idea what the film was talking about, why anybody made it, or why I continued to watch the whole thing. 4 / 10

    Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)
    This kind of slow burning, subtle film, particularly one with subtitles, would often have me struggling to focus and losing patience; however this one really held my attention and moved me. Maybe it was because although the focus was on the central relationship, there were a couple of other significant characters and relationships that added richness. As the central plot driver was that one character was painting a portrait of the other, the lingering visuals felt fully part of the film, rather than just indulgent or frustratingly slow. I also liked that it wasn’t really presented as a romance, but as a study of a relationship, neither the film nor the characters really lost sight of the reality of the period, which meant I felt a lot more immersed in the film, not getting distracted by a frustration of “that’s nice, but it’s not how things were for these women in the 18th century. 8 / 10

    The Blind Side
    Not what I was expecting. As I caught this on dvd a year after Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for it, I was expecting one of those films that’s their only to support the lead actor/actresses in their quest to win an award, films with superb performances at their core, but surrounded by an aura of worthiness and angst that often doesn’t lead to a very interesting package. The Blind Side however was absolutely wonderful. As the opening speech started I literally stopped eating my dinner and became engrossed. Then I rewound it to watch it again. When I got to the end of the film, I rewound it again and could happily have watched the whole thing over again. It was a really lovely film, full of far more humour and excitement than angst or worthiness. The lead character is doing something wonderful for a kid, giving him a chance, but she doesn’t want to make a fuss about it, so the film doesn’t either – it’s just the way it is. . A really, really uplifting, utterly wonderful film. 9 / 10

    Hocus Pocus
    A pretty solid Disney Halloween film. The plot is predictable and the effects and visuals look quite dated now, to be honest, I’m not sure they would have looked that great at the time. The two teenage leads are a bit meh, although the 9 year old Thora Birch was already demonstrating her talents, making this a rare occasion when the small child is NOT just there to be irritating. But Bette Middler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy are hamming it up gloriously as the three witches and it’s hard not to be swept along with their enthusiasm. 6 / 10

    We Bought a Zoo
    Utterly shameless fluff. It’s got animals, cute kids, a dad trying his best, socially inept teenagers, a little bit of heartache, happiness via hard work… it’s just a whole collection of things that make a family friendly fluffy film work, and work it does. 8 / 10

    The Darjeeling Limited
    I have a hit and miss reaction to Wes Anderson films, there are some where the weirdness works for me and I find them really charming, and then there are ones that I just don’t get. This is one of the latter. There was something unsettling about the setting in India, it felt slightly mocking, disrespectful maybe? The three central characters also felt a bit flat, none of them much fun to spend time with. 5 / 10

    The Muppets
    The only word to describe this film is “joy”. It is that extremely rare occurrence of a relaunch of an old favourite that captures all the magic of the original, all the warm feelings people have, acknowledges the flaws and then sprinkles some new energy on top. The makers all clearly respect and love the original and there’s plenty of sentimentality that had me crying throughout; but there’s also plenty of self-aware mocking and modern attitudes that make it feel like a new thing, not just a remake. I laughed and cried the whole way through and it is possibly, the most perfect thing ever. 10 / 10

    I’ve watched this a dozen times and it never fails to make me laugh, sing along, smile, cry and cheer. 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. 9 / 10

    Frozen 2
    Frozen 2 is not quite at the same level as Frozen. It’s absolutely fine, maintaining the excellent characters, animation and humour, but it’s missing the high expectations in two 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 aren’t as good, each one is just slightly inferior to the steady stream of solid hits. It’s still an entertaining film with a beautiful sentiment, but it’s not quite the timeless win that Frozen was. That said, I would very much like a baby reindeer and an adorable fire spirit please. 7 / 10