What I’ve Been Listening to II: Urban and Design Podcasts

Building off my last post here, I thought I would throw a couple more podcasts into the mix which I listen to on a regular basis. These two are distinct for a couple of reasons. First, they share a commonality in that they are concerned with designs and spaces across human society and how people interact with them. And second, they both display the crucial hallmarks of quality journalistic and investigative production, delivered in a listenable way.


99% Invisible

Here is a podcast which takes a look at the smaller things in life and puts them into a broader context. Predominately a design and architecture, each podcast – usually 20 or 30 minutes in length – picks up the story behind the things we don’t necessarily see in our day-to-day lives but are nonetheless important. After all, if something is well-designed, then it should be invisible. I came across 99% Invisible a couple of years ago after watching a Vox video on YouTube about poorly designed doors which pervade modern life – the ones which you never know whether to push or to pull, that eventually end up requiring a sign printed on them instructing the user to ‘PUSH’ or ‘PULL’. 99% Invisible extrapolated the history of this design out further in their podcast and from therein I was hooked.

I worked my way through their back catalogue of episodes, and subscribed for more. Due to the length of the podcast, it is the perfect length for my walk to work, and I alternate on weekdays listening to this and the aforementioned NPR Politics Podcast. Hosted by Roman Mars, and a dedicated team of intrigued reporters and producers, this podcast will inevitably get you searching for the hidden architectural or design marvels that make our world tick (or in the case of the door dilemma, leave us scratching our heads). I was fortunate enough to get tickets to one of their live show recordings last year while I was visiting Seattle, complete with guests and live musical accompaniment!

Favourite episode:

As with many of the podcasts I listen to, I have a long list of episodes that I enjoyed. Perhaps I will compile some on here at some point. However, a recent story which captured my interest was ‘The Pool and the Stream’, which brought together the history of skateboarding, kidney bean shaped swimming pools that adorn the landscape of suburban California, and Northern European garden design


The Urbanist

If you are hunting for a double-bill to satisfy your podcast fix, The Urbanist is a dutiful companion to the 99% Invisible offering. An off-shoot of Monocle 24, this podcast takes a more ‘current affairs’ approach to urban storytelling. Each week, the podcast charts a number of stories from across the globe that deal with important issues, but might have fallen under the radar due to the nature of modern news media cycles. The podcast throws its net wide when it comes to urban topics, and has centred episodes around the usual suspects – transport, pollution, crime, housing, and so forth – but also devotes a platform for more niche subjects – such as urban sound, weather and city, or biographies of urban thinkers. There are also shorter editions of the podcast called ‘Tall Stories’ which link between the weekly episodes, and focus on a specific city or topic in a bitesize mini-podcast.

Favourite episode:

I have to admit, I arrived a little bit late to the party on this podcast and have only been listening in the past few months. Although, a recent episode I would recommend would be ‘Temporary Urbanism’ which brings together a collection of stories from around the world which highlight how structures and urban design can be short-term to adapt to a city’s shifting evolution, or provide a stop-gap solution to an architectural problem.


Why not give these podcasts a listen? If you are interested in cities, the urban environment, design, or just modern micro-histories, then there is something in each of these podcasts for you and your commute!



Podcasts! What I have been Listening to (Part One)


I listen to a lot of podcasts and radio programmes. For a number of years now I have been regularly tuning in and subscribing to various series and broadcasts, often covering (though not limited to) film and cinema, current affairs, design, and true crime. It all started while I was still an undergraduate at university, when I subscribed to BBC Radio 5 Live’s ‘flagship film programme’, the Kermode and Mayo Film Review, aka ‘Wittertainment’. At this point I would like to say Hello to Jason Isaacs (Wittertainee’s will understand). I’d listened to the programme live on Friday afternoons occasionally, but found the podcast was a better listen (no news breaks, extra content, more wittering). After that, I added This American Life to my regular rotation, followed by the much-acclaimed investigative journalism podcast Serial. And so my listening hours steadily increased.


Over the past six months to a year, the amount of content I have been listening to on a weekly basis has increased considerably. At the moment, I am subscribed to twenty different podcasts, and I listen to eight of them consistently. Some are quite well-known, and others not so (I think). So I thought I would run down my favourite podcasts and let you in on a few of my favourite episodes. Here are the first four, of the eight I download regularly.


This American Life

This one is a popular one. This American Life has been broadcast for over two decades now, and for listeners like myself who are not based in the United States, they most likely discovered it through the medium of the podcast. Ira Glass presides over this weekly collection of investigative reports, short stories, audio essays, and more. Each week has a theme, and is dealt with through a number of ‘acts’ or segments, making for easy listening on commutes. Stories often relate to the United States and Canada, but are not limited to the North American continent. I always think of This American Life, as a copy of The New Yorker, delivered through earphones. I’m a self-confessed Americanophile, and am fascinated with American culture, history, geography, and quirks. If you are too, then this podcast is essential listening.


Favourite episode: I find it difficult to pick a specific episode, but I really enjoyed the segment on Buzzwinkle the Moose ( Episode 582 ‘When the Beasts Come Marching In’, 11 March 2016), and also ‘Lopsided Tannenbaum’ which Maile Meloy read a short story from her book Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It (Episode 606 ‘Just What I Wanted’, 23 December 2016)



Costing The Earth

Here is one of two BBC podcasts that I listen to weekly. Costing the Earth offers some of the best environmental reporting in a semi-long-form format. Each episode deals with a specific topic on a wide range of environmental issues, from ecology to energy, tourism to policy, and more. Plus, its reports come from across the United Kingdom and the world, shining a light on local stories that get lost in the national and global news cycle. Insightful and structured, the podcast raises and answers topical questions and provides enough explanation without being dull. The journalism is fair, balanced, and rigorous, and introduces a variety of voices from the field. My specialism within my own research concerns the environment, and environmental history, and outside of study I am interested in the spaces and places in which we live, work, and visit, so this sort of podcast appeals directly to my interests.


Favourite episode: ‘Rig Retirement’ was an episode I found particularly interesting on the fate of decommissioned oil and gas rigs in the North Sea and how they can become a hotspot for fostering a diverse marine environment.



Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast

This one is pretty left-field when it comes to my current roster of podcasts. My age group will be familiar with Gilbert Gottfried’s voice as the parrot Iago from Disney’s Aladdin. In this podcast though, he has teamed up with comedy writer Frank Santopadre, who both sit down with famous showbiz icons – actors, and behind the camera alike – from yesteryear (and a few younger stars too). Each episode is filled with stories and hidden gems from the world of film and television – stories from the studios and the celebrity friendships, as well as a generous handful of surreal and edgy comedy too. Often Gilbert and Frank interview stars in their 70s, and 80s on the show, many of whom are unfamiliar to me. However these interviews are often the best as they reveal so much about the films and TV programmes they were involved in, and their famous friends.


Favourite episode: ‘Dick Van Dyke’. This episode stuck with me because of the sheer zany and surreal tangents the discussion went on. Gilbert also sings with Dick Van Dyke which was a treat for the ears. I remember I listened to this particular episode on a long-haul transatlantic flight which might be a factor in why it remains etched in my memory. [This episode is now only available to those with Stitcher Premium].


NPR Politics Podcast

I first started listening to the NPR Politics Podcast during the primary season for the 2016 US Presidential election. I found that this podcast, unlike others, managed to strike a balance between providing a detailed discussion of an election topic, while giving enough insight for novices of American politics. The 2016 US primary season was certainly a memorable one so there was plenty for the roster of NPR hosts and commentators to chew over. Always fair, always non-partisan, and always entertaining, the podcast doesn’t get bogged down in the procedural and each episode incorporates light-hearted takes on the political week. I’ve continued listening beyond the inauguration of Donald Trump, mainly because the NPR team are the masters of synthesising the sheer volume of events that happen at present in US politics and current affairs. The podcast benefits most from its variety of hosts and commentators, drawing on a vast pool of expertise and talent from NPR news and bureaus. Regional-based journalists feature when states issues are being discussed, and legal and justice minds break-down the nuances of American constitutional and court issues when they arise – to give a couple of examples.


Favourite episode: Due to the nature of the discussion and structure of the podcast, it is hard to single out a specific episode which I could call a favourite. However, the tranche of episodes broadcast between the US elections in November 2016, and Inauguration Day in January 2017 excelled at keeping abreast of a very fast-moving, fluid, and confusing transition period in presidential politics.


So there it is. A little insight into my weekly podcast fix. Check some of those out as they are well worth a listen to. They are great to listen to on the commute, to wind down to before bedtime, or to have on in the background while enjoying a lazy Saturday morning with a cup of tea (just me?). I’ll be back with four more of my current favourite podcasts soon. Plus it almost goes without saying, I am always on the lookout for new podcasts, and love to hear of recommendations!

The Post (2018)

Steven Spielberg’s latest outing, The Post, takes our hand and whisks us off to the newsroom of fifty years ago. These newsrooms and the journalists that worked within them uncovered the atrocities of the My Lai Massacre, the corruption of a President in the Watergate scandal, and in The Post, the leak of the Pentagon Papers. In an age of ‘fake news’ and eroding trust in the highest institutions in the Western World, The Post offers a timely insight into the influence of investigative journalism, and deals with the question of power and who holds it American society.


The Post has received a considerable degree of media and critical attention over the past few weeks, on the back of fevered award season commentary. To date, the film has received six Golden Globe nominations, and is up for two Oscar nominations – Best Picture, and Best Actress for Meryl Streep in the role of Washington Post owner, Katherine Graham. I am not sure it will pick up accolades in these categories, as other strong contenders (such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Frances McDormand’s lead role in that film, as well as The Shape of Water) are also in the running. That said, Streep puts in a masterful performance in The Post, depicting the tribulations of being a leading woman, in a patriarchal world of the 1970s. Katharine Graham oversaw The Washington Post during the socio-political tumultuous years of the 1970s, and was the first female publisher of a major US newspaper, as well as being the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Aside from the unfolding drama of the publishing of The Pentagon Papers, it is Graham’s story, finely portrayed by Streep, that takes up the other half of this dual-narrative thriller.


In terms of historical events, The Post recounts the period in which The Washington Post (and indeed The New York Times) exposed the leaked Pentagon Papers. The documents, lengthy and extensive in their coverage, revealed how the United States Government was aware that it could not win the ongoing war in Vietnam. The film highlights Robert McNamara’s, the US Secretary of State for Defense, lack of confidence in a victory as early as 1966, during an early scene. The Pentagon Papers cache detailed numerous events which were undertaken by the Americans in Vietnam, that were not reported in the mainstream media, such as bombing raids and covert operations. The Post picks up the story at a time when The Washington Post is facing difficult financial and editorial questions about its future. When The New York Times runs a cover story based on the leaks by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), the paper is slapped down by the Nixon Adminstration, and barred from publishing further stories relating to the Vietnam War. Spotting an opportunity to turn The Washington Post‘s fortunes around, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his newsroom, including journalist Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) track down Ellsberg to continue the undercovering of The Pentagon Papers to the American public.


The film captures a watershed moment in American and World history. This is not solely depicted on screen by to the content of the leaked document, but also by a web of mini plotlines relating to the main characters. Streep’s Graham is confronted in a few scenes by the overwhelming dominance of aging white men in the institutional hierarchy of society – she literally opens a door to a boardroom meeting to be stared at by tens of males in suits on a couple of occasions. The issue of gender in the workplace is dealt with in a considered way, which subtly reminds us of the ongoing stories relating to women – equal pay, harassment, career opportunity, and voice.


Similarly, the fact the events take place in 1971 allow Spielberg and the writers to explore the character’s recent past, which at the time of the leaks seems so distant. Bradlee’s relationship with the Kennedys, Graham’s friendship with McNamara (the author of some of the leaked papers) harks back to a time in the 1950s and 1960s when everything seemed so certain. Politics and social life was more black and white, and a time when there was greater trust in the highest offices of the land. By 1971, those friendships, between government and the media, are questioned, and trust in the nation’s executive has eroded. For the audience, the issue of trust reminds us of more recent times and faith in the Presidency under Donald Trump, and indeed George W. Bush over Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, and Bill Clinton over his private life. Up the release of the Pentagon Papers, the parameters appeared much simpler. The Vietnam War was essential in holding back the tide of communism, and upholding American ideals on the world stage.


The watershed motif carries through to Bradlee’s newsroom. The Post is very much a love-letter to a bygone age of American journalism. It’s an ode to the print media the printing process. Some of the most the most visceral scenes in the film, for me at least, were down at the presses, watching the commentary and copy on the leaked documents physically transfer to the ink on the paper. The frantic nature of the newsroom makes for high-paced drama of the need to inform the American people by publishing The Pentagon Papers all against the backdrop of a debate on the future of the newsroom amidst the economics of newspaper publishing – the share prices, job cuts, and profit margins over journalistic principles.


A lot of these themes owe a debt to Spielberg’s direction craft and Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s storytelling. The scenes, as well as the dialogue are rich and intriguing. The script tells us everything we need to know without over-explaining. The procedural nature of how this moment in history played out could easily have slipped into a documentary-style undertaking, devoid of the personal and emotional. Hannah and Singer’s intelligent writing (accompanied by a John Williams score tinged with trepidation) paces the story aptly and builds the thrill of counting down to the publishing deadline.


Meanwhile, the set design is so carefully created that you wish there were time to pause and mull over the contents of Bradlee’s desk, or Graham’s home. It reminded me of the opening scenes of Bridge of Spies, the previous outing for Spielberg and Hanks, which instantly transported the audience from the present, to a fifties New York City. The level of detail is such that you feel like you could open Bradlee’s desk draw and find notebook pages filled with leads and marked with coffee cup stains. Similarly, Spielberg and the cinematography capture the aforementioned watershed theme through dress and style. When Ben Bradlee clutches a photograph of him and his wife with President John F. Kennedy and Jaqueline Kennedy, the reminiscing reveals a more polished and slick dress sense – a time of lost pride perhaps. Tidy suits and clean haircuts of the 1950s and 1960s, chide with the tired looking shirts and loose ties of 1970s Washington Post newsroom.


One final observation I felt I ought to mention was the thought I had while watching the film regarding some of supplementary cast. The Post also features Sarah Paulson (as Antoinette ‘Tony’ Pinchot Bradlee, Hanks’ onscreen wife), David Cross (as Howard Simons), and Alison Brie (as Lally Graham, Streep’s onscreen daughter). All of these actors viewers will be familiar with in television series such as American Horror Story, Arrested Development, and Community, among others (Bob Odenkirk will be familiar to fans of Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul too). Each of these characters make the transition to the silver screen perfectly, and each has an integral role in the story, giving the film greater shape and depth. Streep and Hanks are unquestionably the leads in The Post but the wider cast and their involvement round off a wider ensemble of performances.


The Post may remind audiences of the present-day situation we find ourselves in. A Trumpian era of intrigue and anxiety are threads in the fabric of this film. But there is also a message here of resolve. Fears of the Presidency is not a new phenomenon, and as the fate of the Nixon Administration reminds us, there is truth out there, and honest, good journalism is ready to report it, even in the epoch of the ‘alternative fact.’


4 stars out of 5.

The Joy of Weekday Afternoon Cinema


I’m fortunate in that the work I do is flexible. I can get up early before breakfast and make a start on the necessary teaching preparations, or stay up late drafting and writing my PhD chapter. I can take my work on the train, or to a local café on a Saturday lunchtime. For some, this might be the idea of job-hell – never being able to escape the world of work. I admit that at times those thoughts can seem to take precedent. However, over the past year I have gradually learned to tell myself that I will have moments of inspiration and focus, and times when I am in need to some respite and a break. It is in the latter that I often find myself going to the cinema.


For the past couple of years, I have enjoyed a semi-regular routine of going to see a film at my local independent cinema (or I should say cinemas – I’ll elaborate shortly) around the one o’ clock hour. When I am in Kent and I am not scheduled to teach or have a meeting, if I am happy with the amount of work that I have done, or if I am struggling to get past one of the numerous mini-hurdles that block my path to a PhD accomplishment, I’ll check what films are screening. It is a habit that I got into around the midway point of my first year as a PhD researcher, back in 2016. Up to that point, I regularly went to the cinema in the evening, as most people do. I distinctly remembering watching films like Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk on a weekday lunchtime. In the past month I’ve seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Disney’s Coco in the early afternoon. But why go to the cinema at a time of day that some would charge is, ‘anti-social’?


The simple answer is that it is indeed – anti-social. For years I have gone to the cinema on my own, which at first seemed like an awkward thing to do, but it isn’t really when you come to think about it. If you are truly immersed in a film, in a comfortable and well-designed cinema auditorium, you shouldn’t really be holding a discussion with your cinema buddy anyway (see Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s ‘Wittertainment Code of Conduct‘). Save those deconstructions and opinions for outside the cinema (literally outside the building, there is nothing worse for a film fan than to have the film they are about to go and see, spoilt in the lobby as patrons filing out of the earlier screening).


Those points cover going to the cinema alone, which is not specifically dealing with the pleasures and comforts of afternoon screenings. As most people are at work on a weekday afternoon, cinema screenings are often quieter during the day. There have been a couple of occasions on a Monday afternoon in the past in which I’ve enjoyed a two-hour film, on the big screen, with the surround sound, all to myself. This is even more joyful an experience if the film screening in question is a hyped blockbuster, or the latest child-friendly animation. Take Coco as an example. Here is a film which has both received a fair deal of media promotion and is aimed at a younger audience. I do not want to come across as a stickler for etiquette, but if I were to go and see this film in the evening or at the weekend, the auditorium would be filled with younger cinema-goers, slurping fizzy drinks, munching on popcorn, and probably losing interest after half an hour. And that is fine! They are kids after all. I am pretty sure I did the same when I was taken to the cinema as a child. However, I use the time spent in the cinema as a time to relax, escape the world for a couple of hours, really get into story which is told to me through a medium like no other. The screening I attended of Coco was populated by myself, and three other individuals – all on their own, and all at least a couple of decades older myself.


Another perk of paying a visit to flicks on a weekday afternoon is that matinee showings are often advertised at a lower price. This is not really a factor in why I go to the cinema in the afternoons when I am in Kent because I decided to pay for yearly membership to my local Curzon due to my frequent visits. However, there is a great local independent cinema in North Devon that I go to regularly which offer tickets at a reduced rate of £4.49 (I should add that the price is still very reasonable for evening screenings when compared to the large chains, and by extension, the unenjoyable atmosphere of a multiplex). Both myself and my boyfriend are agreed on this one – we just prefer going to the cinema in the afternoon. Fewer distractions, greater comfort, quieter environment.


I’m an advocate of local cinemas, and independent outlets. They do tremendous work in bringing some of the less well-known releases to a wider audience. And I can say that at the two cinemas I go to in Devon and Kent, there is a diligence by the staff to ensure that the cinema experience is as good as it can be. Why? Probably because they love cinema and film as much as I, the customer, do. The simple act of having your ticket ripped by the attendant, or being shown to your seat by the usher adds to the long list of reasons why seeing a film in a cinema is a unique experience.


Going on a weekday afternoon reveals a side of the cinema which reflects that warmth towards the cinematic medium. I think it is fair to say, you’ll see the die-hard cinema fans in there on a weekday afternoon, as they make it part of their day (if they are able to that is). If you haven’t tried it already, I would urge you to give it ago. You might have to go on your own because your family or friends are busy elsewhere. And that’s even better, you can break the weird stigma that some have that going to the cinema on your own is an odd thing to do. You’ll engage with the film more, and that break from reality will feel rewarding. Give it a go, and I would hazard a guess that you will end up trying to find time to do it again.

Top Ten Films of 2017

We are well into the global film awards season now and the new year is nearly a month old, however I thought I would compile my favourite films of last year. I’ve done this for the past few years, and 2017 was no exception. The criteria is pretty simple. The films listed has a UK release date between 1st January and 31st December 2017, and they are only films I have had the chance to see. There may be other hidden gems out there, but my work-life balance means that I cannot see everything that comes out in the cinema. So in reverse order…


10. Loving (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Loving tells the story of an American couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, who were instrumental in the case that overturned state laws that outlawed interracial marriage (see the 1967 US Supreme Court decision, Loving V. Virginia). The film turns the focus towards the marriage between Richard and Mildred, rather than on the procedural court battle which took place during the mid-1960s. Joel Edgerton’s, who plays Richard, and Ruth Negga’s, portraying Mildred, acting stands out in this romantic period piece. Dynamic and subtle, the exasperation Edgerton and Negga display at just wanting to live their lives against the political backdrop of the court case shines through in the faces of both actors. This is also reflected, I feel, through the lack of dialogue and the quietness of scene set pieces. An excellent addition to a recent canon of film that has depicted important moments in the Civil Rights Movement and social change of 1960s America (Selma, 2015; Freedom Summer, 2014; Detroit, 2017).


9. Fences (dir. Denzel Washington)

Denzel Washington received a Best Actor nomination recently for his role in the legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq, however earlier in the year he directed this film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning stage play. Viola Davis deservedly picked up the Best Supporting Actress award at the 89th Academy Awards for her role as Rose Lee Maxson, wife of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), though in my view should have been in the Best Actress category. Accolades aside, Fences takes us to a working-class neighbourhood in 1950s Pittsburgh, where Troy has reached a point in his life where he questions the decisions he has made. Rueing his own inability to become a national baseball star (integration of black athletes into the sport came too late for Troy), his acrimonious relationship with his son Cory, infringes on Cory’s attempts to make the big leagues of college football. The film very much retains that feel of a stage play in its structure, but this is not to its detriment at all. It transfers to the silver screen well, and the tension that builds throughout sets the film up well for some unexpected interjections in plot.


8. The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci)

Other reviews have contributed some mixed thoughts on The Death of Stalin. Some flagged up how it was less comical than it was dark and bleak, while others praised its writing and acting. And this week, officials pulled the premiere of the film in Russia amidst concerns over its content and satirical depiction of political figures, citing also that the release coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. When I went to see The Death of Stalin, I went into it feeling well versed in Iannucci’s brand of comedy (loved The Thick of It, and still find Alan Partridge funny decades later). It seems that my other cinema-goers in the screening did too and there was that feeling that we are all laughing along together at the same gags and scenes. I felt that it was well-paced, carefully researched, and slickly satirical. The darker undertones did catch my attention, and it made me wonder why this episode in recent history had not been dealt with on screen in such a way before now.


7. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)

Get Out has received awards recognition this season, and rightly so. I watched a screening of Get Out while I was on a research trip to Seattle, back in the Spring of 2017. Horror is not a genre I am particularly drawn too, but on a Saturday afternoon when the archives were closed, I thought I would give it a go. At pretty much the same time a year earlier, on my first archival visit to Seattle, I had the exact same thought process as saw the brilliant Green Room. History repeated itself. Get Out, which follows Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a black man, visiting the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Alison Williams) at their family home. This racial-horror does not take long to turn absurd and creepy as a series of events unfold in which race is thrust fore and center. The film is smart in its plot, and is chilling to watch. As good horror does, it tests our psychological reaction to the human condition from beginning to end. Tense is an apt word to choose if asked to sum up the film in one word.


6. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

I went to the cinema to see Manchester By The Sea a couple of times when it came out in the UK early last year. I have a soft spot for films which hone in on small-town America. There is something about the setting and the people who inhabit these towns and communities which reveal a lot about the American experience. Set in a sleepy Massachusetts coastal village, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has his remit of responsibilities increased suddenly when his brother dies of cardiac arrest, and Lee becomes the legal guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Manchester by the Sea deals with a multitude of topics in one go – grief, loss, growing up, blue-collar life, and purgatory. I recall at the time of its release, and subsequent awards nominations for last season’s ceremonies, there was a lot of talk around Casey Affleck. However, its Lucas Hedges who is the real acting talent in this film. Lonergan brings out the best in Hedges, and the film benefits from strong character development and use of flashbacks. By no means a uplifting watch, but certainly a terrific piece of American cinema.


5. 20th Century Women (dir. Mike Mills)

When it comes to films falling unduly under the radar, 20th Century Women tops the 2017 list. Annette Benning stars as Dorothea Fields a fifty-something single mother, raising her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in Southern California, amidst the backdrop of 1979. She’s aided in her task by Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited photographer, and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend and neighbour. Dorothea, by being in the company of both Abbie and Julie reflects on her own life, as she tries her upmost to guide Jamie through his adolescent years, in a household often devoid of male role models. There is a richness to the film which comes through from a combination of attention-to-detail setting and costume, natural performances, and a relatable story of parenthood and growing-up. Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that the film is ‘a tribute to all mothers, all parents and guardians, all homemakers in the specific and general senses, as more than mere protectors and sustainers—as creators.’ He’s spot on, and nothing sums that up more than the scene in which Benning’s Dorothea remarks to Abbie that she gets to see Jamie ‘out in the world, as a real person,’ whereas Dorothea says she ‘never will’ as his mother. It’s a powerful moment in the film as Dorothea sees a photograph of Jamie, enjoying himself with friends on a night out, in a situation in which a mother would never be present.


20th Century Women is cleverly posited in the 1979. The cast of characters together cover a large part of the twentieth-century (and beyond) in their lifespans. 1979 is a year in which the recent past of 1960s counterculture, the Vietnam War, and political scandal are still in the memory, but it is also a moment in which the world stands on the precipice of an overwhelming cultural, social, and political evolution to come – the Reagan years, the birth of the internet, the end of a looming possibility of nuclear war, and the reality of HIV/AIDS. President Carter’s ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech never sounded so right and so apt, and its inclusion in the film made me feel that Carter was very much a President before his time. Despite all of the political and world affairs, 20th Century Women reminds us that the hand of motherhood transcends all of those years and events.


4. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Moonlight will perhaps be remembered as the film that came out victorious following the confusion surrounding the awarding of Best Picture at the 2017 Oscar ceremony. But it ought to be remembered as a bittersweet coming-of-age story for the decades. Heralded by some as a masterpiece, Moonlight follows Chiron, a young black man growing up in Miami, through three stages of his life – a child, a teenager, and an adult. The film grapples with themes of love, lack of a father figure, and survival. In writing this review I was at pains to sum up the crucial role in the film of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer and male role model in Chiron’s life, succinctly for the shortness of this synopsis. But as A.O. Scott of the New York Times deftly put it, Juan ‘evokes clichés of African-American masculinity in order to shatter them.’ I watched Moonlight whilst I was on a transatlantic flight and found it to be deeply moving, despite my state of mild disorientation and tiredness. I need to re-watch it as it’s a film which deserves multiple viewings.


3. Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Like with Get Out and the horror genre, I am also not a frequent viewer of war dramas. World War II, and specifically the evacuation of Dunkirk is a well-trodden topic in film and television. However, in this skilfully arranged offering, Nolan weaves the timelines of three sets of characters involved in various, yet interrelated, perilous situations of the Allied evacuation. ‘One week’ follows a group of British soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles) awaiting the arrival of the Royal Navy to take them to safety. ‘One day’ tells the story of the ‘Little Ships’ of Dunkirk, the weekend sailors who aided the exodus, and centres on Mr Dawson’s pitch to bring the stranded soldiers home, with superb acting by Mark Rylance at the helm. ‘One hour’ charts the efforts of a clutch of Spitfire pilots, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) who sought to keep the rescue ships safe from the skies above. Time is an oft-used concept by Nolan in his films, and here he expertly crafts a series of narratives into a broader one of survival and impending fear. Dunkirk is a war film, but it is also a drama hinged on suspense and tension.


2. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

A quarter of a century after the release of the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, and 30 years on from the events of that film, Blade Runner 2049, follows K (Ryan Gosling) a blade runner who discovers evidence that could plunge an already upended society into further strife and war. The film returns us to a dystopian Los Angeles and expands on an already rich and curious universe which had been mapped out in the original Blade Runner. Like the Deckard of 2019 (i.e. the 1982 film), Gosling’s K too is an enigma, and a subtle commentary on the relationship between human, replicant, and in this installment, artificial intelligence too. The media reporting surrounding Blade Runner 2049 had a tone of the anti-climax to it – a big budget film which disappointed at the box office. However, the events that accompanied Blade Runner 2049 mirror that of its predecessor, which was considered a flop at the time. Similarly though, both stand as terrific stalwarts of the sci-fi genre. Blade Runner went on to garner acclaim and a devoted cult folling. Blade Runner 2049 meanwhile is an intelligent blockbuster, which for me, completely immerses the viewer in a new episode of futuristic noir.


One final point which ought to be said is that cinematographer Roger Deakins has crafted another visual delight. The city streets of dystopian Los Angeles, flooded with rain, really feel dinghy and ominous. The vibrancy of the neon signs and life-like projections are spellbinding. When K ends up in a Las Vegas that has been reclaimed by the desert, the eeriness of its emptiness gives the film a rich texture. Deakins, for me at least, has cemented his place as the most important cinematographer of today and the recent past. He should have picked up an Oscar for Sicario (2015), and for No Country for Old Men (2007), and for The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)… the list goes on. Hopefully the Academy will rectify those oversights this time around.


1. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)

What is there left to say about La La Land which has not already been said by everyone else? It’s quite simply a love-letter to the musical genre of Hollywood of yesteryear. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling captivate from the very first scenes as Mia and Sebastian. I remember sitting in a screening of La La Land back in January 2017 with a tinge of anticipation. So much had been billed for this film and would it live up to its ordained benchmark? I knew from the moment the last commanding note of the ‘Another Day of Sun’ dance number on a Los Angeles freeway sounded that what I was about to see was going to be great. Chazelle et. al had me hook, line, and sinker there on in. It’s story and themes are nothing truly original, but they are told perfectly. La La Land indulges in the historic adage that Los Angeles is a city for the dreamers and the failures, the go-getters and the re-inventers. Wrapping up that familiar message in musical form works well here.


One of my favourite scenes is the one which brings Mia and Sebastian together on the heights above Tinseltown as the sun is setting. Everything that this film oozes – love, promise, throwing back to the Astaire/Rogers era, the intimacy of the moment – is brought together in this one scene. Yes, the singing and the dancing is not perfect, but who cares? That’s the whole point of the film – nobody is perfect, and everyone has their flaws. I’m beginning to lose count of the amount of times I have watched this film now, at least five times in the cinema and many more at home. This one will be up there leading the pack of films that defined the 2010s no doubt. ‘Here’s to the one’s who dream.’


And there you have it. My subjective top ten list of films that I watched in 2017. I did not have room for some other films which I enjoyed, such as Wind River, or Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire. I did manage to steer clear of some of the clunkers though (Paris Can Wait, and The Circle). Until next time, I’ll end with a link to the La La Land soundtrack on Spotify. Enjoy!



It all starts with an introduction…

Hartland, Devon

It’s a new year, and I thought I would give this blogging thing a whirl once more.

I’m a PhD researcher and assistant university lecturer based in Kent and Devon in the United Kingdom. I’ll be leaving the confines of academic life in the near-future, but I won’t be turning my back on those topics and issues I’ve focused on at University, which interest me the most. My research, in part, reflects some of my interests. I am writing about the urban environment and park spaces in Seattle, USA, and these are topics I follow beyond my PhD. I am also interested in the natural environment, the United States, cinema and film, reading, and walking. I am also a devoted podcast and radio listener and my regular rotation of audio delights include series about cities, design, architecture, American life, film and cinema-going, investigative journalism, and crime.

I enjoy visiting new places and familiar places too. Getting to spend half of my week in Devon away from my place of work has aided me in being productive with my PhD writing, and also increased my enjoyment in its undertaking. Beyond British shores, I have visited North America on a number of occasions and would love to go back again in the near future. I cannot seem to decide on whether I should go back to a place in the United States or Canada that I have visited before, or try somewhere new. I’d like to see more of the Northeast United States, but I also feel I did not even scratch the surface of cities like San Francisco and New York when I spent time there in 2016. In Europe, I would like to visit the Scandinavian countries, as well as Germany, and Switzerland. Further afield, one day I would relish the opportunity to travel to New Zealand. Perhaps one day. With that said, there are many spots in the UK I would like to go to – National Parks, and cities such as Edinburgh and Manchester (both of which I have never set foot in).

In 2018, I would like to read more, write more, watch more films, and be outside a bit more. Whilst I have been engaged with the travails of doing a PhD, I tried to create time and space away from it. I started going to the cinema several times a week, and found time to go for a walk. In fact, I set up a blog where I reviewed the films I had been watching, called Screen Eight – it’s still there and maybe offering my thoughts on the cinematic medium and the films I watch might be a source for inspiration here. Doing those things has ebbed and flowed over time as new interests and new factors entered my life. Instead, I now get to enjoy the South West on a regular basis, whereas I didn’t before. With that has come a lot of travelling into my weekly schedule. However, as an antidote to that, and as I alluded to earlier, I have began listening to podcasts more, which has broadened my perspective on the world in many ways.

My hope is that this blog is a space for me to relay some of my thoughts and share my interests. I don’t have a plan, or a time frame, or a list of topics I want to discuss with regularity. All I want of this blog is to be able to, from time-to-time, pause and reflect on whatever is going on in my life or my mind at that moment that I believe is worth sharing, or worth noting down for me to look back on in the future.

The photograph at the top of this post is a sunset, taken at Hartland in Devon, on an Autumn evening in 2017.

For the time being, I’ve mirrored this first post as my ‘About’ page.

Elsewhere I am on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd.