08Jan Reviews for January 2020



Books

The Good

December never bore much good fruit for me. Perhaps the best was The State of the Art, by Iain M. Banks. Odd Attachment is a truly funny short story, and Descendant is quite moving. Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold was middling, an excellent start to a novel or trilogy, but not a novella. Penric is an enjoyable protagonist but I'm not sure I can follow him on another five adventures. Embassytown by China Mieville was solid, but the plot let it down. The notion of language is central to the story, and a wonderfully crafted conceit; it just takes centre stage a little too much. Book of the month would be The Hobbit, which I read with the kids. The silliness and constant breaking of suspension of disbelief I could put aside in light of the fact that I've read later Tolkien and have the benefit of that world-building. A Scanner Darkly by PKD and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury were both enjoyable, particularly the former with its meandering forays of reality and perception. The Bradbury carries one of the greatest scenes in fantasy; the witch in the balloon on the roof tops - fantastic.

The Bad

The Pickwick Papers I found weak, I only read half of it, and only two of the short pieces therein were entertaining / emotional. Clearly early Dickens. Sebald's Rings of Saturn I found interesting at first, but gradually became increasingly dreary. A great book, I'm sure, but for me 80 pages sufficed. Small World by Mark Buchanan, a non-fiction work looking into networks in nature, was intriguing with some good tidbits but a fair bit of repetition and not enough explanation in places.


Films

The Good

It was mostly Christmas films, the stand out being Elf with Will Ferrell. Possibly the eighth viewing for us, and we are still treated with belly laughs. The first two Home Alones are always excellent, and this year we enjoyed The Christmas Chronicles with Kurt Russell as Santa again - a firm Christmas favourite with us now. Outside of Christmas, we watched the three extended versions of The Hobbit, much better than when I first saw them with a critical eye, much like the book. The silliness in the final film did give my eyes a chance to wander for a few minutes, but the first two films have their sublime moments. Film of the month though, and perhaps the year was A Ghost Story (2017), a haunting and moving piece, wonderfully paced and flawlessly executed. The story follows a recently deceased husband, Casey Affleck in just a white sheet with eye holes throughout, and his journey through the afterlife. The premise, and trailer don't do the film justice. It's one of those rare occasions where minimalism results in an abundance. Blue Ruin is also worth a mention, somewhat shallow, but well executed and an example of where film-making in recent years seems to be heading. Iranian vampire-flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a moody, atmospheric piece and recommended. Three Colours: Blue, I watched for the first time. Juliette Binoche was wonderful, but the film didn't hit me as hard as I thought it might - perhaps given my having taken 20 years to get around to watching it.

The Bad

Nothing in particular poor this month. Maybe Predator (1987); some fun scenes but the 80s approach to action films seems very dated to my eyes.


Music

The Good

William Basinski's Selva Oscura, a minimalist work of eight tracks group into two groups of four is an excellent creation, though not quite as good as 2003's Melancholia. Selva Oscura 1.2, an ominous soundscape that never quite gets anywhere would be the lead piece for me. Daniel Hart's score for A Ghost Story has seen a few repeats, stand out tracks are Safe, Safe, Safe, Little Notes and I Get Overwhelmed (by Dark Rooms). The eponymous A Winged Victory for the Sullen (2011) has been on repeat, Vicodin Tears stands out as one of the finest tracks I discovered in 2019.. Ambedo (2019) by Toonorth is a relaxing collection of chillhop. I was pleased too to hear Photek's score for Mosul. A dark and moody selection, and absolutely comparable to the great modern composers. On the heavier side, Glasgow EP from Need for Mirrors showcases four mature pieces of drum and bass, Glasgow being more along the traditional vein, with plenty of room in the mix. Blurry building to a pair of nice atmospheric crescendos at half-tempo. The other two tracks, particularly the third, I could take or leave. 2018 saw Black Sun Empire's The Wrong Room remixed. Hit and miss, but the hits would certainly be Agressor Bunx's remix of Crash Drive, The Prototypes' remix of Immersion, and the Bassline and Drumsound remix of Caterpillar (excusing the terrible lyrics).

The Bad

The only one I can remember is the RAM Records 2020 album, which I haven't gotten through yet. It just seemed to be mediocre track after mediocre track, punctuated only by tracks I've heard a lot throughout the year, so lacking any real impact.


TV

The Good

Chernobyl was a good, slow-burner (excuse the pun). Nowhere near as exceptional as the reviews led me to believe, but a good solid production. Attack on Titan season one I'm only half way through. It's good, solid anime, but I'm struggling to carry on as the last couple of episodes have really slowed.

The Bad

The Witcher. Not too bad, and some great set pieces, just poorly executed. The mixed timelines was revealed halfway through the season almost like a twist which was just jarring. Unfortunate make-up and CGI made for poor other races; elves etc. Too much in too few episodes.


Games

The Good

Wingspan, from Stonemeier Games is a wonderful engine-building board game. Excellent artwork, workable dynamics and good fun. Terra Mystica took a few goes to understand the pacing and balance, but once that's achieved its a well constructed game. I'm not 100% behind the theme; it seems like it might've worked in the 90s but is a little lacking now. Dixit has become a family favourite, as has Cryptid. 221b Baker Street, were it not for the pacing, would be an excellent game. As it is, it's still well worth playing. I also shifted to Through the Ages on Steam, it plays very differently to the board game, but quicker and gives a different understanding of how your engine is doing. Oh, and Overcooked 2 was great fun, though the final challenge (four stars) is too hard even for Gail. Tricky Towers kept our attention for a few days too.

The Bad

X-Com 2 on the PS4 I found too slow, and bloated with cut scenes - though I did only play for an hour. Gravity Rush 2 I gave two hours to, but found it ultimately just a tedious exercise in moving and collecting. Shifty Eyed Spies should be great fun, but it's marred by poorly-written instructions which resulted in a bit of a mess. There's a game there, I'm sure, we just haven't discovered it yet.


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