89th Academy Awards

I think there are 48 films nominated for at least one Oscar, and a total of 106 nominations for the full length films. I’ve managed to see 25 of the films (52%) covering 75 nominations (70%). I’ve linked to reviews on my other website where I’ve seen things. I only managed to see a couple of the shorts unfortunately. I wish they were more easily available. Here are my preferences and predictions for the winners across all the categories, even the ones I have absolutely no knowledge of.

Film (see my previous post for detailed reviews)
Academy_Award_trophy

  • Arrival – I wasn’t a fan, but I don’t think I viewed it fairly
  • Fences – I haven’t seen it, but from what I hear it’s a bit too theatrical to be the best film, the stage play was already heavily rewarded and I don’t think ‘just’ translating the cast and the words to a different medium is necessarily worthy of award
  • La La Land – I thought it didn’t successfully blend gritty modern relationship drama with old school musical fantasy, leaving me disappointed
  • Hacksaw Ridge – not seen, but broad opinion doesn’t seem to have been positive
  • Hell or High Water – I enjoyed this film a lot, and was impressed at how solidly put together it was, but I don’t think it was ‘outstanding’
  • Hidden Figures – wonderfully entertaining, but it takes slightly too light-hearted an approach to be a worthy Oscar winner, it is however likely to be one of my favourite films of the year
  • Lion – a good film, but not a great film. I wasn’t a fan of the structure (either much too long an ‘introduction’ or a film of two halves that struggle to stick together) and there wasn’t much subtlety on offer.
  • Manchester by the Sea – I thought this was a very powerful film, mostly thanks to the performances but certainly supported by a great script and interesting direction to make this a very strong contender for best film
  • Moonlight – I may be one of the only people that didn’t like this film. I respect it a lot, but I was bored.

What’s missing – outstanding films from last year were a little thin on the ground I thought. My top film was Eye in the Sky, but as ‘just’ a thriller it didn’t get a look in, even if it was a superb one. Money Monster was a similarly tightly put together piece. I’m ok with not seeing Jackie there as I thought was a better performance than film (flawed in the decision to only show a short period of time, giving no context for the character’s emotions). I didn’t like Nocturnal Animals either, I thought it confusing and unnecessarily arty (what was that opening?!). I haven’t seen 20th Century Women; I, Daniel Blake; or Loving, but all got a lot of praise and are under-represented in the awards (or not at all for I, Daniel Blake). Deadpool would have been a hilarious addition (it got a golden globe nod), and maybe it deserved it for originality and balls alone.
What should win: I’m really not that blown away by the selection, my pick would probably be Manchester by the Sea.
What will win: La a Land

Director
lalaland

  • Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) – I was frustrated by the disjointed and unbalancing direction of Arrival but in hindsight it makes a lot of sense.
  • Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge) – I haven’t heard anything particularly positive about it
  • Damien Chazelle (La La Land) – I don’t think any of the things I didn’t like La La Land were due to the director, and it’s no easy achievement directing musicals
  • Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) – I would have actually preferred a less arty and fussy directorial style, the writing and acting didn’t need it and it might have improved the runtime and pacing.
  • Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) – I didn’t like the direction, but I can respect it

What should win: I don’t really care
What will win: La La Land

Actress
jackie

  • Isabelle Huppert (Elle) – Not seen
  • Ruth Negga (Loving) – Not seen, but I’ve loved her on Preacher and other TV work
  • Natalie Portman (Jackie) – a great performance, although I thought it came a little close to impression with the strange voice for my tastes, but I think the writing actually limited the scope of her performance.
  • Emma Stone (La La Land) – I thought the character was badly written, but Emma Stone still delivered.
  • Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) – can’t help but think that this is more a political nomination than anything else, which isn’t to say that Streep wasn’t good in a delicate balancing act of comedy and tragedy. Actually, the more I think about it the better her performance seems.

Who’s missing – poor Amy Adams, did she split the vote with Nocturnal Animals and Arrival or did she just get pushed out by Trump’s hatred of Streep? I’m not sure either performance would have won the award, but she should be here. Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures was also wonderful. Annette Benning seemed to have a lot of buzz for 20th Century Women.
Who should win – Natalie Portman
Who will win – Emma Stone

Actor
manchester

  • Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) – superb.
  • Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) – not seen
  • Ryan Gosling (La La Land) – I’ve never enjoyed Gosling’s performances and between him, and his character, I wasn’t a fan here either.
  • Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) – not seen
  • Denzel Washington (Fences) – not seen, he’s impressive in the trailers, but then if he’s ‘just’ re-creating the exact same performance that he won a Tony for is that really fair? Getting multiple bites of the pie surely?

Who’s missing – I thought Tom Hanks was a shoe-in for Sully, he’s always incredibly good and a popular nominee, although I’ve no idea if it’s deserved. Colin Farrell for The Lobster? Michael Caine for Youth?
Who should win and will win – Casey Affleck

Supporting Actress
lion

  • Viola Davis (Fences) – as for Washington above. With the added souring that she should almost certainly be in the best actress category, not supporting, she won the Tony for *lead* actress.
  • Naomie Harris (Moonlight) – impressive
  • Nicole Kidman (Lion) – I was instinctively going to say that she wasn’t in it enough to warrant the nomination, but then I thought about the half dozen or so scenes she does have and the level of emotion and power and started thinking differently. The film in general is a bit heavy handed, but Kidman delivers it in spades.
  • Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) – she was good, but outstanding? I’m afraid not, she just didn’t have the material
  • Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) – I wanted to see more of the character, her story was never really told, only in how it related to the other characters (oh crap, is this film a Bechdel test failure?), which is a shame because given what she did with what little time she had, she would have been incredible.

Who should win – I think it’s Kidman for me, but Williams would have been triumphant if only she had an extra scene or two
Who will win – Viola Davis

Supporting Actor:
moonlight

  • Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) – he was wonderful, but I think actually the three actors playing Chiron were just as good.
  • Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water) – I really liked this film, and Bridges was great as usual, but I don’t think Bridges’ role was anything outstanding – curmudgeonly and rude isn’t a stretch
  • Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)- yes. The range that this young actor showed was incredible, carrying the weight of the humour in the film while never leaving any doubt he was also struggling and suffering.
  • Dev Patel (Lion) – supporting? Hmm, I guess he didn’t appear for the first third of the film. It’s a powerful performance, and I love watching him, but it’s something of a “what you see is what you get” role, without the nuance of some of the others.
  • Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) – to me this is an odd choice, it was Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the ‘bad guy’ that was by far the more powerful performance, I’ve utterly forgotten Shannon’s character.

Who’s missing – if Meryl gets a nom for Florence Foster Jenkins it’s a shame Hugh Grant doesn’t also, his performance walked an even narrower line between tragedy and humour. Ralph Fiennes was startling (and irritating) in the otherwise mediocre A Bigger Splash.
Who should win – Lucas Hedges
Who will win – Mahershala Ali

Original Screenplay
hellorhighwater

  • Hell or High Water – An interesting idea and very solidly delivered, the mix of drama and humour is well handled and I was gripped throughout
  • La La Land – nope, the writing was what I mostly took issue with La La Land, the characters, the dialogue, and mostly the ending I thought were errors
  • The Lobster – I liked both halves of this film, but thought they didn’t work well together. I am glad to see it here though as something a bit unusual
  • Manchester by the Sea – the structuring of this was superb and the way the past and present intertwine is delicately done
  • 20th Century Women – haven’t seen

What should and will win – Manchester by the Sea

Adapted Screenplay
hiddenfigures

  • Arrival – I’ve no idea how much of this came from the original, so it’s a bit hard to know. The story and idea are certainly great and cleverly gradually revealed through a tricky narrative, but that might all have already been there.
  • Fences – from what I hear, there wasn’t a great deal of adaptation involved in taking this from stage to screen, with the film feeling much like a play.
  • Hidden Figures – I loved this film, so I loved the writing. Taking a non-fiction book and making an entertaining and engaging narrative seems a greater achievement, but then it seems a number of liberties may have been taken
  • Lion – I think it’s the true story that’s amazing here, the adaptation was fairly by the numbers and unremarkable. It would probably have benefited from some creativity in interweaving the stories or filling in gaps.
  • Moonlight – I think it’s an achievement to write a film that says a lot without saying a lot, it’s about more than the words and the structure and depth of this film is impressive.

Am I supposed to be looking for a good final result or a good adaptation? Surely the bigger achievement is the one that requires the most rewriting, or taking something rubbish and making it good without losing sight of the original?
What should win – Hidden Figures
What will win – Moonlight

Animated Feature Film
kubo

  • Kubo and the Two Strings – gorgeous, original and lovely
  • Moana – great story, completely 3 dimensional characters, beautiful design, powerful emotion and laugh out loud humour – it had everything
  • My Life as a Zucchini/Courgette – I’d never even heard of this and couldn’t find it anyone
  • The Red Turtle – ditto
  • Zootopia/Zootropolis – I enjoyed it a lot while I watched it, but it wasn’t one that I’ve thought back on

What’s missing – nothing for Pixar! I didn’t think Finding Dory was anything like as special as things like Inside Out, but I’m surprised it didn’t appear here. Similarly surprised that neither Jungle Book nor The BFG came in. The literally and figuratively beautiful Ethel and Ernest should both be nominated and winning this category. Another great year for animation.
What should win – Moana edges it slightly for me. Or Kubo. I wouldn’t actually mind
What will win – Zootopia – it’s got a rather powerful message on immigration that I don’t think the “Hollywood Liberal Elite” will ignore. Good for them.

Foreign Language Film

  • Land of Mine (Denmark), A Man Called Ove (Sweden), The Salesman (Iran), Tanna (Australia) , Toni Erdmann (Germany)

I’ve not seen any of them, I’m a bit ashamed of that
What will win – Salesman has got the political oomph given the director was effected by the travel ban, but I think Toni Erdmann has been more popular.

Documentary – Feature
lifeanimated

  • Fire at Sea – I thought this was terrible. Pretentious arty nonsense which, with the exception of one sequence and one interview, failed to really add any understanding to either the crisis as a whole, or the impact on the island.
  • I Am Not Your Negro – not seen
  • Life, Animated – An fascinating look into one family’s life, thanks to frank interviews and family videos you see their history and how they reached where they are. It’s not really making any sweeping statements or education on what autism means, but as a “case study” it’s wonderful.
  • O.J.: Made in America – not seen, not least because with last year’s dramatization there’s already a lot of OJ around. Also it’s incredibly long, at 467 minutes, really this is a mini-series!
  • 13th – A fairly traditional documentary looking at race and imprisonment in the US via a lot of academic and expert talking heads and a small amount of archive footage. If going this traditional route, I thought there was a bit more scope for better graphics and usage of data, particularly to strengthen the opposing side of the argument to make it more balanced. I don’t think that would have changed the overall point, but actually made it stronger.

What’s missing – I really enjoyed 8 Days a Week, I like the Beatles, but this actually made me understand what it was like to be a Beatles fan, and also some insight into what it was like to be just a group of lads from Liverpool and suddenly the most popular people in the world. I learnt something about the band and the people. I think this would probably be my pick for winner.
What should win -of the three I’ve seen I thought Life, Animated was the least flawed, but 13th was the more important.
What will win – 13th

Documentary Short

  • Extremis – available on Netflix, very powerful and incredibly moving, I wish it had been longer
  • The White Helmets – available on Netflix and well worth watching. Some of the footage is incredible and the situation and people are amazing (in opposite ways).
  • 4.1 Miles, Joe’s Violin, Watani: My Homeland – not seen

The documentary short is an incredibly powerful category, I wish it were easier to see more of them. It’s hard to pick which of the two I’ve seen is better, particularly given that I suspect the other three are just as good.
What will win – Extremis

Live Action Short

  • Ennemis intérieurs, La Femme et le TGV, Silent Nights, Sing, Timecode

What will win: Ennemis intérieurs

Animated Short Film

  • Blind Vaysha, Borrowed Time, Pear Cider and Cigarettes , Pearl , Piper

What will and should win: Piper is the only one I’ve seen (on the front of Finding Dory and it was absolutely gorgeous, so I’ll vote for it here

Original Score
passengers

  • Jackie – I actually throught the score was obtrusive and too heavy
  • La La Land – lovely. The songs are catchy, and the themes are well developed and entwined through the film.
  • Lion – Blended elements from lots of different styles together, reflecting both Indian and Australian culture and the overlaps between them
  • Moonlight – an interesting mix of music was played, was that original music or soundtrack?
  • Passengers – I’ve no memory of the score

What should win and what will win – La La Land

Best Original Song
moana

What’s missing – I loved the music from Sing Street (review), it came from the characters so much, so it’s a shame that didn’t get a look in
What should win – I really love the Moana song, and it might stand a chance if the La La Land songs split the vote and the love for Lin
What will win – City of Stars I should think, unless the La La Songs split the vote and/or Lin Manuel Miranda’s current success and fame carries him through.

Sound Editing: Arrival, Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Sully
Sound Mixing: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
I’m hazy on the distinction, but to me it seems that outstanding sound is about taking complex, multi-layered ‘noises’ and blending them into a coherent whole. So something like La La Land doesn’t really seem complicated enough to warrant awards.The sci-fi ones have much more complicated work to be done, blending real sounds, generated ones and balancing them all so the audience can make sense of them. Anything like Hacksaw Ridge or 13 Hours, the sounds are so important for making battle feel real, but not so real the audience can’t see or understand what’s happening.
What will win: Hacksaw Ridge for editing and Arrival for mixing
Production Design
fantastic-beasts

  • Arrival – the design work was interesting but it was hard to get excited about given the over use of grey and dingy lighting.
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – the blend of fantasy and art deco New York was beautifully done and very evocative
  • Hail, Caesar! – replicating the design of the period is well done, but it’s working from a known starting point
  • La La Land – there’s a subtle and clever blending of modern LA and old school musical.
  • Passengers – I’m not sure that any of it is particularly ‘realistic’ but the design is all suitably sci-fi, particularly things like the robot bartender

What should win: Fantastic Beasts
What will win: La La Land

Cinematography
sillence

  • Arrival – one of my least favourite pieces of cinematography, I thought the lighting and the colourisation were dull and killed the energy of the film.
  • La La Land – yup, fine. Nice.
  • Lion – The different styles for India and Australia, and the different periods the film covered were all interetingly done, with the cinematography reflecting the culture
  • Moonlight – I was not a fan, it made me feel a bit dizzy, but I can recognise that it was very good.
  • Silence – haven’t seen, but from the trailer it did look impressively epic

What should win: Lion
What will win: La La Land

Makeup and Hairstyling

What will win: Star Trek? No criticism to the make up and hairstyling on Suicide Squad, but it cannot be “Oscar winning Suicide Squad”

Costume Design
florencefoster

  • Allied – not seen, but the costumes looked fairly standard period stuff from the trailer
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – the fantasy elements of the costuming is very subtly done
  • Florence Foster Jenkins – Just like everything else in this film, the costumes walk a very fine line between ridiculous and period, which is very cleverly done
  • Jackie – should you really get an award for perfectly recreating costumes and outfits? What was the ‘design’?
  • La La Land – there’s some nice costuming here, a main contributor to the old-school musical vibe of the film to counteract some of the modernity.

What should win: Florence Foster Jenkins
What will win: La La Land

Film Editing
arrival

  • Arrival – I’m not sure how much of the interweaving of the jumping time line was done in the script and how much in the editing, but I would assume the little flashes were editing and they were certainly very cleverly done, keeping you inside the characters head.
  • Hacksaw Ridge – not seen
  • Hell or High Water – I don’t really remember anything clever or outstanding with the editing, but then that may be the magic of good editing
  • La La Land – the musical sequences were well put together, supported the old-school feel of the film
  • Moonlight – Does the editor decide how long to make the pauses? If so, I wasn’t a fan

What should win – I’m not really sure what I’m looking for, so I’ll say “I don’t mind”
What will win – La La Land

Visual Effects
rogueone

  • Deepwater Horizon – not seen, but the effects in the trailer were impressive
  • Doctor Strange – the effects were impressive, but I actually found them overwhelming at times. Some of the smaller stuff was subtly done though (eg the cloak)
  • The Jungle Book – it’s interesting that Jungle Book ended up in this category, rather than as an animated film, if everything other than one boy was cgi, even the backgrounds I believe, then isn’t this an animated film and not a visual effect?
  • Kubo and the Two Strings – a stunning achievement, but mostly this is old school ‘effects’, ie models and manipulation, so it’s not as diverse as some of these.
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – lots and lots of different types of effects

What should win: I think that Jungle Book and Kubo, although superb, just didn’t have as many different types of effects to show off. So… Star Wars for me.
What will win: Jungle Book

Nominees for Best Picture

I’ve seen 7 out of the 9 nominees for best film, missing out on Fences (slightly disappointingly) and Hacksaw Ridge (less disappointingly). Below are my reviews of the 7 films I have seen, and on Saturday I’ll post my preferences and predictions for what will win both this category, and all the rest too.

Arrival
arrivalI had high hopes for this film and I’ve heard almost nothing but praise for the film, but I had a very different reaction to it and I’m wondering if I was just in a terrible mood or something. For the first 20 minutes or so of the film I was just plain bored. It was so slow to get started, I came for a film about aliens and I started with a moody character study of a woman losing her child. Also it was just dull to look at, I am SO fed up of science fiction films (or anything dramatic really) having a thick blue/grey filter applied over it! To top it off, either the sound mixing was off or my cinema had speaker issues because I struggled to hear crucial lines of dialogue.
After that initial disappointment, the film did get better. I found the focus on linguistics as a science fascinating and I definitely appreciated the gender balance with the man being the sidekick for once (although why the theoretical physicist became the linguistics assistant I’m not entirely sure). And it built to a very interesting and satisfying conclusion, which actually addresses some of the very issues that I’d thought were holes or flaws as I was watching.
I think my frustrations probably came from a lack of fore-knowledge about what the film was. I was expecting a sciency film and even some action, but in fact it was much more of an emotional story, just in a science fiction framework. I’m not sure the balance of those elements really worked out as well as it could, and certainly the trailer set different expectations. I should have got round to watching it a second time so that I could judge it more fairly, I suspect I will think better of it then.

Hell of High Water
hellorhighwaterThis film seemed to come a little out of nowhere and slightly defies description, everything I try to write just makes it sound rather dull. So I won’t describe the story, instead I’ll say that it’s enough to keep your brain hooked, the acting is enough to keep your heart gripped and the style is enough to keep your eyes transfixed; all while seemingly completely effortless. I thought it managed to be both old school and original. Hard to describe, but very easy to recommend. 

Hidden Figures
hiddenfiguresThis is one of my favourite films I’ve seen recently, it blends a great number of different elements together very well – it’s a drama and a comedy, a feel good story of people coming together to achieve something while also having the depth of the racial segregation of the time. It maybe could have gone firmer on the issues, maybe it could be seen as going too light and making change seem as if it was an easy win at NASA. I think the film choses to be a film that people will enjoy, with plenty of laughs and heart, and presenting the segregation and for me, it worked as a celebration of these women’s achievements, and made a very watchable, approachable and enjoyable film while also reminding us of the issues they had to overcome.

La La Land
lalalandI had been stunningly underwhelmed by the first trailer for this, which was entirely without words and made up only of two pretty people looking at each other, looking into the camera, and looking into the distance; all accompanied by plinky plunky music. Oh and occasional dancing. And some flying. The second trailer was marginally better as it implied there was some actual plot. The final film managed a little more plot, but not a massive amount more. I remain, fairly underwhelmed.
It actually got off to a good start, I really liked the opening musical number – proper traditional musical stuff with everyone bursting into a coordinated song and dance number. I liked the old style combined with the modern setting of a traffic jam and some modern dance (parkour and skateboards and the like). Then we meet our ‘heroes’ and my hackles immediately go up because I didn’t particularly sympathise with either of them. He’s a sanctimonious jazz fanatic who’s more interested in telling people why they’re wrong then he is in paying the bills. She was sort of better as the wannabe actress reaching the end of her patience with awful auditions… until the writers decided to take a break from reality and give her a shiny new prius. The film itself lost a lot of my sympathy when they opted for a flashy musical number in Wannabe’s immense house with her trio of beautiful housemates. Maybe that sort of thing really does happen in LA, but it felt like a fantasy to me, and not in a good way. A slightly sleazy fantasy. They didn’t start a pillow fight, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had.
The rest of the film swung wildly between two distinct tones and I’m not sure either held up. The old-school fantasy musical/screwball romance, would have made a nice change from the usual Hollywood stuff, but the two leads were no Debbie Reynolds or Gene Kelly, their singing and dancing was acceptable but far from outstanding. The more gritty reality of their relationship was more within their talents but felt disjointed. To add insult to injury, as per usual it was too long, and the fantasy ending tacked on felt like a cop out from the writers who still couldn’t make their mind up whether it should be fantasy or reality.
I know a lot of people have really loved this film, but I just don’t see it. I *wanted* to love it, because heaven knows some escapism is much needed, but I just didn’t think it was very good.

Lion
lionI thought this film was entirely “fine”. I mean, it was just… fine. I’m not sure how much more I can say about it (although obviously I’ll try). The choice to tell it linearly was an interesting one, I knew enough about the film to make the opening third feel like an overly-extended introduction, with little sense of tension, just more curiosity about how it would connect through. There was nothing wrong with it, but it just felt like it was dragging the opening out until what I thought was the main story – the search. Maybe it would have worked better to intertwine the two stories, making it clear that it was more about the journeys (metaphorical and literal) than about the destinations. The end of the film and the emotional release felt rather manipulative, and I thought downplayed a second element that I would have liked to have been explored a bit more. When compared to other films, like Manchester by the Sea for example, the writing and acting all felt a lot more obvious and less nuanced, there wasn’t much subtext left for the audience to follow. I sound overly critical, it was still an interesting and entertaining film, it just wasn’t outstanding.

Manchester by the Sea
manchesterThis is a pure character study film. There’s not a huge amount of narrative, there are really only two plot elements – one in the past and one in the present; one that drove the characters into their current positions, and then the one that pushed them out of it. The film is centred around Casey Affleck’s character for which he is rightly getting extensive praise; but the characters around him are just as complex and well portrayed, even those that get very little screen time. It’s a film of silences, looks and the things that people are really saying when they’re talking about something else. It’s all well done, but what makes this film stand out is about 10 minutes in the middle which I will not spoil, but literally took my breath away with the emotional impact. I was in a sold out showing and the impact just rippled through the audience as people realised what was happening and gasped and responded in a way I’ve rarely heard. In contrast to that moment, the rest of the film feels comparatively low key, and frankly a little too drawn out at times (as usual, losing 20 minutes would have greatly improved it) but that is mitigated by the fact that for all the heartache, it’s also a very funny film, in a naturalistic way that completely supports the sense that these are just absolutely normal people.

Moonlight
moonlightI really wanted to love this film, and I am so disappointed that I didn’t. For me, it committed the cardinal sin of being boring. I can recognise that a lot of it is incredibly good. The story of this character and the way it is told is interesting – three acts, each focusing on a relative small time period, spread across a couple of decades of his life showing how things change as you grow up, and how they do not. I can certainly recognise the superb acting, not least the achievement of three individuals (two of them very young) playing the same person. I can acknowledge the art in the direction style, even though for me the hand held footage, and frequent swirling camera moves and narrow depth of focus left me having to close my eyes at times (possibly the film would benefit from being on a smaller, more intimate screen). But I can’t change the fact that I was bored. I know *why* the character said so little, why there were so many silences and long pauses, and that I’m *meant* to feel uncomfortable and fill those silences, but that doesn’t change the fact that I moved through understanding the point and started thinking about other things. Like that I didn’t like the blurred background. Or that the sound effects were sometimes overly intrusive. I can respect this film, but I just didn’t like it.

Books I read in 2016

I once again set myself the target of reading an average of 40 pages per day, and pleasingly I managed it with about 150 pages extra. I know it seems silly that I have to force myself to do something I enjoy, but I find that reading is one of those tasks that I just forget to do, or don’t prioritise over other things, so this method works for me. I don’t tend to read regularly still, generally I read a bit on the tube to work, but not always. So the page counts tend to come in dribbles and then a splurge of a few hours solid reading every now and then. Of course it always helps to have a good book, I have a stupid mental block that even if I’m not enjoying a book I still have to finish it, and that can really stifle my reading.

By the numbers

  • 49 books, 14,884 pages. Really wish I’d managed to get one more in!
  • 32 were new reads (67%), of the re-reads 14 were Brust’s Taltos series, one was The Secret Garden which I haven’t read since I was a kid, and I re-read a Terry Pratchett.
  • 36 authors, 19 of whom were new to me, only duplicated authors were Brust and Simon Mayo (once by himself and once in a pair)
  • 21 British (64%), 11 Americans (31%), 3 others (Canadian, Malaysian, French – not massively diverse)
    22 men vs 14 female (61:39%) that’s far from the worst it’s ever been and not bad considering I didn’t deliberately seek out women writers, but obviously not as even as I’d like.
  • 54% from 2010 onwards, so roughly half of the books were pretty recent by broad standards
  • 13% from 2000s, 13% from 1990s, 8% from 1980s. 3 each (6%) from early 20th, and pre-20th century.
  • Best book: The Martian – Andy Weir
  • Best book that everyone didn’t already know about: The Golem and the Djinni – Helene Wecker
  • Or if you want to learn something: Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice and Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed

Non-fiction
bounceI only read 8 non-fiction books this year (17%), which isn’t a huge number, but they were at least a fairly diverse set and mostly pretty good. I was lucky enough to see Matthew Syed speak in 2015 and finally got round to reading his book Bounce, which was so good I immediately sought out his second book Black Box Thinking which was almost equally as good. He’s a Malcolm Gladwell type, looking at the way people think and act but he frequently frames it using experiences and anecdotes from his own time as an international sportsman and subsequent time as a sports journalists. His books are entertaining as well as informative and I would recommend them to anyone. I also finally read Ben Goldacre’s Pharma, which is a superb piece of research, writing and campaigning, although would benefit from being shortened a bit as it’s somewhat repetitive. The only disappointment was Eureka! Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Greeks. The title may be true, but the style and structure of the book means that despite having all the information there it’s so incoherent you won’t take any of it in.

Classics
murder-on-the-orient-expressI continue to slowly pick off ‘classics’, with mixed results. Some of them are really classics for a reason, Agatha Christie is still revered today for very good reason, Murder on the Orient Express is an absolute masterclasses of crime fiction. The Secret Garden is one I have very fond memories of from my childhood and fortunately it stands up reasonably well. Unfortunately though there were a couple that I really don’t see what the fuss is about. I found Huckleberry Finn a complete slog and Far From the Madding Crowd quite tedious in places.

Sci-fi, fantasy… whatever
long-way-to-a-small-angryThe bulk of my reading is within the broad genres of sci-fi and fantasy, I’d say 32 out of 39 fiction books have some element of SF, fantasy, steampunk or related ideas in them. Fortunately, I have a couple of friends who read an INSANE amount, although mostly within science fiction and fantasy genres, and I rely on them heavily for recommendations. We know each other’s tastes quite well and they always lead me towards works I’d never have come across by myself that are either superb or interesting (sometimes even both at the same time). Even within ‘just’ the SF/Fantasy genre they find a huge range of styles and subjects. Three of the outstanding books from them this year exemplify this: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which is not just a brilliant title, but a rollicking fun read; The Golem and the Djinni is a beautiful and in depth study of characters and period; and The Just City is a fascinating way to think about Greek philosophy. Meanwhile, I’m probably the last SF fan in the world to read The Martian and it’s just as good as everyone says, I think I read the whole thing in just two sittings.

Old favourites (?)
jheregThere are a few authors who I pounce on with a new release. T Kingfisher is an author very few have heard of but is absolutely wonderful and The Raven and the Reindeer is another lovely and entertaining entry to her fairy tale series. Hugh Howey (of the Wool series) stuck together a few short stories to make Beacon 23 which showed again just how good his writing is, although I wish he’d edited them together to a proper novel. Claire North’s second SF book Touch proves she wasn’t just a one idea pony, and shows that she can continue to add new life and depth to old tropes. David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) confirmed to me that I don’t like him, and SJ Watson (Before I Go to Sleep) let me down.

After a few disappointing reads that left me behind my target, I opted for a familiar old friend re-reading the 14 books of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. The quality of the books varies quite a lot, Jhereg, Phoenix, Iorich and Hawk at the positive end and Taltos, Athyra and Tiassa at the not-so-great end. But even the longest is only about 350 pages, so if you’re not enjoying one so much, it doesn’t matter because the next in the series will be along soon enough and usually a completely different style and story. I rarely re-read books so it made a nice change to go back to the familiar and comfortable for a while, although I was surprised at how little I remembered of how the actual capers worked out.

Random picks
And to round everything out, the stuff that doesn’t really fit anywhere else. Mostly sourced from the 3-for-2 shelves at Waterstones, often chosen solely because of a pretty cover and you know what they say about judging books that way.

A note from me

I started this blog as a home for my thoughts and ramblings on television shows. After a few years (erm, about 7 as it turns out) I’ve decided to expand the blog to also cover films and books. A good chunk of my time is divided between those three loves – TV, film and books, and the relative balances wax and wane, which means if I’m focusing on films, this blog suffers a lack of content. I’ve always written reviews of the books I read and the films I watch and just kept them on my personal site where no one ever goes, so I just decided to start sharing some of the them here, all my reviews together on this one blog. I’m not sure yet if, or how I will bring over the archive of review (over five hundred book reviews and nearly 1500 film reviews) but at least thanks to my choice of a stupidly generic name for the blog, it all seems to fit together in theory at least.

See - I love books, and television and film. (And also minions and fairy lights and cluttered shelves.)

See – I love books, and television and film. (And also minions and fairy lights and cluttered shelves.)

My film reviews will likely cover the sublime to the ridiculous, via the sublimely ridiculous and the ridiculously sublime. I watch almost any genre, although I struggle to stay awake during westerns, and while I try to keep on top of current films (good and bad), I also go back and watch the classics to try and understand what all the fuss is about. I take a similar approach with reading, trying to balance between classics of fiction and non-fiction, while also being a sucker for things on the “buy one get one half price” shelves at Waterstones. My reading also tends to be where my true nature of a sci-fi geek tends to come through.

I don’t profess to be a great writer or reviewer, I mostly write for myself more than anyone else anyway as I have a terrible memory and this means I can actually look up what I thought of something rather than just flounder about claiming to have seen stuff and then being unable to remember whether I even liked it or not. Neither do I claim to be ‘right’ on all these reviews, but if you want to discuss, then feel free to leave a comment!

Conviction: Season 1

In my previous post I was talking about Bull, which takes a collection of bog standard TV tropes, combines them with a charismatic lead actor and sticks the ingredients together with just about enough competency to make it a viable show to accompany your ironing. Conviction does absolutely the same thing, in fact it’s got even more good elements thanks to more recognisable TV talent in the supporting cast, and yet it fails spectacularly. This is a show that manages to be orders of magnitude worse than the sum of its parts.

Hayley Atwell is a wonderful actress and I adored her in Agent Carter. There’s something about her that feels both original and old school, like she doesn’t even know what the ‘standard’ way to act these roles is and is just bringing an entirely fresh energy to them. This could be a great, chewy role – a woman who’s brash, selfish and knows that she’s the smartest person in the room. But the writers bottled it. Each episode either starts with her being awful and then softening, or does the opposite. She ‘learns’ that other people matter, and then forgets, or starts off trying to be softer and then forgets that. The episodic nature just didn’t work.

The rest of the cast has some good names in it too – Eddie Cahill (CSI: NY’s Detective Flack), Shawn Ashmore (The Following, and the first round of X-Men films) and Emily Kinney (Beth from The Walking Dead). And then the writers strike again and give them nothing to work with but one single defining characteristic each – Cahill is all about politics and presentation, Ashmore is all about the law, and Kinney is all about innocence and see miss-carriages of justice everywhere. There’s also a drug addict former cop, a former convict forensics expert, and an overbearing politician mother. They’re all just plain dull to be honest. The only interesting character was the brother, but maybe that’s because he got such limited screen time that his one note characteristic (he loves his sister) didn’t get old.

Then there’s the plot driver – the “Conviction Integrity Unit” is set up to check cases and make sure the right person is in prison. It’s not a bad idea, but it is stunningly badly actioned. For some reason they only have 1 week to investigate each case. ONE WEEK! I mean, it would take that long to obtain the paperwork, let alone read it all, review all the evidence, track down witnesses, re-process forensics and come up with a legally meaningful conclusion. The ticking clock makes absolutely zero sense and is just an insulting cheap attempt to drum up tension. The fact that they started out with an incredibly obvious re-hash of the Adnan Syed case from the Serial podcast, set the bar for the level of creativity they were going to bring to the cases.

Also stretching the bounds of realism to breaking point is their success rate finding ridiculous coincidences to prove miscarriages of justice. They ducked a couple of times, but broadly the team always came out right, although they had to take a very flexible approach to the law at times which in my book doesn’t make them any different to some of the ‘shoddy’ lawyers they were getting morally indignant about. There are a number of other moral questions raised that are dealt with in offensively simplistic ways, one that jumped out was when someone sleeps with a guy when she knows he has a girlfriend and absolutely no mention is made of that. In fact the other woman is treated like a villain of the piece for absolutely no reason.

So, a poorly developed concept and mediocre characters, with some pretty questionable morals. Why did I watch it so long? Just because I kept hoping it would get better, that Hayley Atwell would get the material she deserved. It didn’t, she didn’t, and I would not be returning for a second season, although it looks extremely unlikely that it will be getting one.

Bull: Pilot Review

I’ve slightly got out of the habit of reviewing pilots, I keep thinking that I want to give them more time to see how they’ll play out. But given that I didn’t have anything else to write about this week, I figured I might as well try it again. Then I cheated and also watched the second episode, but it’s close enough right?

Bull is so generic it could be used in a text book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I mean the ‘standards’ are there for a reason, but it does mean that it’s entering a crowded field and trying to stand out on charm alone. The good thing is that the one thing that it has going for it is Michael Weatherly who is charm personified. They are pretty much pinning the show on the fact that millions of people tuned into NCIS each week, and heaven knows it wasn’t for the plots, so a good chunk of them must have liked the cast, and Michael Weatherly is one of the few that had been there from the beginning.

I’ll confess, that would likely be enough for me to give the show a chance, I’ve actually like Weatherly since his earlier role on Dark Angel and he has one of my favourite traits in an actor, the ability to be funny and heartbreaking all in the same simple line of dialogue. I got tired of the character on NCIS because the writing was so inconsistent, frequently reverting to him being the immature fool just to support whatever gap there was in the story each week. This then, is a great opportunity, he’s not the comic relief, he’s the boss. Yes a ‘quirky’ one who seems to let his team boss him around a fair amount, but he’s the expert and he’s in charge.

Everything else you could almost fill in from a book of cliches and the writers make very little effort to hide that. I mean the idea itself is just a bog standard legal drama, with the variation on a theme that this one is focussed on understanding and manipulating the jury, by understanding what their psychological drivers are. It’s Lie to Me or Criminal Minds in a courtroom, The Good Wife with psychology.

Surrounding Bull is the usual collection of sidekicks – hackers, lawyers, investigators, advisors. It’s like a mix and match recipe with elements of characters from other series all muddled up. It’s a little unfortunate that rival new show Conviction came up with almost exactly the same characters from the mixture, but that show has tanked in the ratings so I guess Bull will win by default. Again, the tropes that are being used do work, they make for quirky and likeable characters with enough hints at depth that their backstories can dribble out over multiple seasons. But it’s just a bit tiresome.

The first two episodes follow the standard ‘Case of the Week’ structure, plenty of opportunity to explain how things work to both the clients and the audience (that’ll get tedious quickly though). The stories were unremarkable and fairly predictable, and each focused a little too lecturingly on built in biases, but optimistically the writers were just hoping we’d be too distracted by all the introductions to really care about the plot and are holding the good stuff for later.

The above all sounds pretty critical, but for all the cynicism, all those tropes exist for a reason – they work. The building blocks are immediately there for Weatherly to work with and get the charm across and I was engaged enough to come back next week. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to win awards, have any critical praise at all, or even really make it onto any “must watch” lists, but it is the kind of thing that is very watchable and easy enough to watch while eating dinner. So long as that’s what they’re going for, then they’ve done just the bare minimum they need to succeed. If they wanted more than that, then they need to buck things up.

Westworld – Season 1

There was a lot of buzz around this. The trailer looked stunning and the ideas were fascinating, clearly HBO and Sky in the UK were hoping that this would be the next Game of Thrones, particularly given that we’re heading towards the end of that series. So why was I just not bothered with it? I let a few episodes back up and then watched the first couple and my response was distinctly… meh. It just didn’t grab me. I watched with a couple of friends and they seemed to feel the same, so our meh-ness somewhat reinforced each other and we agreed that there was something that just didn’t quite work about the delivery of the concept.

Westworld (the setting) is basically an evolved computer game. The people who built the park are running a real life massively multiplayer role playing game, one that’s been running for decades and is hugely successful. The hosts (non-player characters, robots) have all been crafted and written in order to support either specific narratives that the guests can participate in, or just to flesh out the background so the guests can immerse themselves in the period setting. Now, my friends and I have played a lot of games between us, and we could quickly predict how some things were going to go, leaving us a little bored waiting for it to play out slowly. Plus we could spot various flaws in the ‘game’, either deliberate ones necessary to get the show’s narrative to work, or accidental ones that were just mediocre writing by people who hadn’t really thought about how this sort of game would work in reality.

So after watching a couple of episodes, I just wasn’t grabbed by it, and let it flounder on my sky box for a while. Eventually though I exhausted most other options (I still can’t be bothered with The Walking Dead!) and figured I might as well finish it off, not least as I’d heard there were a few twists later on that were interesting (although sadly I was spoiled on them which rather reduced their impact). At that point I managed to power through the rest of the 10 episodes, gathering momentum until I watched the last 4 episodes back to back last night (sadly the final episode was double length leading to a rather late night).

It did get better, or maybe more accurately the good bits expanded and made the not-so-good bits tolerable. There are characters in the first couple of episodes that are almost background, but really develop into something interesting and start to actually explore the issues around consciousness, manipulation and desire. Once it starts getting into the mystery elements more fully, and the characters and audience realise that not everything is what it seems it starts gaining momentum. Bits of the story make very little sense and at best require characters to take particularly convoluted routes towards their aims, but it does finally give the show some momentum that made me want to watch the new episode.

There were still threads that I didn’t care about and slowed everything down, the idea behind Delores’s “narrative” was interesting, but I found her an excruciatingly tedious character to actually spend time with. Some elements were uncreatively cliché which was a bit frustrating, and also slowed everything down when you know how things are going to go but they take an age to get there. There are also characters and ideas which had a lot of potential that was frustratingly ignored, some of which may be expanded in the second season, but not all of the characters will have the opportunity and that’s a real waste.

I do have some conflicted feelings towards the level of nudity and violence. The nudity in particular is incredibly gratuitous. I can see that there is a point to the nudity – the people working in the park dehumanise the hosts by having them naked when not ‘live’. It is relevant to the plot and isn’t sexualised in the same way that other shows might do. Similarly the level of violence against things that look like people but aren’t really, is again an interesting look at what people are capable of (the last episode has an interesting counter point to that too). But in both cases I wonder if there was a more elegant way of making those points.

I don’t think this is the next Game of Thrones (although I don’t really think that Game of the Thones is the pinnacle series that the masses seem to think it is), or at least it isn’t yet. I do think that it’s got a lot of potential, particularly if they continue playing with some of the ideas and storytelling techniques that come up in the last few episodes. It could be that in a couple of years this is the kind of series that you explain the first season is a bit ropey, but stick with it as things get amazing. But it could also be that they have no idea what they’re doing and it will go down as a good idea that didn’t quite materialise. Still, at least it’s something different.