Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Review: Five Days

Kennedy's modern American take on Brief Encounter is certainly evocative. I found myself going up and down the emotional register with the fate of the characters.  Thankfully, it ended up with a sense of renewal rather than as the authorial character's voice put it - "the death of hope".

Despite being a romance written with thriller sensibilities, it wasn't quite unputdownable - but for the first third and last twenty percent of the book, I was eager to see what happened next.  Unfortunately, the central romance and some of the dialogue quickly becomes hallucinatory to the point of unbelievability - something which one of the characters, Laura, notes after the fact.

There is also a slightly irritating sense of the author info-dumping his research onto the page.  In some cases, this feels a bit on the nose as both of the main characters are of a literary bent with one even being an aspiring writer.

Kennedy, unusually for someone of the opposite gender,  writes women rather well. So much so, that the other main protagonist, Richard, and the secondary characters aren't anything like as rich or interesting.

But the themes of lost dreams and loves did resonate (sometimes more than I'd like to admit) and overall, I was pleased to read this - and thankful to my local book club for suggesting it.

Verdict: It's no Brief Encounter, but it mostly readable.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Review: Black Beauty

Black Beauty was the debut, and only novel, from Anne Sewell. That's a pity, as it turns out to be extremely modern in its writing style and compassion for others, especially animals. Unlike most late Victorian novels, you could easily believe it had been written within the last decade as the prose is accessible, the dialogue realistic and never preachy.

Black Beauty is fascinating for other reasons  as it describes where the world revolves around the horse rather than the car and internet as the primary means of transportation and communication.  Emancipation, whether male or female, is practically non-existent.

From the perspective of a 21st century reader, it feels like an utterly unrecognisable world as a result.  It feels more like a well-described science fiction conceit, than an actual part of fairly recent history.

Verdict: Compelling horsey classic.

Review: Hugo

After the massive success of Avatar, it seemed for a while that every filmmaker wanted to have a go at experimenting with 3D. Hugo was Scorsese's first attempt with the format.

The result is an unusual and quirky love letter to the early days of the medium itself. But to say more would give the central mystery away.  I came to this film almost completely cold was completely sucked in by it - so avoid if you can the various product descriptions and reviews if buying it online.

The two young leads, Butterfield and Moretz, are both excellent and expressive which suits the film given the low amounts of dialogue.  Plenty of other well known British character actors also shine in often little more than extended cameos. Kingsley gives a wonderfully empathic performance as a man struggling with his past - a theme running throughout the movie.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to watch it in 3D as one of our sets of glasses has gone AWOL. Hopefully, they will turn up soon (and we'll revisit).

Verdict: Magical fantasy is homage to past in more ways than one.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Review: 13 things mentally strong people don't do

This is a concisely written Ronseal type book which uses case studies to illustrate the advice it gives against each problem area.

Helpfully, the thirteen things each have a chapter of their own which meant I simply delved into the chapters which felt most relevant rather than read the book from cover to cover.

  1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves
  2. They Don’t Give away their Power 
  3. They Don’t Shy away from Change 
  4. They Don’t Focus on things they can’t Control 
  5. They Don’t Worry about Pleasing Everyone 
  6. They Don’t Fear Taking Calculated Risks 
  7. They Don’t Dwell on the Past 
  8. They Don’t Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over 
  9. They Don’t Resent other People’s Success 
  10. They Don’t Give Up after the First Failure
  11. They Don’t Fear Alone Time
  12. They Don’t Feel the World Owes them Anything
I chose to read the highlighted chapters above. Each chapter has a few case studies and practical tips and advice.

They Don't Give away their Power
Probably the most helpful thing for me in this chapter was the piechart exercise outlined in the opening case study. It goes like this.

  • Make a piechart breaking down how you physically spend your time. 
  • Make another breaking down how you mentally spend your time. 

After completing the exercise, you may find that you are devoting considerably more mental time and energy on areas which are a very small part of your actual life.  It's a simple exercise but provided me with a minor epiphany.

A few other tips were also useful:

  • Distracting and removing yourself from difficult situations like arguments. I'd begun to do this before reading this book, but this prompt will help cement the habit. 
  • The power of forgiveness. Forgiveness is apparently reduces stress and increases tolerance to pain. 

They Don't Shy away from Change 
I don't generally feel I'm someone who shies away from change. But since I am middle-aged and have been working for the same organisation for approaching twenty years, living in the same house for five and married for nearly fifteen - I have occasionally wondered if I need to test that assumption!
It’s not that some people have willpower and some don’t . . . It’s that some people are ready to change and others are not.
James Gordon 

This chapter focuses on reducing barriers to change through encouraging small steps, making it easier to form new habits.  I think this chapter might have applied to me in the past, but I'm not sure it does now - especially as I now have new tools for habit formation.

They Don't Dwell on the Past
I found I was reluctant to read this chapter which was probably a good indication that I needed to.

I've certainly had to do this in the past - especially in relation to deeply held trauma together with some more recent problems.

The story behind J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan is a particularly poignant case study in this chapter.  The tips I took away were:

  • Focus on factual details rather than feelings
  • Consider what you learned from the experience.
  • Distraction (again!) through creating things to do/think about when triggered by past thoughts. 
  • Set future goals. 
  • Schedule time to think about it - rather than allowing it surface as and when. 

Schedule time to think about a past event. Sometimes our brains need a chance to sort things out and the more you tell yourself not to think about it, the more those memories can crop up throughout the day. Instead of battling to suppress the memories, remind yourself, I can think about that after dinner tonight. Then, after dinner, give yourself twenty minutes to think about it. When your time is up, move on to something else. 
Amy Morin, 13 things mentally strong people don't do 

Lastly, the advice which concludes the book includes a few basic tips on self-coaching.

Verdict: Well written guide for targeted mental strength building.

Review: Life Leverage: How to Get More Done in Less Time, Outsource Everything & Create Your Ideal Mobile Lifestyle

Be prepared for a barrage of proprietary acronyms and didactic although gently humorous style if you decide to pick this up.  It is also (grits teeth) written by yet another BTL empire builder.

It's a dense book, but if you've done any reading in this area at all eg The Four Hour Work Week, Brian Tracey - you'll be familiar with concepts like 80/20 rule, compounding etc.

Personally, I was beginning to wonder if I'd get anything worthwhile from the book. But I did manage to lift a few ideas:

Multi-tasking (he calls it NeTime or No extra time) eg listening to audiobooks while travelling. I do this specific example already, but I will consciously combine my trips to the local town to attend courses etc with shopping for essentials in the future (and hopefully free up Saturdays!)

Product/service design. His list of areas to target is nice and compact:

  1. Solve a small problem for many people. 
  2. Solve a big problem for a few people. 
  3. Solve a small problem multiple times. 
  4. Solve a big problem multiple times. 
  5. Serve charitably. 
  6. Serve materially. 
  7. Serve by entertainment.

Software tools. Don't use little know ones as they won't play nice with others.

Five to seven rule. Only put five to seven things on your to-do list.

Getting started in constructing a team.  I liked the simple advice about hiring a PA first, then operations manager, managing director, specialists/technicians and financiers.

Again not the first time I've encountered this quote in recent months, but worth highlighting anyhow:
There have been gazillions of people that have lived before all of us. There’s no new problem you could have with your parents, with school, with a bully. There’s no new problem that someone hasn’t already had and written about in a book.
Will Smith (yep, that one - I was surprised too) 

In summary, there's little that's new here, but I could see myself skimming through this again at some point for inspiration or reminders.

Verdict: Useful reminder or introduction depending on where you are.

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.