Oscars 2020: A Belated Opinion

oscars-universityobserver-ieThis is now old news (well, a week old), but I deliberately held off commenting on this year’s Oscar winners, until I’d seen the final of the nominees in the Best Picture category, Parasite. Having now seen this remarkable film (check out my rave review here), I am now in a position where I can comment properly.

Here then are my thoughts on the main winners:

I had previously hoped Little Women might clinch Best Picture, instead of the widely predicted favourite 1917. However, having now seen Parasite, I must concede that much as I adored Little Women, Parasite fully deserves the top prize, and also Best Director, Best Foreign Film, and Best Original Screenplay. With the latter, I had previously hoped Marriage Story would win, but again, seeing Parasite has caused me to rethink that opinion.

With the acting winners, I was a lot less satisfied. Adam Driver in Marriage Story would have been my preferred choice over Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Phoenix was certainly good, but his performance was the kind of very showy, obvious Oscar bait (complete with “committed” physical transformation, losing weight, and so on). For me, Driver’s work was more subtle and effective, although he got to chew a bit of scenery too in some of his more emotionally charged scenes with co-star Scarlett Johansson (also rightly nominated). Phoenix ought to have won for his more subtle performance in The Master a few years ago.

In the Best Actress category, Renee Zellweger won for Judy, but I can’t offer an objective opinion as I’m yet to see the film. Of the other nominees, Scarlett Johansson was superb in Marriage Story, but I’d have opted for Saoirse Ronan in Little Women. Yes, I’m a bit biased here as I love the character she plays, but for me Ronan’s take on the role was definitive. Indeed, Greta Gerwig’s film is the best version as far as I’m concerned. (Gerwig ought to have been nominated in the Best Director category. I’d have happily lost Quentin Tarantino or Todd Phillips to make room for her.)

Supporting Actor and Actress categories were won by Brad Pitt for Once upon a Time in Hollywood, and Laura Dern for Marriage Story. I disagree with the former choice, and would have opted for Joe Pesci playing against type in The Irishman. However, Laura Dern definitely deserved to win.

Elsewhere, Best Adapted Screenplay ought to have gone to Little Women, much as I enjoyed Jojo Rabbit. For Best Animated Feature I’d have chosen How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World over Toy Story 4. 1917 ought to have snatched Production Design from under the nose of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, to go alongside its thoroughly deserved win for Cinematography (Roger Deakins, so often criminally overlooked, now recipient of two wins in as many years, pretty much).

The much underrated Ford vs Ferrari (aka Le Mans 66 here in the UK) made welcome wins for Best Editing and Best Sound Editing, and 1917 rightly won for Best Sound. Music score I’d have given to Little Women (Alexandre Desplat) or 1917 (Thomas Newman) over Joker (Hildur Guðnadóttir), but the Joker score was still very effective. Visual effects I’d have probably given to Avengers: Endgame over 1917, but I don’t mind too much.

That’s it for another year. I’m still savouring the sensation of actually agreeing with a Best Picture choice for once, but I daresay I’ll be back to my usual bitter Oscar rants next year.

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Film Review – Parasite


The best advice I can give anyone seeing Parasite is to urge that you know nothing going in beforehand. This is a film best experienced with no foreknowledge or expectations. And boy, is it a superb film; a Best Picture Oscar winner that for once deserves the accolade. Parasite is like nothing you’ve ever seen. The fact that it is the first non-English language Best Picture winner is certainly significant too, but this is such a damn good story, it will appeal to even the most subtitle-phobic of viewers.

I don’t really want to discuss the plot at all, suffice to say it explores themes of the rich/poor divide present in some of director Bong Joon-Ho’s other films (Snowpiercer for instance), but with much more potent effect. Parasite is part social satire, part dark comedy, part Hitchcockian thriller (there’s some tremendous, nerve-shredding suspense), and even puts a toe in horror territory. But it is so much more than all of those things, and there really is nothing else quite like it. Many other films look bland, predictable, and insubstantial by comparison.

Featuring sublime performances, superb direction, and a slow-burn narrative that tightens a vicelike grip over the viewer, I really cannot recommend Parasite enough. Do go and see it. It will rattle around in your subconscious, and you’ll want to see it again.

UK Certificate: 15

US Certificate: R

Content Warnings: swearing, sex, strong bloody violence.

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The Tangent Tree Series Three – Episode 7: Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey (Time Travel)

In this week’s episode of The Tangent Tree podcast, Samantha Stephen and I talk time travel films. I can’t remember if we mentioned Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (ie the one with the whales that’s basically the best one, if you don’t pick The Wrath of Khan). We should have done. Sorry if we didn’t. I don’t think we did actually…

As usual, listen on Spotify, Podcast Addict, iTunes, etc, or just click here.


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Uncle Flynn Revisited – Locations and Local History

Uncle Flynn_CoverOver the next few months, I’m highlighting some of my earlier novels. This month, continuing my series on treasure hunt adventure Uncle Flynn, here are some details about the locations and local history that informed the text.

The novel was initially inspired by the many walks I had taken with my eldest son on Dartmoor. We had visited several memorable locations, including Cater’s Beam, Sherberton Stone Circle, the “Crock of Gold” Bronze Age tomb, and Wistman’s Wood. These all turn up in the novel, even if I am somewhat liberal with the geography.

It might surprise readers to discover that some of the dangers faced on Dartmoor by the characters in the novel are not entirely fictional. There are deadly mires, especially the notorious Fox Tor mire and Raybarrow Pool. In addition, there are wild boar in the west (now documented fact). There have also been several panther sightings in the area, though most of these were on Exmoor rather than Dartmoor. The sheer number of these (and a few dubious photographs) raise eyebrows on a regular basis, although how they got there is a mystery. Some suggest that the UK Dangerous Pets Act in the 1970s caused eccentrics who owned big cats to turn them loose, and that they somehow bred in the wild. And yes – you can see adders on the moors at warmer times of year, though they typically slither away if you get anywhere near them.

p05w2g4gBuckfast Abbey was another key location used in the book. Much of the history of the abbey works its way into the novel, especially regarding how Henry VIII burned priceless Catholic books, closed the abbey, and had its gold and other treasures transferred to London. William Petre, who is mentioned in the novel, oversaw this process. He later retired in the south-west, purchasing a couple of manors. Uncle Flynn moves beyond these facts to suggest William Petre had other motives for returning, namely that he had become obsessed with tracking down the treasure hidden by a few clever monks that had slipped through his fingers.

I always enjoy combining local history with fiction in my writing, and Uncle Flynn is a very good example of this. To find out more about the story in the novel, click here.

Uncle Flynn is available on Kindle and in paperback here. There will be more articles about this novel throughout the month.

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Film Review – The Lighthouse


Robert Eggers’s unsettling psychological drama/horror The Lighthouse has had a lot of rave reviews. It’s only fair that I burst this bubble a little, as this is absolutely not a film for everyone. Those searching for fright-a-minute jump scares will be sorely disappointed, as will anyone who lacks the patience for what is, unquestionably, an uncompromising, offbeat, slow, surreal, but compelling watch.

Shot in claustrophobic monochrome in an almost square 1:19 Aspect Ratio by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, the threadbare plot involves little more than lighthouse keepers (or “wickies”) Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Winslow (Robert Pattinson) taking charge of a lighthouse off the Canadian coast, sometime in the late 19th Century, and slowly going round the bend. Wake is the superior officer; a flatulent old sea dog type who insists Winslow has all the gruelling skivvy work whilst he tends the light. This proves a bone of contention, but amid their quarrelling and fighting, they also bond when drunk, telling stories about their past that may or may not be true. They also ruminate over seafaring superstitions – most importantly the lore that states killing a gull is bad luck, as they carry the spirits of those killed at sea. Their bleak, mundane, isolated routine gradually gives way to a madness that recalls The Shining, in that the previous wickie supposedly went crazy and disappeared.

With very strong central performances, dialogue that at times recalls Melville or even Shakespeare, and the kind of disturbing images that lodge deep in the consciousness, The Lighthouse certainly isn’t a film you’ll forget in a hurry. The descent into madness is vivid and visceral, and features some left turns into the bizarre that recall everything from David Lynch to Greek mythology and more. I must confess I preferred Eggers previous film The Witch (that one really rattled me). However, The Lighthouse oozes atmosphere to the point where you can all but smell the sea salt amid the fog horns, and howling, rain-swept winds battering the remote, weather-worn outpost. That you may long to escape this peculiar lighthouse purgatory as much as the characters is testament to how strong the film really is. No easy watch then, but another very strong piece of work from Eggers.

UK Certificate: 15

US Certificate: R

Content Warnings: Sex, nudity, violence, gore, strong language, disturbing images.

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Uncle Flynn Revisited – An Introduction

Uncle Flynn_CoverI’ve decided to revisit some of my earlier novels in a series of articles this year, with a monthly spotlight on some of these works. To begin with, for the month of February, I’m putting the spotlight on Uncle Flynn.

Uncle Flynn was in fact the eighth novel I wrote, but was the first I decided to self-publish. Having been turned down by agents and publishers, my brother-in-law suggested this thing called Kindle on Amazon, and I decided to give it a go. The book was a modest success, and received some very good reviews – although I’m sure the fact that it was free at that time helped.

A treasure hunt adventure story for children, the novel is, like all my children’s books, also aimed at adult readers. The story concerns eleven-year old Max, a boy who suffers from crippling phobias and anxiety. Estranged from his workaholic father, Max’s life gets interesting one day when his mysterious uncle Flynn – an archaeologist normally working in South America – comes to visit.

During his stay, Max and Flynn discover clues pertaining to a local legend – a treasure buried on Dartmoor by monks, during the sacking of Buckfast Abbey at the time of Henry VIII. Following these clues lead to the discovery of a map. Max begins to put aside his many fears and hang-ups due to his obsession with finding the treasure. Flynn is equally obsessed, despite the dangerous presence of rival treasure hunters.

Complicating matters even further, once they set off across Dartmoor, Max discovers the police are on their trail. What has his uncle done to put himself at odds with the law? Flynn urges Max to help him evade his pursuers. Because he is so desperate to beat their rivals to the treasure, Max agrees, despite his uncle’s refusal to tell him why he is on the run.

I hope that has whetted your appetite.

Uncle Flynn is available on Kindle and in paperback here. There will be more articles about this novel throughout the month.

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The Tangent Tree Series Three – Episode 6: Will Media Be The Death Of Us?

In this week’s episode of The Tangent Tree podcast, Samantha Stephen and I delve into the debate around violence in film, cause and effect, chicken and egg, and so on. Tangents ensue. And some comparison between Joker and Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

As ever, listen on Podcast Addict, iTunes, Spotify and so on. Or just click here.


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Film Review – Queen and Slim


A young black couple on a first date make a run for the border, after a catastrophic encounter with a violent white traffic cop. This simple chase narrative proves effective in director Melina Matsoukas’s Queen and Slim, which features strong performances from its leads.

Said leads are Daniel Kaluuya (Slim) and Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen). The latter decided to go on a date with the former because he had a funny picture on Tinder and she felt sorry for him. Their relationship develops and deepens into love as they flee the police and a manhunt ensues. Along the way, several people taking their side due to media coverage, including the cop’s dash-cam footage which reveals that the incident in question really wasn’t the fault of either fugitive. However, because Queen is a lawyer, she believes that a black man in Slim’s position won’t get a fair hearing, hence why she urges them to run.

Overall, this a strong, absorbing film with clear inspiration drawn from the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, and Badlands. As such, despite exploring serious themes of institutional racism and the role the media plays in exacerbating these problems, it remains very much a genre piece, and is all the better for it.

It isn’t perfect. The pace is uneven, moments where we hear the thoughts of characters feels unnecessary, and the juxtaposition of a passionate sex scene with a violent protest riot simply doesn’t work in my opinion. That said, Queen and Slim is still a compelling watch featuring genuine chemistry between the leads.

UK Certificate: 15

US Certificate: R

Content warnings: Strong language, violence, a sex scene.

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Film Review – Richard Jewell


Clint Eastwood’s new film Richard Jewell tells the true story of the eponymous security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, who prevented considerable loss of life when he discovered a bomb in a rucksack (even though the device still went off, leading to two deaths and multiple injuries). Unfortunately, Richard was then investigated by the FBI as a prime suspect, and the media had a field day with the hero to villain story, making life all but intolerable for Richard and his mother.

We often hear a film is based on fact, but here, somewhat refreshingly, the facts are mostly stuck to. Richard Jewell was, in his own words, brought up with a respect for law and order. He was officious, bureaucratic, and in his various security jobs sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. But it was his heroic vigilance that prevented the Atlanta bombing from becoming something far worse. Unfortunately, the FBI took advantage of Richard’s respect for them, and caused a great deal of aggravation and heartache for him and his mother. More damningly, the appalling reporting of the case represented a new low for the media.

Eastwood directs with his trademark unfussiness, and performances are uniformly excellent.  Paul Walter Hauser is great in the lead, and he is given fine support from the likes of Cathy Bates (as Richard’s mother Bobi), Jon Hamm (as FBI agent Tom Shaw), and the always wonderful Sam Rockwell, as Richard’s lawyer and friend Watson Bryant. Richard’s relationship with him, and his relationship with his mother, are both very touching. In the case of the former, cynical, world-weary Watson builds up a great head of outrage at the way the FBI are taking advantage of Richard’s naïve view of the police, the FBI, and authority figures in general.

My only nit-pick with the film is with the character of hard-nosed journalist Kathy Scruggs, played here by Olivia Wilde. The film implies that she used sex to get inside information from the FBI, thus enabling her to break the story that began Richard’s media persecution. Whilst she did break the story in real life, questions have been raised about the sex-for-leaks angle, and because Kathy Scruggs is no longer alive to answer the question definitively, this point has proved controversial and divisive. Even Olivia Wilde has distanced herself from the role, saying she didn’t mean to imply sexual bribery (even though the film clearly does, in my view).

If the above is untrue, then it is a shame Eastwood felt the need to embellish what is already a compelling narrative that sticks to the facts elsewhere. However, that caveat notwithstanding, Richard Jewell is a compelling, absorbing watch; the best film Eastwood has made in a decade.

UK Certificate: 15

US Certificate: R

Content warnings: Strong language.

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My take on The Secret Commonwealth

The-Secret-CommonwealthI recently read Philip Pullman’s second novel in his second trilogy in the His Dark Materials universe, The Book of Dust. This volume is entitled The Secret Commonwealth. You can read my take on the first book in this trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, here.

Whereas La Belle Sauvage took place some years before the original trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth takes place some years afterwards. Set as ever in a parallel universe where each human has a “daemon” – a kind of spirit animal that manifests outside their bodies – our heroine Lyra now a twenty-something student at Jordan College in Oxford. When her daemon Pantalaimon witnesses a murder, this triggers a new quest involving mysterious roses that takes Lyra on a journey to the east. The ever Machiavellian Magisterium once again finds her a person of interest and attempts to hunt her down.

Malcolm, the eleven year old hero of the previous instalment, is now in his early thirties. His dangerous journey during the flood when he saved Lyra as a baby informs this adventure, as do the events of the original trilogy (especially what took place in the world of the dead). It’s nice to have him back here, and other beloved characters, including Farder Coram of the gyptians, also make a welcome return.


The prose style is consistently gripping, even though it does jump around between multiple characters more than I would prefer. In addition, it is quite slow in places, leading to a rather abrupt ending that feels less like a cliffhanger and more like a point where the book was just too damn long and had to stop somewhere. On the plus side, Pullman seems to be using this story – in particular new characters such as extreme rationalist Simon Talbot – as something of a corrective balance to the message in His Dark Materials. Whereas that story challenged religious dogma, superstition, and unquestioning obedience to religious authority, this one challenges blinkered adherence to rationalist philosophy that allows no room for the unexplained, the supernatural, and – in a sense – the divine (as reimagined by Pullman in the enigmatic cosmic “Dust”). There are also allusions to recent history, including the Syrian refugee crisis.

This is a dark, melancholy, more grown-up work than the original books. Frankly I don’t think it is necessarily all the better for that. In fact, I really miss the fantastical beings – armoured bears, spectres, angels and so on – and sheer imaginative scale that populated the multiple worlds of Pullman’s earlier masterpiece. Such things do turn up here, but only occasionally. Instead, we get a swearier piece, with unpleasantness including a sexual assault. Was it necessary and contextually justified? Perhaps. Pullman’s argument is that Lyra has grown up, and therefore so have her readers. I must say though, despite finding much to admire in The Secret Commonwealth, I still emphatically prefer the earlier books.

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