PREVIEW: October 2020

Boy, when I think back to the last three October Previews that I published on this blog I remember how there were always a few new cinema releases that I was excited for (most of which did not disappoint). This October though…there will be some new cinema releases, and I will review them, but they will be fewer than previous years, and some may get postponed at the last minute, so I will not make a list of ones I intend to see. I do promise though that there will be some!

Whether I end up in a cinema once this October or ten times, I will get a lot of posts published because I am doing a post a day for The First Annual October Scare Fest! I am really looking forward to doing that, and I will also publish some reviews for content on streaming services (which I am horribly behind with). Today, I hit the milestone of my 1,000th post on this blog – 1,000 posts later, and I have loved every minute of it (yes, I know that this is Post 1,001, but lets try to avoid pedantry)! So, it excites me that by the end of October I will have covered at least one-third of the difference between 1,000 and 1,100 posts.

Thank you as always for visiting this blog, and for the month ahead I wish you Happy Reading and hope that you enjoy The First Annual October Scare Fest! Most of all though, I hope that you and your loved ones remain healthy and safe during these frankly mad times!

POST 1,000: Top 10 Roald Dahl Books

Roald Dahl

WOW! We really have reached this milestone! Over the last 3.5 years I have blogged regularly on here, and now I am here to publish POST 1,000! To commemorate this milestone, I have decided to publish a post which links with the first ever post I published on this blog – a review of the most recent film adaptation of The BFG. As the title says, the post is my list of my Top 10 Roald Dahl books – a topic which I am excited to write about as it is something creative arts-related which really revisits my childhood. So without further ado, here we go with…

10) The Twits (1980)

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Likely many of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, The Twits is a brilliantly humorous book, with an excellent balance between the types of humour. Through the pranks which the titular Twits play on each other, Dahl’s penchant for dark humour comes through, while on several occasions his understanding of the things which young children find funny come through. Yet, like with most of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, there is an important lesson incorporated for young readers, which is that external beauty has no true value, whereas internal beauty does.

9) George’s Marvellous Medicine (1981)

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Like many of the entries on this list, George’s Marvellous Medicine is a tale in which Roald Dahl’s protagonist is an ordinary child who finds him/herself capable of doing something extraordinary. That is exactly what the titular George is, and a key factor in what makes him such an engaging main character is that with him Dahl deftly implements a child’s perspective on adults and the ingredients of the titular medicine alike. Dahl’s imagination and wicked sense of humour also come through the pages, and it certainly enamoured me as a child (my parents had to talk me out of making my own marvellous medicine once!).

8) The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me (1985)

Like many of the entries on this list, the heart of The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me is found in the wonderful bonds of family and friendship between the central characters – a young boy named Billy, a giraffe, a pelican and a monkey. These central relationships are rich in warmth and charm, and penned with a wonderfully quirky prose and some clever songs. Furthermore, Roald Dahl’s understanding of what makes good children’s literature shines through as Billy goes on a wonderful adventure with the animals, which any child would love to go on.

7) Fantastic Mr Fox (1970)

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Like with all of his children’s books, in Fantastic Mr Fox Roald Dahl wrote something which would hook children and make bedtime storytime enjoyable for the parents. In the titular Mr Fox, Dahl pens a crafty, cunning and altogether charming protagonist, who provides darker and more mature humour, while using the antagonistic farmers to provide gross-out humour for younger readers, and Dahl deftly blends both humour types. This is also a quirky story which will keep youngsters hooked as they are constantly left anticipating how Mr Fox will outwit the farmers.

6) Matilda (1988)

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In many ways Matilda is the quintessential Roald Dahl children’s novel – a fantasy tale about a child who does extraordinary things that boasts Dahl’s quirky imagination and the darker side of his wicked sense of humour, yet is never that mean-spirited. A character-driven narrative, through the wonderfully realised Matilda, Dahl astutely shows the world and the different types of adults from a child’s perspective, making her a highly plausible character, and he also expresses through her the wonder of literature, the joy of good quality reading material and the importance of education.

5) Danny, the Champion of the World (1975)

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Danny, the Champion of the World is a rare example of a Roald Dahl book with no fantasy elements or anthropomorphic animals whatsoever, rather it is a charming and deftly crafted slice-of-life style narrative about two very ordinary people who try to pull off something quite extraordinary through strategy, wits and help from their friends. The heart of the narrative is in the bond between Danny and his father, the heartfelt nature of which is more keenly created due to Danny being the (well-realised and believable) first-person narrator. Furthermore, this book has a great message for younger readers by emphasising that money and status cannot truly provide happiness or make you a good person.

4) The BFG (1982)

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Like many of Roald Dahl’s best books, The BFG is a fantasy tale of an ordinary child doing something extraordinary, but here little Sophie is helped out by the titular Big Friendly Giant. The BFG really is one of Dahl’s most brilliant creations – a wonderfully quirky and zany character, through whom he explores the fascinating and unique world of dreams and, in doing so, shows his brilliant sense of imagination and unique sense of humour. Humour makes up a good portion of The BFG, and Dahl deftly blends dark humour and gross-out humour, but the true heart of the narrative is in the beautiful bond which Sophie and The BFG develop, which conveys wonderfully that somebody can be like family without being a blood relative.

3) The Witches (1983)

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The Witches really is the darkest entry on this list, and is absolutely the darkest piece of children’s literature ever penned by Roald Dahl (it certainly unnerved me more than any of his other books as a young child), but Dahl masterfully avoids making it too scary or horrific. A suspenseful read, the darkness and creativity of Dahl’s imagination come through wonderfully in the creation of the witches, but none more so than the Grand High Witch – the most evil and sadistic of all his antagonists, whose appearance is described shockingly. The real genius of the book comes through having a young boy as the first person narrator, through whose perspective we see witches go from the stuff of his grandmother’s stories to a true threat. Fear not though, for there is still plenty of heart in this novel, found in the relationship between the boy and his grandmother.

2) James and the Giant Peach (1961)

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James and the Giant Peach was Roald Dahl’s first children’s novel, and in it we see all of the factors which would make Dahl one of the greatest children’s authors of all time. His love for the macabre can be seen in the Cloud People and (arguably) the anthropomorphic giant bugs; in the latter we see the dark, quirky side of Dahl’s humour, and his penning of beautiful familial bonds comes through in their relationship with the titular human boy James – the original Dahl protagonist to be an ordinary child who does something quite extraordinary. Furthermore, through James and the bugs we are given unique perspectives on adults and the terrifying factors of the world, while through their songs we see Dahl’s knack for poetic writing. Ultimately though, what has ensured this book’s continual popularity with young readers is the brilliantly creative adventure and the enormous amount of heart.

1) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)

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While James and the Giant Peach is an incredible debut children’s novel, it is Roald Dahl’s sophomore effort, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which takes the top spot on this list (it was a tough call – at one point when I was aged 6, this and James were my two favourite books!). This book is another example of Dahl creating a marvellous fantasy-adventure, within which he deftly weaves drama and humour alike, but this displays even more of the brilliance of his imagination and his quirky approach to storytelling. Dahl goes into the macabre during the tour of the titular factory and incorporation of the wonderfully weird Oompa Loompas, through whom we also see his knack for poetic song-writing. While Charlie is an ordinary child though, he does not do extraordinary things, but rather he is used to convey that being a good person is of far greater value than being a wealthy person. As for Willy Wonka, he truly is one of the all-time great Roald Dahl characters – zany, quirky, brilliant and magical. Rich in heart, warmth, imagination and creativity, this is a truly joyous read which has stood the test of time, and epitomises Roald Dahl as a children’s author more than any of his other works.

FILM: Memories of Murder (2003, Bong Joon-ho)

Kang-ho Song and Sang-kyung Kim in Salinui chueok (2003)

Loosely based on the true story of the Hwaseong serial murders of 1986-1991, crime film Memories of Murder was originally distributed by CJ Entertainment. When women are found raped and dead, it is clear that this is like no other crime in South Korea’s history. Detectives Park (Song Kang-ho), Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) and Cho (Kim Roi-ha) lead the investigation, but are visibly overwhelmed by these utterly horrific and different crimes. In the course of their investigation they make some huge mistakes, and Park and Cho (in their desperation to catch the serial killer) are willing to break Police conduct regulations.

PROS

  • Director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho shows a very deft hand in masterfully balancing sombre drama with comedy. While the bumbling Detectives’ investigation has some highly amusing moments, each discovery of a murder victim is fittingly shocking treated with real gravitas and emotional weight.
  • Bong Joon-ho deftly weaves social satire into the film, with which he highlights the absurdity of outrage caused by media coverage that omits a lot of the facts; while also adding extra gravitas by incorporating themes of Police brutality and corruption, which transcend national boundaries.
  • Visually this is an appropriately dreary and gritty film, with cinematographer Kim Hyung-koo making outstanding use of low lighting (both natural and artificial) and confined spaces, incredibly vivid and gritty work by the make-up department, and Bong Joon-ho effectively incorporating the rain motif.
  • A solid ensemble cast is led excellently by Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung and Kim Roi-ha, who throw themselves into their roles with grit and determination, taking on the physically challenging aspects marvellously and hitting just the right notes in the moments of raw emotion.

CONS

  • While the verbal humour is good, the physical humour is a little too reliant on cheap slapstick, while several of the fight scenes are quite over-the-top and go into the realms of goofiness, thereby not in-keeping with the film’s otherwise grounded and gritty style.
  • While the ending has some very clever aspects, it does feel somewhat abrupt, almost as though Bong Joon-ho wanted to keep going with the narrative or wanted to incorporate post-1994 developments of the real-life investigation.

VERDICT: 8/10

FILM: Schemers (2019, Dave Mclean)

Conor Berry in Schemers (2019)

Biopic Schemers premiered at the 2019 Edinburgh International Film Festival. As the 1980s begin, Davie (Conor Berry) discovers his potential as a gig promoter. With his friends Scot (Sean Connor) and John (Grant Robert Keelan), he starts trying to get his big break in the industry. However, as they try this they go to the local gangsters for financial help – a bad move given Davie’s irresponsibility with money.

PROS

  • This is director/screenwriter Dave Mclean’s own life story, and he brings it to film with a sense self-knowing humour and some bursts of energy.
  • Perfectly adequate central performances from Conor Berry, Sean Connor, Grant Robert Keelan and Tara Lee.

CONS

  • Dave Mclean should stick to his wheelhouse – music promotion. He is so enamoured with his story, yet he gives the central real-life figures or their dynamic minimal characterisation, meaning that we are left uninvested.
  • Dave Mclean’s unfocused directorial style is very derivative of both Danny Boyle and Shane Meadows.
  • Dave Mclean’s screenplay is unfocused, tries to cram too much into 100 minutes, and relies far too much on unnecessary narration.
  • Half of cinematographer Alan C. McLaughlin’s footage has the visual quality of 1980 film, while the other half has the visual quality of a 2019 film, which is simply incoherent.
  • Editor Khaled Spiewak tries and fails to use trite techniques such as freeze frame, photo montage and rewind to hide the budget constraints.

VERDICT: 3/10

FILM: 23 Walks (2020, Paul Morrison)

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Comedy-drama 23 Walks is distributed by Parkland Entertainment. Pensioners Dave (Dave Johns) and Fern (Alison Steadman) meet when walking their dogs in a North London park. As they do more and more dog walks together, romance begins to blossom, but the pair both have tragic secrets from their past which will put a strain on their relationship.

PROS

  • Dave Johns and Alison Steadman give very naturalistic and beautifully understated performances, and have an excellent chemistry with each other.
  • There are moments of real warmth and a couple of good gags, and the film is honest about some of the tragic realities which people face in their latter years.

CONS

  • Tonally this film is all over the place, with much of it being unnecessarily dreary in its direction, screenwriting and cinematography, yet there also being a lot of saccharine moments, and zero balance between the two.
  • The screenplay is a mess with clunky, often unbelievable dialogue, incoherent characterisation, and a twist which is contrived and poorly handled.
  • Paul Morrison is unfocused in screenwriting and direction alike, dipping his toes into dreary tragicomedy, warm romantic comedy/drama, and emotional social issue filmmaking, but never committing to any of them.
  • The supporting cast get minimal characterisation and no chance to shine, which is disappointing given that it includes veterans Graham Cole and Bob Goody, while Natalie Simpson actually gets a reasonable amount of screen time.

VERDICT: 4/10

SHORT FILM: Apiyemiyekî? (2020, Ana Vaz)

Apiyemiyekî? (2020)

Documentary short Apiyemiyekî? premiered at the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam. It addresses the genocide of the Waimiri-Atroari people in the 1970s when, during the Brazilian dictatorship, indigenous lands in the mid-west were invaded for the construction of the national road BR-174, and the installation of a mining company.

Director Ana Vaz films in black-and-white the finished construction work as it stands today, but overlaps it with drawings done by the indigenous children whose lives were turned upside-down and changed forever by a dictatorship. Through voiceovers, first-hand accounts of the experiences of the indigenous people are read to the viewer, and we understand how scary and confusing a time it was for them.

This documentary does an excellent job of concisely explaining a horrific true story through a fresh avant-garde style, and highlights with real poignancy through the drawings the perspective of indigenous children on something which many were so cavalier about at the time, and remain ignorant of today. Sometimes an image really does say something in a way that words cannot, and this is an example of that. Vaz drives home the fact that these construction projects did not just destroy indigenous land, but resulted in the deaths of 2000 indigenous people, thereby challenging viewers about their own understanding of indigenous sufferings and giving the Waimiri-Atroari people a voice.

It is not a perfect documentary short. It takes a few minutes to find its stride. Vaz also takes some shots of the beautiful nature of indigenous lands, but does not make that much use of them, thereby not conveying with enough weight just how beautiful is wantonly destroyed for urban development. But it is a powerful and convicting short created with a unique avant-garde style, and I firmly believe that Ana Vaz has the skills to take this subject-matter and expand it into a feature-length documentary.

VERDICT: 8/10

FILM: The Roads Not Taken (2020, Sally Potter)

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Drama film The Roads Not Taken is distributed in the UK by Focus Features, following its premiere at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. Leo (Javier Bardem), a Mexican immigrant in New York, suffers from dementia. His devoted daughter, Molly (Elle Fanning), tries to take him to some appointments, but as the day progresses she is left devastated by the way others treat him and the reality that he needs far more in the way of round the clock professional care. Meanwhile, as Molly tries to navigate Leo, he relives parallel, alternate versions of past events in his mind, such as his first marriage and a trip to Greece.

PROS

  • The personal nature of the film (director/screenwriter Sally Potter’s brother suffered from dementia) comes through in Molly’s heartbreak as she feels her father slipping away from her, her anger at his being judged and misunderstood, and her reluctance to accept the true reality of it all.
  • Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning ultimately carry this film with their beautifully nuanced and understated performances that convey with real emotion the disorienting nature of living with dementia, and the heartbreaking nature of watching a loved one succumb to it.
  • Cinematographer Robbie Ryan predominantly uses close-up shots of the characters as they navigate the narrative situations, keeping the focus firmly on them as they experience a truly challenging day.

CONS

  • Like with any mental illness, stigmas certainly exist around dementia, but the ones which Leo is subjected to feel quite basic, caricatured and at times implausible, particularly when people in medical-related jobs seem oblivious to what is wrong with Leo and say the wrong things.
  • At about 80 minutes, the film is far too short to depict a day in Leo and Molly’s lives and Leo’s reliving an alternate past, and as such the narrative feels quite rushed.
  • The regular flashbacks into Leo’s imagined past cause the narrative to feel disjointed, and ultimately these scenes are the most inert and have no emotional weight, merely serving to distract from the real emotional and heartfelt narrative that is Molly and Leo’s relationship.

VERDICT: 5/10

FILM: 42 (2013, Brian Helgeland)

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Biopic 42 is distributed by Warner Bros. The film tells the true story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who in 1947 became the first ever African-American Major League Baseball player. While Jackie is undeniably an asset to the Brooklyn Dodgers, he faces enormous amounts of racial abuse, both within the Major Leagues and from the general public. While the team’s owner and devout Christian, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), is most definitely in Jackie’s corner, it is his teammates who must come to realise the enormous strain that he is under and learn what it means to show solidarity.

PROS

  • While director/screenwriter Brian Helgeland does an excellent job of directing the fast-paced baseball scenes, his work shines most in his focus on Jackie and the gradual emotional impact that these events had upon him, the stand-out moment being an intensely directed scene with a performance from Chadwick Boseman that is rich in raw emotion.
  • Chadwick Boseman is the star here, giving a nuanced turn that conveys a sense of a man who is hurt and broken from experiencing racism, but who refuses to let it show and is determined to prove that his skin tone does not determine his skill at the sport for which he is truly passionate.
  • A good supporting cast, the stand-outs being Harrison Ford, who brings curmudgeonly wisdom and authority to Branch Rickey, and Alan Tudyk, who gives no doubt the most challenging performance of his career as the overtly racist Ben Chapman.
  • Detailed production design and costume design give 42 a solid sense of period authenticity, while cinematographer Don Burgess’s excellent close-ups and tracking shots of the baseball games are edited brilliantly by Peter McNulty to make these scenes fast-paced, intense and exciting.

CONS

  • Brian Helgeland plays it safe to secure a PG-13/12 rating – the full extent of the persecution Jackie faces is only hinted at, and it feels like Helgeland is holding back from making something even darker and more intense.
  • Some early scenes go a little too much for humour, while some of the Major League players (both those in Jackie’s court and those not) feel a little caricatured.
  • The first half of the film often feels like a play due to the tempo with which Brian Helgeland directs and small visual details, such as the fact that no smoke comes from Branch Rickey’s “lit” cigar.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020, Dean Parisot)

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Bill & Ted Face the Music is the third film in the science-fiction/comedy franchise, and is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. It is 2020, and Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are still yet to write the song that will unite the world. They are taken to the future by Kelly (Kristen Schaal), where they learn that they will have fulfil the prophecy by playing the song at 7:17pm that night, or reality will collapse. The pair then begin travelling to future realities to try to claim the song from their future selves. Meanwhile, Bill’s daughter, Thea (Samara Weaving), and Ted’s daughter, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine), begin travelling through the past in order to put together the ultimate band to play the song.

PROS

  • A generally good cast, led by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves reprising their roles as the iconic duo with zeal, their natural chemistry being highly engaging, and the pair clearly have fun playing alternate versions of Bill and Ted.
  • The gags throughout the film mostly hit the mark, with screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon getting a good balance between witty verbal gags (some of which have clever subtext) and high-energy physical comedy.
  • Clearly created from a place of love for the first film especially, the time travel adventures boast real creativity in their concepts, as well as wonderfully detailed costume designs and make-up.

CONS

  • At times the film does feel a little bit rushed, which ultimately stems from the fact that there are too many ideas generally (especially for a 90 minute film), and some events resultantly feel somewhat contrived.
  • The film uses a lot of CGI, as in far more CGI than a $25 million budget can stretch to, and it is frankly awful, making it impossible to suspend disbelief in several major scenes.
  • As Bill and Ted’s respective wives, Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes are the weakest links in the cast and cannot do English accents to save their lives.

VERDICT: 6/10

RANDOM THOUGHT: in my opinion they missed a trick with this film – a more fitting title would have been Bill & Ted’s Radical Return.

LITERATURE: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Roald Dahl, 1972)

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British children’s science-fantasy novel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator was originally published by Alfred A. Knopf. Picking up exactly where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ended, the Great Glass Elevator accidentally goes into orbit with Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Bucket family inside it. Wonka is forced to dock them at Space Hotel USA. However, the space hotel has been taken over by Vermicious Knids. Will the Elevator and its occupants survive an encounter with the Knids and make it back to Earth?

PROS

  • This is another Roald Dahl book in which an ordinary child does something extraordinary by using their wits, remaining calm under pressure and being driven by kindness, which will appease child readers and convey the importance of doing those things.
  • This novel is a good example of Roald Dahl’s imaginative and creative skills, as he crafts two unique adventures for the characters through a prose that is a detailed yet easy read, making it easy to picture the events in the mind’s eye.
  • The heart of the novel remains with Charlie and Wonka’s bond, the latter remaining just as zany and quirky as in the previous book.

CONS

  • The novel as a whole is a contrived and unnecessary sequel. The first and main adventure ultimately hinges on an accident that results from a split-second mistake, and (like the novel as a whole) has too many ideas for its own good.
  • The second adventure which Charlie and Wonka embark on is a rather more rushed and contrived one, and furthermore it hinges upon a continuity error with the previous novel, which I picked up on even at 6-years-old.
  • Wonka’s Chocolate Factory has very little role, which will not appease fans of the first novel, and this novel ends by setting up a sequel which would never be completed.

VERDICT: 5/10