Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Review: The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden is a classic story of childhood and growth.

But it's also a powerful story of how nature can increase happiness and help with depression and past trauma.  Nearly all of the characters within the book experience some form of renewal from increased exposure to nature.

One niggle. It's never really clear how seasons work. For example, at one point, Mary seems to get up early at dawn break before the rest of the household to explore the titular garden - seemingly in late Winter. And yet claims that the rest of the house is still asleep which is unlikely given it is likely to be around 7 to 8am.

Also striking is the late and whimsical interlude featuring a family of robins as they give their take on the human transformation they are witnessing.

Verdict: Uplifting and evocative

Monday, 19 February 2018

Review: Get Out

Satirical horror-thriller which explores white privilege and racial prejudice in middle class America.  It's uncomfortable viewing at times, and not just because of the horror (which frankly and thankfully leans more towards thriller than gore).

Cast wise, Kaluuya is stand out as the everyman who remains open but increasingly sceptical about his white girlfriend's family response to his skin colour.

It's often said that comedy is close to horror - and Peele's directorial debut continues to prove the rule through good timing and careful crafting of abrupt viewer mindset shifts.

My favourite quote has to be from the friend of the main character, "This is some Eyes Wide Shit"- a reference to the Cruise/Kidman/Kubrick collaboration.

Verdict: Modern take on Stepford Wives.

Definition: Baker's Foot

I was introduced to this while helping a friend with a building project recently.

Like a Baker's Dozen, a Baker's Foot is a foot with a little extra to cover mistakes. A Baker's Foot is 13 inches instead of the 12 that are in a standard foot.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Review: The Help

The film of the bestselling book passes the time but misses enough of the book out to make you wonder why they bothered.  There's a couple of points (eg the fate of Skeeter's mother) where there just isn't enough foreshadowing for the development not to feel shoehorned in. Ditto the origin of Skeeter's name IIRC, where I guess it's assumed you've either read the book or simply don't care.

Crucially, none of the characters appear to experience any personal growth which is absolutely not true of the book.

The cast is good though although they do feel a bit muted compared to their novel counterparts.

Verdict: OK, but inessential.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Review: Four Futures: Life after Capitalism

Four futures by Frase is a fascinating exploration of four different options for a post-work world due to automation while taking into account the real possibility of ecological collapse.  It's an unashamedly left wing perspective and that makes it an interesting contribution to a debate which generally tends towards techno-libertarianism (this essay on  the blockchain man is typical).

Frase's futures compose of the following worlds:
  • Communism - abundance and equality
  • Rentism - abundance and inequality
  • Socialism - resource constraints and equality
  • Exterminism - resource constraints and inequality
Two heavens and two hells. Which ones fall into each category perhaps depends on your perspective. 

He helpfully draws on cultural reference points.  For example, Star Trek: The Next Generation is used describe his vision of Communism - a world of plenty where the necessity to work in exchange for wages has all but disappeared - giving people the freedom to pursue meaningful activities.  

Also within the Communism chapter, there is an interesting observation that happiness among the long term unemployed increases once they pass retirement age - even if nothing else changes in their circumstances. This suggests that many of our attitudes to work and any associated life meaning we ascribe to it are simply social constructs.  I also enjoyed the description of the welfare state as essentially a tool for partially decommodifying the labour market - an argument which I'd hadn't previously heard.

Rentism is essentially corporate capture of everything - and extending it into further domains. The result is an artificial scarcity through, chiefly, intellectual property.

Socialism is perhaps more realistic vision of a less hierarchical society, but with environmental limits.

Lastly, exterminism is the apocalyptic scenario imagined by many teenage dystopias past and present. In summary, an elite use technology to wall themselves off, or worse, from the "useless eaters" they no longer need.

The book concludes with the compellingly likely idea that we may slip between scenarios eg exterminism may give way to communism. That's not unlike the thought experiment posed regarding various stages of the industrial revolution - where technology might result in a generation of pain, but their great-grandchildren might ultimately benefit. It's nice to imagine that we would all be sanguine about the promise of jam for a couple of generations later, but I'm not sure that's really the case.

Verdict: Interesting analysis of the left's perspective on possible futures from here.

Review: The Help

Stockett's debut novel deftly interweaves the first person stories of three women in 1960s Mississippi - and focuses on the relationship between black maids and their white employers.

The voices feel authentic and distinctive - and each has an important, and occasionally shockingly heart-tearing, story of racial prejudice and female empowerment. Together they make for a cracking read with a strong sense of place and character. Even the Southern summer heatwave made its presence felt.

If there is a criticism, it is that it relies too much on a white saviour character to propel the narrative. Perhaps that's realistic, but it is a repeated feature of other novels in the same genre.

Verdict: Compelling, moving and funny.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Review: Falling Down

At the time of release, I regarded this as a highlight of Douglas' career.  Douglas' D-Fens was a man fighting back against the man and the system in all its various forms. It was hard not to root for him.

Twenty plus years on, and the character is more problematic. He's still a crusader, but also xenophobic, has anger control issues and is a harasser of his estranged wife.  Nowadays, I think he'd probably be a member of the alt-right. Douglas' portrayal, however, remains a sympathetic one and in trying to reason with an unreasonable world, often brings a humour to the part before exploding into abject anger.

The film itself is probably a little rambling for modern tastes although it does feel like an authentic if limited foreshadowing of acclaimed TV series like The Wire.

Verdict: Suspenseful commentary on a slice of 90s life.

Review: Jurassic Park in 3D

For a post-convert of an iconic film never intended to be viewed in 3D, this is fairly successful with only one or two moments feeling like the characters are cardboard cutouts.   The dinosaurs, which is really what we are all here for,  sometimes burst out of the screen which definitely adds to the fun.

Fascinatingly, sometimes it is background details which draw your eye eg the stuff on someone's workstation.

The odd bit of blurry looking CGI aside, this film has aged remarkably well. The characters are nearly all well developed and given depth through show rather than tell. Often, a little visual aside such as Grant's firm, but laboured, tying rather than buckling of his seat belt tells you all you need to know.

Verdict: 3D adds something, but not always what you expect.

Review: Dark Shadows

Stylish quirky take on the oddball 1970s TV series which has more than a touch of the Adams family about it.   Good period detail and the cast look like they are having a ball with Green regularly stealing the show.  Exactly where Depp has dragged his accent from I'm not sure, but his reluctantly vampiric Barnabas Collins is good value.

At least one revelation comes too late, and in common with much of the other supporting characters feels under explored.

Verdict: A good taster for the TV series?

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The last of my revisits in the Indiana Jones film series. Often much criticised, I also felt disappointed on the initial release. Too many old faces don't make it into it and the casting of LaBeouf just didn't feel right.

But time has been kind to the fourth in the series.  It retains a sense of fun and taps into the key themes of the period to create the central mythology. LaBeouf is a good addition - especially once you appreciate he's not being prepped as a replacement for Ford.

It's not without it's faults though. The dialogue doesn't sparkle and the plot feels undeveloped.  The creation of a family for loner Indy also feels slightly contrived and gives the character unwanted baggage for future travels.

Verdict: Better than remembered.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Review: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The third instalment of the Indiana Jones Quadrilogy is a return to form as Indy is back looking for holy relics while fighting Nazis again. Additional magic comes from pairing him up with Connery as his father.

The result is an absorbing quest for the Holy Grail with plenty of comic notes while preserving the thrills and occasional moments of horror.  Plotwise, there's a lot of similarities with Raiders, but the Father-Son dynamic keeps it fresh.

Also of note is an extended opening sequence which looks inspired by early silent comedies. It's a wonderful piece of slapstick starring the late Phoenix and features a horse and train chase that explains various bits of the future archaeologist's attire, his hatred of snakes and his chin scar. 

Verdict: Breathless action fun

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Review: Jumanji

I reviewed the much belated sequel a month or so back and thought it was time to put my faded memories to the test by giving the original, Jumanji a spin.

At least some of my memories were right. This is a movie which is perhaps a transitional moment for special effects and features an obvious blend of early CGI and practical effects.

On the practical side, the lion is decent enough - but requires some suspension of belief.  Similarly, the stampede is fairly convincingly realised. Oh, the monkeys though... Amusing antics aside, these have not dated well at all.

The story a hugely imaginative one, and the realisation of what had happened to Williams' character a bit of a head spinner. Dunst, here in a very early part, is good as is Pierce.   Williams is slightly muted, but well suited to the part of unsocialised man-boy.

It's not a classic, but it does come close and I can imagine that if you were the right age, you'd have a lot of nostalgia for it.

Verdict: Fun 90s retromania.

Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

A few months ago, I finally bought the Indiana Jones trilogy (ahem...quadriology) on Blu-ray and having immediately watched Raiders of the Lost Ark I promptly put the set back on my shelf.

Why? I couldn't bear the idea of watching Temple of Doom.

Temple of Doom has never been my favourite of the series. Fantastic opening scene aside, it all grinds to a halt when they hit India and then becomes a bit of a grim, nightmare image laden slog.  Child slavery, starving villages, banquets of monkey brains and people getting their hearts ripped out before being chucked into molten larva is not exactly my idea of a Saturday afternoon adventure.

It's not awful, just lacking in fun. There are few good set pieces though - including those that riff on the best bits of the first movie. Ford is also at the top of his game here and hugely charismatic as as the titular character.

Elsewhere, Capshaw does her best with what is generally a pretty unsympathetic character while Ke Quan is clearly there to provide comic relief and not much else.

Still, it's done - and I can put this one back on the shelf for another twenty years or so, before I feel compelled to visit it again.

Verdict: Glad I got through this.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Review: The Post

The dramatic retelling of how the Washington Post came to publish details of the Pentagon papers is a timely, perhaps even cynically so, piece given the political climate in the US right now.  One wonders if the current Whitehouse incumbent will end up watching it on TV while devouring a burger and regard it as the smack on the nose it is clearly intended to be.

Politics aside, it's good to see various Hollywood heavy weights - actors and director - gathered together for an outing which, if it doesn't quite see them stretching themselves, makes for a highly compelling and enjoyable watch.

Verdict: Highly recommended.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Review: Coco

Death is an unusually dark topic for a Pixar film although films like InsideOut and Up have previously dealt with mental health, ageing and loss.

The trailer also didn't instantly appeal as it looked very much in the vein of Nightmare Before Christmas  - a film I admire for the technical ambition and imagination - but which never quite grabbed me emotionally.

So, it's a pleasure to write that Coco is  well conceived, melancholic and visually stunning. The city of the dead, in particular, is incredibly rich in detail and colour.

The plot does drag a little in places, but takes an appropriately dark turn towards the end which revived my sagging interest.  Storywise, it even feels a bit formulaic.

The character animation is quite lifelike now. There is one scene featuring a very young child reaching out - and they felt completely real.

Verdict: Not  top tier Pixar, but still good.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Big Finish audiobook version of L. Frank Baum's classic is an involving, but occasionally confusing adaptation.

I'm not a Oz fanatic (although I did enjoy Return of Oz), so it is hard for me to comment on how faithful this is to the original material or even the film (which although I've seen a few times I don't remember much of).

Overall, the  sound design is good with only the storm possibly slightly lack lustre. Dorman makes a good Dorothy too. Oddly, much of the rest of the cast are British sounding - with quite plummy accents.  I sometimes got confused between the Lion and the Scarecrow in particular.

One of the criticisms may be a problem with the source material. The plot is rather simplistic, and meandering with the team undertaking various mini quests where is is not always obvious what the point was. 

The narrator also abruptly changes close to the end - as the team are sent off on yet another quest.

I enjoyed the unionised flying monkeys, although the helium like voices of the munchkins are as annoying as ever.

Verdict:  Drifting over the rainbow.

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.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Review: Seve

Seve is the story of golfing genius, Seve Ballesteros.  It uses a mixture of archival footage and filmed inserts covering his early pre-professional life.

I liked the structure of a young Seve daydreaming of future wins which are then shown.  Castwise, GutiĆ©rrez is a real find as the young Seve - convincingly capturing his determination and charisma.

I'm not a golf, or even a sports, fan but this one of those rare pictures where human subject is so engaging, and their story equally inspiring that it's hard not to be drawn in.

Verdict: Seve, Seve, Seve. 

Monday, 8 January 2018

Review: The Hidden Life of Trees

Very few books force you to look at the world from a completely different perspective. The Hidden Life of Trees is unashamedly anthropological in its approach, and the result is a stunning shift in understanding and appreciation of these creatures.

Creatures? If Wohlleben had his way, we'd regard trees in the same way as we do a favoured pet; a being with agency and worthy of profound respect and love. The only difference is that they move in glacially slow motion. For example, they take thousands of years to cross the continents that take us mere hours by plane.

He builds his case through describing all aspects of tree life - from birth to death and painting a picture of how they respond to weather and pest based threats. Perhaps most fascinating though, is the realisation that trees can be connected to each other - even different species - through a fungal/root network knowingly called the "Wood Wide Web". As a consequence of this network, as well as exchanging information about pests and other threats, trees will even help older and sick trees out by transferring nutrients.

Verdict: Involving and outstanding.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Running away to the circus

An inelegant mermaid
Last year, I tried a few new things:
  1. Floatation tank
  2. Stand up paddle boarding
  3. Meeting an astronaut
and I thought I'd continue doing that in 2018.  My local arts and innovation centre advertised a circus workshop from Syrcus Cimera so I decided to give it a go and booked it a few weeks before Christmas.

Unfortunately, I've had a cold all week - but figured I might as well go into Bangor for it as it was beginning to clear.

Apart from the instructors, I was roughly double the age and a different gender to the rest of the class - who all seemed to have had some prior experience.  But they were a welcoming bunch.

One interesting feature. There was a higher than average number of left handers and ambidextrous attendees.

The session started a warm up session featuring yoga like stretches, and other activities

My personal favourite from the warm ups was a Simon Says like activity - only you had to do the reverse. So if the instructor said,"jump", you had to touch your toes, and vice versa. 

We were then divided into 3 groups and took it in turns to try out:
  • Various types of floor based skills such as juggling and plate spinning. 
  • The hoop. Taking in turns to perform various poses on a metal hoop suspended from the ceiling. 
  • The trapeze. Mounting and more poses. See picture above. 
Lastly, it finished with a warm down. All of the teachers were confidence inspiring and encouraging.


Circus skills although initially intimidating, are a great meta-learning tool. This point wasn't drawn out, but no-one can be naturally good at everything circus skills are often counter intuitive. For example, plate spinning involves turning only your wrist in a circle faster and faster and then stopping.

It is fantastic for improving coordination, gives you physical workout and confidence.  You will come away having made some demonstrable progress in whatever you try.   Lastly, it is a great social activity - you can't help but get to know and support others.

Taking it further

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

A flat sounding title for a in-depth character study of the torment of loss in violent circumstances. The trailer gives away the key idea so I'll expound a little.

Dormund breathes steel into her Western inspired vengeful woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do character. Grief has stripped away everything except Biblical level anger and determination to find out what has happened to her daughter.

Things escalate real quickly and occasionally gruesomely.

Harrelson's local sheriff plays against type as the local authority figure who's the target of her ire.  He's reasonable and understanding, but got problems of his own.

But perhaps surprisingly, it's Rockwell's red neck cop who takes the most surprising journey. I'll stay nothing more, but it's an outstanding performance which could have easily been the centrepiece of a different film.

Lastly, this all sounds gloomy, but the script is laden with Dormund's character's profanity soaked and witty tear downs of others. The plot also dances around expectations - sometimes delivering, sometimes subverting tropes.

Verdict: Catch Dormund's updating of the Western.

Review: The Sense of an Ending

Film adaptations are never as good as the book, are they? At best, the film makers have cast someone who doesn't quite look how you imagined the character. At worst? It's a horrible mess.

The Sense of An Ending is a competently made and well performed retelling of the key events of Barnes' book.  But it misses the point completely.

The book is a slightly jumbled series of half-remembered vignettes distorted by time, and protagonist's nostalgia and longing. It captures the mentality of the different life stages of boy and man well. Slowly, actually quite quickly as it's a short book, the picture becomes clearer.

Here Broadbent's character just comes across as implausibly, wilfully forgetful. That's partly a problem of pace, but also the visual nature of film.

Verdict: Cautionary tale.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Review: The Promise

The Promise is a love triangle set during the Armenian Genocide, and shot like an old style Hollywood epic.

The cast do their best, but the love story element smoulders rather than ignites.  It simply doesn't do the legwork to set up enough tension between the three protagonists. Lastly, it feels a bit problematic to have one particular plot development resolve the situation for one of them.

Similarly, the Genocide itself although well portrayed and illuminating probably assumes too much of the casual viewer who is unfamiliar with the topic,  timeline and geography.  For example, it's never explained why the Turks should suddenly target the Armenians.

But these problems aside, it is still very much worth a watch.  It's a little seen location and story which is extremely moving at times.

Verdict: Scramble for Wikipedia.