Saturday, 30 December 2017

Review: Saboteur

Stylishly shot wartime thriller by Hitchcock.  Cummings is a competent charismatic lead and well supported by Lane as his more sceptical foil.

At its heart, it's a chase movie - but one with a few interesting encounters along the way. It's interesting to see that it's society's misfits and excluded who tend to end up believing our hero's story first, while the bad guys are all members of the elite.

The climatic scenes atop the Statue of Liberty are still rather vertigo inducing - especially given the unusual choice to dump the overwrought soundtrack.

Verdict: Thriller with a touch of social commentary.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Review: Good Kill

Sobering and dislocating story of modern day drone warfare and its impacts on the various actors involved.

Once again, Niccol's thoughtful script leads us into darker temptations - especially once Christians in Action get involved with the missions (a revealing expansion of the acronym, CIA).  Unlike his previous films, however, it does take a bit more of a tell rather than show approach.

Although critical on balance, it does reveal the sometimes surprising benefits of drone warfare. For example, infantry are able to get a good night's sleep because a drone is keeping look out.

Verdict: Thought-provoking suspense.

Review: Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang

Frequently uproarious follow-up to the original. This time the action has moved to the Second World War, and McPhee is called upon to sort out the differences, and difficulties of two sets of cousins.

It's a lot more expensive looking than the first with some Disney animation like imagination and British wit in the realisation of some of the many humorous sequences. Thompson has crafted a superb script which shows a deep understanding of what kids (of any age) find funny.

Verdict: You'll believe pigs can fly, dance, synchronise swim etc

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Review: Peace on Earth: The Christmas Truce of 1914

Boyle's short book does an excellent job of explaining both the circumstances which led up to the infamous Christmas day truces of the first World War as well as what took place.

What emerges is a subtle realisation on both sides that the war won't be a quick one as well the terrible weather,  their common humanity - and in many cases, common language.

There's humour too. I particularly liked the following exchange when British troops are invited to join in a sing-a-long:

British: We'd rather die than sing  German
German: It would kill us if you did.

The details of the locally agreed truces are also fascinating including terms like agreeing to fire warning shots above each other's heads if compelled to shoot by their superiors.

Verdict: Useful backgrounder

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Review: Scooge

The 1935 film version of A Christmas Carol is an interesting view as it's the first sound version and is within living memory of the Victorian era it tries to evoke.  It's a scratchy looking and sounding film, but somehow that adds to the authentic feel.

Hicks makes for a compelling Scrooge, and Calthrope's Cratchit is also likeable.

Unusually, Marley's ghost is invisible and with the exception of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the other ghosts are also represented in an impressionistic way - with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come being particularly effective.

It does take a while to get going, but the 60 min version I saw feels pacey enough for a film this old.

Verdict: Classic Christmas Carol.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Review: Edward Scissorhands

Poignant dark comedy fable which just manages to avoid falling into sentimentality. Wiest is excellent as a breezy Avon mum who adopts unfinished emo looking man-boy, Edward (Depp in a near voiceless, but still highly expressive role).  I also now appreciate Arkin's Dad - a man trying to apply what he knows and understands to a situation which is completely alien to him.

It's one of Burton's more satisfying films. They always look incredible, but for me often fail to involve.  In the case, the spectacle is less detailed than his later works and the story and characters more involving.

Allegories and homages aplenty to be found too cf Edward's rich imagination and uniqueness compared with the bland pastels and Stepford wives like quality of his surrounding neighbourhood.  The scenes towards the end are reminiscent of Whale's Frankenstein movies.

Verdict: Classic modern fantasy

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Review: Nanny McPhee

Thompson gives a great  performance as the eponymous character - a darker version of Mary Poppins who arrives to help Firth's Mr Brown tame his badly behaved and very large family.

The various set pieces have been carefully crafted to appeal to kids with a sense of humour of all ages as she dispenses various and necessary lessons.

Verdict: Witty fable.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Review: The Game

Douglas once again plays the part of a man massively out of his depth in this intriguing thriller. This time, he is a high powered businessman who seemingly has everything except a touch of common humanity. His brother, Penn, gets him a birthday gift in the form of a reality game, or is it?

It's not director Finch's best film as the movie is largely set at night and is often so dark and murky it makes viewing hard work and gives little opportunity to show off his trademark style. Thematically, it's in the same territory as the much superior Fight Club and Seven.

The film as a whole though is an appealing celebration of stoicism (although I am personally glad I can take part by proxy rather than actively participating) even if it does stretch credibility at times.

Verdict: Game of slightly overblown.

Review: It's a Wonderful Life

Another seasonal outing for this Christmas classic. It's a clever reinvention of A Christmas Carol that to my eyes at least remains as charming as ever.  Like Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, I will forever associate Stewart with the role of George Bailey - a would-be traveller who never quite manages to leave Bedford Falls while helping his community to get on in life, and eventually needs the help of his own guardian angel.

Capra has by now thoroughly mastered his craft for comedy-dramas with a deeper meaning of the inherent goodness of the everyman.

It's also ageless with almost no scenes feeling superfluous - only perhaps the exception of the swimming pool one feeling a little misjudged (even if it does set up the romance between Stewart and Reed's characters).  Reed makes the perfect girl next door by the way - characterful and beautiful.

Verdict: Christmas classic.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The second of the sequel trilogy is no Empire Strikes Back, but I did leave me feeling that Star Wars was in good hands, even if beginning to look a little formulaic.

In the good corner, the new director Johnson has coaxed better performances out of many of cast - with some, like Boyega. feeling like a real find now. Others like Gleeson have been pushed down the boo-hiss pantomime villain route. Even his makeup is theatrical now.

On the cast, it is now enormous - and even more of a sense of the batten being passed on.  That means that some old favourites get little more than cameos. The primary cast is now even more diverse, still feels a little tokenistic given that the supporting players and extras are not.

Direction-wise, some of the film raises the bar for the series. Some shots are so well composed they'd make great standalone photos, other sequences find new impact in well trod ones like ship explosions.

The addition of substantially more humour is greatly appreciated. Sadly, there's nothing here to challenge the caustic wit-laced interpersonal dynamic of Han/Leia at their best. But the fun is very much back. There's lots of visual gags, and enough one liners to fill a series of James Bond films.  Occasionally, it risks ruining the suspense of some scenes.

In the not-so good corner, there's no getting away from the fact this film is bladder burstingly overlong. It's not that there's not enough story, it's just that some of it feels superfluous.  For me, with its riffs on previous films - there's a slight feeling of movie making to a template (as per the various superhero films).  There were a couple of nice surprises to keep this old fan happy though.

Verdict: Confident follow-up.

Review: Jack Frost

Warmhearted kids comedy drama about a boy whose Dad dies and then comes back as a creepy as **** snowman to haunt him.  It's easy to see why this was a complete flop as many of the target audience - the under 10s would have likely run out of the cinema screaming. It's a complete character design fail.

The film has some charm and captures elements of childhood well. For example,  I remember snowball fights as a kid which felt as epic and legendary as the ones in this film [wipes tear as recalls the great snow war of 1982).

Keaton, Preston and Cross also create a believable and likeable family unit which helps anchor the film's fantastical premise.

Verdict: You'll believe a snowman can fly

Friday, 15 December 2017

Review: The Terminal

Yet another Hanks fish out of water film in an unusual setting. This time he is a traveller on a visit to New York when he somehow gets stuck in immigration purgatory. He can neither stay or leave so is confined to a particular area of the airport. Somehow he ekes out a life there.

Tucci's increasingly exasperated airport boss provides some necessary and amusing grounding in reality. Sadly, a luminous Zeta-Jones has very little to do and plays it completely straight.

It is the attention to detail which saves this movie. In hands less deft than Spielberg's, it could easily have been overly sentimental.

Verdict: Treads a fine line.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Review: Christmas Elf Handbook

This provided a definition of the bewildering phrase "Elf on the shelf" which I've occasionally seen in  media headlines this year, but failed to be interested enough to click through.

The phenomenon appears to be yet another attempt to guilt parents into buying more stuff - at least one elf is required (although perhaps a rat on a mat, or dog on a log might do for cash strapped parents wishing to re-purpose existing or cheaper toys).  Billed as a tradition - it only seems to have been around for around a decade or so.

I'm not the target audience of guilt-tripped harassed parents - but this book seemed to do the job in terms of providing ideas for making the "magic" happen.

Verdict: Christmas craze explained.

Review: Gremlins

This children's Christmas classic starts off slow, and then builds into a chaotic crescendo once the eponymous characters appear.

The fun is in the many miniature vignettes of the gremlins as they variously cause mischief and form hard drinking and/or smoking tableaux.

Their cackling laughter and cries of "Yum, yum" will reverbrate around our household for hours, if not days to come.

Verdict: One for the naughty list

Monday, 11 December 2017

Review: Jaws

This early Spielberg outing still retains it's narrative power and shock value. Dreyfuss, Shaw and Scheider form a trio of classic archetypes:

  • Hooper: The young challenger who brings modern methods.
  • Quinn: The hard bitten expert know-it-all.
  • Sheriff Brody: The novice who knows nothing, but understands most. 
who together are responsible for countless copy cats and sequels.  I might be perhaps the only person who still finds the shark impressively realistic.

It looks great in high definition by the way. I can finally see the Mayor's hideous nautically themed suit.

Verdict: Classic blockbuster horror

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Review: Dunkirk

Nolan's take on the mass evacuation from northern France during the second world war is a heart stopping, and heart breaking - tale of suspense and drama.

It eschews grand spectacle and heroics in favour of smaller individual stories of survival and courage - broadly themed around sea, land and air.  Similarly, the music never falls into the trap of bombastic, preferring instead to focus on something more tonal.

The cast, including a certain ex-member of One Direction, all acquit themselves well - but this is not a film with much dialogue. It's impressionistic - rather than specific and precise in it's tackling of subject.

If there is a criticism, it is that it lacks epic appeal. It's hard, for example, to believe there were several hundred thousand waiting to be taken home. Plus there seems to be only a dozen or so ships and boats in play at any one time.

Verdict: Outstanding example of the genre.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Review: Novice to Expert: 6 Steps to Learn Anything, Increase Your Knowledge, and Master New Skills

Scott's concisely written book contains many useful tips and strategies. Those of you familiar with the Four Hour Chef will recognise many of them though.

But still took away a couple of useful ideas - the Cornell note taking method in particular as well as Scott's enhancement of it when using it alongside blogs, books,  videos and podcasts ie put references to key pages/urls etc rather than try to summarise everything.

The accompanying website is also informative.

Verdict: Short useful read.

Review: Mariah Carey's All I want for Christmas is you

This animated vehicle is a real oddity.  The storyline of a little girl wanting a dog for Christmas is an appropriate one, and the animation a cut above many other straight to video releases. It has also has a few moments of cutesy charm in amongst the bland.

But it's never quite clear if this is supposed to be based on a true story or not - and Carey's tell not show narration does it no favours at all.  It's too self-congratulatory, and comes across as shallow and even unbelievable at times. Carey junior seems to be obsessed with her reputation and impressing the cool kids at school while shutting out her kid sister.

Perhaps tellingly, Mariah's parents aren't very well developed - and it's left to her Grandmother to dispense wisdom.

Lastly, Carey junior's hair appears to have had a bit retconning too. It's blond and straight like her current self - and that looks a little weird, given her diverse family.

Ultimately, though as you might expect there is a redemptive ending.

Verdict: Revealing kids pic

Friday, 8 December 2017

Review: Stargate

Stargate is the story of a mid 90s film that launched a thousand TV spin offs, or something like that. All of the now classic sci-fi tropes and trappings are present and correct - and the premise is a simple one, yet nearly as flexible as Doctor Who.

Davidson is noteworthy as the hoarse voiced androgynous alien with the impossibly white sclera and gives a genuinely creepy performance.  Spader and Russell put in solid performances too.

The blu-ray picture quality looks excellent for the era.

Verdict: Indiana Jones in Space.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Figuring out your learning style

I recently came across a useful tool for determining your preferred learning style or styles.  You can check it out here:

You fill out a simple quiz and get a spider graph and table of your preferred learning styles (the links to go more detail at the above website)

Like many people, my results were a blended approach but with strong leanings in a few directions:

Style Scores

  • Visual
  • 16
  • Social
  • 10
  • Physical
  • 14
  • Aural
  • 1
  • Verbal
  • 8
  • Solitary
  • 17
  • Logical

  • 9

Thoughts on generalisation v specialisation

I've come across a couple of interesting sources of insight in this area.

Firstly, there was Tim Ferriss' interview with Walter Isaacson - the author of a number of biographies on Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin.  The most useful piece of learning I got from here was around specialisation in a domain - but understanding the basic principles of many others.

A similar point is made in this blog post about The Generalised Specialist which suggests that Da Vinci, Shakespeare and others were generalised specialists - deep knowledge in one domain, but about to use an awareness of other domains to bring deeper insight and reflection on their own.

Review: Early Bird: The Power of Investing Young

Early bird is a short read at about hundred pages, and has some good advice for those starting out on their investment journey which mostly focuses on:

  • The power of compounding
  • Finding companies you like/have experience of
  • Identifying companies with moats
  • Some  criteria for filtering companies including finding those who are good citizens

Some of which was new to me. The tone of the book is quietly reassuring and made it seem like investing was very possible.

Lastly, the book features a number of interviews with people who'd started out investing when they were young and were now reaping the dividends.  These were good, but it's hard to imagine some of the young people I know finding the advice of older people that appealing.

Verdict: Easy introductory read.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Review: Casablanca

Achingly romantic second world war drama that still has new things to reveal even after watching it more than a dozen times. This time I was struck by the grim wit coming from the mouths of the supporting cast.

Despite being a black and white movie from the 1940s, it has an ageless quality. There's no fat in any of the scenes. Even lines and scenes which seem to be superfluous initially, pay off later. The cast are superb.

Verdict: Ageless classic.