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I remember liking the first Dragon film and not being so impressed with the second. Dave is a big fan and has watched all the the TV series. I've heard the music a lot because he plays it in the background quite frequently. But I wasn't intending to see the new film. We had cinema vouchers and a free Sunday evening, though, and it was the only film on that I had any interest in at all - plus, I knew Dave was keen, so I suggested it.

And I loved it! The animation is gorgeous, all the characters are present and correct and get their own moments during the story. The action set pieces are amazing and the relationships are beautifully developed. It made me laugh frequently and cry quite a bit too.

Toothless is so amazingly expressive and gets a fantastic emotional arc. The choices the characters have to make have huge personal and wider significance and the film doesn't shy away from the conflicting impulses they experience.

The ending is wonderful and I totally disagree with Empire, which said the emotional impact of the conclusion isn't earned. I was definitely tearing up and found the last few scenes really uplifting (pun intended).

This is a brilliantly realised world that I enjoy spending time in, and I think this film provides a fitting end to the arc of Hiccup and Toothless.
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This week, I read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Written in 1932 and set probably in the early 1950s, it's a parody of melodramatic rural romances of the time and also a very weird speculative work that involves TV phones and air taxis.

It felt a bit overdone in places - I nearly didn't continue past the first introduction of Cold Comfort Farm itself. But the protagonist, Flora Poste, is now probably my favourite character in anything ever and I eventually enjoyed the book tremendously. Flora goes to live with her relatives on Cold Comfort Farm rather than finding useful employment, and turns her interactions with the Starkadders into a mammoth project to bring sense and fulfilment to the family.

The purple prose is quite deliberate and Flora's no-nonsense attitude and habit of speaking her mind clash hilariously with the doom-laden entrenchment of the Starkadders in their stagnation. It perhaps takes a little too long for Flora's plans to start to take fruition, and then everything comes together a bit too rapidly in the end. Some of the fates orchestrated for the female characters also don't feel quite as liberating and beneficial as they might. But it's mostly a work of genius. And it has a surprisingly and unabashedly romantic ending, which I found wholly satisfying.
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I went into Caroline with no knowledge of what it was about - and it turns out to be a weird-ass show. Plotwise, almost nothing happens, which is to be expected when it's mainly set in a basement and the first song repeats the refrain, "Nothing happens underground in Louisiana." On the surface, the story is about Caroline, a black maid for a Jewish family in 1963. She does the laundry in the basement, tries to make a good life for her four kids, and observes the new stepmother trying to bond with the bereaved son of the family she works for.

But, along with Caroline, her kids and the Gellmans, other characters include the washing machine, three people representing the radio, the moon, the dryer and a city bus. The music is raucous and the characters often sing over each other in not quite harmonious fashion, which makes it difficult to make out the words a lot of the time.

The show's tone and style are so unexpected that I spent a fair bit of the first half intending to leave in the interval. But it grew on me, and the characters were compelling enough that by half-time, I wanted to see it through. Themes of racism and classism are strong, as well as the difficulties of family relationships and finding a place in the world where you can be happy.

I particularly liked the double meaning of "change" in the sub-title, and all of the performances were nuanced and committed. It definitely took me a while to get into it, but I'm glad I stayed and would recommend this for an interesting and challenging night out.
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I'm not sure I have a lot to say about Alita: Battle Angel...

It was mostly fine, with a lot of great action but also a lot of gratuitous dismemberment.

I did feel invested in Alita's story, even if the plotting was a bit clunky at times and the romance aspect made me want to throw things.

But the bad guy was barely in it, and we were given no indication of his motivations. And the film ended before there was any kind of showdown. A cliffhanger in a pretty obscure manga adaptation seems a bit odd.

It was all very pretty but very violent. And I could probably say a lot about a kick-ass but very innocent female protagonist being manipulated by the men in her life. But I'm not sure I can be bothered.
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I went to see Good Women at The Vaults on Wednesday, but didn't enjoy it as much as the rest of the audience seemed to:

http://london.fringeguru.com/reviews/vault-2019/good-women

Green Book

Feb. 9th, 2019 10:44 am
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Last night, we went to see Green Book. I'd heard a lot about it from different perspectives before going in so I was interested to see what I thought about it myself.

The movie depicts the true story of Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer with antiquated views on race, who was hired in 1962 by an African-American concert pianist named Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), to drive him through the segregated South on a two-month concert tour.

The two central performances are fantastic. Mortensen truly inhabits Tony Lip, and Ali is masterful in portraying the depth of Don's emotions beneath his sophisticated exterior. And it's really funny, as well as poignant and uplifting.

The movie has been criticised both as being a "white saviour" narrative and also for Don's character being a "magical negro", a term popularised by Spike Lee to denote "a supporting stock character who comes to the aid of white protagonists in a film". And here is where I take issue with the criticism. Whilst I can see how the movie might be interpreted in these ways by some people, the fact that both accusations have been levelled against it leads to what I saw in watching it. The two characters save each other in multiple ways. And, whilst it might have been nice to see more of Don's perspective and experience, rather than the film being very firmly from Tony's point of view, Don is certainly not a stock character and his role in the story is definitely not purely to teach Tony things.

I really enjoyed the movie. I was invested in both characters and I thought the progression of their relationship from wariness and prejudice to friendship was well drawn and excellently acted. It's not an original story, and it was mostly very predictable, but I still thought it was very good overall.
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Mercedes Lackey is writing a new series of Valdemar books, following on from The Collegium Chronicles and Herald Spy books, and catching up with Mags and Amily now that they have three children. The Hills Have Spies is the first in the Family Spies series, and I very much enjoyed finding out what the characters have been up to and meeting the new members of the family.

In this book, Mags takes his oldest son, Perry, on a journey to find out why people have started going missing in the Pelagir hills. Along the way, Perry teams up with a sentient wolf-like creature named Lorel, and they defy Mags by running off to investigate a strange town on their own. Much peril ensues before things are resolved in rather a deus ex machina fashion, followed by a lot of exposition.

I've always liked Valdemar as a place to visit and have adventures in, and I enjoyed this book overall. But the plot did feel slight, the passing on of messages between characters who couldn't speak to each other directly got rather wearing, and the climax was all over too quickly and easily. Still, I'll likely continue with the series anyway, since they are an easy listen and generally quite fun.

Vice

Feb. 5th, 2019 11:59 am
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I saw Vice last night, on the recommendation of various people, and I mostly thought it was very good. I remember very much enjoying The Big Short when that came out, and this was similarly cleverly put together with excellent performances. It felt a bit long and a bit dry, but it gave me a lot of interesting information and the presentation was intermittently genius. Christian Bale is very convincing, and conveys a great deal in long pauses and hard stares. Amy Adams gives Lynne Cheney tremendous strength and conviction, making her almost more chilling than her husband in places.

The film details both subtle and not-so-subtle changes in US politics, providing a road map from where we were several decades ago to where we are now. It also looks at how politicians' families are affected by their jobs and charts the careers of mulitple people who have had a profound effect on US policy and actions in recent times.

The interview that ends the film raises some interesting questions about public culpability, but it's definitely worth waiting through the credits for an extra scene that also pokes fun at the liberal viewpoint.

This film certainly isn't as funny or downright entertaining as The Big Short, but it's compelling in its own way and I would recommend it to anyone interested in US politics.
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I had the opportunity to review two more very good shows at the Vaults for Fringe Guru on Wednesday:

http://london.fringeguru.com/reviews/vault-2019/womans

http://london.fringeguru.com/reviews/vault-2019/queens-of-sheba

I'm really enjoying this reviewing gig - long may it continue!
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I was never really interested in the Paddington films when they came out, but people of all types kept going on and on about how great Paddington 2 is, and it's still rated at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, so I didn't object when Dave suggested watching the first one a couple of weeks ago. And I mostly really enjoyed that one.

We watched the second film the other day, and I mostly enjoyed that one too. But I really don't see what all the fuss is about. It's sweet and fun, and bits of it are either funny or clever or both. But the plot is gossamer thin and there's not much in the way of jeopardy until the very end. Don't get me wrong - Paddington is wildly appealing and there isn't much to object to about the film. It's got a fantastic cast and they're all very good. The effects are great and the inclusive message is an important one.

But I thought the first film was funnier and better constructed in terms of storytelling. And I just don't get why everything thinks Paddington 2 is so amazing. Hey ho.
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I spotted The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts on a prominent stand on my last trip to the library, and it did a very good job of drawing my attention enough for me to add it to my collections. I read it in two days, which shows that it tells a compelling story. But that annoyed me, because there were also multiple aspects of the writing that I felt were less than stellar - too many changes of point-of-view, clumsy tense use, lots of common thriller tropes, overblown imagery. There were three twists - one that was obvious to me from very near the beginning, one that took me by surprise in a satisfying way and one that felt like a cheap trick because it seemed to come from nowhere. So, the book certainly wasn't bad and it kept me interested throughout. But it could have been done better.
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On Tuesday, I went to see Six, the musical about the wives of Henry VIII, which I mostly really enjoyed. It was more of a pop gig than a play and was a bit too high-energy for me in places, but all the performances were committed, there was a lot of talent on show, and both my companion and I laughed a lot at the modern tweaks and historical jokes alike. The cast was pleasingly diverse in terms of both ethnicity and body type, and all six characters were brought vividly to life. There was a good mix of musical styles and I loved the glitzy costumes that evoked the period in interesting ways.

The show is set up as the six wives competing over who had the worst experience of being married to Henry. The one-upman-ship is very amusing in places but also extremely catty. When it actually crosses the line (comparing numbers of miscarriages), Catherine Parr calls a halt and suggests they should be supporting each other rather than trying to tear each other down. So, it ends up in the right place eventually, but tonal shift if very abrupt and both sides of the presentation are a bit extreme in my view.

Still, it was almost entirely tremendous fun (and very short!) and I would definitely recommend it.


This week, I also read A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark. It tells the story of Mrs Hawkins, widowed very young during World War Two, but allocated a matronly, responsible persona by her work colleagues and fellow guest house residents, due to her married name and large size. It's a well drawn slice-of-life story, which meanders a bit but has a lot of great characters and a very amusing portrait of the publishing industry. It takes some rather sharp turns, going darker than I expected in places, but overall Mrs Hawkins is a very pleasing companion.
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I had no idea whatsoever, going into The Binding by Bridget Collins, what it was about, or even what genre it was. It was recommended to me with the instruction that I not read the blurb before diving in and I think that was good advice.

I will say that it's a fantasy novel about magic books, but that's all I will say about genre and plot.

It's a beautiful book in terms of cover design, and it's beautifully written in terms of the language use, descriptions and particularly the imagery. The premise is original and has tremendous layers of ethics, identity, memory, the power and consequence of experience. There are definitely echoes of #MeToo around power dynamics in relationships and the ability of the rich and important to get away with horrific things.

I had an idea where the plot was going early on, but I wasn't sure if it would go there. It did and it was a pleasant affirmation of my prediction. I liked a lot of the characters and I thought the way the story was put together was very well done. The flashback section on the middle went on too long, though, and I didn't find the ultimate conclusion very satisfying.

The hope provided by the ending was too easily purchased, with no foundation in the reality of the story. And it also left multiple characters (notably most of the female ones) without any closure, justice or hope for themselves.

So, while the world-building and setting were masterful, the writing excellent and some aspects of the plot admirable, I was left feeling there were far too many loose ends, and that the two main characters proved very selfish in pursuing their own happiness at the expense of others.
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I'm reviewing at The Vaults for Fringe Guru over the next couple of months and I got to see my first show on Wednesday. My review went up on the Fringe Guru site today!

http://london.fringeguru.com/reviews/vault-2019/katie-and-pip
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I was very excited recently when I realised there was a new Jack Reacher book by Lee Child that I hadn't yet read. Hearing Jeff Harding's voice on the audio recording immediately made me smile as he epitomises Reacher in my head so much that I can't listen to him reading anything else.

But Past Tense turned out to be a huge disappointment. In a 12.5 hour book, basically nothing happened at all for the first 10 hours, and after that it was just faffing around in the woods and lots of killing. Reacher wasn't involved in the 'bad thing going on in the small town' at all until the 10-hour point, and the 'bad thing' didn't actually get started until then anyway.

I was glad that the victims of the 'bad thing' worked hard to help themselves and had some reasonable success in this area prior to and alongside Reacher's intervention, but none of the plot was very interesting, and the repetitive nature of the narrative got very irritating long before the end.

I hope this is just a blip in a usually highly entertaining book series, and that Lee Child hasn't gone permanently off the boil...

Sleepers

Jan. 22nd, 2019 05:36 pm
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Sleepers is a book by Lorenzo Carcaterra about events from his childhood that led to his later involvement in a murder trial. It's a very unpleasant book, detailing extended physical, mental and sexual abuse of teenage boys at a reform school in the US in the 1960s. Carcaterra sets the scene will, describing his early years in Hell's Kitchen and painting a sympathetic portrait of the bond he shared with his three best friends. The sections set in the reform school are horrifying and the later part about the murder trial (during which he and one of his friends worked to exonerate the other two) is cleverly put together.

I struggled with the moral stance taken by the book, though. Obviously, as one of the boys affected, Carcaterra wanted to mitigate the presentation of their blame in events. And they absolutely didn't deserve what happened to them during the year they were imprisoned.

But they did commit wrongs, and the two of his friends who were put on trial did become hardened criminals. I'm sure their experiences contributed to that, but the author's path after he regained his freedom demonstrates that there were other roads available to them, despite the trauma they endured. So, while I am sympathetic towards what they experienced, I find I cannot condone or excuse their prior or subsequent actions.

A very interesting but difficult read, which raises a lot of questions about culpability and the long-term consequences of abuse.

Paddington

Jan. 21st, 2019 11:17 am
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Last night, I watched the 2014 Paddington movie, and mostly enjoyed it.

I asked awkward questions that weren't adequately answered, I cringed as some of the humour wildly misfired, and I wished a few of the characters had been less cartoon-ish.

But I also laughed uproariously at the excellent wordplay, had to reassure my giant teddy bear when things got tense, and melted at the emotional heart of the film.

Ben Wishaw and the fantastic animation imbue Paddington with tremendous character and appeal. Hugh Bonneville does what he does best, and Nicole Kidman turns up in a very unexpected role that manages to be both sinister and sexy.

The emotional arc of the story is very well done, and I was certainly invested in Paddington's fate by the end.

I've heard the sequel is even better, so I may well give it a try.
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I haven't had much luck with Patrick Ness novels in the past, but The Rest Of Us Just Live Here had such an enticing premise that I decided to give it a go. In a small American town, various supernatural threats have come and gone every few years, with certain high school students being the ones targeted and also the ones who fix the problem. In the present day of the novel, these are the 'indie kids', but the novel focuses on a different group of kids, who are on the periphery of the situation. They know something is going on, but it all happens away from their day-to-day lives and they're not 'special' enough to really be involved.

So, each chapter starts with a paragraph summary of what's going on with the indie kids and the invasion plans of The Immortals, and then the main narrative follows Mikey and his family and friends as they go about their days, dealing with their own issues.

It's very cleverly done and very funny in the way the indie kid summaries satirise traditional YA supernatural plots. But the main narrative is also extremely well written and emotive, with the ordinary struggles of teenagers having conflicts with their parents while dealing with school, prom, graduation, upcoming college and various mental health issues.

In particular, there's a whole chapter that charts one of Mikey's therapy sessions and has a lot of great things to say about mental illness, the stigma attached to it, and how it should be viewed as the same as any illness - ie no blame attached to the sufferer, medication not viewed as a failure in some way, etc.

Unfortunately, this important message is completely undermined by something that happens at the very end of the book, which is a real shame, and I don't understand why it was done like that.

Still, overall, I really enjoyed this book - it's funny and clever and affecting and shows lots of good things about the difficulties of being a teenager, as well as the importance of having good friends.
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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman has been selected for our next Family Book Club meeting, and I'm definitely looking forward to the discussion. It's a really interesting book that goes in some unexpected directions. The protagonist is clearly on the autism spectrum and her perspective is very effectively portrayed as she goes about her day-to-day life and responds to her interactions with others. But there's a lot more going on, which is hinted at throughout. By halfway through, I felt it was getting a bit repetitive and definitely dragging, but it takes a dramatic turn in the second half and delves into some very dark waters. I guessed all of what was revealed by the end, but also came up with a theory that turned out not to be true, so it wasn't completely transparent. I'm really not sure why the book has been labelled 'uplit', though, since I don't consider a largely hopeful ending to mitigate all the trauma and darknes that comes before it.


Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft is a fantasy novel about a man who is separated from his new wife on their honeymoon and spends the rest of the book trying to find her. Their honeymoon destination was a huge and mysterious tower with uncounted different levels, so Senlin embarks on a systematic search, encountering many and varied different people and places along the way. The world-building is very good, and the narrative is densely and beautifully descriptive. However, this does undermine the tension and slow the action considerably. Also, Senlin's encounters seems reasonably arbitrary and get tedious as the book goes on, even if things do start to connect together a bit by the end. There wasn't enough plot to stretch out over one book to my mind, though, let alone a trilogy, so I won't be carrying on with this series.
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