Sunday, 21 January 2018

Review: American Made

Frequently hilarious biopic loosely based on the life of Barry Seal. Seal was apparently a CIA agent in the 80s responsible for helping to arm the Contras.  Life very quickly became rather more complicated after a meeting with a Columbian drug cartel.

Cruise is excellent in the part of Seal - even if the physical resemblance isn't exactly striking (in reality, Seal was rather ordinary looking and overweight). Wright provides good support as Seal's long suffering wife.

Verdict: Good companion pic to the Narcos mini-series.

Review: The Subtle Knife

The second in the Dark Materials trilogy by Pullman. It expands on the previous book to bring in a new main character, a boy called Will from our own universe as well as adding another universe to the mix.  Helpfully, the copy I had included a icon representing the current universe in the margin of each page.

The series continues to be a weird blend of the supernatural and more worldly concerns with a dash of mindfulness, religious subversion and sub-atomic physics.  Plotwise, it's another mix of multiple chases and quests and at least a few more answers are doled out.

But I certainly can't fault the imagination or audacity as Pullman risks annoying anyone with strong opinions - regardless where they are on the formal belief in a religion spectrum.

Verdict: Not subtle, but certainly intriguing.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Review: The Dog Listener

In this fascinating book, Fennell has adapted the techniques of iconic horse whisper, Monty Roberts, and applied them to our canine friends.

She makes several key observations.

Despite tens of thousands of years of living together, the dog and human look at life in fundamentally different ways. The dog remains a pack animal and is looking for a leader - which if it doesn't identify one, tries to take on the mantel itself.  It is this which often results in bad dog behaviour.

Another observation is that the dog can be best managed through request and reward ie making the dog want to do what you'd like it to do.

The way to do this is to adopt various rituals which re-establish the human as leader. A process she calls Amichen bonding. Elements of this include consistency, calm and strategically ignoring the dog.  It's worth saying that the approach has its critics.

Overall, hers is very much a behaviourist based approach for dealing with problem pets and I found it an interesting if occasionally repetitive read once you got into the case study chapters.

Verdict: Dog bonding guide.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Review: Northern Lights

Pullman's Northern Lights drops you into right into his alternative, but ever so close to our own, universe and is all the better for it.

It's a world where steampunk like technology subtly blends with the supernatural.  The familiar is slightly twisted - even the language. It feels like late 19th century England at times, but clearly a version of it where the Church was never reformed and scientific enlightenment barely scratched the surface. Most intriguing of all, near everyone is accompanied by visible versions of the invisible friends many children have. It's quite Narnia like at times.

At the heart of it though, it's a tense chase book with elements of coming of age and identity.

Reveals tend to come late, and without foreshadowing and any exposition is sparse and hard fought for.  I hope the subsequent books pay off the investment of time.

Verdict: Groundwork for classic fantasy?

Review: The Darkest Hour

Oldman is near unrecognisable as Churchill in this biopic covering his early period as a wartime prime minister.  He's excellent, of course, but enormously aided by an alternatively witty and involving script as well as some impressive prosthetics.  Scott Thomas as Churchill's wife, Clementine, also stands out. She's always on hand to provide either support or course correction to the great man. The rest of the superb cast add weight and depth.

Elsewhere, period detail is all present and correct - and the tight dark sets accentuate the feeling of claustrophobia and foreboding.  On the less positive side, it does take a little while to get going and the finish feels slightly anticlimactic.

Verdict: Makes you appreciate the dire situation that Britain found itself in.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Review: Atomic Blonde

Stylish spy thriller set in late 80s Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Theron is a tight lipped ultra spy send to investigate an agent's death and recover missing list.  Various double-crosses and twists on both sides of the Wall result.

It's notable for the parade of 80s hits and unusually high levels of graphic violence on offer. No wonder, Theron's character begins the film (in retrospect) heavily bruised and nursing her wounds in an ice bath.

Verdict: Blonde Bond

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Review: God bless America

God bless America is the 21st century version of the 90s man raging against the man classic Falling Down or even Natural Born Killers.

It's less verbal, less thoughtful and less edgy than either of those two but bang up-to-date for 2011 at least.  That means it is a bit too early for the worst excesses of the smartphones and social media era.

Both leads are effective.  Barr is a real talent and captures the manic nature of teenhood really well. Murray is world weary enough, but doesn't quite convince on the anger front.  It feels like he's along for the ride, which perhaps he is.

Verdict: Less of a cheer, more of a whimper.