February 2017 reading round-up

girl reading

Does every month fly by when you get older? I can’t remember the last time it didn’t feel that way. Time passes too fast. Then again, it’s been another reasonably busy month. I’ve kept up the running, on track to run my first 10k in British Science Week as part of Run the Solar System. Once I have the virtual race under my belt, I’ll be all set for the real thing in early May.

On the cultural front, I went to see Othello at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And I went to Bletchley Park, which has left me itching to learn more about life there in World War II, if I can only choose between the hundreds of books written about it over the past 20 years or so since it became public knowledge.

Speaking of science and engineering history that had been relatively hidden, tonight I watched the film Hidden Figures about black women who worked as computers at NASA in the 1960s. It’s a remarkable film, a stark reminder of how recently widespread discrimination not only existed but was the norm, and what a fight it was for talented women such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson to do their work every day. I now really want to read the book behind the film, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, though I understand it’s rather different, taking a wider look at the historical context and less of a personal story of those three women.

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Films not books

julie-julia

In the past week and a half I’ve watched an awful lot of films. Usually I’m more of a TV series person, though we do have a film night most weeks, but sometimes only a film will hit the spot – maybe it’s the beginning, middle and end all wrapped up in a two-hour package that makes it so good.

When I was feeling unwell last week I binged on gentle comedies. There was Chalet Girl, in which Felicity Jones plays a working glass girl who falls for a posh boy and tries to win a skateboarding competition. It’s better than its predictable cliched plot thanks to a decent script and great actors, including Bill Bailey as a deadbeat dad. I followed that with Nine Months, which is pretty awful and even a small supporting role from Robin Williams couldn’t save. Then there was Julie and Julia, which I wasn’t expecting much of until the opening credits reminded me that it was screenwritten and directed by Nora Ephron, and it lived up to her high standards despite my having zero interest in historical or current TV chefs or French cooking in general (Japanese cooking, on the other hand…). And then I started watching 84 Charing Cross Road, based on the wonderful book by Helene Hanff and starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, and frankly I was bored silly. That story just doesn’t make sense anywhere but on paper for me.

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Film review: Begin Again

On Friday night, Tim and I wanted to see something light at the cinema, which for us usually means superhero action, but we decided to brave the description “rom com musical” and try Begin Again. We weren’t entirely out of our minds – writer director John Carney was behind one of our favourite films, Once, which we have watched together almost as many times as Scott Pilgrim. Almost.

It was a good decision. Begin Again is a beautiful film that charmed our socks off. “Rom com” it isn’t; I’d venture “indie musical” as an alternative description. If you’ve seen Once then you know just what to expect – in fact, the films are very similar, but this time Carney clearly had more money, though I’m willing to bet it was still small potatoes on the sliding scale of film budgets.

The story follows two people: Greta (Keira Knightley), a songwriter who moved to New York City with her musician boyfriend only to find herself single when he hit the big time; and Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a New York record producer who hasn’t produced a record in years and is estranged from his wife and daughter thanks to a drinking problem. They meet at an open mike night and decide to make a record together.

If you’re familiar with Once you’ll immediately see the similarity. There’s a great moment in this film when the characters discuss making an album in each of the world’s great cities and I immediately wondered if that is actually Carney’s plan (apparently it is). After all, Once is about making an album on a shoestring in Dublin. I think Begin Again acknowledges this similarity with a few overt references to Once, not least the scenes of James Corden busking.

Begin Again is a film about people who love music. Knightley’s voice isn’t the strongest but that wasn’t a problem for me, because it wasn’t about trying to sell her as a singing star. The key is people listening to music, creating music, really enjoying music. The human drama is relatively simple: will Dan reconnect with his daughter? will Greta be okay on her own (or rather single, as she has a good friend she lives with)? The film asks questions about record companies and music production (it is of course unashamedly on the side of the indie musician). But simplicity is the key. If you love music, New York, Keira Knightley (not so much for me, usually) and/or Mark Ruffalo (oh, yes) then I heartily recommend you check this film out.

The Veronica Mars Movie

Veronica Mars movie poster

I know: it’s not a book, or an author event, or even a play, but I’ve noticed over the last year that I’m far from the only V Mars fan, so I thought those who haven’t caught the film yet might be interested to hear what I thought of it. And those who have seen it, please weigh in in the comments!

Disclaimer: I am not only a fan of the series, I am also a Kickstarter backer of the film. But then, who isn’t?! You probably already know the storyline from the countless news articles but here’s my summary.

The film is set several years after series three ended. Veronica “I got a PI licence for my 18th birthday” Mars has left her home town of Neptune, California to study law in New York and is about to sit the bar exam. She’s interviewing for a job at a top law firm, she has a steady boyfriend in Piz (her college boyfriend from series three, but interestingly they have only been back together for a year, they’ve not been together the whole time) and she’s still in touch with best friend from high school Wallace. The world is her oyster. So of course this is the precise moment for Logan “trouble follows me everywhere I go” Echolls (her high school ex-boyfriend) to call Veronica and ask her for help as he’s the number one suspect for the murder of his pop star girlfriend. Veronica heads back to Neptune, coincidentally arriving in time for her 10-year high school reunion.

The film is packed with nods and winks to fans and all (or very nearly all) the beloved old characters from the TV show not only make an appearance, but for the most part are intrinsic to the plot. It’s a typical Veronica Mars plot with three or four storylines overlapping, including the stark divide between rich and poor that preoccupied much of the TV show. There’s also the familiar sense of humour, the snappy dialogue, the indie music track and my favourite fictional father–daughter relationship (because Keith Mars is the best).

Does it look and feel like a film rather than a feature-length episode of the TV show? Honestly, I’m not sure. Personally I think the TV show was quite visually stylish anyway, and it certainly didn’t look out of place on the big screen on Friday night. I also don’t agree with Mark Kermode’s complaint that the plot is labyrinthine – yes there’s a few different things going on but it’s not hugely complicated. Then again, am I saying that because I have years’ worth of background information going in?

All told, I loved it. And I was relieved when at the Friday night showing of this in Bristol the (busy but not full) audience applauded when the credits rolled. (Incidentally, do make sure you watch to the end of the credits; the second easter egg is a particular gift to fans.)

I don’t think it was flawless. Mac was criminally under-used. There were some plot holes, or at least things that I didn’t think entirely made sense. But for the most part it was exactly what I, as a fan, wanted and I look forward to watching it again just as soon as we have figured out this digital download business.

Have you watched the film yet? What do you think of it?

Not that Herzog one again

It’s Only a Movie
by Mark Kermode

I bought this book at an author event for the Bath Literature Festival just before I launched this website. I thought about writing up the talk and book signing but writer’s block prevented me and I figured I’d just combine it with the book review I’d surely be writing in the following few weeks. And then the book sat around for 8 months before I read it. So all I can really remember about the event was that I had a great evening, Kermode was good fun, smug and self-deprecating at the same time, and I failed to think of anything to say to or ask him when I got my book signed. Hey ho.

This book, and indeed the talk about it, are really just like extended versions of listening to Kermode on the radio, which is something that I have enjoyed doing for about 16 years. He has a genuine deep-rooted love of and enthusiasm for film but he doesn’t come across as snobbish or exclusive in any way. I have always preferred his reviews to anyone else’s, even if I don’t agree with him any more or less often than other critics, and this book helped me to see why.

Firstly, he’s immensely knowledgeable on the subject. He has a PhD and is a visiting lecturer in film studies and all he has ever really wanted to do is review films. He genuinely enjoys watching as many films as he can and still finds time to watch his favourites over and over (and over). His favourite films aren’t highbrow inaccessible fare but the rather more approachable The Exorcist, Mary Poppins and Local Hero but he can argue intelligently and cogently why they are great films.

He’s also a good storyteller. He recognises good anecdotes and knows how to tell ’em well. He opens the book with the admission/warning that he has a bad memory and is prone to exaggeration, so this is the story of his life as seen through his own viewpoint, or rather camera angle. He uses the analogy of this being the film of his life (complete with who would play all leading roles), which is a fitting, if slightly cheesy, way of looking at it.

Some things I learned that I hadn’t previously realised (though perhaps if I was paying more attention over the years I’d have figured this out) – Kermode is an ardent feminist and formerly a bit of a political radical (a “red-flag-waving Bolshie bore” in his own words), a vegetarian (or “near-vegetarian”, according to Wikipedia) who keeps chickens as pets and he has an appalling lack of geographical knowledge (he once flew to Moscow to get to a film set in the Ukraine, failing to realise that Odessa is significantly closer to London than Moscow). Really the only one that’s a surprise and yet clearly affects his response to films is the feminism and I’m not sure why this surprised me. I certainly don’t disapprove; it’s good to see a high-profile, reasonable man talking feminism rather than it being a fight between extreme and less-extreme women.

This isn’t a very personal autobiography, it lives up to its title in that respect. While his wife and children get occasional mentions, this really is the story of Kermode’s love affair with film and his resultant career. Which is what he’s good at talking about, so fair enough. It’s structured thematically, with an almost chronological order, and really my only problem with it is that it starts and ends with that Werner Herzog incident, the one I watched on The Culture Show and read about in the paper and listened to Kermode talk about in various interviews since. Yes, it was interesting, shocking even, at the time, but it’s not the only interesting event in Kermode’s life and I do wish he’d stop banging on about it.

Published 2010 by Random House