james debate
james debate

Tuesday 28 December 2021

debbie debbies end of year awards 2021 covid coronavirus best films music
In the blogosphere, the goss is dished by two separate yet equally important groups: The guy who writes the blog, and the people who read it. These are their stories: The Debbie Awards.

In 2021, the world opened up just that little bit more. We may not yet be totally free from the yoke of this petty little germ, but 2021 was nevertheless a year that allowed us to reconnect with family and old friends, to relearn how to socialise and wear hard pants again. It was a year in which arts and culture returned to the world and the entrepreneurial spirit began to rebuild and forge progress once again. To be sure, it was also a year of further loss and setbacks, but I head into 2022 with far greater optimism than I have felt in a while, and I hope you will too.

So without further ado, let the curtain fall at long last upon 2021 as we begin our definitive review of the past 12 months:

2021 Debbie Awards

Cinema & TV

1. The Debbie for TV Show of the Year 
Winner: Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Runner Up: Sex Education (Netflix)

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It was last year's most surprising hit. In 2021, it smashed the awards season records and became the first major success of Apple's nascent TV division. Ted Lasso is simply the best thing on TV right now. Funny, easy to watch, and blessed with some of the finest character writing in recent comedy history. From very rough source material, Bill Lawrence has crafted a very special series, a treasure of a show the likes of which does not come along very often.

One of Netflix's most underrated series. Sex Education is wickedly funny, brilliantly performed, and one of the most uniquely stylish series in recent memory. A surreal yet inherently relatable Anglo-American teen fantasy, the third season finds the series in fine form with deeper character development and plenty of heartfelt humour.

2. The Debbie for New TV Show of the Year 
Winner: It's a Sin (Channel 4)
Runner Up: Wandavision (Disney+)

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If there is one thing that 2021 has not lacked, it is good new TV series. This has once again been among the hardest categories to decide. But ultimately there was one series that stood out, Russell T. Davies' latest miniseries, It's a Sin. Davies is on an astonishing run of form lately, having put out Years and Years and A Very English Scandal in recent years, but his latest might just be the best of the bunch. This brutally honest depiction of the AIDS crisis may be difficult watching at times, but it is exquisitely performed, with a stylish portrayal that is as gripping as it is devastating.

Winner of this hard fought runner up prize will be WandaVision. At a time when Marvel projects are a dime a dozen, it's remarkable just how much this series, based on one of the relatively lesser known characters in the franchise, distinguishes itself from the pack. WandaVision is bold, inspired television, equal parts mystery and nostalgia, and simply impeccable in its production, writing and performances. While there were other very worthy shows that could have taken this prize, WandaVision just about edges it.

3. The Debbie for Film of the Year 
Winner: Belfast
Runner Up: Free Guy

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Belfast is an absolutely extraordinary film. Writer/director Kenneth Branagh's love letter to his hometown, set in Belfast during the turbulent 1960s period that gave rise to the Troubles. Great filmmakers manage to find the beauty even in tragic settings, and Branagh has done that here. A remarkably uplifting story featuring peerless performances, especially from its young star, and some of the finest direction and camera work that I have seen in years. Branagh's best film by some margin in a distinguished career.

A very surprising runner up this year. Like many, when I heard the concept of Free Guy, a videogame NPC becomes self-aware, I expected some good, geeky fun. What I was not expecting was a film that is really quite clever, disarmingly heartfelt, and just an all-around very effectively told story. Add to this impressive visuals and some great comedic performances, particularly the endlessly charismatic Ryan Reynolds, and you have a winning film. Other films may aspire to more ambitious subject matter, but there is no denying the expertise with which this film has been crafted in just about every department, nor can it be beat for pure enjoyment.

4. The Debbie for Variety Show Host of the Year 
Winner: Stephen Colbert, Late Show

colbert late show talk show host of the year 2021

Every talk show host has their own strengths and identity, but in terms of pure stage talent there are few more impressive than Stephen Colbert. The return of live audiences this year has clearly allowed Stephen to operate in his comfort zone once more, after a somewhat awkward 2020, and his riffing with the (now award-winning superstar) Jon Batiste has tightened up considerably. These politically charged times, in particular, seem to suit Colbert - to be expected given his history on Comedy Central - and it is with these recurring segments and monologues where his Late Show shines brightest.

5. The Debbie for Hollywood Rising Star of the Year 
Winner: Simu Liu

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One year ago, probably very few people outside of Canada had heard of Simu Liu. Now he's one of the most recognisable movie stars of 2021 following his breakthrough Hollywood role in Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It's been a good year for Liu, who has also seen his long-running sitcom Kim's Convenience achieve new prominence in its final season. The man has charisma, a comedic timing, and leading man presence. It will be interesting to see what he does next, but he has the potential to become a very big deal indeed..

6. The Debbie for YouTube Channel of the Year 
Winner: LEMMiNO

debbies youtube channel of the year lemmino 2021

Swedish YouTube personality David Wångstedt, better known by his handle LEMMiNO, has long been one of my favourite content producers on the site. Focused on short-form educational content, typically on the subject of well known mysteries and historical miscellanea (previous videos have covered everything from MH370, to Cicada 3301, and the origins of "the cool S"), LEMMiNO's videos stand out for their slick presentation and their impressive amount of depth and research. In 2021, the channel achieved a new highpoint with its first piece of long-form content, an hour long documentary on Jack the Ripper. It is an extraordinary piece of content and provides one of the best analyses of the cold case that you can find anywhere.

Music, Art & Theatre

7. The Debbie for Theatrical Production of the Year 
Winner: Leopoldstadt (Wyndham's Theatre)

leopoldstadt wyndham best theatre 2021

With the world reopening in 2021, top of my "welcome back" list was to get back out to the theatre, and fortunately I managed to do so a few times this year. The highlight has been Tom Stoppard's excellent new, and allegedly final, play Leopoldstadt. An emotional and loosely autobiographical tale, Leopoldstadt follows a Jewish family in Austria along the turbulent arc of the first half of the 20th Century, from the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire to the genocides at the hands of far-right extremists during World War II. Impeccably produced and performed. A particular focus on the domestic lives of these people only imbues the story with greater resonance and leaves the audience with a haunting, lasting impression.

8. The Debbie for Album of the Year 
Winner: Pressure Machine - The Killers
Runners Up: Lost in the Cedar Wood - Johnny Flynn, Screen Violence - Chvrches

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It is extremely unusual in this day and age for an artist to release two albums in such short order. Pressure Machine came less than a year after The Killers' previous album, Imploding the Mirage, courtesy of an apparent lockdown-induced creativity surge. But any concerns that this would be a rush job or album of B-sides has proven to be premature. On the contrary, Pressure Machine represents arguably the band's most complex and ambitious release to date, particularly from a musical perspective. From the lush strings of West Hills, to the greatest instrumental solo the band has yet produced at the end of In the Car Outside, to the titular Pressure Machine, an instant classic. While Brandon Flowers' broad brush isn't always the best suited for telling so reflective a tale, the end result is nevertheless an album of impressive depth and surprising longevity, even if the individual tracks rarely prove as viscerally exciting as some of his bigger hits.

Someone who is blessed with a nuanced songwriting ability is folk singer and sometimes actor Johnny Flynn. His latest album, Lost in the Cedar Wood sees a collaboration with nature writer Robert Macfarlane and the result is a memorable slice of bucolic majesty. An upbeat and bluesey folk album written at a time of global isolation, Flynn gazes longingly and nostalgically at the world around him, but manages to find the optimism in these sentiments. The result is nothing short of uplifting, whether it's in the form of Gilgameshian journey Gods and Monsters to the glorious hobo's rockabilly of Ten Degrees of Strange, and the gorgeous The World to Come. This is a great album.

For our second runner up we have Screen Violence, the latest from Chvrches and perhaps their most cogent work to date. This is an album that feels very current, an unflinching look at modern anxieties that I suspect many people will find all too relatable, from feminist anthem Good Girls to the distinctly #MeToo He Said, She Said. It also helps that the music is pretty damn good, embracing the synth-pop stylings that have helped the band stand out over the years, only this time with a darker, more acerbic tinge. Screen Violence is a bold, defiant piece of work that deserves to rank among the finest of 2021.

9. The Debbie for Debut Album of the Year 
Winner: Come Over - Kowloon
Runner Up: Collapsed in Sunbeams - Arlo Parks

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Kowloon is one of those artists that has been kicking around a couple of years, slowly building up hype through word of mouth and Internet EPs. In 2021, he finally released his debut LP, Come Over, and it is as delightful a slice of chilled out indie pop as you will find. An intimate, low-fi work that demonstrates an impressive level of finesse for a newcomer. It's a solid album throughout, but with standout tracks in Paradise, Walk With Me, and Wake Up.

Close behind is Arlo Parks, a name we are likely to be hearing much in the coming years. Her debut LP Collapsed in Sunbeams delivers the kind of intimate and broadly relatable bedroom pop that was always likely to strike a chord with the wider public. Parks has had a sensationally successful year, winding up on many music critics' lists of the most exciting new performers in the country.

10. The Debbie for Song of the Year 
Winner: Coloratura - Coldplay
Runners Up: Ritchie Sacramento - Mogwai, Be and Bring Me Home - Neko Case

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On what was otherwise a fairly underwhelming new album from Coldplay, Coloratura stands out as a memorable track. A spellbinding orchestral odyssey that hearkens back to some of the band's finest moments of years gone by. On an album that promised an ambitious metaphysical journey through the cosmos, Coloratura is one song that actually managed to deliver. In my view the best song of 2021.

Mogwai are a band that have been around for what seems like an eternity, but in 2021 they had one of their finest moments with the hit album As the Love Continues. The pick of the tracks from this album was lead single Ritchie Sacramento, a fuzzy, deeply satisfying piece of rock and roll that drips with nostalgia.

And lastly we have Neko Case's sublime cover of Roky Erickson's Be and Bring Me Home. The best covers manage to take a good piece of music and imbue them with fresh beauty, and Neko has done exactly that here. Wonderful.

11. The Debbie for Art Exhibition of the Year 
Winner: Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser - Victoria & Albert Museum

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The Victoria & Albert museum is on something of a roll in recent years, finding increasingly creative ways to marry its somewhat niche specialty with the kind of pop culture icons that shift tickets to the masses. In 2021, all the talk was about Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, a delightful adventure through the history of Lewis Carroll's work. The V&A's exhibition achieves something special here by managing tell the history and genesis of the work itself, also managing to explore the wider historical and social context. The curators have made excellent use of the space, bringing to life the surreal imagery of wonderland in impressive ways, making use of projector and VR technology.

12. The Debbie for Book of the Year 
Winner: Project Hail Mary - Andy Weir

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Andy Weir is still something of a new quantity in mainstream literature, having struck big with his debut The Martian, but failing to hit the same heights will his follow up Artemis. He is best known for a writing style that contrasts a high level of scientifically and technically accurate detail with humour and easily accessible wit. With his third novel, Project Hail Mary, I was expecting to find more of the same. What I was not expecting was the best "buddy" story I have read in years. 

Without wanting to give too much away, in PHM the sun is dying and, through an improbable series of events, high school teacher Ryland Grace finds himself stranded on a one-way mission to save the planet, using his seemingly inexhaustible scientific aptitude to puzzle his way out. If it all sounds a bit familiar to The Martian, don't worry. The similarities soon end and Weir takes the narrative in a very different and delightful direction. An exciting piece of work that I was sad to have finished.

Business & Technology

13. The Debbie for Scientific/Technological Breakthrough of the Year 
Winner: mRNA vaccines
Runner Up: The Mars helicopter

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Virology is, understandably, a hot area right now, and the biggest thing in this field currently is mRNA vaccines. The idea here is simple, instead of isolating attenuated viral components to stimulate an immune response, what if we had a vaccine that could simply tell the cells directly to produce the desired protein. This is accomplished by modification of mRNA, the messenger system of the cell. It might seem like a minor distinction, but it's an idea that could massively increase the efficiency and efficacy of our current viral treatments, and has also been suggested to have utility in cancer care. One of the reasons why our Coronavirus vaccination efforts have been so speedy and effective is because of the use of such technology, and there could be much more to come in the future.

Close in second, how can I not recognise the awesomeness of the Mars 2020 mission, particularly the success of Ingenuity, NASA's very own Mars helicopter. Far from just a cool gizmo, this mission will allow the coverage of greater distances and proof of concept for future aerial missions. More than anything, Ingenuity deserves to be celebrated for the marvel of engineering that it is, another example of how brilliantly creative humans can be in solving a problem.

14. The Debbie for Videogame Console of the Year
Winner: PS5

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Playstation 5 has, rightly, been the butt of many jokes over the past year. Despite launching in 2020, few had been able to get their hands on one until well into 2021. It was worth the wait, however. PS5 may be an tad unwieldy, and the lack of expandable storage is still a big oversight, but Sony's software and services have come on leaps and bounds since PS4, and the raw power of the system can't be faulted. Most important, however, is the software and in this regard PS5 is off to a bit of a stormer with definitive editions of the likes of Ghost of Tsushima and Final Fantasy VII Remake, and some great original exclusives like Spider-Man: Miles Morales.

15. The Debbie for Videogame of the Year 
Winner: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy (PC, Switch, Playstation, Xbox)
Runners Up: The Artful Escape (PC, Xbox), Sable (PC, Xbox)
Honourable Mentions: Ghost of Tsushima, Final Fantasy VII Remake Part I (PS5)

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This is definitely not a Debbie I expected to be giving, especially after the abysmal Avengers game Square gave us a couple of years back. But Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy truly earns this prize. Gone are the tedious grinding and forced MMO-style mechanics of Avengers, in favour of a slick, streamlined single-player focused campaign. But the real standout feature of GotG is the razor sharp writing that imbues the title with the type of humour that one identifies with the franchise. This game has the gags, the colours and the banging 1980s soundtrack that one would expect from GotG, what's not to like?

Sticking with a theme in second place is The Artful Escape, another light-hearted adventure through kaleidoscopic alien worlds with awesome music, albeit this time with a more indie flavour. This is Annapurna's long-gestating glam-rock platformer, in which players craft their own Bowie-esque stage persona and rock out across the galaxy. It's perhaps a tad simplistic as a game, but it is rollicking good fund and a dazzlingly satisfying sensory experience.

And a second runner up position goes to another indie, Shedworks' charming open-world adventure game Sable. Sable is that rare breed of a game that allows the player to go at their own speed and as far as they want. There's a world of opportunity out there, but ultimately the player decides when their journey has come to an end and there is something quite relaxing about that. Sable is also blessed with a gorgeously distinctive pen and ink visual style and lovely original soundtrack.

This year I am also taking the unprecedented step of naming some honourable mentions, specifically for the excellent PS5 games that would ordinarily have been in contention for top prizes in their year of release, were it not for the unfortunate console shortage that has prevented most people from experiencing them until now. Ghost of Tsushima and Final Fantasy VII Remake are both top titles worthy of recognition, and had Sony not bungled their console release they could well have won these prizes last year.

16. The Debbie for Company of the Year
Winner: Kind Jewellery

kind jewellery startup company of the year 2021

With this Debbie I like to award businesses that both deliver a good product and endeavour to enact positive change in their industry. Kind Jewellery creates jewellery of exceptional hand-crafted quality with some gorgeous designs. This quality is enough already to set them apart, but the brand's commitment to sustainability and ethical practices is especially worthy of praise. Fairmined and recycled metals, ocean diamonds, and a commitment to plant one tree for every item sold are just some of the initiatives taken to ensure that Kind Jewellery makes its mark on the industry without leaving a scar on the planet.


17. The Debbie for Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Mo Salah - Liverpool

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Let's be real here. Leo Messi is still a fantastic player, but to suggest that he's the footballer that has had the best year in 2021, a year divided into a first half of mediocrity with Barcelona and a second half of barely playing with PSG, is absurd. There are several players who could make a more credible claim for this prize than Messi: N'Golo Kanté, Robert Lewandowski among them. But in this football fan's view, for the current best player on the planet one can't look any further than Liverpool's Mo Salah

Already with 25 goals scored this season, having hit 30+ last season. Salah's Liverpool record of 110 goals in 167 league appearances is astonishing. There has only been one game this entire season where he has not either scored or created a goal. Salah is an absolutely terrifying player with speed, technique and a lethal end product. Messi may still have a great brand to his name, but if you want to win matches, there is no one you'd rather have on your team right now than Salah.

18. The Debbie for Under-21 Footballer of the Year 
Winner: Pedri - Barcelona

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Barcelona may be a club in shambles at the moment, but there is one bright light on the horizon for their fans. Midfielder Pedri has had a barnstorming 2021, a season that has seen him take his place as a central force in this new Barcelona side at the tender age of just 19. Despite his age, Pedri shows the maturity and poise of a more experienced playmaker. Finesse, vision and the uncanny ability to find space in any situation. Pedri is not just one for the future, he's already an excellent player.

19. The Debbie for Football Manager of the Year 
Winner: Thomas Tuchel - Chelsea

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It is hard to overstate the influence that Thomas Tuchel has had on Chelsea since his arrival last season. That is not to understate the significance of his predecessor, Frank Lampard, one of the few men who would have had the vision and courage to integrate Chelsea's hitherto much vaunted yet never tested youngsters into the first XI. But Tuchel's arrival has been the glue that brought all of Chelsea's raw talents together and formed them into a top level side. Midtable and leaky at the back when he arrived, Tuchel managed to take this team of exciting prospects and imbue them with a grit and organisation that has allowed them to compete with the very best in the world. A top four finish and stunning Champions League victory says everything about how effective he has been.

20. The Debbie for Football Club of the Year 
Winner: Chelsea FC

football club of the year 2021 chelsea

Yes, I am a Chelsea fan. But despite that, I have never awarded the club this prestigious Debbie. With good reason, Chelsea are typically a shambles of induced chaos, even when they're winning. Yet in 2021, with football giants all over the world stumbling through crisis after crisis, Chelsea have shockingly managed to stand tall as a beacon of a well run club, rearing an impressive side blended from youth products and astute transfer activity. The role that Chelsea (and particularly its fans) played in leading the counter movement against the ill-fated and disgraceful proposed Super League this year is just the cherry on top. For once, Chelsea seems to be the model of a well run modern club.

Current Events

21. The Debbie for Politician of the Year 
Winner: Stacey Abrams

stacey abrams politician of the year 2021

She may not yet be a household name, except among the political aficionados, but among those who know, Stacey Abrams is quickly building a reputation as one of the most shrewd and talented political entities in the country. 

Founder of Fair Fight, an organisation that places her on the forefront of the critical struggle against the voter suppression and political corruption that is so tragically endemic in certain regions of America. Her crowning moment in politics has surely been January 2021 and the off-year elections of two pro-democracy Senators in Georgia, the culmination of a previously unthinkable clean sweep of a typically deep-red state, of which she was largely seen as the mastermind. Yet there is the sense that this is only the beginning for Abrams. In 2022 she will run for Governor of the state. If she wins that, it will surely go down as one of the greatest shocks in American political history, and set her up for a certain future Presidential run.

22. The Debbie for Scandal of the Year 
Winner: Boris Johnson, Various

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It's rare in British politics to see one individual so singularly engulfed in so much scandal. But then Boris Johnson has always been something of a controversial figure. This latest furore appears to have come about as a perfect storm of incompetent pandemic management and a recurring disregard for his Government's own rules. It takes a very special kind of sliminess to enforce rigid restrictions on the general public, restrictions that while necessary have had a real human cost for many, whilst flouting them with contempt when it comes to your own wellbeing. Combine this with the constant air of sleaze that has dogged the Conservative Party in recent times and there is a very real sense that Boris' days in Number 10 could be coming to an end sooner rather than later, perhaps even at the hands of his own party members. A flaming catastrophe of his own making.

23. The Debbie for Cause of the Year
Winner: Combatting vaccine misinformation

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There is no shortage of worthy causes in the world today, but the one I have chosen to highlight this year stands out, not only for its human cost and the loss of life that it causes, but also for its mind-numbing absurdity. 

Most infants can understand that when you are sick, you take medicine, and that medicine is a good thing. So the fact that an entire movement has come up taking a passionately anti-medicine position is... baffling to say the least. Not everything needs to be political and have multiple sides. We don't need to argue over whether they sky is blue or whether fire is hot. Likewise we shouldn't have to argue over basic things like whether medicine and treating sick people are good. Our obsession with forming into factions and competing over everything has already gone way too far. For us to be doing this at the expense of lives is unconscionable. It must stop, and we must cut out those that spread these pro-pandemic lies for the sake of clicks and votes. Enough is enough, let's end this pandemic by defeating it, not by living in denial.

24. The Debbie for Person of the Year 
Winner: José Andrés

jose andres world central kitchen person of the year 2021

This year we have a most deserving winner of the Debbie for Person of the Year. Spanish chef, José Andrés is a culinary icon and successful restauranteur, a TV personality and philanthropist. But on top of this, he is also a hero. Founder of World Central Kitchen, an organisation dedicated to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters. WCK additionally builds culinary schools and provides training to help those affected back out of poverty and promote human and environmental health. Chef José is the best of us, and a worthy winner of this prize.

Social & Lifestyle

25. The Debbie for Restaurant of the Year 
Winner: Tanja Grandits
Runner Up: Mãos

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Tanja Grandits is one of the hottest chefs in Europe, and it's easy to see why. The German chef's restaurant in Basel delivers food of extraordinary creativity and quality, using quality seasonal ingredients. Grandits' stunning plating makes every dish look like a work of art, but unlike many fine dining establishments, the taste live up to that presentation. Grandits is blessed with an incredible knack for flavours, including combinations that few others would think of. Ponzu butter, scallops with apple salsa, polenta with miso. Eat here and you are guaranteed an unforgettable meal.

I wondered how a restaurant like Mãos would cope with the new post-pandemic normal. After all, this was a restaurant built around an idea of communal experience, a polar opposite to the new standard of social distance. Reinvented now as a more traditional restaurants with individual tables and less free movement (guests are now invited into the kitchen in groups). Fortunately the creative minds in the kitchen have been busy during lockdown and the food is even better than before. Lobster mochi, an oozing honey cake, and one of the finest interpretations of surf and turf I have ever seen. The Mãos experience has always been a big draw, and still is, but above all this is food that can compete with the very best and seems to be getting better with each visit.

26. The Debbie for New Restaurant of the Year 
Winner: Arbostora

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It is a sign of a society in healing after the last two years that the entrepreneurial spirit continues to thrive, and new businesses open. Of the new restaurants that I have visited this year, one stands out that is perhaps not the most obvious, somewhat off the beaten track, but nevertheless a special experience worthy of mention. This year's Debbie goes to Arbostora, in Morcote, Switzerland. A romantic lakeside location, delicious local cuisine, and friendly service make this place a winner and a must visit for anyone visiting Ticino. A family place and a special occasion place.

27. The Debbie for Club/Bar of the Year 
Winner: The Cadogan Arms

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It has been a long time coming, but after some four years and one global pandemic, the classic Chelsea drinking establishment The Cadogan Arms has returned, and it has had a few upgrades. The Cadogan Arms was always a favourite among London pubs, but in the years since they closed for refurbishment the standard of both dining and drinking in this city has risen significantly. Fortunately, The Cadogan Arms has reinvented itself to keep up with the changing times. The beautifully redone interior feels like a modern twist on cosy 1980s nostalgia, while the recessed lighting and centrepiece lit-up bar add some contemporary flourish. Live jazz on Sundays, an excellent roast and updated weekday menu makes for one of the finest pubs around.

28. The Debbie for Destination of the Year
Winner: Zurich, Switzerland

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With the world more or less open for travel again in 2021, it has been a year of making up for lost travel time. This year's highlight has been Zurich, a city blessed with a unique balance of big city amenities and small town comforts. In Zurich you can shop on the high street in the morning and then go for a walk in the hills in the afternoon. Add to this a number of world class museums, some very fine restaurants and the unforgettable Zurich lakefront and you have a destination that everyone should visit at least once.

29. The Debbie for Wine of the Year 
Winner: Castello dei Rampolla 2008 d'Alceo
castello rampolla 2008 best wine 2021

Sometimes you just can't beat a nice toasty Italian red. A classic super-tuscan, the Castello dei Rampolla is a bold vintage with flavours of dark red fruits and licorice. For a full-bodied wine, d'Alceo has a pleasantly smooth and rounded finish which works well as an accompaniment to any dish with rich flavours, a good beef wellington or pasta with tomato would be ideal.

30. The Debbie for Tipple of the Year 
Winner: Cotswold Distillery: Founder's Choice

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And finally our award for best tipple, a non-wine alcoholic beverage in which you would be wise to partake, goes to Cotswold Distillery Founder's Choice single malt whisky. The south west of England is not typically known for its whisky, but this premium edition from the Cotswold Distillery makes a very strong case for regional product. A very pleasant drinking whisky with mocha notes and a finish of warm glowing embers on the tongue. A great drink for those winter evenings, to be taken with dark chocolate or spiced Christmas desserts.

Well there you have it, another year in the books. Let's hope that 2022 will continue our march towards normality and be an even better one. See you there!

Tuesday 21 December 2021

In 2020 I put my lockdown to good use by reading. One book per month, you can find the write-up here. Thankfully, the world of 2021 was more open, but I kept reading. It's an undervalued hobby, one that I can't recommend enough. Whether your interest is in non-fiction, sci-fi epics, or the classics of literature, reading exercises the mind and expands your worldview. It's also fun. Long-time readers will know that this is the time of year where we gear up for our end of year Debbie Awards. But in the interest of promoting this great past-time, I have decided to keep the book review it's own thing. So please, join us in our 2021 instalment of the now-recurring annual Ephemeric Book Review.

one book every month year challenge 2021 ephemeric

January - "Golden Hill" by Francis Spufford

This one came as a recommendation while awaiting the 2021 release of Spufford's new novel. An enigmatic Englishman arrives in the nascent New York of the mid 18th Century, looking to cash a large sum of money with little else to vouch for his credit than a piece of paper, and no easy way to confirm its legitimacy given the technological limitations of the day.

The premise is great, built around a central mystery that manages to effectively keep the reader in the dark right up until the ending. The author has chosen a fascinating period setting that does materially contribute to the narrative. Unfortunately, I found reading this to be a bit of a slog. While the story is peppered with entertaining events, the pacing between them is often overly long and uninteresting. Worse still is the overstuffed, flowery language. Golden Hill features some of the most egregious examples I can recall in recent years of using twenty words where just one will do. Some sentences stretch on for whole pages, and that is no exaggeration. I am honestly amazed at the positive reviews this received from professional critics, some lines were just flat-out embarrassing to read. A more ruthless editor could perhaps have sculpted this into something worthy of the reader's time, but right now it is difficult to recommend.

February - "The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I had initially become acquainted with the work of Taylor Jenkins Reid in 2020, with her novel Daisy Jones and the Six ultimately winning that year's Debbie Award. I was so impressed by that piece of work, that I just had to try another. While waiting for her new novel, Malibu Rising, to release (scroll down for that one) I was given the recommendation to read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and boy am I glad I was.

As with Daisy Jones, this is a period piece dripping in mid century nostalgia, framed by a journalist's big-break interview with the reclusive and iconic (fictional) actress Evelyn Hugo. Hugo recounts the journey of her career and personal life: the glamour, the failed marriages, and ultimately the hypocrisy of Hollywood. It's all hugely entertaining, but most impressive is how Reid is able to use this period setting to tell such a relevant and important story. This author is quickly becoming my favourite author, possessed with a writing style that is so seamless and natural you could almost mistake it for non-fiction, and yet also manages to convey a great deal. 

March - "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is one of the all time greats of science fiction. Even those who are not familiar with his work will likely remember the films based on his work, such as Minority Report and Blade Runner. One of our lockdown series last year was the adaptation his seminal World War II alt-history novel The Man in the High Castle. While the series is a bit hit or miss, the premise was intriguing enough to inspire me to seek out the source material.

For those unfamiliar, this novel depicts an alternate history where the Axis powers won World War II, set in a post-war America that is now divided between the victorious German and Japanese Empires who exist in an uneasy state of cold war. The premise is nothing less than iconic and for the most part Dick makes the most of it. High Castle is a masterclass in world building, dripping with detail and alarmingly plausible as a setting. What this novel lacks is a human touch. There is little in the way of an emotionally engaging narrative and I was surprised by just how much the TV series had to invent on its own in order to create one. The novel itself is really just the setting, brief snapshots of the lives of its characters, and little more. The bizarrely metafictional ending, too, is more intellectually rather than viscerally interesting. Still well worth a read.

April - "Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

This was one of the more hotly tipped works of literature for 2021 and it's everything one would expect from a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, both good and bad. Ishiguro is known for his stridently intellectual premises that take the fantastical and relate them to the human experience. His latest work follows Klara, an artificial being who is purchased as a companion for a sickly child.

Ishiguro is a celebrated and Nobel prize winning author, but often his works can seem more like thought exercises than actual stories and that is very much the case here. It's the sort of work you read mainly on faith in the author, and I do wonder how much traction a novel like this would receive if it did not have the Ishiguro name attached to it.  More problematic is that I'm not sure Ishiguro really has all that much to say here that hasn't already been done elsewhere, better. The subject matter and even many of the specific twists are not exactly new or revolutionary in the genre. The result is a perfectly well written novel that is nevertheless disappointingly unmemorable.

May - "First Person Singular" by Haruki Murakami

A new collection of short stories from the beloved storyteller Haruki Murakami, all written in the first person singular voice on a range of topics from the surreal to the mundane. 

It is unusual to see a collection of fiction written around a technical, rather than topical, theme. The intent seems to have been to create that feeling of immediacy between author and reader and that works well with the subject matter. These stories range from those that are obviously fantastical, to others that could easily be autobiographical, and the first person voice leaves the blurring of that line rife for interpretation by the reader. As someone who has been somewhat left cold by his recent novels, I am pleased that his return to short-form narrative seems to have suited him well and FPS marks something of a return to form.

June - "Malibu Rising" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Another one from Taylor Jenkins Reid. What can I say, I'm a fan! Malibu is her new release for 2021 and Reid once again treads the familiar terrain of celebrity and show-business, this time following the fictional Nina Riva, estranged daughter of a world famous singer who she blames for the decline and death of her mother. 

I have to say this was probably my least favourite of Reid's novels to-date, less ambitious and groundbreaking than her other work. Fortunately that still makes it one of the best novels of the year. Few can write people in the way that Reid can, or create such a sense of time and place as she does. She's an excellent writer, and I promise this is the last one of her's on this list.

July - "The Startup Wife" by Tahmima Anam

This was a book that I was expecting to like. A hotly tipped author, writing about a subject that is near and dear to me. The Startup Wife is a technological fable of Asha Ray, brilliant software engineer and creator of an exciting startup endeavour with her visionary former high school crush (can't see how that could possibly end badly). Then things go a bit topsy turvy.

I can see what this novel is trying to do. It's about toxic masculinity, it's about manipulation, it's about the darker side of tech. It's very topical, very now, and I can see exactly what the author is trying to do. And that is precisely the problem. It's too on the nose, too obvious, too hackneyed. The satire is awkward and unnatural. The political soap-boxing on social issues is shoehorned into the narrative in a way that feels more like a Facebook post than a novel. The story is fine, interesting at times, but the whole thing just comes across as insincere and slightly amateurish.

August - "Injustice: Gods Among Us" by Tom Taylor

My graphic novel for the year. Sticking to last year's theme of Superman gone bad, Injustice premises what would happen if Superman simply snapped. The Joker accomplishes this by tricking Superman into killing his pregnant wife Lois Lane, and in his grief Superman breaks, kills the Joker and vows never to let something like this happen again by enforcing his absolute will upon the planet.

It's a great premise, one that treads similar ground as Red Son in exploring the dichotomy between order and free will and asking whether a peace that is enforced through repression is ever a true peace. How far is too far when promoting the greater good? Like all good stories in this genre, it boils down to a philosophical argument between its two moral antagonists, in this case Superman and Batman, but it is the subversion of these classic heroes, as well as numerous others from the DC pantheon, that makes this such a fascinating comic series.

September - "Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir

Andy Weir is still something of a new quantity in mainstream literature, having struck big with his debut The Martian, but failing to hit the same heights will his follow up Artemis. He is best known for a writing style that contrasts a high level of scientifically and technically accurate detail with humour and easily accessible wit. With his third novel, Project Hail Mary, I was expecting to find more of the same. What I was not expecting was the best "buddy" story I have read in years.

Without wanting to give too much away, in PHM the sun is dying and, through an improbable series of events, high school teacher Ryland Grace finds himself stranded on a one-way mission to save the planet, using his seemingly inexhaustible scientific aptitude to puzzle his way out. If it all sounds a bit familiar to The Martian, don't worry. The similarities soon end and Weir takes the narrative in a very different and delightful direction. An exciting piece of work that I was sad to have finished.

October - "MADI" by Alex de Campi & Duncan Jones

This is a fascinating prospect. A graphic novel co-written by acclaimed film director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) and Alex de Campi, a graphic novelist and filmmaker of some renown.

Set in the same universe as Moon (although there's little evidence of that in the novel), MADI is some classic cyberpunk sci-fi action. The story is enjoyable enough, if nothing spectacular, but it is the quality of the artwork that is the main drawn here. Each chapter is inked by a different contributor chosen from among the cream of the crop of contemporary graphic novels. Some of the images are really quite stunning.

November - "Vintage" by Maxine Linnell

Vintage is a delightful body swap story with a twist. Two girls living decades apart inexplicably find themselves living the other's life, providing an opportunity for much self-introspection and observational humour on generational differences.

This is a quick and breezy read with two compellingly written and relatable protagonists. Like all good stories of this nature, the precise mechanism for its fantastical conceit doesn't matter so much as the experience and what it can show us about ourselves. For those looking for a bit of a lighter read.

December - "The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich" by Daniel Ammann

And finally we have The King of Oil, Swiss journalist Daniel Ammann's seminal non-fiction exploring the life of the controversial, yet wildly influential trader March Rich. Rich rises from tragic beginnings against the backdrop of World War II, makes a name for himself in finance and practically invents modern oil trading. But as the saying goes, you don't achieve that kind of success without making a few enemies along the way and, in the case of Marc Rich, a few morally dubious decisions. 

It's an incredible story, but an especially remarkable work of journalism. Over thirty hours of frank and insightful interviews, Amman manages to obtain a unique insight into the mind of this global figure, and present those insights in a way that is both highly compelling and tells us much of the world in which we live.

So there it is. Twelve months in books. Can I keep it going another year? You bet, because reading is awesome.

Sunday 28 November 2021

Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Gil Kenan, Jason Reitman
Produced by Ivan Reitman
Starring Mckenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd
Studio Sony/Columbia
Running time 125 minutes

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It is difficult to imagine, in this era of mega-franchises that churn out a new instalment every year, that something so ingrained in our pop culture as Ghostbusters could have been left dormant for so long. We can argue all day as to whether this is a good or a bad thing. Either way, after thirty years it appears that the powers that be have finally decided to bring Ghostbusters back, in a big way.

The first attempt was with 2016's Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, a clean reboot completely disconnected from the original films, with a new cast, which was widely panned by both critics and fans upon release. Now Ghostbusters: Afterlife gives fans what they always really wanted: a true sequel.

By way of warning, this review will contain some mild spoilers, but I will endeavour to avoid ruining the biggest surprises.

So it's true, Afterlife is the direct sequel to the original Ghostbusters films that had long been rumoured but never materialised. Original director Ivan Reitman (now producer), passes the torch to his son Jason Reitman, himself a hugely accomplished Academy Award nominated filmmaker (Juno, Up in the Air, The Frontman). Sadly the original cast are now far too old and/or dead to lead a Ghostbusters film, so the focus instead falls to a new cast. Specifically the daughter and grandchildren of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (notably portrayed by the late, great Harold Ramis, who also co-wrote the original films), who inherit the Oklahoma farmhouse and unfinished business of the now-deceased Egon. Ghostbusting ensues.

McKenna Grace leads the line with a remarkable star turn as Phoebe Spengler, granddaughter to Egon. She is joined by Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things, and relative newcomers Logan Kim and Celeste O'Connor. The formidable duo of Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd round out the core cast. I will refrain from saying too much else, but there are some delightful cameo appearances.

Much has been written of 2016's failed reboot and why it did not work. But for me, the main issue was always the tone. Answer the Call simply did not feel like a Ghostbusters film. The humour was broad and obvious, leaning more heavily into slapstick and stereotype. Most of the discussion at the time focused on the cast, but really it was writer/director Paul Feig who really just wasn't a good fit for the franchise. 

In many ways, Afterlife does a better job with this. The choice of Jason Reitman as director was clearly intended to convey a sense of continuity, and you definitely get a sense of this being much more of a genuine successor to the original films. This looks and feels every bit like a Ghostbusters film, from the pacing, to the visuals, the music and the aesthetic sensibilities. 

Often, this goes too far, and Afterlife sometimes feels a bit too much like fanservice. In its worst moments, Afterlife straight up rehashes plotlines and jokes from the original movies. Gozer is back, we do the Keymaster/Gatekeeper routine again. While the cameos generally work, sometimes the callbacks can feel gratuitous and forced. These things were funny the first time, but in an era where Hollywood is often criticised for lacking original ideas, the repetition here feels a little bit ill-advised.

But despite this predilection for the familiar, in other ways Reitman has taken the opposite approach and made a number of creative decisions that make Afterlife actually a surprisingly different kind of movie to its forebears. First there is the rural Oklahoma setting. For many fans, New York City is a core part of the Ghostbusters identity. In many ways, it's the unsung star of those first two movies. Then there is the younger cast, focused on a core group of tweens compared to the middle-aged men of the original, with a sense of humour to match. The result is a quite different sort of movie. The original had a vaguely irreverent "SNL" type of quality about it, whereas Afterlife often feels a more straight-faced kind of adventure film. If I had to liken it to something, I'd describe it as a mix between Ghostbusters and Stranger Things, itself of course heavily influenced by the horror/sci-fi of the 1980s. 

Make no mistake, this is a very fine film, but these contrasts can sometimes feel a bit odd-fitting. A film that can't decide if it wants to be its own thing or rehash past glories. Enough changes to potentially alienate its likely target audience, but closely adherent enough to be occasionally cringeworthy.  

Ultimately, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is an accomplished, if often unbalanced film that marks a return to form for the franchise. A fitting and loving tribute to the departed Harold Ramis, and an exciting new beginning which will hopefully lead to a rebirth of all things Ghostbusters. In its wake, I am left feeling saddened that they did not make more films with the original cast when they had the chance, but excited to see where they take things going forward.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk
Network Netflix
Starring Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon
Genre Survival Drama
Running Time 32-63 minutes

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“The exciting thing for me would be if the next Stranger Things came from outside America... right now, historically, nothing of that scale has ever come from anywhere but Hollywood.” These words, spoken in 2018 by Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos can't help but come to mind when watching Squid Game. Ever since they moved into original content, Netflix have poured an impressive amount of resources into the development of world cinema and foreign language productions. Many of these have even met with notable success (see Dark, Money Heist), but none have yet had the global impact of a hit like Stranger Things. Those words loom now, because with Squid Game it appears that the moment has finally arrived.

To say that Squid Game has been a success would be a gross understatement. Number 1 in 90 countries, 117 million viewers in its first month. Squid Game has blown past the record set by Bridgerton to become Netflix's all time most watched series at launch. Not just for foreign language productions, but for all Netflix productions. It is hard to overstate what a remarkable accomplishment this is, for a subtitled Korean series without any actors or production team who are known in the west to have smashed records and become the biggest thing in global entertainment is absolutely unprecedented. How did this happen, and is the hype deserved?

The concept is simple. A group of destitute, desperate people are invited to compete in a series of games with the promise of a cash prize large enough to clear all their debts and generally solve all their life problems. Each game is based around a popular children's game. The catch: if you lose the game, you die. As far as critiques on capitalism go, it's fairly on the nose, but it gets better. 

Part of the mystique about Squid Game comes from its unlikely path to production. Originally written more than a decade ago by writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk, then a struggling writer going through a self-described low point in his life,  much the same as his characters in Squid Game. At the time, the script was rejected by every studio as being too extreme, too unbelievable, and so he put it aside. When Netflix finally picked up the project as part of its push into non-English media (the concept apparently deemed more believable in the 2021 age of class division and social media), it spurred this romantic image of of the struggling writer having his long-gestating project finally realised, but in truth this isn't really accurate. In the years since, Dong-hyuk has gone on to become quite a successful filmmaker in South Korea, with a number of significant hits to his name. He came into this project as a distinguished and recognised name in his home country.

Netflix, for their part, backed Dong-hyuk to the hilt, bankrolling Squid Game to the tune of $21million. This has allowed for a level of production that is up there with the biggest American series, and provided Dong-hyuk with the means to secure the absolute cream of the crop of South Korean actors. I'm not going to pretend to be overly familiar with Korean cinema, but my understanding is that this cast features a wide array of some of the most recognisable names in the region. Series lead Lee Jung-jae in particular is extremely well known in Korea as a charismatic romantic lead, a sort of George Clooney equivalent. His casting here as a desperate miscreant represents something of a casting against type. An exception to this is Jung Ho-yeon, a Korean model of moderate notoriety embarking on her very first role in acting. This breakout performance has seen her instantly transformed into a global superstar, her Instagram followers increasing from 300k to more than 20 million in just two weeks. The former relative unknown is now set to become a global ambassador for Louis Vuitton.

So why has Squid Game become such a global phenomenon? The first thing is the marketing. The cryptic imagery, the masks, the colours, even the name, is immediately arresting. It grabbed my attention as soon as it came up in the Netflix queue even though I had no idea what it was, and I'm sure I am not the only one. It stands out. Squid Game has an incredible sense of style about it that carries into the show itself. Its contrast of bold, over-saturated colours and children's games against bleak subject matter and extreme violence is striking - it brings to my mind a similar series, Utopia, which also stood out for its visuals and brutality.

The style is what hooks you in, but what keeps you watching are the characters. These characters are all distinct, larger-than-life types, brought to life through sharp scripting and consistently superb performances by its A-list cast. Even the unlikeable characters are hugely entertaining and irresistible to watch. You will become very attached to these characters, which makes the brutality of the series' narrative beats hit all the harder.

But ultimately you can't look any further than Dong-hyuk himself. The man wrote and directed every episode of this series, a rarity for such a big production, and he has crafted a world that is utterly absorbing, full of mystery, and stylishly presented. He has written a fantastic lineup of characters and expertly crafted an emotional narrative that ties them all together. It's compelling stuff, an excellent series that fully deserves all the hype. Great credit must also be given to Netflix, who have poured so much money and effort into supporting international production. That confidence is paying dividends now and has vindicated years of Netflix strategy.

Is it a perfect production? Certainly not. The concept often strains credibility and requires a suspension of disbelief, the American VIPs who appear late in the series are abysmally written and performed (surprising given the Netflix funding and Hollywood connections), and the mastermind villain's ultimate goals and motivation is a bit superficial and unsatisfying (unless this gets developed further later on). None of that ruins the experience, however, or detracts from what is otherwise a hugely entertaining series.

I am excited to see where Squid Game goes next. With this compelling world, its distinctive imagery, and now a massive audience, they could have the makings of a major franchise on their hands if they want it.

Saturday 16 October 2021

Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Cary Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Produced by Michael Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Starring Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes
Studio MGM/Eon
Running time 163 minutes

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How will Daniel Craig's time as James Bond be remembered? A bold reinvention of a 1960s hangover? The last gasp of a dated male fantasy ill-suited for the MeToo era? At the very least it marked a change from what came before. Gone were the playboy antics of Pierce Brosnan, in favour of Craig's grittier, more physical blunt instrument of a man, while the gadgets and villains also saw a notable reduction in camp-factor. This was a more serious take on the character, initiated in the early 2000s, post-9/11 boom of big budget blockbusters taking on weightier subject matter and tone. The experiment bore fruit, with Craig going on to be the longest lasting actor to carry the 007 mantle, and the Bond franchise arguably bigger than it has ever been in terms of commercial and critical appeal.

By way of warning, this review may contain some light spoilers.

No Time to Die marks the end of that era, the last film of Daniel Craig's tenure and fittingly he has gone out with a bang. For Craig's swan song, Eon have assembled an array of impressively prominent talent behind the scenes. Hans Zimmer scores, Phoebe Waller-Bridge scribes. Most intriguingly, No Time to Die marks the first major film project for director Cary Fukunaga, a man known for critically acclaimed TV projects like True Detective, The Alienist, and Maniac. Eon have been bold in handing such an important project to someone with only minimal big-screen experience, but it has paid off. 

This is an excellent film overall. Compelling, entertaining, and gorgeously crafted for what might otherwise just have been typical blockbuster fare. No Time to Die is surely one of the most visually striking film in the Bond pantheon. The camera shots, pacing and imagery is a constant joy throughout. Fukunaga shows himself to not only have an eye for the spectacular, but a gift for captivating simplicity - for all the exotic locales and sweeping vistas, it is arguably the simplest of his set pieces (Blofeld slowly moving down a tunnel) that provides the most arresting imagery of the entire film.

Waller-Bridge's scripting is tight, for the most part, and injects some welcome levity back into a franchise that has been taking itself just slightly too seriously of late. While this still very much has the tone one would expect from a Daniel Craig Bond film, she does manage to slip the odd joke or visual gag into the mix in a way that allows her trademark wit to shine through in a way that is not overly gratuitous. 

No Time to Die also boasts some of the finest performances in the franchise's history. Craig has not been so compelling as Bond since Casino Royale, while Christoph Waltz takes his second chance at making a lasting impression as Blofeld (following the hugely disappointing Spectre). The supporting cast boasts a remarkably deep bench with Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Jeffrey Wright reprising their roles, while newcomer Lashana Lynch makes a headline grabbing impression as a black, female 007 (it should be noted, however, that the current scuttlebutt is that she will not be reprising this role going forward, despite the hype). 

Much attention will no doubt be on the main villain of the story, played by recent Academy Award winner (albeit one of the weakest in recent memory) Rami Malek. Malek, it has to be said, is somewhat bland and forgettable in this role. That is not entirely his fault, this just isn't all that compelling a villain, but one also gets the impression that he is a bit out of his depth here as an actor. Malek has been propelled onto the Hollywood A-list by his good fortune at landing so beloved a role as Freddie Mercury, but he won't stay there if his performances don't earn it.

There is some unevenness in the plot. The villain's motivations are not especially well thought out or compelling. The big bad MacGuffin that everyone is chasing has a somewhat fluid nature that adapts to whatever is most narratively convenient with little care for consistency or logic, and the narrative beats themselves sometimes just don't make much sense. It is established early in the film that Bond has become infected with this nano-weapon that everyone is chasing, but no one seems to be especially concerned about this until the final segment where Bond is, once again, infected, only this time it's suddenly a game-changing crisis. Particularly strange is how the film handles the character of Paloma, a CIA agent played by the magnetic Ana de Armas. Paloma gets a significant chunk of the film having her character and growing connection to Bond developed, only to suddenly disappear and never be seen again. Some very odd choices.

But perhaps I am expecting too much from a Bond film. These are only niggling concerns that do not detract from what is otherwise an excellent action movie - and note, this is an action movie rather than a spy movie. Whether you like it or not, one of the defining features of Craig's Bond is that (aside from the first movie) he is more of a comicbook superhero than a clandestine agent, but I can't fault a film for being what it is.

So No Time to Die follows the pattern of Daniel Craig Bond films alternating between good and bad (Casino Royale - good, Quantum of Solace - bad, Skyfall - good, Spectre - bad), and has earned all the plaudits that it is currently receiving. The story is not as strong or meaningful as Casino Royale (still the highlight of the franchise for me), but in terms of style it ranks among the very best. It will be interesting to see where Eon take the franchise next, but for now this makes for a satisfying and hugely entertaining goodbye to the Craig era.

Sunday 10 October 2021

Genre Rock
Label Island
Producers Shawn Everett

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When The Killers announced the upcoming release of their seventh studio album, mere months after their previous album Imploding the Mirage, it raised a few eyebrows. A big name artist releasing two albums in such quick succession is practically unheard of in this day and age. For The Killers, the gap between albums has generally been 3-5 years historically, so the announcement that they would be releasing a second album in less than a year was surprising to say the least. But any concerns that this would be a rush job or album of B-sides has proven to be premature. On the contrary, Pressure Machine represents arguably the band's most complex and ambitious release to date. 

The Killers' frontman Brandon Flowers has been known to say that he would never stop writing new material, were it not for the need to travel, tour and promote his previous work. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that he has used his year of lockdown, with all tours and commitments cancelled, for precisely that. Nor should it come as a surprise that an album written amid such sombre circumstances would strike a decidedly more introspective tone than we have come to expect from his work.

Previous albums have covered a broad swathe of matters that largely strike you in the heart: love, family, destiny, spirituality, ambition, topics that are relatable to most, and powered them with lyrics that are evocative rather than nuanced. "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier," "The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun," "I saw the devil wrapping up his hands, he's getting ready for the showdown." Flowers is a master of this kind of songwriting. He has a spectacular eye for imagery and knows exactly how to hit his listeners deep in their gut. With Pressure Machine he takes much more of a  topical laser focus, attempting a sober and serious look at the struggles of small town American life, particularly in relation to the opioid crisis.

As a band that is best known for crafting songs as big, shiny objects, the more subtle nature of Pressure Machine's music may come as a shock to long-time fans. It's a bit like if filmmaker JJ Abrams decided that his next film should be an intimate portrayal of migrant workers during the Great Depression. That is not to say that The Killers have not previously dabbled in the intimate, but their past albums have largely been focused around the show-stopping anthems. Their most recent album, for example, featured tracks like Caution, My Own Soul's Warning, Dying Breed, and My God, each of which was a potential hit single with their broad, radio-friendly hooks and exhilarating tone. By contrast, Pressure Machine's music is much more of a slow-burn, without any obvious chart toppers and more understated, delicately crafted melodies. But while the music may not be as instantly impactful as some of their best known work, it does grow on you with repeated listens and its additional intricacy starts to shine.

On first listen, what stands out most from the music is how varied and textured it is compared to previous albums. Delicate keys and lingering strings, in addition to the usual jangling indie guitars. This is an album with a wide soundscape, from West Hills' raw outpouring of the soul, to the breezier country jam Quiet Town. In the Car Outside delivers some of the more energetic rock and roll that one would expect from The Killers and, in its climax, one of the best instrumental segments The Killers have ever produced. But perhaps the most impressive track is the title track Pressure Machine, a soft and soulful track of rare beauty. There is a lot going on her musically and it's often gorgeous. It is refreshing to see the band operating outside their usual comfort zone, exhibiting a greater musical dexterity than I think the band often gets credit. What surprised me, given the more understated nature of the music, was just how much these melodies got under my skin and stuck with me on repeated listens. While these songs may not have the visceral immediacy of those opening chords from Mr. Brightside, their subtle and timeless hooks nevertheless leave a lasting impression.

Where Pressure Machine doesn't quite succeed is in the lyrics. While Flowers' broad impressionistic style is effective in its own way, it's not especially well suited to this kind of discussion. The subject matter is one that demands insight, rather than evocative tugs on the heartstrings. Flowers has always been more of a poet than a piercing intellect and it makes for an uncomfortable fit with the vision of this album.

Pressure Machine marks an ambitious turn from The Killers, and delivers one of the band's most musically complex offerings, if not the raw excitement of their more famous hits. I suspect this is an album that could fly under the radar for many, failing to grab hold of the top 40 crowd, while struggling with critics that have historically been sceptical of the band's work. For those who give it a chance, however, they will find a powerful piece of work, with music that will surprise you in its longevity.

Must Listen :

Sunday 19 September 2021

Developed by Beethoven & Dinosaur
Published by Annapurna Interactive
Genre Musical Platformer
Platform Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

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This one takes me back. Even though The Artful Escape is a brand new game, it feels like I have been talking about it forever. It has become a mainstay of my annual Hot List since its originally scheduled release in 2017. Now after a series of delays, it finally sees release.

The Artful Escape is the latest production from Annapurna, a studio that is quickly establishing itself as one of the finest producers of games in the industry. Players control Francis Vendetti, an aspiring folk musician from a small Colorado town who lives in the shadow of his world famous uncle Jonathan Vendetti, a sort of Bob Dylan-esque figure. Struggling for inspiration and motivation, Francis has a sudden epiphany and decides to completely reinvent himself and in doing so create the most elaborate stage persona in rock music history, David Bowie style. What follows is a dazzling and surreal cosmic adventure in which Francis travels the galaxy crafting a mythology and style for his new persona. Think "Ziggy Stardust the videogame" and you won't be far off. 

The game itself is essentially a platformer. Run from left to right and jump over gaps until you reach the end, with the added twist of being able to shred a guitar while doing so. It's not an especially challenging platformer. The levels are quite simplistic in terms of obstacles, with the most difficult task being the timing of double jumps during certain segments in order to get past moving obstacles and closing doors. There are no enemies or combat, and the closest thing you have to a boss battle is the occasional Simon Says style musical section. There's no fail state. If you miss a jump or play the wrong note on a musical section the game just lets you try again. 

Let's be clear, this is not in any way a challenging game. More of a 2D walking simulator. Instead, the emphasis is on the experience. Fortunately it is one hell of an experience. The Artful Escape is a sensory treat in every respect. The visuals are incredible, among the most beautiful games I can recall seeing. Colourful, imaginative settings bursting with life and small details, and some breathtaking artistic vision. 

The music is also very impressive, from the Jonathan Vendetti tracks that sound authentically like some long lost folk masterpiece, to the soaring glamrock of Francis' galactic adventures. While the player's guitar shredding does not affect gameplay in any way (aside from some achievements), it does add to the game's backing track through some impressive technical wizardry that ensures everything is on tempo and in tune.

The quality of the writing is also very strong. The Artful Escape is full of memorable characters with satisfying arcs, while the dialogue is witty and mostly a delight. In classic Annapurna style, the studio has called on a number of its Hollywood buddies, resulting in an impressive cast. Jason Schwartzman in particular steals all of his scenes, but he is ably supported by big name actors including Mark Strong, Carl Weathers, Lena Headey and Michael Johnston.

I was pleasantly surprised by how far the game goes to immerse players in the fantasy of creating this Ziggy Stardust style character. Players can choose a name and backstory for Francis' persona as well as their appearance through a highly customisable hair and costume system. The flexibility and complexity of this system was far more than I was expecting and allowed me to design a rock star persona that I truly felt was mine. If I have one criticism here, it's that the player doesn't really have much input into the music itself. Guitar shredding is (outside those Simon Says sections) just a single button that the game uses to automatically match to the backing track. That being said, I didn't feel like this was sufficient to break the immersion or fun.

I can see why some people might get bored with this game due to the lack of any real gaming challenge. But for anyone with a love of music, sci-fi or quirky adventures, The Artful Escape is a delightful journey. It exceeded my expectations. I was expecting a colorful musical adventure, but not the absorbing world and characters. Annapurna have shown once again that they know how to craft compelling stories in the medium of videogames, and The Artful Escape is another jewel to add to their collection.

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