Oscars 2022

There are 38 full length films nominated for one of the awards at the Oscars across 99 nominations. I have seen 25 of the films (66%) but thanks to multiple nominations, I managed 77% of the nominations.

Looking at the list of films there are very few that I feel strongly positive about, and even those aren’t always nominated in the right places. There are a few films I liked but feel a bit light for big award plaudits, and there are films that I have some respect for but didn’t really enjoy or connect with. To me, that’s really fundamental – you can be full of worthy material and beautifully made, but if I’m bored watching, then I’m not going to get past that.

As usual, for each of the awards I’ll quickly cover my feelings on the nominees, anything that I think is missing, who I think should win, and who I think will win. I think there’s going to be a lot of people spreading their votes around, not necessarily minding where the awards go, but trying to make sure a subset of films (Power of the Dog, Belfast, Dune, Flee, Drive My Car) all get something somewhere. But if it’s not coordinated it could get a bit weird and messy.

codaBest film detailed reviews here

  • Belfast – alright, but needlessly black and white, trying too hard
  • CODA – lovely, fun to watch, interesting story, lots to say and and it said it well.
  • Don’t Look Up – not believable enough for good satire, not funny enough for straight comedy
  • Drive My Car – not seen
  • Dune – excellent adaptation, beautifully made, a bit too cold
  • King Richard – not seen
  • Licorice Pizza – over-long, under-plotted
  • Nightmare Alley – 1/3 good, 1/3 cliché, 1/3 needless padding
  • The Power of the Dog – boring
  • West Side Story – solid enough production but the source story is not good.

I’m rather underwhelmed with this list. I think tick, tick… Boom! is a far superior film to Don’t Look Up, and a far better musical than West Side Story. I also like The Tender Bar a lot more than awards voters seem to. Of the actually nominated films I was going to give my vote to Dune. But then I finally saw CODA this week and it swept me away. Not only well made and letting me experience a world I have no experience of, but a film I enjoyed watching and can wholeheartedly recommend to just about anyone. However, I think The Power of the Dog will win instead and I have zero clue why.

power of the dogBest Director

  • Kenneth Branagh – Belfast – Sorry, I can’t get over the black and white thing, just trying too hard.
  • Ryusuke Hamaguchi – Drive My Car – Not seen
  • Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza – I can’t remember much about the direction except that it dragged
  • Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog – Solid I guess
  • Steven Spielberg – West Side Story – the big dance numbers were well shot, gave a sense of scale and place, but a nuts and bolts direction of a musical.

I again think tick, tick… Boom! is swindled here, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction of a musical is a lot more creative and interesting than Spielberg’s. Also Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was all about the direction, maybe the Academy are just waiting to see if he lands the 2nd part.

I don’t have strong feelings about who should win, but it would be nice for Jane Campion to be only the 3rd woman to win, and the 2nd consecutive after Chloe Zhao last year. If we can keep the trend going we’ll have gender parity in 2110. However I don’t think that Power of the Dog will win both best film and best director, so it may be Branagh.

Best Actor

  • tick tick boomJavier Bardem – Being the Ricardos as Desi Arnaz – nothing special
  • Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog as Phil Burbank – A big part of my dislike for the film was down to the quality of Cumberbatch’s performance as a deeply unpleasant person to be around which I guess is impressive.
  • Andrew Garfield – Tick, Tick… Boom! as Jonathan Larson – brilliant. A triple threat singing, dancing and acting performance of an incredibly complex character.
  • Will Smith – King Richard as Richard Williams – haven’t seen, but it’s a great role for him
  • Denzel Washington – The Tragedy of Macbeth as Lord Macbeth – I dislike Shakespeare intensely, but his performance almost made me understand and care

I really liked Ben Affleck in The Tender Bar, but apparently Oscars forgot that film existed. A slightly leftfield choice would be Kenneth Branagh as Poirot who was funny and heartbreaking and the only consistent thing about the whole mess of Death on the Nile. Riz Ahmed was also superb in Encounter and for real “that’ll never happen” consideration, how about Tom Holland for Spiderman?  Any of them would have been better nominees than Javier Bardem to be honest. But of the other four nominees I think any of them are worthy winners, personally I’d vote for Andrew Garfield. However I think Will Smith is probably the front runner.

eyes of tammy fayeBest Actress

  • Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye as Tammy Faye Bakker: This is a transformative performance, I could barely see Chastain through the makeup, and it’s an interesting role but I think it was let down a bit by the writing which seemed indecisive as to whether Tammy Faye was a canny woman stealing and using power where she could, or a slightly simple woman at the mercy of everyone around her and unwilling to look too closely or take responsibility.
  • Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter as Leda Caruso – I didn’t like this film. I didn’t really understand what the main character was thinking and what was driving her actions, and I’m not sure the actress or writer did either.
  • Penélope Cruz – Parallel Mothers as Janis Martínez Moreno – not seen
  • Nicole Kidman – Being the Ricardos as Lucille Ball – this didn’t feel very natural, a bit too much like a performance, someone delivering a script. The performance, and the film itself were very watchable, but felt like it didn’t quite stick the landing.
  • Kristen Stewart – Spencer as Diana, Princess of Wales – I was going to say that this seemed like a good option, until I actually watched the film last night. Stewart does an uncanny impression of someone very odd which makes it feel either creepy or ridiculous. The script is also truly abominable and the combo meant I found the film almost unbearable.

A really underwhelming set of nominations, some potentially good performances let down by mediocre material. Film makers need to do better. It feels like Catriona Balfe for Belfast is missing and Emilia Jones for CODA would actually win my vote so it’s a real shame that she’s not even nominated. Of those on offer I think I’d actually vote for Jessica Chastain for the volume of performance if nothing else.  I’m not sure who will win though, Nicole Kidman maybe?

Best supporting actor

  • Ciarán Hinds – Belfast as Pop – there wasn’t a massive amount of complexity or depth to this role. feels more like a lifetime achievement award than a genuine nomination
  • Troy Kotsur – CODA as Frank Rossi – this role on the other hand had a HUGE amount going on and it was all beautifully, hilariously, passionately and heartbreakingly performed
  • Jesse Plemons – The Power of the Dog as George Burbank – Jesse Plemons excels playing this kind of unremarkable character that other bigger characters dance around, and in some ways it’s lovely to see that recognised, but on the other hand it doesn’t really scream award worthy.
  • J. K. Simmons – Being the Ricardos as William Frawley – blink and you’ll miss it. Simmons is always great, but this wasn’t an outstanding role
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Power of the Dog as Peter Gordon – it’s an impressive achievement to stand alongside the huge performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and not only hold your own, but bring another level of unsettling creepiness.

Supporting awards are interesting, is it the 2nd biggest role in a film (arguably Troy Kotsur and Kodi Smit-McPhee), is it stealing the scenes you’re in (J.K. Simmons and Ciaran Hines) or is it just doing a good job with a nuts and bolts role to fill in the narrative gaps that the story needs (Jesse Plemons)? It’s hard to compare. But in this case I’m not going to think too hard about it because it’s an easy choice anyway as Troy Kotsur completely blew me away me in CODA, and for that matter in his acceptance speech at the BAFTAS. I don’t think there’s much doubt he’ll win the Oscar.

west side storyBest Supporting Actress:

  • Jessie Buckley – The Lost Daughter as Young Leda Caruso – arguably a better written and more coherent role than Coleman’s and very well performed.
  • Ariana DeBose – West Side Story as Anita – she absolutely stole the show, lighting up the screen with her singing, dancing, shouting and crying. In fact this is the best role in the whole film even if it’s supposed to be ‘supporting’.
  • Judi Dench – Belfast as Granny – like Ciaran Hines, a solid performance but more of a default nomination I think
  • Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog as Rose Gordon – better material than her on, and off screen husband Jesse Plemons had, and very worthy of nomination
  • Aunjanue Ellis – King Richard as Oracene “Brandy” Price – not seen

Another set of slightly slim pickings for actresses this year. Ironically the person I thought doing the best job of the leading 4 in Being the Ricardos was Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance and she’s the only one not to be nominated. Rita Moreno who plays Valentina in West Side Story and was Anita in the original version was also very worthy of nomination which would have made some lovely poetry. However I think it should and will be this West Side Story’s Anita – Ariana DeBose to win.  (If you get a chance, look up her winning the Rising Star award at the BAFTAs, she gives a great speech but more hilariously she was clearly not expecting it as you clearly see her say “Oh SHIT!” before remembering the cameras are on her.

Best Original Screenplaybelfast

  • Belfast – Kenneth Branagh – ok, I guess. I struggled to really understand the politics going on and I’m not sure if that’s my fault for being embarrassingly ignorant, or the screenplay.
  • Don’t Look Up – Screenplay by Adam McKay; Story by Adam McKay and David Sirota – I think the problems I had with the film were down to the writer’s not creating believable characters and motivations
  • King Richard – Zach Baylin – not seen
  • Licorice Pizza – Paul Thomas Anderson – I don’t think there was enough plot, or clarity of message
  • The Worst Person in the World – Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier – not seen

Why do animated films not get nominated for screenplays? I think Encanto would be an interesting and worthy nominee here, there was a LOT going on and it was juggled and structured well by the writers. It seems weird that an Aaron Sorkin script doesn’t get nominated, I liked the construction of the constrained time line of Being the Ricardos a lot although maybe some of it was a bit clunky. I also think Spider Man No Way Home did a lot of clever plotting and dialogue.

Of the five, I’ve not seen 2 of them, and 2 of them I thought were actively poor so I guess that means I’d vote for Belfast and I think the Academy will lean that way too.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • CODA – Sian Heder – well structured, completely believable, and entertaining as well. But it’s based on a French film so I’m not sure how much work there was to do.
  • Drive My Car – Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe – not seen
  • Dune – Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth – The previous film shows just how you can make a mess of adapting this and there’s a LOT in the book to play with. Plus splitting one book into two films and still making the first film a contained entity is worthy of note.
  • The Lost Daughter – Maggie Gyllenhaal – the main character didn’t make much sense to me, I was bored by the pacing and didn’t like the way the timelines were blocked out.
  • The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion – fine? I mean, I didn’t like it, but that doesn’t mean it was bad.

Adapted screenplay is tough, are you just awarding the quality of the resulting screenplay in which case I’d vote for CODA; or is it the difficulty of the adaptation which I think would go to Dune because adapting from a novel to a film must be harder than going from one film to another. I think the academy will go for The Power of the Dog.

encantoBest Animated Feature

  • Encanto – I enjoyed this, more on the second viewing, and actually some of the ideas and characters have really stuck with me.
  • Flee – I wish I’d seen this, but I haven’t managed it
  • Luca –I found this quite unremarkable
  • The Mitchells vs. the Machines – I actually thought Ron’s Gone Wrong the superior animation on this theme, although MvsM did have more creative animation I suppose, even if personally I didn’t like it.
  • Raya and the Last Dragon – I liked the end… but found the rest a bit clunky,

Of those I’ve seen Encanto is the best. Having a documentary in the category shakes things up, demonstrating the format is more than just kids films but I think people will probably vote for it in the documentary category instead.

drive my carBest International Feature Film

  • Drive My Car, Flee, The Hand of God, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, The Worst Person in the World

The only one I’ve seen is The Hand of God and I found it a bit of a muddle, too long and the final section left me irritated. So I’m gonna abstain from my own choice, but surely Drive My Car will win something?

fleeDocumentary Feature

  • Ascension, Attica, Flee, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Writing with Fire

Summer of Soul is the only one I’ve seen and while I thought the archive footage was an amazing find and the participants and attendees looking back at it make a powerful story, it didn’t quite sing for me. From what I’ve heard, Flee is the most original and interesting and will likely win, if the votes don’t get split too much between the three categories its nominated in.

duneBest Score

  • Don’t Look Up – Nicholas Britell – no memory of the music at all.
  • Dune – Hans Zimmer – the music wasn’t exactly full of catchy tunes, but it was very important to the scale, impact and what there were of emotional impacts.
  • Encanto – Germaine Franco – I *think* the score doesn’t really include the songs so this feels a bit of a long shot
  • Parallel Mothers – Alberto Iglesias – not seen
  • The Power of the Dog – Jonny Greenwood – no memory of the music at all

Dune is the only one of these I’ve seen where I really remember the existance of the music (as opposed to the Encanto songs) so I’d vote for Hans Zimmer (usually a safe bet).  However it might go to Jonny Greenwood because he was snubbed for a nomination a few years ago on a technicality and people were cross.

Best Song

  • “Be Alive” from King Richard – Music and lyrics by DIXSON and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter – OK song, some nice (and relevant) lyrics.
  • “Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto – Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda – this is a bit unfortunate. The nominations had to be submitted before the film was even released and no one guessed “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” was going to be such a hit.  This song however I’ve got no memory of and when I went to listen to it again I decided it was too boring after just 15 seconds.
  • “Down to Joy” from Belfast – Music and lyrics by Van Morrison – catchy song and goes well with the film, but Van Morrison is rather problematic, so no chance.
  • “No Time to Die” from No Time to Die – Music and lyrics by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell – Perfectly ok Bond theme, but I had no memory of it.
  • “Somehow You Do” from Four Good Days – Music and lyrics by Diane Warren – weird nomination, never heard of the film and it just seems to me a generic country song.

What should win – We Don’t Talk about Bruno. So much so that it seems they’re putting an extra song in the show just to make sure it’s played. I have a suspicion they’ll give it to Lin-Manuel Miranda anyway.

Best Sound

  • Belfast, Dune, No Time to Die, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story

I’ve seen all of these and Dune wins hands down, the soundscape of the film did as much (if not more) work than the actors. The others were all perfectly fine but the sounds didn’t shine in the same way.

nightmare alleyBest Production Design

  • Dune – Patrice Vermette & Zsuzsanna Sipos: there is a LOT to look at and there’s a lot of complexity in the design, evolving what’s described in the books, what’s gone before and referencing other science fiction.
  • Nightmare Alley – Tamara Deverell & Shane Vieau: I felt the film was style over substance, but there was a LOT of style
  • The Power of the Dog – Grant Major & Amber Richards: very charismatic, the limited colour pallet actually worked here.
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth – Stefan Dechant & Nancy Haigh: I don’t like Shakespeare, but the design here was extreme and actually held my attention throughout.
  • West Side Story – Adam Stockhausen & Rena DeAngelo: the most unremarkable of the lot, it felt a bit artificial and stagey, I hope that was deliberate, but it was another thing that distanced me.

These are all are doing something quite different and are completely core to the films, if not THE most interesting thing about the films. I think I’d give it to Dune, but Nightmare Alley will win on the day.

Best Cinematography

  • Dune – Greig Fraser: almost every shot of this film could be framed on a wall showing something interesting and creative.
  • Nightmare Alley – Dan Laustsen: there’s a lot of complexity (SO much shooting in the rain)
  • The Power of the Dog – Ari Wegner: I don’t remember a huge amount of creativity here to be honest.  Fun fact – Ari Wegner is only the 2nd woman to be nominated for this award and would be the first winner
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth – Bruno Delbonnel: Like the production design, the creativity of framing and lighting makes this film.
  • West Side Story – Janusz Kamiński: More a technical achievement with the large sets and choreography

Again, I can see any of these winning the award, I think I would go for Dune.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

  • Coming 2 America – Mike Marino, Stacey Morris and Carla Farmer – even for an Oscar nomination, I’m not watching this film.
  • Cruella – Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon – lots of creativity, but it was the costumes doing most of the work.
  • Dune – Donald Mowat, Love Larson and Eva von Bahr – actually of all the design fields, the hair and makeup was probably the one that stood out least for me on Dune.
  • The Eyes of Tammy Faye – Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh – There’s a HUGE amount of work here, Jessica Chastain is completely transformed AND aged throughout the film. Andrew Garfield’s aging was not quite as good though
  • House of Gucci – Göran Lundström, Anna Carin Lock and Frederic Aspiras – I’ve not seen, but there was certainly a lot of work

I think this will be either Eyes of Tammy Faye or House of Gucci, my vote for the former (as I haven’t seen the latter).

cruellaBest Costume Design

  • Cruella – Jenny Beavan – the costumes are integral to the story and are a stunning array of creativity, not just the ‘big’ outfits either, there’s loads going on everywhere
  • Cyrano – Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran – I’ve not seen the film, but the costumes on display in the trailers and clips are clearly stunning and doing a lot of work
  • Dune – Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan – the costuming is supporting a lot of the design and storytelling for different races/ranks
  • Nightmare Alley – Luis Sequeira – the costumes are great, but like a lot of the rest of the film, they were a bit derivative and not really doing anything massively original
  • West Side Story – Paul Tazewell – fine, but other than Anita’s stunning yellow dress, I can’t remember much.

Cruella hands down should win and I think probably will win. Also even I know that Jenny Beavan is an absolute legend.

Best Film Editing

  • Don’t Look Up – Hank Corwin; Dune – Joe Walker; King Richard – Pamela Martin; The Power of the Dog – Peter Sciberras; Tick, Tick… Boom! – Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum

In terms of the level of challenge, I would think editing musicals and big FX driven sci fi is a bigger challenge, so for me it comes down to Dune or Tick, Tick… Boom! and the latter feels like it takes things a step forward to with not just choreography but interweaving views and threads, all connected to the music and rhythm.

Best Visual Effects

  • Dune, Free Guy, No Time to Die, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Spider-Man: No Way Home

It’s interesting to see 4 big sci fi films alongside an action film, it brings home just how much is artificially created in No Time to Die and merged together in a way that doesn’t throw the audience out of the moment. I think I would vote for No Time to Die, although I think the actual winner will be Dune.

Oscars 2022 – Best Films

There are ten nominees for Best Film at the Oscars this year, and I’d actually already seen six of them without even trying, and picked up another two without much effort. Normally I have to do a bit more deliberate watching, but even the ones I’d missed I had intended to see in the cinema, it just never quite worked out. I don’t know whether this means they’re a bit more mainstream, or just that pickings are a bit slim this year both for award fodder and cinema choice. I have to say, I’m not massively overwhelmed.

I’ll do a post later in the week covering all the other categories.

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

I signed up for Apple TV+ mainly to watch this film and it was one of my better decisions. It is a brilliant film, doing all the things that a good film should do – saying something interesting, exposing you to a world different to your own, being beautiful to look at and fun to watch. The characters and locations are vibrant and immediately believable, the family are each fully rich personalities in their own rights, but with complex relationships and groupings between them. The specifics of the story are original, but the themes more universal so there’s both something new to experience and something relatable. The only minor gripe I had was some of the nuts a bolts of Ruby’s discovery as an amazing singer felt a little bit of a stretch. I cringed at the singing teacher making the teenagers sing Lets Get it On and romantic duets. But this is a coming of age story and a feel good film so I’m not going to get that cross because the film had me utterly gripped throughout and has really stayed with me.

Don’t Look Up
Satire is tricky. Particularly at the moment when the real world is pretty ridiculous all by itself. If you make the situations and characters too extreme then it’s just silly, if you don’t make them extreme enough, it just feels like a drama. I don’t think Don’t Look UP quite got the pitch right, pushing it to be too silly. The biggest problem for me was that the ‘bad guys’ didn’t seem to make any sense. I didn’t understand what their plans were, and so I couldn’t buy into it. I liked the ‘straight’ characters, particularly Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. But I didn’t find the film funny enough or satirical enough to really completely enjoy it. To be honest, it feels quite out of place on this list of nominees and more a point about the message, than about the quality of the film.

Drive My Car
Of course one of the ones I missed out is the foreign language film. Rubbish of me.

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

King Richard
I’ve not seen this one, I tried to but the film times never quite worked out.

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

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

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

West Side Story
I really didn’t like the original and while some of the problems are fixed, there’s a lot that just carries over. The two things that can’t really be changed are the story and the songs and neither is too my taste. I can respect the songs, but I don’t like them, although at least this version has the actors singing and so doesn’t have the dubbing issues. The dancing I also got along with a bit better this time, the choreography and scale of it meant I stayed focused on it and could see much more the beauty in the mixture of ballet and salsa and jazz.
The story remains annoying. I don’t really get the starcrossed lovers thing – “I’ve seen you across a crowded room and now I will throw away all our futures for you”. The chemistry between Tony and Maria was solid and had a joy to it that I liked, but it didn’t completely blow me away and there were some very problematic character choices.
The final issue, I’m not sure whether it’s the film’s problem or my own. The natural language of many of the characters would be Spanish, and the decision was made to keep it in Spanish and not subtitle it. I understand that either of those options would be disrespectful, and I respect that choice, but at the same time, it meant there were large chunks of dialogue that I couldn’t undrestand. Yes, you can get the gist by context, tone and body language, but it meant I couldn’t engage fully with their characters and stories.
The film is beautifully designed, shot and directed; the cast all very solid… but the material does not sing for me, making the two and a half hour runtime a bit of a slog.

Turning Red

Pixar is known for pushing the boundaries of what can be done with animation, elevating the art form both technically and conceptually – from Sully’s fur to elegant handling of complex psychology in Inside Out. The boundary that Turning Red pushes is to discuss periods in a mainstream film for kids. The fact that it’s a boundary at all is completely ludicrous, but it’s still impressive that a major studio has done it. Although I hope that’s not why they premiered it on Disney+ rather than in cinemas.

Turning Red talks about periods and the other aspects of puberty outright, but the main thrust of the story is an extended metaphor whereby the 13 year old central character starts turning into a giant, very very fluffy red panda (the technology for Sully’s fur continues to evolve). Various adventures and emotional turmoil ensue as she, her friends and her family deal with the situation in different ways.

Unfortunately I admired the film more than I liked it. The characters are all larger than life (especially the panda) and I found them universally irritating. The awkwardness of being a teenager is well presented, but it’s not really something I enjoy being reminded of or enjoy watching. The bigger problem I had though was that the storytelling was clunky, characters did not behave consistently or with any particular degree of logic, which is almost ok for the teenagers, but in the adults just screams lazy writing.

It’s worth watching, and maybe it will connect with a younger audience (I hope it does). At the very least it’s broken a taboo that will hopefully be the start of something.

Films in February 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books in Feb 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death on the Nile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Films in January 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books in January 2022

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

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

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

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

Books I Read in 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended:

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

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

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

    Books in Oct-Dec 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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