Avatar – James Horner

avatar ost cover

James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) received mixed reviews. 3D had never been used so well, it all looked amazing, but was the story a cliche – or worse? Whatever your opinion on the film, the score fits perfectly – in my opinion – with the look and feel of the piece, becoming a regular in my listening rotation.

There’s an expansive, eerie sound to the opening that fits perfectly with the distance travelled across the emptiness of space, and can send a tingle up my spine. The second track includes the first use of a motif of major chords in ascension, that convey a swelling of joy, or hope, that again fits well. It then picks up an action pace with a tinge of other-worldliness that I don’t even have to read the title to know is Jake taking his first steps in his ‘avatar’, and into the world of the Na’vi.

Pure spirits of the forest introduces an ethereal quality, as the name sort of suggests. Can’t you just picture the scene of the light-fantastic creatures floating around Jake and Neytiri? The horns then come in and everything gets a bit more majestic, and bit more fierce.

If there are complaints to be made, it might include the fact that James Horner has a recognisable not just style, but set of sounds. I wasn’t quite as familiar with his work 10 years ago when this came out, but I have since listened to a lot of his other work and yes, there are bits that seem ‘lifted’ wholesale. Still, that doesn’t matter if you only listen to this one, and even otherwise the re-used sounds still ‘fit’ well where they are here.

I like this score when I’m in the mood for something uplifting, a little bit other-worldly, and somewhere between sci-fi and wild nature – in other words, exactly what the movie represented.

As a weird aside, I was standing at the train station not so long ago, and the noise of the incoming train sounded almost exactly like the long ‘aaaaahhh’ vocalisation used throughout this soundtrack. Weird!

My rating: 8/10

Genre: sci-fi
Released: 2009
Length: 1:18:52
Number of tracks: 14

Track listing:

  1. You don’t dream in cryo
  2. Jake enters his avatar world
  3. Pure spirits of the forest
  4. The bioluminescence of the night
  5. Becoming one of ‘The People’, Becoming one with Neytiri
  6. Climing up Iknimaya – the Path to Heaven
  7. Jake’s first flight
  8. Scorched earth
  9. Quaritch
  10. The destruction of Hometree
  11. Shutting down Grace’s lab
  12. Gathering all the Na’vi clans for battle
  13. War
  14. I See You (Theme from Avatar)
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Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019)

once upon a time in hollywood poster

In 1969, the murder of the young, pregnant actress, Sharon Tate, by the followers of Charlie Manson, shook the world and started the crumble of the era of love, peace and hippies. This movie is sort of Quentin Tarantino’s retelling of that period and set of events.

Except, it’s not really. Tate (Margot Robbie) is pretty much a side character, as we instead follow the fortunes of her (fictitious) next door neighbour, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rick was famous for a while, playing a cowboy in a TV show, but now he’s taking bit parts as villain of the week in new pilots. He’s accompanied everywhere by his stunt double, friend, and lackey, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who’s struggling even more for work, not least because of some dark rumours about his past.

In one way, the film is about the different approaches these two men have to slowly fading careers and inevitable aging. Both actors are outstanding, DiCaprio as the whiny, self-obsessed actor throwing tantrums and sobbing, compared to Pitt’s laid-back, shrug it off, que sera acceptance of his lot. I’d have to say the latter is far more appealing, lighting up the screen with charisma, self-assurance, and a rather impressive not-dad bod for a man in his mid-50s. Sorry, got distracted there… 😉

Mostly, though, the movie is just a homage to a period in time, and Hollywood of the late 60s – in the same kind of way that Singin’ in the Rain looked back three decades to another ‘golden era’ of Hollywood.

The plot sort of meanders, doesn’t really go anywhere much, but through it all everything just looks amazing. The real win here is how the viewer is entirely taken to a different era. It’s not just the visuals, but a slow pace quite at odds with today’s modern life, and a soundtrack that isn’t full of recognisable hits as much as just music of the time – and not just music, often the backing track is an advert playing on the radio, or the TV, and all the more ‘real’ for it.

I was a little baffled coming out as to how I was going to review this. On the one hand, I kept waiting for something to happen, and mostly it did not. There are a few ‘meh’ moments, such as Tarantino’s less than flattering portrayal of Bruce Lee. There were a lot of nods and ‘homages’ that went entirely over my head – many of the characters were real people, that I just didn’t know about, and the TV shows were also generally real. There was a huge level there that would have added more to the experience – I’m just glad I knew who ‘Charlie’ was, or I’m not sure how the film would have played at all.

And yet. It didn’t feel almost three hours long – I could have watched another hour, easily. I will happily see it again, and perhaps enjoy the atmosphere even more, without waiting for the ‘plot’ to happen. So. Yes. Worth the viewing, definitely.

Released: 14th August 2019 (UK)
Viewed: 16th August 2019
Running time: 161 minutes
Rated: 18

My rating: 8/10

The October Man – Ben Aaronovitch

october man cover

“In late September, as the nights close in, a strange madness possesses my father.

After seven books following PC Peter Grant in London, Ben Aaronovitch takes a slight detour with this novel. we are introduced to Tobias winter, Peter’s German counterpart, sent to the town of Trier to investigate – you guessed it – somewhat strange goings on.

A body has been found in a field belonging to an old, but small vinery. It’s coated with mould – a fungus of the same kind used to deliberately infect the grapes to make a sweeter wine. The vinery is close to the river Kyll, and indeed the current owner’s grandfather would leave offerings to the river goddess… sound familiar?

Like the previous novella in the series (The Furthest Station), I enjoyed the way the shorter format kept things focused on the one story. It still has many twists and turns, not being quite as tight as I expected, but still intriguing.

Tobias Winter is basically Peter Grant with a few different words in his vocab. Taking any section without specific identifier, I think the narration would be indistinguishable from Grant’s street smart, slightly sarcastic tone. Which is no bad thing, but still.

While I overall enjoyed the story a great deal, I think introducing new characters, new location, and a new organisation is perhaps a bit much to ask for a sub-200-page novella.

Still very worth the read, though, for fans if maybe not newcomers to the series. It is interesting to see the Rivers of London series branching out, and I’d love to see even more – but, I think perhaps it’d only really work if the voice was as distinctive as the new region?

Hardback: 180 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: PC Peter Grant / Rivers of London book 7.5
Read from 25th-30th July 2019

My rating: 8/10

Stranger Things (season 3)

stranger things 3 poster

Since the first season arrived in 2016, Stranger Things has been one of the highlights of TV viewing. The mix of horror and mystery, weird and nostalgia, all hit a sweet spot.

Usual warning: even mentioning names could be a spoiler for who survives series 1-2, so read on at your own peril!

We already knew that the wrap-up of season 2 wasn’t necessarily tied with a pretty bow, so it isn’t really a surprise that the ‘Mind-flayer’ isn’t as dead or trapped as the residents of Hawkins might wish. And when we find out that there’s a Russian operation to open a doorway … yeah, you know this isn’t going to end well!

Despite rave reviews, I think season 3 is the weakest so far – although still very good and very worth a watch. But, perhaps lower your expectations just a little.

There is a lot to like here. In particular, the continuing reinvention of Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington sees him spend the whole season in a cutesy sailor outfit, which is hysterical. We also meet a new character, Robin (played by Uma Thurman’s daughter, which is who she reminded me of all series!), and the interaction between the two is some of my series highlight.

The younger cast members are growing up fast – a few flashbacks remind us just how young they looked 3 years ago – and we’re subjected to the sight of new young love, awkward and vaguely embarrassing, and played with humour that juxtaposes the darker elements of the show. Still, these are the scenes that didn’t do much for me through the whole – tbh, I just wasn’t fond of most of the child characters, let alone their personal struggles.

The mix of horror and laughs remain a strength. Hopper’s struggles with parenting. Joyce’s pained expressions. Dustin singing. The hope for comeuppance for a new slimey character, played by new cast member Cary Elwes. And on the other side, murderous slime, exploding rats, and so much worse.

Still… the story isn’t complete. Perhaps I was hoping for more answers, and that’s not what this is about. I’m very glad series 4 has been announced – things have changed in Hawkins, but it’s not over yet!

First broadcast: July 2019
Series: 3
Episodes: 8 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 8/10

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

spiderman ffh poster

Following the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Peter Parker is unsurprisingly a little burned out and looking forward to the chance to be just a teenager, rather than a superhero, during a school science trip to Europe. However, Nick Fury has other ideas – and when a series of ‘Elementals’, creatures seemingly formed of water, air, fire, etc, start attacking, Parker is called in to the fray. Fortunately, a new hero has appeared. Mysterio will save the day – right?

It turns out that the MCU’s Phase 3 has one more movie to offer. I hadn’t really been looking for more of the story post-Endgame, but as it happens this makes a nice coda to the whole Infinity Saga, giving us a glimpse of the post-snap/return (aka ‘blip’) world and a lead into Phase 4.

Spider-Man has never been my favourite of the superheroes, but this MCU take with Tom Holland has started to convert me. This is definitely an ‘Avengers’ movie, not just Spider-Man, and the teen angst is played well as a motivating factor rather than the main gist of everything. We get the usual dose of humour, plenty of nods to the rest of the series, and overall it just works.

As with Homecoming, I thought the motivations of the baddy were done well, even if the tech achievements are utterly far-fetched. Visually it’s all quite stunning, and the European locations – Venice, Prague, etc – are pretty, too.

Surprised me how much I enjoyed this, but little to nothing to complain about. It was fun! It was daft. It was a decent bridge between old stories and new. It’s not the best of the MCU by any stretch, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable popcorn flick.

Released: 2nd July 2019
Viewed: 13th July 2019
Running time: 129 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8/10

Yesterday (2019)

yesterday poster

When the entire world suffers a mysterious power outage, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is unfortunate enough to get hit by a bus. As he recovers, he slowly starts to realise that somehow the world has forgotten various, every day things: certain brands don’t exist any more, certain ideas. But, most excitingly for a struggling musician who’d been on the brink of giving up, no one else seems to remember The Beatles.

As Jack starts to exploit his suddenly rise to the world’s best songwriter, not everything goes quite according to plan…

I’d been looking forward to seeing this since I saw the trailer. I’m a huge Beatles fan, and I love this kind of ‘what if’ concept. I was also thoroughly in the mood for something light and fun, and just nice, and that’s exactly what I got.

To say the outcome is all pretty predictable is fair enough, not least with Richard Curtis involved in anything. Thankfully this is not as saccharine as Love Actually or Notting Hill. And actually, to my amazement, it managed to surprise me at least once…!

I’d point out that this is not in the vein of e.g. Rocketman, as the music is more the character and a guitar doing cover versions. That’s perhaps a slight negative, although they are genuinely very good covers! My other negative would be Kate McKinnon, playing the less than pleasant record manager – I’ve gone from thinking she can do no wrong, to being disappointed in her roles of late, finding them not very funny at all.

Still. The rest of the cast is great, including Ed Sheeran (I’m not a fan, really) playing himself with surprising self-deprecation. The songs are of course amazing, in any version. Except perhaps ‘Hey Dude’… 😉

Overall, an uplifting feel-good movie, and don’t we all need those once in a while? 🙂

Released: 28th June 2019
Viewed: 11th July 2019
Running time: 116 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8/10

Alanna – Tamora Pierce

alanna cover

“‘That is my decision. We need not discuss it.'”

Back when I was but a tadpole and still book-mad, there was a glorious day at school when a book seller came to call and we all got to buy books. I’m guessing I was about 7 or 8 when I got this, oh, I loved it! The girl taking on the boys and doing what she wanted despite her gender, the magic, the colour-coding of magic and eyes (yup, details like that were a thing for me!). And then it ends, not on a cliffhanger per se, but obviously with so much more story to go.

Whether the second volume just hadn’t been published by then (yes, yes, I’m old 😉 ) or I just didn’t have the resources to track down series (I pre-date the internet), I never got to find out what happened to Alanna. Imagine my surprise – and slight regret – in finding out that there were another three books, and then several more series in the same world!

Even so, I held off any attempt at getting hold of this. How would a book I read and loved in childhood stand up to adult eyes? It was a recent Netgalley of another Tamora Pierce book, Tempests and Slaughter, that allowed me to think maybe I could go back.

Which is a lot of preamble, I apologise, but there are just some books that have more than the story between the covers to them 🙂

Thom and Alanna are twins. She’s about to be sent off to the convent, while he will train to be a squire and then a knight. Problem is, Alanna wants to fight and Thom hates it, preferring to study and learn sorcery. And so a plot is hatched that pretends they are twin boys, and the two swap places.

It’s not a long book, and yes written for a younger audience, but it makes for a lovely read as an adult, too. The writing isn’t dumbed down, just stripped of unnecessary waffle. We skip through several years but it never feels rushed, just that we aren’t being told unimportant details. And so we deal with Alanna learning to fight, covering up her developing womanhood (I think that was an important chapter to a young girl!), and facing her fears over her magical abilities.

I needed something light and positive to read during a trying time, and this fit the bill perfectly. My only real complaint would be how a child – Alanna’s about 11 – gets to be so good at nearly everything she does, and is treated quite as an adult at times. I imagine that went down a little better when I was about the same age 😉

I’m glad I went back to read this again. It didn’t spoil my memories at all, and – huzzah! – after so many decades I get to find out what happens next!

Kindle: 231 pages / 7 chapters
First published: 1983
Series: The Song of the Lioness book 1 (of 4)
Read from 1st-3rd July 2019

My rating: 8/10