Pitch Perfect 3 (2017)

pitch perfect 3 poster

Three years after graduating from Barden University, the former Bellas – the all-female, champion acapella group – are finding the real world less than perfect. Realising how exciting the prospect of a reunion is, they get themselves on a USO tour to entertain US troops abroad (although we’re talking Spain, Italy, and France, for some reason – I’d expected, y’know, warzones?). And just because there HAS to be a competition (a bit of an in-joke in the movie), the headlining DJ Khaled will be picking his favourite from the tour performers to open for his own act.

But can the Bellas compete against actual bands with actual instruments? Will Aubrey ever get her dad to a performance? What about Fat Amy’s dad and his shady past (not to mention very dodgy accent!)?

The reviews for PP3 were less than glowing, but I love the original movie – it’s one of my go-to feel-good movies. The sequel was a bit missable, imo, and I found the new ‘Legacy’ character annoying (also an in-joke on screen here), so my own expectations for part 3 were pretty low.

Thankfully, I was proved wrong: this is a lot of daft fun! There’s a slightly different vibe going on as the group have grown up – okay, still 90% singing, but instead of romance and struggling to finding job, we get a ‘success at college isn’t life success’ – just before the stakes are turned up to involve kidnapping, armed combat, and explosions! 🙂

So yes, very silly, but I really enjoyed it. I think it’s better than the middle instalment, if not quite hitting the sheer joy of the original. There’s also a bit of a finality to the tone here, which adds an unexpected tiny dash of poignancy – or, it’s just out and out slapstick, take your pick! 🙂

Released: 20th December 2017
Viewed: 13th January 2018
Running time: 93 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6.5/10

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The Chalk Man – CJ Tudor

chalk man cover

“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Short version: It, without the demonic clown.

Eddie Adams thinks his past is tightly locked up in his head. But as childhood friends and old memories start to come out of the woodwork, is it finally time to face up to the past? Because in 1986, five pre-teen friends have their idyllic summer holiday shattered first by a horrific accident, and then the discovery of a dead body. But the chalk stick figures – they were just a game. Who, then, has sent each of them a letter 30 years later, with just that single stick figure drawing?

There was something in the description of this that called to me, despite the fact that I rarely read dark thrillers these days. But, oh, this spoke to the teenage me who adored Stephen King books – and it really is somewhere between Stand By Me (aka The Body) and It – although as I say, without those supernatural elements. They aren’t missed: this is a gripping enough mystery without bringing in anything other worldly.

The chapters alternate between 1986 and 2016, and both strands follow Eddie as his life goes from perfect childhood to tinged with terror and darkness. It’s very well done: both plotlines are equally intriguing, adding to the other, so the flip back and forth never left me wishing for the other segment. I did prefer the earlier segments, though, as the mood that’s conjured is just brilliantly evocative of those 1980s childhood summers that some of us remember (albeit with less, y’know, dead things!), and some have grown to love from watching Stranger Things.

I did think I’d guessed the ‘whodunnit’ early on, only for the whole thing to swerve in an unexpected direction – hurrah! Still, as the mysteries start to be unravelled at the end, there were just a few bits that seemed perhaps a little too coincidental, so I’m knocking a mark of for that.

Otherwise, though, I gobbled this in just two days – it really was that gripping! Absolutely recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 342 pages
First published: January 11th 2018
Series: none
Read from 6th-7th January 2018

My rating: 9/10

The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper

Dark is Rising cover

“‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.”

Will Stanton is about to turn 11, and about to discover that he is one of the ‘Old Ones’: a group charged with protecting the Light throughout time. But over the darkest depths of winter, the Darkness is rising: can Will fulfil his role as Seeker of the Signs, six great parts of a symbol strong enough to overcome the Dark?

I’m a sucker for challenges, so when a Twitter announcement was made about a read-along for this book, starting as the story does on Midwinter’s Eve (aka December 20th), I couldn’t resist! And I was swept up into a winter landscape that I’m sure helped make it snow on Christmas in reality, as the struggle of good against evil raged through the centuries 🙂

This is actually the second installment in the series, but the recommendation is to read this first: the earlier book was written a fair bit before, and doesn’t have quite the same tone (I’m told). I suppose it’s a bit like the Narnia books in that respect: chronologically A Horse and His Boy goes first, but no one ever starts anywhere but The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe!

Written before I was born, The Dark is Rising hasn’t actually dated as badly as I might have expected. There is a nostalgia factor going on, I suppose, for a ‘simpler’ time: modern younger readers might find a lack of computers and mobile phones jarring. However, the mix of adventure and magic is pretty timeless, and there isn’t too much that really pins it to any one time.

This is intended for a younger audience, but it put me in mind of the aforementioned Narnia books, or The Snow Spider, or The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – books I remember very fondly from childhood, and which still have an appeal to a more mature reader.

While it’s hard to be swept up in the same way coming to this for the first time as an adult, I found it charming and easy to read. I’m looking forward to continuing the series – with a first step back to the earlier volume, Over Sea Under Stone, as per the recommendation! But oh: avoid the movie. It changes so much, it’s really not a good adaptation at all.

Kindle: 232 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 1973
Series: The Dark is Rising book 2 (but start here!) of 5
Read from 20th December 2017 – 2nd January 2018

My rating: 7/10

The Greatest Showman (2017)

greatest showman poster

There’s nothing like a rousing, feel-good musical to kick off a year’s cinema – and this is absolutely that!

It’s perhaps a little odd, given the subject matter: the real PT Barnum was a lot less ‘nice’ than portrayed here. While that might kick up some controversy, I say: keep in mind that this is fiction, a story to entertain and uplift, and don’t take it as truth just because of the inspiration.

That said, the basic facts are all real enough, if much mixed up in timelines and intentions. ‘Inventor’ of showbusiness, Phineas Taylor Barnum, did indeed start a circus of ‘freaks’, and he did finance a tour for a singer he had never actually heard sing. The rest perhaps owes more to providing a fulfilling story than reality, but hey: this is showbusiness!

Hugh Jackman might be best known for playing Wolverine, but his heart clearly lies on the stage, belting his lungs out (see also: Les Miserables (2012) and Oklahoma! (1999)). He was made for this role, really, and I thought he shone in it. The rest of the cast also seems – thankfully! – picked for strong singing abilities: no Pierce Brosnan moments here 😉

Ah, the music! The bulk of the movie is spoken, with regular show song moments. The song used in the trailer, This is Me, has been stuck in my head for absolutely months. It’s a belter of a tune, and a perfect summing up of the core message: that those marginalised by society can and should stand up for themselves. While that was the standout track for me, several other songs were close and only a couple were a little unmemorable.

Overall, I absolutely loved this film. It absolutely shines with heart, and is possibly the best musical we’ve been treated to in years, avoiding the pitfalls of so many others: it’s more feel-good (if a little more predictable) than La La Land, better performed than Mamma Mia!, and the story works perfectly, unlike Into the Woods. So, finally – look out, here it comes! 🙂

Released: 26th December 2017
Viewed: 2nd January 2018
Running time: 105 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

2017: A year in books

I might not have been too enthused about my Year in Movies, but looking back over my reading is a much more interesting picture – to me, at any rate! 😉

Metrics

According to my records, I’ve read 72 books over the year (okay, technically I finished 2 of them in the first days of 2018, but the actual reading was mostly last year so I’m counting them!), of which 3 were very short (I’ve not counted actual short stories, despite logging these on GoodReads).

What’s changed? Well, since I last did this sort of post, I’ve become quite a heavy user of NetGalley – more than half of my reads (38) were ARCs! This means that my numbers of both new-to-me authors (44) and books from the current year (36) have gone up significantly.

I find it rather encouraging, too, to see that my ratio between the genders has improved – in 2015 I logged just 29% from female authors, whereas this year it was almost 51%! I think this is at least in part down to a better/fairer marketing, particularly in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, meaning it’s easier to find recommendations across the genders.

Novelty

NetGalley has also encouraged me to try some slightly different genres. While the bulk of my reading remains fantasy (27) and sci-fi (15) (and 7 non-fiction titles), I’ve been reading a lot more mystery, including ‘discovering’ the ‘cosy mystery’ genre. Often straying a little too chick-lit for my tastes overall, there’s definitely been a place for some ‘fluffy’ reads in a tough year!

Of the authors I ‘discovered’ this year, I was most impressed with Ann Leckie, Adrian Tchaikovsky, John Scalzi, and Mark Lawrence. The latter three are all well-established FSF authors, but for some reason I’d just never tried any of their work before – I foresee a great deal more of it in 2018!

Resolution

Every year – including this one! – I resolve to lessen that TBR pile by reading more of my own books and fewer borrowed/etc ones. Urm.. okay, not so much! o_O By my reckoning, I bought 23 books in 2017, and I read 17 purchased volumes – 6 of them over 10 years ago (!), and only 3 bought and read in the same year. Ahem. As well as ARCS, I had another 4 freebies, 10 from the library, 1 borrowed from a friend, and 2 online/SerialReader.

So I re-resolve: I *will* decrease the huge Mount TBR this year! 🙂 Perhaps more, though, is my intention to stop putting series down halfway through, and actually finish things before I forget the beginning!!

Rereads

A big change to GoodReads this year was the ability to log rereads – huzzah! Still, I only had three: American Gods, ahead of watching the TV adaptation and also a first read of the slightly-updated anniversary edition; Blade Runner 2: Edge of Human as a reminder before finishing the series, and again ahead of a big-screen Blade Runner sequel; and Abhorsen also as part of a reread of the early bit of the series before going on to the newer books.

 

Lows

To be honest, the trio of BladeRunner books were probably a low – I only stuck with them through sheer bloody-mindedness! I love the movie, though, and the concept was good – just, not executed well on any front.

I was also massively disappointed with Allen Carr’s Easy Way to MindfulnessIt read as an advertisement for his stopping smoking program, which is of no interest to me, and very little of any use about actual mindfulness.

Otherwise, there was a reasonable amount of ‘meh’ that wasn’t unexpected when I was picking up books slightly randomly, for free. I was, however, quite disappointed to put a Robin Hobb book, Dragon Keeper, into this category – it was still full of wonderful writing, but the story never got going and so I’ve yet to move on to the rest of the series – see above!

Highs

There were, thankfully, also plenty of books that made me go ‘wow’! So, here are my ‘Golden Hummingbirds’ for books read in 2017:

  • Red Sister – Mark Lawrence: once you’ve read a lot of fantasy fiction it can get a bit samey, but this made me feel reinvigorated about the genre.
  • Ancillary Justice/Sword/Mercy – Ann Leckie: just, wow. Sci-fi as it should be: intriguing, thought-provoking, and just bloddy good!
  • The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: this is a bit of a marmite book, but I was firmly on the side of ‘love’: the mix of mystery and fantasy, wonder and cruelty, just hit my imagination button in the right way.
  • Bryony and Roses – T Kingfisher: I could also have gone for Summer in Orcus, all of Ursula Vernon’s writing is fabulous! This retelling of Beauty and the Beast adds a wonderful wry dollop of common sense, and was this blog’s first 10/10 review 🙂
  • Greenglass House – Kate Milford: and my second 10/10 review. This is a ‘middle grade’ book, so for slightly younger readers, but like Narnia or The Neverending Story, it has magic for all ages and just swept me up into such joy for the power of stories and adventure – reminding me why I want to write.

Honourable mentions for John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire which made me laugh more than sci-fi usually manages; and Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies that only lost a place on the list through being outshone by its own adaptation.

2018 is already shaping up to be a great reading year – looking forward to finding all the new ‘Golden Hummingbird’ contenders for next year’s list 🙂

2017: A year in movies

If my counting is correct, I saw 49 films (not including repeat viewings or events) at the cinema during 2017, getting good use out of that monthly pass! I’m usually generous with my ratings, but the average mark out of ten was only 6.5, dipping as low as 3 and never higher than 9. All in all, I’d have to suggest that this was not a classic year for cinema, with more that disappointed than wowed me. There were a few, though, so keep reading!

Top Turkeys

I’m going to start with the worst of the year and get it over with:

  • Geostorm: big, loud and very daft, definitely not a good movie!
  • Baywatch: not quite as big, but way more daft and borderline on being a bad movie!
  • Alien: Covenant: just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse than Prometheus, they managed it. Seriously, with everything it had going for it, how do you mess up this much?!
  • The Mummy: so much bad and so surprising given the presence of Tom Cruise and a huge budget. That Dark Universe series dies before it starts, alas!
  • 2017’s top turkey – Snatched: oh, how I hated this movie. Slivers of mildly amusing amid so, so much cringe-worthy awfulness! o_O

Bonus ‘meh’ awards to the likes of Unlocked (seriously, can’t even remember what this was about o_O), American Assassin (not awful, but…), and Pirates of the Caribbean whatever-number-we’re-up-to!

The Sea of Disappointment

I think my overarching feel about the year is one of disappointment: so many things that just weren’t as good as I’d hoped.

  • La La Land: yes it was good, but absolutely not the heart-warming musical I was expecting. Was more surprised by the turn in tone than everyone was by the Oscar mix-up, tbh!
  • The Dark Tower: I actually enjoyed this more than most, but given the richness of the beloved source material, it was a rather sorry attempt at a big screen adaptation. Still, it had Idris Elba, and Matthew Mahogany being deliciously evil.
  • Colossal: I suspect this was a marketing fail rather than the movie itself, but I’d been expecting fun and got something much darker.
  • Murder on the Orient Express: looked lovely, but somehow messed up the mystery’s tension levels.
  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: well it looked *amazing* but sadly just about everything else was wrong with it. File next to Jupiter Ascending and John Carter, methinks!

The Superheroes

Is it just me, or does it finally feel like the comic book world-takeover is finally slowing down? I won’t say ‘to a halt’, not by any means, but somehow the year doesn’t seem to have been totally taken over. Mind, we still had Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Wonder Woman, Thor Ragnarok, Justice League, and Spider-Man Homecoming. Okay, what was my point again? The real surprise was DC managing to make one that was pretty darn good…!

Actually, I’d have to suggest that this might be the year where the studios perhaps – hopefully! – realised that they had to shake things up. Wonder Woman gave us a female lead for a change; Ragnarok threw out any attempt to follow its two predecessors and was the funniest superhero movie since Deadpool! Notice how successful these were, compared to the dull and predictable JL.

And the award goes to…

Now, usually I can’t pick a favourite movie of the year, but this year I might just have a clear winner! Honourable mentions to Guardians 2 (I just couldn’t have an entire superhero list!) and baby Groot, Blade Runner 2049 for not ruining the franchise, and Logan for absolutely tearing up the franchise and being possibly the best superhero movie ever – but, a bit on the dark side. So, I’m going to go with:

  • Wonder Woman: it’s getting more praise than it really deserves for a rather ordinary superhero plot, but by jove those Amazons were amazing! 🙂 The omg-why-did-it-take-this-long cultural impact of this movie really does make it more important than it should be, but hey: I’m all for inspiring some real-life wonder women!
  • T2: Trainspotting was one of the films of my youth, becoming part of Scotland’s culture, and I was not expecting the sequel to be so… this. Poignant? Entertaining? They messed up Edinburgh’s geography, but got the rest of it pretty much spot on.
  • Hidden Figures: it’s not perfect in terms of the politics, but it was really really good and despite knowing how all the space race stuff worked out I was still gripping my seat!
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi: I like Star Wars, but I’ve never been a super-fan. This installment, though, finally made me go ‘Oh!’ and perhaps just realise what everyone’s been so nutty about for all this time – which was ironic given the super-fans largely hated it o_O But hey: adora-porgs 🙂
  • Thor Ragnarok: look, it’s not the greatest movie ever made by a long shot, maybe not even the best of 2017, but the sheer joy of laughing my head off so unexpectedly makes this my favourite of the year!

I’m already working on the list of things to see in 2018, so here’s to an even better year of movie entertainment! What are you excited to see?

Bright (2017)

bright poster

Imagine if The Lord of the Rings wasn’t fantasy, but actual history. Fast forward hundreds of years to the present day, and perhaps the first orc has joined the LA police department. He’d be facing terrible racism, of course, not to mention a great deal of suspicion as to where his loyalties lie: with the law, or to the Clan. And of course, orcs sided with the Dark Lord all those centuries ago, so it’s not like you can trust any of them. Not like the elves – they’re the best of the best, beautiful and rich and of course running the show. Us humans? Just somewhere in the middle, trying to keep the pest fairies out of the bird feeders.

In this reality, the law must deal with fanatics who want to resurrect the Dark Lord, and generally keep an eye on problems with magic. And what could be more dangerous than a magic wand – a ‘nuclear bomb that grants wishes’? So when one of those turns up it’s not long before everyone – law, gangs, humans, elves and orcs – all want to get their hands on it.

Bright is an intriguing concept – high fantasy meets gritty police action – not particularly well executed overall, but actually turned out watchable enough. Will Smith is the big draw, of course, but he’s doing his bruised and damaged persona which is a lot less fun than his other character. Joel Edgerton is unrecognisable under the orc makeup, and to be honest the slow-witted character is just a bit too dim not to be a touch annoying, I felt. Elves get a bad rap, of course, but Noomi Rapace and Edgar Ramirez look great in their pointy ears.

Plot-wise, this is whip thin: everyone chasing and killing for that magic wand. The action pace tries to distract from that, and the special effects are pretty good, but without a character I actually liked (oy, the elf girl is annoyingly drippy!) there just wasn’t enough here to take ‘oddly intriguing’ into ‘liked’.

Of course, the big ‘thing’ about this movie is that it was released on Netflix, not in the cinema – smart move! Apparently it attracted an impressive 11 million curious viewers in its opening weekend, pretty much guaranteeing a sequel. And while I wasn’t exactly impressed with Bright, the fact that it will arrive on my TV without additional cost or effort means I’ll probably watch it – just, hope they can improve a bit on the plot and characters, tbh!

Released: 22nd December 2017
Viewed: 23rd December 2017
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10