Monday, 20 August 2018

Review: When Harry Met Sally

Quirky and, by now, classic rom-com which asks whether men and women can ever be just friends? Crystal gets the best of the sparkling dialogue although the infamous scene in a diner proves Ryan can match him in comedic chops.

Made pre-World Wide Web and mobile phone, it feels like a film from another time now as telephone exchanges provide ample opportunity for comedy. It must be a head scratcher for anyone aged thirty or younger.

It is also punctuated by vignettes of older couples and the odd ways they got together.

Verdict: Good chemistry and fun script

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Review: The Breadwinner

Wonderful piece of animated social realism intertwined with a fantasy which is pure Campbell.  Both quest stories have a simple subtlety - particularly in the character animation.

The result is a moving and occasionally humorous story in which small acts of kindness shine through a curtain of dark brutality.

Verdict: Can't fault this slice of magical realism set in war torn Kabul.

Review: Deadpool 2

The return of the wise cracking foul mouthed superhero mutant is surprisingly muted compared to his first big-screen appearance. There's fewer jokes all round and those that there are less riotous.  I found myself smiling rather than laughing with this one.  The jokes that broke the fourth wall were probably the most effective.

Brolin and Beetz make for good additions to the cast - and complement Reynolds' strengths while their characters' provide some neat plot resolutions and hole filling. I hope we see more of them in future movies. The rest of the team remain underused - and I've got to the point of inwardly groaning when the simply dull Colossus appears on screen.

Verdict: Less funny, but more thoughtful second act.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Review: Skyscraper

The missus' ongoing love affair with Johnson continues and so to a viewing of his latest blockbuster.  Objectively, it's not a great movie - but Johnson is as charismatic as ever and, despite a weak script, his performances are getting better. It's wonderful to see Campbell back in a blockbuster.

It's also interesting to speculate the impact Chinese cinema goers are having on Hollywood as the movie tilts to their ambitions. To start, it's set in the tallest skyscraper in the world which happens to be in Hong Kong and owned by a Chinese billionaire. Asian actors also populate most of secondary parts - and not just as bad guys.  Lastly, the ascetic and staging of the action feels distinctly Hong Kong at times.

Verdict: Passable Die Hard copy lifted by Johnson & Campbell.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Review: Paddington 2

Paddington 2 doesn't quite reach the anarchic heights of the first, but it does come close. The starting premise is a slight one - Paddington must earn enough money to pay for a present for a well-loved aunt and the madness spirals out from there.

Hugh Grant is wonderfully self-deprecating as a fading celebrity actor with a inflated ego.  It's a brave part to take on and a few lines of the script are rather near the knuckle.

It's peppered with quirky performances - even in the minor parts - throughout. Capaldi's nosey, if occasionally accent slipping, neighbour is a treat for example.

Verdict: A riot of bear necessities.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Reivew: ET the Extra-Terrestial

Back in 1982, I had something of an obsession with ET. I distinctly remember seeing a magazine article with Spielberg next to ET and being instantly captivated.  It didn't matter that I wouldn't see the film for several long months - on a rare sans-parents trip to the cinema with my sister.

Afterwards, in those pre-VHS days - I mainlined ET through a selection of toys, audiobook (on cassette), novelisation, sticker album and even membership of the fan club. Strangely, I never watched the film again until now.

Compositing work aside, ET has aged well. The creature effects still impress. A well observed script helps the young cast feel naturalistic. William's score captures and enhances the mood of every scene.  Oddly, I found I'd forgotten so much of the film - especially its references to Peter Pan.

Verdict: 80s nostalgia in a bottle

Friday, 3 August 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Whispers of Terror

The third release in the Big Finish release, Whispers of Terror, plays with the audio format from the start as the setting is a museum of sound samples.  Cue lots of tweaks, stretches, pitch shifts and sampling as well as technical explanations of sound manipulation.  From the perspective of nearly twenty years, it feels slightly dated, self-serving and rather quaint at times.

The mystery is an interesting one but I sometimes became confused by the lack of distinctness of some of the male voices.  Baker's Doctor is always clear though.  His incarnation is as bombastic as ever - and takes every opportunity to berate Peri to the point where it feels uncomfortable at times.  Bryant's Peri also gets very little to do, although she's not above making the odd barbed quip.

Lastly, the music really does transport you to back to the 80s with synths a plenty.

Verdict: A characteristic outing for number six. 

Monday, 30 July 2018

Review: Hobson's Choice

Wonderful British comedy set in a boot shop in Victorian Manchester revolving around a patriarch and his three daughters.  I could watch Laughton all day as the rubber faced alcoholic father who is outmanoeuvred by his rather smarter daughters.  An incredibly youthful looking Scales plays one of them.

Lean injects a few directorial flourishes along the way- watch out for the conclusion of the moon sequence in particular.

De Banzie's and Mills' growing love and support for each other is a delight to behold - and I had not previously realised that Mill's could play comic roles so well.

Verdict: Fresh feeling period comedy. 

Review: Blithe Spirit

Early David Lean comedy based on Noel Coward play. The special ghost effects are limited and not especially special - but the ensuring romantic triangle is fun to watch as the near screwball exchanges crackle with wit.  Rutherford adds significant extra value as the eccentric and bumbling medium.

The end scene left me wondering if the makers of Stardust had watched Blithe Spirit...

Verdict: Gentle Sunday fare.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Review: The Girl that kicked the hornet's nest

Third in the trilogy of Swedish films based on the best-selling book series.  Here the conspiracy around Salander goes a little deeper and reaches a resolution. Rapace is as excellent as ever on as the emotionally closed but vulnerable super hacker.  I still miss the narrative of the first film where its mostly two people working together to solve a mystery

Verdict: Good conclusion to the trilogy. 

Monday, 23 July 2018

Review: Everest 3D

Everest is a sad example of how seemingly small individual errors can compound and become a tragedy of frankly awful proportions.  The first time I watched it I was often baffled who was who as there was a lot of near identical looking men whose faces were near obscured by beards, goggles and hoods.  It was a little easier this time around (my tip is to pay close attention to the colour of clothing).

3D accentuates all of the vertigo inducing proportions of the many crevasses and cliff edges featured in the film - as well as one truly heart in mouth helicopter ride.

Verdict:  Acts of remarkable bravery and survival 

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Review: Rampage

If you are in the right frame of mind, Rampage, is near perfect creature feature. An out of control corporate space experiment turns (bizarrely) a gorilla, a wolf and a crocodile into enormous versions of themselves with heightened characteristics such as aggression.

Johnson once again gives a charismatic performance as a primatologist who happens to have had extensive military training. He may actually be getting better as an actor too although some of the climatic close ups felt a bit bizarrely over-expressed. It's not quite as convincing (and lacks the humour) of Pratt's very similar character from the Jurassic World movies.  I would have liked to have seen more of his interactions with George the CGI gorilla. I could probably watch an entire movie of the two of them taking the mickey out of each other.

Harris' geneticist character provides a good foil although in fairness, neither of them are called upon to demonstrate much in the way of scientific knowledge. But it's good to know they could if they need to.

Unusually, the primary villain is also played with such genuine relish by the somehow familiar but can't quite place Ackerman that in a different movie I'd probably be rooting for her.

My favourite performance, however, has to be that of the scenery chewing Morgan's government agent.  It's perhaps no coincidence that he also gets most of the best lines:

"When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets."

Verdict: Enjoyably dumb action fare.

Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire

The second Swedish adaptation of Larsson's best-selling book of the same name shifts the focus on Lisbeth Salanders' origins while weaving in a new and contemporary conspiracy around human trafficking and prostitution.

As with the book, it feels a little flabbier and less satisfying compared to first entry in the series.  I'd rather have Salander working with Blomqvist to investigate a new mystery rather than building her mythos by wrapping her character in conspiracy.

 Rapace continues to be excellent and her character's rage is a little more more contained in favour of demonstrations of her hacking skills.

Verdict: Good adaptation slightly marred by the source material.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Review: The Two Faces of January

Dunst, Mortensen and Isaac are the unsympathetic trio at the heart of this Mediterranean period drama.  It's a competent, but curiously old fashioned piece perhaps better suited to the black and white era of movie making.  But even there, it fails to ratchet up the suspense enough to be worthy of a comparison with, for example, Hitchcock.

That sounds like I have a bit of a downer on The Two Faces of January, but you'd be wrong. It's good Sunday afternoon fare and Greece looks wonderfully dusty and I could almost feel the heat radiating from it.

Verdict: Beautiful scenery and period detail lift an ordinary thriller plot. 

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Swedish film version of the book turns out to be a bit more faithful and satisfying than the Hollywood version.  The length gives the story the time it deserves to unfold.

It's easy to see why Rapace was able to build an international film career off the back of it. Although posing as a solid Scandi-noir mystery thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is really an extremely effective vehicle for introducing us to Lisbeth Salander - an emotionally unavailable, yet vulnerable hyper-violent hacker.

She's never less than compelling to watch.

Verdict: Good adaptation of the best book in the series.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Review: Kinky Boots

Brit-com based around a struggling shoe factory that to ensure its survival decides to go into a new line of footwear. Edgerton & Ejiofor make for a good double act, but there's a feeling of having seen this all before and there's a misstep towards the end with Edgerton's character which serves only to heighten the drama. Ejiofer is never less than convincing in his role!

For shoe aficionados, however, there is plenty to enjoy here - especially the glimpses into the manufacturing process.

Verdict: Unlike the footwear this feels a little insubstantial.

Review: The Go-Giver: A Little Story about a Powerful Business Idea

Simple short and well-written modern business parable promoting altruism. The story takes Joe, a sales professional, through five challenges set by a mysterious mentor (who it turns out is super-wealthy and a super-ager too), as he tries to find an edge in his attempts to get ahead.

It's a sweet story and I guess if there is a criticism, it is that it doesn't seem very evidence based.  Especially given, the description of the principles as Five Laws of Stratospheric success.  That's a pretty bold claim and there aren't any real world case studies to stand it up.

Verdict: Whizz through this quickly for a warm and fuzzy. 

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Review: This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

Kay's memoirs of his career as a hospital doctor are perfused with a dark wit and occasional tragedy like an Adrian Mole inspired take on the television series, Bodies.
“Natural does not equal safe. There’s a plant in my garden where if you simply sat under it for ten minutes then you’d be dead.’ Job done: she bins the tablets.
I ask him about that plant over a colonoscopy later.
‘Water lily.”
Adam Kay, This is Going to Hurt 

It's an emotionally exhausting but at times quite, rather than hilariously, funny read. The initially short and light hearted diary entries draw you in and keep you as it becomes tougher going. 

Verdict: Going to Hurt may not live up to its name, but it is brutally funny at times. 

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Review: The Prestige

Made in 2006, The Prestige surfed the wave of stories about magicians in the early 2000s (cf The Illusionist  and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell).  Director Nolan's trademarks are all present and correct - a certain precision to the cinematography, an unworldly feel to the score, an out of kilter take on a familiar story, and even draws upon his repertory of actors.

The result is an involving, if not quite top drawer Nolan, story of two rivals each taking ever greater risks to outdo the other.  Perhaps inevitably, because it's a tale of magicians, we aren't clued into what's really going on until almost the very end either.   The final part, the so-called Prestige, is where the real magic happens - and it's deliciously meta.

The only odd point for me is Bale's extraordinary accent. In one on-the-nose conversation, a character calls his character out for performing - and I found myself nodding, but for entirely different reasons.  Admittedly, he does have a uniquely difficult role to play, but I'm not sure the accent helped at all.

Verdict: Twisty plotted Nolan at his near best.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Described as one of Powell & Pressburger's greats - it's quite hard to know how to pigeon hole The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as it's a war era drama which feels subversive and satirical about war and the military at times.

I viewed it primarily as a three ages of man drama with comedic and romantic elements in it - and found the transformation of young radical to seemingly pompous and out of touch veteran rather moving and wholly convincingly played by Livesey.   The mostly verbal comedy moments have also travelled well down the ages, while the romantic segments are touching enough to round out the production.

The new restoration edition looks amazingly fresh by the way, and shows off the weirdly lurid colour process to full effect.

Verdict:  Involving wartime drama

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Robot

Having recently obtained a blu-ray copy of Tom Baker's first season as Doctor Who I thought it was a good chance to revisit those stories.

Robot doesn't mess around with the laboured regeneration crisis of later Doctors and plunges the Doctor and the UNIT crew into a mystery around various thefts with a hi-tech theme.  It's a good showcase for Tom's new Doctor as demonstrates his Holmesian detective skills, his ability to confuse enemies as well as...erm...card tricks and speed typing.

Elsewhere, Sladen as Sarah Jane gets to do some actual investigative journalism, while Marter's Harry seems to bumble around like a spare part who is clearly out of his depth.  A special word also for Burnham as Professor Kettlewell. His hair is quite extraordinary!

The Robot is well realised - even if it does appear to have rather weak wrists. Special effects wise, chromakey is the order of the day and probably a bit too ambitiously used to be truly effective.

Storywise, it draws upon influences as diverse as King Kong, Asimov's three laws of robots and the earlier Doctor Who serial, Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

It's not the best Doctor Who story, or even of this season, but it serves as a safe introduction to the fourth Doctor.  Weirdly, the story with its trappings of UNIT and Earth bound nature feels more like a Pertwee setup than typical of Baker's era.

The blu-ray is a nice step up picture and audio quality wise with much of the compression noise in the picture disappearing. You'll never be convinced that this is HD, but within the limitations of the camera and production technology - this looks about as good as it ever will.

Verdict: The fourth Doctor arrives in a third Doctor story.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Review: Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work

Stealing Fire is a sequel of sorts to The Rise Of Superman and serves to expand on some of Kotler's previous ideas on how to achieve flow and improve performance.  It may also have one of the wordiest subtitles ever.

Like the previous book, figuring out what to actually do is a little like catching smoke - only perhaps more so as some of the activities described are life threatening, illegal, expensive or all three!

A few examples of the options described:

  • Get your psyche torn apart and built up again with the Navy Seals
  • Experiment with largely illegal psychedelics 
  • Do bio-hacking
  • Go to Burning Man
  • Take part in extreme adventure sports

Interestingly, I did add to my collection one new flow trigger to experiment with - shifts in gravity.  This may go some way to explaining my recent passion for the aerial arts.

Verdict: There were some interesting ideas here, but it did feel like a thinly argued advertorial...

Review: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Part meditation and part call to action, Gawande’s Being Mortal is a compelling if depressing survey of the state of end of life care and why it matters to get it right. 

Essentially, in the West at least, we are in denial about death. So much so, that we and our doctors shy away from difficult conversations about what a good end looks like in favour of increasingly brutal interventions that often fail to do what the patient hopes they will do - that is prolong or restore life.

 When it comes to it, we all want to take our chances at being the one in the million miracle cure and focus on that rather than achieving what matters to us. What matters to us, often turns out to be surprisingly small. A previous high flyer may simply want to enjoy an ice cream and his favourite football game. Others focus on strengthening bonds with immediate friends and family.  All seem to hone in on the now, rather than the future. 

Equally important is what care in old age looks like. Again what we might choose for others is not necessarily what they'd choose for themselves. For example, they'd choose home and autonomy over safety. 

Most of the stories are saddening, and a few are heartbreaking. I was particularly struck by the story of one young patient who remained in denial up until and including her final words. 

Gawande pulls no punches in explaining what old age is really like. It is, as my Mum likes to say, not for sissies.  Essentially, it’s a slow wearing out of backup and then primary systems until you get cascade failure.  Terminal disease seems equally unappealing. Yet, one and/or the other is the trade off for being lucky enough to walk on this planet for a time.  All things considered, it’s not a bad one and demystifying the end process certainly made me think about what a meaningful (end of) life looks like.  

Verdict: Essential reading for anyone who expects to die one day.  

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The missus and I made one of our increasingly rare pilgrimages to the cinema for the latest monster munch in the series.

As with anything, timing is everything and I suspect we will not be repeating a Saturday afternoon viewing for a while as the soundtrack was at times near drowned out by successive waves of wrappers being peeled off or rustled to satiate an obviously starving audience.

Cinema going experience aside, Bayona brings a touch of directorial flair to the formula with a couple of call backs to earlier horrors such as King Kong and Nosferatu.

Both leads from the previous film are contrived to return. Pratt's Owen has done a Walden, while Howard's Claire has gone eco-warrior on us in a bid to save the remaining dinosaurs on their increasingly volcanic island.  Needless to say, the bad guys hinted at in the first of the rebooted series have other ideas and the story makes an only slightly more successful Lost World style shift to the mainland during the second half to become a haunted house mystery.

I suppose it would be churlish to point out the flakiness of quite a bit of the science eg heroes can apparently outrun and survive direct encounters with pyroclastic clouds.  More amusing, are the tip of the hats to the Trump presidency. For example, one character is referred to as a "nasty woman".

Newcomers to the series, Pineda and Smith, neatly subvert expectations with Smith in particular producing some very effective screaming that would put a Doctor Who companion to shame. Pineda gets to poke fun at some of the film's standard tropes.

I'm sure I think this about every Jurassic Park/World movie - but the dinosaurs really do achieve another tick up in the realism stakes.

The 3D is surprisingly muted for a film of its kind and really adds little by way of immersion or thrills. I would not pay extra for it.  Similarly, if Goldblum's appearance in the trailers is tempting you in - don't be. He has little more than cameos topping and tailing the film.

Finally, the ending. Well, that was interesting - and sets up a couple of intriguing possibilities to complete the World trilogy.

Verdict: More of the same dino fun with a few mildly inventive touches.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Review: Lost Horizon

I'm about to write another variation on that familiar statement; "having recently read the book, I decided to give the film a try".

Lost Horizon is a very evocative film for me. As is often the case with my back catalogue, I likely first watched it at that impressionable period between the ages of seven and twelve where its themes of immortality, kindness and universalism together with action made a big impact.

They were also gentler and slower pre-VHS times - where a film might be shown on the BBC once in your childhood and you'd have to carry the half memory of watching in your head with no expectation of being to revisit again.  For our family too, all TV watching was on a 14 inch b/w portable which had the benefit of rendering black and white and colour films just the same (despite my Dad's half joking experiments with covering the screen with multi-coloured acetate film).

This time I got to watch it on the projector in our living room. Despite the best efforts of Sony's restorers, it's a bit of a patchwork quilt of various sources of footage and of a varying quality which even the blu-ray format can't do much for in terms of improving presentation. A few very short sequences are represented by stills and audio only.

The first hour or so of the film is still gold as the action sequences are suitably thrilling, the unfolding mystery tautly told and the unveiling of Shangri-La is a wonderfully 1930s in its design. Then it does begin to get a bit ponderous. The High Lama scenes, once so profound, feel quite drawn out and obvious in their insights.  Everyday life in Shangri-La itself is earnestly twee (although I'd still consider moving to the Shangri-La of the book).  Lastly, in a post Indiana Jones world - the fate of one of the characters now feels - like the book - under-dramatised and lacks impact.   The central performances, particularly of Colman are superb though and went a long way to keeping my interest.

Verdict: Sometimes a memory of Shangri-La is better than reality. 

Monday, 18 June 2018

Review: Lost Horizon

Hilton's remote mountain utopia of Shangri-La is a good counterpoint to Huxley's Brave New World. They were both written in the early 1930s, but in many ways could not be more different.

For most, Shangri-La - particularly those of a nostalgic, wistful bent - may be a more appealing utopia in many respects as it offers a longer more contemplative rural life away from the stresses and strains of fast paced urban living. This even extends to the prose - which has a dream like quality at times.

I was fascinated to read afterwards that an earlier name for Camp David was Shangri-La.

The protagonist, Conway, is rather more likeable than anyone in Brave New World too.  He's a thoughtful, well educated, courageous selfless everyman who's character - even across the passage of nearly ninety years - shines through with hardly a dated blemish.

"Laziness in doing stupid things can be a a great virtue".
Lost Horizon 

Both books, however, have a benign authoritarianism - honed over many years - at their core, the rule of an elite and there is no escaping it. They also both have elements of prescience. In Hilton's case, he correctly anticipates another war.

Weaknesses with Lost Horizon? It ends very abruptly almost as if the author suddenly got bored with it.  Conway aside, the characters aren't very well drawn, making the hinted at fate of one of them less impactful than it might have been.  I'd need to watch the film adaptation of Lost Horizon again - but I think it may have made a couple of useful improvements on the book.

Verdict: Engaging utopia masquerading as an adventure mystery.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Review: Batman: Master of the Future

This sequel to Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is set roughly a year after the events of that graphic novel.  The art in this is richer and more modern looking, but that isn't much compensation for a rather slighter story with a villain who seems to have no real backstory or motivation beyond a massive ego.

Also this is more a story about Bruce Wayne and once again he is prevaricating over his role as the Batman.

Verdict: Interesting, but not wholly satisfying follow up.