Star Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books in November 2020

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

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

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

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

Films in November 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Films in October 2020

A bit of a rubbish short list of films watched this month. I’m finding it a bit hard to get into films, and find something that matches my mood. I did make it to the cinema once though, and a couple of new releases online.

Saint Maud (Cinema)
I’m a devoted Wittertainment listener, but I really should remember that when Mark recommends something and says it’s going to be one of his top films of the year, I should probably walk the other way. He absolutely raved about Saint Maud, and when I spotted a showing at a convenient time I decided to go and support my local cinema. I think I would have been happier just giving them the ticket price and leaving after the trailers. The film is a tense drama/horror playing on standard themes of how medical carers and religion can go very badly wrong. Both are let into our lives in a way that are supposed to be supportive and nurturing, but if mishandled can be controlling and terrifying. Saint Maud thumps these messages home without a great deal of subtlety (certainly not in the honking soundtrack). My overwhelming feelings were unsettledness, discomfort and a growing boredom and wish for the film to be over. I’m not sure that the filmmakers did anything wrong necessarily (certainly the acting was very good), but there was just nothing in the film that I can see as enjoyable or interesting to watch – it’s got themes that are unoriginal, gory bits that are truly nauseating, and a general tone that’s just unpleasant. It’s not particularly bad, it’s just got nothing positive going for it.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Rebecca (Netflix)
I’m a big fan of the original novel and the Alfred Hitchcock film, which I re-watched only recently and I’d been looking forward to seeing this new version in the cinema, but sadly had to settle for watching on Netflix. Lily James is very well cast as the second Mrs De Winter, there’s a fragile surface to her, but an underlying strength that eventually comes through. Kristin Scott Thomas is also perfectly cast as Mrs Danvers as well. I’m not so sure about Armie Hammer’s Max De Winter who seems a little more insubstantial, but it’s a weird role and this film deals slightly better with the inconsistencies of the character – swinging from joyous new romance to distant, inconsiderate, and frankly a bit of an arsehole. I don’t think it’s a huge departure from the Hitchcock version to be honest, and I think it’s not really much more than a remake of a film that didn’t really need remaking. I wish the talent involved had done something more original with the material (set it in a different time period, used a different point of view, done more with the supporting characters, play around with the timelines) as I think that would have been really interesting.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb (Netflix)
I’m simultaneously impressed and mystified by Netflix, who not only made this slightly dry documentary about Egyptian archaeologists (often with subtitles), but also heavily promoted it. Despite the rather dramatic name, and some very well shot opening sequences, most of the film is a pretty straightforward documentary following a dig season focused on exploring and explaining a beautifully preserved tomb. The narrative is well crafted and seems well grounded in science and history from a team of experts who are clearly passionate, respectful and excited. There are a couple of nice explanatory animated sequences, but I wish they’d used a bit more creativity to really connect things up (eg maps, timelines, drones, overlays etc). I felt I got a bit of depth in a couple of areas, but can’t really join up how it all fits together.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Gentlemen (Amazon)
Guy Ritchie is playing to his strengths here and he’s produced a slick and entertaining British gangster movie. The large number of characters and branches of the plot are handled elegantly, the narrative device of a narrator telling the story is well used and holds everything together. The tone is very carefully balanced with plenty of laughs, a dark centre and a really well judged sense of its own ridiculousness. The cast are all perfectly on note, I was going to call out Hugh Grant but to be honest there isn’t a bum note in the cast. If I were going to be picky and a bit prudish, I thought the language was maybe a little too crude and I wish a more creative approach had been found rather than the absolutely gratuitous use of the C word.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Murder on the Orient Express (TV)
An absolutely stunning cast (and Jonny Depp) combined with Agatha Christie’s most iconic work, and Kenneth Branagh as star and director was an easy sell and delivered beautifully to high expectations. What I didn’t anticipate though was how stunning gorgeous the cinematography would be, or how funny it was. I think a criticism could be made that there’s a few lurches in the reveals, and it may be quite easy to lose track of characters (I read the book recently so didn’t have a problem). Overall it’s an absolute delight of a film, just like curling up with a good book.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Aladdin (DVD)
Seeing that this film was made in 1992 makes me feel old. I remember it as one of the ‘new’ Disney films, distinct from the more traditional ones. I remember feeling that as a teenager it was still ok for me to enjoy Aladdin, while something like Fox and the Hound was more for children.
Even though it’s now nearly 30 years old, Aladdin still holds up pretty well as a ‘modern’ animation that’s got things to interest kids and adults alike. The dialogue is witty (largely, but not exclusively driven by the spark of Robin Williams), the music catchy, the characters lively, the female lead has as much agency as historically appropriate, and the whole thing feels vibrant.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Hotel Transylvania (Netflix)
A cute animation with enough moral centre to give it some depth, but not so much it gets too bogged down and sanctimonious. The concept is good, and the details of the characters and the world are well developed. There’s plenty of visual and audio references for the monster movie fans and plenty of silliness for the kids (or young at heart). The voice cast is really good, and doesn’t fall into the trap of just sounding like the known actors rather than the characters. A nice film to watch on Halloween.
Ranking: 7 / 10

Halloween (2018) (Netflix)
It wasn’t until I was about half way through this film that I realised that I’ve never actually seen the original Halloween or any of its many sequels before this one. It really didn’t make any difference (in fact that’s an interesting idea for a horror film, the ‘aftermath’ of a slasher movie that you never actually see). You could describe it negatively as being very generic, hitting all the beats that you’d expect (even the inevitable ‘twists’), but you could also put a positive spin on it that it’s being classic rather than generic. I thought it was absolutely fine but really nothing more than that. If you’re looking for a classic slasher with the women taking control rather than being powerless victims, then this film will do absolutely fine. But there’s not really much to get excited about.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (Netflix)
This is an absolutely terrible film. The only reason it’s mustered 3/10 not lower is because those scores are reserved for films that offend me on a moral level, whereas this one just offends me on a competency level. Things start badly with the title, which is so utterly unmemorable that I forgot it between viewing the IMDB page and switching tabs to write this review. I don’t even remember there being a hill in the film, there’s a lake and a waterfall, but no hill. Then there’s the lead character who is a pathological liar, but that’s never really explored or explained, she just choses to lie about ridiculous things. There’s interesting psychology, but it’s just ignored and instead we have a central narrator who you absolutely cannot trust. But she’s so dominant in the film that there’s no counterpoint to that and so the narrative is just confused. Then you’ve got multiple levels of conspiracy going on (which I didn’t care about), some magicians with terrible French accents, a plot with holes in it so big I actually rewound a couple of times to check I hadn’t missed something. I actually gave up on the film and skipped about half an hour to get to the end which was just as ridiculous as the rest of it and then ended on a cryptic scene that undermined what little plot they’d committed to. A truly terrible film that wasn’t worth the effort of downloading, let alone making it.
Ranking: 3 / 10

Books in October 2020

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
Based on the evidence of two novels, Susanna Clarke writes the kind of books that are rather hard to describe, ignoring some of the standard ‘rules’ of storytelling. She creates weird and wonderful worlds, but doesn’t introduce the readers to them, just throws them into them and leaves them to figure out what is the same and what is different. With Piranesi this sucked me in completely, I was utterly lost in the world, in a way that at times genuinely felt like I was lost in an unsettling way struggling to spot familiar landmarks to cling on to. The narrating character has a childlike sense of adventure, but the fact that they are actually in their 30’s makes that naivety unsettling. I’m not sure that the conclusion of the book and the solving of the puzzles is as well done as the set up, it was a bit drawn out and the way the ‘answers’ sort of destroys the childlike world is deliberate but sad. It’s a fascinating book, and is a third the length of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell so that definitely counts in its favour!

Emma Southon – A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Following on from her fascinating book focused on a single woman and her connections to the first few emperors of Rome, Emma Southon here takes a broader look at life in ancient Rome through the lens of murder. It’s a catchy concept, as Southon says – who doesn’t love reading about murder and mayhem? It turns out the concept of murder is a complicated one and it’s actually a route in to much wider historical and philosophical issues, really getting into the challenges that there are to assess a completely different culture through the presumptions our modern, western mindset. There are still plenty of gruesome, funny and touching anecdotes throughout, and Southon’s accessible tone keeps even complex discussions light and engaging. It’s so rare for non-fiction to be so well grounded in high quality academic research and also such fun to read, and I’m really glad I’ve found this author.

Stacey Halls – The Foundling
I enjoyed this book, it’s not the grim and gritty historical novel that I was expecting, and to be honest I’m actually a bit glad about that as while I feel I *should* read stuff like that, I’m not really in the mood at the moment. There is some challenging content in here, particularly at the very start, around the reality of women’s lives in Georgian England when the gaps between the rich and the poor were so immense. However while there’s that dark thread, there’s also a fair amount of cheesy plot going on, which makes the novel feel a little lighter and more like a caper or puzzle at some points. The ending ties everything up in a very neat and utterly improbable bow at the end which is maybe not ‘right’ but it was nicer to read than what the reality would have been.

Lucy Foley Double Bill
The Guest List – An entertaining and solid thriller, with a solid level of “un-put-down-ability” and a satisfying conclusion that tied everything together. It’s not a masterpiece – the jumping timelines got a bit annoying at times and the characters were slightly on the wrong side of credibility. But if you’re looking for a book to hold your attention while read under a blanket on an autumn evening, and then never really think of again, then this will hit the spot.

The Hunting Party – I was looking for a quick, fairly disposable read and having just finished Lucy Foley’s most recent novel, so thought I’d pick her previous one up. It’s exactly the same, the same overall structure with jumping timelines and holding the reveal of the crime and the victim until very near the end, the same combination of posh and annoying old friends slightly on the wrong side of credibility with more grounded ‘staff’ observing them. As a one off structure it works, but as a repeated gimmick it’s already very old after just two books. It’s still a solid read for a dreary autumn evening, but it’s disappointing that the author doesn’t have more creativity.

The Haunting of Bly Manor

The Haunting of Hill House really hit the spot for me, it was a well put together horror series, perfect for box setting on a dreary and low enthusiasm weekend. So I was quite excited when the next entry in the anthology series popped up on Netflix.

Unfortunately alarm bells started going off as soon as the characters opened their mouths.

I can understand the allure of setting a horror series in England – the glamour of a large manor house, the stiff-upper lip and ridiculous traditions of the nobility, inherent creepiness of servants beavering away while also being invisible, and the long history that gives plenty of time for gruesome deaths to leave behind supernatural ripples. However if you’re going to do it, you need to make sure that your cast can actually deliver the accents! If you’ve constrained yourself with using the same ensemble cast for multiple settings they either need to be flexible or you need to work your stories around their capabilities. There were several truly terrible accents on offer here, and the worst offender was the narrator who interjected with an accent that drifted all over the western hemisphere in the span of every sentence. Even the American actress playing an American character seemed to have picked up the problem and was also massively distracting.

In fact almost everything in the series was distracting, making it impossible to lose yourself in the characters, stories and settings. It was often hard to tell whether characters were supposed to be unsettling, or if it was just over the top acting. I’m afraid particular examples of this were the two children, who were I’m sure doing their absolute best, but playing “are they possessed, weird, or just upper class English?” is a hard balancing act that the adult actors were struggling with, so the children really had no chance.

The nuts and bolts of the plot were fine, and the horror elements were a nice combination of creepiness, action, jump scares, tension and the sort of horror that just gets worse the more you think about how it. For all that the English setting gave problems to the actors, it was a gift to the cinematography, and the Bly Manor of the title was a characterful setting used to very good effect. If not for the ever present issue of the accents, I think it would have been almost as enjoyable as the Haunting of Hill House.

Books in September 2020

I’ve bought more hardbacks this month then I think I buy most whole years. I’m not sure whether that’s about my reading habits during Covid (overwhelming desire to curl up in an armchair/deckchair and lose myself in a book) or if all the authors are condensing releases targeting for Christmas. Either way it’s a bit expensive and a bit harder on the wrists and hand muscles to read them. Particularly when they are absolute beasts like….

Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 5: Troubled Blood
If JK Rowling had managed to keep a secret that she was writing these books, I think the increasing page counts would probably have given her away by now. This book thuds in at 940 pages, nearly half as long again as the previous one, and in hardback it was actually a physical challenge to read at times. The book does cover a full year, and multiple cases, but it still feels like a good edit would have substantially tightened up without losing anything important. Still, given that I enjoy the company of the characters and even the meandering side plots are well developed, it seems a bit silly to complain about the experience lasting longer. I’m still frustrated by the “will-they-won’t-they” relationship and am firmly in the camp that they “shouldn’t” so feel it’s all a bit manipulative.

Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club
This is a lovely little murder mystery novel. Set in and around a retirement village, a group of residents regularly review cold cases supplied for a retired police officer and then find themselves involved in a present day murder. It’s a lovely idea and all the characters are vibrant and large, usually just the right side of credibility. It’s on the lighter side of crime fiction, but also has some real emotion in it and doesn’t gloss over the wide ranging effects. I think if I had picked this book up randomly I would have nothing but praise for it, but with the name Richard Osman on it I was expecting a little more. There were occasional flashes of his wit, and there were some lovely bits of observation, but they were a bit few and far between when I was hoping for more. Still, an excellent first novel and I look forward to reading more.

Thomas Erikson – Surrounded by Idiots
Another business psychology book that tries to group everyone into a limited number of categories to help us all manage our day to day lives. The title resonated with me, and I am also familiar with the ‘Success Insights’ categories and have found them really useful for understanding both myself and others, and using them to improve my working relationships and team dynamics. Unfortunately this book is not a great advert for the system. I found the book depressingly negative, talking extensively about the negative aspects of each colour type, and how frustrating other colours find their counterparts. Too much weight was put on weaknesses rather than how to channel traits effectively. Also the book talks exclusively about single colour types, but points out that by far the majority of people in the real world are a blend of at least two colours, so the examples felt like stereotypes pushed too far. The book isn’t without value as the underlying approach is solid and even the broad strokes are helpful, but by the end I really didn’t want to spend any time with any of the colours, including my own. (680)

Jennifer Bell – Wonderscape
Three young teenagers are randomly transported into the future and into a virtual reality game where they have to solve puzzles and challenges to return home. It’s a solid idea and competently told, but some reason I just didn’t quite connect with it. I always felt that if I looked too closely at anything it would fall apart, characters and world were all a little flimsy feeling, lacking in depth and solidity. I can’t really point at anything specific that was wrong with the book, so it may well just be me.

Neil Gaiman – Stardust
I think this may be one of the rare occasions that the film is superior to the book. To be fair, I’ve loved the film for many years before finally getting round to reading the book, so it was impossible for me to read it without automatically connecting bits to the film. It’s also one of the rare occasions where I think content was added for the film (eg the extended section on the lightning ship) and aspects such as the ghostly brothers played better in visual media. The book is still a lovely read, and obviously the film wouldn’t have existed without it, but in this case I’d say there’s not really much to gain from reading the book over watching the film.

Films in September 2020

The timing of this post is slightly odd. If I’d written it yesterday as I intended, I’d be focusing on the fact that after a nearly 6 month gap (4 days short) I went back to the cinema and the experience was everything I wanted it to be, given a couple of constraints. The Cineworld in South Ruislip was clean, welcoming and felt safe. The showing I went to on a Saturday morning only had a dozen or so people in, well spaced out so I didn’t feel bad that I wasn’t wearing a mask (supported by the fact that I was shoving food in my mouth for most of the showing). I’ve often referred to the cinema as ‘my happy place’, a place to switch off from the outside world, and for the most part I could do that (some of the adverts really wanted to remind you of reality, which I could have lived without).

But instead, I’m writing this post today. With the announcement yesterday that the Bond film was being pushed to April, Cineworld have had to make the horrible choice to completely close. With no big films to pull audiences back in, and get into a regular cinema pattern, closing their doors is the only option. It does feel there’s a bit of an element of studios letting the side down (Disney not releasing Mulan on the big screens, the new delay to Bond), but everyone has to do what they have to do I guess. I guess it’s also likely that with film production shut down, there are concerns about how sustainable the film calendar is this year.

Maybe I didn’t do my bit enough, I only went to the cinema once. I did keep meaning to go and see some of the re-releases of older classics, but just never quite managed it. Now it looks like that option will be gone for another 6 months. I know in the grand scheme of suffering out there at the moment, my loss is pretty minimal; and I am thinking of the thousands of people who’s livelihood have been impacted. But the sustained loss of my ‘happy place’ has sent me into quite the funk.

And what makes that even worse, is that the next bit of this post explains why I think the biggest and most important of film of the year is actually a bit rubbish.

Tenet
I have no problem with complex films, I purposely go to the cinema and watch films to distract my brain from the world around me and so a film where I have to concentrate helps that. Christopher Nolan films push complexity to the limit, respecting that the audience is more intelligent than many suppose and that they want to be challenged. The problem I found with Tenet wasn’t that I couldn’t understand it, it was that I was never given the chance to. There was no breathing room, explanations were rushed through and swiftly followed by action, I just wanted things to pause for 30 seconds to allow me to really sink into the ideas, but I was always being rushed on. Then in the middle of action sequences I wasn’t quite sure whether things were going to plan or not, because I’d never quite grasped the plan, so I didn’t understand the jeopardy and lost the emotional connection. Also in thinking about the film since watching, I’m not entirely sure it hangs together – did the stuff at the start about the bullets actually make sense and/or matter?

There are secondary problems with the film, many of which I complained about for Interstellar too. Dialogue was often mumbled and overwhelmed by some terrible sound mixing. The lead female character was depressingly poorly-written, little agency of her own and an object for the male characters to engage with, that’s just depressing these days. However the cast were very good, the stunt work superb and the creativity is certainly refreshing. The great irony is, that for a film that’s been tasked with saving cinema, I think it’s actually a film best watched on dvd where you can pause to think through the explanations, put the subtitles on to catch the dialogue, and rewind to check what on earth is happening.

I went back to the DVD collection for a couple of Nolan’s older works, and confirmed what I thought, his older films were better. Inception is absolutely a challenging film that requires you to pay attention, but if you do, it does mostly make sense… mostly. I’ve watched the film multiple times and lose the plot at about the same point each time. I’m still not entirely certain whether that’s my understanding, the writers’ explanations or in fact that it doesn’t all hang together at all. But the key difference with Inception over Tenet is that it doesn’t really matter that you’re not completely following it while you’re watching – the action, character moments and emotional connections are strong enough by the point it gets too confusing that I’m just happy to ride it to the end and then agonise over it once it’s finished.

The Prestige is the oldest and by far the best of the Nolan films I re-watched (I didn’t bother with Interstellar because I find it deeply frustrating – but it’s reviewed on my website). The start of this film is slightly hard work as you try to get the hang of the different timelines and points of view, but after a while you realise that you’re no longer having to think about it and it’s all just flowing naturally. It’s a very satisfying film, I was actually grinning at the end of it, so pleased at how the different layers interacted and mirrored everything. Unlike more recent Nolan films that have left me with more questions than answers, this one ties it all together without handing it to the audience on a plate. It’s a film that you want to re-watch because you can see more, not that you HAVE to rewatch in order to understand it. It’s an incredibly clever, elegant film, that actually manages to be better than the source book as it intertwines the story lines much better.

Enola Holmes (Netflix)
I’m not sure whether the world of Sherlock Holmes just naturally lends itself to quirky film making, or whether once it’s been done that way once, everyone else has to follow. This is Holmes in the style that’s become familiar through the BBC series and the Robert Downey Jnr films, full of spark, and speed; bouncing around and zipping along at the speed of the genius’ mind and bringing the audience along for the ride. It’s just that this time the Holmes isn’t Sherlock, it’s his 16 year old sister, and without a Watson to explain everything to, she talks (or just rolls her eyes) at the audience directly. Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things fame more than carries the film, she’s charming, smart, witty, subtle and original; playing a character with all the intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, but with added emotion that is a very welcome addition. I actually really loved this film, the twists and turns of the plot were satisfying without being too challenging and although it maybe drags on a little bit and lacks some focus, I really enjoyed it and really hope that the open ending means this will turn into a series.

Bombshell
Bombshell is the story of some of the events of 2016 which saw the chairman of Fox News accused of sexual assault. It also features Donald Trump’s harassment of news anchor Megyn Kelly in the run up to the presidential election. I had a lot of emotions watching this film. There were moments that I literally shouted at the television in disgust at what the characters were saying, attitudes that should just be laughably incomprehensible, but sadly even a couple of years after #metoo are still depressingly unsurprising. But there are also moments that made me want to cheer, and many moments of interesting nuance that start to touch on some of the more complex aspects of the issues. Crucially however, it’s also an excellent film with a truly stunning cast of women (Margot Robbie was robbed at awards season), an interesting directorial style and a vibrancy and originality that really kept me utterly engrossed throughout.
Ranking: 9 / 10

The Shining
I can certainly see why this is considered a classic, it’s the king of slow burning creepy horror film that I like, as opposed to the “make you jump” kind of horror, or a gory one, although there are elements of that as well. Kubrick is famous for taking dozens of takes to get shots perfect and it really pays off here, there isn’t a single element of a scene that’s mediocre, it all looks absolutely perfect. The two leads are really good, although having recently read the book, I did miss the more psychological elements with the characters starting out more ‘normal’ and showing a more ambiguous decent into paranoia and craziness. The book and the film are very different, but each is a classic.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Speed
Speed is over 25 years old. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made there about car insurance. It has actually aged really really well. That’s because fundamentally the building blocks of the action film are all incredibly solid – a simple concept with incremental set pieces and solid characters running through it. Keanu Reaves isn’t the most versatile of actors, but he’s playing to his strengths here and Sandra Bullock is the one really carrying the emotions of the film. So much of the stunts and effects are live that they haven’t really aged, only some of the camera quality now looks sadly grainy. Even the soundtrack is still really great.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Cool Runnings
I’m a sucker for an under-dog sports film and this one is utterly charming from start to finish. It’s bright and colourful, funny and exciting, touching and inspiring. I laughed and cried more than once and was thoroughly entertaining for a couple of hours.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Ready Player One
I really loved the book, but I can’t say I remember any of the details, so I didn’t feel frustrated by any of the changes. I was excited when I heard that Steven Spielberg was making it and what has resulted is a good, fun Spielberg film. It’s a family adventure film with bright lights, large performances, wit and excitement. I can see that some might be frustrated at the popcorn-ness of the whole thing, but I found it a really entertaining romp. I was never bored, I smiled at the references I got and didn’t notice the ones I didn’t. I think there was maybe the potential to do more, the cast in particular felt a little ‘television’ level, rather than blockbuster names, but it does what it sets out to do.
Ranking: 8 / 10

Crazy Rich Asians
I tend to not like comedies that much, so when I say that this one was absolutely fine, that’s actually pretty good going. There was a pretty good mixture of melodrama and actual drama. There were characters that were comedic, ones that were over the top, and some playing it pretty straight – but also enough twists where comedy characters would cut the truth of a drama, or straight characters would be put into a ridiculous situation. The only thing that I felt let it down slightly was sometimes it felt a little forced – I never quite worked out whether it was clumsy dialogue, or actors that couldn’t quite land the nuance, but it just felt a bit clunky at times.
Ranking: 7 / 10

The Monuments Men
There are a lot of great ingredients in this film, not least a great cast and a strong concept, but they just don’t come together. The biggest problem with the film is tone. Many of the characters and scenes (and the trailer) are played for laughs, large personalities played by great character actors and a slightly wacky set up. But there’s also a lot of real tragedy and hard hitting content, which while well performed are somewhat simplistically written and just disconnected from the rest of the tone. Sadly the writing and direction just isn’t very good. The moments of light and dark are not intertwined, they’re switched back and forth. Serious points are delivered via heartfelt speeches, lightness is confined to specific scenes. Everything is obvious, predictable and clunky – the dialogue, characters, structure, framing, even the way scenes are lit. It’s not a terrible film, but it is a horrible waste, it’s an amazing story and this cast could have made something truly special.
Ranking: 6 / 10

Juliet, Naked
The film gets off to a slightly bumpy start as it seems slightly uncertain and inconsistent in tone. Chris O’Dowd’s and a few other characters are played large and verging on ridiculous, which just didn’t sit right alongside Rose Byrne’s more low key performance. However, Ethan Hawke is on exactly the same wavelength as Byrne, and as their connection grows and O’Dowd’s falls away, the film becomes a lot more settled and really very charming. The story that develops is believably complicated, and builds on interesting ideas of the things we regret either doing, or not doing. I really loved their story together, but the film itself kept trying to force annoying and embarrassing comedy characters in that just spoilt things.
Ranking: 6 / 10

The Hippopotamus
This is the most Stephen Fry movie that has ever existed, and I’m afraid that’s not quite a good thing. A little bit of Fry is a wonderful thing, an elegant turn of phrase, a broad knowledge base and a cheeky sense of humour. However, when dialed up as much as the writing in this film is that turns into needlessly pretentious and utterly overblown dialogue, a meandering plot and a schoolboy crudeness. Even the glorious Roger Allam couldn’t elevate this film to anything other than painful.
Ranking: 4 / 10

Films in August 2020

I’m a little disappointed in myself for not actually making it back to the cinema this month. I did mean to, but the timings never quite worked and my plans to see Tenet fell into September. I didn’t even watch any new releases on netflix/amazon, so instead the below are all just re-watches or random catch ups. There’s an absolute classic at both the top AND bottom of the list, and I don’t think everyone would be happy with the bottom one, but I found it insufferable. The only other notable thing is that I accidentally watched two shark films and two Jason Statham films, you shouldn’t read too much into that.

Rebecca – A brilliant film that manages to create a creepy, uncomfortable, engaging mystery without ever laying it on too thick. The lead characters are beautifully crafted, even the one that never actually appears but guides the whole story. The sets are amazing and the way the different characters slot into them is managed so smoothly with just a few glances and movements. This film is all about what isn’t said and seen and it is pretty nearly perfect. 9 / 10

Moon – Proper old school science fiction – completely story and concept driven. I’m continually complaining about films being too long the editing on this was absolutely superb, the plot never feels rushed, but at the end you realise that not a second was wasted, no shot lasted longer than it had to and no lines were used that couldn’t be replaced with a perfect expression. Sam Rockwell is superb, although I felt Kevin Spacey’s voice was too recognisable for the computer and that dropped the illusion a bit. My favourite thing about the film though was the design of it all, from the lived in work spaces to the bleak lunar landscape, there was always something fascinating to look at that made perfect sense in the environment. A really wonderful film.9 / 10

El orfanato (The Orphanage) – I love a creepy horror film, and this is a great one. The build up of tension and creepiness is very well judged, well timed jumps give shots of adrenaline to the ongoing unsettled feelings. The ending is also very satisfying, revealing the truth at just the right moment and then playing out the fallout to leave the film properly finished off. A true classic. 8 / 10

Peanut Butter Falcon – A nice film. What with one thing and another this is the kind of film that I needed to watch at the moment. It’s sweet and funny, with just enough drama and sadness to it to give it body, but not so much that it brings down the overall feel good warmth. Yes it’s slow, but the scenery is beautiful to look at and the direction understated but effective. The trio of lead actors have wonderful chemistry and the whole film was just a nice way to spend some time. 8 / 10

Knives Out – I LOVE a good who-done-it, and this is a great one. It could easily have been written by Agatha Christie, but also lives easily in the present day with appropriate technology and social issues. The collection of characters are entertaining, extreme but not caricatures and funny but not ridiculous all expertly delivered by a great ensemble cast. The structure of the plot was very well done, the mystery itself really kept me guessing with different options, and the twists and turns kept things interesting and plenty of laughs along the way. When I saw it in the cinema I complained that the cinematography was too dark to fully luxuriate in the locations and sets, but on the smaller screen I didn’t have that problem at all, so it was even better. 8 / 10

The Meg – A wonderful stupid action film about a giant shark terrorizing some scientists and Jason Statham. I mean obviously Jason Statham isn’t really terrorized, because he’s Jason Statham, but the shark is ridiculously big and gives even The Stath some challenges. The film is gloriously dumb and completely aware of how ridiculous it is; everyone in the cast is playing it consistently and there’s no one trying to be too big, or play it too straight. It plays a little bit with some of the tropes of the genre, but it’s not pushing any boundaries making it a comfortable, fun, and fairly disposable watch. 8 / 10

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – I was a big fan of the television series growing up and could never quite understand why in the endless series of remakes, this classic had never made it to the big screen, but it was worth the wait as this is spot on. The key word is ‘entertaining’. The style is dialed up and the complexity is dialed down and the focus is on the great characters, snappy dialogue and fun banter. The introduction of Alicia Vikander to make the duo a trio is inspired. The period details are incredible with great costumes, locations and music, although the grainy film style and split screens were maybe a little overdone. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this, even on a third watch on a small screen. I’m a bit disappointed that it didn’t turn into an ongoing series, but maybe ‘one and done’ is safer. 8 / 10

Emma. – I am not a fan of Jane Austen et al. I keep trying the books, and different film and TV adaptions but for the most part I find them fairly insufferable, in fact the best rated one in my reviews is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This production of Emma is probably going to be the next highest rated. I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say I *liked* it, but I certainly found it tolerable, and at times even entertaining. I think the biggest success is that the eponymous lead character is presented as fairly annoying and ridiculous so I couldn’t really get cross about it. I don’t know how much is in the original and how much is the adapter and director, but the whole thing is all just on edge of parody, overly bright colours, over blown characters and big acting; and as it’s all coherent it works. The only slight frustration was that as per usual I didn’t buy into the main pairing and if anything that romance felt bodged in rather than an integral part of the story. 7 / 10

Hitch – I was torn on this film. On the one hand, Will Smith is perfect – charming without being smarmy, sweet without being pathetic and a big screen presence without being unrealistic. The supporting cast are all just as perfectly played and there wasn’t a single irritating character, a rarity in romantic comedies – even Kevin James wasn’t annoying! But I did spend most of the film trying to work out whether it was problematic. It felt like they were putting a label on issues in a humorous way, rather than being part of the problem, but I could never quite be certain. I’m not going to look up whether I should have been offended or not, because I rather enjoyed it so I don’t want to spoil that. 7 / 10

My Big Fat Greek Wedding – A good fun film that moves the inevitable “frumpy girl turns into surprise beauty” to the very start of the film and then just kinda gets on with it. There’s a lot of fun, but also a lot of love in the over-the-top family and although it’s a bit dated in places now, the central ideas are pretty timeless. 7 / 10

Minority Report – The film holds up pretty well 18 years after it was made, it still looks suitably futuristic and creative, even if some of the effects have dated a smidgen. The twists of the plot are well balanced to involve some thought but not to Nolan-esque complexity levels that make your brain hurt. 7 / 10

Venom – A film of thirds. The first third is dull. We’re introduced to Tom Hardy’s annoying journalist who screws up his life and then wallows, and Riz Ahmed’s ludicrously over the top villain. Just as I was mentally checking out of the film though, suddenly the film bursts into life with the arrival of Venom. Tom Hardy’s acting skills come to the fore, both in terms of physical performance and action sequences and also finding both the humour and horror in the situation. The plot got interesting, the effects were interesting to watch and the whole thing gained pace and fun. And then the third section turned into an action sequence that overdid the CGI, under did the character and left me zoning out a bit again. Overall the film was better than I expected, but it’s a shame it didn’t really play to the strengths. 6 / 10

True History of the Kelly Gang – Eighty percent of this film is really well put together and has great depth, but sadly it’s ruined by twenty percent of laziness. There were a lot of interesting characters, even if they were only small parts of this film, I got the sense there was a lot going on with each of them, no one was cleanly a hero or a villain. But unfortunately I completely lost track of what was going on when the story got to the actual Kelly Gang bit. Suddenly the subtlety was lost and it felt like Kelly turned from a well developed and complex character into an incoherent ‘legend’ that made no sense. On top of that, much of the action took place in the dark and made it impossible to follow. That section really spoiled the rest of an otherwise interesting film. 6 / 10

The Expendables – I don’t think this film quite knew what it wanted to be. On one hand there’s a lot of fun banter between characters, a slight world weariness of the action tropes that the characters find themselves in. But they didn’t quite completely commit to that, so most of the action sequences are played straight, just like you’d see in any action film with drawn out sequences and utterly improbable violence. The main plot was also dumb as anything and Stallone still seemed to want to write dramatic moments for him and an ill advised and weird romantic implication that they then bottled out of. So I would zone in for the banter and zone out for the rest of it, but naturally the climax of the film was an extended action sequence and I basically zoned out for the final third of the film. 6 / 10

Deadpool 2 – This is unfortunately two films mushed together and it doesn’t work. On the plus side, there’s the Deadpool bits. The hilariously inappropriate violence, language, crudeness, breaking of the 4th wall and in jokes are still there. So many elements of the film work so well together and still feel fresh and original, everything from the music choices to the brilliantly directed and choreographed action sequences that were genuinely interesting to watch for a change.
But you know there’s a ‘but’ coming, and it’s a big one. There’s just too much emotion at the forefront of the story. From the ‘unfortunate event’ and the theme of parenthood that runs through the film it just didn’t feel like Deadpool. There were a lot of scenes that I was waiting for the punch line and was left with just a pure emotional moment that didn’t feel at all in the right film. It wasn’t even done very well, it was utterly lacking in subtlety and the kind of story that we’ve seen play out hundreds of times before.
There were plenty of scenes and moments that were brilliant, but there were a number of places that I was bored and the film dragged and overall I came away feeling rather disappointed. 6 / 10

A Canterbury Tale – I thought this was going to be a proper version of The Canterbury Tale, so at least even if it were rubbish I could count it as educational. I guess the “A” in the title should have clued me in. The problem was that nothing really happened for most of the film. Towards the end there’s some more drama, but by then it just felt a bit over the top. The film is I guess a picturesque and diverting view of village life in England during the second world war, although the positive glow and charming locals come across a little more propaganda than realistic presentation. It’s not terrible to watch with a cup of tea and a crossword, but I’ll be honest that I didn’t really see the point of it. 6 / 10

Puzzle – I went in expecting a nice, low impact little film, the sort of thing that can be watched on an easy Saturday afternoon while doing a jigsaw puzzle. This isn’t quite that film. It’s not what I’d call massively hard hitting, but it is toward that end of the spectrum, with some quite deep things to say about loneliness, expectations and finding a voice. Unfortunately I’m not sure that the deeper elements really landed, there were a couple of long speeches that felt contrived, and some of the characters weren’t as well rounded as they needed to be. That’s a shame because other bits were very well observed and delivered; it’s just a shame all the pieces didn’t quite seem to come from the same puzzle.6 / 10

Remains of the Day – If this film went any slower it would actually move backwards. In fact thanks to the bulk of the story being told in flashback, I guess it does actually go backwards. I loved the book but don’t think it translated very well to film, there isn’t much going on. The cast do a very good job getting inside the characters heads, but I couldn’t help but compare the film to Gosford Park, and it doesn’t come up very well. 5 / 10

Deep Blue Sea – Wow, what a disaster. It’s like they took half of a great film – a solid disaster movie set up, expensive sets and animatronics, Samuel L. Jackson, and LL Cool J, and then ran out of money and put two lead actors in who lacked charisma, chemistry and any real acting talent. Charitably the script didn’t give them a huge amount to go on, but the same people were writing for Jackson and Cool J and they did absolutely fine. Maybe there was different direction given and the two leads were told to play it straight, when no one really wants that in a film about super smart sharks. It passes the time, and it’s worth watching for the good bits, but it’s a missed opportunity. 5 / 10

2001: A Space Odyssey – I’m amazed to find that there is no review of 2001 on my site already, meaning I haven’t watched it since at least 2002 when I started compulsively reviewing everything. I decided that was too big a gap to have so picked up a dvd and settled in.
Wow, that was BORING.What seems to have happened is that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick have taken Clarke’s original short story and then turned it into a 2.5 hour saga to show off some special effects and forgotten to add any additional plot. In fact they probably removed some of the plot from the short story in order to make it deliberately more weird and cryptic. The special effects are definitely impressive, even over FIFTY years later but they’re then so dragged out that I got utterly bored. Accompanying some those sequences are some beautiful music choices, but there are also some horrendous shrieking bits that had me turning the volume down to almost nothing. The plot and characters are so minimal that they’re almost not worth mentioning. The whole film could probably be boiled down to 45 minutes, not only not losing anything of substance, but actually adding to the overall impact. 4 / 10

Books in July and August

I didn’t do my reviews in July, not because I hadn’t read enough books, but actually because I was in the middle of reading a series of books by the same author and I wanted to review them all together. It’s actually been a busy couple of months for reading, partly because the weather encouraged sitting in the garden with a book, and partly because I finally replaced my kindle.

T. Kingfisher
I rather feel that if the only thing I ever read on my kindle was T. Kingfisher, it would still be worth the investment. All her works have a core of realistic characters, bucket loads of charm and a dark sense of humour poking through – whether a well developed spin on a classic fairytale, a straightforward adventure story, or something a little more experimental. They’re not on kindle unlimited but they’re all only a few pounds and very well worth the investment.

Paladin’s Grace – A completely and utterly lovely book. I’ve read a lot of T. K. Kingfisher’s books and she’s never disappointed me but this may actually be my favourite. While the storyline of the book is about assassins, conspiracies, soldiers, spies, poisons and perfumes, really the book is a romance story. Normally I’m not a fan of those, but this one is so gentle and awkward, between two ‘normal’ people who aren’t heroes and heroines, or stunningly beautiful, but just click together when they’re thrown together. Every single page made me smile and warmed my heart. Just lovely.

Minor Mage – The notes at the end of this book explain that it’s a story that’s been floating around in her head for a number of years and has only now been turned into a fully formed book. I think that does show a bit, there are a couple of fun ideas, but the book as a whole lacks substance. It’s a shame, because the nuggets of ideas are really fun and charming (a sarcastic armadillo as a familiar and a mage with really quite minor skills) and there are some nicely demonstrated ideas about what is right/reasonable in different circumstances and depending on if you’re an individual or in a crowd. But the plot feels a little flimsy and it feels like there are some gaps and dead ends. It’s still an enjoyable read, but it felt a little under-done.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – Mona is a wizard of bread. I mean, how wonderful a pitch is that?! This is a bit of a companion to Minor Mage and continues to play with the idea that not all magic users get the ability to control lightning, or raise the dead, some just get the ability to make dough do what what they want it to and just have to make do. Mona is moderately content in her life persuading the scones they don’t want to burn, making gingerbread men dance and feeding the grumpy sourdough starter called Bob that lives in the cellar and eats rats if they get too close. But this is a fairy tale so Mona gets thrown into a bigger adventure and as always Kingfisher gets the emotions of that SPOT ON. There’s darkness in fairy tales, bravery in being scared, weakness in the most powerful and strength in the smallest of people (with or without magic). I adored every single little thing about this book. (677)

Hilary Mantel – The Giant, O’Brien (kindle unlimited)
I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and really hated the writing style, but was a bit worried that it was me being an idiot. How could an author and book with so much praise be so frustrating to read? I spotted this short story on kindle unlimited so thought this would be a good way to give her another try. It just confirmed my previous opinion. While Wolf Hall at least had a fascinating story to tell (thank you history), The Giant O’Brien didn’t even have that. It had a wafer thin story which was then incredibly badly told. The style was hard to read – hard to keep track of who was talking and what they were actually trying to say; and even if I persevered and worked it out, it was ultimately un-rewarding. I turned the pages as quickly as possible and I won’t be giving Mantel another attempt.

Rachel Burge – The Twisted Tree (kindle unlimited)
A solid, if slightly unremarkable fantasy/coming of age story. A seventeen year old girl starts developing weird abilities after an accident and runs away to her grandmother who she hopes will be able to explain everything. The characters are vivid and the setting on a remote Norwegian island is original but all feel a bit underused. The specifics of the magic and the mythology are a little over-complicated and random. But as a quick and easy read it was was a success.

Mark Hayden – The King’s Watch Series (kindle unlimited)
I read the first 5 books of this series over the span of about 3 weeks and looking back on my reviews it’s clear that I was enjoying them, but they all blurred into one a bit. Since then I’ve also read the “sister” trilogy that explains Conrad Clarke’s mysterious past and it’s rather tainted this series as it’s impossible to not interpret him in a slightly different way. Where once he was commanding and competent, now he is rather more bullying, patronising, self serving and ruthless. But the way he’s written, I’m not entirely sure the author feels the same way. Some of the other characters also now seem a bit crueler – more manipulative and clique-y. But the core ideas are still solid enough to keep me reading them. Eight Kings is good fun and takes us to yet another location and introduces yet another section of the world of magic, a bit more politics and a good old stately home murder mystery to round it all off which is quite satisfying.
The Seventh Star – This is a slightly more straight forward crime story, so much so that the police get involved which sees the welcome introduction of Tom Morton from Hayden’s other series. The only bad news about that is that it slightly shows up that Morton is actually a more realistic and interesting lead character than Conrad is. For all Conrad’s cunning and planning his strategy in this book is never entirely clear and that doesn’t feel quite right, certainly compared to the very methodical approach of Morton and the police. I like so much about this series, it’s just a shame that the central two characters of Conrad and Meena are becoming increasingly smug and frustrating.
Haydon has a slightly irritating habit of pulling a chunk of storyline out of each books, putting them in separate novellas and then referencing them in the main book with “if you want to hear how this happened you’ll have to read this other thing”. That’s frustrating and clumsy, often hard to time the reading of those in the right order. The novellas themselves (French Leave and Ring of Troth for these books) are perfectly solid side stories that I’m sure could have been entwined in the main books with a bit of effort.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs Series
The Oddjobs series is a classic interesting idea with two entertaining first books and then it goes too fast and falls off the rails as the author(s) take a direction away from what made the first books so entertaining. Book 3 of the series (You Only Live Once) is okay, but one of the original characters is missing and leaves a notable hole in the team. However book 4 (Out of Hours) completely loses the way. Previous installments have been set well and truly in modern Birmingham, with the weird and occult an accepted addition to our world; but this book moves completely into the worlds of the weird and wacky and loses any sense of observation and satire. Adding to the disappointment, most of the time the characters are all separated and telling individual stories (or sometimes even multiple stories in different timelines) and that makes the book even more fragmented. I just found myself turning the pages faster and faster. Really disappointing.

Charles Bukowski – Hollywood
The first time I sat down with this book I hated it. I got about 50 pages in and I was bored by the story (not that there was much of it), irritated by the characters and easily distracted from the wordy style. The second time I sat down (because I’ve got a stupid *thing* about having to finish all books) I decided to just read really quickly and actually found myself weirdly engrossed. Reading it quickly like this gave an engaging version of a behind the scenes of the movie process and the extremes of the people involved in it – none of whom you’d want to spend any real time with at all. I’m sure I could come up with something deep about how that very surface level attention is cleverly done to mimic the surface nature of Hollywood, but that would be way more pretentious than I think the book really deserves.

Christina Dalcher – Vox
I picked this up very randomly in 3 for £5 deal with very low expectations and discovered a little gem. It clearly owes a lot to The Handmaids Tale, and isn’t anywhere near as impressive, but it does a solid job of combining a challenging subject with a passable thriller. The logic of the book doesn’t really hold up. That America turned within just a couple of years from Obama’s presidency to a country where women aren’t allowed to speak is rather a stretch, but however they got there, it’s an interesting (and horrible) concept. Somewhat less well handled are the details of the thriller aspect of the book, and the cogs of the plot definitely got away from the author in the end. However the central character has a great voice (as it were) and the pacing of the book kept me wanting to keep reading even when the world of the book was such an unpleasant thing to think about.

Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 4: Lethal White
A rare re-read. I was looking for something that I knew I could get lost in, and with the next book in the series due in Sept this was a great pick. I read all 650 pages in one weekend in the garden and it was wonderful. Even the second time, I found the slow build of the cases alongside the tumultuous personal lives of Strike and Robin utterly engrossing. The book is carefully balanced between personal stories and the cases, with the different threads intertwining and continually delivering satisfying moments. I’m not so naive I can’t see that I’m being manipulated by cheap tricks like cliffhangers at the end of the chapters and “Come and meet me, I need to tell you something urgently” tropes, but the tricks are delivered very well and they just work. At the end I had that deep joy and satisfaction of a great book, but that sadness and almost emptiness of having run out of pages. Roll on the next one.