31/07/2022

Watching - July 2022

The Proposal (2009)
As predictable as the sun rising, but nice with it. Sandra Bullock is as convincing as she can be, given the somewhat preposterous plot, as a career woman who rediscovers her emotions and falls in love with both Ryan Reynolds and his family. What he sees in her is less obvious, unless he's always secretly been in love with her and just needs to accidentally see her naked to push him over the edge. Still, Reynolds is as engaging as you'd expect, albeit more convincing when he's being a smart-ass than when he's doing sincere. An acceptable way to spend a couple of hours one afternoon.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
I must have watched this originally on TV (and we had a copy that was recorded off TV), as now I watch on DVD there are significant chunks that I do not remember at all - and fairly important parts too. The plot's decent, and if the special effects look a bit clunky now, well, that's because it's over thirty years old!
Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)
I remember going to see this with C in High Wycombe Odeon when it was released. We'd decided we wanted to watch something fairly undemanding but "with some big bangs" - which, if you know the start of this film, certainly matches up! It's aged reasonably well, although I think the sandwich board incident at the beginning would almost certainly not get included these days, and you'd hope they'd manage at least one or two better female roles. Preposterous but good clean fun.
My Life as a Rolling Stone (2022)
High School Musical (2006)
Slightly unexpectedly, High School Musical is probably our favourite film as a family. It's a combination of engaging characters, cheesy plot and songs that are much better than they have a right to be. We can watch it and make fun of it while still enjoying it.
Rock Family Trees: The Rise of Cool Britannia (2022)
Notwithstanding the title, this was a programme about Suede and how they started Britpop and then grew out of it. (Do they have a new album out soon, by any chance?) It wasn't really a proper rock family tree - of the claimed "three biggest bands of the 90s", only Suede and Elastica are linked and all that makes is a flat shrub, rather than a tree - and it only featured a few of the players of the time: no Bernard Butler, none of Blur, Pulp, Oasis or other more minor players. I was also irritated by the programme's lazy characterisation of prime Britpop as some sort of cheeky, end-of-pier, Carry On style of music. Sure, you had songs like "Parklife" and Supergrass's "Alright", but you didn't have to go far beyond the singles to find more depth, even on the same albums (try "This is a Low" or "She's So Loose"), let alone later ones. I guess it suits Suede to position themselves as perennial outsiders. Still, it was fun to relive the times (I recall Suede's first single launch gig in the basement of Rough Trade in Neil's Yard with much fondness) and Justine Frischman was a great interviewee, unlike Brett Anderson and Matt Osman who looked awkward and self-conscious. I suspect that might be because she has nothing to sell and no image to maintain.
Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022)
Enjoyable outing with the family to a Sunday matinee showing at the cinema (now much more affordable, thanks to Vue's pricing). The film isn't going to win any prizes for plot or subtlety, but it has many very funny moments and a great soundtrack (thanks to Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, who I am going to see in September).
Hello Quo (2012)
Status Quo is a band I knew little about, bar the obvious singles, until a Fretboard forum listening party for Blue For You (1976). The album's not bad at all and a lot more varied than I expected. So I was interested to see this history of the band. I loved finding out that their future direction was set in the late 60s by seeing The Doors performing "Roadhouse Blues" live - as soon as Francis Rossi mentioned it, I could hear the link between them exactly. There's plenty of footage here (and all over YouTube) to show how tight and effective they were as a band, something that's harder than you'd think. Unpretentious music, workmanlike sometimes but at its best a real rock force (and as an aside, this picture of them, from the mid-70s, is superb)
The Martian (2015)
Having read the book, I had to watch the film. It skips some details but is marvellously visualised. The main character isn't quite such a smart-arse as in the book, which is a shame as this was the characteristic I found most attractive. There's a few film cliché moments inserted into the plot and an unnecessary coda, but otherwise it's surprisingly true to the source material. Very enjoyable.

Reading - July 2022

Love is the Drug edited by John Aizlewood (1994)
Entertaining, albeit slightly repetitive, recounting by various music journos of the time (plus a few celebs) of their fandom for a particular artist. In some cases, all they're telling us is why so-and-so is their favourite, whereas in others it's a full-blown obsessiveness. Interesting, but doesn't pass the key test of any book about music: in no cases was I inspired to go and listen to the music. I've had this book for a long time - probably since it was published - and now I've read it again, I'm not sure why it survived the Great Book Cull of '17. Destined for the charity shop, I think!
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (1997)
A worldwide phenomenon, apparently, albeit one that has completely passed me by - I found this in the book exchange at work. According to Wikipedia, it's one of the best selling memoirs ever, and I can kind of see why: it's sweet, easy to read and has a nice message. It's also sentimental, simplistic and possibly a bit shallow - qualities that probably also don't harm its appeal to a wide audience (yes, I'm being snobbish). The book's subject - Morrie Schwartz - seems like he was a lovely man who encouraged people to live simply and enjoy what they have. I don't think I'm overly simplifying here. It's a good moral, one we should all remember, and if it takes a book to remind you of it, then fine.
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2019)
Essentially an explanation about why the geopolitics of various regions fundamentally shape their history and policies, this is eerily correct about Russia's current actions, particularly given that it was originally published in 2015 (albeit updated in 2019). It adopts a curiously passive and neutral stance on countries' actions, explaining blandly that, for example, Putin had "no choice" but to annex Crimea, and initially this irritated me, because of course he had a choice. The only perspective in which he has no choice was that in which all other leaders are equally paranoid and opportunistic, and sadly, this is probably correct. It's also self-perpetuating, but inevitable. Ultimately, this is a book about why toxic nationalism is going to always be with us. Hard going and depressing.
Summer at the Lake by Erica James (2013)
A nice modern romance, with flashbacks to an older story embedded in it. The characters were engaging enough to keep me reading, but were a little one-dimensional, while the story was predictable in the best kind of way (i.e. it ends happily), albeit with a sudden injection of several dramatic elements all at once towards the end, which unbalanced it a little. Pleasant bedtime reading.
The Martian by Andy Weir (2011)
I'd never heard of this (or the film made from it) until I read about it, catching up on old xkcd comics. It's an odd book in some ways, a patchwork of different viewpoints, different styles and fairly relentless technical detail, but the central character has such a winning personality that he carries the plot and left me really wanting it to all work out (I did peek at the ending fairly on to make sure it was a happy one). It threatened to degenerate into a series of unfortunate events but I suppose that's fairly realistic, given how hostile Mars would actually be, and in any case it didn't stop me enjoying it. I'm now looking forward to watching the film!

24/07/2022

My Life as a Rolling Stone

BBC, 2022

The Rolling Stones - as you've seen them many times before!

The Word magazine used to have a question on their web site when you signed up: "Beatles or Stones?" (there was also a third option, "actually I preferred The Monkees". It was that kind of humour - I really miss The Word magazine.) But for me, there's never been a question about it: The Beatles released a dizzying array of music in less than ten years, whereas the Stones ... well, put it like this, when I was compiling my favourite songs of the sixties recently, I could add almost all of every Beatles album, but only a song or two at most from each Stones album. 

Now don't get me wrong, there's some classics there - but also an awful lot of dross, frankly. They've produced little music of interest since the early seventies, and nothing at all in the last forty years, something I think they're very well aware of, as a brief look at their set lists over the last few years shows. But somehow this hasn't stopped them becoming the "greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world".

What has always distinguished The Rolling Stones, to my mind, is the incredibly effective way they've publicised themselves. From the very beginning, when Andrew Loog Oldham deliberately set them up as the opposite of those nice, clean Beatles, through to right now and this impeccably stage-managed documentary series, they've always had superb control over their public image, which in many ways has defined the "rock rebel" stereotype.

The format - one episode for each of Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie - manages to cover a lot of history, but it's a curiously incomplete picture. You could count the number of times Bill Wyman was mentioned on the fingers of one foot. Sure, he's not been in the band since 1993, but he was there for all the important moments. A complete history would include him, but this wasn't it. There was maybe five minutes in total featuring Brian Jones, and a minute including Mick Taylor (easily the best guitarist to be a member of the band).

Maybe this wasn't the point, and the idea was tell the individuals' stories. You could be forgiven for feeling that they were being pretty candid - after all, their history is pretty well known and Keith and Ronnie, in particularly, are well known for being rowdy rock 'n' roll bad boys. Conveniently, that means that the documentary can talk fairly freely about their well-known drug use, because that doesn't actually harm their image at all. But what about the women? We don't hear so much about that.

This was an enjoyable series and worth a bit of time to watch, but felt more like a very extended advertisement for The Rolling Stones and their latest tour than a real documentary. There was little new here and nothing that made me want to revisit any of their music. But then perhaps it's not aimed at me.

30/06/2022

Watching - June 2022

Ocean's Eleven (2001)
I'm not quite sure why I chose this, which I have already seen, over any number of other films, but it is a superbly over-the-top example of the heist movie, as explained so succinctly by Mark Kermode. The plan is way too complicated, there's too many people involved, there are some moments when it looks like it will all put in jeopardy and yet it all works. Great fun though (if you leave aside the whole moral issue of making crime look so glamorous), George Clooney is masterful and Brad Pitt cheeky. Shame Julia Roberts has so little to do other than look pretty, but I suppose that was kind of why Ocean's Eight was made. I'd quite like to watch the original now though.
The Good Liar (2019)
Not my usual sort of thing, a suspense/thriller. Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen are excellent, as would be expected, and although it was obvious there was going to be some sort of twist where Mirren's character wasn't who we thought, I didn't predict what it was. Unfortunately, what it actually was, was not particularly believable. Kept my attention though and was very involving, although there were a couple of scenes I could have done without - but then, this isn't my usual sort of thing, as I said.
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)
Still full of good ideas and fun moments, even if the moralising and message is a little bit more obvious. Nice to watch with the family
The Big Short (2015)
Probably even more simplified than the book (which I can't remember much about, as I read it over eight years ago), but still depressing. The story is told in a very stylish way, in a pseudo-docudrama format with multiple breaking of the fourth wall, and kept me gripped until the end, when it becomes apparent that all the main characters will have a) made a ton of money, and b) realised how broken the system is. The real scandal, of course, is that not only did no-one get prosecuted, but that it's being done all over again.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Melodramatic and overly fond of the big scenery, in an attempt to dress up what is essentially a very static locked room mystery. Perhaps the people making it thought that a faithful retelling would be too boring. And so they force poor Poirot to become an action man of sorts, chasing after someone, getting shot (conveniently in the upper arm, which doesn't bother him at all after about two minutes) and going for a classic Branagh Oscar nomination scene at the end (although Michelle Pfeiffer's almost matches it). Still, an entertaining couple of hours. And a cute lead-in to the next film (Death on the Nile, recently released I believe), which presumably was already planned.
Who Do You Think You Are: Matt Lucas (2022)
I don't like Matt Lucas's comedy much (Little Britain was awful, I thought), but as a person he seems very nice, and although I don't actually know him, there is a connection: he was at school with a girl I knew through summer camp, a long, long time ago. Karen Morris very sadly died of leukaemia in her early twenties, and her parents set up the Karen Morris Memorial Trust to continue the fund-raising she started in her last year; Matt Lucas is one of the charity's patrons. And his background is very similar to mine: a north London Jew, his grandmother came to the UK in the 30s from Germany, just like mine. So I was interested to watch this. It wasn't easy viewing - nothing concerning the Holocaust is - but it was a sobering reminder that, for so many of us, for every relative that escaped the Nazis, there were four or more that didn't.
Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
The boys (B & Z) and I went to see this at our local Vue - prices much reduced from what they were pre-pandemic means it's very good value (the same can't be said for the popcorn ...) I told them to watch Top Gun first but they didn't; it does work as a stand-alone film but all the nods to the first one are fun to spot. Most of all though, even though it's clearly a preposterous plot, it's easy to get involved with and I found myself thoroughly engrossed and even a little teary at times (although I'm a sentimental old fool so this isn't hard). The action scenes are incredible, Tom Cruise is superb and I'm reminded of how watchable he is. Great fun.

Reading - June 2022

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett (1998)
The Rincewind books aren't my favourites as they often feel a bit directionless. There are lots of interesting ideas here that aren't quite explained properly, or at least that I didn't quite get. Unusually, the annotation (link above) don't help much here, so I'm left with the feeling that either there's some subtext I'm not getting (entirely possibly, subtext is not my thing), or the book is collection of slightly random ideas - which doesn't seem likely for Terry Pratchett. There's also the usual humour, in this case working with rather obvious Australian stereotypes, which I find gently amusing, but I do wonder what an Australian would think of it.
Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett (1998)
In which vampires appear with suddenly manifested super-powers and try to take over Lancre - which is where Granny Weatherwax lives. Despite being pretty sure how it's going to end (obviously Granny will sort everything out), there's some suspense. Decent level Pratchett (i.e. very good by anyone else's standards) but not particularly distinguished.

31/05/2022

Reading - May 2022

The Runaway Jury by John Grisham (1996)
Easy and familiar reading, but nevertheless still gripping.
Working the Wheel by Martin Brundle (2004)
Brundle's own take on eighteen of the world's F1 tracks, past and present (plus Le Mans) is perhaps a little perfunctory in places, but pretty interesting overall. Fun fact: I saw Martin Brundle give a talk (at some corporate event) twenty-odd years ago, and I took this book with me to get it signed, but bottled out even though he was stood chatting with a friend of mine after the talk - mainly because I thought it would be very gauche of me to ask. Oh well.

30/04/2022

Reading - April 2022

The Unforgettable Fire by Eamon Dunphy (1988)
I bought and read this at the time, a very readable account of U2's first ten years. At the time, U2 were my favourite band and The Joshua Tree one of my favourite albums (it's still probably up there). It's pointless to say I didn't think I'd be listening to them over thirty years later, as no-one really thought like that, but this is a good time capsule of U2, Mk 1 - which is my U2, really.
The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy by Mary Street (1999)
I suspect this is based more on the legendary BBC series of Pride and Prejudice than on the book itself, but nevertheless it is a pleasant retelling of the story from Darcy's point of view. It doesn't add much to the story but there are some nice touches.
Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques (2003-)
A graphic novel would count as a book, so why not a web comic? I found this via explainxkcd and it was easy, low effort reading when I was feeling ill and keeping myself away from everyone else in the house for a few days. There's plenty of gentle humour, and occasional laugh out loud (well, snort out loud) moments, but what kept me reading is the story lines. The characters are interesting and I wanted to know what happens to them. It's kind of like a soap opera though - it never ends or resolves, just keeps going forever. I've now read them all - that's nearly twenty years' worth of comics read in about two weeks - and kind of want to stop ...
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
The previous P&P-based book made me want to go back to the original, which reminded how much superior it is to any attempted tributes/pastiches etc. Still one of my favourite books for a reason.
Dad's Email Order Bride by Candy Halliday (2014)
Oddly, for a M&B "Super Romance", this is short and not very involved. Obvious where it was going but a little oddly paced, so it finished a bit quick.
Make Room for Daddy by Andrea Edwards (1990)
Cringy title aside, this is one of the sweetest romances I have, which is why I re-read it fairly often.
The Illustrated Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth (2021)
I really enjoyed Forsyth's The Elements of Eloquence (blimey, eight years ago) and this was a lovely birthday present from B. It's not a sit-down-and-read kind of book, more a dip-into-occasionally kind of thing. It's full of wonderful facts about where words come from that I will not remember, but very much enjoyed reading about. This tenth anniversary edition is illustrated: the illustrations are whimsical and nicely done, but pointless and add nothing, sadly.
Tempting Fate by Stacy Finz (2019)
This next in the Nugget series is an interesting exercise, as Finz has taken the character of Raylene, previously firmly cast as a villain, and attempted to rehabilitate her as the heroine of this book. Mostly it works in terms of the plot, as we get more of her backstory and her earlier actions can be seen in a different light. What's less convincing is the way the other characters all suddenly change their minds about her. Still, this doesn't stop it being a satisfying story. And thus, for now, ends my journey through this series, as the library doesn't have the latest two books. (sad face)
The Accidental Scientist by Graeme Donald (2014)
A bit of a hodge-podge of stories about those wacky scientists discovering things by accident. There's also a smattering of anecdotes about scientists being ignorant (like early experiments in nuclear explosions) or even wilfully negligent (for example, the thalidomide scandal). Interesting in passing but not especially engaging, and fails to balance things out by pointing out that most scientific work is deliberate and well-informed.