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Author: Rachel

A MOVIE A DAY #5 – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022)

I am not entirely sure why I didn’t go to see this one when it was in theatres, but I think mostly it was for two reasons: 1) the previous Fantastic Beasts movie wasn’t that fantastic, and 2) the replacement of Johnny Depp with Mads Mikkelson as the pre-Voldemort fascist allegory, Gellert Grindelwald.

It’s not that I don’t approve of that decision, given the problematic nature of Depp as a person. (Though, one might argue, he’s not that much more problematic than J. K. Rowling.) It’s just that, though their time on screen was limited, there was a very real chemistry between Depp’s Grindelwald and Jude Law’s Dumbledore, and for all Mikkelson’s accomplishment as an actor of great presence and menace, I just don’t see him as a romantic lead.

Of course, the story here isn’t really about the one-time romance between these two enemies, back when they were united in their ideals and wanted to change the world together. (Their dynamic is all very Professor X and Magneto, actually, except that their once tender feelings are made explicit, and any Charles/Eric love story belongs squarely in the realms of fanfic.) Instead, we mostly deal with Grindelwald’s growing cult of Dark Side wizardry as they attempt to wrest control of the Wizarding World and ultimately go to war with Muggledom, mostly for the usual “pureblood” reasons, because that is the only motive for any evil megalomaniacal wizard to go to war, apparently.

Of course, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his CGI magical creatures, along with sundry sidekicks and the titular Dumbledore, find themselves in constant peril as they strive to save the day, and while there are a few moments of tension, it all feels a little bit by-the-numbers—and some of those numbers simply don’t add up, as we are treated to such plot nonsense as a crazed mob first cheering the prospect of a war on Muggles, and then setting of wand-based fireworks in joy at the election of a non-warmongering witch with amazing taste in gowns—and that is just one example.   

I’m also not sure that too many of Dumbledore’s secrets were actually revealed here – except for when he kept on outing himself, I guess – so the title seems a bit misleading, too. But it was all… fine… I didn’t dislike it… there were some decent character redemption arcs, one excellent line that especially resonated with me (NEWT: “He doesn’t want to lead you, he just wants you to follow him.”), and I do enjoy the Wizarding World in general, so I’m happy that I watched it.

No disrespect to Mads Mikkelson, though, but I do think it would have been better with Johnny Depp in it. Is it just me?   


Based on characters created by J. K. Rowling
Written by: J. K. Rowling, Steve Kloves
Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelson, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, William Nadylam. Callum Turner, Jessica Williams, Richard Coyle


A MOVIE A DAY #4 – Into the Beat (2020)

For me, one of the few positives to come out of the years of upheaval that we as a planet have experienced in this post-Covid age is the weekly remote watch-date I now have with my childhood best friend, Megan. She lives in another state, and I am often elsewhere anyway, so for years, spending quality time together has usually meant my visits to her, or the occasional dinner and karaoke session when she is back in our hometown.

But since the pandemic, with its attendant lockdowns and social isolation, we began a tradition of Wednesday night online viewing, where we would make our way through a couple of episodes of our show du jour, or the occasional movie, with Netflix on our screens and each other on our phones. We have thus made our weekly way through four seasons of Virgin River, three of Never Have I Ever and all 16 episodes of Megan’s first ever K-drama, Forecasting Love and Weather, as well as indulging in some of the very flimsiest of Hallmark rom-coms—because who doesn’t love a flimsy Hallmark rom-com?

For our first remote watch of the new year, I suggested a film, given my current project, and Megan readily agreed. I dug around in My List until I found a likely candidate:

“How about Into the Beat?” I suggested, reading the Netflix synopsis aloud: “’A teen ballerina discovers hip-hop by chance and is faced with an impossible choice: Does she follow her parents’ footsteps… or her newfound passion?’”

“That sounds like us,” Megan said – dance films being a genre we have loved since we first discovered Grease as starry-eyed 6-year-olds – and so it proved to be, even if it did turn out to be a German film, which came as a surprise (though not an unpleasant one) to both of us.  

Our story centres on Katya (Alexandra Pfeifer), an accomplished teen ballerina destined for greatness. She comes from a renowned ballet family, with both parents stars in the field. Her mother died three years since – we know not how – but her surely-too-young father (Trystan Pütter) still performs, until a tragic on-stage accident that someone must have gotten fired over puts his career in jeopardy.

Around this time, Katya encounters some free-wheeling and high-spirited underground hip-hop dancers, and gets swept up in their joyful world, mostly because of the expected disdainful-yet-interested-handsome-dance-prodigy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks, Marlon (Yalany Marschner), and there follows many a highly choreographed group dance scene and getting-better-at-it montage until, of course, Katya’s two worlds inevitably collide and she must choose between auditioning for the New York Ballet or for a street dance crew, thereby following her bliss but breaking her wounded father’s heart. (Megan grew very concerned about Katya’s career prospects here, feeling ballet the safer option of the two, upon what evidence I am not sure. Centre Stage, maybe?) There is much teen angst, and teen romance, and teen rebellion and teen tears, but it all makes sense – except maybe for the scene on that ship full of merchant sailors; what was that about? – and everything wraps up very satisfactorily.

Sure, tropes fly around the place like the obscenely acrobatic break dancers, and there isn’t much that is new here—and Marlon’s a bit of an unfair jerk in his first interactions with Katya (because, again, tropes). But for all that Into the Beat is very familiar, it is still rather captivating, with the timeless beauty of Pfeifer’s Katya and hard-won smile of Marschner’s Marlon lighting up the screen alongside some notable side characters, like their friendly hip-hop rivals, and the kindly hip-hop teacher who first brings Katya into their world, and the genuinely caring carer sent to help out after Papa’s injury.

There is conflict, of course, but basically, it’s all very nice—which should not have surprised us about a German film, but absolutely did.

Another pleasant surprise: the dancers can not only dance, they can also act. And our ballerina can even dance hip-hop without looking ridiculous. (Take note, Cooper Neilson!) Which, despite its familiar – ahem – beats, makes this dance movie a very original entry into the genre indeed.


Written by: Hannah Schweier, Stefan Westerwelle
Directed by: Stefan Westerwelle
Starring: Alexandra Pfeifer, Yalany Marschner, Trystan Pütter, Helen Schneider, Katrin Pollit, Nadja Stübiger


A MOVIE A DAY #3 – Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

I love Marvel. I always have. I’m a huge fan of the comics, of the films, of the TV series and the merchandise, going all the way back to a childhood obsession with X-Men, Daredevil and the underrated 1986 cinematic masterpiece that is Howard the Duck. Usually, I am in the cinema on opening day, or at least in opening week, of each new MCU or Sony release (or, as here, a combination of the two), but in the case of this one, I just couldn’t.

It was the end of Spider-Man: Far from Home that did this to me. I just hate a falsely accused storyline, and there is nothing more false than the accusation, made by the petty and mean-spirited Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhall), that it was Peter Parker (Tom Holland) who unleashed drone weapons on London and not, y’know, Mysterio himself. Then, the villain made things even worse by revealing Peter’s secret identity to the world, and I just—suffice it to say, this was not a story I was eager to see play out.

When I tell you that I paused this movie a good seventeen times in its first twenty minutes, in order to manage my emotions and prepare myself for yet more unfairness, believe that I am possibly underestimating the figure here. But once I allowed the movie to get going, I was entirely hooked, even though MAN Peter Parker is stupid here. Sure, he’s a teenager, but he’s supposed to be a genius – why do they have him making so many idiotic decisions?

The cameos are fun, and I liked the use of the multiverse here much better than I did in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (though not as much as I liked it in 2018’s animated classic, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). Unfortunately, I was spoiled about the presence of previous Spider-Men in the film, but I had managed to avoid mention of all of the other former Spiderverse appearances (not to mention Matt Murdock!), and I loved all of them. There are some particularly engaging conversations between all three Spider-Men that really make the film feel really special (both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are compelling, but Maguire’s oddly natural delivery is just excellent) and I loved the many, many Easter eggs throughout, both subtle and overt. (Even one to the aforementioned animated classic!) MCU Spidey’s closest confidantes, Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya), bring some enjoyable humour as well, and Dr. Strange – well, he’s there, and he’s kind of cool, but he does not take enough responsibility for his part in the film’s tragic events, to my mind.

For some reason, I decided to watch the 11-minute longer “Extended Edition” of this Spider-Man outing, despite my reservations about the plotline, and I am not sure which deleted scenes made it into this one, but none of them seem out of place or redundant. There is, of course, the expected climactic battle scene but, for me, it actually didn’t go on too long – rare, in any comic book or similar action film; they really love a lengthy and violent set piece to wrap things up, don’t they? – and even though I didn’t love the ending, I get why it had to happen, and I find I am not as reluctant to see the next MCU-sanctioned Sony Spider-Man movie (which will apparently not be out until at least 2024) as I was with this one.

In fact, I will probably be there opening day.

And now I kind of wish I had been with this one, too.


Based on the Marvel superhero Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Written by: Chris McKenna
Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire, Jon Favreau, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Benedict Wong, Thomas Haden-Church, Marisa Tomei


A MOVIE A DAY #2 – The Lunchbox (2013)

When I mentioned to my friend Zamir my plan to watch a movie every day this year, he promptly reminded me of our long-held promise to watch the acclaimed 2013 Indian film The Lunchbox together. A few messages back and forth later and suddenly he is on a train, heading across town with a container of his mum’s fantastic biriyani in hand, and since we hadn’t actually seen each other in person in at least four years, this was both a shock and a delight, and makes me already grateful to have made this particular resolution.

After several hours of catching up, we finally settled down to watch this simple yet complex, sweet yet poignant, depressing yet uplifting gem of a film. Irrfan Khan plays the reclusive, widowed curmudgeon Saajan, who is about to take early retirement from his office job and doesn’t seem happy about it. Or anything, really. But then one day he receives the wrong lunch, this one lovingly prepared by the beautiful and unhappily married Ily (Nimrat Kaur) instead of the restaurant he usually receives it from. This begins a correspondence both intimate and anonymous, as these two forthright but uncertain souls – so different in so many ways – find common ground, and, above anything, hope in each other.

Comedic elements in the film are supplied mostly by Saajan’s eager new apprentice, Shaikh (a very engaging Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Ily’s voice-only upstairs neighbour Auntie, who dispenses marital advice, cooking tips and spices while caring for her bedridden husband. There is a lot of local flavour, as the lunch delivery service – the dabbawalla system – is celebrated in all its chaotic complexity, with legions of lunches being collected from homes all over the huge and sprawling metropolis that is Mumbai and taken by bicycle, cart and train into the city’s packed offices. At one point in the film, Ily tells her delivery man that her lunch is going to the wrong place, and he refuses to believe such a mistake can possibly have happened. People from Harvard, he says, came and observed its flawlessness, after all. I did some research, and yes, not only is this system held as the gold standard by most authorities, it is theorized that the reason this film was not chosen by the Film Federation of India as the nation’s official submission to the Academy Awards that year was because it dared to call into question the infallibility of the dabbawallas.

Both Kahn and Kaur are fantastic here, each of them expressing their loneliness with few words—its mostly in their eyes, their sighs, their silence. The change in them, as their penpal-based acquaintanceship/romance develops, is subtle but visceral, and the while of course, no film of this nature is going to wrap things up for us in a neat, pretty bow, when it ended I had a smile on my face, and Zamir and I spent a very happy half hour essentially writing verbal fanfic, as we speculated on what would happen next.

In all, a lovely film, a lovely experience, and lovely company with whom to enjoy it.

And lovely biriyani, too.


Written by: Ritesh Batra
Directed by: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bharti Achrekar, Nakul Vaid


A MOVIE A DAY #1 – Creation (2009)

For my first film of the year, I turn to one I have been meaning to watch since it came out more than a decade ago – the story of how Charles Darwin came to write his world-changing On the Origin of Species, as told through the medium of Paul Bettany, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Northam and a host of other British screen luminaries. (Plus, Jennifer Connolly.) It is a rather bleak and certainly very upsetting tale, as Bettany’s Darwin not only faces opposition from religious types who refuse to believe in dinosaurs, let alone evolution (including his own wife, Emma, the kind of devout Christian who condones having her daughter – a bright girl who does believe in dinosaurs – tortured by their local clergyman), but also experiences an ongoing mystery illness, as well as a heart-shattering loss.

And kills a whole lot of pigeons.

The film does not shy away from the darker side of Darwin’s life, opening with a very, almost unashamedly colonial sequence, and showing us a man of science who was, nevertheless, very much a man of his time. And that time was often an unpleasant one, especially when it came to the very questionable medical practices prescribed for assorted illnesses – opium as a pain reliever! Poison for tuberculosis! (Not they knew it was tuberculosis.) Icy cold water as a… well, I’m not even sure what that was supposed to be curing. Also, there was the dominance of of the Christian religion in everyday life, and the subsequent vitriol that Darwin unleashed upon himself with his work, which many believed to be heresy. Love that they also mention Alfred Russel Wallace here: the naturalist who independently came up with his own theory of evolution amidst Darwin’s decades-long research, spelling the whole out in a 20-page paper, and spurring on Darwin to produce the slim tome that is his greatest legacy.

As biopics go, this one is pretty unflinching, but it spends way more time on Darwin’s family life – and his grief- and drug-induced madness – than one might have supposed. (It turns out it is based on a book, Annie’s Box, all about the Darwins’ beloved eldest daughter, which perhaps explains this, but it is still  rather jarring.) I didn’t hate that part, especially since the young actress who plays Annie is very engaging, but it certainly wasn’t what I thought I was signing up for. I was expecting way more about the writing – excuse me, creation – of Darwin’s magnum opus, and way less about his family drama. So little, in fact, was this movie actually about the creation of On the Origin of Species that, in both the prologue and epilogue text, they misnamed the book! (Call me pedantic, but that “On” is very important; how they came to make such an egregious error I cannot even imagine.)

Incidentally, I wondered why Jennifer Connolly was in this very English movie, only to discover that she and Paul Bettany have been married since 2003. Who knew? And it must be said, she makes a very convincing wife of Paul Bettany – not to mention a very convincing woman of faith, and a very convincing English wife and mother of the Victorian era. She is really very good here—as is everyone, as one would expect from such an accomplished cast. And the production is generally very well done, from the costuming to the cinematography to some very picturesque locations.

It’s a pity, then, that the overall experience of the film does not equal the sum of its parts. But I did learn a lot about Charles Darwin that I didn’t know before, so I can’t be sorry that I watched it. If nothing else, I feel like I now have a more thorough understanding of his theory of natural selection than I previously had gleaned from reading the actual book about it.

But hey, unlike this movie, at least I know its correct title.


Adapted from the novel Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes
Written by: John Collee
Directed by: Jon Amiel
Starring: Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam


READING THE TBR, DAY 304: Two Tales of Korval (1995) by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Over a decade ago, I fell completely in love with the Liaden Universe. The brainchild of married co-authors Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, this elaborately crafted science fiction series first came to me at the strong recommendation of my friend Kai, who knows whereof he speaks where elaborately crafted science fiction series, and won me over from the very first page.

There are now two dozen Liaden novels, and I am several behind in those series, but more than that, I am all of them behind in the self-published “chapbooks” that began to be produced by the series’ authors in the 90s, when their then-publisher went bankrupt.

Each featuring two (occasionally more) short stories set in the Liaden world, I have been collecting these chapbooks — some of which are now very, very rare — for years, but… well, I haven’t read them. Any of them. WHY? Eh. Who even knows at this point.

But this month, I will read them all! It has been decided! There are twenty-nine of them, and there are thirty days in November, so I am going to be all Liad all the time for the next several weeks. Yay!

This first one gets me off to a most excellent start, as its two tales of Korval are, in fact, two tales of Val Con yos’Phelium, probably my favourite Liaden, one showing him as a youngster learning to be a Scout and first meeting the sentient giant turtle, who would go on to become his best friend, Edger, and the other putting Val Con in a skimmer race with his cousin Shan in defiance of the punctilious Lady Kareen, whom I hate. I loved both of these stories — LOVED THEM — and can’t wait to read more of these snapshot tales from out of the unexplored areas of the Liaden canon.  


TBR DAY 304: Two Tales of Korval (Adventures in the Liaden Universe #1) by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
GENRE: Science Fiction, Space Opera
TIME ON THE TBR: ~10 years.  
KEEP: Of course.

READING THE TBR, DAY 303: New Year Wedding for the Crown Prince (2019) by Meredith Webber

I have an enduring fondness for the mind candy that is category romance, and even now that the Mills & Boon (aka Harlequin) editors, in their infinite wisdom, have now decided to title their output with long-winded and perhaps overly descriptive monikers — this month saw the release of The Greek’s Billion-Dollar Baby, The Innocent’s Emergency Wedding and The Virgin Princess’s Marriage Debt, for example — I will pick one up once in a while, and then while away an hour or so in a fugue-like state as I absorb the complete nothingness that is often sweet but is also essentially insubstantial.

Basically, these books are the literary equivalent of cotton candy. Except, they kind of leave a bad taste in the mouth. So, they’re like cotton candy made with artificial sweetener.

Wait, is there diet cotton candy?

Anyway, this is… another one of those. There is an Australian lighthouse, a heavily pregnant heroine, the titular Crown Prince from a fictional European nation, and much angst that could be solved with a timely conversation that no one will have until the final chapter, because otherwise there would be no story. It was all very silly and improbable and nonsense, but it was exactly the holiday my overburdened brain was desperate for today, and so I forgive this book all its flaws because sometimes you just need cotton candy.

Even if it is diet.  


TBR DAY 303: New Year Wedding for the Crown Prince by Meredith Webber
GENRE: Medical Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance
TIME ON THE TBR: ~6 months.  
KEEP: Nope.

READING THE TBR, DAY 302: Under the Tuscan Sun (1996) by Frances Mayes

Don’t get me wrong here. I am very happy for Frances Mayes that she spent the duration of her Money Pit-like renovation of her new holiday home in Italy’s gorgeous Tuscany region with her long-time husband, Ed. It is lovely that they experienced the vicissitudes of their enormous undertaking — from understanding cultural differences to dealing with ancient plumbing — together, and had each other to lean on when all the foreignness of their surroundings just got a little too unbearably foreign for these American part-time expats.

But in the 2003 film version of this tale, Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) is newly divorced and depressed, which is what leads her to take on the Tuscan house project in the first place — and then leads her to a new love — and since that was the story I was expecting, and quite liked, I didn’t exactly know what to make of this (admittedly more realistic and, clearly, factual) version of events for much of the time I spent reading it.

Except to say, wow, the hubris of that film’s producers, to think it’s okay to entirely change the facts of a living person’s life like that! On the other hand, she probably doesn’t look like Diane Lane (because no one looks like Diane Lane), so despite the rather drastic, not to mention hurtful, alteration to her life, it must have been hard for Actual Frances to be mad about Character Frances and her lovelorn situation.

Actual Frances’s story is filled with a lot of wish fulfillment, and a lot of home renovation porn, and for the most part I enjoyed it, despite the weird presence of Ed. (Sorry, Ed, but it was just weird that you were there… in your life. Hollywood, huh?) The narrative did get bogged down in fish-out-of-water ignorance in some places, and detailed a few Italian feasts perhaps a tad too lovingly in others, but it is nevertheless an engaging snapshot of life in the kind of picturesque surroundings to which we all aspire but can probably never own a piece of, and that is most of its appeal.

The biggest shock of the book, for me? When Frances and Ed were still together at the end of the book. Moreover, a quick google proves that they are still together, nearly twenty-five years after this book was published. 

Like, damn. That movie really just had no shame, huh? IS ANYTHING ON FILM EVEN REAL?


TBR DAY 302: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
GENRE: Travel Narrative, Memoir, Non-Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Collins Booksellers.
KEEP: Probably not, no.

READING THE TBR, DAY 301: The Pillars of the World (2001) by Anne Bishop

You know how some writers just have their thing?  Anne Bishop’s thing is Super Special Women being oppressed by Evil Men, and beloved of two competing saviours, one stalwart and kind, the other arrogant and often mean.

Bingley vs. Darcy, basically. But there’s magic.

In this iteration of Bishopian lore, the Super Special Woman is Ari, a young witch left to work her wonders for the aid of an ungrateful town. The Evil Men are legion, the evillest being a witch-killing Inquisitor who enriches himself even as he indulges in the darkest of misogyny. The two competing saviours are the valiant and put-upon Neall and the problematic, often disdainful fae lord Lucien, who spends most of his time in the enchanted lands of Tir Alainn, but occasionally visits Ari to take advantage — take full advantage — of an odd free love practice adopted by the local fiefdom for a month every summer, for some reason. It’s like The Purge, but for sex. 

This is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t say for sure I’m going to essay the remaining two installments, especially since I have a terrible feeling that fae lady Dianna, selfish and entitled and just THE WORST, is not going to die. And I really want her to die.

But maybe I’ll dive back into this magical world someday, because there are definitely times when I find myself in an Anne Bishop-y kind of mood — where I know pretty much all the elements of the story, and just need to see how she’s going to put them together this time.


TBR DAY 301: The Pillars of the World (Tir Alainn #1) by Anne Bishop
GENRE: Romantic Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: ~8 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur Melbourne.
KEEP: Eh. Probably not.

READING THE TBR, DAY 300: The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro

This soul-searing novel was turned into a much-feted film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the early 90s, which I remember watching in the cinema upon its release. I was already very fond of stories mired in the past when in my teen years, and I remember convincing my friend Serena that we should totally see this instead of Wayne’s World 2

She was not amused.

It’s not that she didn’t like the movie. It was poignant and weirdly intense, and it certainly made us feel very grown up. But when you are in high school, the restrained and angst-ridden not-quite-romance between a largely oblivious career butler and the housekeeper he doesn’t know he loves, all set against the background of looming fascism in 1930s Europe, isn’t exactly the sexiest story ever.

Reading it now, told in first person by Mr. Stevens as he reflects on his storied career at Darlington Hall, it isn’t much sexier, but it is even more poignant. From Stevens’s complete inability to communicate his true feelings with anyone, to his apologia for his employer’s political foibles, to his excessive pride hidden behind impeccable manners, Stevens is a fascinating central character.

His often fractious dealings with Miss Kenton, at first a newly appointed housekeeper at Darlington who stays for nigh on a decade and clearly somehow falls for the austere Stevens, is detailed sparingly, but exactingly, and as their history is slowly revealed through reminiscence you want to reach into the book and shake Stevens by his dignified shoulders and shout, “Dude, she is totally into you, man! And you’re into her! Do something about it!”

But their romance is not the point of this book. Nor even is the social change brought about by World War II that saw the huge staff Stevens once commanded decimated, and the Hall bought by an American. Instead, it is about one man’s single-minded sense of purpose, and how it is so easy to effectively become your job if you don’t pay attention to work/life balance.

And, also, it is about a road trip, and the kindness of strangers, and the concept of “famous” butlers. And, somewhat oppressively, it is about class.

It is just excellent.

And I think I need to watch that movie again. I think I might find it a bit sexier now. 


TBR DAY 300: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
GENRE: General Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Borders Singapore.
KEEP: Indeed.