Category: Films

January wrap-up

It’s the end of January, and time to look back on the first month’s blogging of 2011. This is what was on my blog:

Book of the Month

Sometimes a book takes you by surprise, and that’s what happened this month. The best book I read in January was one about which I knew nothing and read purely on impulse: Linda Grant’s novel of the baby boomers, We Had It So Good.


This month, I published full-length reviews of:

I also blogged shorter write-ups of William Coles’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Simon Lelic’s The Facility, and Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost

…and began an ongoing project to blog Volume I of The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories.


127 Hours

127 Hours is a film about Aron Ralston, a climber who became trapped in a canyon for several days, his only course being to cut off his forearm. It’s the second Danny Boyle film I’ve seen (after Slumdog Millionaire), and once again I’m very impressed, though the two movies are very different.

When we first see Aron (played brilliantly by James Franco), he’s leaving home for an expedition, with no care to answer his family’s phone messages, or even to turn off the dripping tap he used to fill his canteen. Aron travels to Utah, and begins hiking; presently, he meets two lost female hikers, and guides them to the pool for which they’re searching. The Aron we meet in these first fifteen minutes is cocky, self-assured, slightly insufferable… yet still ultimately likeable, because he is so clearly in his element out here in the wilderness.

Things change, though, when Aron travels through a particularly narrow part of Blue John Canyon and dislodges a boulder, which falls and wedges his arm against the canyon wall. He can’t move the rock or his arm, no one can hear him shout – so there he stays for most of the rest of the film.

This could, of course, have been a recipe for a very monotonous movie, but Boyle and Franco extract a remarkable amount of variety from the situation. Franco shows many sides to Aron’s character, as he shuttles back and forth between practicality, despair and delirium. On the directorial side, there’s some clever intercutting that gradually blurs the line between reality and hallucination, as Aron thinks about his past and the outside world. There’s also a strong sense of claustrophobia in the filming. The scene in which Aron cuts through his arm is, as one might expect, bloody and hard to watch, but filmed in a similar way to the rest of the movie, as though to emphasise that the quality of this experience is not that different from any of the others Aron has gone through whilst trapped.

One of the other things that struck me about 127 Hours was its great use of music, as when Aron’s (ultimately futile) attempt after a couple of days to rig up a pulley is counterpointed by Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’ on the soundtrack. Then there’s the ending, when Aron has made it out of the canyon and finds help; this entire segment is accompanied by the music of Sigur Rós, the default soundtrack, it seems, to big/epic/uplifting visuals these days. But whilst the music feels triumphant, what’s on screen doesn’t quite feel unambiguously so, because Aron is still desperate for water and hardly out of danger yet. Yes, there is some sense of triumph over the odds, and why not, because Aron is lucky to be alive after what he went through. But the main feeling I get from the ending is of life going on; which, I suppose, is what it does, following even the most extreme circumstances.

2009 favourites

It’s been a good year for reading, watching and listening, I think; so here’s a look at my favourite books, movies and music of 2009.


Here are my favourite books whose first publication was in 2009, with links to my reviews. (NB. The order isn’t meant to be too strict; all these books are warmly recommended.)

1. Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

My favourite book of 2009 is an extraordinary work of literature which examines the masks people wear and the shows people put on in life, against the background of a school scandal. Catton doesn’t put a foot wrong, and the result is a novel that’s both highly experimental and compulsively readable.

2. Keith Brooke, The Accord

Brooke is, in my opinion, a vastly under-appreciated writer; this story of a virtual afterlife is the best of his works that I’ve read. The Accord works on so many levels: as a novel of ideas, as a novel of character, as a thriller, as an experiment in style… It’s a heady concoction that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

3. Rana Dasgupta, Solo

An elderly Bulgarian man looks back on his life in the first half of this novel, then dreams of a new life for an old friend in the second. A beautifully written, richly rewarding book.

4. Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

At the behest of Stalin, a group of science fiction writers dream up an outlandish enemy for communism, and discover that the truth is uncomfortably close. Enormous fun, and a feast for the imagination.

5. Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

A powerful fairytale about the difficulty of looking life in the eye, and the possible consequences of not doing so. A deserved co-winner of the World Fantasy Award.

6. Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection

A deeply atmospheric detective story whose heart beats with a unique strangeness.

7. David Vann, Legend of a Suicide

A mosaic portrait of a father’s suicide, with a strong sense of place and a sharp eye for character. A unique work of literature.

8. Conrad Williams, One

Williams evokes the profound horror of apocalypse whilst maintaining an intensely personal focus. Harrowing, but powerful.

9. A.C. Tillyer, An A-Z of Possible Worlds

Twenty-six individually bound portraits of what-if. The most beautifully made book of the year, with stories to match.

10. Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice

A quiet, insightful tale of silence between fathers and sons, and the consequences of leaving things unspoken.

11. China Miéville, The City & the City

A murder mystery set in overlapping cities, and a fascinating fusion of fantasy and crime fiction.

12. Trevor Byrne, Ghosts and Lightning

A young man returns to Dublin after the death of his mother, and struggles to anchor his life. Well written and nicely observed.

And the best from previous years…

Ken Grimwood, Replay (1986)

A perfectly constructed and beautifully observed tale of a life lived over and over again in different ways. This is an absolute jewel of a book which I am enormously glad to have read this year.

Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)

A marvellous coming-of-age (or beginnings thereof) story told in a brilliantly realised voice. A page-turner of depth and richness.


Though I didn’t intend it to happen, I got somewhat out of the habit of watching films in the latter half of 2009, so my view of the cinematic year is a bit skewed. But my favourite film from 2009 was a brilliant British fantasy called Franklyn; and, from previous years, I was most impressed by Once and Hard Candy — both excellent films, though very different in mood.


Instead of picking out albums, I’ll present a list of some of the best songs that sountracked my year (though not all originate from 2009); but, if it’s on here, you can (in most cases) consider it a recommendation for the relevant album:

Bat for Lashes, ‘Daniel’ [review]
Doves, ‘Kingdom of Rust’
The Duckworth Lewis Method, ‘Jiggery Pokery’ [review]
Florence and the Machine, ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ [review]
Franz Ferdinand, ‘Ulysses’ [review]
Friendly Fires, ‘Paris’ [review]
Glasvegas, ‘Flowers and Football Tops’ [review]
Lisa Hannigan, ‘I Don’t Know’ [review]
Charlotte Hatherley, ‘White’
The Invisible, ‘London Girl’ [review]
La Roux, ‘Bulletproof’ [review]
The Leisure Society, ‘The Last of the Melting Snow’ [review]
Little Boots, ‘New in Town’ [review]
The Phantom Band, ‘The Howling’
Snow Patrol, ‘Just Say Yes’ [review]
Stornoway, ‘Zorbing’
Super Furry Animals, ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ [review]
Sweet Billy Pilgrim, ‘Kalypso’ [review]
The Temper Trap, ‘Sweet Disposition’
White Lies, ‘Death’ [review]
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Zero’

So, that was 2009. I hope that 2010 holds as much to look forward to.

VideoVista review: Waveriders (2008)

My second piece in this month’s VideoVista is about something I never expected to find myself reviewing: a documentary about surfing. Even if that sounds of no interest to you, I would suggest giving Waveriders a look. I found it be very well put together and interesting, and I know nothing about surfing (well, I didn’t before I saw the film, anyway).

Click here to read the review in full.

VideoVista review: Outlander (2008)

The October issue of VideoVista is now live, and includes two reviews by me. The first is of Outlander, a movie which pits a village of Vikings against an alien monster. When I first heard of this, I thought it was an interesting twist on an old formula, and was disappointed that I missed the film at the cinema.

Now I’ve actually got to see Outlander… it’s okay, but doesn’t live up to its potential. I gave it 6 out of 10.

Click here to read the review in full.

My favourites of 2009 so far…

I know we’re some way past the halfway point of 2009, but I wanted to do a mini-review of the year so far, as I’ve read so many great books this year that I’d like to highlight the best once again. So these are my top five reads of the year so far (all had their first UK publication in 2009), in alphabetical order (click the titles to read my reviews):

Keith Brooke, The Accord

Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

Rana Dasgupta, Solo

Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

An honourable mention goes to Ken Grimwood’s Replay, which is my favourite pre-2009 book that I read for the first time this year. All six books are excellent, and I woud urge you to seek them out.

(Of course, I don’t just blog about books on here; so, for the sake of completeness: my favourite fiilm of the year so far is Franklyn; and favourite album of the year so far is Kingdom of Rust by Doves, which I will get around to blogging about eventually…)


It’s a fine day to see a film called Moon, what with it being the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. This is the début movie of dirctor Duncan Jones; was made on a relatively low budget ($2,500,000); is more intelligent than many a film of its type; and, in the end, falls frustratingly short of being great.

In the future, clean energy is abundant, thanks to the mining of lunar rocks. Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is the sole human crew member of an automated mining base. He’s on a three-year contract, but his live satellite link to Earth is down so the only company he has is the ship’s computer Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and a few plants. One could forgive him for having a little cabin fever, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Sam starts to have hallucinations, even if he doesn’t like to admit it.

There are just two weeks of Sam’s tenure to go when disaster strikes. He’s out investigating a fault with one of the mining machines when he experiences another hallucination, causing him to crash his lunar rover. He wakes up in the base infirmary, a little worse for wear, but tests reveal that he’ll be back on his feet in a few days; till then, he has to stay indoors. But Sam is impatient to get back to work, especially with that same mining robot continuing to malfunction. He contrives a way to get Gerty to allow him outside, and goes back to the site of his accident — to find another buggy crashed there, with someone who looks very like him inside. Sam takes the man back to the base, and asks Gerty who he is…

We then cut to the infirmary, where a pasty-faced, injured Sam wakes up in bed while a healthy-looking Sam stands over him. From hereon in, there’s wonderful ambiguity as to who’s who: pasty Sam is the mysterious stranger rescued from the second LRV (isn’t he?), yet he says he’s been at the base for three years. What’s indisputable is that there are two Sams, but neither behaves in a way that makes immediate sense, given what has gone before; and Gerty seems remarkably unconcerned about this strange situation.

In fact, the computer appears to spill the beans willingly about halfway through the film; the rest of the movie fills in the gaps, in a roundabout way. This is where things get frustrating: it’s interesting to work out what’s going on; but, once you have, there’s not much that stays behind. Solving the puzzle closes off imaginative possibilities (compare with, say, Franklyn, which opens them up). And there are ethical issues which are touched on briefly, but never really dealt with.

On a more aesthetic level, it’s good enough. The budget shows, but not embarassingly so. Rockwell does well with his part(s), and one can sense Spacey recording his HAL-esque lines with relish. There are some nice touches, such as Sam sitting in an old wingback chair wearing his slippers while Gerty cuts his hair; and some that don’t work so well, such as there being nothing to watch on TV but stuff like Bewitched and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Sam having Chesney Hawkes as his alarm call (amusing, yes, but not very likely, I’d suggest).

So, Moon is a good movie — even a good science fiction movie — though not a great one. Still, it’s a good start to Jones’s film career, and he’s a director worth keeping an eye on.

DVD REVIEW: How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008)

My second review at VideoVista this month is of Simon Pegg’s comedy about a British journalist trying (and, as the title suggests, largely failing) to make his way at a New York glossy. Not quite as sharp as perhaps it would like to be, this is still good fun and very amusing — so it gets 7 out of 10.

Read the review in full.

DVD REVIEW: They Wait (2007)

Time for this month’s update to VideoVista, and I have two reviews there. They Wait is a tale of vengeful spirits and buried secrets, set in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the festival of Hungry Ghost Month. Alas, it’s not particularly scary, creepy, or atmospheric; and I think the ending contradicts the beginning. It’s a mediocre movie, and so gets a rating of 5 out of 10.

Read the review in full.

Låt den rätte komma in [Let the Right One In]

At long last, the much-acclaimed Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In has made it to my local cinema, so I went along to see if it lives up to the praise. It’s certainly different, which is a good start; but I am having trouble deciding what to make of it, the reasons for which will, I hope, become clear. I’m even uneasy about calling it a ‘vampire film’ because, although a vampire is central to the movie, the tone and affect of Let the Right One In are so far away from those we normally associate with vampire films that it almost feels as though it doesn’t belong in the same category. For similar reasons, I wouldn’t describe this as a ‘horror movie’ — yes, there is horror, gore, even some scares; but they don’t seem to me to be the film’s main purpose. Let the Right One In feels more like a drama than anything else.

We meet twelve-year-old Oskar, a weedy kid who lives with his mother in a miserable-looking tenement block. He is fascinated by murders, keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and a dagger under his mattress, and play-acts attacking people. The reason he does all these things is because he’s being bullied at school. But it seems Oskar may have found a friend, in the shape of Eli, a girl of (apparently) his own age who has just moved in next door. She urges the boy to stand up to the bullies — which he does, striking Conny, his chief antagonist, around the head with a stick, splitting open Conny’s ear. Naturally, Conny doesn’t take this lying down, and seeks revenge of his own, recruiting his older brother to do the job.

Whilst all this is going on, Oskar is falling in love with Eli. Unfortunately for him, she’s not really a girl, but a vampire, responsible for a number of brutal killings, committed by both herself (simply grabbing hold of people and gnawing away at their necks), and her adult assistant (who gasses his victims, hoists them up, then slits their throats). As the nature of those killings may suggest, there’s a strong sense of realism about the way vampirism is handled in the film, with relatively little in the way of anything overtly supernatural (making that all the more effective when it does come — witness what happens when Eli tries to enter somewhere without first being invited in). This is also part of the larger visual style of Let the Right One In, which is very distinctive, with stark compositions and a washed-out palette. There’s also some good use of scenery, with (for example) the claustrophobic appearance of Oskar’s apartment building contrasting with the wide open landscapes of the countryside, where his father lives; which mirrors the contrasting emotions Oskar feels when he stays with each of his parents.

So, Let the Right One In has an interesting and striking approach and style; but I feel it falls down a little when it comes to telling the story. For one thing, the film focuses so tightly on Oskar and Eli and their relationship that surrounding elements can feel somewhat ; disconnected; this adds to the film’s ambience, but I did have particular trouble with the aftermath of Oskar’s hitting Conny — we know that the school rang his parents, but then Oskar’s school life seems to carry on much as it did before, which didn’t ring true for me.

Actualy, I think Oskar in general is the movie’s weak link. Lena Laendersson is thoroughly convincing as such an old, powerful being in the guise of a slight twelve-year-old girl (though apparently her voice was overdubbed, which I couldn’t tell); but Kåre Hedebrant’s performance as Oskar seems a little too ‘one note’ — I didn’t gain much sense of Oskar changing over the course of the film, when that surely should have been the movie’s key transformation.

Still, Let the Right One In is worth seeing, because it is the experience of seeing the film — its atmosphere — that really impresses (such that I’ll even let the movie off its deus ex machina ending). But it’s best to go in without any preconceptions of what it will be like. I suspect this is a film that wull reward repeated viewings, once you have a better idea of what it’s probably aiming for. Given time, of course, I’ll be able to find that out for myself.

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