This month I indulged my weird craving for Enid Blyton without actually reading any Enid Blyton, caught up on another Netflix Marvel show (they're like the hydra; get through one and another five appear), watched some more Star Wars (a season of television and one of the films - though you'll never guess which one), revisited a take on Beauty and the Beast, two period dramas, and three films from 2017 that were generally regarded as "must-sees".
All in all, a productive month.
Adventure Island: Books 1 – 8 by Helen Moss
A few weeks ago I was struck by a sudden urge to revisit Enid Blyton, only to remember that much (if not all) of her work has dated badly. All I wanted was kids with staggering levels of independence solving mysteries on their summer holidays, preferably with a dog in tow. And lo – Helen Moss's Adventure Island books scratched that itch.
Two brothers end up on an island off the coast of Cornwall for the summer break, each expecting it to be as dull as dishwater – only to meet the vivacious Emily Wild and her dog Drift, who have a nose for solving mysteries. Naturally, they get a new one to investigate in every book, running the gamut from thefts to kidnappings to extortion to ghostly activity.
I have to say, the plots aren't quite on par with Blyton. It stuns me to say it, but she did have a knack for pacing and suspense that Moss doesn't quite grasp, and at least one clever twist per mystery that left young readers either surprised or satisfied depending on whether they managed to figure it out. Moss's stories are a little more straightforward.
And yet the updated setting has its own rewards: characters such as Inspector Hassan ensure that Britain isn't just a sea of whiteness, and nobody ever tells Emily to stay at home during night-time sojourns because it might be "too dangerous for girls."
I've so far read seven books in the series (for some reason my library doesn't stock #4) and it's exactly the type of low-key, low-stakes holiday adventure that I was craving.
Wollstonecraft Detective Agency by Jordan Stratford
Jordan Stratford has a pretty winning premise in his Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series: a young Ada Byron (eventually Ada Lovelace) and a young Mary Godwin (eventually Mary Shelley) team up to solve mysteries in Victorian London. What's not to love? There are also appearances from Charles Dickens, Princess Victoria, Charles Babbage, Percy Bysshe Shelley and other notable personalities of the time, and in following the template laid out by the most recent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, hints are strewn throughout that there's a criminal mastermind at work – one that's a direct foil to our heroines (which is to say, she's another preteen girl).
The stories themselves can get quite fanciful at times, with hot-air balloon chases and quirky caricatures, as well as plots that are largely derived from 19th century stories such as Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White and Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But if anything the books reminded me of A Series of Unfortunate Events in its tone and content, and Stratford plays fast and loose with historical accuracy (though there's always a disclaimer at the end of each book, encouraging readers too reader further).
I didn't enjoy this series as much as I thought I would, though that's simply due to my misconceptions concerning what they'd be like. If you go in expecting something a lot lighter and more comedic in tone, then there's plenty to enjoy.
Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984)
The furore surrounding The Last Jedi continues without any end in sight, and so I decided to go back to basics. To watch an old school Star Wars film, one that knows what it's all about, that creates no controversy, which tells its story and understands its audience. I am of course, talking about An Ewok Adventure.
All sarcasm aside, it's not as bad as it's made out to be, and it certainly hits that sweet nostalgia spot (having been released in the year I was born, no less). Of course, it's not really that good either, and some of the creative decisions are laughably weird.
In case you didn't know, it's about a family of parents and two kids that crash-land on the moon of Endor. The parents are promptly kidnapped by a giant alien, and the kids Mace and Cindel are found by a tribe of Ewoks (including Wicket from The Return of the Jedi, who is incidentally the only link to the original trilogy).
They all set out to rescue the parents, running through a series of bizarre and largely unrelated challenges along the way. Cindel is so impossibly adorable that even my cynical heart melted a little, but Mace is there to stomp all over that goodwill with his relentless obnoxiousness.
It ends on a happy note with all the family reunited, a state which I'm sure will last well into the next movie and not be at all reversed within the first five minutes by killing off the parents and Mace in a surprise ambush, leaving Cindel to fend for herself. Because geez, that would just be appalling.
Having not seen this movie since I was a kid – and on thinking about it – there's a chance that I saw this even before the original trilogy, I gotta say that it's not unwatchable. And Star Wars doesn't seem to have totally repudiated it considering elements from it turned up in a few episodes of Forces of Destiny (which is what inspired me to track it down in the first place).
And I have this outrageous wish that Disney track down Aubree Miller (who played Cindel) and give her a cameo role in one of the latest movies. Not a big one, just throw her in and refer to her as Cindel. Admit it, it would be awesome.
Belle et la Bete (2014)
When I visited this year's Armageddon, I was pretty delighted to have picked up this film on DVD for only fifteen dollars – I had seen it before, but unfortunately my downloaded copy had utterly terrible subtitles, in which its French was translated into sentences such as "we go to castle now" and "why are here?" Something so beautiful should never be mangled so badly. Mercifully this not only came with coherent subtitles, but also an English dub.
It cleaves much closer to Charles Perrault's version of the fairy tale than the likes of Disney, what with Belle being the youngest daughter of a merchant who loses his wealth at sea, but who promises her a single rose on returning from town after attending to news that a single ship survived the storm. A blizzard drives him into a strange and beautiful castle where he finds food and wealth awaiting him, but he's accosted by a terrible beast when he plucks the promised rose for Belle.
Realizing that her father's life is at stake, Belle decides to take his place, returning to the castle and gradually making herself at home with its strange inhabitant.
Okay, so here's a question: what's the most important element of any Beauty and the Beast story? The courtship between the titular leads of course. That's where this version of the tale goes wrong, as it crams in so many superfluous subplots that the blossoming romance between Belle and the transformed prince encompasses no more than two conversations and a dance. The film seems downright uninterested in any sort of emotional connection between the two characters.
Instead we get a lengthy prologue concerning Belle's father, the introduction of a villain who calls in the debts of Belle's gambling brother, his fortune-telling girlfriend, flashbacks to the whys and wherefores of the Beast's transformation, and the presence of several weird CGI beagles that roam the castle halls. The story veers back into familiar territory when Belle requests that she be allowed to return home to see her family, but then the villain and his posse end up storming the castle and getting squished by giant moss-covered statues in response. It's hard to know what to make of it all.
That said, it's worth watching for one reason: it's stunningly beautiful. No matter how weird or pointless these subplots are, it's rendered null and void at the sight of Lea Seydoux fleeing across a frozen lake in a billowing blue dress, or exploring half-ruined corridors laden with pink roses in a gown of emerald green, or illuminated in the pure white snow by her dress of vivid flaming red as she struggles through frost-covered branches – yeah, among other things her wardrobe will make you weep with envy.
It almost makes the story twice as disappointing when it's wrapped up in visuals so mouth-wateringly opulent and colourful that it unquestioningly puts the live-action Disney version to shame (never forget Emma Watson's washed-out yellow dress against a room painted in various shades of cream). It deserved a script as intricate and beautiful as its imagery.
Baby Driver (2017)
I watched three 2017 movies this month, all of which made a splash at the time of their release, and which I found... not bad, but hardly riveting either. Baby Driver most embodies this reaction, with plenty of quick editing and catchy tunes, but which never made me anything but tepidly interested. Most of the characters were cyphers, the presence of Kevin Spacey was uncomfortable, and the two women were respectively a) a bland prize for the protagonist and b) a dead victim to motivate the villain.
There are some attempts here and there to give the cast some layers, but these details get lost in the glossy aesthetic and just aren't that interesting anyway (I tried to get intrigued by some of the tidbits dropped concerning the backgrounds of Buddy and Bats, but just ...didn't). That said, I give the film credit for one thing: its ending. Our hero doesn't get to drive off into the sunset with his girlfriend – not straight away, at least.
Oddly enough, you can gauge the popularity of any film through its presence on Tumblr (don't roll your eyes, it's due to Tumblr that I discovered Fury Road and Orphan Black) and the fact that Baby Driver never made it onto any widely circulated GIF sets or in-depth metas speaks volumes as to its relative blandness.
Get Out (2017)
The problem with this movie being such a huge success is that I knew all the twists going in, so wasn't particularly blown away by any of the surprises it had in store. That's not to say it wasn't a suspenseful film, but I was robbed of the enjoyment of figuring out what was going on. You probably already know the story by now: black photographer Chris accompanies his white girlfriend to her family's house in the country, where all sorts of weird shit starts happening.
But of course, the horror element is just part of what made the movie such a hit, as amidst the scares there's some very pointed commentary on racial tensions in the USA – not necessarily among conservatives, but self-described liberals (that is, the danger posed isn't about a hatred of blackness, but the fetishization of it).
One thing I really loved is that it goes for an upbeat ending (or at least a bittersweet one) instead of a grim one. In fact, I've read that the director was initially going to have Chris arrested or even shot down by police when they pull up to the scene of the crime, only for him to decide that it should be Chris's friend coming to his rescue instead.
It makes me consider my latest theory about the Bury Your Gays trope. See, if you have a gay person in a story who exists only to die or be miserable, then you're not actually watching a movie for gay people. It's for straight people, to teach them a lesson about how homophobia is bad. Likewise, had the movie ended with Chris being gunned down by police, then Get Out would have been speaking to a white audience, in an attempt to tell them how dangerous it is to be black in America.
But by letting Chris walk away safely, it instead keeps its focus on black viewers, giving them a win in an industry that still trots out the Black Dude Dies First trope way too often. Or so it seemed to me.
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
This tennis match took place well before I was born, so I went in relatively unspoiled as to the details (yeah, I knew who won, but the whys and wherefores of the whole drama were a mystery). Back in the seventies tennis player Billie Jean King and her compatriots struggled to get the respect and equal pay of their male counterparts; repeatedly told that men's tennis is simply more exciting to watch, even though each gender sells the same amount of tickets to their matches.
Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs is a washed-up tennis champion in his fifties who can't control his gambling addiction and whose marriage is crumbling. An attention whore of the highest order, he comes up with the great idea to play against the highest ranking female tennis player in order to "prove" that men are the superior gender.
It's a little slow at times, and unfortunately I never felt that anything really important was riding on the outcome of the match beyond Billie Jean's personal pride. Was it a significant victory in the feminist movement? Did it lead to more equal wages between male and female athletes? The movie doesn't let us know, instead choosing to keep the tone largely feel-good. Even Bobby is more of a good-natured clown than any kind of real chauvinist threat – you can tell he doesn't really believe any of the sexist nonsense he spouts.
Most of the poignancy derives not from Billie winning the match, but in the quiet moment she shares with her gay dress-designer in the wake of her victory, which points out that (as a closeted lesbian) she still has a long way to go before she attains equal rights on THAT front.
Ocean's Eight (2018)
I took mum to see this for her birthday, and it made for a fun night out. Although there's no devastatingly clever twist as there was in Ocean's Eleven, the simple fact that it's a film about women and their relationships with each other, all pooling their skills and working together towards a common goal is what makes it so enjoyable. (As with 2016's Ghostbusters, it's these elements and not the fact it's a female spin on an existing franchise that the target audience embraces. Hopefully studios will soon start investing in female-led ensembles that don't play it safe by building on existing properties).
The film knows who its target audience is, and it delivers in abundance, not only with leads Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, but in ensuring that the supporting cast is comprised of women, the con's mark is a woman, the minor characters are women, and that most of the extras are women. The only male character who didn't have to be male and probably should have been female was James Cordon, but we won't hold that against him.
It's a little slow to start and ends up dragging on well past the successful conclusion of the heist, but I know it's going to end up as one of those comfort movies I have playing in the background while I'm pottering around doing other stuff.
Star Wars Rebels: Season 3 (2016)
Despite enjoying the first two seasons, the third was a bit of a disappointment, mainly because it felt like most of the episodes were just filler. I'm not entirely sure what the writing team was trying to do with them – depict what life is like under the Empire? Showcase the daily slog of the rebels? But it just feels like a lot of time is wasted, and the stuff that is of interest – such as Kallus's decision to defect and become the next Fulcrum – occurs almost entirely off-screen.
As fascinating as Ahsoka's last appearance was at the end of season two, we get no real answers to where she went or what she's doing now, and Hera also feels a little short-changed. Sabine finally gets some attention, with an arc that takes her home to Mandalore, and there are some intriguing aspects of the Force that are explored on the mysterious planet the rebels settle on as their new base of operations – but for the most part, there's not a lot here that's truly gripping – not in the way the Inquisitors, Ahsoka vs Vader, Kanan's past, and other central elements of the past two seasons have been.
(Let's face it – for the show's protagonist, Ezra just isn't all that interesting).
Legends of Tomorrow: Season 2 (2016 – 2017)
Talk about an improvement on the first season! Realizing that their weakest link was a) the boring Hawks and b) a lacklustre villain, the show rids itself of all this and makes the necessary improvements. This time around, we've got a triumvirate of evil in the form of Eobard Thawn, Damian Darhk and Malcolm Merlyn, all of whom are infinitively more charismatic than Vandal Savage.
What they're after is the Spear of Destiny, that is the spear that pierced the side of Christ and now apparently as the ability to change reality itself. Um...okay. Sadly the show chickens out when it comes to the possibility that the team might actually go and visit Jesus during his lifetime to obtain his blood to depower the spear, but hey – we get George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien to make up for it.
On the side of the Legends, we get newcomers Amaya Jiwe (the future grandmother of Mari) and Nate Heywood (who I first saw in the Arrow crossover, a character whose presence completely baffled me until I watched his proper introduction here), not to mention Rip Hunter and Leonard Snart in a limited capacity. I didn't really warm to Nate, but Amaya is definitely a great addition.
And it's definitely the season of Sara Lance. Making her the new captain of the Waverider was a no-brainer, and what makes it particularly special is that they first give Professor Stein a test-drive, and then float the possibility of Rip's return. But in both cases, it's Sara's experience, humanity and charisma that makes her the natural leader – and in a display of writing prowess that I honestly thought was beyond this franchise, they use it to tackle her self-loathing, relationship with Laurel and thirst for revenge. It's beautifully done.
Of course, nothing about the time-travelling shenanigans of Eobard makes the tiniest bit of sense (if Eddie killed himself, how is he still around? Will Barry still meet him in the future? Argh!) but we don't watch this show for the plot. By leaning into the lighter side of things and not taking itself too seriously, Legends of Tomorrow finds its feet.
Howards End (2017)
At the beginning of the 20th century, Margaret and Helen Schlegel live a life of Bohemian bliss: books, friends, conversation, independence – who could ask for more? So naturally they each fall for two complete boors.
However, despite having not read E.M. Forster's novel, I did recall A Passage to India from my university days and knew he was no sentimentalist, so throwing the girls into the sights of men like Henry Wilcox and Leonard Bast seemed deliberate. I braced myself, and kept watching.
It's fundamentally a story of class, with Margaret becoming engaged to the widowed Mr Wilcox (having befriended his late wife) and Helen becoming fascinated with the impoverished Leonard Bast and his wife. Each woman's influence (or to put it less kindly, "meddling") into the lives of these men sends their circumstances into a bit of a tail-spin, and every attempt to extract themselves only leads them into greater mishap.
But if I'm making it sound like a comedy of errors – it's not. This is a largely serious look at the way people, even well-meaning ones, can affect or touch other people's lives, especially across class barriers.
The cast is solid all round (especially since its last adaptation won Emma Thompson an Academy Award), though I get the impression that much of the nuance has been lost in what was surely a character-study in the novel itself. For instance, Hayley Atwell is good – of course she is, she's Hayley Atwell – and yet her inner radiance and confidence actually works against her in this instance. Her Margaret is so composed, so self-assured, so in control, that there's no room for any vulnerability or doubt in the life choices she makes. She owns every scene and every situation, and it has the side-effect of leeching at the suspense of her predicament.
But like I said, I haven't read the book. And I should probably catch up on the 1992 movie too. Any extra insight will no doubt put this adaptation into greater context.
Ordeal by Innocence (2018)
Why do screenwriters always think they know better than Agatha Christie? It's especially strange in this case considering Sarah Phelps also brought us And Then There Were None, which kept its downbeat ending for only the second time in the story's history of adaptations.
Along with Crooked House, a version of which was also released this year, Ordeal by Innocence was one of Christie's favourite books – though whether that was because she thought it was objectively good or just easy to write is unclear. So it seems doubly odd that Phelps would so drastically change the plot (including the murderer and the motive!) for what seems like very little payoff.
In fact, it's fascinating to compare this version to the one released in 2007, which included Miss Marple despite her not being a character in the original book at all. Neither one bears much resemblance to the book, and yet both are profoundly different from each other. Characters such as Gwenda are profoundly different (an innocent older ingénue there, a scheming young gold-digger here) and each are considerably more sordid and unpleasant in tone.
Some of the changes aren't so bad – the backstory to Arthur Calgary for example doesn't impinge on the murder-mystery and adds to the theme of secrets and guilt that permeates the rest of the plot, but other parts are just silly – such as the police inspector trying to mow Arthur down on the open road, veering off-course and dying in the ensuing accident; something that's barely mentioned after the fact. For all we know, the car and its dead occupant are just left out there in the field.
I can't say that I enjoyed it very much: not just because of the changes made, but because of certain nasty details that just made it uncomfortable: Philip peeing into a gourd at a crowded restaurant, Jack sucking on Constable Gould's finger, Hester's bloody abortion, the revelation about Kristin's rape, Leo getting permanently locked in the bomb shelter – just writing them down makes them look absurd, and they are. If your reason for including something is shock value, then it's probably not a good idea to include it at all.
Humans: Season 3 (2018)
Is Humans a good show? Sure. Is it enjoyable to watch? Not really. People spewing hatred, children being torn from their parents, violent mobs attacking women, bombs going off in the street, ugly rhetoric designed to drum up fear – when all this is happening on the news every night, it's hard to enjoy it in fiction.
Having made all synths self-aware in the season two finale, the show time-skips ahead in order to show the after-effects of the world-changing event. What's known as Day Zero resulted in the deaths of thousands (mostly by accident) and as a result the green-eyed synths are considered a danger to humankind. Knowing that they're all sentient, Laura becomes a synth-rights lawyer and struggles to win them some basic civil liberties, while Niska goes off in search of a mysterious "synth who sleeps", Karen secretly raises her synth son within a human community, and Mia tries to prove that humans and synths can coexist by living among them.
Having just written that sentence, it's clear that the show very much favours its female characters, though it also makes the call to kill two of them off in particularly violent ways.
As with all stories that revolve around the autonomy of artificial intelligence, the show cannot help but make subtle (or overt) allusions to slavery and the civil rights movement, right down to the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X stand-ins. It's never a particularly wise creative decision based on the fundamental difference between human beings who were forced into slavery and AIs that were designed to do manual labour – people literally invented synths. As such, any attempt to draw comparisons between the historical struggle for racial equality and a group of synths trying to convince their creators that they're sentient are irrelevant at best and cringe-worthy at worst.
It also ends on a ludicrous note, with the news of a potential human/synth hybrid baby that takes the show's relatively down-to-earth science and drop-kicks it into the sun. I give the show credit for having moved past the early days of Laura's paranoia in trying to ascertain whether her household synth was trying to kill her, but at the same time it made me nostalgic for it.
Luke Cage: Season 2 (2018)
As with Legends of Tomorrow, the second season of Luke Cage learned its lessons and delivered a much stronger second outing. Realizing that Mariah Dillard/Stokes makes for a much better villain than the completely random and out-of-left-field introduction of a hitherto unmentioned half-brother with no personality whatsoever, the show focuses on Alfre Woodard as Harlem's eye of the storm around which all tempests brew.
She's a great character; proof that you can make a villain who is both contemptible and pitiable; a reminder that having a terrible childhood is a reason but not an excuse for what you may or may do with your adult life. In fact, she's almost too good – there are scenes that make you forget this is technically meant to be Luke's show.
The plot is a tangled web of politics, power plays, family vendettas and shady business dealings, leading to ever-escalating bouts of violence and subsequent attempts by Luke to quell the chaos by literally standing in the way. It can actually be amusing at times, the way Luke aligns himself with either Bushmaster OR Mariah at various points of the story, not because he likes or sympathises with them, but because he's simply trying to contain the damage they're causing.
So if you like games of intrigue, merry-go-rounds of alliances and betrayals, and carefully laid revenge schemes, then Luke Cage will definitely scratch that itch. It also has time to explore the complicated and/or toxic relationships people can have with their parents, the way the past clings tight even when we're trying to escape it, and the corrupting influence of power. The last few scenes in particular place Luke in a surprising new role, one that's well worth exploring if/when there's a third season.
If anything, I wish that more time had been spent on Misty's recuperation period after the loss of her arm in The Defenders (she immediately masters the use of her bionic arm, which is a shame since it then becomes obvious that it's just an elaborate glove over the actress's hand). But she has a great season, one which explores her fears of ending up like her ex-partner Scarfe, and gets an entire episode in which she hangs out with Colleen Wing. (Can't wait for Daughters of the Dragon!)
Sadly, the show is not so kind to Claire Temple. Claire, oh Claire. There was a time when you were being set up as the connective tissue of this corner of the Marvel universe, a guide and guru to those with special abilities, the one upon whom they could call for assistance, and who felt secure in your calling to help those who could help others. But you just had to get into a relationship with one of them, didn't you. You know what that means, right? You're the girlfriend now.
And almost without exception, the girlfriend of any superhero becomes an obstacle to his daring heroics, whether by being damselled or by criticizing all his life choices. Right on cue, Claire begins to question Luke's tactics and motivations, which results in a yelling match that ends with her exiting the show for good, presumably to go join Felicity Smoak in a love interest support group, since this is pretty much the exact same thing that happened to her.
Why would you EVER hook up with a superhero vigilante? Truly it's the worst gig in the world.