Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Unbelievable

This excellent 2019 drama by writer, director, producer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) is a wonderful demonstration of the always-improving production quality coming out of the Netflix studios as the company grows in confidence and resources.

It's the true story of the hunt for a serial rapist by authorities in America. It is centred around the first of his victims, Marie, who had also up until then, been a victim of the effects of poorly managed and executed children and foster services since she was three years old. As Marie plucked up the courage and confidence to report the rape she suffered, the local police rapidly talked her out of it, dismissed the case and charged her with wasting police time. She had now become a victim of the police as well.

The series is made up of eight episodes of about 50 minutes and follows Marie's life throughout the events - and for the few years following, while the rapist continued to chalk up more victims. The timeline jumps back and forward across a few years to develop the events around Marie for the viewers whilst also tracking the efforts to catch the man of two female detectives during the later time period.

The delivery is much more drama than thriller, reflecting the fact that this was a serious and true series of events, instead of just a creation for TV. The pacing is handled excellently as information unfolds about the events, more victims come forward and the detectives (and their team) work harder to bring the man to justice. It demonstrates that there are good people involved in the systems trying to care and support people but highlights where systems, regardless of individual good intentions, lets people down who are in need.

The main leads are near faultless in their acting, the young Kaitlyn Dever (Justified, Last Man Standing) as Marie - clearly a super talent and one to watch going forward. A very difficult role which demanded a range of emotions and behaviours, which she pulled off at every turn. Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Muriel's Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine) and Merritt Wever (Godless, Signs, Nurse Jackie) play the two detectives very convincingly. There's a real chemistry between them which survives their characters' differences of approach. The supporting cast, which includes Elizabeth Marvel (Fargo), execute their roles similarly well - clearly much care was taken in casting with all sorts of names popping up, big roles and small.

It's a sad and harrowing depiction as emotions run high. Once again, knowing that the story is true makes it more powerful and meaningful as people involved tackle their trauma whilst helping to provide information. Very highly recommended viewing and once again, worth the Netflix subscription going forward. If the quality of the productions contine at this pace I shall have to stop whining about the cost!

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Tefal Easy Soup and Smoothie Maker

We've had two Morphy Richards Soup Makers over the last few years and I've even reviewed and recommended one on the Whatever Works Podcast, but ultimately, they have both broken. Enter Tefal Man!

The symptoms of the aforementioned are the same - after a few months when making soup, they don't blend it properly. Expecting a nice smooth soup and we get a chunky mess sometimes not even hot, with food uncooked. Having looked at long-term reviews at Amazon, there are many people reporting the same experience. So time to leave Morphy Richards behind!

The Tefal Easy Soup Maker is not the cheapest option (currently £80 at AmazonUK) - and maybe that's relevant to the above - but it looks and feels like it's a much better quality product. Just to be clear, we're only interested in making soup, so have not tested it for any other function. The unit has a smaller capacity than the 1.5L and 1.6L of the Morphy Richards units at only 1.2L but actually, for the three of us kicking about that's just right and on reflection, we often had too much soup with the other units previously. So that reduction is actually a benefit!

The body of the unit is made from stainless steel with a lift-off lid which, like the other ones, houses the motor, computer and controls. There's a swivelling handle for easy lifting and a control panel which offers large press-buttons, big text and clear icons. Smooth Soup, Chunky Soup, Compote and Smoothie - with a Start button and Warming indicator. Smooth soup takes 23mins and chunky 25, compote 20 and Smoothie, 4. As always, there are rules about what to put in here - like no raw meat and not frozen stuff, but following the rules (as we always did with the other units) we hope that this one will last longer!

There's a Min/Max mark inside to guide the amount allowed inside and what you put in there is really only limited by how creative you feel like being! Close up the lid, press the button and let it do its stuff. When it's finished you get 3 beeps and the unit (when making soup) automatically switches to Warming mode - keeping your soup warm for 40mins - very handy when catering for a number of people trying to get course timing right. The Morphy Richards units didn't have this. One thing the Morphy Richards units did have was a digital countdown timer, telling you how many minutes left - but to be honest, we rarely needed to refer to that information.

Lastly, there's a 3min Cleaning programme, which the Morphy Richards units did not have - where you can fill the unit with soapy water and press the button - and it cleans it for you! If you'd prefer to do that manually, of course you can - and actually, it's much easier to clean than the Morphy Richards units as the stainless steel interior is rounded (like the inside of a football) at the bottom, whereas the others had 'square corners' at the base which needed 'digging into' to be sure to get stuff out.

The soups we've made have been scrummy and the unit itself is much quieter in operation. The Morphy Richards units were very noisy indeed, so much so that we tended to shut the kitchen door when it was running! The desserts and cold functions we've not tried but according to reviews this also works well, making puddings, baby food, milkshakes - again, I guess the world is your oyster to experiment and create!

Tefal apparently have a 10-year no-quibble repair/replace programme, which gives us confidence going forward. We should have realised that sometimes you get what you pay for and the Morphy Richards units, at less than half the price of this one, perhaps should ring bells. We'll report back in a year's time to see how its going! In the meantime, so far, recommended.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Motorola One Zoom

Motorola have been pushing their 'One' series of phones now for a while and this is their latest, alongside the One Action and Vision, as they hit the mid-tier big-time, offering more capability for the price than One might expect! Some of the new breed of One phones run under the AndroidOne programme, whilst others adopt a more 'mainstream' Android software.

The One Range
This new Zoom from Motorola has to be compared here with the One Vision, Action and Moto Z3 Play (links go to my reviews). It feels like a bit of a hybrid of the three from which features and specifications have been pinched, merged or extended. The phone can be bought in the UK just now via Amazon, with whom they have done a near-identical deal as they did in the USA with their fork of the Moto Z4. I detest pre-installed software, so my primary job here was to see how much of the pre-installed apps and links to services could be uninstalled or killed. And more importantly, going forward, what impact that has on getting regular updates to Android and Security Updates. The phone can be bought direct from Lenovorola's website, incidentally, and would appear to be a 'clean' version without the Amazon stuff. I was impatient!

Useful Additions or Bloat?
Let's get that out of the way first then. The main thrust of the Amazon tie-in is getting users to switch to Alexa. By default, a double-press of the power button invokes this, but it can be switched to Google Assistant, nothing or Camera (though double-twist for camera would waste the button slightly). Incidentally, changing this away from Alexa doesn't survive a reboot, annoyingly. Alexa app can't be uninstalled, but can be disabled and force-stopped. I've developed an A-List and B-List for these pre-installed apps. The A-List are the apps that I would have installed anyway and use, the B-List, those which I don't want/use and might bug me in time that I can't uninstall them. So, the A-List is Amazon Music, Shopping, IMDb and Audible, the B-List, Alexa and Photos. IMBd can be uninstalled, but the rest need disabling for those they annoy. Nova Prime in place and they can be hidden, largely. If the same principle had been applied by Amazon as it does for Kindle Readers - that it's cheaper to buy with this stuff on - then it's swallowable (given how otherwise 'vanilla' the phone is) - but this is the same price as a 'clean' version from Motorola (on release). As it happens, this doesn't really bother me much as long as the apps don't waste system resources or bug me. I've already had a pop-up prompting me to use Amazon Photos. We shall see!

AndroidOne or Android
The benefits of using an AndroidOne phone is that two major updates of Android are guaranteed, along with three years of Security patches. The Zoom is not sure to get that - the same as the Z3 Play and G7 Plus. The One Vision and Action will qualify. Motorola have not been the fastest firm for pushing out updates, so we'll see what happens with this one. As we head towards Android 10, Project Mainline should be ironing out these inconsistencies and I'm assuming, regardless of the above, that at least Q (10) and R (11) will be pushed out for the Zoom. Watch this space! Out of the box the Zoom was running Android 9 Pie with July 2019 Google Security, which updated straight away to August (unlike the Z3 play). Going forward I guess we enter the usual 3-month pattern with non-AndroidOne devices until the above changes kick in.

Launcher
As usual, the Moto Launcher is clean and very Vanilla following the Pie protocols, but without the Pixel's fixed-screen Glance/Search bars. The Google Cards to the left of Home can be switched on/off and layout made 4x5 or 5x5. Notification shade and App Drawer are Pixel-style, with the added bonus of swipe-up from anywhere for one and swipe-down from anywhere for the other. Google need to adopt this! Apart from the Motorola additions, which I'll come to, the Settings is equally untarnished, though dark mode is yet to make it across. Nova Launcher/Companion App can of course replace all this and fix it up, but it almost feels a bit of a shame to do so when it's all so close to what the average user will be happy to use.

Family's Focus
So, what's the One Zoom's speciality amongst the family? Whilst the Vision has 21:9 for media, the Action, wide-angle action-cam for snowboarders and the like, the Zoom, unsurprisingly, provides a 3x Optical Zoom. Not quite the 5x of the current leaders, but let's not forget that this one is near-half the price of those! I'll come to the cameras later, as there are 4 of them, providing a distinctive 'cluster' in an oblong box on the back, which also houses a light-up Notification Motorola 'M' logo, Razer Phone style.

Substantial
But first things first and the physical. The Zoom and Action are not quite as tall as the Vision, as their 19:9 screens are not 21:9 for cinema! The Zoom and Action actually, are very near the same size all round, save for a shave off the Action's thickness. The Zoom is the wider of the three, heading more towards the dimensions of the Z3 Play, though a tad taller - and fatter of course. Without a Mod on the back, the Z3 Play is super-thin. The Action and Vision have a corner Selfie 'hole' cut out of the front glass whereas with the Zoom, they've gone for a teardrop, central. On first holding the phone, I was surprised at how big it felt. From prior research I really thought it would 'feel' smaller than it does. I couldn't get my finger and thumb around the waist even without the supplied clear TPU in the box, which incidentally is of good quality and saves the user buying another. The phone feels chunky, weighty (at 190g) and substantial. It verges on being a two-handed phone, which is why Moto have supplied a software swipe-for-reducing the screen content this time.

Looking Around
Bezels around three sides are small but not invisible, providing a good balance between making the most of screen size and not forcing accidental touches and swipes. There's a slightly larger bezel as a chin, but I'm OK with that as it gives my big digits more space to be sure and hit Motorola's superb Long Pill Navigation control. On the right side are a volume rocker and Power button. The power button is knurled and both controls are metal, feeling sturdy and firm in use. The front glass is 'Panda King' 2.5D and back is Gorilla Glass 3, the same as the rest of the family but the 6000-series polished aluminium around the edge is where the the Vision and Action are left behind, being plastic. This is clearly a price-point thing and you can tell, when handling the Vision/Action's sides without a TPU in place - and accessing the SIM Card Tray, that the Zoom and indeed Z3 Play are a cut above on quality. The colour I have here is Cosmic Purple and like a lot phones these days, the back glass, which sweeps nicely round to meet the aluminium surround, kind of shimmers in different lights and has a soft-touch velvet look. Very attractive for those brave enough to use it without the TPU! The Zoom is splash and dust resistant IP5/2, with P2i nano-coating, apparently!

Clustered
Very unusually these days, the single Mono speaker is at the top instead of bottom along with the SIM Card Tray, which will take two SIMs or one and a microSD Card on this variant - your region may vary so do check. On the left of the phone there's no controls and on the bottom, USB-C port and 3.5mm audio-out socket. On the rear is where the fun starts as we look at a huge camera-cluster, with 4 lenses and an LED flash to the side. The island sits proud, but becomes flush with the TPU in place - and has a stylish vertical-line pattern when viewed at certain angles. As mentioned above, there's a Notification Logo which lights up white. The behaviour of this can be assigned in Settings to be always-on when the phone is in use, for Notifications, Wireless emergency alerts and/or when charging. Any or all of these can be toggled as well as sub-controls for bypass when DND is active. It appears to slowly 'pulse' ongoingly until the item is dealt with, when set to Notifications. The colour can't be changed from white, Razer Phone style, but this is not a toy!

Engine Room
The Motorola One Zoom has a Snapdragon 675 under the bonnet whereas the Vision, due to some Samsung deal, had the Exynos 9609. As I said at the time, I had no slow-down with the Vision running that chipset like I did experience with the Samsung Galaxy A50 with the close 9610. Similarly I detect no slowdown with the Zoom here, whatever I throw at it and the good-enough-for-Pixel 4GB of RAM makes switching between apps just fine. I see no excessive shutdown in the background and really don't think (currently) Android Pie needs more, where a clean version of the OS is adopted. The 600-series SnapDragons seem to be very well optimised for performance and battery usage. I've never had any problems at all with the Z3 Play's 636. As we've come to expect with Motorola, the signal pickup and connectivity over Cellular, GPS and WiFi is second to none. I have areas which have proved to be dodgy where I can conduct these tests and it holds on very well above average.

Beefy Battery
The battery inside the Zoom is a 4000mAh unit, more than the 3500mAh of the Vision/Zoom and certainly up on the 3000mAh Z3 Play (onto which battery Mods of course can be added). I've experienced the best return on my 10% test of any phone I've tried for the last couple of years with this cell. Level playing field, same for all devices on test, general use, screen on, reading, scrolling, the odd video, podcast, adaptive brightness/battery - you get the idea - and I have reached 1hr 40mins for the 10% here. Staggeringly good performance - and a real-world (for me) in early test returns 2-days of average usage. There's no Qi charging here but with that kind of performance, it's not a great miss. Always better to have than not of course, but I guess something had to give on price. There's a TurboPower 18W Charger in the box if it's needed for quick fixes.

Screen Differences
One of the key differences between the two pairs is screen tech for these 1080p units across the range. The Vision (6.3") and Action (6.3") have LCD screens whereas the Z3 Play (6") and Zoom (6.4") have flat Max Vision OLED panels (which I'm assuming are Samsung's but couldn't seem to track that data down). This, along with the Android/AndroidOne, seems to make the difference also between the level of support for Motorola's own software supplied for Peek and Approach, which I'll come to later. The colours are gloriously rich, blacks black and screen very bright, just like Motorola's other phones with OLED panels down the line. There's a basic switch in Settings for Colours between Natural, Boosted and Saturated. There's not much difference between the first two, but the Saturated pulls more vibrancy out of reds and greens. However we egg-it-up, LCD screens from the other models in the One range are nothing like the excellent OLED here. The screen is very responsive and swipes perfect. The central notch at the top is small and half of it is lost in the top bezel anyway, making a small semi-circle cut out. It almost looks like it could have been completely placed in the bezel, but no matter, as discussed before, until under-glass selfie-cams are routine, the brain gets used to it quickly.

Fired Up
This is one of the first shots Motorola has had at an under-glass optical fingerprint scanner instead of a capacitive unit in the chin, round the back or on the side. Coming from the Nokia 9 PureView, this scanner is a delight - and actually works properly! It's no capacitive scanner, but it really isn't that far behind. I'd say it's easily as quick as the OnePlus 7 Pro I tested recently and as Optical Scanners go, it's up with the best using the tech. Registration is certainly more fussy than, say, a Pixel, but once done, it works first time, every time, with nanoseconds delay whilst it processes the image. I have no complaints and am happy that it's on the front for desk/table/arm-chair use. There's also Moto's Face Unlock in the mix, which is a little fussy to set up (for us with full beards!) but seems to work fine in tandem with the aforementioned measures. It does need a swipe to execute, which for me, renders it less useful than, for example, Samsung's version.

Moto Goodness
This brings us nicely to the Moto add-ons which include the full-suite found on the Z3 Play instead of the cut-down versions applied to the Vision/Action. As I've said before, the Moto add-ons feel very much like enhancements to Android rather than bloat. We get the Moto Actions (twist for camera, chop-chop for torch, Long Pill Navigation (or 3-button), 3-finger (long) screenshot, various flip-for/pick up options for phone use, option to remap volume keys for media, Lift to unlock and shrink screen for one-handed use) and Moto Display (Peek, Approach, Attentive and DTTW). The approach is the most useful routinely, meaning that you just have to move your hand over the device to wake the screen - and Peek enables a high level of interaction with Notifications and Media. It's a great system and sorely missed by me with the Vision. The screen lights up, along with that 'M' on the back of the phone and lets you get on - or touch the fingerprint scanner target to open up fully. I can't emphasise enough how super the UX is, of the Motorola phones that have the full suite.

HDMI-Out: Woohoo!
Yes, the first Motorola (certainly since before the Z) which works beautifully with HDMI-Out. I don't understand why this feature is not plugged by firms selling phones, but it wasn't documented anywhere I read. (I guess they assume nobody can be bothered with wires much anymore.) Discovered during my normal round of testing for reviews and yes, my eyes lit up! Well done Moto! Not so surprising is the USB-OTG and the Zoom passed my 2TB SSD Extreme Test with ease. Not quite as quick as Samsung flagships, but not far behind. Reads and writes more than fast enough. There's also microSD Card support of course and in keeping with 2019 Moto phones, 128GB built-in storage. Hurrah again! I'm beginning to find it hard to find fault with this phone! Maybe the single Mono Speaker will bring me back down to earth...

Merged Pitch
I've pitched the speaker up against the (loud but not best quality at full volume) Motorola One Vision and the (great quality but not so loud) Z3 Play. Guess what? It comes out as a merge of the two! The volume is louder than the Z3 Play and quality at least equal, if not better - but not as loud as the Vision, but certainly better quality. Bring down the volume of the Vision to match the maximum of the Zoom and the Zoom sounds better, richer and with more body and depth. As always, it depends what you listen to, but my yardstick here is consistent in testing phones against each other. In a nutshell then, it's a better all-round sound than either of the others but yes, the Vision can get louder. Perfectly good for my use and I'm really not bothered about stereo in phones. I have started to use Bluetooth speakers more these days and of course Bluetooth 5 is supplied here, working perfectly with various devices though without aptX support. Can I tell the difference? There. I convinced myself! Incidentally, I reckon that the speaker being up-top rather than down-bottom is better for me, particularly when listening to music and reading (in portrait). In this situation, with speaker at the foot, my hand is always covering it. This way up, it ain't! Certainly better also for any car-cradles.

Personalised Sound
There's a 3.5mm audio-out socket, as I mentioned earlier, but no fancy Quad DAC or higher-level output available, so a super-dongle is needed to boost sound for those feeling they need it. There's a pair of nasty-looking in-ear 'phones in the box which will stay nicely wrapped up as I test with my AKG K701 reference headset and Marshall Major Bluetooth set instead! When Google Play Music is used, the equaliser is routed to the 'Audio Effects' software, so not full Dolby, but actually it's very good and has many options which make a real enhancement to the sound. 3D Stereo, Cinema and Live as pre-sets and a Custom option with Treble, Vocal, Extreme Bass, Bass Punch amongst others and Surround settings for Live, Wide or Ambient. I can't seem to get to these controls via any other Music app, so it must be just locked to GPM - no system-wide audio here, sadly. I'm no audiophile but I think the effects certainly enhance the experience - and for 95% of users with headphones is good enough and loud enough. Plug in my Razer Phone USB-3.5mm DAC Dongle and of course it ups the stakes to a powerful output - but all those equaliser options still work. As you were probably expecting me to say, the Bluetooth performance, even with no aptX, sounds staggeringly good over the Marshall set (once the bass had been killed! No wonder rock musicians are all deaf!) to these ears. There's a recording FM Radio thrown in, much like the other One devices, but not Z-series. Seems to work well - and unusually, doesn't even insist on something being plugged into the 3.5mm to work should you be in a very strong signal area.

Camera Tech
Now for the tricky bit, I thought. Having shared some basic photos with Steve Litchfield and getting his brief take on them, it seems that the approach to the camera by Moto has been largely similar to that on the One Vision, with the added bonus of the other lenses providing 3x optical zoom and a wide-angle option. Steve wasn't impressed with the photos from the Vision in The Phones Show 369 and concluded that it really needs software updates to make it anything close to special. Decent enough, but also filled with artefacts at the pixel level because of the processing. Shame then, should this be the same, given the unit's focus! So yes, there are 4 cameras. The main one is this getting-common 48MP-into-12MP (pixel binning) f1.7 unit with OIS which we've reported on all over the place during the last few months. Nothing special there. The second camera is an 8MP f2.4 one which provides for the 3x optical zoom, the third a 16MP f2.2 offering (117º) wide-angle shooting and lastly a supporting little 5MP f2.2 collecting depth data. Inside the camera app we have various modes and options including Night Vision, Auto Smile, Portrait, Smart Composition, Spirit Level, Spot Color, Cinemagraph, Active Photos, Cutout, Live Filter, Panorama and Timelapse with Hyperlapse, Slow Motion for video shooting. The front-facing Selfie is a 25MP-into-6.25MP f2 unit (or forced 25MP), same as the Vision, which offers almost as many modes and options as the rear-facing cameras, plus Group Selfie.

Real Life Camera
Leaving behind all the tech-spec and claims of the cameras, back in my hands I bring you my thoughts as they appear to me. I love the 3x zoom, especially when used for close-focus, which I remember enjoying very much with the Huawei P30 Pro. That 3x zoom just gets me closer and because it's optical, there's nothing lost. Excellent, if not true Macro, close-ups which I shall really enjoy exploiting. Likewise for getting closer in general use to any subject - much better to have than to not as an option! The wide-angle camera also transforms approaches to photography, opening up yet another avenue of creative opportunity, grabbling broad scenes and interiors of buildings with ease. The collection of options on display here represent to me (always the phone-camera critic comparing to 'proper' cameras) a step forward with a range of lenses doing different jobs, providing excellent flexibility at an affordable price-point. In addition to the hardware, I've enjoyed playing with Moto's software over the years, some unique offerings, some emulated from others, but lots to play with and nicely arranged for ease of use. The Portrait Mode works well as we live in the age-of-bokeh, it seems, and the Night Vision Mode does the trick to pull out otherwise impossible shots - with of course the usual digital paybacks of deteriorated images/noise. Still, better to have than not to have! The 3x optical zoom can be eeked out to produce a 10x Hybrid Zoom making use of the optics and software and again, in real world use I find this great to have as an option even though it's often difficult to keep the phone still enough to use (even with OIS) and image quality is always going to be a compromise for the pixel-peeper. For the rest of us, it's just great for everything we're likely to going to want to use the photos. Go have fun and play!

Verdict
I know I always seem to enthuse about new phones, but this one really does feel a bit like the spiritual successor to the Z-range Mod-enabled range which now looks like coming to an end with a US-only release of the Z4. Apart from the Mods access, it does have many similarities in terms of size, build, materials, feel in the hand, full software suite, improved capabilities/support, AoD-approach-peek and smashing OLED screen. It feels that although part of the One-range, it's really standing apart as a more unique better quality model with more options. The sound from speaker is excellent, the cameras (if not technically perfect yet) great fun, extending options through flexibility, a bigger battery supported by efficient chipset and clean version of Android. Buy the non-Amazon unit and you won't even get their software, though, you might also want to consider how intrusive that is for you if you use Amazon services/apps anyway and are a Prime customer. It's currently £379 in the UK and I'd like to think that (at least the Amazon version) will drop in time. Having said that, it took a long time for the Z3 Play to come down. There's an awful lot of phone here for that price, beautifully made, with features some of which you'd pay double the price for elsewhere. Motorola are certainly pricing the One range aggressively. It's a fabulous phone which I'm really enjoying using and highly recommend. 90% of the features of flagships for half the price seems to be creeping up to 95%.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

The Piper (Sonnim)

A quite bizarre Korean film written and directed by newcomer Kim Kwang-tae in 2015 is staged as a horror, but really isn't. Loose links to the traditional Pied Piper tale, as the central character is able to use his pipe to attract rats.

The story is set in a village, off any maps, following the Korean war. A widower and his son are walking to Seoul for treatment as the boy has lung disease. They happen upon the village and seek rest and refreshment for the night. The village Chief has an ongoing problem in that rats run riot (later gnawing on human bodies) and they can't get rid of them. Imagine his joy when, for the price of the value of a pig, the man offers a solution to rid the village of the rats for good.

The tale turns dark when the man has kept his end of the bargain and the rats have been removed but the villagers turn nasty as he's fallen for a local widow who's bonding with the son nicely and is threatening to leave the village for a life with them as new wife and mother. The village believe that she, however, is the one who brings luck and protection to the village. They then set out to ensure she stays with them with death, disaster, tragedy and darkness following. Revenge is nigh!

I really wouldn't call it a horror film, more like a dark fable with some nastiness but to be honest, it often verges on the comic! As the tale draws to a close it becomes darker and sad. It's a cracking watch and I really enjoyed it. Some of the acting is a bit dubious but the prize for best performances go to Woo-hee Chun playing the widow and Goo Seung-Hyeon as the boy. The boy plays the part very well indeed, leaping between mischief and victim with ease.

The set for the whole film is in the village, never wavering outside and adds to the claustrophobic nature of the proceedings, a technique often used in horror/terror films of course. There's some gore and special effects towards the end, too, but it's clear at this point that it's all very low-budget. It's all good fun, thrilling and my kind of 'horror' that doesn't purposely try and make you jump out of your skin. Recommended!

Monday, 9 September 2019

Strangers on a Train

There's always something special about an Alfred Hitchcock film which, although now feeling dated in terms of context, retains a certain charm and draw. There's no doubt that he was a well-respected master filmmaker bringing thrills, terror and drama to the cinema-going public during the last century. This is no exception.

Patricia Highsmith (The Two Faces of January, The Talented Mr Ripley, Carol) wrote the novel which depicted the two male leads in the story with an underlying current of homosexuality between them. This aspect of the thriller didn't make it to the film, though if you get hold of the British Director's Cut, there's more footage left in which develops this a little more, particularly on their first meeting on the train.

Laying that aside, the story is a rolling thriller about Bruno, a young man who clearly has a screw loose, wealthy, who hates his father and wants him dead, and Guy, a professional tennis player. Guy's wife is playing the field and he wants to divorce her so he can marry again, but she realises that the more successful he gets, the longer she holds out, the more cash she can get from him.

They meet by apparent chance on the train and the mad dreamer Bruno starts fantasising about switching murders with Guy, the personal life of whom Bruno knows about from the Society press. He wants rid of his father, and Guy, his wife. There is no link between them and Bruno reckons it's a formula for a pair of perfect murders which they'll both get away with, just because they don't know each other and only met that day.

Guy can't believe what he is hearing, but plays along during their lunch on the train in order to get rid of Bruno and off the train. Unfortunately, Guy leaves his cigarette lighter behind which leads to Bruno thinking on his feet and hatching a revised plan to ensnare Guy. Bruno starts making life very difficult for Guy, effectively stalking him, after Bruno has carried out his part of the bargain! The rest of the film turns into a bit of a chase against the clock - Guy tries to mop up the mess whilst Bruno hounds him in order to force Guy into delivering his part of the deal.

There's some comic turns written into the cast too, particularly via Barbara, the young and impressionable little sister of the woman Guy wants to marry and their father a Senator. There are some Hitchcock regulars in the cast including Farley Granger (Rope) playing Guy, Leo G Carroll (Spellbound, North by Northwest) as Sen. Morton and Patricia Hitchcock (Psycho, Suspicion, Stage Fright) depicting Barbara (apparently no relation). It seems that Patricia Hitchcock, at time of writing, is the only surviving member of the main cast. Robert Walker (Bataan, The Clock) who played Bruno sadly died at 32 just after the making of this film.

The performances are sound with Hitchcock drawing so much more from them than other directors could in other films with the actors of the day. There are many films of the era which are tedious to watch because of wooden acting and poor delivery, but you know you're always safe with a film from Hitchcock! He shoots the film in a noir fashion, popular in the day of course, making the very most of darkness, shadows and subdued lighting.

The sets are sometimes dodgy, but we can't blame him for the level of available technology for, for example, special effects of the interior of moving trains! However, there is one scene which defies the earlier age of technology where a fairground roundabout meets with disaster. This is created incredibly convincingly and still today, nearly 70 years on, is an eye-opening edge-of-seat scene. Much of the credit again goes to Hitchcock though who uses camera-angles, music and cuts to add the drama and impact. It's great to look at these films picking out the techniques he uses. Look at the first 5 minutes of the film, where the audience sees nothing but people legs as they prepare for the train journey, depicting the mood of anonymity and everyone involved being 'strangers'. It's a small thing, but that kind of attention to detail is so enjoyable to analyse.

You may have noticed that I love Hitchcock films and always enjoy re-watching. I've not seen this for many years and I thoroughly enjoyed it again. I shall look forward to reading the book to see how it's been changed by the film and considering that homo-erotic sub-text. Don't miss Alfred himself in his usual cameo as he boards the train with his double-bass! Highly recommended viewing.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The Woman Next Door (La femme d'à côté)

I continue my investigation into the work of François Truffaut (Jules et Jim, Shoot the Pianist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind [Actor]) with a look at his 1981 offering here, a French relationship-based drama/thriller which offers a shift from the tone of his earlier work.

Bernard, Arlette and their son Thomas live in a quiet French village in the countryside. A tranquil life is depicted, a family lovingly committed to each other. All of a sudden, the empty cottage next to them is taken by Philippe and Mathilde and Bernard's life is turned upside down. Eight years prior, Bernard and Mathilde had been involved in a relationship, which ended amicably. The narrative suggests that neither of them knew this new meeting was to happen and that it was chance. However, it re-sparked the passion which was left behind and they, without telling the spouses, start meeting in secret for you-know-what. So far, it sounds like a bit of a comic farce, but it really isn't. Like many French films of the ilk, it's a tragic story of obsession, lost love, disatisfaction, opportunity, frustration and philosophical reflection - which you won't want to turn off until the final frame as all the above gives way to a thrilling climax.

Gérard Depardieu (Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, My Father the Hero) plays Bernard convincingly enough, though I felt as though he wasn't trying as hard as the other three. Fanny Ardant (Nathalie, Paris, je t'aime, Elizabeth) steals the show really, not as the raving beauty in the cast but rather because she seems to embrace the role and was trying hard to make Mathilde herself. She pulls this off well. Henri Garcin (The Pink Panther) ably plays the lesser part of Philippe and Michèle Baumgartner as Arlette.

The two main leads draw the viewer into their adulterous world but I didn't think the best was made of the delivery in terms of enabling the audience to adopt any empathy for the cheated-on spouses. More could have been made of the impact of shifts in behaviour towards them both, even if they were kept in-the-dark. The shooting style is simple and very 1980's European with emphasis on artistic delivery, though I didn't think that the photography was executed as well as other work of the era - or indeed Truffaut's earlier work. At times it almost felt like he wasn't that interested in the project much either.

Having said all the above, it held my attention and makes some interesting points about life and love, regret and rejection. There's a sub-story running alongside the main one which smartly emulates a related theme, which had ended in sadness and tragedy. As we find out more about that, we build towards the climax of the main story wondering if the outcomes will be similar, or if Bernard will take heed from his learning about the past and provide a safety-net for those who might be potentially hurt - or worse. Well worth a look if you're a fan of the director or style.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Samsung Galaxy S10e

I'm back again box-ticking! Just can't leave Samsung alone it seems, knowing that of all the Android phones out there they alone are providing hardware that takes (most of) the best features from all the others, scoops them up and blends them together. The usual question now rears its head, however, whether or not I can, this time, live with the Samsung compromises, and enhancements, to the Vanilla Experience.

One of the special reasons that I'm drawn to the S10e is the physical size. I have found most phones these days to be too big - as a phone in my pocket - though of course, great for all sorts of other reasons. The only phone in stock here that comes close to the size of the S10e is the Nokia 8 Sirocco (even the little Pixel phones are bigger). This is the same height as the S10e, pretty much, but wider, to accommodate the 16:9 screen. I'm likely to compare the S10e experience with that, then, as I move along, no doubt focusing on the Samsung vs Vanilla differences, but also the key extras Samsung offer - microSD Card expansion, wide-angle camera (instead of 2x Zoom), stereo speakers and 3.5mm audio-out socket. Here's a handy GSMArena Comparison.

Eastern Promise
The unit I got my hands on here is second-hand incidentally, originally bought from Hong Kong, so has the Snapdragon chipset instead of Exynos and dual SIM. There's much talk about the differences between the two and depending on whose bench-testing you read or whose real-world use results video you watch, it seems to me that the average user really won't notice the difference. If you're a gamer, it seems, or power-user, you'll get more performance and maybe even battery-life from the Snapdragon - but for my use, I fully expect that it wouldn't matter a jot! I don't have the other to compare here, so can only report on what I find with this one.

Phone Sized Phone
This really is a dinky phone. A real phone-sized-phone, pocket-dwelling unit. My problem with small phones has not been so much diminutive content view, but rather effective use of the keyboard. The Sirocco is wider, so I've been fine with the keyboard there, but I do struggle with that on the smaller Pixel phones. I have recently reviewed the Motorola One Vision which is pretty much the same width as the S10e (but taller). During my review period I didn't have any problems with the keyboard, so maybe I'll be alright here. What might help is that the screen certainly fills the front - right out to the edges almost, differently to Pixel.

Weight vs Premium
One of the aspects I recognised immediately was that the Sirocco feels much heavier. It's 177g and the S10e, 150. That's quite a difference, and depending on your view about whether or not heft and weight = premium feel, you might count this a plus or minus. The IP rating for both is about the same, good for 5ft in fresh water for half an hour, and both a Gorilla Glass 5/metal sandwich - S10e aluminium and Sirocco, steel (which no doubt accounts for some of the weight difference). Whatever your view about weight, the S10e feels absolutely premium in the hand, very much like an iPhone-clone from the near past, curved edges and pebble-like. The Sirocco differs here and feels premium in a different, almost industrial way, with sharper edges and 'pointy' construction.

Capacitive
On the right side of the phone there's a pill-shaped capacitive fingerprint sensor which doubles up as a power button. Click in for power or touch to open up the screen and get past the lock (with an option in Settings to assign it to swipe-down the Notifications bar). This is a diversion from the under-screen version in the bigger S10-series of Samsung phones, but it works perfectly well and for me, having got used to the Moto Z3 Play and Razer Phones, more than acceptable. Unlike the Moto, but the same as Razer, clicking-in as power works much more effectively than a separate power button. Capacitive buttons still work more quickly and reliably than under-screen, whichever tech they use, in my experience. Some are saying that the sensor is too high on the side of the device for comfortable use, but I'm not finding that at all - I do have big hands, and can understand the issue for those with small ones. The Sirocco similarly has a capacitive sensor but it's round the back, which means you really have no choice but to pick it up to use it. Supporting the arrangements for opening things up is a staggeringly well executed face-unlock so if you do pick the phone up, and have that enabled, by the time you want to do anything, you're in!

Remapping
On the top of the phone we have the SIM Card Tray which, in this case, is a Dual-SIM version (or single SIM/microSD Card) so if you need that function, check before you buy as other units with other chipsets for other regions, may vary. The tray is plastic, though doesn't feel flimsy like some, but the Sirocco wins here with a premium metal tray (though there was no dual-SIM version of that ever made). On the left is a volume-rocker and Bixby-button, both of which feel solid and premium. The Bixby button can now be remapped to anything you want and I have chosen the Google App. As Samsung One UI doesn't offer the option of right-swipe for my Google Cards pane, as Vanilla (and indeed the Sirocco) does, this is an acceptable replacement - maybe even preferable - with the added bonus of hiding Bixby!

OTG/HDMI/DeX
On the bottom of the phone we have the USB-C port, which works perfectly with OTG and HDMI-Out, invoking Samsung's DeX desktop experience optionally when plugged in. It also passes my 2TB External SSD test with flying colours, speedy read/writing. Next to this is a 3.5mm audio-out socket, which will invoke a 'hurrah' still in some quarters! For me, I don't use it much, but great to have rather than not. I note that in some upcoming Samsung devices, this is something that (even) they are looking at moving away from in favour of universal Bluetooth. I won't weep, but I know some who might! The downwards-firing speaker of the 'stereo' pair is there too and I'll come to sound later.

Shimmer
I have a black unit here and the back glass has a kind-of shimmery-effect, which almost looks blue in some lighting conditions. Towards the top is the two-camera island, which I'll come back to, a Samsung logo and nothing much else. It's very smooth and slippery, but doesn't seem to be a fingerprint magnet. There's no TPU in the box (with this unit) so you'll need to grab one. Or maybe not! It's a gorgeous looking/feeling device and I can imagine many people wanting to show it off as-is. The OCD in me, however, wouldn't allow! What I have noticed, moving to a Samsung from a less-popular manufacturer's model, is the depth and range of accessories and cases available. I guess that stands to reason. Popular.

Flat Glass
The front glass is flat. The screen displays minimal bezels with a slightly larger one on the chin. That's good if you're going to use the supplied Gestures for Navigation. Yes, flat. Unlike the Sirocco's wildly curved screen - and most of Samsung's flagship devices in recent years, including the rest of the 10-range. I think that's a good thing. It may not look so futuristic and gorgeous as the Sirocco's screen, but certainly navigation is simpler and viewing media doesn't lose you content around the edges! There's the other speaker of the pair up the top, doubling as an earpiece for calls, and a Selfie-cam punch-hole cutout top-right (portrait). Controversial it seems, cutting holes into front glass. We dwell in an era where manufacturers are actively seeking alternatives to that and coming up with creative options like pop-ups, swivels and under-glass. We'll see where that goes, but for now, most people, including myself, claim to 'not see it' after a while of use. The Sirocco defies all these problems by having a 16:9 screen, big chin and forehead, where all the sensors are hidden from view. How you feel about that will depend on what you think about screens completely filling the front of your phone.

Dynamic Screen
Staying with the screen, it's lower resolution than the Sirocco's and the rest of the Samsung flagships at 1080p (438ppi) but because it's a smaller phone, it works just fine - at least for my 56 year old eyes! It's amazingly sharp and bright (up to 803 nits in Auto) and colours are vibrant, adjustable and as punchy as you want them to be - and still supports HDR10+ content. We wouldn't expect anything less from a Samsung 'Dynamic' AMOLED screen. They make the best, as we know. It's 5.8" (curved) corner-to-corner with a 19:9 ratio. The insignificance of the lower-resolution screen provides a welcome boost to battery-life, of which I was unduly concerned.

Power Matters
A good place to continue from, then, the battery is a 3100mAh unit. After testing over the course of half-a-week, I'm pleasantly surprised. In my 'continuous reading' test 10% battery was used in just over an hour. I test all devices in the same way and the best ones seem to get me an hour and a half for 10%, but the 'acceptable level' I have established is an hour. Anything less is dismissed. So just over an hour is a good return, not quite as good as the Sirocco at 1hr 20min, but fine. The 'in normal use for me' test, a mixture of all sorts of use through and average day, doing average things, it looks like equalling the Sirocco, returning 24-30hrs between charges, 5-7hrs SoT, adaptive battery and brightness. It's not an exact science and different devices have different demands going on, of course, but as far as I'm concerned, the same conditions are applied to all phones. Like the Sirocco, there's also Qi Charging available (fast 15W, with a switch in software to slow it down) but unlike the Nokia, Samsung provides 9W Wireless PowerShare. This allows you to not only use the power in the Samsung's battery to charge another Qi-enabled device, but also allows you to charge the Samsung at the same time by cable, for those occasions when you only have one cable and two phones to charge! But seriously, like the 3.5mm audio-out socket, better to have than to not have. These are the little additions which give the owner a warm feeling that their outfit are including useful stuff that others don't bother with - and to some degree justify the cost difference. How many times we rue the missing of one feature or another and muse about how little adding that would have cost. Box ticking! There's a fast-charging 15W power brick in the box which can get you about a third charged from flat in about 25 minutes when needed - again slow-switching in Settings.

Under the Bonnet
This unit has 128GB Storage (my new minimum) and 6GB RAM, the same as the Sirocco. Unlike the latter, however, the Samsung continues to support microSD Cards. I have got used to living without this now (as long as I have 128GB onboard and USB-OTG) but, again, better to have than not have. Transferrable content is a great bonus for ease of moving media between devices. As for the chipset, the SnapDragon 855 flies through every task! Nothing seems to slow it down, darting between apps and services with loads of stuff keeping running in the background (unless you tell the system not to in order to save battery). I'm not a gamer (and wouldn't know where to start) so you'll need to look elsewhere for an appraisal of how this phone performs (particularly against the Exynos version) from those who know about gaming and do it!

Always On
Android 9 is present out of the box and this unit is updated to July 2019 Google Security. I have heard it said that the SnapDragon version doesn't get these updates as quickly from Samsung as the Exynos version, but we'll see. We're almost at the end of August now, so potentially we're almost two months behind, for what it matters. What Samsung are good at, is updating their own software of course and that's where I'll head next, starting with the superb Always On Display. This is market-leading as far as I'm concerned. The options, colours and functionality are not equalled. LG come close to emulating it, but others lag behind, either by the aforementioned aspects or by not being truly 'always on'. Samsung have done it right, even down to interactive controls via the AoD itself, for example, changing the brightness, independently of any other brightness controls, by providing a slider after double-tap. Kudos. They also include the Edge Screen options, even on this flat screen, which are a joy to use for notifications.

System Apps?
Samsung have started not pre-installing many of their apps, including Samsung Music and Video. This move is great, and during setup you get the choice to say yes/no to installing those. The net effect is more choice for people in the know, but for Joe Bloggs who has no idea about such matters, they might bemoan the loss of various apps and services that they're used to seeing as a part of the system. No prizes for guessing which camp (you and) I pitch up in! There are still some irritations. Two of which are no-choice 'system apps' of Facebook and LinkedIn! System apps? Really? You can't uninstall them, only disable - and when updates to the apps come along, if you have auto-update enabled in the Play Store, they just update and become enabled again so you have to go and disable again. If you don't have auto-updates switched on then they sit forever at the top of the Updates list reminding you what a nonconformist you have become. I guess it's only 2 apps and you can get the UI to 'hide' them, but it's disproportionately annoying here! Why do Samsung just assume that everyone buying their phones also use Facebook, I wonder. If we're going on popularity, why not Twitter or WhatsApp! I guess it's a monetised deal. Like Samsung need money!

One UI UX
I'm not going to pick apart the oodles of bells, whistles and options in Samsung's One UI again (particularly if you choose to exploit Bixby) as I have done it before. Here's links to my previous reviews and musings. Samsung Galaxy Note9, Samsung Galaxy A50. Bottom line is that One UI is the best looking, most-Vanilla and pleasant front-end UI that Samsung has created so far. The system-wide dark theme drills down into corners that most others get nowhere near, the adjustments for one-handed use (not needed here with such a small device of course) are well thought out and the homescreen settings and options much more useful. There's a plethora of options in Settings, little things that many others don't think about or implement, often later being adopted by Google for base-Android. It seems that Samsung have great ideas which they're not afraid to throw in the pot - and make sure that they work well! The downside of this of course is that for the casual user of phones, moving between manufacturers' devices each time they get a new phone, it can be confusing and present a huge learning-curve. Samsung helps with that by supplying suggestions and Search in Settings, but it might be better for people, much like Apple users, to get into Samsung - and stay there!

It's a Gesture
One of the excellently implemented aspects of One UI is the Gestures. You can switch Home and Recents if you like, have three buttons if you like, or use the full-gesture option which enables sweep-ups from the bottom of the screen, Back/Recents on the sides and Home, centre. You can choose to see the 'hints' at the foot of the screen (thin bars taking up a few pixels) or turn them off. Now, I've been playing with the Android Q (10) Beta builds during the summer and enjoying the new navigation controls which are going to be baked-in to the forthcoming version. Swipes in from the left and right of the screen, particularly on a one-handed device, is a real boon and has been baked into recent Huawei devices as an option. It'll come along as part of Android 10 (when Samsung get round to updating) but in the meantime, I've uncovered a Samsung App called One Hand Operation+ which does exactly the same thing - and much more! Trust Samsung to have got it sorted ahead of the game!

Sound One
The S10e, unlike the Sirocco, has a 3.5mm audio-out socket which of course means simple plugging in of, not only headphones and earphones, but also a wired connection to other equipment like speakers. This is the primary use for me, so I don't have to fiddle around with bluetooth. Having said that, once hooked up, the Bluetooth 5 works flawlessly with aptX, producing a great sound. In the box there's a pair of (nasty-looking) AKG-branded ear-plugs which, according to those who could bring themselves to put them in their ears, sound excellent - so I'll take their word for it! Built in to the phone is a 32-bit DAC and the sound through my AKG K701 reference headphones is loud and meaty. There's Dolby Atmos built-in too. Like some (but not all) other Samsung devices, it's on by default but can be turned off. Adjust between Auto, Voice, Music and Film. Differences can be detected and there's also a Custom setting available for headphones and speakers (to work on top of whatever Dolby Atmos setting is applied). Nice to see some more control available for sound, particularly, unlike many, as it includes speakers.

Sound Two
Talking of Speakers, I selected what seemed to be the closest likely contenders here to pitch the output against - the Google Pixel 2XL (with similarly faux stereo) and Razer Phone 2 (with 'proper' stereo). The volume of the S10e holds up very well, right with both of them and only lags behind the Pixel slightly in richness and quality but, as we might expect, by a margin with the Razer. Maybe that was unfair - indeed, pitching the Razer against any other phone! The Samsung produces a fabulous sound for my piano and jazz and is only tiny degrees behind bigger devices in the S-series range (presumably because of space inside the tiny body for assistance). It packs a great punch for volume and quality, very comparable to the Pixel. Only a true audiophile would complain - speakers on phones are getting better. I'm so pleased. The stereo is not particularly wide or effective, as you might expect with such a tiny body - the speakers are too close to each other! It really might as well be Mono (which can be switched to in Settings) as by the time the phone is far enough from the head for reasonable listening/viewing, it's all lost. But yes, shut your eyes, put the phone in front of your nose and it works perfectly! By the way, there's also an FM Radio included in the SnapDragon model which works perfectly well, records and plays through speakers with something plugged into the 3.5mm audio-out socket. Sadly, it seems, missing from the Exynos version altogether.

Flagship Cameras
I'm going to point you to Steve Litchfield to get a feel for the camera's capability, as usual, in his coverage over the months of all of Samsung's flagship cameras, starting with Phones Show 365 in which he declared the S10e top of the picks for May 2019 in his Top 5. Steve has done loads of tests of the Samsung hardware both for The Phones Show and over at All About Windows Phones. Go fish around and dig in! Here are the basics, though. The S10e has got two rear cameras, an (auto) variable aperture 12MP f1.5-f2.4 main unit with OIS supported by a 16MP f2.2 unit for wide-angle shots which also acts as a depth data module. The bigger brothers in the range have telephoto lenses too, but something had to give here on physical size! The Selfie snapper is a 10MP f1.9 unit and there's tons of fun and functional stuff to play with in the camera app for both front and back cameras, as you'd expect! You can shoot in RAW if you fancy and there's 'Pro' options aplenty, though I wasn't too impressed with minimum focus - nowhere near 'proper' Macro. Low light shooting is handled beautifully well by the auto-options. I have experienced excellent results with the cameras, perfectly good for almost all non-pro, non-nit-pick uses - and a beautiful screen on which to view them.

Verdict
Just because the Galaxy S10e is smaller than the brothers in Samsung's family, don't mistake it for anything less than a flagship. It is! An area previously near-dominated by Sony, so it's great to see someone else doing it. Particularly someone who's going to tick even more boxes! I maintain that it was a fair comparison to make with the cleaner, more vanilla Sirocco - and was fully expecting to pass over this Samsung as I have many before it, on the grounds of software. I'm not sure what it is particularly about this tiny phone which has made me shift, but shift I have. I can see a growing admiration for this phone and what Samsung are doing already and I'm only in week one. Yes, the microSD Card expansion is important for many, take your pick between the S10e's wide-angle camera or Sirocco's 2x Zoom, but the big difference for me is sound. The much bigger sound of the Samsung wins me over, whether stereo or not - it's streets ahead of the Nokia's output - and I have to admit that the 3.5mm audio-out socket is useful.

Pure Enough
However, Dame Vanilla is a comely mistress and I wonder how long it'll be before I'm hankering after a cleaner, purer experience again, close to the beating heart of what Google are doing with the Pixel range. With Android 10 (proper release) due to drop any minute, the draw of the Pixel might just be too much! In the meantime, this is as close as I have ever got to adopting a Samsung and taking it seriously. It's a beautiful little phone with amazing capability and very highly recommended even, I imagine, the Exynos version. It just ticks every box apart from one - the software - and that's so incredibly close now for this reviewer to think again. It's a delight to use and great value for the six hundred-odd quid, or even better if you're brave enough to have a SnapDragon one imported.

Unbelievable

This excellent 2019 drama by writer, director, producer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) is a wonderful demonstration of the always-improv...