November screentime 2017

I only include films and TV shows I’ve seen for the first time in my screentime wrap-ups, but quick shout-out to The Force Awakens being on Netflix. Thank you Netflix gods.

marsha p johnson.jpgThe Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson (2017) documentary, Netflix

Marsha was a trans activist, a key part of the Stonewall riots and the fight for LGBT rights, who was found dead in 1992. The police ruled her death a suicide, but none of the people that knew her believed it, particularly given recent threats of violence against her and the violence towards trans women that was all too common. It’s not a perfect documentary – it’s one of those that’s trying to fit too much in and loses some focus and pacing as a result – but it’s an important one. People like Marsha are often forgotten in mainstream history, like the recent Stonewall film that centred cis white gay men and pushed aside the trans women, particularly trans women of colour, who were the ones who really threw the first stones. There are marginalised communities within marginalised communities, and the marginalisation of trans women (and men) in the LGBT community is definitely a thread that runs through the film. It probably would have worked better if it were longer, or as a series, which could have given more space to the people in the film and the life of Marsha herself, but it’s still worth watching. (I saw after watching that Reina Gossett, herself a black trans activist, has said David France used her extensive archival research and ideas for his film, which prevented her from making her own, particularly given the resources he gained through working with Netflix. She does have a non-documentary film coming out next year about Marsha, and France says he didn’t steal her work, and I’m not sure what to think about it. But if he did take advantage of her work (which was literally dangerous for her to acquire at times), a cis white gay man putting his voice over a black trans woman to tell Marsha’s story is…very much not good given the themes of the film. Very much not good. I’ll definitely be watching her film Happy Birthday Marsha! as well)

Casting jonbenetCasting JonBenet (2017) documentary, Netflix

This is a very odd film, mostly because it’s impossible to tell how much the people in it knew what it was really all about. Basically, the film is people from the local area auditioning to play roles in a film about JonBenet’s murder and talking about their own theories on what happened. But there is no film – the film is the auditions and theories. It’s a really interesting way of doing it, and makes it less about the murder and more about the way people speculate about these kinds of cases and why they believe the things they do, and how fascinated so many people are by ‘true crime’. But it also feels ethically a bit on the line – if the people didn’t know what they were really being filmed for, and were sharing at times extremely personal stories in an effort to be picked for a part that didn’t really exist, it would be quite exploitative. Some of the editing lends it a kind of dark humour, particularly when one participant says it would be impossible for the brother to have done it because a boy that age lacks the physical strength and the film cuts to a series of young boy auditionees bashing in watermelons with a hammer. If you like crime type stuff or meta stuff, definitely watch this because it is oddly fascinating, but definitely do it with a critical eye.

jupiter ascendingJupiter Ascending (2015) film, Netflix

Yeah so this is a mess. It’s hard to believe it’s made by the same people who made the first Matrix (though easier to believe it was made by the people who did the Matrix sequels). It’s trying really hard to be a campy space opera but it’s bonkers in the bad way, not the good. The visuals are good but I was too distracted by over-fast plot, bad acting, and wtf-ness. Nope.

La_La_Land_(film)La La Land (2016) film, Netflix

I’m not mega into musicals, but I thought this might be a good comfort watch. It’s weird that they chose so such as generic blah song to open the film, as it kind of sets the tone. I did like the very end, because I love a bitter-sweet ending, but it was definitely just a good comfy sleepy watch.

jim and andy the great beyondJim and Andy: The Great Beyond (2017) documentary, Netflix

I don’t know anything about Andy Kaufman, but you definitely don’t need to to watch this. I’m not a big Jim Carrey fan – I imagine he’s totally exhausting to hang with – but this is definitely interesting. It looks at the behind-the-scenes of when Jim played Andy in the 1999 film Man on the Moon, when he went ‘full method’ and stayed in character for the entirety of the filming. I think sometimes ‘method acting’ is used by actors as an excuse to act like a dickhead (hello, Jared Leto), but I don’t think that’s what was happening here. Jim felt such a connection and similarity with Andy that at times he talks as though he was possessed by him, and I do think he believes that. Even Andy’s family members spoke with him like he was, and felt like he was, really him. I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife, so I don’t believe in possession either, but it’s definitely interesting to see who a deep sense of connection manifests.

mindhunterMindhunter (season 1) series, Netflix

I really enjoyed this, it was very easy to binge on sleepy evenings. The main character gets increasingly irritating, but he’s supposed to, and it means the characters’ relationships with each other and themselves gradually shift, reaching a climax in the final episode (Ford’s arrogance does not pay off…). Definitely worth a binge if you’re looking for something crime-y that’s easy to watch but also engaging.

designated survivorDesignated Survivor (seasons 1 & 2ish) series, Netflix

Series 2 is still being slowly released, but I’m enjoying it so far. The writing, particularly the dialogue, isn’t great, and season 2 becomes even more ridiculous when the plot has to shift from what was driving season 1. But it’s fun (in an apocalyptic sort of way) and easy to watch. The pace is fast, too fast for reality, but the perfect speed for sleepy bingeing. I also just like the concept – after finding out about the existence of the designated survivor when I watched The West Wing, I always wondered what would actually happen if a very unqualified and inexperienced person suddenly had to rebuild an entire government and the heads of the legal system at a time of acute crisis. President Kirkman is a little too competent, but his doubts and his worries about it work. And I like that it often touches on current issues, though usually doesn’t linger on them long enough to go into any kind of depth (like The West Wing does). It’s good, ridiculous, political funs.

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November reads 2017

I read most of this in the first couple of weeks of November and then my reading took a nose dive because I was just too tired in the evenings to do much more than Netflix & bed. I’ve got a few more days in December when I’m doing less PhD reading so I should have more brain space in the evening hopefully. I’m not including PhD reading stuff on here unless I think it might be of wider interest which, given I’ve been doing a methodology reading, isn’t this month!

fever dreamFever Dream by Samantha Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell (novel, Spanish in translation)

This is purposely disorientating in the beginning, and I had to read the first two pages a couple of times to understand who was talking when. That kind of confusion, which thankfully doesn’t continue, sets up the disorientation of Amanda, the protagonist (sort of), perfectly. But I’m not quite sure what I make of the book. I’ve seen it described as a horror but I’d say it was more just eerie and weird than a horror per se. I think it’s best read in one sitting (it’s pretty short with no chapter breaks), but I wasn’t able to do that so I don’t think I got the full effect. I didn’t feel that need to keep reading, keep going to desperately find out the end, which I think is its intent. I like a lot of the ideas in it though, like the ‘rescue distance’, so I’ll give it another try when I can read it one go. I think I’ll like it more that way.

the white bookThe White Book by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith (novel, Korean in translation)

Han Kang’s previous novels that have been translated into English have this way of not looking at their central character or message too directly, and she circles around them, showing you different perspectives on them. This novel/non-fiction/poetry/whatever short book does do that, but also feels much more direct and personal than her other work. It’s also more experimental, so probably won’t be for everyone, but I loved it. It’s a fragmented meditation on the colour white, without a clear narrative, but the thread is the death of Kang’s older sister hours after she was born. White is the colour of mourning in South Korea. Kang’s mother had told her that if her sister had lived, she wouldn’t have had more children, so Kang would never have been born, and there’s also a thread of Kang living in her sister’s place, and the complicated emotions her death then brings her. Throughout the book are some black and white photos from an art performance by Kang in which she ‘lent her body’ to her sister and interacted with white things. There are also ties to the violence and memoralising (or lack of) in relation to place, specifically South Korea and Warsaw, where she was living while writing the book. It’s something you could read very quickly, but it’s best read slowly, pausing at the blank white pages. (I’m hoping to read Bluets by Maggie Nelson in December so I’m looking forward to the comparison).

for the love of god marieFor The Love of God Marie by Jade Sarson (graphic novel – fiction)

I really liked the art style and the way the pages gradually turned from sepia to white as the story moves from the 60s to the 90s. I also really liked the way it explored Marie’s ideas of sexual freedom set against a more restrictive upbringing and that Marie was perfectly able to integrate her Catholic schooling with her sex life. But I found it a little thin. All the characters except Marie (and perhaps William) were quite two-dimensional and lacked any development, which sometimes made them feel tokenistic and a little patronised. Though the intent is “all these different kinds of people are sexual in different ways and that’s totally cool”, the 2-D characters unfortunately makes it more “isn’t Marie so great because she’ll sleep with a disabled guy and doesn’t find his disability an issue”, which is a subtle but important distinction. The pacing was also a little off, and at times the writing was a little hard to read. All this makes me think Sarson was just trying to do too much and squeeze too much in. I did enjoy it and I would recommend it as an enjoyable graphic (in both senses of the word) novel, but it would have been much better if she’d given her characters a bit more room to breathe, maybe included less so she could have given them more, and then it would have been great rather than just okay.

tin manTin Man by Sarah Winman (novel)

This book is incredibly warm. It’s sad, but there’s also warmth in that sadness, if that makes sense. It’s about love and friendship and loss, and told from two perspectives – the first half by Ellis and the second half by Micheal through a diary. It’s not the book’s fault, but it suffered a little by being so incredibly hyped before I read it – every review I saw were people saying it was one of their absolute favourites of the year. So, my expectations were a little too high in terms of the writing itself, but I did really enjoy it. The two sections are quite different from each other because Ellis and Micheal’s characters are so different, but the warmth carries through, even where the heartbreak and sadness and death appears. It’s quick and easy to read, and definitely one to put on your list.

poirot's christmasHercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie (novel)

This isn’t my usual kind of thing but I’ve found a new book club and this is the December pick. It’s kind of as you’d expect really. Lots of suspicious characters wandering about metaphorically twiddling their mustaches, some red herrings, some very obvious clues to whodunnit. Weirdly, there wasn’t as much actual Poirot in it. The best thing about it was I kept imagining a really overacted and over-dramatic TV movie every time one of the family members spoke. Eh, it was alright; probably won’t be looking to read more.

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October screentime 2017

american vandalAmerican Vandal (season 1) series, Netflix

This was definitely over-hyped for me. It was good, but not as good as everyone was telling me it was. I like crime docs sometimes, I like a good spoof with those kind of ‘insider jokes’ for people that watch a lot of them. But I just got bit tired of the premise after a while. Eh, it’s okay.

bojack-horsemanBojack Horseman (seasons 1 & 2) series, Netflix

Once it got into the second half and got a bit darker, I enjoyed season 1, but then got really bored part-way through season 2 and stopped watching. I like the nihilistic sense of humour, but I’m not sure what wasn’t doing it for me in season 2. I’ve heard as whole Bojack just gets better and better as it goes on, so I might give it another go. Another ‘eh’.

Selma-Movie-Poster-webSelma (2014) film, Netflix

This is an excellent film – beautifully shot with great performances. Apparently they couldn’t use any of King’s actual speeches as the license is held by another studio, but David Oyelowo’s performance is so good (as is DuVernay’s writing) that it didn’t jar at all. As always with films like this, it draws parallels with the present – when the marchers crossed the bridge, it made me think about how the Black Lives Matter protesters are treated now – how much was achieved then, the cost, and how far there still is to go.

the good placeThe Good Place (season 1) series, Netflix

I loved this. It’s one of those series that you have to watch to the end – seriously, it plays the long game so all of the things that you think are incongruent with the premise are actually…not. Ted Danson is always good value (and when you get to season 2 which I started watching in November, his character has an excellent an answer for if you ever get frustrated with the trolley problem). Mostly I’m just sad now that American football has delayed the rest of season 2 until January.

travelers netflixTravelers (season 1) series, Netflix

This was exactly the sci-fi I was looking for. It’s light enough to be binge-y easy watching, but also engaging enough to actually watch. It’s basically time-travelling humans coming back from the future to try and save humanity, but they don’t come back in the usual sort of way, which is often what causes them problems. The first episode sets this up, and as a result drags a little as each character is introduced, but once it got going it was exactly perfect for tired-but-not-tired Netflix time.

gaga five foot twoGaga: Five Foot Two (2017) documentary, Netflix

I’m not a big Gaga fan (I like some of her music, though her Bowie tribute was awful, but sometimes find her a bit annoying), but I wanted to watch this because it shows her difficulties with chronic pain. As a fellow spoonie, I was intrigued about how she manages life as a performer with chronic pain, and how well it would be represented (good spoonie rep is very hard to find). As a whole, the doc is just okay – it has some interesting moments but also is a bit lacking (it often feels like an ad, which it is really). I think if you’re not already a fan, this film probably isn’t going to convert you. From a spoonie perspective, it was interesting. She does acknowledge at one point that without her success she probably wouldn’t be able to afford the medical (and non-medical) help that enables her to keep performing. But there is also a tiny element of “if you’re determined, you too could fly through a stadium like it’s no bother when you have severe pain”, which isn’t helpful. Watch it if you’re a Gaga fan, don’t bother if you’re not.

stranger things 2Stranger Things (season 2) series, Netflix

I actually enjoyed this more than series 1, which was a tiny bit over-hyped by the time I got round to it. The final bit of the final episode was absolutely pants – they always have to hetero everyone and bring in random characters you’ve never seen before just to make it a special hetero moment for everyone (though I did enjoy Dustin & Nancy). A few of the episodes are saved by just how good Millie Bobby Brown is, but the episodes she has with Hopper are great. I also liked Lucas’ arguments about not being Winston (the Ghostbuster) – it’s a really good example of how to bring in wider conversations about representation, stereotyping, etc, in an easy to understand and still entertaining way. What the series needed was more tension at the end – it needed a bigger, longer Bad Thing after the happily-ever-after to balance out the saccharine and make you anticipate and need season 3 more.

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October reads 2017

I’m starting a PhD next month so I’ve got no idea how much non-academic stuff I’m going to get to read – I’ll either be reading less (because of reading so much PhD stuff), or reading more (to procrastinate from reading PhD stuff). We’ll see!

little deathLittle Death by Thomas Kriebaum (graphic novel, fiction)

This is a silent graphic novel about death as a travelling salesman. The artwork is very cute and I like the limited colour palette, and some of the scenes are quite funny. But I think this would have been much better if Kriebaum had pushed the concept a bit further – it was just an okay read and didn’t do enough with the potential it had. Good to flick through, but definitely one to borrow not buy if you’re interested in it.

the player of gamesThe Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (novel)

Though this is the second of the Culture novels, a friend said it was the best place to start and I think I agree. The writing was a bit stilted at first, so it took me a while to get into, but once I did it was very readable and enjoyable. The ending is pretty obvious, but I enjoyed getting to know the world and it was the exact kind of sci-fi / speculative fiction I was in the mood for. I’ll definitely check out some more of the Culture, as I think they’re all quite different which I like in a within-world series, and the trappings of ‘utopia’ / post-scarcity society is not something that’s explored as often as dystopia.

letters for lucardoLetters for Lucardo: Book 1 by Noora Heikkila (comics, fiction)

You guys. You guys. This is so good. It’s gay erotica about a relationship between a 61-year-old mortal and an eternally 33-year-old vampire. There is a lot of explicit sex in this (so it’s not one to read on the bus), but it’s also this really loving relationship between these two men – grappling with all the usual stuff but also the fact one of them is a vampire, and the other will die. Vampire-human relationships are far less creepy when it’s an older human instead of a teenage girl with a 200-year-old (eww), and showing the sexuality of someone older is rare and so well done in this. It’s also a book to shove into the hands of anyone who says explicitly consensual sex can’t be super hot. Because damn.

the phantom atlasThe Phantom Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching (non-fiction)

This is about fictional places that have appeared on real maps; sometimes due to lies, sometimes due to story and myth. It’s definitely a book to dip in and out of and not cover to cover, as there are quite a few similar stories in a row at times, particularly of lying explorers (the book is organised alphabetically, so I just dip in at random). It’s stunningly produced, though, with lots of pictures of beautiful old maps and gorgeous end papers.

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Northern Ballet’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

boy-in-the-striped-pajamas-I normally love the Northern Ballet and their ability to tell stories in an engaging and beautiful way. But they totally missed the mark on this one in almost every way.

There’s a character who looks like a kind of S&M Darth Vader, that at first I thought represented death, but at the interval saw was ‘The Fury’ (in the book Bruno mishears ‘the Fuhrer’ as ‘the Fury’). This was a very odd choice. Though well-danced, he didn’t really add anything, and made the final scene less impactful. In the opening scene, the Fury moves the Commandant’s arms and then their movements become in sync, which is a really odd way round to do it as it effectively takes the responsibility away from the Nazi officers as though it’s actually that they’ve been directed/possessed by this thing, not that they did it, if that makes sense.

The curtain call also felt odd. The corps are always the first to take a bow, but it meant that the Nazi guards and the Jewish people they’d just, a scene previously, forced to undress and enter a gas chamber, were holding hands and smiling as they took their bow. It’s weird, no? It doesn’t feel like a thing that should have to be said, but don’t make Jews smile and hold hands with the Nazis that slaughtered them (literally 5 minutes previously). Just don’t.

Given the subject matter, there should a kind of raw and powerful emotion, but I felt little emotional connection to the characters or the piece as a whole. Which is, again, odd. Partly I think it’s due to the music being not quite flowing, but also something about the pacing of the scenes being too fast to really go deep enough into what’s happening or the characters.

There were good individual performances, and the set design was good, but as a whole this ballet is way off.

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September screentime 2017

Lizzie borden chroniclesThe Lizzie Borden Chronicles (season 1) series, Netflix

I actually watched this in August and totally forgot about it, which isn’t the best sign. It’s not a great series, despite casting Christina Ricci as Lizzie Borden which seems like her perfect role. Most of the episodes lack any kind of tension, or any real fear Lizzie will be caught, and I didn’t really care at all about what was happening. The best parts come from the interaction between Lizzie and her sister, particularly at the very end, but it’s not enough to save it. Skip this and read See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt instead.

freaks and geeks.jpgFreaks and Geeks (season 1) series, Netflix

I am often very slow to watch things, but I’m glad I finally got to this as it’s as good as everyone says. It’s more understated than a lot of American high school shows, and is less about prom and more about the terror of being a teenager.

ozarkOzark (season 1) series, Netflix

The title font makes it look like sci-fi but Ozark is actually a crime drama/thriller. Jason Bateman is surprisingly good in a non-comedic role as an accountant for a drug cartel who has to launder more money than is really possible in a tiny, odd town after his partner was found to have been skimming money. It’s pretty smart, atmospheric, not too cliched, and definitely worth a watch.

circle.jpgCircle (2015) film, Netflix

This is not as smart as it thinks it is. It would be much better as a short episode of Black Mirror, but as a film feels bloated, heavy-handed, and badly written and acted. I liked the very end, but I’d say don’t bother.

rick and morty.pngRick & Morty (season 3) series, Netflix

Though I don’t like the dudebro fandom, I still love this show. I liked that the rest of the family were a bit more fleshed out this season and had more than just background personalities. And Rick was as nihilistic as ever but also a bit more whole too, if that makes sense? (*whispers* I thought pickle Rick was stupid & made no sense in terms of the science on the show, which I think was the point in terms of Beth’s psychiatry session and Rick being ridiculous. But it was still stupid. *runs away* *don’t @ me*).

dallas buyers club.jpgThe Dallas Buyers Club (2014) film, Netflix

Matthew McConaughey is really great in this, and it’s also a pretty good film. It does, however, have a few issues. Instead of casting a trans actor, they got Jared Leto, who puts in a good, if caricatured, performance. I mean, it’s 2017, there are loads of trans actresses who could have done a better job (and who hopefully aren’t as big an arsehole as Leto). It’s also a little bit ‘straight saviour of the gays’ at times. But McConaughy’s talent makes this a really good character study of a homophobic man who finds his life and his views completely transformed by AIDS, as well as touching on the challenges for AIDS patients before good treatments were developed.

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September reads 2017

the goldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (novel)

I spent most of the month reading this off and on, but I’m still finding it difficult to articulate what I think about it. There were times when I thought it was incredible, both at a writing level and as an enjoyable story, but others when it dragged and just felt okay, and the final couple of pages felt a bit cheesy and lacked a nuance in the writing of some of the earlier, better sections. There’s so much to think about in this book, like the idea of furniture restoration as both part of the discussion of the meaning of objects, and related to reconstruction of self and others after experiencing trauma. But, and it’s a big but for me, I wish it was a shorter tighter book. It could do all the same things but without the bloat. I can see why people love this book, but it’s not consistent enough to be a favourite for me.

what is homeWhat is Home? by Anja Uhren (comics – non-fiction)

This is a collection of different people’s ideas of what ‘home’ means, beautifully illustrated by Anja Uhren. Some of the answers relate to the physical environment, some to people, some to a kind of feeling. I wanted to pick this up because I’m moving soon, and I’ve been thinking about the idea of ‘home’ a lot recently, but also because I love Uhren’s work. Her illustrations are beautiful, but I also love the way she lays out her pages and uses colour to shift the mood and create a kind of movement. There’s also a little fold-out bit at one point which makes the book more tactile, which feels appropriate for something like ‘home’ which is both a tangible physical thing and something intangible. (Photo from her Etsy page).

visual thoughtsVisual Thoughts: issue no. III by Anja Uhren (comics – non-fiction)

I don’t usually buy artists’ visual diaries because they often feel a bit thin in content, but I couldn’t resist this one. It’s absolutely stunning (as is all of her work) and varied in topic and materials and style. I read (looked?) through it on my way back from Thought Bubble and it was perfect.

deserter's masqueradeDeserter’s Masquerade by Chloe Cruchaudet, trans. by Frank Wynne (graphic novel, non-fiction, french in translation)

This graphic novel is based on the true story of Paul Grappe, a french soldier in WWII who deserted after his friend is blown up in front of him, and then lives as a woman with his wife Louise in order to remain hidden. The artwork is beautiful with a muted colour palette throughout, and doesn’t shy away from the darkness in the trenches or in domestic violence. I particularly liked the way Cruchaudet includes a dance between Paul and Louise at the beginning and end, drawn differently, to reflect the changes in their relationship over time. I think what’s interesting about this book is that Paul is an abusive arsehole – he’s questioning societal and gender norms, and suffers from PTSD, but that doesn’t make him automatically a good person. There wasn’t as much in here about gender and queerness as I was expecting, and more transphobic and homophobic slurs than I was expecting (but all in the context of attitudes of the time), but it was still an interesting, unexpected, and beautifully illustrated story.

Also on the blog this month:

Oddly specific book recommendations #2: when you break up with someone you love because it just isn’t quite right

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