How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)

How to Train Your Dragon 3 poster

The How to Train Your Dragon series has possibly my favourite animated character ever in Toothless the Dragon. His half-dog/cat type behaviour backed up by y’know, fire breathing, is just adorable. The humour in the rest of the set up, from Hiccup the very non-Viking-y brainiac chief’s son, the often dozy dragon riders with all their amusing foibles, not to mention an absolutely fab vocal cast, all make these films very worth watching, whatever your age.

With a third instalment, largely I tend to just hope it won’t tarnish the memory. I wasn’t expecting this to possibly be the best movie of the three!

One strength is how well the story continues with events, rather than just being A.N. Other adventure. We’ve seen Hiccup and Toothless meeting for the first time, we’ve followed the Vikings go from dragon-haters to dragon riders. And we’ve seen Hiccup grow up a little, not least as the mantle of chief is thrust upon him.

It makes sense, from the previous two stories, to open with Berk now a dragon haven but also drawing all the wrong kind of attention from those who still haven’t embraced the new human-dragon partnership model. And so the adventure here starts very logically, with Hiccup looking for a way to protect his new friends – even if that means chasing the impossible trying to find a mythical Hidden World.

I absolutely loved this film, even more than expected. I thought a bit of cute would suit a Friday night, but instead I was deeply moved at some parts, laughed out loud at others, and was overall impressed with the action. This is a fantastic animation, and a nigh-on perfect ending to the trilogy.

Toothless is still very much my favourite 🙂

Released: 1st February 2019
Viewed: 1st February 2019
Running time: 104 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

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The Labyrinth Index – Charles Stross

labyrinth index cover

“As I cross the courtyard to the execution shed I pass a tangle of bloody feathers.”

Reading the latest few Laundry Files books in quick succession has worked really well, as they form an ongoing story leading us to the state we find ourselves at the start of The Labyrinth Index – look away now if you’re not up to date, and mention of events in book 9 are going to spoil any of 1-8 for you!

Still here? Grand 🙂 So, having signed a deal with the lesser of two dark horrors, Britain is now under New Management. And His Highness has decided priority one is to deal with the puzzling amnesia that seems to be affecting the US when it comes to their… urm.. presid… wait, what was I saying?!

After most of the early books were told from the point of view of Bob Howard, I admit I didn’t take too well to the change. The author’s first attempt at writing from a female view, Mo’s, felt a bit off to me. Switching to Alex in the previous book, The Delirium Brief, worked better, but I was concerned that going back to female with Mhairi might throw up similar issues. Thankfully not: Mhairi is spiky and no-nonsense, and even the ‘inner thoughts’ portion of her journal (for, all the Laundry Files books are technically journals…!) isn’t too whiny.

Story-wise, the shift to the US for this mission gives the book a little more self-contained feel, despite the ongoing story. It’s still not a good place to start – go back and get all the interesting back stories! A lot of the cast is used in brief, support-only roles, so it’s nice to know who they are rather than just a collection of random faces.

Overall, this is Laundry on fair form. Looking forward to the next book, and finding out how all of these end-of-times events play out!

Hardback: 354 pages / 11 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: The Laundry Files book 9
Read from 7th-27th January 2019

My rating: 8/10

The Great Wall (2016)

great wall poster

The first trailer I saw for this made it look a bit like historical fiction, which was maybe vaguely interesting. It took much longer for the penny to drop: here be dragons! Why on earth would you not have that front and centre in the trailer?! And suddenly very much my cup of tea…

Turns out they’re not really dragons, but a swarm of nasty critters that feed on humans. This movie postulates that the real reason the Great Wall of China was built was to keep these things away from a – pardon the pun – all you can eat Chinese buffet. Ahem.

However, the story is handed to Matt Damon’s ‘European’ (hmm) mercenary, on the hunt for the semi-mythical ‘black powder’ to take back home. When he stumbles into the secret of the Wall, they neither believe his story or plan to allow him to take tales back to the rest of the world.

There are things to like about this movie. I’ve long been a fan of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002), which brought an Eastern flavour to Western audiences, complete with aerial acrobatics and saturated colour palettes. Great Wall picks up on many of these facets, and as faintly ridiculous as they can be here, I did like the richly coloured armour, in shades of red, yellow, blue, and purple. The fight scenes are as impressive as you would expect, too.

However, that’s probably about it. The story is so-so, nothing particularly novel once you get past the intriguing fantasy-myth element. There was a bit of a ‘hmm’ on release about putting a white man front and centre, and while I went in unsure if this was a bit of an over-reaction, it is more than a little insulting that Matt Damon is such the hero, set up to save the day, the entire battalion that spent its life training for this, and the ‘delicate’ female, too.

I haven’t quite put my finger on what the creatures reminded me off – some sci-fi or other – but I’ve definitely seen them in a slightly different format before, so yawn.

Overall, quite the disappointment, alas, especially as I’ve been looking forward to it cropping up on a streaming platform since I missed it at the cinema. It’s not terrible, so by all means fill a boring couple of hours, but go in with much lower expectations than I managed.

Released: 17th February 2017
Viewed: 26th January 2019
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

mary queen of scots poster

At 18 years old, Mary Stuart’s marriage to the Dauphin of France ends with his death. Returning to Scotland to reclaim her throne, she has to cope with political machinations both at home and from neighbouring England. England has been in religious turmoil following the changes wrought by Henry VIII and his succession by his two daughters in turn, one fervently Catholic and the other Protestant. With Elizabeth on the throne, her courtiers are not best pleased to find a Catholic not only on the throne of Scotland, but with a valid claim on England’s, too.

But neither religion nor auld enmities can hold a candle to the outrage of 16th Century men being forced to obey a woman… o_O

I went into this movie with very low expectations, which worked in my favour: it wasn’t that bad at all. It also wasn’t great, but that was – in my view – more to do with the storytelling and odd editing choices, and nothing against any of the performances.

Accents first. Elizabeth is played by an Aussie (Margot Robbie), and Mary by an Irishwoman (Saoirse Ronan). Thankfully, both seem to manage very well, even if Saoirse does sound as putting-it-on as I do when I try to ape my Irish relatives 😉 It’s nicely not distracting, though, which is a relief.

Even with such momentous events across the two countries, the filmmakers have taken the understandable approach of making the story about the two women on a more personal level. They even fabricate a meeting between the two, which never happened.

However, I felt that somewhere in the quick-cuts between Mary standing down a belligerent Robert Knox (an almost unrecognisable David Tennant) and 30 seconds of Elizabeth throwing a strop over her paper quilling project, I somehow felt the film got a little lost between historical-ness and trying to make a point, and fell a bit short on both.

Overall: not awful, but not surprised it’s not up for Oscars. It was, in some ways, the opposite of The Favourite (2018): that was a Very Good film but hard to watch; MQos was much easier to watch but overall close to just being popcorn fluff – and not on purpose, I imagine!

Released: 18th January 2019
Viewed: 23rd January 2019
Running time: 124 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6/10

Brain Chatter Declutters – Leonid Altshuler

brain chatter declutters cover

“All I know today about different meditation techniques I learned in Nepal, where years ago I spent some time living in a monastery where I had a teacher, Master Bishal.”

As stated in an earlier post, I’ve been practising meditating for several years now, but I always like reading books that can perhaps bring a fresh insight into the whole thing, or just remind me why I enjoy it. This is not that book.

It starts off in a very forced, chatty style that instantly got on my nerves. The author was so desperate to attend a retreat to ‘fix’ himself, he then gets there and doesn’t even give it a chance before he’s announcing it as a waste of time – I smell “Let’s pretend to raise doubts my audience might have!” Of course, the whole thing turns out to be a magic cure, for the author and then in the second part for his ‘case study’ whose tale is told in exactly the same irritating tone.

All of which would be fine, if not for the quasi-medical tone. “It is well known” and “several studies have shown” is not actual scientific research, even if backed up by a handful of random links at the end. Either do science properly, or – even if what is being said is true – it comes across as wishy washy faux pseudo-science.

Mercifully short, this still manages to repeat a whole block of information – despite the author also giving over a few paragraphs on why he’s keeping the book so short – as if putting it in twice somehow legitimises the medical premise.

The thing is, the information could well be true. The author might indeed be a doctor. And there’s nothing new or controversial in claiming that meditation can help with all sorts of health issues – in fact, the link between mindfulness and stress really is ‘well-known’ and scientifically backed. The link to ‘metabolic syndrome’ and insulin resistance might well be too, but the way this book is written makes it all feel very flaky and doubtable, or that to really benefit you, too, would have to go spend months at an exotic retreat.

Not recommended, although meditation is well worth doing regardless of such books.

NetGalley eARC: 45 pages
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 20th-27th January 2019

My rating: 3/10

Glass (2019)

glass poster

Back in 2000, M Night Shyamalan followed the huge hit that was Sixth Sense (1999) with a very understated ‘superhero’ film called Unbreakable. I vaguely recall not being very impressed at the time, although I would like to revisit it now. Then, I think it was just too slow and moody and perhaps a little bit odd for what I was expecting.

Fast forward to 2016, and I was much less critical of Split – a strange tale of multiple personality disorder that might have been more than it seemed. And, as a stinger, it was revealed at the end (not a spoiler, don’t worry!) that this was the same universe as Unbreakable… and, that we could expect a third instalment, bringing together Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), David Dunn (Bruce Willis), and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) aka Mr Glass.

The premise from the first movie – David being asked to believe he has superpowers – is picked up well, with a psychiatrist suggesting that everything is actually a delusion and can be explained rationally. But as Mr Glass plots, and the Beast returns, figuring out what’s real is the least of their problems…

I wasn’t sure how much to expect from this movie, to be honest, having had mixed views on the first two. In fact, the friend who was a huge fan of Unbreakable was a bit disappointed with this, whereas I was pleasantly surprised.

The plot is a bit so-so – a little stretching on plausibility of actions at times – but the performances are excellent. Bruce Willis only has to frown moodily through most of it, but Sam Jackson is chillingly cool, and James McAvoy is outstanding with his dozen or so personalities, switching rapidly at times and making each entirely recognisable and different. I wasn’t too impressed with the surrounding cast, but they were sufficient.

Overall, then, it wasn’t a bad way to bring the trilogy to a close, but nor did it have anything like the impact that it perhaps would have liked. It was… serviceable. Damned with faint praise, perhaps, but there ya go.

Released: 18th January 2019
Viewed: 18th January 2019
Running time: 129 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

You Are Not Your Thoughts – Frances Trussell

you are not your thoughts cover

“There’s a quiet revolution going on, people everywhere are beginning to wake up from the daydream of their thoughts.”

I’ve been meditating, to a certain extent, for several years now, but there’s always space for another refresher on some of the whys and wherefores. Step forward You Are Not Your Thoughts.

I don’t think there was anything ‘new’ for me in this book, but it was very well put together, reminding me why I meditate and some of the different approaches I could think about revisiting (my practice has probably fallen into a rut). For newcomers to mindfulness and meditation, everything is laid out very straightforwardly to get you started, and the quick introduction to different forms will let you figure out if one type of meditation suits you better.

I loved the tone of the writing. Mindfulness books can so often either go towards total ‘mystical’ airy-fairy-ness, or try too hard to go the other way and end up being almost insultingly dumbed down in a chatty, pop-culture “Oh, it’s just so cool, yah?”. YANYT straddles the line perfectly, leaning a little towards the more spiritual but in a very accessible, down to earth fashion.

This is definitely one of the better meditation books I’ve read. I used my bus journey home from work to read it, slowly, and I can genuinely tell you that I’ve never found traffic jams so relaxing!

NetGalley eARC: 105 pages
First published: 2018
Series: none
Read from 20th December – 20th January 2018

My rating: 8/10