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Culture Consumed 16

Hot on the heels of the stupidly long Culture Consumed 15 post, here is what I’ve read and watched so far in 2016.

Joy – The latest film from the ensemble that gave us Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. David O. Russell directs with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro all back. De Niro was in American hustle but was uncredited. The previous too films from this team were brilliant. Joy is good but I don’t think it’s as good as those other two. It does have some good dramatic, comedic, and surreal moments. I’ll certainly be buying it to keep for future watching. Time will tell how it stands up beside Playbook and Hustle. Looking forward to more films from the same team. I rated it 7/10.

The Danish Girl – The story of Danish artists Lili Elbe (née Einar Wegener) and Gerda Wegener. With Lili Elbe being the first woman to have sexual reassignment surgery (SRS). I thought the story of Gerda Wegener was the more interesting one. About how appreciation of her art changed after she started painting portraits of Lili. Alicia Vikander was spectacular in the part. Eddie Redmayne portrayed Lili. I thought his performance in the last quarter, when Lili was undergoing surgery, was a bit too much like his Stephen Hawking performance. Still good. But Alicia Vikander was the stand out for me. I rated it 7/10.

Europe in AutumnDave Hutchinson. The first in the Europe series of books. I’d seen people I trust sing the praises of this book a lot last year. So I bought a copy and finally got round to reading it just before Christmas. It’s very good. Literary writing without being too heavy. I was wondering why it was classed as science fiction for 90% of the book. But at the end it becomes clear. This would be a great intro for anyone who thinks Star Wars when science fiction is mentioned. I have the sequel here to read. Looking forward to it. Recommended.

The Hateful Eight – The latest Tarantino film. It’s too long. It’s violent. It’s what you would expect. A tendency to monologuing in dialogue. The music is good. I rated it 5/10 at the time. On reflection it’s probably a 6/10.

Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s 2013 release. With an Oscar winning performance by Cate Blanchett. Justifiably so as well. It’s a great performance in a good film. The rest of the cast are great too. Plus the cinematography and music are top notch. Gave it 8/10.

Serena – I’d been wanting to see this for a while. Mainly on the back of the Jennifer Lawrence & Bradley Cooper partnership. No David O. Russell or Robert De Niro involvement in this film though. It’s not the stinker some of the reviews would have you believe. The ending was a bit shocking to me. I rated it 8/10.

Legend – Marie Lu. The first book from the Legend YA trilogy. It’s more YA than The Hunger Games, and a bit shallow. Okay but not something that gripped me. I have the two others in the trilogy to read sometime later this year.

The Good Dinosaur – I only saw this in the cinema due to a power cut and I needed something to do. It was the only film starting just after the time I got to the cinema. A Pixar animation film that had many issues during production it seems. The world building and rendering in it are stunning. I’m still not sure if it was all rendered and not a mix of live action and animation. The story was just okay. The power cut was more exciting. Sparks erupting from an arcing overhead electric pole 100 metres up my street. Fire engines arriving and everything. Worth seeing the film for the visuals though. Rated it 5/10.

Room – This is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not the film you would think it is from the description. It is not a horror film. It is not a explicitly sexual or violent film, although there is some of both of those. It is a film about a 5 year old boy, and his mother, discovering the world after she was held captive for 7 years. So the boy has always been a captive. He only knows about Room where they live. Until he turns 5 and his mother starts to tell him about the outside world. I cried, laughed, and at one point my heart rate must have been up at 140 bpm. The performances by Brie Larson as the mother and Jacob Tremblay as the boy are remarkable. I was fully invested in the characters. Hence the heart rate thing. The supporting cast are also great. See this when you can, either in the cinema or when it comes out for home viewing. It was easy to rate this 9/10. Came very close to being a 10. Again; it’s not the film you think it is.

The 5th Wave – A new YA focused sci-fi, alien invasion franchise. It’s all done competently enough. But it is very formulaic with character types lifted straight out of the YA fiction construction kit. It has generated $84M from a production budget of $38M, so I expect the sequels will be made. I will go see them as the film is not a disaster. I rated it an average 5/10.

Speak – Louisa Hall. I saw this mentioned on Twitter by Adam Roberts. Had a look at the blurb and it looked interesting so got the sample. I liked that so I decided to get the audiobook. It’s amazing. Both the book itself, and the audio presentation. The story is about AI but it is told via six very different narrative arcs ranging from a pilgrim diarist on her way to America in the 17th Century, Alan Turing penning letters to the mother of a friend, two developers of AI systems, the wife of one of them, and the thoughts of an AI doll with fading batteries. All the arcs are relevant and they come together nicely. Destined to be a classic I think. The audiobook edition has 6 different actors narrating the different story arcs. A fabulous example of how an audiobook can enhance the written version.

The Big Short Can a film make you root for financial traders and market analysts who foresaw the 2008 housing crash in the USA, and who bet that it will happen in order to short the market and make money? Yes. Bankers are just above slime moulds on the likability scale. But at the end of the day they are just people. And if they are interesting people then their story will be interesting. The characters in this film are. I really liked it. It breaks the fourth wall quite a lot and this usually makes me twitchy. But it works in this. I thought Steve Carell’s character and performance was great, although the whole cast is good. Vinnie Daniel politely asking the auditors to leave Mark Baum’s office is brilliant. And easy 8/10 rating.

Dad’s Army – A reboot of the 1970’s British TV series. Many people are questioning why. It was okay. As good as the original. One good thing is a more prominent role for the women of the village. Felicity Montagu is fantastic as Captain Mainwaring’s wife and head of the local ATS platoon. And Cathering Zeta Jones is great in it. It was good fun. Gave it 6/10.

Culture Consumed 15

Here are the books and films I consumed between the previous culture consumed post and the end of last year.

Jodorowsky’s Dune – Back in the mists of time (the 1970’s) cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky was asked to direct a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The attempt never got made due to the Studio’s baulking at the production costs. However the preparation work was meticulous, and extravagant. It resulted in the production of several huge storyboard books. This production work had a huge influence on later films such as the Alien trilogy. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the process. It’s a fascinating study of genius and excess. I’d love to see the storyboard book published as a series of graphic novels. I’d also like to see a well done film adaptation of Dune. As a trilogy to get all the material in. The TV adaptation and sequel are the best adaptations so far. I rated the documentary about Jodorowsky’s attempt to make Dune 9/10.

Sicario – Film about the battle with Mexican drug cartels along the border with the USA. Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent who is placed on secondment with a joint US and Mexican task force who are battling the cartels. I really liked it. Emily Blunt, and the other cast members, are great. It’s beautifully shot. There is a sunset scene with the members of the task force walking at dusk that is spectacular. It’s up for a cinematography Oscar. I’d give it to them just for that scene. I rated it 8/10.

Dune – Frank Herbert. I reread Dune after watching Jodorowsky’s Dune. As you do. Actually I read it over various formats. I wrote about that in this post. One of the best books ever written.

Suffragette – I went to see this as my OneFilmPerWeek pick on 1st November. It was fabulous. It’s hard to believe that it was only 100 years ago that women were treated like 2nd class citizens in the United Kingdom. And not just with respect to the vote. The contempt and vindictiveness directed towards the suffragettes was eye opening. Still lots of places around the world where that battle is still ongoing. And other rights for women here in the West need fighting for. Reproductive health and equal pay to highlight two. I rated it 9/10.

Burnt – Another film caught in the weekly cinema trip net. Apparently this was a pet project of Bradley Cooper who stars in a great cast. The film was okay. The music was good. The song Fire by Barnes Courtney over the end credits is great. On Apple Music. I rated the film 6/10.

Steve Jobs – I was adamant that I wouldn’t go to see this. It had been slagged off by people who were close to Steve Jobs in life. In the end I went and I’m so glad I did. It’s basically a three act play. No it doesn’t cover the whole of Steve Jobs’ live. No film could. Yes it gets some historical details wrong. Probably for dramatic effect. It’s a film, not a biography. I liked it for what it was. A three act drama about relationships between people. Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet are very good in the main roles. Rated it 8/10.

Geek Girl: All Wrapped Up – Holly Smale. I really enjoyed the previous Geek Girl books. They are fun reads when you want something to amuse you and not get too taxing or deep. This latest one is more of a novella rather than a full length novel. With some lists and appendices to pad it out. I was a bit disappointed in it to be honest. Two more novels in the series. They’ll be better I expect.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 – Well, if you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I think that The Hunger Games series is the best Sci-Fi film franchise ever. I came to it late. I had the original film recorded from UK Film 4 channel siting on my V+ Box for 8 months before I watched it. I was hooked. Sinker, line, rod and boat. I loved The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. I came very close to giving that film a 10/10 rating. Still not convinced I shouldn’t go back and do that on IMDB. I loved the way it considered the topic of propaganda in civil war. And how figureheads become pawns in others plans. Not enough people agreed with my view however and there were complaints about the third film being too long and not like the previous two. I think this probably influenced the editing and cut of the last film. It was more action focused to appeal to the people who liked the original and second films. As such I don’t think it holds together as well as Part 1, but is still a good film. Katniss’s post traumatic stress syndrome isn’t given the prominence it has in the books. But the end is good and there is closure. Plus we get to hear Jennifer Lawrence sing again. I rated it 8/10.

The Silk Roads: A new History of The World – Peter Frankopan. The audiobook of this was recommended to me by Audible UK. I liked the description and sample. What a book. It tells the history of humanity over the last 3000 years or so using the trade routes known as The Silk Roads as the thread to tie it all together. There is stuff in here that wasn’t even on the radar in my history classes in school. This should be required reading for everyone from about 14 upwards. Gives great inside into the events we see in Asia, Russia and Mediterranean regions today. The meddling we did 150 years ago is still costing lives. I liked the audiobook so much I bought the hardcover as well. I included The Silk Roads in my Top 5 books from last year.

Gamehouse Series – Claire North. Two of Claire North’s novels were in my Top 5 reads of 2015. I love her writing. The same holds true for The Gamehouse Series. It was published as three novellas that together make up a novel length story. All three are linked and need to be read in order. The story is about a secret group of people associated with The Gamehouse who have been manipulating history for millennia. The stories actually tied in really well with The Silk Roads history that I was listening to on audiobook during the same period. Highly recommended. Looking forward to Claire North’s new novel due in May 2016.

Carol – I’d been looking forward this film for a while. The trailers looked good and the film lived up to expectations. Story of an illicit lesbian romance set in the 1950’s when such things were frowned upon. Beautifully shot and very well acted by all the cast. I rated it 8/10.

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves The World Again – A.C. Wise. This came to my attention via the SF Signal RSS news feed. The title and cover just grabbed me so I bought the book. It’s great. A connected series of stories about a group of superheroes and misfits with an LBGT theme. Really fun read. Would make a great comedy superhero film franchise I think. Looking forward to more stories about the gang.

Danny Collins – I’d wanted to see this in the cinema when it came out but didn’t get a chance to fit it in. I watched it on AppleTV when it hit the rental section there. I liked it. It’s about a reasonably successful musician who gets trapped into playing the same old songs that made him famous. He tries to break out of that creative straitjacket. Shows how this affects him and the people round him. Has a nice tie in to real events about a letter from John Lennon to a young musician. I rated it 7/10.

Grandma – This is a fabulous film. The acting from all the main characters is fantastic. There is thought provoking and surprising dark humour throughout. Provides a sad commentary on the state of control over women’s own bodies in some parts of the world, even in enlightened parts of the USA. Tells the story, over a single day, of Elle (brilliantly played by Lily Tomlin) trying to help her granddaughter get the $600 she needs for an emergency abortion. Of course its about a lot more then that. The relationship between Elle and her partly estranged mother, Elle and her granddaughter, and Elle and her girlfriend. They visit lots of people Elle knows during the day trying to get the money. And lots of secrets are revealed as a result. I really liked it. Also discovered Angus & Julia Stone’s music via the film. Bella was part of the soundtrack. I rated the film 8/10. It was trending towards 9.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – I’ve already written a long post about the new Star Wars film. Suffice to say here that I liked it. In fact I’d say it was the best Star Wars film. Daisy Ridley is fabulous. Related to Arnold Ridley of Dad’s Army fame it turns out. I rated it 8/10.

Christmas With The Coopers – This was the last film I saw in the cinema in 2015. I really enjoyed it. A delightful film that cheered me up no end. It’s more a family drama than a comedy. There are funny lines and bits in there but labelling it a comedy sets wrong the expectation. It’s not full on comedy but is a very good family drama with a great cast. Especially Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin and Marisa Tomei. Had a very Woody Allen vibe to it. There is some great banter about religion in America which appealed to my secular core. I rated it 8/10.

My picks for some of The Golden Globes

The Golden Globe nominations for 2016 are out. The nominees I would pick in the categories in which I’ve seen some of the films nominated are highlighted below in Bold. Items in Italic depict nominees I’ve seen. Not all the categories are reproduced below. Just the ones I vote for in if I could. See the full set of categories and nominees at source.

Best Motion Picture, Drama
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

Best Motion Picture, Comedy
The Big Short
Joy
The Martian
Spy
Trainwreck

Best Director – Motion Picture
Todd Haynes, Carol
Alejandro Iñárritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
George Miller, Mad Max
Ridley Scott, The Martian

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Melissa McCarthy, Spy
Amy Schumer, Trainwreck

Maggie Smith, Lady in the Van
Lily Tomlin, Grandma

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
Jane Fonda, Youth
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Will Smith, Concussion

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Steve Carell, The Big Short
Matt Damon, The Martian
Al Pacino, Danny Collins

Mark Ruffalo, Infinitely Polar Bear

Best Animated Feature Film
Anomalisa
The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In 1982 Queen released the Hot Space album. There was a bit of a flap as Queen fans raised on the No Synthesisers legend found in the credits of every Queen album up until The Game, went nuts at the musical direction of the band¹. During the Milton Keynes concert on the Hot Space tour in 1982 Freddie Mercury responded to the furore with:

Now most of you know that we’ve got some new sounds out in the last week. And for what it’s worth we’re going to do a few songs in the funk, black category. Whatever you want to call it. That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our rock and roll feel. Okay! I mean, it’s only a bloody record. People get so excited about these things.

Emphasis mine. I’m reminded of this flap when I read some of the stuff written about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Some people are really invested in the Star Wars universe. They are pointing out plot holes in the new film, saying it’s just a rehash of the original, and of course the Gamergate loons are out in force about the two new lead characters. Both of whom are spectacularly good in the film.

To paraphrase Freddie:

It’s only a bloody film. People get so excited about these things!

It’s a film. It’s entertainment. It’s meant to give you fun and spectacle for your £10 ticket in the cinema. And it has to introduce a new younger generation to the Star Wars universe to set up the next five years worth of films. It’s a reboot without being billed as a reboot. It’s not an existential commentary on the state of humanity.

Luckily most people get that and treat the film in the way it’s intended. As entertainment. And what entertainment it is. I rate it as the best of all the seven Star Wars films so far. It doesn’t have anything new in it. It doesn’t have any surprises. The only thing that could have been a surprise is exposed in dialogue about half way through. But what it delivers it does really well. The scenes set on Jakku are stunning. I could have happily watched a whole film set there. Daisy Ridley is spectacular. Rey, the character she plays is great too. It’s obvious she is important and powerful with The Force. Do I care that she can use The Force without all the training malarky that is in other films? I do not. A natural talent in the force I can live with. This is Sci-Fantasy. The Force can be used in anyway the plot needs. The other new main character Finn, played by John Boyega, is also a great addition to the cast. As is Poe, played by Oscar Issac. The film is greatly improved by having these three diverse lead characters. The new BB-8 droid is fantastic too. What about that thumbs up? 🙂

Anyway, there you are. I liked the film. It’s a fine 2.25 hours of entertainment. The box office returns seem to indicate that people are going to see it multiple times. It does reward repeat viewing. You can just let it all sink in 2nd time round.

1. I loved Hot Space from the day I heard it. All of my friends from that time who hated it now say they like it.

Favourite films from 2015

I saw 52 new films at the cinema this year. Here are my five favourites. I could easily have made this a top 10 list. But 5 is the tradition. See the full list and my Culture Consumed posts for ratings and mini reviews of the others. Spoilers below obviously.
Ex Machina – The first film that I saw in the cinema this year. It was so good it didn’t get knocked out of the top 5 by releases that came later. It is a smart story about artificial intelligence. The resolution of AVA’s story is both shocking and satisfying. I was rooting for AVA all along. Alicia Vikander is fantastic. The special effects work on AVA’s manikin is spectacular. This New Scientist review is largely spooler free and worth a read.

 
Kingsman: The Secret Service – This was a surprise. The trailers looked good. And they did it justice. A tongue in cheek secret agent story. With a suitable over the top villain, brilliantly played by Samuel L. Jackson who has an outlandish plan for the world. And a secret lair in a mountain. What more could you ask for. The story is good. The actors are good. Plus the plot twists in surprising ways. Cartoon violent. With lots of Matrix like bullet time action.

 

The Age of Adaline – I loved this. A woman has an accident and stops ageing. She then has to handle relationships with people who age around her, and change identities to avoid the authorities who have an interest in her ‘gift’. Blake Lively and Harrison Ford are great in it.

 

Spy – The 2nd best spy film I saw this year. Kingsman takes top slot. But Spy is fantastic too. It’s very funny. It has the best swearing that I’ve seen in a film in a long time. Possibly ever. This is one to watch again and again. There have to be sequels.

 

Irrational Man – This years Woody Allen film. He wrote and directed but it stars Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey and Jamie Blackley. I love Woody Allen’s work, especially the early funny stuff 🙂 So I’m predisposed to like his films. Even taking that bias into account I have to say that this was a magical film. It doesn’t tread any new ground for Allen. Other films like Match Point (which is also brilliant) deal with much the same ideas. But so what. Good stories are good stories. And this is a good story. Plus no one writes existential angst dialogue like Woody Allen. This has a good script that was well interpreted and acted by the cast. The locations are beautiful, and the cinematography, lighting and colour hue of the sets is great. As usual with Woody Allen films the jazz, piano and orchestral soundtrack is great too. I came very close to giving this a maximum 10/10 score on IMDB!

Mission Complete

In January I decided to force myself to go to the cinema once a week to see a newly released film. I had my 52nd visit last night to see Christmas with the Coopers. So mission complete. The full list is here.

Doing same thing again in 2016. Its a great way to see films I would not normally see. As I’m forced to pick something new to watch every week. First up on 1st January will be Joy.

Multi-format Reading

I recently re-read Dune. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read it. It still inspires me thirty-five years after the first time I encountered it. Interestingly the recent re-read was a mutli-format experience spread over three different formats, depending on where I was and my mood. I have the fabulous Folio Society 50th Anniversary hardback edition, the SF Masterworks iBook, and the partially dramatised Dune audiobook.

Dipping into the various formats was a surprisingly pleasurable way to re-read the book. The audiobook I listened to in the car when driving, and sometimes when at home doing some other task. Other times at home I read the Folio Society hardback. Mostly at my desk. The iBook edition was mostly read on iPad when in bed.

I liked this multi-format reading experience. I’ll probably do it again for other books that I plan to re-read. I’ve just started listening to The Silk Roads audiobook. I’m enjoying it so much I’m going to order the hardback edition as well. The iBook might be a step too far this time though.

It’d be great if you could buy a hardback edition of a book, at full publishers price, and get the ebook and audiobook versions included as well. If that was the case then I’d probably buy a lot more hardback books.

Culture Consumed 14

Books and films consumed since the previous post on 13th September.

A Walk in the Woods – A film based on the mid-life crisis book by Bill Bryson. Alarmed by attending funerals of his peers, Bryson decides to hike the Appalachian Trail to prove to himself he isn’t past it. His wife, who thinks the idea is mad, reads up on the route and upon discovering how many people get injured or die on the trail, tells him he isn’t doing it alone. Bryson tries to enlist his closest friends to walk the trail with him. With no success but much derision. Finally a friend from decades past calls and volunteers to go. When he turns up he isn’t in the best shape. They head out on the trail anyway. It then becomes a film about their reminiscences, tribulations on the trail, and their interactions with who they meet. I liked it. A bit like Wild, but with old men! The performance by Kristen Schaal as a manic hiker they run into is brilliant. Nike Nolte is great too. I rated it 6/10.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials – There was nothing else I wanted to see for my OneFilmPerWeek pick the last week in September. So I selected the 2nd Maze Runner film. I hadn’t seen the original when it was in cinemas (missing films like this is why I started the OneFilmPerWeek project) so I watched the first one on AppleTV the night before seeing The Scorch Trials in the cinema. I liked them both. It’s a good dystopian Sci-fi story with a back story that is slowly being revealed. Looking forward to the next instalment in the franchise. Gave it 7/10. Same for the original.

Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software – Scott Rosenberg. A really enjoyable audiobook about the failed development process for the Chandler Personal Information Manager. Probably my favourite book that is about technology industry. Everyone involved in software and technology should read this book. I liked Rosenberg’s Law.

The Martian – The much anticipated film adaptation of the self published book of the same name. The book is very nerdy. Science porn in places. A lot of that info was rightly chopped from the film. This is a good film in it’s own right. A bit compressed towards the end on the trek to Schiaparelli Crater. The only thing I would have liked done better was to depict lighter gravity on Mars. But hard to simulate that, and probably not worth the effort. Well worth seeing. I rated it 8/10.

The Intern – Story of a retiree, played by Robert De Niro, who having exhausted all the activities you would expect to keep busy during the day, gets a position as a senior Intern in an Internet fashion startup near his home. Great story about how his years of experience in business, and life, help many people employed at the company. Including the founder played by Anne Hathaway. Loved it. Oscar material IMHO. Rated it 8/10.

Doughnut – Tom Holt. Comedic science fiction novel. The main character is a brilliant physicist who makes a mistake that causes the Very, Very Large Hadron Collider to explode. He is ostracised for this. Then he loses his inheritance in a bad business deal and has to take odd jobs to survive. Until he gets bequeathed some intriguing items in a safety deposit box. Story unfolds slowly at start but is great in the 2nd half. Well worth sticking with as the final quarter might even explain the Universe.

Macbeth – I might have mild post-traumatic stress syndrome after watching the new Macbeth film adaptation. Not unlike Macbeth it turns out. What a nutter. It’s violent and stylised, with some quite disturbing scenes. The first half was poor. A couple walked out off the cinema. A mistake. Second half was very good. I even dreamt about it last night. I gave it 6/10.

 

Advice I just gave someone thinking about job move

Someone asked my advice about whether to take a new job they have been offered. I told them:

You need to decide what you want to do for the next 5 years, 10 years. Will other thing allow you to do that better than current job? Don’t wait for people to give you work. Find out what needs done and do it. People will notice and you will get more responsibility, authority and reward. 

That’s worked for me for 30 years.

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