Monday, 6 July 2020

Realme X3 SuperZoom: Initial Thoughts

Realme is a sub-brand of Oppo in the way that Redmi is for Xiaomi and Honor is for Huawei and so on. The Realme devices seem to want to take on the high-end of the mid-range or the low-end of flagships and appeal to a younger crowd. Very often this represents good value for money and a growing feature-list to keep up with other manufacturers doing similar things in this tight marketplace. Let's see how they did with the X3 SuperZoom.

I offer my thoughts here in support of Steve Litchfield's video review over on his YouTube Channel as, to be honest, I'm finding much the same in terms of pros and cons. In the hand, it feels very nice indeed, reflective of that upper-mid-tier bracket and doesn't disappoint. I approve of the design language which places the elements on the back in landscape orientation, encouraging users to think of it as a camera first - and indeed shoot video the right way round!

In the shiny yellow box we have a 'smoked' TPU (well done Realme) which is actually a good, sturdy one, a pokey-hole SIM Card Tray ejector tool, USB-A to USB-C cable, 3-pin UK Fast-charging 30W power unit and a few papers. All simple and clean, though no earphones.

It's a shame that the frame is plastic, particularly at this price-point, but I guess that they will argue that it makes an already-heavy (202g) device a bit lighter - though aluminium wouldn't add much really. The unrated back glass has the usual now 'shimmering' look, in this case Glacier Blue (but there's also an Arctic White version available), quad-camera island top-right as you look in landscape and a Realme branding top-left. The camera island sticks out about a millimetre but when the TPU is in place, becomes flush. There's no IP-Rating on offer here either, so presumably not even splash-proof. User beware.

On the right side, slightly higher than middle, is a 'long-pill' capacitive fingerprint scanner/power button in the same style as Sony have been doing lately. It works really well, first time, every time. Registration is quick and easy and it can easily be touched for opening the phone up without the firm push needed to execute the power button itself. Nice job. On the other side, pretty much opposite, are two volume control buttons, firm and clicky, separate so not a rocker. On the top, there's nothing but a microphone hole and down the bottom, SIM Card Tray for, in this case, a single NanoSIM, USB-C charging/data port centre, another microphone and a single mono speaker.

The front houses the big Gorilla Glass 5 toughened screen, a 6.6" 1080p IPS LCD panel which is 20:9 in ratio, so the usual 'tall' these days. It's reasonably bright-enough in most situations but as usual with all but the best LCDs, take it outside in bright sunshine, which I just did, tested on automatic brightness and manual, and it's close to unusable. It seems that for those kinds of extremes there's nothing like an OLED - or at least a very good high quality LCD. The screen returns 399ppi but to its credit, does offer a 120Hz refresh-rate like a good gaming phone. You can switch back to 60Hz manually (though there's no 90) or allow the phone to decide in Auto. Presumably it knows when you're gaming. Anyway, as usual, I can't tell the difference!

There are some controls for the way the screen looks including a slider for temperature from cool to warm and screen colour mode for switching between Gentle and Vivid. That does make a bit of difference, mainly saturating deep colours. Then there's OSIE Vision Effect. "Object and Semantic Images and Eye-tracking! An Artificial Intelligence that will track eye movement with precision. This will make you have a great experience when using apps. Not all apps are supported by OSIE and this may affect the consumption of power." Right. This is off by default and I don't really know how to test it, with what apps. I turned it on and nothing seemed different really. More investigation needed. But, again, this is no OLED, so the colours are not so rich and vibrant and blacks not the deep blacks which we know can be achieved.

The bezels around the screen are very small except for the bottom, which is a bit bigger. I support this as there's somewhere to swipe from. In the top-left there's another long-pill cutout for two, yes, two Selfie Cams which I'll come to later. Usual thing applies - it feels in the way for a while but the brain gets used to it and in the end, watching media, pales into insignificance. You can, on an app-by-app basis choose whether or not to 'hide' the cameras by finishing the screen content below the line of the Notification Bar. Talking of which, the icons in the Notification Bar are ludicrously tiny and in order to increase the size of them (the only way I found) was to make the Display Size Large (rather than Small or Default, but that still is nowhere near large enough. The percentage remaining readout in the battery is near unreadable to me. Maybe younger eyes won't care.

The device arrives with Android 10 on-board (with now June 2020 Google Security) so instant access to dark everything including Settings, GMail and the Google Apps. On top of that, they have their own Dark mode in Settings so that tries hard to ensure everything that might not be dark, becomes so. There's a Vanilla Android feel to some of the UI, a little spoilt (but not too much) by the infiltration of Realme UI. This goes its own way, trying to emulate iOS in many ways when Stock doesn't. The Settings are so incredibly confusing coming from a Stock experience and for those not prepared to use the Search feature, they're really in for a long learning curve to get up to speed - and then once learned, hopefully stay with Realme so they don't have to use any other system and have to unlearn it all! But Realme are not alone here. Exceptions which come to mind are Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus who do a much cleaner job and keep things much more 'standard'.

Having said all the above, Realme have at least included the Google Assistant Cards off to the left of Home, which many others don't (looking at you Samsung)! There's an archaic method of Widget selection from a horizontally-scrolling picker across the bottom of the screen and again, iOS-style mutli-pickers of apps on the home screens after a long-press for group actions, like folder selections and so forth. Thankfully there's an App drawer available which makes the 'feel' much more like Stock and I was able to lay out my home screens how I liked, with widgets and sizing perfectly acceptable. Some others miss on this and (for me) enforce a Nova Prime installation but here, I didn't feel the need. So yes, more Vanilla than ever before with Oppo/Realme, but could do better!

There's no Always on Display whatsoever, only an option to briefly wake the screen when notifications come in. There's not even a double-tap-to-wake, only sleep! Bizarre. There is lift-to-wake and the face recognition is excellent. Quick to register and 100% reliable - much like the fingerprint scanner. For those who are not bothered about an AoD, they won't care and maybe most will conclude that they tend to take their phone out of their pocket mostly to use anyway. (I get the feeling that as soon as Apple do AoD, it will be everywhere!)

What can be said for the system is that when the Settings are delved into, there's an awful lot of options to tweak, well thought out in many cases. Small touches which others miss out on, they've included. Swipe down from anywhere on the Home Screen for the Notification Bar, Up from anywhere for App Drawer, display data usage in the Bar, Search Bar at the bottom, by choice (looking at you Pixel), choice of Icon styles, long-press the Power button for Google Assistant, choice of Gestures of buttons for Navigation, App cloner, split-screen control for multiple apps - it's all there and oodles more, for those who get stuck in and hang around long enough to learn it all going forward for, say, a two year operator contract.

The unit we have here is powered by a SnapDragon 855+ chipset, has 256GB of UFS 3.0 storage and 12GB RAM. As you can imagine, it flies. This seems to be where they have spent the money and justified the high price, along with the periscope camera, which I'll come to. There is a variation on this for a bit less money, namely 128GB and 8GB RAM. I would have traded in the 256GB for a microSD Card slot, sadly missing, like it seems with most Oppo/Realme phones. The USB OTG works fine, tested here with my usual plug-in 2TB SSD and various microSD Cards/adapter, but sadly there's no HDMI-Out working.

There's only a single mono speaker, as I said earlier, bottom-firing. The speaker is pretty loud and quality is good enough, there's even Dolby, system-wide, though when in speaker mode, this can't be turned off - only switched between the four available profiles: Music, Gaming, Movie or Smart Auto. I can't really tell much difference between them to be honest, but yes, small shifts in sound. The average user won't complain about the output from this speaker, only when they realise that it's covered up by their fingers!

The output via headphones improves the listening experience even more (as it usually does) by the inclusion of 24-bit/192kHz audio and having the Dolby Stereo open up properly for better adjustments. What's not good is that there's no 3.5mm audio-out socket nor a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box. However, laying that aside, let's dwell on the sound now that I've armed myself with a dumb-adapter and pair of reference headphones. The sound is really quite excellent as you might expect with that hardware, rich, loud and full. The Dolby options include a manual graphic equaliser and intelligent equaliser settings for each of the previously-mentioned pre-sets. No complaints here. Fabulous sound. Actually, I do have one complaint! It's great that they supply a Music and Video App but although the music continues to play whilst you tweak the Dolby, the Video doesn't - so you can only hear the adjustments by going and changing it in silence. So yes, not on-the-fly makes it harder to hear the changes. Tested here also with Huawei FreeBuds 3 for Bluetooth 5 and the pairing process is quick and easy with resulting sound also excellent. Loud and rich with the same open access to the Dolby settings to adjust.

Talking of additional software and apps, again the experience is better than it has been and also some others. I consider the Music and Video apps to be a bonus, not bloat, and other than that - yes, we have the usual doubling-up of Google apps like Calculator, Clock, File Manager and Photos, in addition to a few of their own, being Clone Phone, Compass, One Tap Lock Screen, Phone Manager, Recorder, Weather along with the Music and Video. Not too bad, but could be better. Some of these can be uninstalled, some not, some force-closed and disabled. When the count is this low, I don't even think the Vanilla Mad Geek would be bothered.

The phone is powered by a decent-sized 4200mAh battery which, if charged with the 30W cord supplied can be charged from flat to full in about an hour. There's no wireless charging here, which is a big miss at this price, I think. Tested here with phone calls, WiFi, Cellular Data and GPS, the aerials seem to good all round and strong enough. Not as good as some on the WiFi, but very well good enough. NFC is also present, which is not always a given with these phones from the far-east (even Motorola these days), so kudos for that, enabling Google Pay of course.

As usual, I'm going to point to Steve's much more informed appraisal of the phone's camera capabilities - see link, above, but on the way, I do have some thoughts of my own. The main USP here, as the name suggests, is the SuperZoom. 5x Optical, offering a reasonable 10x hybrid and up to 60x when pushed. I have tested that here and it's really not very impressive against proper cameras with zoom lenses, as you might expect from a periscope lens arrangement, but working in the 5x to 10x range, it's really very acceptable and for my uses (and many more I suspect), very good. When you get to 60x zoom, you really need a tripod to make anything like a usable photo and if you're carrying a tripod, you might as well just carry a cheap zoom compact!

I love the Ultra Macro mode which allows focusing very, very closely indeed. It is tied to a 2MP f2.4 camera on the back, but even so, great fun for a close-up view on life! There's a 64MP f1.8 normal lens which cuts down the 64MP to 16MP by default, but there is a setting to make full use of the 64MP producing big photos. The 8MP f3.4 camera is used for the 5x optical imaging and this also has OIS. As I say, stick to 5x and excellent results are possible. There's also an 8MP f2.3 wide-angle camera to make up the foursome. Round the front, there's two Selfie cameras. One 8MP f2.2 wide-angle and one 32MP f2.5 normal. Steve got some very useful background blur by using these appropriately - again, see his video review.

It's a great fun camera setup with lots of bells, whistles and toys to play around with in the Camera App as supplied. Many people will enjoy using these very much - and I wouldn't knock it. Yes, if we pixel-peep we're going to find that the photos don't match a dSLR with expensive optics, but that's going to be true of any phone ever made. You can't defy physics! So what's left, for me, is making it fun. Fun for those sharing photos and video around with their friends, on social media and looking at them on screens. Let's face it, the vast majority these days! I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you want more than that, get a camera.

So those are my initial thoughts. The phone is too expensive in relation to the features which are missing. If this phone were £300 instead of £500, I would be enthusiastic. But like Steve, for this money I would expect a whole list of stuff more. Always on Display, aluminium build, IP-rating, OLED screen (or at least a better LCD), Stereo Speakers, wireless charging, a 3.5mm audio-out socket and with no microSD, at least HDMI-Out. Perhaps not so much cash spent on the SuperZoom which, actually, beyond 5x is really not that special anyway.

However, if this were £300, it would be a much easier sell. The audio-out through the speaker is very good and even better when headphones are hooked up, the design is pleasing and closeness to Vanilla Android much more impressive than before. The software is up to date, the Android 10 experience is pleasing, absence of bloat impressive, blazingly fast SnapDragon performance, oodles of RAM and even a screen refreshing at 120Hz. The battery is good and strong with fast charging available. Oh dear. I want to like this phone very much, but there's just too much missing for the price. Sorry Realme, a miss - try again.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The PodHubUK Podcasts for June 2020

...a roundup of our month of podcasting. Links to the team, communities and podcast homes on the net at the foot, so scroll down!


Phones Show Chat
Episode 563 - Strapping on the Fan
Tuesday 2nd June 2020
Steve and I are back with a short'n'sweet mid-week'r as we natter about further discovery regarding the ROG Phone II, iPhone Reframing and another Pixel Feature-Drop.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 564 - Massively Multiple Mobile Man
Saturday 6th June 2020
Steve and I welcome Dan Carter back after a long absence from PSC and he runs through his current review devices. Plus all the usual stuff of the show.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 565 - Xiaomi Impresses, Moto Confuses
Tuesday 9th June 2020
Steve and I are back with another Midweek Special with loads of stuff to chew over in the wonderful world of mobile! I roundup my Asus ROGII review (for now) and Steve considers the X-Factor!

Projector Room
Episode 64 - The Elephant and the Pigeon
Wednesday 10th June 2020
More film, TV and cinema natter from the gang for an hour or so in our fortnightly roundup. I'm joined as always by the Dynamic Duo Gareth and Allan as we field your comments and chat about what we've been watching. From Dubious Dolls to Dali's Dreams. Dude!

Whatever Works
Episode 113 - Take Two Twerps
Friday 12th June 2020
Yes, that's Aidan Bell and I 🙃 Regardless, we're back with another thrilling episode this week in which we consider Whatever Works for us and you! Join us as we get all humid and frothy!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 566 - Just Some Gadget Guy
Saturday 13th June 2020
Steve and I are back again with more mobile phone natter and this time we're joined by Juan Carlos Bagnell of somegadgetguy fame! We talk a lot about imaging and particularly interestingly, in relation to Sony.

The Phones Show
Episode 397 - Xiaomi POCO F2 Pro
Monday 15th June 2020
Join Steve over in his YouTube Channel as he takes a close look at this Xiaomi 'flagship at a bargain price' to see how it stacks up.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 567 - Downsizing. Or Maybe Not
Tuesday 16th June 2020
Steve and I are back with another midweek catch-up. In an X-Rated world we consider more Xiaomi, a tincture of Xperia, but draw the line at Xylophone!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 568 - Mobile Tech from 1990 Onwards
Saturday 20th June 2020
Steve and I are back again with another delve into all things mobile phone. Axon, Armor and Asus steel us for the tuff stuff! Steve also chats with Dave Shevett about his path through mobile tech.

The Phones Show
Episode 398 - Realme X3 SuperZoom Review
Wednesday 24th June 2020
It's got 5x periscope optics and 120Hz screen, all for less than £500. In this review @Steve Litchfield talks about some of the caveats and compromises.

Projector Room
Episode 65 - Primal Peninsula
Wednesday 24th June 2020
The full gang are back this time so why not join Gareth, Allan, Steve and I as we natter for an hour about what we've been watching lately and take some comments from you good folk, too.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 569 - SuperZoom
Tuesday 23rd June 2020
Steve and I are back with another PSC catchup show as I consider a phone-supporting monitor and Steve, the latest from Realme and Apple. Plus a bunch of other stuff as usual.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 570 - Advanced Audio, Good Vibrations
Saturday 27th June 2020
Steve and I are back again with another show packed with mobile phone chatter including the PSC Photo of the Month. This time we welcome back Steve Nutt to get his take on audio goodness.

Whatever Works
Episode 114 - Trucker Tuck
Saturday 27th June 2020
Why not join Aidan and I for an hour as we consider Whatever Works in our lives and take your items too. From cool Ice and Fans to hot Tea and Coffee, something for everyone, so bring your own Custard Creams!

The Phones Show
Episode 399 - Sony Xperia 1 mk II Review
Monday 29th June 2020
Join Steve over on his YouTube channel as he considers the latest and greatest phone from Sony. An ambitious all-singing, all-dancing smartphone that falls flat in just a couple of areas.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 571 - £200 vs £1000
Tuesday 30th June 2020
Steve and I are back with another mid-week'er to chat about all things mobile phone for a while. Interest in gaming drops as does Realme's SuperZoom!



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The Podcasts
PodHubUK - Phones Show Chat - The Phones Show - Whatever Works - Chewing Gum for the Ears - Projector Room

The MeWe Community Groups (follow the links to join up)
Phones Show Chat & The Phones Show - Whatever Works - Chewing Gum for the Ears - Projector Room - PSC Photos - PSC Classifieds

The Team
Ted Salmon - Steve Litchfield - Aidan Bell - Dave Rich - Gareth Myles - Allan Gildea

Thursday, 25 June 2020

UCMDA 15.6 Inch Portable Monitor

Who ever heard of UCMDA, I asked myself as I eyed up Asus ZenScreen portable monitors. Turns out that it's a Chinese company who sell a lot of stuff on AmazonUK and that actually, a lot of what they churn out reviews very well. I'm sure there are exceptions, but given the opinions on this device (and that someone else was buying it) I decided to give it a go.

I had a look at reviews on YouTube of course and the front-runners were the aforementioned ZenScreens and a Lenovo ThinkVision M14 alongside this unit. But firstly, why do I need/want one. I recently bought an all-singing-all-dancing desktop Windows PC which now sits up at basecamp and is obviously not portable. Part of that process included losing my Acer 14" laptop, so was I left with the Surface Go. Now, when I work from my Static 'Van, the screen on that is going to just be too small for anything more than casual tablet-orientated use.

Electric!
I could have bought another desktop monitor to put down there as there is electricity - and indeed that would have been the cheaper option - but when I started researching these units, I started to realise that with these portable monitors, even though I didn't need mine to be portable, they can do so much more with much less fiddle and are geared up for use on-the-road - so hooking up easily to tablets, small computers and phones. I looked further.

So Many Options!
There are all sorts of differences between them of course. Some of the ZenScreens have a battery, the Lenovo has pass-through charging, some have HDMI ports, some USB-A, some USB-C - and some even two! Some have cases, some have stands, the Asus even comes with a pen which sticks through a hole as a make-shift stand! Some are mains-powered, some can be powered by the device plugged in, others you can plug in a powerbank to a USB port. Some have their own speakers whilst others rely on the source to provide that. So many options.

Flexible
I decided on this one partly because I don't need to take it anywhere, but also because it seems to be the one which is most flexible with connections and options in use. It is true that going with a lower-powered unit results in a less bright screen than a 'traditionally' mains-powered monitor, but I didn't think that this was going to be a big problem in the location it would mostly be used.

Fabricated
The screen comes with a fabric-style cover which is attached with two easy-undo screws, but left in place, it enables the screen to be propped up at one of three angles, much like a flip-case for a phone. Fold it back on itself and the base covers the screen for transportation with protection all round. They've also nicked Asus' idea by putting a hole on the device, bottom-right, so if you don't have the case on it, you can prop it up at one angle at least by putting a pen through the hole. A simple idea which enables the pen to be the stand. Unlike Asus, however, they don't supply one in the box!

Thin, but Sturdy
It's made of plastic all around, though hard and sturdy-feeling plastic, supporting the 15.6" IPS LCD 1080p 16:9 screen with an adequate 60Hz refresh rate. The bezels around the screen are uniform and just a few millimetres - with a fatter bit at the bottom to house the aforementioned stand-pen-hole and three buttons to control the screen. It's very thin, about 10mm, so again, easy to carry around for those who need to - though by no means the average ruck-sack size. It weighs about 650g so the weight of three big mobile phones. This is not a touch-screen unit - for that it appears that a serious price-hike is required at time of writing, the ZenScreen Touch being well over £300.

Power and Ports
On the left edge, we have two USB-C ports, one for power-in (from whatever source you want) and the other, data-in/power pass-through. There's also a microUSB port which they say is so that a user can plug in a mouse or keyboard. I don't remember ever seeing/using a mouse or keyboard with a microUSB cord, but perhaps I remember badly. It doesn't power the screen, but apparently you can plug in a 'U Disk' (which seems to pre-date USB-Pen Drives) but I'm still not sure how any of that works. I don't really get the microUSB port at all, to be honest - perhaps it's a far-east thing! Even if I had an antiquated microUSB mouse, keyboard or U-Disk, I don't see how they could be used to control separately-connected equipment via the other ports. I can't seem to find out anything about this, nor do I have the gear to test it - but they seem to be suggesting that a microUSB peripheral plugged in there would enable pass-through control to a connected device for executable command. Find that hard to believe!

Go Charge
I have been testing this with a Microsoft Surface Go. Without the screen being powered by its own source, but the Go being powered by its own source, it tries really hard to pass the power through from the Go to the screen, but keeps failing after a few seconds. Plug in the screen's own power and all works fine - so I conclude that there's not enough power passing through the Go to power the screen as well. Similarly, plugging in a mobile phone (with HDMI-Out capability of course) is not going to work without powering the screen with its own cord, but once you do, the power is passed back down through to the phone and charges the phone's battery. This seems to work efficiently via the screen's own power so that watching a film on the screen, for example, held on the phone, increases the charge in the phone even during playback.

PowerBanks
Away from mains power, a PowerBank can be plugged into the 'powering' USB-C port with mixed results. I read that this should work and people report having done this, but here, it's hit and miss. The screen tries to turn on, flickers on for a few seconds, then off again. Tried with three different PowerBanks, but none of them are more than 12,000mAh, though all fully charged. So again, your mileage may vary if out on the road. It might be that newer PowerBank units push out power more reliably, as the three here are some years old. During this process, the screen was also trying (in the same way) to draw power from the phone, but again, fell over after some flickering on and off.

DeX
I have a Samsung Galaxy Tab4 here and DeX Support, as I'd expect, is working perfectly. Throw the content to the monitor via a cable, use the tablet's screen as a mousepad (if you want to) or bluetooth a mouse and keyboard with the Samsung, and it all works beautifully. No wonder Samsung phones sell so well! Sadly, even with the Tablet's even bigger battery, it's still no-go on power pass-through from device to monitor. Though, as for the phones, with the monitor plugged in, the power passes through to keep the tablet charged up.

Menu Mayhem!
The three button controls are Menu, Up and Down. Very simple and chaotic to learn how to use and navigate with! Apart from anything else, to control the volume increase, down is pressed and to increase, up! But the menu system is woeful - like it belongs to a cheap Portable no-name Chinese DVD Player from 2005. I'm sure you've seen them! To make things worse, the brightness setting is not remembered (as the unit has no battery) as soon as you cut the power. Fortunately, the default setting is not bad for general use in most lighting conditions - though if bright sun is flooding into the room, you'll need to delve in and chance your arm!

Brightness
The brightness of the screen can be yanked up, but the brighter it gets, the less defined the image seems to be. Having said that, it really is not bad - in fact, for most of us with middle-aged eyes, perfectly good. The viewing angles are not great - as you walk around it dulls and blacks out - this is really a monitor for sitting in front of, or maybe two of you at most - and for that it's perfectly viewable.

More Menu Chaos
I really can't understand how to use this menu system, so much so that I can't work out how to switch off the monitor's speakers and instead use the phone/tablet/computer's! Again, apparently that is supposed to work, so I'll keep trying, but for now, yes - it has it's own speakers. And actually, they're not bad. Certainly very loud. Fortunately, in order to adjust the volume you don't need to negotiate the menu system but just use the +/- buttons (even if they are the wrong way round)! The quality is not great, so forget bass, but for most stuff I want to do, it works just fine and I haven't considered the inability to switch sound to the device's speakers a big problem. There are two speakers but they don't appear to be stereo. Still, many of these devices don't have speakers at all, so this is a bonus! If you plug in headphones to your source device (or an external speaker) or bluetooth-out the sound to either, it works just fine - mutes the monitor and routes the sound out. I shall keep trying to work out this menu system!

Plug'n'Play
The unit seems to be completely plug'n'play. There was no mention of any drivers needed or updates or software. The screen is 16:9 so in using my Surface Go I had to change the native orientation to suit, but that was straight forward in Windows - and as soon as I unplugged, the Go went back to normal. The screen also comes with plenty of cables (AC 3-Pin UK, MiniHDMI to HDMI, USB C to USB-C, USB-A to USB C). The remaining port I didn't mention was the MiniHDMI, which means that with a computer or any other device with HDMI full-sized slots (like my DVD Player or TV Set-top Box), the cable can adapt you down to the Mini size and away you go!

Impressed
All in all, I'm pleased with this monitor. It is cheaper, function-for-function, than most around it, has some features that others don't, it's a good size and makes a big difference to me having to squint at a 10" tablet-sized Windows environment for work-based applications. It's great for watching films on, which can be routed from pretty much any source I fancy using, and even plays nicely with power pass-through and phones. It does have limitations, of course - and some of the other devices around it do some things it doesn't, but for the money, I reckon it's a good compromise. Last thing to note really is that it certainly seems much happier to play with a proper power supply. Other than that, cracking! Shop around for prices as I've seen this leap from £200 to £150 and back (and most places between) in a few days!

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

The Innocents

Actress, writer, director Anne Fontaine has created and been instrumental in some cracking projects during her career, including directing the excellent Coco Before Chanel in 2009, White as Snow in 2019 and writing/directing the much admired Adore from 2013. The Innocents which she directed in 2016 deals with a difficult story based on true events from Poland in 1945.

As Russian soldiers run riot in Europe at the end of WWII the focus of this story is a convent in Poland where the soldiers had been bursting in and raping the nuns. The film does not cover the period of time when this rampage was happening but starts off some months later as a number of the nuns are about to give birth. In desperation, one of their number seeks the help of Mathilde who happens to be working for the French Red Cross nearby helping the French soldiers recover from their ordeals as a result of being held in German POW camps.

Mathilde responds to the call and starts to help the nuns in any way she can. She's up against it, however, from several different directions as the Mother Superior doesn't want the news of what's happened to get out for fear of shame and rejection falling on her group. As the babies are born, she takes them away, telling the mother-nuns that the babies are being homed with good families. Furthermore, she's been sworn to secrecy by the same woman and has to find excuses to get away from her Red Cross duties without raising suspicion, especially from a doctor there who she's having a bit of a fling with.

Mathilde is played by the beautiful French actress Lou de Lâage (White as Snow, Breathe) who does an admirable job in depicting the controlled, passionate and driven medic. She plays the part in a passive way, reflective of her hands being tied behind her back for the aforementioned reasons with scarce resources at her disposal. The viewer is involved every step of the way as the story unfolds and events take place, dealing with the chaos of a convent full of pregnant nuns whilst protecting their position and dignity. The nuns are reluctant to be looked at initially, let alone touched, but Mathilde doing her best for them wins most of them round in the end as a relationship builds on mutual trust.

There are underlying themes playing throughout about life, the universe, (especially) religion (and the impact of the misguided actions of Mother Superior), belief and politics which reflect the diversity of characters, backgrounds and roles of those involved. There is much for them to struggle with too, as the values are clearly different for many, some religious who are re-thinking their blind obedience, some not, and those who are contemplating life and the meaning of existence especially at this time with all this going on around them.

The scenery, as it was in Pawlikowski's excellent Ida and Cold War, depicting a bleak, cold and inhospitable Polish winter is captured beautifully throughout and Fontaine has pulled the strings together very well to make this presentation a reflective one, rather than over-emotional tear-jerker. Agata Kulesza (IdaCold War), Joanna Kulig (Cold War), Vincent Macaigne and Anna Próchniak (Warsaw 44) all support admirably, demonstrating the fact that there's an awful lot to enjoy in Polish cinema, along with French, the best of both worlds shining through here. Highly recommended.

Monday, 8 June 2020

The Railway Man

Films depicting events in World War II are very often all-adventure boy's comic-book yarns about the stiff-upper-lipped Brits giving The Hun a damned good thrashing. Then there are thoughtful, reflective stories which tell the gritty real-life side of real people's dreadful struggle amidst, often, the enemy breaking the 'rules' of warfare of the day and impact that had on people's lives. The Railway Man is the latter.

We jump into this 2013 fact-based film in the 1980's when Eric meets Patti on a train journey one day, they fall for each other and very quickly marry. Eric is a railway enthusiast. What he doesn't know about trains and railways isn't worth knowing. He starts to show signs of anxiety after the honeymoon period but won't open up to his wife and share what is in his head. She tries to find out what the problem is by turning up at a Royal Legion Club where Eric and his surviving WWII buddies hang out and mutually support.

Finlay is the person she pesters until he starts to tell her about what happened to Eric and the rest of them when they were subjected to abuse in capture by the Japanese forces in Singapore, 1942. We then enter flashback mode and leap between the two eras. We see a young group of educated engineers captured and put to work helping the Japanese lay a railway, much as the story goes in Bridge on the River Kwai.

As we flash back and forward it becomes apparent that one Japanese soldier, supposedly a translator, is instrumental in facilitating the poor treatment handed out by his army to Eric and his friends. They rig up a radio in order to listen to what is going on in the war, which the Japanese interpret as a transmitter and dole out punishment accordingly. The scenes which follow are often harrowing and difficult to watch. As we switch back to the present, Eric finds out that the soldier in question is still alive and he considers travelling out there again to confront him.

Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) plays younger Eric and Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight, The King's Speech), the older. Stellan Skarsgård (Chernobyl, Angels and Demons) plays Finlay and Nicole Kidman (The Hours, Cold Mountain), Patti. The four main leads carry it off excellently well, particularly Irvine who depicts the horror of his situation convincingly and Firth, who reflects similarly with the emotions beyond what any of us could imagine.

Jonathan Teplitzky who also directed Churchill does a good job pulling the ideas together and drawing out solid performances whilst ensuring that the visuals reflect the mood and seriousness of the subject. It's a story of horror, sadness, reflection, forgiveness, compassion, understanding which also highlights, as did Kwai, the differences between the cultures of the far-east and western nations. The differences in approach to life, values and what's important. It's also something of a portrait of a man trying hard to fit into society and finding it difficult to share his inner thoughts and past experience with a patient and understanding wife. It's a very well made film, doing the rounds on terrestrial TV in the UK just now and absolutely should be on your watchlist.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

The Public

This is an interesting little film which I think slipped under the radar in 2018. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez (The Breakfast Club) who also plays the lead, it's a moral tale and reflection of society's attitudes towards people who don't have homes and may have mental health issues and/or addictions - with a poke at fake news and badly-behaved media reporting thrown in for good measure!

Wiki [edit]: After learning that shelters are full when a brutal Midwestern cold front makes its way to Cincinnati, a large group of homeless library patrons refuse to leave the downtown public library at closing time. What begins as a nonviolent occupation escalates into a standoff with local police, led by a no-nonsense crisis negotiator and a savvy district attorney with lofty political ambitions, as two librarians are caught in the middle.

Christian Slater plays Mr Nasty in contrast to Mr Nice Estevez with Alec Baldwin somewhere in the middle, seeing both sides because he has a missing son who has an addiction problem. The large cast of character actors do a splendid job and keep it interesting.

It may well have turned into a sloppy tear-jerking mess, but doesn't thankfully. It is however moving in parts, funny in parts and dramatic in others. It is kind-of 'feel good' but there are messages that come with the fictional drama. I enjoyed it and would recommend.

White As Snow/Blanche comme Neige

This very funny, sexy and dark French comedy/drama is now available on Netflix and I gave it a go tonight. Directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Channel, The Innocents) and starring Lou de Laâge (The Innocents, Breathe), Isabelle Huppert (Elle, Amour) and Charles Berling (Elle, Ridicule) it's a tale of jealousy, liberation and revenge!

Lou de Laâge is Claire the sexy (of whom we see plenty) and Isabelle Huppert, Maud the dark (who shows that she can do sinister) whilst Charles Berling leads the pack of half a dozen men seeking the intimate favours of Claire. Which most of them get!

Claire is Maud's daughter-in-law and through comic circumstances ends up in a village in the middle of the countryside surrounded by the drooling men. One by one they make fools of themselves until Maud turns up to exact revenge on Claire by trying time and again, almost slapstick style, to bump her off for swiping her man away from her back in the city!

What plays out is pure dark comic genius as we tip-toe through the shenanigans being played out in what could easily have been a Woody Allen plot and film. Delightful to watch, really good stuff, subtitles to contend with but don't let that put you off - it's a feast!

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