Monday 29 August 2022

Pieces of Her (2022)

This Netflix 8-part mini-series is a crime story with elements of whodunit thrown in, thrills and spills! Based on the book by Karin Slaughter it has been produced here by writer Charlotte Stoudt - and an excellent job she has done.

We follow the life of Laura Oliver and her daughter Andy as initially our job is to try and unpick the complex relationship which exists between them, why Andy appears to be so bitter towards her mum yet devoted and loving too. As you would expect, there are reveals all along the way as the audience is doled out various snippets of information, via flashbacks and current events.

Laura is played by the always-excellent Toni Collette (Nightmare Alley, Unbelievable, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Stowaway) who shines here, steals the show and gives us a delightful, rich and full performance. She is terrifically convincing and pulls out all the stops when emotional expression is demanded. Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows, Relic) is not far behind with another excellent performance as Andy, mostly convincing with the material - and attractive to watch.

The third stand-out performance for me was by Jessica Barden (The End of the F***ing World, The Lobster, Hanna) who plays Laura as a younger woman via plenty of flashbacks, as the story is filled out and reveals lined up. I think she's also very impressive, the Brit actress who already has a huge body of work behind her, starting out in her early days on Coronation Street!

The first few episodes bombard the viewer with much confusion in an apparently complex plot which only starts to sort itself out from about halfway through the episodes. Rest assured though, hang on in there and the threads do come together with the reveals and surprises nicely paced to keep the viewer interested and alert. But you need to pay attention so as to not miss key elements!

It's quite hard to say what's going on without introducing spoilers, but at the outset, we're presented with Laura, who's been married to Gordon (who is not Andy's father but appears to have been present for much of Andy's life before his divorce with Laura) trying hard to connect with Andy who seems happy to float along through life with not much ambition. 

Although the show is indeed about relationships, that's not the main story here which is more about how they all got to where they are, Laura's upbringing by a controlling and abusive father - alongside a manipulative brother as she tries to escape the clutches of the powerful and monied family, how this now impacts Andy and how much she knows about the past which Laura seems reluctant to share fully.

Back in the day, the young version of Laura had a boyfriend called Nick who her father hugely disapproved of as he was not business-minded and money-orientated like him, but rather more of an activist against the capitalism rife in America, trying to make a stand for different values and unpick capitalism. Most of the coverage of Nick is executed via flashbacks during his time with the young Laura as he tries to draw her away from the family and into his world. I've said enough! Watch and enjoy the unfolding.

There are some 'unlikely' decisions made by some of the characters during the process, putting themselves into situations of silly danger (especially when Andy goes 'on the run' in one part of the show) which most people would not consider in real life, but I guess that's the nature of thrillers! It doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the show or from being on the edge of your seat now and again!

It's very nicely shot and produced, the supporting acting by most is very well done and the storyline is interesting and often thrilling. Karin Slaughter is one of those crime writers that I'm aware of, in the same bracket as Val McDermid, so you can expect a well-constructed/paced plot, gripping turns and outcomes. Very nicely done all round. Watch and enjoy the three main leads. Recommended.

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Men (2022)

I had been looking forward to seeing this, as I do anything with Jessie Buckley (I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Fargo) starring. I didn't know quite what to expect, however, apart from knowing that it's a bit of a spook-fest, horror-cum-thriller set in the UK with a mainly British cast.

I've come to the end of it and am still not quite too sure what to think of it! It's a project by Alex Garland who was previously responsible for the ideas making up Ex_Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) - so if you know those, you'll have got an idea of what might be in store. Or will you?

We follow Harper who has recently gone through a traumatic marriage situation, which she tried to get out of, but her husband James threatened to kill himself if she did and lavish guilt on Harper in the process. We see these angry and beautifully acted scenes between the two of them via flashback. The first thing to say is that whatever you think of the storyline, ideas and outcome of the film, the acting is top-notch from the leads. You'll need to know at this point that James does indeed die and Harper heads off to the English countryside and hires a Manor house for a couple of weeks with a view to recovering from the trauma and getting break from London.

She gets to the house and weird stuff starts to happen. It's going to be really difficult to not spill the beans here so I shall tread carefully, but we move through the film in three parts. The first part is her getting to know the surroundings, some of the locals, trying to rest up. The second part is where we start to see her up against some very odd behaviour from some of the local people and the third part is where the chaos happens and the viewer wonders what on earth is going on!

The significant locals in question are all played by Rory Kinnear (The Imitation Game, a few of the James Bond films, Peterloo) made up in various disguises and he pulls that off excellently well throughout - even when he's really too old to play one of the characters. The characters, one by one, make Harper's life even more miserable than it was with James - and herein lies the ambiguity and questions about what really happens as we go forward.

We've seen many films where we're left to guess half the time whether what we're seeing is what is really happening, or perhaps a jaded view of reality through the eyes of one of the characters, and we're left with that situation here. I guess it must be a spoiler alert to say that the audience is left to wonder even after the finale, to some degree. Sorry!

There are themes running through the film though. The main one being guilt - as Harper is wrapped up with herself over the death of James and it's all coming back to haunt her. There are apparent parallels going on with regards to rebirth, religion, the historic roles of women, the earth, evil behaviour of men (and other males) and new life. As we head towards the finale, the whole outing turns into sheer horror as we are exposed to something like Cronenberg might have churned out! Say no more.

The setting lends itself to spooky, isolated as she is in a big country house alone and Garland makes the most of that, exploiting every nook and cranny of the house, working nicely with cinematography, lighting and colours. It's beautifully shot with great visuals, outside and in with music helping to create the atmosphere nicely.

It's an odd film, now available via various streaming services which can be enjoyed for the central performances and direction. What will be taken away from it will be different for different people. To some degree you need to make your own mind up as to what's going on - and some might not be happy about that and want a more tangible outcome. But you can enjoy the ride. I did!

Saturday 20 August 2022

Island (2011)

This is a quirky little film which I picked up on over at Mubi, about a woman from London who was abandoned by her mother at birth who seeks revenge and heads to an offshore Scottish island to get it!

Mother, Phyllis, went off to live there, you see, and the island is where we pick up on the story as Nikki arrives on the ferry. We follow her as she tries to find out from the inhospitable islanders about a place to get digs while she pretends to be on a geography research trip. It just so happens that her birth mother has a card in the local shop window offering a room!

She arrives at the house, in the middle of nowhere, bangs on the door, negotiates the room and moves in. The mother doesn't know who she is, neither does her son, so she gets settled and starts to get to know them, looking for opportunities to do the deed - kill her! The son, Calum, is clearly her half-brother but as yet, nobody knows. Calum comes across as a simple chap, harmless, but later we find out that their mother controls his every move. Won't let him work or barely leave the house.

It's all very quirky and odd. Phyllis is cold, unfriendly and uncommunicative much of the time. She has cancer and is taking medication - so perhaps Nikki doesn't need to kill her after all! Calum and Nikki start to hang out together, firstly sparring defensively, not comfortable with each other being around but then things warm up between them and they become close, a bit like sister and brother in fact, but he still doesn't know the secret.

That's about it really, without giving away any of the reveals. It's slow and bleak, reflected by the landscape, people's attitudes and weather. Some lovely scenery is on show as you'd imagine spoiled a little for me by plenty of hand-held camera work. It's a dark tale which is apparently based on the novel of the same name by Jane Rogers, which I have not read, and clearly very low-budget. One scene when the pair of them are on a row-boat is laughable in terms of any realism. But it's full of atmosphere in this misty, dour setting.

Natalie Press (Suffragette, My Summer of Love) plays Nikki very convincingly - a nasty, bitter and revengeful person. Colin Morgan (Belfast, Legend, Testament of Youth) is equally well cast as he portrays the troubled, confused and resentful Calum and Janet McTeer (Ozark, Jessica Jones) plays the apparently twisted, sad and lonely Phyllis to near perfection. A bunch of bitter, negative characters reflecting how life has been pretty terrible for them. It's in the hands of the relatively inexperienced Elizabeth Mitchell and Brek Taylor but they do a good job pulling it together.

It's certainly worth a watch if you get the chance. As I said, it is on Mubi but can also be accessed by a few other streaming services at time of writing.

Friday 19 August 2022

Echo (2019)

This was a new one on me, discovered deep in the bowels of the Mubi catalogue, for which I currently have a subscription. It's a work of 56 vignettes eavesdropping, each one different, on a slice of life in Iceland for a few minutes at a time.

I didn't quite know what to expect from this 75 minute work (original title Bergmál) from Rúnar Rúnarsson but the first thing that struck me about the style was the work of Swedish director Roy Anderson. I have previously shared my thoughts about his works Being a Human Person, About EndlessnessA Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, You, The Living and Songs from the Second Floor. The young Icelandic Rúnarsson has had previous success with Sparrows (2015) and Volcano (2011).

The style to which I refer is the one where the camera in each scene is not moved. For Anderson, this was explained later as a technique to ensure visual continuity when locations were rejected in lieu of studio work alone. For Rúnarsson, I don't know! But the technique is an interesting one (also often used by Woody Allen) where the cast (or anything in the scene) does any of the required moving around, not the camera, and the angle of view is fixed. It works well with short-punchy scenes here.

The content of the 56 scenes are a potpourri of observations homing in on ordinary life with the only common theme being that it's based in Iceland around Christmas one year. Some are sad, some are funny, others poignant, bitter or angry - but each a fly-on-the-wall view of ordinary life. The order of the scenes wouldn't really have mattered as they all stand alone - there is no overall story, beginning or end.

The indoor scenes are colourful whilst the outdoor ones are generally cold and snowy as people go about their business preparing for Christmas, attending events, throwing parties and hurling fireworks. It dips into a reflective view of people having to be at work while others enjoy the season, as we focus on a couple of emergency services telephone operators and also the bin-men going about their duties amongst many others. The content of the numerous scenes and micro-stories is broad-ranging so I won't do a deep-dive here, rather encourage people to watch and enjoy.

The takeaways from the film are going to be different for every viewer - there's something for everyone. Some of the scenes will touch people emotionally, whilst the same scenes will be passed over by others depending on our life experiences. It's beautifully artistic in presentation and very nicely conceived throughout. It's supported by various pieces of music in some of the scenes, others are presented with impactful silence.

I'm not sure if all the people in all the scenes are actors, but many of them certainly come across as not being so - maybe if they are, then a sign of good acting! A very enjoyable short film it was. Something different and interesting with the hook-up to Roy Anderson for me, a big fan, an unexpected bonus. The Mubi service is highly recommended here for different, interesting and more artistic films - which often bypass the main streaming services.

Monday 15 August 2022

Google Pixel 6a

To some degree, as time moves on, you do get the feeling that a Pixel is a Pixel in the same way that an Apple user might say that an iPhone is an iPhone. Like a comfy pair of slippers, regardless of hardware variations, attributes and upgrades, the software experience is consistent and reassuring. So the question is, right now, how does the newly-released budget-orientated Pixel 6a fit in with the range?

I don't try to hide the fact that I'm right in bed there with Google and a Pixel advocate! I'm generally very supportive of most things Google does and eagerly await the newest Pixel as it arrives. It feels as though it's been put out there to challenge Apple's iPhone SE (2022) on price, but there are significant differences (apart from the obvious in software) in hardware too.

The iPhone is smaller, by some margin, has a lower-resolution LCD display (with no Always on Display) and smaller battery - though it does gain an advantage with wireless charging. No, I don't think that's the main competition. There's not really a Samsung model of the same size with similar features at a similar price, which takes us out to OnePlus (maybe the Nord series), Redmi, Realme, and any number of far-east branded devices. You know - I'm not really sure that there really is direct competition here, taking all elements into consideration.

The Pixel 6a is certainly a mid-ranger (other than chipset) and the most useful comparisons to be drawn here are probably against other Pixel phones from Google, how they stack up for features and whether or not the differences are reflected in the pricing to attract Joe Public. But first, let's have a gander at the package and device.

There's no charger in the miniscule, slim box nor earphones, (for 'tis the way it seems to be going) there is a USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, SIM Card Tray pokey tool, and a box with some papery bits which nobody ever looks at! Google PR have supplied a translucent case with the phone, which would set the user back another £25 but sadly, I'm not impressed. If you need a case (which I'll come to) I'd suggest a cheap-as-chips clear TPU, which will do a better job. The Google one is slippery, thick and made of some nasty material which makes the user's hands dry. Anyway, I'm sure some will like it and appreciate the extra protection.

The back of the phone is made of plastic and, as such, affords the user really good grip in the hand without a case at all. This will obviously depend on time of year and level of natural sweat/moisture in the skin, but for me, here, I'm very tempted to use the phone au naturel! Certainly around the house. The housing for the camera is a 'strip' across the phone near to the top, just like the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, but smaller. And that makes a huge difference as I was never very comfortable holding the phone in my hand with that 'ledge' in the way, even when cased. It felt clumsy and awkward. Here, it protrudes much less and comes across more like a design feature than anything functional.

Otherwise, the back (Chalk white here, though there's also Charcoal black and Sage green) is devoid of anything notable except for a faint Google 'G' in the middle. It slightly curves around to meet the aluminium frame which heads off around the edge with various antenna cut-outs along the way. On the left of the phone there is a SIM Card Tray (one NanoSIM but an eSIM can also be used), up-top just a microphone hole, on the left a solid-feeling volume 'rocker' and power button and at the bottom, two grilles (one is a microphone, not speaker) each side of the USB-C port.

The front curves as slightly as the back towards the flat front Gorilla Glass 3 protected screen which has small bezels - and a little extra on the chin. There's a selfie camera cut-out top-centre which is not as small as some, but also not as big as many, which sits below the other speaker, pairing up as the earpiece for telephone use.

The 178g phone feels very well made, solid, sturdy and robust. It has been rated IP6/7 for dust/water so can be used in all-but extreme conditions without much concern. Don't use it as a football though - this is no Nokia XR20! In terms of overall size, it's a bit taller and wider than my Pixel 5 here, but really not by much. It's smaller than the Pixel 6 (and 6 Pro of course) and is the better for that as a pocket-friendly phone. It's very similar in size to the Pixel 4a 5G in most dimensions.

The front panel is an OLED, 6.1" 1080p with a 20:9 ratio returning 429ppi. I'm comparing it here with my Pixel 5 for brightness, colours, saturation, all aspects that I can view, and I can't tell the difference really. If I were pushed I would say that the 6a is a tad brighter, but there's really not much in it. Where there is a difference is in the refresh-rate of the screen, the 5 having 90Hz and 6a, stuck back down on 60. I still can't tell the difference when pushing the units in all the usual test-scenario ways, so those who can must have better and/or younger eyes than me. Taking that into account, I think it's been a smart money-saving decision. Outside in sunlight, the screen is perfectly usable as the auto-brightness ramps up, just like the Pixel 5. No complaints about the screen - it's very nice.

The fingerprint scanner on the Pixel 5 is superb. Capacitive, instant, perfect. First time, every time. Unfortunately, optical scanners under glass, such as that on the Pixel 6a, have still not come of age and that processing time is, quite simply, a lag. Don't get me wrong, it works 100% of the time, but you just have to leave your finger in place for the best part of a second for it to do so. Some may not be bothered by this, but coming from the old-fashioned way, it does irk slightly! To make matters worse, Google still haven't brought us simple Face Unlock, which so many competitors have done, which would have made a huge difference. Many phones now bypass the irritation of slow fingerprint scanners because when you look at the screen you're in anyway. Apparently Google are working on this but are still concerned about the security aspects. Perhaps it will come as a software update - after all, the camera is there waiting.

As usual, the Pixel software gives us an Always on Display, which is great. Not customisable in the way that Samsung and Co. offer users, but it works very well and the choices in place made by Google about what to show (clock, day, date, month, weather, notifications, fingerprint scanner target, battery info.) are good ones. There's also the fabulous Now Playing of course, which can be enabled in Settings - where Google will identify (within the parameters of their directory) what music is playing around you. Very useful and addictive!

You also get supporting features like Double-tap-to-wake and Lift-to-wake, user-assignable double-tap-the-back of the phone (within certain boundaries) though I noticed that whilst my Pixel 5 has a torch option for that, the 6a doesn't. I have the Pixel 5 on Android 13 Beta, so that might be significant.

The Backup/Restore worked pretty well from the Pixel 5 (as I’d expect from Pixel-to-Pixel) and apart from some quirks (even odd ones like my Wallpaper and Share defaults in Google Feed), it gets me up and running just like I was on the 5, very quickly. Plenty of Apps now auto-sign-in (like Reddit, I noticed this time - no user-input needed at all, like Netflix has done for ages), so they’re getting towards the Apple standards. Keep it going!

When I fired up the phone I was presented with Android 12 and June 2022 Google Security Update (it's now the middle of August). The updates will come and eventually slot in with existing schedules for other Pixel phones. When new hardware is released, this always happens as Google irons out early bugs and only add the fixes to the mainstream when they are confident. The fabulous part about this topic is the commitment from Google going forward, trying their best to ensure that their new hardware keeps up with what Apple are doing. Guaranteed Security updates to July 2027 for the Pixel 6a - and Android 15 (or maybe even 16 by the time we get to Autumn 2025).

Another difference between the Pixel 5 and 6a is that the latter is armed with the Tensor chipset, like the 6 and 6 Pro. To be honest, I always felt as though the SnapDragon 765G (7nm) was perfectly functional in terms of speed of operation for the Pixel 5 but the Tensor (5nm) brings other benefits to, working closely with upcoming features in software to ensure the user gets the best experience as Google pushes out changes and upgrades. So, some future-proofing for sure which will eventually mean the Pixel 5 will age. There's also 6GB RAM instead of 8GB on the Pixel 5, but that's fine. I don't see any issues with multi-tasking between open apps or stuff not being kept open in the background long enough. It's well-balanced.

What I'm not very happy about is the heat that the Pixel 6a generates when under load, gaming heavily, copying files from one place to another, updating large batches of Play Store Apps (like the onslaught during initial setup) and, more worryingly, when charging. The phone doesn't get so hot that you can't hold it, but it's certainly very, very warm under load which doesn't happen at all with the Pixel 5 - nor did I notice it with the 6 or 6 Pro. Trickle-charging at 18W helps of course (and doesn't incur these heating problems), but then Google are up against many newcomers from the east where Fast Charging is all the thing. Current champion being the Poco F4 GT racing from 0-100% in 17 minutes with zero heating issues when doing so. And if Google are not going to provide a charger, people are going to expect to use whatever charger is handy - which could be a 100W unit!

Talking of charging, there is no Qi Wireless charging here with the Pixel 6a (like all a-series Pixels), which is present with all the main Pixel phones. For a few quid on the price, I don't really see why not - but then I'm no phone engineer. It's got a plastic back, too, and 18W charging which would lend itself to nice, slow, overnight charging on a Qi stand by the bed. Shame.

The battery is a 4,410mAh unit which is bigger than my current champion for battery life, the Pixel 5, which has 4,080mAh. The Pixel 5 battery remains stunning, even two years on from new. I haven't treated it with cotton wool either. All those adaptive-this and saving-that functions I turned off long ago to try to ensure notification continuity. I've charged it all night, every night too, so it's been sat on a Qi charger long after it would have got to 100% - and it is still fabulous. I usually conduct two tests on batteries, my 10% Reading Test and Average Day for Me test.

The 10% Reading Test is just that - read stuff on the phone's screen, news, social media, books, whatever you like - just no heavy use of video, music or gaming etc. Start off with the phone freshly charged and time how long it takes to get to the 90% mark. Yes, I know, these gauges are not hugely accurate, and everyone will do it differently, and it might perform differently between 100-90% than 50-40% - so I conduct a series of these over time and consider the playing field relatively level. Anyway, the result is that with the Pixel 5 I can get about two and a half hours and the Pixel 6a, about the same. So that's great!

The Average Day for Me test is very good, with about 32 hours between charges with 2-3 hours of screen-on-time, or 24 hours with 6 hours SoT. This is not as good as the Pixel 5 which can be relied on for more like 48 hours and 4-6 hours of SoT. So, if pushed with the Pixel 5, a user could be frugal and last 2 long days - with the Pixel 6a, more like a day and a half or so. Still, very decent returns though and streets ahead of tests done over the last couple of years with, for example, Samsung phones. It just seems that the Pixel 5 does better for longer, if needed.

Where the Pixel 6a leaves the 5 behind is with the speakers. The sound output from the Pixel 6a is very good, if not maybe quite up to the Pixel 6 Pro level. I would say that they are every bit as good as the Pixel 6's though. They offer a loud enough output for personal use with excellent stereo separation, producing a wide and engaging soundstage when held 12-18" in front of the listener. OK, so in isolation if you listen to each of the speakers separately you can tell that the bottom-firing (right) speaker is louder and richer, but balanced in software, away from the test-bench, it sounds just fine.

The Pixel 5 sadly had one of the speakers firing from behind the screen which always resulted in a muffled mess to many users, so it's a win for the Pixel 6a on volume. There's no system-wide sound enhancement on either phone, so what you get is what you get through the speakers, unless you dabble with equalisation via apps to add this functionality, such as PowerAmp. Overall, I'm very impressed with the sound output via speakers of the Pixel 6a, a step up from the 5 and even, I think the Pixel 6 (though I don't have one to hand in order to hear it again).

Turning to headphones, there's no 3.5mm Audio-Out socket so I'm testing with a DAC-equipped dongle and all was well. It’s a shame Google doesn’t ship its £10 dongle in the box anymore, mind you. But price is key here, so… Testing with my Sony WH1000-XM4 headphones for Bluetooth audio next, which is loud and fabulous quality - a great experience with Bluetooth 5.2 onboard. It's also working well with Bluetooth speakers, pairs quickly, remembers devices etc. all of which we've now come to expect.

When it comes to Pixel cameras, you can expect the same top quality from the whole line. The camera software is where it all happens and the results are excellent, even in challenging light conditions. It remains great fun to shoot a low-light photo, quickly switch to the review and watch as the magic is applied and your photo is transformed from a dingy mess into something much, much better! The main camera is a 12MP f1.7 unit with OIS and is supported by another 12MP wide-angle snapper with an f2.2 aperture. There's 4K video shooting available at 60fps (with OIS) and an 8MP selfie round the front.

There's the usual excellent Portrait Mode of course, Night Sight and Google Lens for other fancy functions, the ability to shoot in RAW if you like (plus JPEG too) and some limited ability to turn off the auto/AI stuff for those who really want to - though this is no Sony Xperia virtual-dSLR! So, bells and whistles to be found elsewhere but what Google does and does well, is making the absolute best out of what it's presented with by using a world of experience via algorithms to ensure that we the users end up with the most usable and pleasing results. And it works. Kudos.

My colleague at Phones Show ChatSteve Litchfield, concluded in his YouTube Short that even though the camera is a generation behind the Pixel 6/6 Pro units it's well-tuned and excellent. For a deep-dive into all the nitty-gritty, samples and analysis I'm going to point you once again towards our friends at GSMArena where they do all that and conclude much as we have, that for phone photography, you can't go wrong these days with a camera in a Pixel.

To round up some of the odds and ends, connectivity seems solid with GPS locking onto locations quickly, holding on and refreshing well, WiFi is reliable in tests here (with 6e available for anyone who can make use of it), similarly the 4G (sadly I don't live in the right location to test 5G but others report it working well) for voice and data, and NFC hooks up as it should to other equipment, with Google Pay being the most useful application of the system these days, it seems!

I guess I should mention that there's no microSD Card slot for users here, though I'm sure if you're reading this you will know that Google has been trying to abandon that system for years now and force people to do everything online, connected at all times. On a similar theme, there's only 128GB of storage onboard with no option for more. I think a 256GB version for an extra £50 would be a great option which many would take up. There's also no HDMI-Out support, again, Google wanting us online, not using cables! Shame.

What you do get here, of course, is a version of Google's own software which integrates perfectly with all of their own apps and services. It may not be the same 'Vanilla' of old (now reserved for remaining Nokia AndroidOne devices it seems) but even with what Google are doing with Pixel phones over and above, you still get the feeling of inclusion at every step along the way. Close to the beating heart of what they are doing. What they are trying out, access to betas, for good and bad, guinea pig as you might feel.

It's a different approach to Apple where customers expect a finished and perfectly functioning experience on Day 1 - with a Pixel it's much more a question of being along for the ride, test stuff out and see what sticks! Feeling like a part of that evolution is really rewarding, whine as we might when things go wrong or Google decide to drop a project when we think it has legs. You're either onboard with the mentality or you're not!

The Pixel 6a is a nicely-sized phone, not too big for most, has a nice feature-set, a good sized battery, nice screen, great cameras, decent speakers and a very good build with water and dust resistance. A very capable mid-range phone, if you want to label it on price. Yes, there are some niggles, as outlined above, but here we are now at the price - in the UK it's £399. And that's just where it should be, no doubt settling down in a few months to £349.

For what it is, it's an absolute steal - and as I said at the outset, really doesn't have a rival, certainly in the Android world. And the jewel in the crown is the long, long support offered to purchasers who can have the confidence in Google that they won't be abandoned after a year or so, of which some others have been guilty.

Tuesday 2 August 2022

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)

I kept meaning to give this low-budget Brit-flick a look and discovered it this week on Disney Plus. It's a kidnap crime thriller with many things going for it, but mostly the claustrophobic setting, looking like it's probably come from a stage play.

It's the story of Alice, who is the daughter of a rich bloke, who is kidnapped for ransom by a couple of hoods who have met during a spell in prison and hatched this plan for the future when they get out. The story unfolds as we go, reveals upon reveals about who they are, what they are, who she is, what she is, her relationship with her father and a whole bunch of other stuff which I won't spoil here for you.

The first few minutes of the film are executed in eerie silence as not a word is said, but we witness them putting into place the environment where the deed will be done, a flat in what seems to be the UK somewhere. When the dialogue does get going, we soon find out that one of the criminals is a ruthless, hard-nosed and aggressive character - clearly the 'leader' of the two. The other is obviously more passive and seems to be led, taken along with the plan to some degree by the other.

Eddie Marsan as Vic is almost unrecognisable compared to the last time I saw him as Passive John May in Still Life, but also Tyrannosaur, The Illusionist, Mission: Impossible 3 and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. He's nasty, driven and psychotic here. The mark of a good actor, I guess, turning his hand to the demands of very different roles. Martin Compston is the passive criminal Danny, who we will know from plenty of Brit outings including Line of Duty and The Nest. He plays his part equally well, very differently.

The kidnapped girl is played by Gemma Arterton (Summerland, My Zoe) and the audience sees plenty of her as the hoods tie her to a bed, strip her off and photograph her for the ransom video/photos. It's cold, methodical and frightening. Nasty people doing nasty things to another person. She plays the role with conviction.

As you will imagine, not everything goes to plan and this becomes the bones of the story. We can enjoy those reveals, twists and turns as the players' characters play out this tragic tale. One could argue that the amount of 'unknowns' is unlikely and that the filmmakers have tried to make more of a story than it should have been to retain credibility, but not too much so. Go with it!

J Blakeson is the director, more recently known for I Care A Lot, and he keeps things tight as we all become crammed into the apartment with the characters, on top of each other, rarely meandering outside. It's nicely shot and he does a good job getting the required performances out of the actors.

It's an edge-of-the-seat thriller to some degree, if over the top and unlikely in parts, but it remains an edgy thriller with very good performances from the three actors. As I said at the outset, I saw it on Disney Plus but it's also available on most streaming services now, thirteen years on.

Monday 1 August 2022

Ballad of a White Cow (2021)

It seems that Iranian writer, director and actress Maryam Moghadam was the brains behind this slow-burning drama set in Tehran as she plays the lead role and appears in pretty much every scene. There's some interesting films coming out of Iran these days which teach us much about the culture and social attitudes.

The opening frames have us believe that the film is about a woman who's husband, Babak, is in jail, awaiting execution on Death Row for a crime he didn't commit (even though he's been convinced that he did it, by himself or others). But it's really not so much about that it is an insight into the prejudices and stigma that the wife has to endure at the hand of the authorities and people around her - regardless of how she became a widow.

As it turns out, he was wrongly convicted and the judge who made the mistake is observed throughout the film fighting with his conscience and moral fibre over his error. This character study makes for another thread being weaved through the tale, which ends up with him trying to repay the woman (Mina) and her (deaf) daughter Bita, with money, favours and even housing when the world turns against them. But he didn't reveal who he was to them, rather introduced himself as a friend of her husband's who owed her husband money.

Incident after incident start to envelop her life, much of it to do with the expected role of women in society - the 'second place' they appear to take to men and people's social fear of being seen to be 'siding' with her. At one point, she is evicted from her rented flat because the landlord has seen the judge going into the house, unaccompanied by a relative. Further, it is alleged that she is not a fit mother now, so is dragged through court to fight for her right to keep what's left of her family together.

She is further batted around between government officials as she tries to clear her husband's name and get the authorities to admit their error - instead of writing it off as something that 'must be in (their) god's plan if it happened', evading responsibility. And there we enter into another issue regarding social control and expected behaviour/standards (particularly by/for women). The whole film's message really is about women being totally dependent on men and how the society is set up to not afford them equality. It doesn't openly criticise the social structure through the players, who are all passive to their plight and situation, but merely observes and reports to the viewer.

Moghadam is clearly the best actor here with a quite excellent performance throughout, supported ably by Avin Poor Raoufi (Bita) and Alireza Sani Far as Reza, the wretched judge-in-breakdown. As I say, it's a slow-burner, but keeps you hooked in until the quite unexpected final scenes and outcome. It's tastefully shot with leanings toward arthouse through contemplative cinematography. The setting is hot, dry and dusty inner city mostly and it's all bleakly coloured in whites and greys.

I caught it on Mubi, which seems like the only place to legitimately watch it just now unless you find it at a cinema. Recommended.

PodHubUK Podcasts for the Month of July 2022

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

Phones Show Chat
Episode 702 - A Trio of Duos
Saturday 2nd July
Steve and I welcome Jeremy Harpham back this week as we have a bit of a Duo Special! Not to worry though if you're not interested as there's plenty of other stuff too from AIO to Z-Flip and much between! Stay Nerdy, My Friends!

Tech Addicts Podcast
Sunday 3rd July
Gareth and I back again with more of what has caught our eye in tech this week. Plenty to chew over for more than 2hrs again this week! Anyone Desire an HTC? A shrunken Nokia? Want to modernise a Mod? Or just settle for a Legion of Doom and take up VLogging by TikTok and Snapchat?!

Whatever Works
Episode 165 - Aidan's Ailing Apex!
Friday 8th July
We're back! Aidan has returned, tissue in hand(!), as he and I bring you another fortnightly roundup of Whatever Works for us and you in our spritely community! All sorts as usual (though no liquorice) from airless tyres to smart dice, rip-off airports to gooseneck coppers and much more besides! Do join us for an hour and enjoy the fun.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 703 - The Green Smartphone
Saturday 9th July
Steve and I welcome back Mike Halsey this week to chat about all things green, eco-friendly and discusses what we can do to help - especially related to phones. Plus the usual round of news, features and views.

Tech Addicts Podcast
Sunday 10th July
Gareth and I bring you this weekend's last show before the summer break, so why not join us as we go fumbling through tech stuff and news for a while. A new Chromecast Audio, GameSir, HTC Tablet, super-fast-charging IQOO, Tasky, Infinity, Lite - all up for grabs and loads more. Available via the link here and your podcatcher. Enjoy your July folks - we'll be back on the last day of it!

Projector Room
Episode 116 - The Swiss Staircase
Wednesday 13th July
Allan, Gareth and I are back again with our fortnightly look at all things film, cinema and TV. This time we take on The Boys vs Man vs Bees, Miserably walk out of the cinema and discuss The Details on The Staircase. Loads more of course and a good natter too!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 704 - Nothing but a Poco
Friday 15th July
Ben Wood joins Steve and I again this week, this time to chat about his hands-on with the Nothing phone (1) having attended the launch and used it as his Primary since. Loads of good chat about that and much more as always, including the arrival at PSC Towers of the Poco F4 GT.

Whatever Works
Episode 166 - Space Bubbles!
Friday 22nd July
Aidan and I are here to taunt you again for an hour in our fortnightly delve into Whatever Works for us and you. This time we find solutions for fighting heatwaves, steaming our veg., folding clothes, playing with origami and even fighting off vampires sucking up electrolytes!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 705 - MotorSportsFan
Saturday 23rd July
Steve and I welcome back Chris Kelly this week as we get the inside line on all things motoring, biking, mapping and connectivity on the move! Loads of the usual stuff as well of course as I ponder a Poco and Steve Astro-slides!

Projector Room
Episode 117 - The Omega Outfit
Wednesday 27th July
Gareth, Allan and I are here again with another look at all things film, cinema and TV. We tame The Sea Beast in our best Outfit, discover there's No Exit from the Arctic as we invoke The Thaw at Ice Station Zebra then assign Brian and Charles to The Terminal List! Loads more as always, so do join us!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 706 - Moto trumps Poco
Saturday 30th July
Steve and I are here again this week (yes, just the two of us) for a bit of a catch-up! I've been reviewing the Poco F4 GT, Steve's been tinkering with MagSafe charging while I get fed up with Nokia's take on Qi!

Tech Addicts Podcast
Sunday 31st July
Hello! We're back! Gareth and I here again to take up where we left off, tormenting you with tinctures of tech! This week we watch the optical nosedive, consider crazy contraptions, edit our video on a Chromebook and look forward to a flippin' Razr! Plus loads more of course in our bumper return edition!

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