Sunday 28 July 2019

Soundcore Motion+ Bluetooth Speaker

I wasn’t particularly in the market for another bluetooth speaker, but Amazon Prime Day came along again and dangled carrots - and I can always make good use of them! We’ve seen addiction in various forms in this Manor, from torches to coffee and much between - I think this one’s mine! Some bargains are real bargains - and this was one. Reduced from the RRP of £99 to half-price, it had to be snapped up!

SoundCore is a brand of Anker and they’ve produced some spankin’ gear in recent years. Many of us have gushed over the quality and value-for-money on display. Yes, by paying much bigger prices you can get a better, bigger sound, but these units from Anker always punch well above their weight and sound fantastic. This one reminds me of the design of some of the Sony units - you know, the ones that often have flashing lights - so a fairly boring ‘bar’ shape. It’s also conservative black and there appear to be no other colour options. But I’m OK with black - perhaps the colour a speaker should be!

The Motion+ is built like a brick and weighs as much as a few of them - in fact, just over 1Kg! Take this to the beach or BBQ in a rucksack and you’ll know you’re carrying it. It’s about a foot wide, 3” tall and 3” deep. It sits in one position pointing it's face at the user with a 15° raise. On the bottom are two rubber feet, one at each end to stop it sliding around anywhere, not that it’s likely to with this weight! On the right end is a power button and underneath it, a very thick rubber ‘bung’ which when pulled out reveals a 3.5mm audio-in (aux) socket and USB-C port. Up top, there’s a bluetooth button and light, bass button and light, volume controls and a multi-function button. The buttons are all tactile in the usual Anker way, so can be selected by feel too. The front is covered with a black grille (which sweeps round the ends) with holes big enough to see through to the 5 speakers. Overall it’s a very attractive unit. The rubber material it’s made from is really grippy right around it, making it feel premium and classy - you shouldn’t drop this, nor need a case.

Much like the aforementioned Sony units which I previously reviewed two of these units can be connected to make for a wider stereo (or just bigger) sound if needed at an event, the difference here being that Anker provide an app for iOS or Android to control all aspects of the connection - and indeed sound output. The app hooks up via bluetooth of course and gives a whole bunch of options from auto-power-off (as a sleep-timer), play/pause, volume control, remote power-off but most importantly an equaliser with a range of presets and even a ‘custom’ mode for control of the sound output. I have found that the Bass button on the top is largely redundant because of this, though that will vary on music listened to, taste and how much bass you actually want to be pounded with! If you leave the equalisation flat, the bass boost button certain beefs up the lower-end frequencies and could be useful at a party. I find it mostly overpowering and don’t use it - it’s bass-orientated enough as it is! But with that equaliser employed, the output can be adjusted ad infinitum. I love using my Marshall Stockwell bluetooth speaker on a daily basis which I also reviewed for many reasons, but one of them was the physical volume, bass and treble knobs on top. An app, though not quite as handy as that, is certainly a good second-best over factory-adjusted sound as supplied and a 'bass' button (or nothing), leaving equalisation to phone's Music apps.

The Multi-Function button, top-centre, enables the hook-up of the two Motion+ speakers along with track-skipping (both ways) and press it for two seconds to invoke Google Assistant/Siri when a phone is connected (or just use the Assistants in the usual way on the phone and it’ll cut off the music while it deals with your query and come back when done). Call management is also handled via the same button with various presses for various functions, switching to and from the speaker’s sound and microphone to execute. Nothing particularly exceptional in all this, but works well. Bluetooth hooks up quickly and easily and boasts v5 with aptX technology.

The power button on the right is pressed for on and long-pressed for off. The unit is powered by a 6700mAh battery which they claim is good for 12 hours playback. On testing here, that figure can be reached by medium volume and aux plugged in for music, not bluetooth. Whack the volume up and use bluetooth and (I'm guessing) you’re looking at only just over half that figure (also based on other people's testing who have somewhere to put the speaker onto full volume for 6 hours without getting arrested for disturbing the peace)! Middling volume with bluetooth use gets me about 9hrs. I don’t intend to use this away from power much, so it’s good for me, but those looking to get out and about with it might want to consider these figures. The good news is that it’s equipped with USB-C (hurrah)! Charging from flat takes about 4 hours, depending on charger/cable and so on - and there’s no reverse-charging here, so no emergency top-up for your withering phone at the beach. Talking of beaches, the unit is waterproofed to IPX7, so clean water to 3 feet for half-hour. Should be safe enough for general abuse out and about but not dropped in the sea!

And so to the sound - the main reason we're here! Output is 30W and pushed out via the "twin 40kHz ultra high-frequency tweeters, neodymium woofers, and passive radiators" as they say. Whatever the technical data, I'm hearing amazing sound with a top volume far too high for me to use routinely. The bass thumps out, can be (as I said) boosted and enhanced in various ways and vibration through anything it is sitting on are marked! The equaliser can be used to very good effect to tweak preferred sound, the high-end sharp and clear, the mid-tones clean and wonderful to my ears. Sitting in that mid-range, as I often do these days, solo piano and jazz stuff sounds gorgeous with just the right 'feel' of 'being there'. Stunning and delightful.

I'm no audiophile, as you might know, report on what I hear and maybe am easily impressed. I was equally wow'd by the aforementioned Sony speakers which I had, but this seems like a step forward all this time later, particularly with remote control of the unit via the app and for me, house littered now with USB-C chargers, very handy power options left, right and centre. Sadly the half-price sale has now gone but even at full price it feels like it's worth it - though I guess that when you get up to that price range there's much more competition to consider. In any case, very highly recommended. Find out more about the SoundCore Motion+

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Child 44

I sat down to watch this film, screened in the UK on Channel 4 last week, thinking it was a depiction of the life and times of Andrei Chikatilo, The Red Ripper. Turns out it's just a work of fiction, loosely incorporating the MO of the infamous Russian serial killer. It almost held together though as a story and threw up some dark observations regarding the USSR in post-WWII Europe.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) in 2015 and based on Tom Rob Smith's 2008 novel, the film stars Tom Hardy (Legend, Sucker Punch) in the lead role of one of three brothers trying to make their way against the overpowering paranoia of the regime. There's quite a cast on show here with the sadly underused but commanding Gary Oldman (Leon, Sid and Nancy), Noomi Rapace ('The Girl...' Trilogy), Joel Kinnaman (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Killing), Fares Fares (Zero Dark Thirty, Safe House) and Charles Dance even pops in a for a scene!

The basic plotline is that our hero, who is a disgraced official of the regime suspects foul play when a child is killed by the railway tracks. The authorities want to pass it off as a train accident but it's obvious from the injuries that someone has mutilated the body. He tries to raise it with his line of command but, as he realises, so keen is the nation to not admit that communism could create a killer he is thwarted at every turn, threatened and blocked. "There are no killers in paradise", is the country's moto when it comes to crime. He has to take matters into his own hands in order to try to catch the killer, wife in his wake, as they start on an adventurous journey across the country ducking and diving, weaving routes through the authorities trying to stop them, one of them being his brother.

The first hour of the film is very slow, setting the scene for far too long, enabling the viewer to understand what Stalin had created in the country and how Hitler had ensured that even from his grave, he was creating chaos. It plods along, it's very dark, the actors are putting on Russian accents (boo) which a lot of the time they're mumbling, making it quite hard to follow. I spent much of the first half of the film working out who was who, what their background (via an orphanage) was about and where they fitted in. Get past that though and as the actions starts to gather pace, it becomes more like a thriller/drama and a bit more enjoyable.

The cast are quite superb in their portrayal of the characters here, especially Hardy in the lead and Rapace supporting. They are both very convincing and Hardy's performance certainly is one reason I stuck with it through the first hour. There's something not quite right overall though. It lacks bite and beef. It's too laid back for much of the time for its own good and plods, even in the most exciting parts. It's a shame, as there was potential here for a great story, not merely a depiction of the dark and oppressive USSR of the day. The sets are gloomy, depressing and dark too, the lighting is subdued throughout - even in broad daylight - the buildings reflect a post-war neglect and a country which hasn't bothered to rebuild for their people, just make sure that they are controlled, work and live life as they are told.

The production would have been much better served by spending more time with the killer and making a thriller of the chase from both sides. We hardly enter the world of the fruit-loop, nor discover anything about his clearly interesting and state-abused background until 5 minutes from the end - and then it's glossed over. I really wanted to love this film but I could not bring myself to do so. I do seriously think that it would have been better in Russian with subtitles, rather than this absurd accented-Hollywood thing, but maybe that's a personal view - and one which wouldn't maximise take at the box office. Certainly worth a view for the exceptionally good acting from the leads, but a disappointment otherwise.

Monday 22 July 2019

Nokia 8 Revisited - Keep Your Cash in the Bank!

Deciding which mobile phone to buy is a complicated issue, which keeps us talking about it! It's true that more people than ever are settling on a device and staying there, like we eventually did with our home computers a few years ago. They got good enough to last longer. So is the same with phones now and which one is right for each person is a very individual choice.

I'm here looking at the Nokia 8 to see how many boxes it ticks for me, but maybe you can do the same for your devices - even if, like this one, it's been tucked away for quite some time whilst shinier, newer models grab your attention. Do you really need to pay out for the latest chipset, more RAM, zooming camera, ultrasonic under-glass fingerprint scanner, face recognition software and so on? There is certainly some benefit from taking stock, considering what's important to you and just seeing if something from yesteryear might be just as interesting as scratching that itch spending your hard-earned on the latest and greatest.

The Nokia 8 was released in October 2017, so as I write it's heading for 2 years old. My 128GB model with 6GB RAM was bought in January 2018, so 18 months in my care. The 64GB model with 4GB RAM was the more common one, but this one has clear advantages - for those of us who want them and for whom they fit with use patterns.

Let's start with that storage. 128GB working in tandem with a microSD Card slot, which is playing very nicely with my 512GB Samsung card. The boxes being ticked here for me (the serial SIM Card swapper) are, enough on-board storage to hold my 50GB of ripped CD's, books on Amazon Kindle, books on Google Play Books, audio-books on Audible and a bunch of music videos - all of which sit tight, not on a card, so that when I swap phones I don't have to think about that baseline. (I do accept that most people wouldn't need to think about that, but this is personal!) The microSD Card slot means that I can carry with me - in my phone - ripped  DVD's (pretty much) as many as I like. I rip DVD's to mobile-viewing standard which means that each is between 600MB and 1GB generally and my collection is currently using about 450GB of that card. Hopefully by the time it reaches 512GB, the 1TB card just released won't be a silly price any longer. Back-up plan is to assign TV shows to one card and films to another - but that's one for later!

Front-facing fingerprint sensor is next. We're heading that way with improving under-glass technology but are not there yet. Again, this is a personal one but I have always been bugged by fingerprint sensors pretty much anywhere else! Sony, Motorola, Razer, now Samsung all playing around with side-mounting which is, in my view, the worst place. For some, the back placement is good, I accept - those whose phones live in pockets, but my tick-box is for the front, every time. Even though the FPS is small'ish and the Back and Recents capacitive buttons are baked into the hardware, I'd still rather have this than many others' solutions. The buttons can be set to stay lit whenever the screen is on and it works a treat when the phone is on a desk/table.

The chin and forehead are substantial. One might even say old-fashioned in the size they take up but the 5.3" IPS LCD 16:9 screen sits in the middle beautifully and it can be argued that this phone is the perfect size for handling, size and grip. And no stupid notch! The 544ppi ensures a razor-sharp display and Gorilla Glass 5 with no dumb coating over it ensures that they'll be no casual scratching. The LCD remains the brightest I've seen on any phone and my only concern about it is that the AoD is not the same as was afforded the Nokia AMOLED models, nor even the Nokia 7 Plus, 6.1 etc. The AoD can be set to stay on for 20 minutes maximum, then the phone needs to be nudged or lifted to start the 20 minute clock again. It could be done with an LCD, as others have proved with other models, so sad that it's not great here. Furthermore, the AoD is linked to the Adaptive Brightness which doesn't do a great job keeping it bright enough. But maybe a small price to pay for all the rest of the goodness.

The Snapdragon 835 chipset and 6GB RAM make this Nokia 8 feel like it's still bang up to date. There's not a lag or delay anywhere across the UI or switching tasks. Alright, so there are newer and faster processors now, nearly 2 years on, but this was ahead of its time on release and is still perfectly functional. With such a clean implementation of Android, which it is, who needs more - even the current Pixel models still have 4GB RAM.

One of the drawbacks of the Nokia 8, not even having started out on life under the AndroidOne banner, is that I doubt it will be afforded Android Q when it comes along. Having said that, Nokia have kept the phone right up to date with Security Updates, right alongside other models which do have the guarantee of 2 updates and 3 years of Security. So we'll see in the coming months if it's been forgotten. Don't forget that this device arrived with Nougat on-board, so it's already been through Oreo and Pie.

The phone is built from aluminium and glass, the former of which sweeps around the back from the screen making a beautiful rounded pebble-like design which, without a case on, feels premium in the hand. The buttons and camera island surround have chamfered edges and add to the classy feel. It's not rated highly for environment resistance, but the IP5/4 will help with splashes and rain etc.

The speaker, though not the best in quality, is very loud. As always, equalisation can be achieved through software to a large degree and being able to start that equation with a good loud baseline makes for plenty of options to enable super sound. It's a mono bottom-firing speaker, which sits next to the USB-C port but that doesn't seem to be a problem for most people's demands. The Nokia 8 also came with a 3.5mm audio-out socket, so plug and go! There's a 24-bit internal DAC making the output strong, loud and great quality through decent headphones - and bluetooth 5 for hooking up wirelessly if you want.

The USB-C port enables QC3 and in my case now, a permanently attached (nod again to 3.5mm audio-out not getting headphone use in the way) Qi Charging Receiver pad, adding wireless charging to the mix for this metal-backed body which is obviously not capable. The battery it charges is not the biggest at 3090mAh, but it punches above its weight and never seems to fail to get me through an average day. Dot some Qi chargers around the place and there's top-up aplenty as you head through your day. Maybe if you're out sight-seeing and shooting lots of photos and video this could be a restriction, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the performance of the battery, especially since Pie came along.

The dual 13MP f2 Zeiss camera/s for my use (and I suspect the vast majority of people's) are just fine. Very good results in most lighting conditions. I do accept that going newer and more modern will get you smarter cameras, AI, clever processing in software, dark/night modes, even now optical zoom, but for most of us, for most of the time, we don't need all that for our family snaps and records of where we might have been. I love the artistic dedicated Mono mode which makes sole use of the secondary lens on the back. There's also OIS in colour shooting, yet another 13MP f2 camera on the front for Selfies and OZO audio recording in 4K Video, which still wows me, 2 years on when I hear it.

When I initially reviewed this phone I declared it very capable, but boring. Maybe that's still so, but all this time later, I think there's a compelling argument to suggest that the Nokia 8 is still a perfectly good work-horse, has many amazingly good attributes, shrugs off many of the newer so-called improvements and changes introduced on more modern phones and holds its head up high. It is high praise indeed that this phone is still in my hand, still keeps up with anything I can throw at it, is bang up to date with software and retains some of the more desirable attributes which have now slipped away from newer phones.

If you have a phone kicking about in a drawer which you forgot about from a year or two ago, why not get it out and think about it again - especially if you're on the brink of shellin' out some wonga on an all-singing, all-dancing expensive shiny new thing! If you happen to have a Nokia 8, don't neglect it! And if you don't have one, think about it before you're too late. At today's prices, new or second hand, it represents amazingly good value. I was maybe wrong to dub it boring. Boring can sometimes represent solid and consistent delivery. One thing's for sure, good quality phones are lasting longer now so keep your cash in the bank!

Noise Cancelling Headphones

This is very much a generic review from a newcomer to noise cancelling headphones from someone who has never before used the technology - and isn't really a big headphones user. So no previous experience or yardstick with which to compare this TaoTronic SoundSurge 46 headset, nor with which it is supposed to be capable.

I turned to the HowStuffWorks' ANC Page to help explain the principle of what is going on here and this diagram very basically sums up the principle. By actively erasing lower-frequency sound waves they actually create their own sound waves that mimic the incoming noise in every respect except one: the headphone's sound waves are 180 degrees out of phase with the intruding waves. From the illustration we can see how this works. Notice that the two waves (the one coming from the noise-cancelling headphone and the one associated with the ambient noise) have the same amplitude and frequency, but their crests and troughs (compressions and rarefactions) are arranged so that the crests (compressions) of one wave line up with the troughs (rarefactions) of the other wave and vice versa. In essence, the two waves cancel each other out, a phenomenon known as destructive interference. The result: the listener can focus on the sounds he wants to hear.

So that's the theory, but does it work - for these virgin ears! This particular headset which was sent over for review can be purchased for about £70 at AmazonUK and $80 at AmazonUSA but there are plenty of other models, styles, headphones, earphones, plugs, wired and/or wireless out there to choose from. This set is presented in a semi-rigid zipped black case with a Velcro strap inside to hold the headphones in place and a netted pocket on the other side to hold the supplied 3ft long 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable, USB-A to microUSB charging cable and some strange-looking twin-adapter which, on further investigation, seems to be for people on planes - to convert the plane's twin 3.5mm mono headphone socket to a single stereo 3.5mm headphone socket via the armrest of the aeroplane seat. Having not set foot on an aircraft since 1842, this is all alien to me!

The headset itself is an over-ears model which sits comfortably for a good time, at least on my head. The spongy pads are soft and mould well to the ear-surround and the adjustment for height has good travel, distance and firmness, holding in place well for any setting. The two cups swivel around about 100 degrees for different shaped heads and so forth. The headband is black plastic with good padding. Plastics are used throughout cunningly disguised here and there as metal with pseudo-chrome painted on chamfered edges. The unit does not 'fold', so for travel, the allowance in luggage needs consideration. They generally feel very well made and like they would have a reasonable lifespan.

The left cup houses the microUSB charging port. Shame it's not USB-C, but for the target market, maybe houses remain littered with microUSB facilities so perhaps this could be considered an advantage. On the right cup is where all the rest of the action happens and it is circled with buttons, ports, knobs and controls! Firstly, a simple press-in power button which is short-pressed to power up the unit, long-pressed for bluetooth pairing and doubles up as a Play/Pause button. Next is a volume rocker which is reasonably sized and controls volume as it should. Then we have the 3.5mm audio-in socket, blue light for bluetooth, microphone and finally, facing the front, the ANC switch which is a firm on/off slider with a glowing green light inside when active.

The volume buttons can be long-pressed for previous/next track and there's a level of call handling if you're paired with a phone. Power button confirms answering a call and hangs up afterwards, long-press to reject an incoming call and even a double-press function to redial, initiating a call (as long as it's the same as the last one dialled)! The power button can be long-pressed to start the bluetooth pairing procedure. I tried it on a few devices here and it hooked up perfectly every time, no fuss. As you might expect, a blue light flashes fast while that's going on and has a steady flash whilst it's active and being used.

The manufacturer claims that 2 hours of playback can be achieved from a 5 minute charge - so I tested that! Five minute charge from flat, using an ordinary USB-A 2.1A/5V socket, full volume playback via bluetooth, with ANC on - and I got an hour and a half, but presumably without ANC on and a medium volume they won't be fair off with the claim.

They further claim that a full charge can be achieved from flat in 45 minutes (which it did) and that a full charge will last 30 hours of playback. All these figures of course depend on volume and whether or not bluetooth/ANC is being used so your mileage WILL vary! Following initial testing, continuous playback, max volume, ANC on, the full battery lasted 10 hours, so presumably the 30 hours quoted is likely to be achieved by wired use and no ANC, at medium volume. Other reviewers' experience tends to support that, some reporting over 25 hours with basic use but much less with bluetooth/ANC.

The bluetooth connectivity is not the best I've used for distance inside a house. During the test I walked from one room, through a corridor and into another room and there was significant breakup. I would have had at that point two house walls between the unit and phone, but only ordinary walls - not thick flint ones, and only about 15 feet away. I gave up on my line-of-sight test at 100 yards, as it was still working perfectly (and I ran into a brick wall)!

When all else fails and you have a flat battery though, plug in the 3.5mm cable. I was surprised (perhaps I shouldn't have been) that the ANC just doesn't work. Not only that, but the headphones really do become passive - even the volume controls don't work! Great to have an old fashioned manual backup though! I also discovered that even if I plug in the 3.5mm and the power-cord at the same time (and tie myself up with wires!), the ANC still doesn't work. So there's no power-pass-through to the 3.5mm options, the ANC only works with bluetooth. And maybe that's normal for ANC headphones. I have no previous experience to draw on.

To the sound, then. Testing here against my AKG K701 reference headphones and the very bass-orientated Marshall Monitor set. I'm no audiophile, as you probably know, and most headphones sound great to my ears, but I can tell the difference. The AKG sound is clearer and cleaner with sounds across the range sounding just perfect, good volume, not too much bass, not too much high-end and very nice mids. Perfect for my kind of music. The Marshall set are very loud and by default, very bassy. They clamp onto my head like a vice and short-term listening is all I can manage before getting them off me! Maybe they're designed for small heads! But the bass is booming, mids are OK and highs pointed. The TaoTronic set here in comparison has pretty good volume, is a little too bass-adjusted for my personal taste but others will love this shift. For the music I rarely listen to these days, like rock, they perform very well. Not quite Marshall depth, but very good. The highs are pleasant and mid-tones clear. Overall, without ANC turned on, they are a very decent set of cans with a very nice sound which would please all but the fussy audiophile.

Turning on the ANC, the initial sledgehammer impression is that all the bass has gone! The bass just seems to drop out completely, which would be no good for the above-mentioned rock-fan, but for me and the music I listen to, it's more of a bonus for that to happen. Again, each to their own (and there are plenty of Music apps/machines out there on which equalisation can adjust sound output to compensate.) The clean mid-tones, jazz, solo piano still sound very good indeed. As for the ANC, yes, it certainly does work very well for reducing constant droning noises such as an electric fan, car engine, aircraft (no doubt). There's a marked and huge reduction in collection of those constant sounds and coming in here for the first time testing the tech, it's very impressive indeed. I had a 'wow' moment when I first heard what was happening. However, this set at least, doesn't deal well with sharp, loud and unexpected noises - like someone stood next to you suddenly shouting. Or a car horn. But maybe as a safety feature that's a good thing - keep out annoying noises but be alert to important noises? Depends on your view I guess. Maybe more expensive units have even better tech which also deal with such unexpected peaks of noise.

Some users complain of a 'white noise' in a quiet environment, which to be honest, I can't hear - but then maybe my ears and hearing are beyond fine-enough perception in middle-age! I would have thought that the point is more about why a user would turn the ANC on in a quiet environment anyway? You don't need it! Unless it's to dumb-down the bass, in the case of this unit? Either way, everyone will find their own way - and everyone has different hearing and ears, so this is clearly a very personal thing.

I'm pleased that I have at last had a chance to hear ANC working. I do wish that it worked when wired as I'm more likely to use earphones that way. On balance though, my summary is that in my life, I really don't need ANC. I don't fly on planes or go on trains, stay long enough in a car these days nor have to endure an environment with low-level hum. But it has been fabulous to experience it working - amazing technology which has a real world use for lots of people. Apart from the hit on battery, if I needed this, I'd never use anything else. Clever stuff, I muse as I head back to my AKG's!

Sunday 21 July 2019

Metro Manila

This 2013 film from The Philippines can certainly be filed under World Cinema as it gives the world a picture of what life is like for ordinary folk trying to scratch a living there. I have first hand knowledge of how things are in The Philippines and the realities that I have been told about reflect very much the picture created here.

Writer/director Sean Ellis' only other film of note seems to have been the disappointing remake of Operation Daybreak, Anthropoid. Fortunately, Metro Manila is very much better and worthy of seeking out. The three leads are clearly well known in the east and I'll no doubt get letters for not knowing them! Jake Macapagal, John Arcilla and Althea Vega are the names in question. Arcilla does have a credit for having been in The Bourne Legacy - and certainly comes across in the film as the most accomplished of the cast.

An ex-soldier tries to settle down in the countryside with his wife and two children, growing rice, like many thousands do in the region. The greedy buyers of the rice have so much on offer and know that the farmers have nobody else to deal with that they lower and lower the offering price and drive people into poverty, not even having enough to eat, let alone look forward. Our family decide that they have to do something to survive - and like many other naive people, head for Manila where they think opportunity must be better than starving to death in their village.

They arrive in Manila, green as grass, and instantly get ripped off by pretty much everyone they bump into. They end up living in the slums with no food, no money. He tries to get a job, but can't. He gets a day's work only to be ripped off again. Eventually, he responds to an advert for a firm looking for security guards in a high-risk operation where the employee death rate is high because of the corruption and crime on every corner. Unknown to him, he's being groomed for more unpleasantness down the line.

In the meantime, his wife decides that the only way she can hope to work and feed her kids is to get involved in a seedy bar where staff are expected to do favours for drink-buying customers. Just to complicate all that, it turns out that she's pregnant and starting to show, so her new career doesn't last long. However, the bar owner has a solution - as some of the customers would be more interested in the daughter anyway. The harsh realities facing people this situation are clear to see. A downward spiral of moral compromise, people with no scruples and sole intention being to survive themselves at any cost to anybody around them - adjusting to need and demand, learning quickly through adaptation - and this in a country rife with religious mania forced on them by the Spanish centuries before.

The husband by now is working as a security guard and getting pulled into dark behaviours with a group of men working there as well, again, victims abused by those around them responding by sinking into decline towards the lowest common denominator. It's a harrowing and sad look at realities facing many people in The Philippines - and I'm sure many inner-cities around the world not afforded the affluence that people in the west take for granted.

As I said at the outset, I have been told by people who come from The Philippines how it is (I was married to a Filipina for some years). The widespread corruption and crime infecting every official and department - a climate where people routinely buy a driving licence because corrupt officials are on the make, for example. All sounds very depressing, but actually the film has been made very well and the three leads play their parts quite superbly. The horror of the characters' situation is clear to see and has been very well filmed. The shooting is reflective of an inner-city slum area, the hustle and bustle of millions of people fighting for the same thing - to just survive.

The film does meander off a little towards the end into more of a sub-plot thriller, but let that not distract from the image being created here - and by far the main take-away from the film. Most of it's in Tagalog with subtitles, but reflecting reality in the country, there is an amount of English spoken too - and many people speak both languages - alongside the thousands of other dialogues around the country. Recommended, educationally, I think.

Sunday 14 July 2019

Leaving (Partir)

Another French film scooped up on the cheap here which I missed on release back in 2009. From the pen of writer/director Catherine Corsini (Summertime) this one stars Kristen Scott Thomas as a bored housewife looking for something new and exciting, and plays out a bit like Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Suzanne has every privilege in life, married to a small town doctor who is also Mr Popular in the town and has great influence with the officials and other professionals around him. He agrees to build her a physiotherapy clinic so that she can get back to work and do something interesting. Unfortunately for him, she falls hook, line and sinker for the hired hand he employed to do the donkey work!

She realises that she's madly in love with Ivan, played by Sergi López (Dirty Pretty Things) and will stop at nothing to be with him. She demonstrates throughout the unfolding of the story that this is the case and jealous husband by this time is using his influence in the town to ensure that if she's leaving him, she'll be ending up with less than nothing. Yvan Attal (Rush Hour 3, Munich) plays the husband Samuel and the three leads perform very well in their roles. The pick of the three, as you might expect, is Kristen Scott Thomas (Four Weddings, The English Patient) who carries off the English woman settled in France, speaking French with near perfection.

This is beginning to sound at best like a sexy romp or at worst an 'ordinary life' drama, but hold on there! As things develop, all is not quite as it seems (as may be indicated from the opening flash-forward scene) and we do have an injection of 'thriller' as well. As usual with European cinema, there's a laid-back tone to proceedings some of the time, the photography is excellent, making use of lovely French countryside as it hooks up with beautiful music throughout.

It's a tale of passion, revenge, lust, love, determination and dissatisfaction. It's a short film, but is perfectly paced to make the most of the storytelling. Kristen Scott Thomas acting impeccably is worth the viewing alone. Recommended.

Saturday 13 July 2019

The Widow of Saint-Pierre

The original title of this French film from the year 2000 is La veuve de Saint-Pierre and I recently got a used copy on the cheap to view on DVD. It's the moving (allegedly) true story of crime, punishment, rehabilitation, passion, compassion, intolerance and prejudice.

Firstly, "Saint Pierre and Miquelon is a French overseas collectivity in the Western Hemisphere and the Northern Hemisphere. It consists of an island archipelago off the coast of Newfoundland near North America. The collectivity shares a maritime boundary with Canada" (Wikipedia) for those, like me, who were ignorant! Our story is set around 1850 and familiarises us with a Police Captain and his wife, who have been relocated to the island from Paris, for reasons which never quite become clear. The community around them is a hard-working one in which there are many widows, as men often lose their lives at sea.

One dark night, Auguste, played extremely passively by Emir Kusturica, and his friend in a mad drunken night off, go to frighten their retired boss for fun but one thing leads to another and they end up killing him. Auguste takes the rap for it, as he actually plunged the knife. He is sentenced to be executed by the guillotine. Only problem being, for the town's council and the captain, is that they don't have a guillotine - nor anyone willing to act as executioner! Augustine is locked up in the Police compound whilst they send to Paris for one and try to find someone to do it.

Police Captain Jean is played by Daniel Auteuil (Un Coeur en Hiver, The Girl on the Bridge) with much conviction, portraying a man madly in love with his wife Pauline, played by Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy, The 33, Damage) who, in turn, is trying very hard to make a life for them both in this outpost. She holds in high regard a garden, greenery and a greenhouse in order to grow plants to remind her of home, but has nobody to help her achieve this end. Jean holds Auguste in his cell in the compound and Pauline convinces him to let her make use of his labour as they await the guillotine.

Auguste respects his level of freedom and responds responsibly, resigning himself to his fate but embraces his own rehabilitation in becoming a great help not only to Pauline, but as time goes on, many members of the community. So much so, that as the guillotine approaches, the people rise up against the police and council to try to stop justice being served on this popular and helpful member of their community. What then transpires are the events surrounding the effect of their attempted intervention on Auguste, the officials, Pauline, Jean and police as many of them are wrenched between the moral high-road and humanitarianism, deciding on a friend's life.

Director Patrice Laconte (The Girl on the Bridge) ensures that Binoche plays her part to reflect a personal, and at times, sexual tension between her character and the criminal, never overplayed though, bubbling under the flowing skirts or decency of the time. Binoche does this beautifully of course, as we'd expect, as the rest of the cast pull their weight behind her. The three leads play very nicely off of each other and there's always an understated tension reflecting things not said, actions not taken and thoughts not aired.

Some of the scenery and photography is breathtaking and is shot making the most of the wide cinema screen in this setting with wide swings of season and much sea mist. The sets are tight, mostly within the houses of the community on the island but with interior detail of buildings well thought out and reflective of the time. It's a wonderful film which in some ways is so passive that it feels much more of a reflective journey than it is, but at the same time, fraught with tension which induces empathy for the characters having to face the turmoil. Recommended intelligent viewing.

Friday 12 July 2019

Testament of Youth

We were talking on Projector Room recently about the forthcoming James Kent project, The Aftermath (2019) and also the acting ability of Alicia Vikander as we considered her role in The Danish Girl. Here, the two intersect as I watched Testament of Youth.

As always, it seems, when a film is created from a 'true story' there's some give and take, opinions about details, authenticity and comparisons with previous stabs at the same project. The full truth of the life of Vera Brittain, the central character in Testament of Youth, is summarised on the Wikipedia Page dedicated to her life and writings. Well worth a read. Reference is made to a 1979 BBC2 4-part television adaptation, which I must now track down, in which Vera is played by Cheryl Campbell.

Coming from a life of privilege at the turn of the 20th century, Vera is born into a family who have made themselves wealthy through industry. They appear to not want for much, though remain principled about waste and retain a value-base in keeping with the day and their acquired social status. Vera is a very smart girl who wants only to be afforded the same opportunities for education as her brother. She has to fight for it as it is expected that she will find a husband and live the same subservient domestic role as did her mother. Eventually she goes off to Oxford, but WWI breaks out just as she does.

The value base of the social class and society of the day dictate that it was a privilege, duty and honour for young men to fight for their country, so off goes the brother and his friends, one of which Vera is in love. At this point the film turns into a bit of an epic, with time passing across the 4 years of WWI, the tragic depiction of the senseless waste of human life in the trenches, the loss to country, family and individuals. In the mix, Vera awaits word about her brother and (by this time) fiance, feeling as though she should be doing something more useful to everyone than burying her nose in books at Oxford.

She heads off to become a volunteer nurse, initially in Britain but then also, in order to get closer to those she loves, in France - in amongst the trenches. What follows then is a depiction of the events which I won't give away in case you want to see it and don't know fine details of the harrowing story. A story of heroics, bravery, chaos, depression but ultimately new life and hope for the future of the world in renewed peacetime for those who remain.

It's beautifully shot, the sets are convincing, the costume is spot-on and production quite excellent all round. Vikander is simply superb in the role of Vera, she plays it with all the right emotions at all the right times - without slinking off into needless Hollywood tear-jerking style. Having said that, the proceedings are dramatic and emotional, depicting the horror of the day and plight of the people living through it. She is surrounded by an ensemble of actors who each play their parts in turn quite excellently, even those with just a scene or two. Look out for lots of Brits in there too, with Colin Morgan (Humans), Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Dominic West (The Wire), Emily Watson (Apple Tree Yard), Kit Harrington (Pompeii), Miranda Richardson (Damage), Anna Chancellor (Ordeal by Innocence) - the list goes on!

After all was done and settled down, Vera Brittain became a writer, poet, journalist and pacifist for much of the rest of the century and published works on which much of the film is based, notably Testament of Youth in 1933 and later, after her death in 1970, her actual diaries, Chronicle of Youth in 1981. Alicia Vikander pulls all the strings together here, preventing it from becoming a soppy love story, and apart from being very attractive, she is clearly an amazing talent who has so very much ahead of her in the decades to come. Highly recommended viewing and reading.

Sunday 7 July 2019

Headwinds (Des Vents Contraires)

This 2011 mystery drama from France was originally called Des vents contraires and is based on the novel by Olivier Adam of the same name. It's a reflective story starting with a man who is a writer and married to a doctor in Paris as they go about their daily lives. They argue in the opening scene about hectic schedules and neither affording the other enough shared time to look after the two kids, a young girl and boy. The scene ends when she says that she's had enough of all this. They go about their days but the wife doesn't come home that night.

Husband conducts a search but after she's been missing for a year, all-but gives up and decides to make a fresh start in a house by the sea which his family owns but is standing empty, back in the town where he came from. The viewer doesn't see any of that year as we instantly leap forward. His brother offers him a job as a driving instructor and indeed, they start again.

Once again with much European cinema, I have to admit to knowing none of the people involved in this subtitled film except for Audrey Tautou playing the missing wife, who's on-screen time is somewhere between 5-10 minutes. Wonder how much she got paid for that! Benoît Magimel is excellent as the husband, throughout, having to face the task of bringing up the two kids on his own, ably supported by the hugely experienced Antoine Duléry as his brother. The two kids share the limelight though, Hugo Fernandes and Cassiopée Mayance with Magimel as they play off against him convincingly as they're too-young-to-realise the full implications of what's going on but both miss their mum.

During his regrouping, we find out that the police in Paris had hauled him up as a suspect in the missing wife's case during the year which the films skips for the audience, but is ultimately dropped. This doesn't stop him from being suspected of new crimes down by the sea, once the locals find out about his background, however. In his grief, he makes some bad decisions and acts irrationally a number of times, which doesn't help him.

Jalil Lespert directs proceedings at a pace which is just right, though leisurely - this is no action film. It's a well played out drama (which reminded me in some respects of Manchester by the Sea) which keeps the audience guessing almost to the last frame about the truth behind the missing wife, but is more a reflective drama relating to family and people having to adjust and get on with new parameters in life. It's available on Netflix in the UK at time of writing and is certainly recommended for a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday 3 July 2019

The Danish Girl

This 2015 Tom Hooper film is staged as a fictitious story loosely based around the life of the Danish artist Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe. Hooper previously directed Les Misérables and the excellent The King's Speech. Having never heard of this person, I did some research and the facts as recorded, pretty much follow the line of the film's story, what was recorded in the David Ebershoff novel of the same name and Elbe's autobiography Man Into Woman, so I'm not sure where the fiction comes in!

Einar/Lili is played by Eddie Redmayne (who made such an excellent job of previously portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) and his wife Gerda, by the gorgeous Swede Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider [2018], The Light Between Oceans, Ex-Machina). The story is about Einar's journey of discovery as a man, believing that he was born the wrong gender, and subsequent fight with himself, his wife and those around him to gain acceptance, initially as a transvestite but later as transgender.

At the outset of the film, the couple appear to be very happy, madly in love, enjoying each other and creating their art. It's when his wife's model goes AWOL that Einar steps in, wearing some female clothes - and starts to like it, believing eventually that he no longer wants to be a man. If you're interested in more details about this, the Wiki page carries much of it, including more on Klinefelter syndrome, and transgender pioneering but for now, back to the film!

We start off in Denmark, head off across Europe with exhibitions of work for both husband and wife before settling in Paris where, by this time, Lili has mostly taken over Einar's life and feels that she can live openly in the liberated French capital. Redmayne plays both roles amazingly well. Just enough man before and just enough woman after. Some of the stages require imagination, but let's not forget that we're going into this knowing. Many people who bump into Lili on the street are taken in - and if you look at the real photo of her on the Wiki page, it's easy to see how. Redmayne is clearly very talented and is able to convince the viewer most of the way along. Emotional upheaval, disbelief, not understanding, anxiety at the so-called professionals trying to help him - the required range of acting is pretty much nailed.

Vikander too, coming from being a happily married woman, through not understanding what is going on, facing major change and loss, mixed emotions of loving her husband so very much, but wanting him to be happy. Torn between the desire to help him to be what he needs to be but facing the potential of losing a husband, towards acceptance through pain but driven by love for the person, man or woman. She also raises to the challenge and again, demonstrates excellent acting throughout. They're both very convincing and well cast to deliver the sadness and turmoil through to the outcome, which I won't spoil here. Also supported excellently by Adrian Schiller, Amber Heard and Emerald Fennell.

The direction and photography are excellent, with a thoughtful approach reflecting the artistic stage, compositionally, via lighting and various focusing techniques. The sets and costume reflect the time and place beautifully along with people's level of 'stuffiness' and attitudes to change and prejudice. It's an excellent film, poignant, sad, a biopic which has a lot to say about the 20th century, shifting acceptance and levels of understanding in both everyday life and within medical advancement. I really didn't think I'd like this subject matter particularly and sat down to watch, expecting to turn off, but it quickly had me hooked and the two leads certainly contributed hugely to that focus. Highly recommended.

Monday 1 July 2019

Media Monkey and Living with 64GB

I have a problem. I'm not only a Digital Hoarder, but also Serial SIM Card Swapper! This works fine for me generally, but a couple of things get in the way. One of them is the two remaining phones I have here with only 64GB Storage (and potential of the Pixel 3a/3aXL) and the other, Google Authenticator. Let me explain.

Firstly, Google Authenticator and recent horror stories about Google account security and SIM-hacking encourages all of us not to make too many changes to, certainly the primary device we're using and which Google sees us using - along with our cellular operator. Better, then, regardless, for people like me to play with various devices of course, but not to make too many changes, particularly with SIM card to flag security events.

However, laying that aside, I have more than 64GB of data that I want to carry with me and a 512GB microSD Card bulging at the seams with films and TV shows (a story for another day as I wait for 1TB microSD Card prices to drop). Here's the equation. Audible Books 11GB, Kindle Books 1GB, Music 35GB, Music Videos 5GB, Audio Comedy 3GB = 55GB. Take into account system/OS space needed by various devices, cache/data held in various other apps, and you can see I'm overspilling.

Why do you have to have all that stuff with you at all times, I hear you ask - well, I live half off-grid with no unlimited broadband and don't want to keep paying (/using up data) my cellular operator to download stuff time and again when I want to watch/listen. Keep your data on a card and plug it in when wanted via USB OTG? Well, that works well for devices which support this, but apps like VLC have to then constantly refresh the content - and apps like Google Photos keep bugging me to sync the folders every time, etc. Cleaner and better to just dump it into internal memory.

So - how to reduce the size of my data. The biggest offender was the music, of course - all of it ripped at 320kbps as .mp3 files. After consulting with Malcolm Bryant of Freepoc and some kindness his end researching/testing, I settled on his suggestion of MediaMonkey to do a job on my Music. There are other tools of course, but this one worked well - and it was like stepping back in time using it as a Windows programme - and the basic version is free. There's a Gold version which enables another bunch of stuff from about £20 upwards. It's a lovely old-fashioned interface of windows, tick-boxes and progress bars!

As most people reading this will know, CD quality produces files somewhere in the region of 160kbps, with arguments for human ear listening of 128kbps. I'm no audiophile so already there was a saving of half to be had! Sure enough, I copied the 35GB of files into a fresh folder, pointed MediaMonkey at it and told it to convert the 320kbps files to 160kbps. As expected, the 35GB suddenly became 16GB - and with some further 'culling' of music I don't even like (and don't know why it's there) I got this down to 11GB. It did take a long time, but you can watch it working! I let it run overnight, so not sure exactly how long the 4000 files took to complete.

I honestly can't tell the difference for casual listening and objective achieved. My 64GB devices now have about 35GB of my data, total, leaving plenty for everything else. Furthermore, I no longer have to move files around when switching between phones which have 128GB and 64GB internal storage, have been able to create more space on my Film/TV microSD for more content and can either plug that in (for devices with no card slot), put it in the tray (or not) depending on projected use. I'm free to use 64GB devices again - and maybe to even consider that Pixel 3a XL!

Abigail (2024)

A bunch of lowly hoods are brought together in the typical nobody-knows-each-other style, not supposedly sharing anything about themselves, ...