Books in August

I treated myself to a new kindle last month as my poor old generation 4 decided it no longer wanted to talk to the world, which I can fully understand, but did make it a little frustrating to get new stuff on to. The new generation 10 came with 3 free months of kindle unlimited so I’m rummaging through that. It’s a bit like the library, there’s usually something worth reading there, but if you’re after something specific you’re unlikely to find it. I doubt I’ll extend it after the 3 months are up given I’d rather spend £7.99 a month on one book I actually want than unlimited books that I’m a bit ambivalent about. But for now, it’s meaning I’m charging through books!

Meg Elison – The Road to Nowhere Series
1: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife –
I didn’t think I liked this book much, but I also found it quite hard to put down and read it in just two days. The story is in some ways a fairly standard post apocalyptic one, told with an eye to practical realities that make it feel very believable. By focusing on what it means when far fewer women than men survive, it provides a satisfying (if scary and depressing) spin on the classic. The story makes central character is incredibly pragmatic, but she’s also human and still reacts and feels, changing as necessary to survive in the new world that is emerging.
After a bit of reflection I think that my problems with the book stemmed from two literary constructs that irritated me. The first is the “unnamed” bit – the character gives herself a new name each time she encounters another group which makes sense, but there are a few jarring times where it makes no sense that she doesn’t use her name. The second problem was that it’s mostly written as a diary (and in my kindle version those sections had an incredibly annoying font), but drops in significant sections of 3rd person, and occasionally drifts away from the central character altogether to tell bits of the story that she couldn’t possibly know which felt like cheating. Both these problems really frustrated me, impacting the otherwise incredibly strong first person narrative.

2: The Book of Etta – The second book in this series continues all the incredibly powerful strengths of the first book, and eradicates the gimmicks that frustrated me. The world has stepped forward a hundred years or so, fast-forwarding so that we can see how societies re-form and people live without the constant memories of how it used to be. We get to see a few different places that live very differently which could run the risk of feeling a little like short stories, but they are bonded together by the central character, similar themes and an ongoing storyline that gradually builds giving the book pace and direction. Etta is a fascinating and rich character, a really interesting person to spend time with and to narrate events, a person who is completely recognisable today, but also a product of a very different world. The first book had some great ideas, but the second book builds those ideas and also delivers a much better reading experience.

3: The Book of Flora – The conclusion of the trilogy continues to develop the key themes around gender in a really interesting way, but unfortunately the writing of the narrative lets the book down a bit (just as in the first book of the series). The book is almost exclusively told by a single character which gives a satisfying focus in that regard, but there are two distinct timelines and several narrative styles. The primary story is about Flora’s journey after the end of book 2, and is told in a mixture of direct 1st person narrative and diary entries made at the time; these are then interspersed with a much older Flora reflecting back on that time, while also telling the story of the ‘current’ events. The first problem was that I got very muddled, it was hard to keep track of whether it was an older Flora reviewing the past, or a younger Flora reacting at the time. When one of the key themes of the book is about people changing and accepting and celebrating themselves and others, it was easy to get lost on the different journeys. Secondly it meant there was a lot of frustrating hinting at what was to come (“If only I’d known then what I know now…”) that just felt over-egged.
Overall I think this is a really interesting trilogy, the ‘universe’ that’s been created is brutally believable and forms a strong foundation to explore themes and subjects that are incredibly relevant today. It can feel a little episodic at time in terms of the stories, but the characters’ journeys pull things together. I think the writing itself lets the ideas down occasionally, but even though I was at times frustrated, I found it hard to put any of the books down and charged through each in just a couple of days each. Flawed, but fascinating.

Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island
A ‘classic’ that I actually enjoyed reading! It’s a proper adventure story that I think probably appeals to children and adults today just as much as it did when it was written over 130 years ago. It’s a confident book that doesn’t bother to explain some of the stuff that’s going on, pirates use vocabulary and language that I don’t think would have made much sense to a general reader in 1885 than it does today, but it sort of doesn’t matter. I just found myself reading those sections at a pace and picking up general ideas rather than the specifics of the sailing, or the pirates plans and I don’t think I missed out on a huge amount. As the whole thing is told from the point of view of the young Jim Hawkins, it doesn’t really matter if things make a huge amount of sense, because it *feels* right. This is a true adventure story and it’s fun to read, what more do you want?

Lucy Maud Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables
One of those classics that I’ve never read, which is odd because I read loads of this type of book as a child thanks to being given my Mum’s childhood books like Little Women and What Katy Did. Still somehow Anne of Green Gables must have passed my mother by, which is a real shame because I think I would have loved it as a child. Anne is a great central character, full of spirit and energy, always getting up to mischief, but never through any real failings, just through clumsiness and childhood ignorance. The adventures she has would have appealed to young me as well – the all consuming friendships, the anxieties of school and the occasional unfairness of the real world. Unfortunately I’m reading this as a cynical grown up and I wasn’t quite as charmed. I found the triviality of her ‘adventures’ quite dull, particularly when I could see hints of bigger stories going on just out of sight with the grown ups. A plot does sort of appear in the last few chapters, but not much of one. I also think even younger me would have found Anne’s flights of imagination and whimsy somewhat insufferable.

H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds
Most classics of literature, even those as ‘recent’ as the first half of the 20th century, are dreary and hard to read. Meandering about, waffling on and telling even interesting stories in a way that puts me to sleep. But classic science fiction somehow is the opposite, the stories are tight and focused, and the characters come alive through their actions within the story. The War of the Worlds was written in 1898 and is still a really good read. The story of aliens invading is now a classic, but even this early entry into the genre was written with a practical eye that made it completely believable (once you accept the concept of Martians). Telling the story exclusively from the eyes of a single character makes the extraordinary story very personal, and Well’s expertly crafts the narrative so we can understand what is happening globally without losing the focus of the 1st person narrative. Still an absolute masterpiece.

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Films in July

New Releases
Yesterday
Review 1: This is a classic Richard Curtis – sweet, funny, and escapist. The construct (everyone except for one struggling singer-songwriter has forgotten The Beatles) is daft, but just about holds together and provides a solid driver for the rags to riches storyline, as well as an excuse to play lots of great Beatles songs. I’ll confess that I fall in the middle ground of Beatles fandom – I’m very familiar with their songs, and I like them, but I’m not overwhelmed by them. That meant when they came on in the film, I smiled, but I didn’t feel the sense of joy and desperation to rush out and listen to their back catalog the way I did with Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody. It will not have a lasting impact on me, and I can’t imagine it becoming a classic, but it’s entertaining mush for a lazy brain.
Review 2: This is classic Richard Curtis – contrived, wafer thin and sexist. If you don’t think about anything too hard it’s ok, but it’s all surface polish over something darker. The concept was fun, but the details were inconsistent with an erratic approach to what/who were so influenced by The Beatles that they no longer exist. The central love story meanwhile is deeply problematic, I didn’t get a huge amount of romantic chemistry from the pairing and the lead female is reduced to a besotted groupie following him around. She just about rescues some agency for herself but it’s presented as making his life difficult. The resolution of the plot was a lot less satisfying than the set up of it, including a scene late in the film (in a cottage) that I felt rather uncomfortable about and an ending that tied everything up in an utterly improbably neat bow. Haven’t we moved on from this stuff yet?

I Am Mother
One of the annoyances I have with Netflix (or maybe it’s just on the xbox Netflix app) is that it automatically starts playing the trailers whenever you even hover over anything AND that so many trailers give away too much of the film. That’s the case with I Am Mother and it spoiled the film for me because I knew too much of where it was going and it’s a film that would be much better to just naturally grow the tensions instead of being one where you’re waiting for the inevitable. Excepting that there’s a very solid science fiction story here which works on multiple levels. I was surprised by the quality, even if the surprise of the story was spoiled.

New to me
McQueen
This is one of those rare documentaries that in the space of just 111 minutes gives you a startling informative and emotive look into a world, even one that you know nothing about, and possibly care even less about. I probably somewhere in my brain knew that there was a fashion designer called Alexander McQueen, I’d maybe even read news stories that he had commited suicide (and the tone of the film is immediately doom laden enough that it’s obvious his story is not going to have a happy ending), but I had no idea that one of the UK’s leading fashion designers was in fact a Lewisham lad from a very ‘normal working class family’. The documentary had me absolutely gripped, the candid interviews with his friends and colleagues and lots of archival footage digging in to how and why he was such a superstar, and how that effected him. For the first time I really feel like I understood fashion as an art form, an expression of ideas rather than something to wear. I was completely engrossed and deeply moved.

Ghost Rider
If I were being charitable to the film I would point out that I was exceptionally tired when I started watching, but it was only 7.30pm and I hoped that I’d at least make it through the 2 hour runtime to make it a reasonable bed time for a grown woman. I gave up after an hour and decided that the grown up choice was to not torture myself with any further drivel. I had to double check the year this was made as it looked and felt like a low budget 80’s film, not something that apparently cost only 20% less than Iron Man and was released a year earlier. It was truly terrible – awful script, stunningly bad acting and utterly horrific special effects (unnecessary blue screening meant even simple scenes were polluted by this). The basic plot would have been fine, but without even a quarter way decent scripts or performances then it’s just painful. I rarely quit a film in the middle, but this was just unbearable.

Den skyldige (The Guilty)
I watched the first half of the film thinking that this was something very special, but unfortunately I gradually turned to thinking that the film was trying to be something very special, but was actually falling slightly off the mark. The film is almost a single performance, Jakob Cedergren giving an absolutely storming performance as the less-than-perfect police officer who is on the receiving end of an emergency call from a woman reporting that she’s being abducted. He is constrained to the end of the phone, engaging with different people involved in the case – the public and other police officers. It’s a great set up and a great performance (also by the people on the unseen people on the phone), but the plot just slightly under-delivers. I found it predictable and frustratingly slow; the lack of proper process left me irritated and detracted from the drama rather than improved it. It’s still a really very good thriller, the tension at times almost painful, but it falls slightly short of being the outstanding piece that it felt like it was trying to be.

Atomic Blonde
What a great film. It’s fun and stylish, with a quirky tone and great soundtrack; but it’s also a really incredibly solid spy thriller that kept me guessing. The action sequences are exquisitely choreographed and performed, you can feel every hit along with the characters. It did occasionally wallow in the stylistic elements which I found distracting, but as soon as things started moving again it immediately grabbed me back again.

The Happytime Murders
There is a really great noir detective movie here, set in a world mixing puppets and people. It’s got all the necessary elements, traumatic pasts, Hollywood glamour and the darkness just behind it, stories and relationships with lots of history. It’s a real shame that they decided to make it a crude comedy rather than just telling it straight (see Detective Pikachu) or even just a knowing spoof. I don’t like crude comedies generally, but I don’t think this was a very good one. The design and creativity of the world they’ve built though is fascinating and still worth watching the film for, but it’s a missed opportunity for something clever.

The Dark Tower
Despite a lot of interesting stuff going on with this film, my over-riding thought during most of the film was “what is going on with Idris Elba’s accent?”. When Matthew McConaughey is in a film I know I’m going to have problems with understanding people, but I didn’t expect to have problems with Idris Elba! Writing my review 5 days after watching the film and that’s still my abiding memory. When I really think about it I can remember some stuff about the plot and some nice ideas, but they’re really fading from my memory leaving just a bit of a gap where something more substantial should have been.

Houseboat
I really wish I could let it go about the age differences between the romantic leads in films of this period, but it just taints them all. Added on to this is the discomfort of the lead character being pretty mean to his children at the start and there was a bad taste in my mouth that never quite recovered despite the sharp script and charismatic leads.

Rewatches
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Some classics, particularly science fiction ones, really don’t age well. Either the ideas become outlandish, or the filming styles and technology begin to look really scruffy, best case scenario is sometimes that the film ends up being so influential that everyone else builds on and parodies the ideas so much that the original ends up looking weirdly derivative despite having actually been there first. None of this happens with Close Encounters. Through some form of outright magic, Spielberg’s 1977 film is as much a masterpiece today as it was then. The characters and performances are all so grounded, the themes and filming techniques are so simple that they don’t really age, and the emotions are as real today as they were over 40 years ago. Even the simple 5 note refrain that is so incredibly familiar lands in the movie in a way that gave me genuine goosebumps.

The Illusionist – The challenge with films about magic is that it’s hard to make the tricks seem impressive while not making them unbelievable. Unfortunately The Illusionist does not manage this, several of the tricks presented on stage and off it did not seem possible, pushed just a little too far to be truly credible and therefore undermining the whole story and breaking my investment in it. The other pet peeve of mine they hit were unnecessary and eratic accents – set in Vienna, some attempted accents while others didn’t and it was just jarring. It’s a shame because everything else is there and really drew me in.

Memento – An excellent film that tries to be clever and actually not only *is* clever, but is also enjoyable to watch! The twists are numerous and the plot complex, but it is followable on the first viewing, although I suspect it will gain much from a second viewing. The principle idea of a character with no short term memory is fascinating, and Guy Pearce is outstanding in the lead role.

Books in July

I’m back to doing about 2 hours of commuting each day on the tube which means my reading is back up to good levels. I must be one of the few people on the tubes in the summer heat that is still reasonably happy about the circumstances, there’s nothing like having to drive to work for a few months to really make you appreciate the ease of being able to completely switch off while travelling. The quality of the most of the books this month has sadly been a bit more erratic.

E.M. Forster – A Room with a View
This book feels like it falls between two periods, which I guess is appropriate the period in which it was written and set (Edwardian, start of the 20th century), but makes it slightly weird to read if you have no real historical grounding. It’s a weird mix of Victorian prudishness (a single kiss between single people could be a scandal) and the start of a move toward equality – that women could be allowed to have their own opinions. I found it really hard to get a handle on what would be considered extreme – either old fashioned or too modern, what the rules were and what the challenges were, and that made it hard to really settle in to the book. There were sections that I became fully engaged in, becoming comfortable with the voices of the characters, but then I’d stumble as something lurched to another extreme. The use of broad caricatures to represent the extreme views made it hard to see anybody’s point of view reasonably. I did find it more engaging than a lot of ‘classics’ that I try to read, but that’s not saying a huge amount.

Hugh Howey – Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue
A solid but unremarkable space adventure story. I never quite lost myself in the book, the main character had a strong voice, but I could not quite reconcile her as a 17 year old, she acted as a very experienced professional when the story needed it, but an overly emotional naive teenager when the story needed that. Because she was telling most of the story first person, that rather tainted the reality of the places as well, particularly in the centre section which was trying to say something interesting but couldn’t find an elegant way to do it. There are some nice ideas, and it’s clearly setting up a series that might actually get better. Although I was underwhelmed by this, I may keep reading just because I know that author will go on to write the Dust trilogy after this, which I absolutely love.

Ian Stewart – Significant Figures: Lives and Works of Trailblazing Mathematicians
One of the reasons I review all the books I read is because I have a terrible memory, at best I will remember I’ve read someone before but not whether I liked it or not. When I picked this book up in the library I didn’t bother to check my reviews which was a mistake. It turns out I’ve read one other book by Ian Stewart and summed it up as “avoid like the plague”. I will say the same about this one, with the slight concession that I didn’t actually read the whole thing. I managed about 100 pages but got very little out of it. Just like his other book, this is a muddle of history, biography and maths and none of them are very well served. You really do have to be a mathematician to understand and appreciate the importance of each mathematician and even then, I’m not sure that the history side of things is interesting enough to make it worth the effort.

Carol Baxter – The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison and Pursuit
I felt a little conned by this book. I’d found it in the science section of the library and the title and blurb implied it was focused on the science and technology of the 1840’s and how they fed into police work. Really though the book is 95% crime thriller with the telegraph and forensic science only playing the smallest of roles. It’s a shame this put me in a grump, because it is actually a really good historical crime story. Non-fiction and (seemingly) impeccably researched, but structured and told like a proper legal thriller with a rich cast of characters, well structured plot and interesting insight into different parts of society at the time. Go in with those expectations and you’ll be very satisfied.

Dava Sobel – A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos
I studied history of science at University, and Copernicus was a big part of it, so I’m fairly familiar with the impact of his revelations, why they were so challenging and how they fit into the wider story of science. However I wasn’t that familiar with Copernicus as a person and his place in society. So I thought this book would be an interestingly new approach to the story. It gives an interesting insight into where Copernicus came from, the culture and society he grew up in and his day to day existence. It’s a little bit of a slog as there are quite a lot of names, places and dates to track and there was sometimes way more detail than was needed, or awkward sections told almost entirely in quotes from documents that 500 years later aren’t exactly easy reads. The real frustration for me was that the crucial section about the publication of the work, was framed as a play. For a start – I don’t find reading a script very engaging, for a second it was impossible to tell how much was actually true. When I’m reading non-fiction, I don’t want it dramatized, I don’t want to have to guess whether people said, felt or did what is being described. I felt significant liberties were taken with the truth which deeply frustrated me, and to add insult to injury, I’m not actually sure it made a very good fictional play either. That completely overwhelmed any of the good scholarly effort that had gone into the work and left me very frustrated.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 9: The October Man
I was slightly surprised when I started reading this novella and discovered that it not only did not feature the usual characters from the series, but wasn’t even set in London! It worked out ok though, because the new central character wasn’t a million miles away from Peter Grant in his character or tone and was just as well developed. I enjoyed the small scale nature of the story compared to the larger books which are adding to the overall storyline, but at the same time it opened up the scope of the series to know that there are other practitioners and professionals working with magic. I polished the book off in a couple of sittings and found it both entertaining and satisfying despite it’s short length.

iZombie and Lucifer: Season 4

These two shows both fall neatly into what I label as “ironing TV”. They’re shows that I put on when I’m doing something that needs some level of awareness but isn’t fully engrossing; if there’s an interesting bit of the episode, I can pause the ironing to watch it, but 90% of the time it just doesn’t need (or support) that much attention.

Part of the reason both Lucifer and iZombie fit this way of watching is that the structure of most episodes are built around a “case of the week” that is varying levels of forgettable, and occasionally outright annoying. This structure is better done on iZombie because it presents opportunities for fun with the zombie trick of taking on the characteristics of the person who’s brain was eaten, usually some sort of extreme personality (posh, germophobe, sports obsessed etc). It gives Rose McIver plenty of opportunities to shine and keeps things fresh. Lucifer however is less successful because the cases are always wafer thin with a completely obvious connection to the other stuff going on in the characters lives, I often felt like I was being treated like a bit of an idiot and it left me a bit bored and frustrated.

The 10% of the shows that are worth putting the iron down for are the ongoing storylines and characters that are building up. Both shows are playing with similar ideas about nature, destiny, self-awareness and acceptance – generally the fundamental themes at the heart of most of the supernatural genre. Also season 4 for both series are dealing with the fallout of “coming out”. On iZombie the world has found out about the zombies with all sorts of ramifications that each of the characters are having to deal with in different ways. That’s a rich canvas and the series juggles most of it fairly well, but it did sometimes feel like there were too many threads running and not intersecting often enough, with some left hanging and forgotten about by either writers or watchers. It also didn’t always blend well with the more quirky cases of the week and the caricature personalities being shown, the two elements were fighting each other at times.

Lucifer meanwhile has a more personal reveal with Chloe finally finding out Lucifer’s true nature, which in turn forces Lucifer to confront his own acceptance of who he is. The problem with this is that I’ve never really believed in Chloe as a character, she has little in the way of core personality, just her job really. Also the fact that she’s been with Lucifer this long and she’s never really challenged how he does what he does just undermines her. Lucifer is such a strong and charismatic character and I’ve never felt she balances him, it’s a missed opportunity for a strong female character which is disappointing (maybe due the gender inbalance in the writers room – imdb). There are more interesting threads going on with the supporting characters, but they’re not given much time to really breath.

Neither show particularly excited me, and both took me several months to get through, partly because of my lack of enthusiasm for ironing, but mostly because of my lack of engagement in the shows themselves. Lucifer is watchable because of the superb Tom Ellis, but fails to adequately support the richness of the potential. iZombie is doing something a bit more creative and interesting, but is maybe overstretching and trying to do too many things.

Films in June

Toy Story 4
The ‘original trilogy’ told the story of the toys lives with Andy and seemed like a complete story, that had us saying goodbye to all the characters moving on to the next stages in their lives. When a fourth film was announced it seemed unnecessary. The trilogy was near perfect, it didn’t need more, and I was worried it would be an unnecessary blight on perfection. I’m not sure whether it was or not.
On one hand, it is a wonderful film. It has great new characters (although that did turn many of the ‘old’ characters into borderline cameos), creative ideas, a solid story, lots of laughs, plenty of action and a huge amount of heart. It looks absolutely stunning with Pixar continuing to push the boundaries of the the technology (the textures, the rain, the lighting), but also designing shots that have the sort of directorial artistry of framing, composition and lighting that any live action director would be seeking.
On the other hand, I wish I’d never seen it. The third film ended on the closing of on chapter of the toys’ lives and the opening of a new chapter. This film shows that it’s not quite that simple, and Woody is put in a situation where he has to chose what he wants to do. It’s tough to explain without spoiling it, but I did not like the choice that was engineered and the option that was taken. I hated it. I just about held off the full on heaving crying in the cinema, but even a week on, just thinking about it leaves me quietly devastated. While Toy Story 3 made me cry as well, I was left with an overall sense of happiness, Toy Story 4 left me very sad. So, an excellent film, that I don’t want to think about any more and I think may mean I can never watch any of the films again.

Late Night
Emma Thompson as an acerbic late night talk show host is everything I could have hoped for. She is biting and cruel with just enough humanity hidden under the surface to make her likable. Mindy Kaling is the perfect opposite – positive and hopeful with a layer of grit hiding underneath to make her not a simpering push over. The film touches on some very interesting ideas about how to appeal to the masses without undermining your principles, and what discrimination and inclusion look like now. But I think it slightly shied away from those issues before really getting to the crux of them. The film is hugely entertaining, but I found myself a little irritated that it didn’t take some of it didn’t push the issues as far as it could and tied everything up with a nice bow at the end.

New to me
Free Solo: This is one of those classic documentaries that looks like it is about one thing, but is in fact a character study of the person that is doing the thing. The thing in question is the absolutely bonkers idea of climbing nearly 3000ft of cliff face without the aid of any equipment or safety ropes – you fall you die. The film is beautifully shot to really give you a sense of the scale and the difficulty of this challenge and it’s not one for those suffering from vertigo. But, all the way through the film, the real focus is on Alex Honnold as he prepares physically and mentally. Honnold is very good company – introspective, warm and open. I can simultaneously completely relate to him, while also not understanding how he could chose to do the things he does. The people surrounding him (including the film crew) who share fly on the wall scenes and short interviews grounds both Honnold and the film as a whole, showing how ‘normal’ people react to the extreme elements of Honnold’s activities. I was completely gripped throughout the film, blown away by the Honnold’s phenomenal physical and mental achievement and grateful to have been given this insight into an incredible experience and person.

The Beguiled: A film that makes me want to read the original book, because the concepts are so fascinating, but sadly the delivery of them in the film is underwhelming. The twists and complexities of the characters were undermined by a collection of alternately bland and over the top characters, and a script that lurched from ambiguous to overly pointed every few minutes. The whole thing felt quite muddled in tone with most of it trying to be subtle and understated, but occasional characters or scenes trampling through. To add insult to injury, I didn’t get on with the directorial style either, too much of it was in shadows and darkness to hold my attention.

Charade: A really twisting ride where I was pretty unsure at which direction anything was going and who was really on which side. I did spot the ending a fair way off, but there were still plenty of smaller mysteries along the way. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are both wonderful to watch and their bantering chemistry is lovely and almost enough to overcome the discomfort of the 25 year old age gap, but sadly not quite.

American Animals: There’s a couple of strong ideas at the heart of this film, but I don’t think it quite managed to deliver on either of them. The film is based on a true story of a group of college students who decide to pull a heist, based mostly on their knowledge from film and TV. The story is more than sufficient to carry the film along, it starts as a lot of fun but grows darker in a very satisfying way. The story telling is augmented by pieces to camera by the real people, and touches upon the fact that different people remember, or tell events differently, which is a really interesting idea but I don’t think it quite lands fully. The pieces to camera interrupted the flow and didn’t quite align with the tone of the film, making the fun bits suddenly serious, and the darker bits more irreverent. Not enough was really made of the potential for different versions of the truth, at first it was treated more for laughs and quirkiness and then it was suddenly thrown in towards the end as a serious point that kind of undermined a lot that had gone before. I did enjoy the film, and it’s worth certainly worth watching, but I think there might have been something truly outstanding possible that didn’t quite stick the landing which left me frustrated.

RBG: It’s quite hard sometimes to separate the subject of a documentary from the quality of the documentary, and this is one of those cases. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an absolute legend, one of the few people that can genuinely be said to have changed the world within her own lifetime. She has fought her whole life for civil rights, battling from within the system that is restricting her, to make it better for herself, those that are victims of discrimination, and for the whole country. She fights not just because it’s not fair, but because the outcome is better for everyone. The story of her life (and those around her, most notably her husband) is a true inspiration. The documentary itself is fairly unremarkable, it’s played completely straight with little embellishment or style, but when the subject stands for itself so strongly, it doesn’t need anything more. I should probably complain a bit about the fact there is minimal attempt to criticise Justice Ginsburg or show any other point of view, but I don’t really want to see that, so I’m happy to just celebrate her amazing life.

Beast: Wow. This is the kind of film best served by a vague review, because the film is best watched if you know little about it. It’s a film that you should fall into, getting sucked into the characters and story as it gradually builds and adds layers and layers of complexity. I didn’t know what the film was going to do and every time I thought I knew where it was heading, it did something a lot more interesting. The performances are very carefully measured to make sure the nuance and uncertainty is embedded rather than deceiving. Just go and watch it.

The Program: The level of systematic cheating and bullying present in cycling in the early 2000’s was truly mindblowing. This dramatisation of that period, focusing on Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall, shows a level of corruptness, bullying and self-denial that is really quite scary. The way that all the people involved justified themselves is well presented, with Chris O’Dowd a charismatic counter voice passionate about the sport that he sees as being destroyed. Ben Foster portrays Armstrong as a complexly ambitious person, the film doesn’t present him as a simple villain, but also doesn’t excuse that he lied and made choices for himself and others that he knew were wrong. The drama is occasionally a little forced, some plot lines should have been either dropped or more developed, and I struggled to keep track of characters sometimes. But overall, a really well put together drama that entertains, engages and informs.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Wow, apparently I have never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m really not sure how I’ve managed that. Surprisingly after leaving it so long, I was still actually quite impressed with the film. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and has dated surprisingly well. I think that’s down to two factors – the first is that there’s a strong fantasy element to it anyway, the level of complexity of the capers are far from logical anyway, so it’s obviously pointless to challenge the realism of it. The second is that the emotions of the characters are pretty universal – independent of decade or even age of the audience. My only frustration was that while Matthew Broderick was a star turn, the supporting characters got slightly short shrift, with Mia Sara’s Sloane getting little to work with and Alan Ruck’s Cameron clearly having huge potential that felt unresolved.

The Craft: I watched this on the same day as Ferris Beuller’s day off, having somehow missed both films. While Ferris Beuller was a surprisingly entertaining watch with some impressively timeless, the same cannot be said for The Craft. I just found it rather naff and cheesy, the cast lacked spark, the ideas felt weary and it dragged. I didn’t think it was terrible or anything, but it just sort of trudged through without feeling like it really added anything beyond checking tropes previously delivered by things like Heathers, and updating the soundtrack.

Bright Young Things: I spent the whole of this film going “oh it’s so-and-so” as a parade of actors I like passed by the screen without ever actually managing to engage me. Maybe it’s because, weirdly, the only actor I didn’t recognise was the lead character who was completely bland other than his ability to make stupid decisions. Maybe it’s because there’s very little in the way of plot. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to feel connection, let alone sympathy, for willfully ignorant rich people. Or maybe it’s just not very good.

The Mummy: What a load of rubbish. I’m completely bored by Tom Cruise action hero, there’s not much in the way of acting going on, just the same ‘character’ over and over again and while his commitment for stunts is impressive, I don’t find him charming enough to want to watch him. Some films manage to work around this by providing engaging supporting characters to provide interest (Simon Pegg in Mission Impossible for example) but sadly no one in The Mummy manages that. The plot is dumb, the supporting characters bland, and even the action sequences are flat and unremarkable. So all there really seems to be to the film is Tom Cruise, and that’s really just not enough.

Crooked House: A thoroughly hammy Agatha Christie that’s solid entertaining for a dreary afternoon. The majority of the cast are familiar faces taking the chance to be over the top, and sensibly balanced out by a fairly straight performance from the lead investigator. Being a Christie, the nuts and bolts of the mystery are solid, with enough red herrings and twists to keep the plot moving along. The resolution is one of the darker ones, which is maybe a little disjointed from the overall tone, but overall I enjoyed myself almost as much as the cast seemed to.

To Catch a Thief: Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock, should be a no brainer success, but sadly it’s dull, artificial and flat. The director seems more in love with the scenery than the plot; there’s little creativity to the style and there are some rookie mistakes like bad dubbing. Cary Grant’s usual charm is sadly muted and the 25 year age gap between the romantic leads doesn’t help. Really disappointing.

Rewatches
Despicable Me: The film that spawned a thousand merchandising opportunities! My house is full of minions and they just never fail to make me smile. They are beautifully introduced and utilised with a combination of slapstick and silly noises/words being laugh out loud funny. Although the minions are the standout stars, the film itself is very well put together, with a sweet and engaging plot that holds up to multiple viewings.
Despicable Me 2: The producers of Despicable Me clearly learnt from the first film that while the story was enjoyable enough, what audiences went absolutely nuts about were the little yellow minions, so they take a much larger role in the film too. And it really works. I love those little guys. As soon as they appear I laugh and I hardly stop for breath. The rest of the film is perfectly servicable, and by itself would have been entertaining enough, but whenever you go more than five minutes without a minion, it feels like an eternity.
Despicable Me 3: Not enough minions. I know the point of the Despicable Me films isn’t the minions, but I can’t be the only one that’s mostly watching these films for the minions. I mean the other characters are ok (the little girls are pretty funny and Agnes is really pretty adorable), and the plot is just about ok but I did find myself constantly hunting the backgrounds for minions and generally didn’t find them.

Sense and Sensibility: I’m not a big fan of these sorts of period romances as I tend to find the characters rather soppy and tiresome, but Sense and Sensibility brings just enough spunk to make them tolerable. The wit in the writing and performances brings life to some familiar tropes and I even found myself engaged in the twists and turns of the relationships, unsure where they would actually end up. While the cast is all superb, I’m not sure that they actually work together as some of the ages didn’t seem to match and left some relationships that I wanted to root for, a little unsettling.

Books in June

Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
It wasn’t until I read the blurb just now that I realised that the story is based on Rumpelstiltskin, making this book another entry in the growing genre of retellings of classic fairy tales. The story starts out simple, with a couple of young girls taking agency to deal with their own local problems, even though they should be powerless. Gradually the story adds more threads, expanding as events involve more groups of people, expertly building up a complex and vibrant world of politics and magic, with a core group of strong , yet human women at the centre. I do think it maybe got a little too complex and went on a bit too long with more and more levels of pan that left me a bit overwhelmed at times. The story is all told first person, but there are a few too many people who take a turn (I’m never a fan of young children acting as narrator, they’re just too unreliable and drawn out) and it gets a little crowded. However even though technically I can see those flaws, I enjoyed reading every page, so it seems a bit silly to complain that the enjoyment went on too long.

Jessica Fellowes – Bright Young Dead
Not gripping unfortunately. There were too many characters, too many cases and too much meandering about. Everyone seemed to lose track of what was actually being investigated, characters made stupid mistakes and obvious routes of investigation were completely ignored until at the last minute someone asked the obvious questions. The first book in the series felt a little different as it was more from the maid’s point of view, but this novel felt like the writer had to keep engineering situations so that she could see the lives of the rich from the point of view of the maid who would never have been there. It just felt clumsy and unsatisfying, I don’t think I’ll bother with any further books in the series.

Philip Gwynne Jones – The Venetian Masquerade
Another thoroughly entertaining entry in this series. Venice is still the star, the descriptions of the city so vibrant and personal, but the rest of the elements of the book are no slouch either. A bit of time has passed since the last book and the recurring characters have all grown and settled and are lots of fun to spend time with. The mystery itself is solid, and although the world of opera does nothing for me, it gives a justification for some rather over the top characters to play out the mystery. A comfortable page turner that was just nice to settle in with.

The Society – Season 1

Unoriginal. I’m sure the creators of this show would be deeply disappointed that this is the first word I think about with this show, and I’m pretty disappointed too, although in fairness I didn’t have particularly high expectations. There’s almost nothing here that even the most charitable person could highlight as innovative, the only thing that I could really think of was that one of the main characters is deaf and that’s an integral part of him and the community around him and is almost unremarked on. Even the fact that he’s also gay feels a little generic in the modern young adult landscape (thankfully!). Beyond these positive steps forward in representation, which less charitably could be seen as remedying a failure of the rest of the world rather than a great step forward, there’s nothing going on here that hasn’t been seen dozens of times since Lord of the Flies in the 1950’s, and I doubt even that was entirely original.

Fundamentally we’ve got a group of teenagers left to fend for themselves after their town is cut off from the world and all the adults disappear. From there you could probably take a pretty good shot at working out how things will go, with a predictable bunch of high school stereotypes (jocks, partiers, rich kids, student council nerds, science geeks, neighborhood psychopath) in predictable relationships (high school sweethearts, bullies, sibling rivalries) and inevitable scenarios (dealing with crime, rationing, establishing democracy). Even the supposed twists are predictable. The TV Tropes page is quite the list.

Part of feeling generic is that it doesn’t feel modern. Other than the improved representation, this series could be set almost any time in the last 50 years. It would have been nice to see a more positive message – us grown ups are doing such a crap job at leading the world, wouldn’t it be good to have a version of the world run by the next generation, learning from our mistakes and making a better job of it? Rather than falling back to domestic violence, class-ism, violence, backstabbing and short-sightedness couldn’t we have seen a group of people working together to make something better? It feels like this is a show written by adults, and I’m not sure that anyone old enough to be sitting in a writing room can fully understand what it is like to be a 17 year old today in a world where all information, media and communication has always been at their finger tips, and climate change, (non)equal rights, and gun control have always been front of mind. Other than very fleeting references there’s hardly any discussion of how much of a struggle it would be for kids to no longer have working mobiles, or how much of an opportunity to have power to improve on things. Whether it’s true or not, it’s depressing that nothing seems to move forward.

It’s not that it’s badly made or anything, it’s perfectly fine. The actors are all good enough (although few are convincing as actually being teen aged) and the writing may be unoriginal, but it’s competent. It’s just that it’s very hard to get excited about something so generic.