Tag Archive: review


Interstellar (12A)

Strictly speaking this could have been called “Intergalactic” but that is splitting hairs, I suppose.

This was a superbly crafted and well-produced film set in  a possible near-future earth. NASA has become an underground organisation because people have accepted, as an overriding priority, the growing of food under dust-bowl conditions beset by blighted crops – space travel has been confined to myth and propaganda. In this world we are introduced to an ex-NASA astronaut, Cooper, and his family, currently doing his bit on the family farm with his father-in-law and his two children. After some twists and turns, our hero discovers that his skills are needed elsewhere so he leaves his family in order to save humanity. He is sent through a “wormhole” (a short-cut through space) to re-establish contact with some explorers who went on ahead.

There is some physics involved here because the astronauts travel at near-light speeds meaning that hours experienced by travellers works out as years passing for those left behind. That hazard of space-travel is one of the sub-themes running through the film: what happens to the people left behind? What happens to the travellers when they get back? How do they deal with the changes?

I found it a bit mawkish at times. For me, sentimental old fool that I am, that meant reminding myself that these were pretend families and the heart-wrenching moments merely a plot device.

Another theme was a poem by Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night” (click link for the full text on PoemHunter). I suppose it was intended to help us understand Professor Brand (Michael Caine) with its defiant pessimism. Or maybe his bleak optimism. While I am not a fan of this pessimistic world view, I find it a mark of a good drama, film, TV show etc, when it can weave more than one strand together – sometimes in contradiction with each other, sometimes in appreciation of another work, sometimes with a nod to the past, sometimes with tongue in cheek.

The special effects were, well, effective, the plot was OK, the acting fine including the capable old hands of John Lithgow and Michael Caine. Forgive me, but you will have to look up the names of the main characters for yourself (e.g. the official website) as I did not recognise them; they performed well enough to bring an appropriate tear to the eye. Special credit should be given to those who played the Murph character. At a published 169 minutes (more like 3 hours) it was perhaps a bit overlong. For a fellow cinema-goer. sitting a few seats away from me, that was “three hours I shall not get back again!”

On its presentation, effects, acting skill and well-crafted narrative this merits at least 4 stars. However, two reasons for giving it three: I liked it but it is not one I am in a hurry to see again, nor do I intend to get the DVD; secondly, its sentimentality was a bit over done.

Do watch it if you like sci-fi / thrillers; it is safe for teenagers.

Overall, 3 stars or 7/10.

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Take an idea like “nothing” and then invite a variety of scientists, mathematicians and other experts to write about it in their field.This is the premise behind a collection of essays called “Nothing” published by Profile Books and edited by Jeremy Webb.

Thus we have the history and science of the temperature 0K – absolute zero – and what happens to materials such as Helium when cooled to very close to zero degrees. You learn that there are different  kinds of vacuum and that Quantum Physics suggests that a vacuum might not be as ’empty’ as we imagine.

Then there is the history of ‘zero’ both as a number which does funny things (a bit like infinity) as well as being a place marker so that we do not mix up 11, 101, 110 and 1001 etc for instance. We also find out about placebos and their evil twins nocebos. Other topics include the noble gases which, at first glance, do nothing.

This is the sort of book you might dip into or have at your bedside. That is not to say that the reading is especially light but that the style is informal and you don’t have to understand any technical details.

I like this book enough to read it over my cereal but it is not particularly entertaining if you do not have at least some idea what they are talking about. Although I found it readable, I prefer the New Scientist books derived from their ‘Last Word’ feature in the magazine.

Overall three stars or 6 out of ten.

Hitler’s Canary

This book was first discovered in the school library and I have since been able to read a copy from our local public library (yes, there are still some left in this county).

Set in the 1940’s during the Nazi occupation of Denmark during the second World War, we read about Bamse (‘Teddy’), his family and friends as they come to terms with the dramatic and dangerous times they find themselves in. It is fiction based on fact: a small nation overwhelmed by a large modern army; persecution of Jews; acts of resistance both large and small. We learn that blanket distinctions, e.g. Germans=bad, Danes=good, simply were not true. In fact, many people simply acted more out of fear than of malice – though there was plenty of malice to go round. We also learn how the vast majority of Jews were saved from the concentration camps and sent to neutral Sweden with the help of bravery shown by Danish citizens and sympathetic German soldiers. All this as experienced and seen through the eyes of a young boy whose childhood comes to be characterised by some tough lessons.

As a children’s book it took me less than a day to read, even with other duties to do. The author is probably better known as a comedian and as a radio presenter. Here, we learn through fiction and the end notes, something of her Danish family’s history and, for me at least, some of a largely forgotten or ignored part of the history of World War II. I would recommend this book for anyone 9 years, or so, and up; particularly to broaden their historical knowledge, but it is a good story as well.

Overall, I think I would give it fours stars or 7 and a half out of ten.

“Hitler’s Canary” by Sandi Toksvig

Don’t let the grey clouds in the photos here put you off; it was a dry and comparatively warm day when we visited.

Open for the February half term school break, Kenilworth Castle was a relatively mud-free diversion for us. There were open spaces for running around, ruins to explore, buildings to visit, an Elizabethan garden and a café (at tourist prices for that cuppa, of course). We spent the middle portion of the day here plus travelling. A late start and home in plenty of time for tea suited us fine.

The photos may look a little dark but it was fairly cloudy – pretty much as you would expect during an English February, really. Still, the place was busy with families taking advantage of the half term and some children following the knights’ trail. I dare say that this would be a very nice place to visit during the summer.

The earliest parts of the castle date back to the 12th century and ownership has passed through various hands from King John, via the Earl of Leicester (sweetheart of Queen Elizabeth I, allegedly) and a few families later to the auspices of English Heritage. The gate house was lived in as recently as the 1930’s.

If you are exploring “Shakespeare Country”, or enjoy visiting historic sites generally, then I would include this somewhere on the itinerary if you’re in the Midlands.

The photos include a bird of prey we saw as we were leaving the grounds. We think it was a buzzard but we thought it ought to have been larger, in our opinion.

When a teacher you respect recommends a book to your child you do not often question the choice. On this occasion the suggestion was made in order to “stretch” them but from what I had seen of the book in question, I am not sure of its suitability. I am in the process of reading it now.

First I have to deal with the title. “The Hunger Games” first came to my attention a couple of years ago in the run up to the London 2012 Olympics. You may or may not be aware that this was the third time that our capital city were hosts. The previous occasion was at short notice in 1948 a few years after the end of World War II. Rationing was still the order of the day and feeding the athletes was a real challenge. Hence the 1948 Olympics earned the nick-name the ‘hunger’ games because of the food shortages of the time. Overall it was a success. So, when people started waxing lyrical about the Hunger Games and singing the praises of the hero, the girl who overcomes terrible odds to survive, I assume we are talking about the Olympics and sport in general. Not so.

My first bit of research, then was to [insert name of famous online shopping site here] where I could read reviews and see a précis of the film. We are not talking about the film here but the category 12A implies that it is not really suitable for children under the age of 12 even if they are allowed to watch it (accompanied by an adult). A 12-year-old child is more mature than when they were 11 – a year does make a difference to them more so than at, say, 20 or 30 years.

Next I looked at the book reviews. The average rating was 4.9 out of a possible 5 stars and many reviewers wrote positive, exciting pieces. Typically they said that they could not put the book down: it was a page turner. I took a look at the 1 star reviews. I often do this because they can be helpful and do not always put me off a purchase. Some 1 star reviewers do not like the product or are moaning that it was not what they expected etc. Occasionally they warn that the product description is wrong, for instance, thereby saving me trouble and expense. Here the criticisms seemed to be two-fold. First was that the story-line appears to bear a remarkable similarity to another book and the reviewers were quite agitated about this. Not having read the other book I have no idea whether they are either right or fair. The second was a complaint about the quality of writing; namely, that the book was better suited to a 13-year-old rather than to someone 18 years old. That still suggests to me that 11 years old is just that little bit too young.

Now, I have started reading it and it is OK – I would, so far, give it three stars. That is in part due to the violence – it is not graphic, nor has there been too much of it – but the threat of it stalks the background. The scene is a dystopian future North America which is no longer a democracy but a group of vassal states ruled brutally by the Capitol. If you are familiar with Ancient Rome you might note some similarities. The games are a competition where each state, “District”, is forced to select two teenagers to compete a game where the winner is the last one standing – it is to the death. The heroine is one of those in that competition. As the narrative is written in the first person it does rather give the ending away!

This book, to my mind, would “stretch” an 11-year-old and, indeed, could be a good class reader at secondary school for the issues it raises. But is it appropriate simply to raise a younger pupil’s writing standard?

What do you think?

It is hard to write a review without revealing the plot. Suffice to say the heading (above) sums it up really.

I have mixed feelings about this genre of film. I do not like, enjoy or relish violence – that includes fictional violence even if the context makes it relevant to the story. I get that action movies and thrillers involve explosions and people being killed. The villain usually gets their comeuppance in the end. That said, I did go to see “Skyfall” at the Cinema and, with the aforementioned caveat, I was impressed.

This is an action film with a plot and a narrative that referred to other episodes and icons of the Bond series. The choice of car was a case in point. As well as the action scenes (violence/extras being shot at or exploded) there was humour (I actually laughed out loud at one point) and poignancy. The Ralph Fiennes character (present in just five scenes) kept you guessing and eventually we are shown whose side he is really on.

And, in this film, Bond is not a young man so one of the narrative threads is whether/how much that matters. We also learn a little about Bond’s background. Incidentally, “Welcome to Scotland” will never seem the same again.

It will be interesting to see how Q turns out. By the way, the one bit I correctly predicted involved Q: suffice to say, beware what you plug in.

One niggle: we were told that they were District line trains but they were not. Anyone who has been on the London Underground will recognise tube trains such as run on the Piccadilly line. The plot needed the train to run on the District line. I guess they filmed at the disused station at Aldwych – an ex Piccadilly line branch.

My overall impression is that the maker of this Bond film is a storyteller capable of holding more than one idea at a time; and they painted for us characters who can hold our interest.

The story is nonsense but told well enough for the suspension of disbelief for a couple of hours or so.

I think I would watch it again; this time knowing where the surprises are and relishing them. All of them apart from one, near the end.

Four stars, I think, or 9 out of ten (one deducted for the violence)

Eternal Law

ITV 1, Thursday 5th January, 1st of 6 episodes, 9 – 10 pm

I didn’t get round to doing a review of the Doctor Who Christmas special (BBC 1) nor of Endeavour (ITV 1), both of which I enjoyed and highly commend. However, I didn’t want to spend time at the computer when I was supposed to be having a break. And it seems a bit late now to make further comment on them.

Meanwhile, a few days ago I watched “Eternal Law”. This fantasy drama features angels who, in the guise of lawyers – barristers – come to help people caught up in some crime/tragedy. The reviewer in the Radio Times, Alison Graham, is clearly not impressed, describing it as “the most flimsy of fantasies” although she concedes that it does have “some charm”.

I am not inclined to be as disparaging as that. Granted the premise does seem a bit silly, but the performances were good and in the first episodes there are several threads to follow. What does it mean for Mr Mountjoy to “pull the plug on the whole thing”? What is the history, and indeed the future, for the angel Zak Gist and Hannah, the girl he is not supposed to fall in love with? How will newcomer angel Tom Greening adapt to the reality of the human world? What will become of Richard Pembroke the angel who is working for the prosecution?

The closing sequence alludes to the premise of the drama: that there are angels in disguise in all sorts of lowly occupations though we may not realise it. There are angels everywhere. That is an angle also worth exploring. However, angels being charmed by humans is not a new idea by any means.

I’m not sure quite where I stand with angels in reality. For many years I accepted the idea that angels were inventions or metaphors to explain unusual encounters and supernatural experiences. There are some angels mentioned in Scripture but their chief role is that of messenger from God. Meanwhile, in Christian history, angels seem to result from a compromise with Greek and Roman mythology. There is only one true God in Christianity, so where does that leave the pantheon of gods in Ancient Greek and Roman culture? Well, perhaps if we turn them into angels we won’t have to destroy all that art etc. I readily admit that I have oversimplified Church history but my point is that belief in the existence of angels is not an essential part of the gospel.

I worded that last sentence carefully: it is not saying that angels do not necessarily exist. I am suggesting that the picture we have in our mind when we read about Gabriel or Michael, for instance, says more about later ideas about angels than about what the writers of the New Testament understood them to be. For example, Gabriel is often pictured with wings but there is no suggestion of them in the Bible. They have more to do with the idea of a winged messenger, that is to say, the Roman god Mercury whose speed was designated by the symbol of wings on his feet. I expect that there are other things about angels which we have imported from elsewhere too. I am also saying that you do not have to believe in angels in order to be a Christian – any more than believing in angels automatically makes you a Christian.

Having said that, there have been stories/reports of help coming unexpectedly from someone “out of nowhere”. The helping hand, the well-timed word from a stranger whom we never meet or see again. I have no doubt that the vast majority of instances are where a human being has shown a stranger an act of kindness but have simply not wanted to attract attention to themselves. Once they have done their deed they immediately go on their way without leaving their name. Human angels abound. But I do wonder if there are others.

It will be interesting to see how “Eternal Law” works out. No stars yet – I’m suspending judgement for now.

As a moderately health-conscious (don’t laugh, I do eat a healthy diet as well as an unhealthy one) person, it is with mixed feelings that I mention our trip to a milkshake bar in town. It was a treat for a special occasion for a member of our family and I was also curious to see what it was like.
Low fat, low sugar and low-calorie is not what I saw when we first walked in: a wall filled with pretty much every brand of chocolate bar and biscuit/cookie you could imagine.
After a split-second of soul-searching I decided I would try one of their milkshakes and ordered a Malteser one. I watched it being made. First a packet of Maltesers was emptied into a plastic jug. Then a few swirls of ice-cream were added from a machine in the corner (my heart sank at this point because that usually means non-dairy ice cream which I think of as frozen margarine). Finally some semi-skimmed milk was poured in before the whole lost was “blitzed” i.e. blended in the jug. After a minute or so the drink was put into a cup and was ready.
To my surprise the drink was thicker than I anticipated but as the ice cream melted I was able to drink it through the straw. Incidentally, the straw was of the type that has a kind of small scoop at the bottom end so all those bits of chocolate at the end were not lost. Further to my surprise, it actually tasted quite nice. It was sweet enough for my sweet tooth and I enjoyed it. I think next time I might ask for added malt unless I choose a different chocolate bar – a Mars bar for instance.
I won’t comment on the pick ‘n’ mix except to observe that I think I’m more fussy about my sweets these days. By definition pick ‘n’ mix is rarely value for money but I would say that in this case the prices here were average.
As for the fruit smoothies, the leaflet tells us that they are made with “100% fresh fruit”. I’m not sure if it is the freshness which is 100% or that the drink is only made with fruit. Although the language is ambiguous I don’t think they’re trying to pull a fast one. Perhaps I’ll try one some other day.
I suppose my main reaction can be summed up as “pleasantly surprised”. Or, to put it another way, “the milkshake was actually rather good and I intend to go back again another day.”

Bugs don’t write poems…

… is a line from “The Bug and the Butterfly”, a story in English and Spanish for all the family. Or, as the brochure puts it, “Dance and music fuse with Spanish and English text in this exciting new show for adults and children alike”. We were in the crypt, so to speak, of the theatre and we were invited to sit on the leaf-shaped carpet pieces on the floor. I bottled out and sat on one of the handful of chairs assigned to grown ups who couldn’t cope with the floor. (My family may testify to my propensity for pins and needles if I sit on the floor for any length of time.)

I’m afraid for all its merits it was not quite what it said on the tin. For example, there were maybe a dozen or so Spanish words, none of which were crucial to the plot. This was a bit of a pity because one of the selling points for us was the Spanish which we are beginning to learn. The plot itself was essentially:

  • Bug starts to write poem
  • no on wants to listen
  • Bug meets Butterfly who listens to work in progress
  • Butterfly breaks wing
  • Wing gets better and Butterfly departs
  • Bug finishes her poem

To its credit this did hold the attention of the under fives in the audience for over half an hour – but not mine, I’m afraid. For me the best bit was when the bug character wafted the poppy leaf a bit too vigorously and knocked off some of her glittery make up. The sparkling motes dancing and flashing in the stage light were pleasing to watch and that helped to pass the time while the plot ambled on.

The two supporting actors played a number of characters and can be commended for their versatility. And I can hardly criticise any of the three for their lithe dance and movement as any such dancing I attempt resembles a blue whale with a moderate sense of timing rather more than ballet. (I can remember 5th position but I’m not so sure about 3rd and 4th).

I did not attend the family workshop which followed immediately afterwards but the reports I got afterwards were somewhat faint praise.

As none of our party were under five we didn’t enjoy The Bug and the Butterfly as much as we would have wanted. But I reckon a four-year-old would easily give 8 or more out of ten.

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