Gifted (2017)

Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is guardian to his niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), who just happens to be a mathematical prodigy. Theirs is a really lovely relationship: they clearly dote on each other, he talks to her like a person, and she is clearly flourishing in the laid-back parenting.

However, when Mary turns seven with no friends her own age, Frank decides it’s time she socialises with other school kids. Despite warnings, she’s unable to cover up her genius and soon the attentions of the authorities and her previously absent grandmother are threatening to break the duo apart.

This is a very gentle, sweet kind of a movie, told in a very gentle kind of a way. I was really impressed by the handling of the court case: no shouting and screaming, as would be Hollywood-norm, just two adults (Frank and his mother, played by Lindsay Duncan) trying to do what’s best, and capable of having a rational if bittersweet conversation from either side of the argument.

Which isn’t to say there’s no tension in this movie – there certainly is, it’s just down in a matter-of-fact, low-key way that I found really refreshing. The story unfolds with layers of revelation that you might not even notice as such, as they’re just ‘life’, not shoved in your face.

I was just as impressed with the acting. Mckenna Grace is a rare thing: a genuinely gifted (as an actor, I make no claims for her real life maths skills!) youngster who provides zero irritation factor. And if you think Chris Evans is nothing but bulked-up superhero fodder, his gentle portrayal of a brother, uncle, son, and human being in his own right might surprise you – the character of Frank, too. Heck, I didn’t even mind that he doesn’t take his shirt off! ūüėČ

I wasn’t exactly raring to go see this movie, but as it worked out I am really glad that I did. I’m guessing it’s not going to set the box office on fire, but it’s an impressively mature and sensitively-told story that will reward viewers willing to let go of the need for fireworks.

Released: 16th June 2017 (UK)
Viewed: 12th June 2017 (preview)
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8/10

Big Little Lies (series 1)

“A perfect life is a perfect lie.”

Life in Monterey is pretty perfect. Great schools, great beach, gorgeous weather, gorgeous people. How irksome that¬†Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has to deal with her ex and his new partner, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), having a daughter in the same class as her youngest. Her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) – gorgeous, filthy rich, and sickeningly still in love with her twins’ father (Alexander Skarsgard) – joins her in befriending newcomer and single mom, Jane (Shailene Woodley),¬†especially after mutual ‘frenemy’, Renata (Laura Dern), starts a feud on day one of school.

So far, so mundane, right? Except, all of the above – and the bulk of the series – is actually told in flashback. In the ‘now’, we get snippets of police interviews, the other residents of Monterey sharing all the dirty gossip, all the little lies that led up to a shocking murder…

Ooh Рcan we say tension?! I freaking loved this TV show, not least because of the way the story is told, keeping you guessing right til the end the who, the how, and the why.

The initial draw had been that cast, and they are¬†awesome. I’ve since heard interviews and the fact that these are ‘older’ (!) actresses getting super-meaty roles should not go unnoticed. Mostly I’m a plot person, and the edge-of-the-seat, need-to-know is still what impressed me most, but quite frankly those pitch-perfect performances, each with their own dark issues and web of lies surrounding them, would see me happily watch it all again even now I know the answers!

Now, usually I will choose to read the book¬†before watching an adaptation, but for one reason or another I started the TV series first – but picked up the book a few episodes in. I’ll review the book shortly, but I have to¬†say I love the way the story is subtly altered to ramp up the tensions even more.

It’s not exactly an easy, cheery, watch – this is one very dark show about all the secrets of marriages and relationships – but absolutely worth the time. And read the book, too – the alterations are a masterclass in storytelling, just as an added bonus!

First broadcast: March 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 so far, talks about a second series reported
Episodes: 7 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

A Dog’s Purpose (2017)

As soon as I saw the trailer for this, I knew exactly what would happen if I watched it – and I was right! I needed pretty much a whole box of tissues, as I’m an absolute sap for dogs, and a movie with half the purpose being the damn dog dying – repeatedly! – was never going to go dried-eyed.

Which isn’t really a complaint!¬†A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderfully sweet little movie, told with a voice-over from a dog questioning his purpose through a handful of lives. He seems quite bemused at finding himself a puppy again and again, but the narration¬†isn’t allowed to stray too far from a canine perspective. So, for instance, he thinks his people kissing must be a search for food hidden in the mouth, and the donkey is re-labelled ‘horse dog’. Sure, it can be a little cliched, but it fits.

Despite stints as a police alsatian and over-fed corgi, the initial and main part of the story is as much about owner Ethan’s life in a small town in the 1960s, growing up, and how hopes and dreams ebb and flow. I liked that there is a sense of each successive life revealing a little more of the ‘big picture’ to the pup, and – as the trailer very nearly spoils – how that circles back to the beginning again.

To be honest it’s sweet and familiar rather than particularly meaningful, and what depth there is is more than a little well-worn.¬†But if you manage not to shed a tear over the course of the movie then – well, you must be a cat person – and hiss to that ūüėČ

PS I wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding this movie, but as far as I can read it was a claim that the dogs had been mistreated in the water scene and was proven false.

Released: 5th May 2017
Viewed: 10th May 2017
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated: PG Рthe small child at the end of my row seemed entirely fine; it was just me crying like a baby!

My rating: 7/10

Their Finest (2016)

The Second World War was a time of enormous social change, not least because¬†– as one character in the film puts it – women and old men get opportunities they wouldn’t normally, since all the young men are off fighting and dying.

One such opportunity arrives for Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) when she’s recruited to write ‘slop’ – i.e. women’s dialogue – in the Ministry of Information’s propaganda films. She’s soon working as part of a scriptwriting team to write an “authentic and optimistic” movie to inspire the beleaguered nation to continue to support the war effort – and, perhaps, persuade the Americans to join in to what they’ve been viewing as a European issue.

As the movie-within-the-movie progresses, we get to watch often prickly relationships develop into friendships, all against a very un-cosy backdrop of the realities of the ongoing war. Far from the sweet and gentle movie I was expecting, people do die, or see their lives buried in rubble, or just cower in the tube tunnels as the air raids go on night after night. And yet, still, people get on and the movie goes on, and overall there is hope.

Based on a novel with the much better and more illuminating title,¬†Their Finest Hour and a Half, this is worth a watch for romantics and realists, and those who will – like me – smile the broadest at the scenes of how a ‘real life’ event is taken apart and put back together to tell a story more ‘worth telling’.

Released: 21st April 2017
Viewed: 25th April 2017
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 12A with a surprising (although not exactly gratuitous) amount of swearing, and some quite dark and potentially upsetting deaths

My rating: 7.5/10

Lost For Words – Stephanie Butland

“A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.”

Loveday Jenna Carlew¬†works in a second-hand bookstore, Lost For Words,¬†in York. She’s a bibliophile and a loner, and as the book progresses we slowly start unravelling the mystery of her past and what’s made her so suspicious of people and of attachments.

I surprised myself by how much I loved this book. It’s not my usual genre at all – I picked it based on the bookshop setting (a definite weakness of mine!) but somehow expected something a little less real, and a little more¬†magical. By the end, though, I was definitely snuffling, and read the second¬†half of the book practically in one sitting!

At first, I didn’t really take to Loveday (a traditional Cornish name, I learned). She’s young and awkward and makes too many comments – because this is told in first person – about people reacting to her tattooes, as if she’s some kind of punk chick when the ink is actually the first lines from her favourite novels.

As the story continues there are still a few moments when I thought she was being a bit… well, she pushes everyone away and defends it as ‘sensible’, and the remarks did occasionally have me rolling my eyes. And then the story turns out to be a bit of a romance – absolutely not my genre!

And yet… woven through alternate chapters is the mystery of Loveday’s childhood, and it’s impossible not to feel for her. The past is handled so very well, and makes the present scenes very understandable and real.

As I said, by the time I got to the last few chapters I was invested enough to be teary about it all. Any book that moves you so is probably a worthy consideration for a first-line (see top) tattoo – or, more realistically, a good review!

Not one I’d recommend to everyone, but for something a bit different, or a bit less ‘genre’ than my usual reading, definitely a great find.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 18 chapters
First published: April 2017
Series: none
Read from 15th-19th April 2017

My rating: 8/10

Hidden Figures (2016)

Once upon a time, the word ‘computer’ actually meant a person –¬†someone who does computations. Before we had the electronic versions, even the ones that took up vast rooms of space never mind the power in your phone, calculations all had to be done by hand. And that includes the complex mathematics required to put a man in space – equations for speed and orbit and so many other life-threatening details, all requiring a human brain, pencil and paper.

In the early 1960s, a battle was going on between the USA and Russia to win the ‘space race’: being first was everything in launching satellites, putting a man into space, orbiting the Earth, reaching the moon. And while NASA struggled with such lofty goals, the people working for them were often facing much more fundamental struggles: to be fairly treated if they weren’t white men.

Hidden Figures is based on the true stories of three black women who not only worked for NASA, but were¬†fundamental in the successes that included the famous¬†“One small step” for Neil Armstrong in 1969. History tells of rooms of white males,¬†and finally this movie is trying – albeit imperfectly at times – to point out that that is far from the whole story.

I absolutely *loved* this movie. It was heart-wrenching watching the snubs and struggles, and I felt so pleased to live in a world where my reality is to see that with a large dollop of ‘WTF?’ – shame we’ve still got a ways to go! The film has you rooting 100% for the three female leads¬†– and quite frankly I’m shocked that there were no Oscars taken home – while keeping the story focused on the space race. Such is the power of the story-telling that, even more than half a century on and knowing how things turned out, I was still on the edge of my seat as the flimsiest of tech¬†hurtled brave souls¬†into space.

If I have any complaints about the film, it’s only that I think it still sugar-coated some of the struggles. I have read that the whole removing of bathroom signs was quite wrongly handed to a white character, for instance. It was fascinating – and a bit sickening – to see what life was like under segregation and when women were so openly second class citizens – but for every gain seen, I did find myself wondering if, for instance, the husbands were really so supportive of their ‘little women’, or if that had been brushed over for the sake of¬†keeping the movie up-tempo and uplifting.

Still, absolutely recommended – best film I’ve seen in a¬†long time!

Released: 17th February 2017
Viewed: 28th March 2017
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

Logan (2017)

By 2029 there are almost no mutants left. None have been born in the past 25 years, and those that were left… well, bad things happened. Even the legendary Wolverine, whose healing powers may or may not have once had him considered all but immortal, is sickening. Dying.

Perhaps the one thing keeping him going is caring for the frail Professor Charles Xavier, hidden away in the desert and force-drugged to try to suppress the effects of dementia on the most powerfully psychic brain on the planet. Like I said, bad things happened.

And then something shocking: a young mutant, a child. She’s in terrible danger – but can Logan be persuaded to help… and will that be enough?

I’ve seen and enjoyed all the X-Men movies over the years, but this is a beast of an entirely different colour. The moody tone of the trailers was spot on in preparing viewers for a dark, often emotional, final part of¬†the Wolverine trilogy (although there is no requirement to have seen either X-Men Origins: Wolverine or¬†The Wolverine, or indeed, any of the other X-Men movies, really, as long as you have a vague notion about the character)¬†– and I’m going to say¬†that this is the movie the character has deserved all along.

What’s different? That emotional content. The serious tone and added ‘reality’ of the struggles of aging, even as a ‘superhero’. It’s admittedly a less ‘fun’ movie than its predecessors, but wow it hits in the feels (as the young people say ;)).

There’s still a lot of action, of course, and the use of a 15 certificate ups the blood and gore factor significantly – again, that (and the profuse swearing) probably add to the realism of the piece: there’s nothing coy about those famous claws going through a man’s skull, splattering brain about the place.

The story is also surprisingly satisfying, I felt. There are thematic similarities to previous installments, perhaps.

Overall, this swaps cheerful for powerful, but man what a way to end an era of X-Men movies!

Released: 1st March 2017
Viewed: 3rd March 2017
Running time: 137 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8.5/10