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.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

It's been a long time since I saw the original Jumanji. I remember CGI elephants and Robin Williams and not much else beyond the basic premise of it being about a game that transports players inside it.

No matter. You do not need to have seen the first Jumanji to appreciate this belated sequel/remake/reimagining/whatever.

It's no comedy classic, but it does amusingly subvert expectations through body swapping. The school nerd is given the body of Dwayne Johnson, and an entitled popular girl the body of Jack Black.  Cue plenty of gags like learning how to pee with different equipment.

The cast are all likeable and for Johnson in particular it's a step up in the acting stakes.  He really does charm in this one.

Verdict:  Last Action Hero for the 21st century.