Men

Posted: June 21, 2022 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear.

After the death of her abusive husband, Harper Marlowe (Buckley) travels to a remote village to spend some time alone. She rents a house from the affable Geoffrey (Kinnear). It’s a lovely house but when she goes for a walk in the woods she encounters a naked man (Kinnear). Striving to get away from him she finds the local churchyard where she encounters a foul mouthed child (Kinnear) and a vicar (Kinnear) who makes her feel uncomfortable.

Soon Harper finds herself under threat from all sides. She is surrounded by men, and they all appear to look like the same man!

I’ve been a fan of Alex Garland as a writer and director for some time. Ex Machina was his first film as a director (although if you believe some he at least partially directed Dredd) and it was a beautifully shot film with an intriguing story. He followed this up with the wonderful Annihilation, a joy of a film with only one flaw, it didn’t get a cinematic release in the UK so I’ve never been able to see it on the big screen. I imagine it’d be amazing. While I think it ran one or two episodes too long, I enjoyed his miniseries Devs as well. I saw the trailer for Men before I even knew Garland had written and directed it, his involvement was just icing on the cake because the trailer alone was fascinating.

The first thing to say is that I loved this film, the second thing to say is that you should see it on the biggest screen you can. It might be a more intimate story than Annihilation, but Garland’s direction and Rob Hardy’s cinematography deserve the biggest canvas possible.

The third thing to say is that when it comes to Men, you’ll either love it, or you’ll really hate it.

The central conceit of Kinnear playing (almost) every male role works surprisingly well for several reasons. The first is that Kinnear himself is such an accomplished actor that each role feels incredibly different, even before you get to the different costumes/makeup etc.  It helps that there aren’t that many of them, while he plays a good seven characters, only four are really that heavily involved in the story. It also helps that the fact that every bloke looks like Kinnear is never actively addressed. Harper never remarks upon it for example, which of course could be something about the film that riles a viewer up. What is the point? What is Garland trying to say? Are all men effectively the same, or is it merely a neat trick to distinguish this film from your more run of the mill woman in peril horrors?

Does it even matter? I’m not sure it does when a film is this mesmerising.

Kinnear is, as already stated, amazing in his multiple roles, but it’s Buckley at the centre of the film that holds it together. An actor—much like Kinnear—who I have a lot of time for, in fact part of what drew me to want to watch the film was the presence of them both. I’ve seen Buckley in many things, and I’ve yet to see her not be amazing, as she is here. She manages to make Harper both strong, yet incredibly fragile, brave yet terrified. She’s committed to the role, and, for me at least, the fact that she relates to each of Kinnear’s characters as a completely different person, is another of the reasons this works so damn well.

As stated the cinematography is just incredible, making full use of the glorious English countryside. It’s a beautiful and verdant backdrop to Harper’s terror, filmed so exquisitely that it lends the countryside a dreamlike quality. Add in the fact that one of Kinnear’s characters is clearly a representation of the mythical Green Man and this is most assuredly a folk horror.

Be warned however, there’s a slow burn and atmospheric feel to most of the film, but in its final act…well, it goes full on bonkers, and there’s some wince inducing body horror going on.

Beautifully shot and fantastically acted, this is a film that asks questions but provides few answers, and I suspect I’m going to watch it many times for just that reason.

Highly recommended, just don’t blame me if you hate it 😉  

Roadside Picnic

Posted: June 18, 2022 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

It is the near future, and the world is living in the aftermath of what’s called The Visitation. Over a period of two days alien visitors landed at six locations around the Earth. No one saw the visitors, or even their means of arrival or departure. Within the six zones, each covering just a few kilometres, strange and dangerous phenomena are observed, and curious artefacts of great power have been left behind.

A subculture of scavengers, termed Stalkers, has grown up. These Stalkers illegally venture into the zones to forage for powerful artefacts which they then sell on the black-market. Meanwhile the government try to prevent the Stalkers entering the zones, while exploring them themselves to gain a technological advantage.

Redrick “Red” Schuhart is one of the Stalkers who keeps returning to the Zone, even though he knows each trip might be his last.

An intriguing book, written in 1971 by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and the version of the book I had not only features a new translation, but also information about how the original story was heavily censored by the Soviet government.

It’s an interesting book, one I’d heard of in relation to the film version, Stalker, which was directed by Andrei ‘Solaris’ Tarkovsky. It’s a book that at once deals with weighty ideas, while at the same time retains a pulpy edge. The idea of the Visitations is a novel one, and where the titular notion of the roadside picnic comes from. One character theorises that the aliens had no grand plan, and didn’t even know humanity existed, they merely stopped for a rest, perhaps for a bite to eat, and left without knowing humanity even existed, leaving their litter and junk in their wake that humans chance upon like so many insects chancing upon discarded sweet wrappers and soda cans.

The concept that we don’t understand these artefacts, even the ones that are useful, is an intriguing one, and the effect the Zone has on those who enter it; mutating the children of Stalkers, bringing the dead back to life is also curious.

In the end the story doesn’t really go anywhere, because there isn’t really anywhere to go. There are no grand revelations, we don’t understand the aliens, and possibly never will, and that, I’m guessing, is the point.

An enjoyable read, and it’s always nice to try out new authors and I may try these brothers again.

The End of the Line

Posted: June 8, 2022 in Book reviews, horror
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Edited by Jonathan Oliver

Another day another horror anthology, but this one comes with a novel twist, a collection of 18 stories all set on and around the London Underground, the New York Subway and other places below ground.

As with all anthologies the content was variable, some stories I really liked, some I didn’t so much, here’s a potted review of each particular tale, remember just because I didn’t gel with a story doesn’t mean it’s rubbish!

Bullroarer by Paul Meloy is an interesting story, although it goes off the rails somewhat (pardon the pun) late on. An intriguing deep dive into the psyche of a damaged man who’s hidden from his true nature for far too long.

The Girl in the Glass by Paul Llewellyn Probert is one of the highlights of the collection. An unsettling and original ghost story about a man stalked by a girl’s reflection. Has a great EC Comics twist of an ending.

The Lure by Nicholas Royle. I liked the feel of this story, set in Paris, but I felt like it didn’t really go anywhere.

23:45 Morden (via Bank) by Rebecca Levene. There are several tales in this anthology that deal with someone getting off at the wrong stop, or on the wrong side of the train, and somehow winding up in a parallel universe. Levene’s is the first, and possibly the best, in the book. A creepy tale with a wonderful (or horrifying) twist in the tale worthy of the Twilight Zone.

End of the Line by Jasper Bark This one sort of deals with parallel worlds as well, although it’s more of a time travel tale really. Nicely done but I don’t think its placing in the anthology really does it justice

The Sons of the City by Simon Bestwick A quite inventive story set around the concept of a proposed underground system being built in Manchester. There’s more than a hint of the films Death Line and The Descent in this, but it’s a neat folk horror inflected tale and features interesting characters.

The Roses that Bloom Underground by Al Ewing is a near future take where the London underground undergoes a radical refurbishment in surprisingly quick time. The new trains are clean, efficient, and quite possibly paid for in blood. There’s an icky feeling to the story, and the presence of a buffoonish London mayor feels all the more relevant today given our Prime Minister.

Exit Sounds by Conrad Williams is only tangentially underground related, and other aspects of this story, an abandoned cinema where the dead get to watch movies and an expert sound recordist sent to record people leaving the cinema, promise more than they deliver.

Funny Things by Pat Cardigan is another alternate universe inflected tale focusing on grief. After her husband dies on the New York Subway a woman can’t shake the feeling that the man who died wasn’t her husband, and that her husband is still alive having been nabbed by another her to replace the man she lost. A globe trotting story that’s as much about grief as it is about other universes and mysterious the staff who seem determined to ensure the various universes shouldn’t interact.

On All London Underground Lines by Adam L. G. Nevill is an affecting story whose protagonist finds himself trapped in an horrendous underground purgatory where all of the trains seem delayed, he travels between packed platforms encountering other commuters, some of whom seem to have been waiting for a very long time. An unsettling take of terror.

Fallen Boys by Mark Morris. In a book chock full of takes set in the London underground this ghost story set in a former Cornish mine featuring a dark history and an ill-fated school trip stands out

In the Colosseum by Stephen Volk. A television editor is invited to a lavish party thrown by a big name producer, but things take a dark turn when the partygoers are inexplicably led to a CCTV control room covering the London underground. One of the best stories in the collection, but not an easy read. Explicit, violent and the fact that the horror isn’t supernatural makes it all the more disturbing.

The Rounds by Ramsey Campbell. Another story with hints of time travel, this time set on the Liverpool underground and riffing on Islamic panic and paranoia.

Missed Connection by Michael Marshall Smith. A commuter gets off the tube to find a strangely derelict station, and things only get worse from there. Another tale of other worlds accessed by accident, as a standalone this is good, but in relation to the anthology it feels like a story we’ve read before, though its dreamlike quality is disconcerting.

Siding 13 by James Lovegrove. A busy tube train gets busier and busier and busier as more and more people get on and no one seems able to get off. Another highlight, a horrible tale of oppression and claustrophobia.  The tube will never feel rammed again. A nightmarish tale with more than a nod to a certain short Spanish film from the 70s!

Diving Deep by Gary McMahon. Another one of my favourites. A story that takes the prompt of an underground transpiration system and does something very unexpected with it. In the Arctic a diver ventures into a tunnel in the ice and discovers something beyond comprehension. A story that balances the fear of claustrophobia with the vast emptiness of cosmic horror and is thus affecting on myriad levels.

Crazy Train by Natasha Rhodes. A crazy rock and roll horror story riffing on the untimely deaths of rock stars down the ages and how they all might wind up in some underground purgatory. It goes in a very unexpected direction and has a neat twist.

All the Dead Years by Joel Lane. A psychiatrist tries to deal with a woman’s fear of the underground which seems connected to a visit to Parisian catacombs and another incident that happened miles from any tunnel. Started well but meandered to an unsatisfactory ending.

Down by Christopher Fowler. The anthology is rounded off with a melancholy ghost story. A maintenance worker alone in the tunnels comes across spirits of the dead, but there’s more to the story than first appears and the worker isn’t who he claims to be. A strong and oddly t uplifting end to the anthology.

All in all I think if you like horror you’re bound to find something you like in here. It’s a mostly great selection of tales, although some themes do get a little repetitive by the time you’re nearing the end.

Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez and Rachel McAdams.

Seen in May.

Warning. I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum but it’s kinda hard to talk about this film without revealing certain things, most of which is revealed early on, but if you want to stay completely in the dark, don’t read on!

In another universe another Doctor Strange fights to protect a young woman named America Chavez (Gomez) who is being pursued by demonic entities intent of taking her power, the ability to travel between parallel worlds; although it is a power she can’t control. Strange is killed and America accidentally creates a portal that transports her, and Strange’s corpse, to the Earth where our Dr Strange (Cumberbatch) is reluctantly attending the wedding of colleague, and woman he loves, Christine Palmer (McAdams). Suddenly America arrives and so does the demon. With the help of the Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) Strange defeats the demon which followed America.

America is initially distrusting of our Strange as the Doctor Strange in the last universe tried to kill her to stop the demon gaining her power. In search of answers Strange visits Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) but soon discovers the individual who is really behind the demons hunting America.

Soon Strange and America are on the run, America gets them to another universe where Strange is revered as a hero, but is this place as welcoming as it first appears?

Marvel’s knack for using new and up-and-coming directors continues with a young man named Sam Raimi who I think has a bright future ahead of him. Ho ho. For some Raimi perhaps isn’t the first name that springs to mind but he’s the perfect choice here, though oddly that’s less down to his experience of big budget superhero movies (three Spidey films) and more down to his horror roots, because make no mistake, in many ways The Multiverse of Madness is a horror film, and the longer it goes on the less MCU it feels and the more Evil Dead (albeit a heavily sanitised, kiddie friendly Evil Dead! We’re talking Army of Darkness here not the first one!)

I’ve always been pretty up-front that initially I wasn’t sure about Cumberbatch as Strange, but he’s really grown into the role, and grown in my estimation, which is just as well as he seems to be one of the main focal points of the MCU’s newest phase. The accent still feels a little off at times, but he’s left the cold Strange of the first film behind and, along with in Far from Home, turned into something of a father figure, first for Peter Parker and now for America Chavez. Cumberbatch is also clearly having a lot of fun with the role. Plus, the fact that Cumberbatch is such a good actor means you’re never 100% sure you can trust him. He’s still a little vain, a little arrogant, all of which adds to the allure of the character, and makes it all the easier to imagine other universes where that vanity tips him over the edge into becoming something far darker.

However good Cumberbatch is however, this film belongs to Elizabeth Olsen. Fresh from an amazing performance in WandaVision, Olsen is incredible. Yes she’s the bad guy, but her rationale elevates her above most antagonists, and much as she did in WandaVision she gets to act every ounce of Wanda’s grief and pain and longing. The Academy won’t care of course, but I’m pretty sure there are some universes out there where her performance would get her an Oscar nod.

If there’s one thing Marvel has been guilty of its wasting talented actresses. Thankfully they seem to be putting this right. We’ll soon have Natalie Portman going all God of Thunder on us, and here Rachel McAdams finally gets something to sink her teeth into as an alternate Christine. 

Benedict Wong is rapidly becoming the glue that holds the MCU together, it’s just a shame that Wong might never get his own movie. He does get more to do here than he has in some of his recent cameo appearances at least.

Gomez is very engaging as America and I’m guessing we’ll see her again. It’s always nice to see Ejiofor, here as an alternate version of Mordo, though as with the first Doctor Strange film, again you feel that the MCU hasn’t figured out the best use of his talents.

There are a few other cameos, alternate versions of characters we know, or even new heroes we’ve yet to see in the MCU. There’s no need to spoil their presences here, though chances are you might already know about a few, and one is very obvious from the trailers. Suffice to say there’s a certain person with a shield I’m hoping to see again one day in some shape or form.

So, all in all I thought this was a very good film, and it seems to have gone down well with audience as well. My only concern was whether you had to have seen the Marvel tv shows WandaVision and What if…? In order to enjoy it? Maybe not, although I think seeing both heightened my enjoyment. Some people have said this film throws the Wanda of WandaVision under the bus but I’m not sure it does. It may have looked like Wanda had come to terms with her grief, but that was before she started studying the Darkhold. I really do hope this isn’t the last we see of Wanda, and I also hope that next time out Scarlet Witch gets to be on the side of angels.

I’ve also seen people complaining that we don’t really get a multitude of multiverses—most of the action takes place in just two—but I think that works to the film’s advantage. Things could have got very confusing.

Raimi’s direction is flawless. He’s comfortable with special effects and a big budget, but some of the jump scares he gives us are very old school, and in particular Wanda possessing an alternate version of herself if creepy as anything.

 For all that people claim MCU films are cookie cutter and all alike, well this one for sure isn’t. I certainly didn’t expect that the final battle would be between Wanda and…well, you’ll find out.

Funny, inventive, action packed and full to the brim with excellent performances, this is top tier Marvel.

Give this woman an Oscar now!

The Armchair General

Posted: May 21, 2022 in Book reviews
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By John Buckley

Can you defeat the Nazis? And so reads the subtitle of this great book, though it’s not quite the whole story because what it should say is; can you defeat the Nazis? Oh and the Japanese as well!

Written by John Buckley, a professor of military history, The Armchair General is a book that combines three of my favourite things.

  1. History.
  2. Alternative history.
  3. Choose you own adventure books!

What Buckley has written here is a wonderful book that not only teaches you history, it also gives you a sense of what might have been, and it allows you to have fun while you’re reading it.

Buckley provides 8 scenarios, from the choice between Churchill or Halifax to replace Chamberlain, to the decision whether or not to develop and use the atom bomb.

Buckley’s writing is clear and concise, he explains complex situations coherently without ever patronising his audience. It did take me a little while to get into the book it’s true, but that was down to A/Getting used to the structure and B/Because the first scenario seems too obvious (and it is, whatever your views of the man, Churchill was always the best option, in any universe.)

The book definitely gets more interesting the further you get into it, and the less you know about some areas the more enjoyable it is. I made very logical decisions with regard to factors that led up to the battle of Midway, but these were totally the wrong things to do. Midway was an especially interesting segment, as was North Africa. The potential of seeing Stalin overthrown is intriguing, and the most interesting part was probably that in relation to Bomber Command, and Buckley has a very interesting view on how things might have gone very differently on the heavy bomber front.

What is fascinating is how, in most cases, the decision doesn’t change the eventual outcome. The Germans and Japanese always lose, it’s the timing of victory and the cost in lives that varies.

An enjoyable and intriguing way to teach history, the only caution is that you need to be very careful not to get real history mixed up with the might have been history!  

The Northman

Posted: May 6, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy and Ethan Hawke.

Seen in April

The year is 895 and King Aurvandill War-Raven (Hawke) returns to his kingdom on the Irish coast from his conquests overseas and reunites with his wife Queen Gudrún (Kidman), and his young son, Prince Amleth. Injured in battle Aurvandill decides to bestow his crown on his son and the two undertake a spiritual ceremony. Next morning they’re attacked by Aurvandill’s brother, Fjölnir (Bang) and his men. Fjölnir kills Aurvandill, takes his kingdom and his wife for his own and young Amleth is forced to flee, swearing vengeance on his uncle and vowing to save his mother.

Amleth is raised by a band of Vikings. Now an adult (Skarsgård) he has become a berserker. After helping to subdue a village in the lands of the Rus he encounters a seeress who tells him he will soon have a chance to enact his vengeance on his uncle. Shortly afterwards Amleth learns that Rus slaves are being sent to Iceland, where Fjölnir, now lives in exile having been overthrown. Disguising himself as a slave, Amleth allows himself to be taken to Iceland. On the journey he meets another slave, a woman named Olga (Taylor-Joy) who claims to be a seeress.

Set to work on his uncle’s farm Amleth begins to plot his revenge! 

Following on from The Witch (or The VVitch as its styled, a film I appreciated much more on second viewing) and The Lighthouse (a film I still need to see) Eggers’ third film is a different beast entirely, albeit one that clearly sticks to his artistic integrity. The major change is one of budget. The Northman is a full-on blockbuster with a budget rumoured to be in the $70-90million range, a huge upswing compared to the Witch’s $4 million and The Lighthouse’s $11million and not bad at all for only his third feature length film. It’s fair to say every dime is up there on the screen, from epic battles to sweeping vistas (Ireland standing in for Russia and Iceland) and it’s certainly a full-blooded film.   

Eggers hasn’t compromised his vison however, at least insofar as it comes to authenticity. His evocation of the 9th and 10th centuries feels incredibly real. A time of darkness and dirt, violence and hardship. Likely he’s taken artistic licence but just as likely this is probably as accurate a Viking blockbuster as you’re ever going to get. Much of the dialogue is in English but a fair amount is in Norse with subtitles.

As Amleth  Skarsgård is well muscled and stoic, and one can certainly believe he’s a Viking berserker. Taylor-Joy is an actress I’ve admired since I first saw her in The VVitch (credit to Eggers who manages to include all three of the main players from his debut feature in this film) and she’s good here, although her part feels wafer thin, she’s mainly there to give Amleth an ally, and someone to fight for. I didn’t recognise Bang as Fjölnir until I saw the end credits. He’s good as the bad guy, though perhaps not the character you initially think he is. For me the standout is Kidman however, though much like Taylor-Joy she’s short-changed when it comes to screentime. Still, it’s nice to see her in such a meaty role, and it’s definitely the best performance of hers I’ve seen in a while (and given she’s usually good that’s hardly faint praise) and in respect of her character Eggers does some interesting things. Always good to see Ethan Hawke in anything but this is little more than a cameo sadly.

So great cast, good direction and cinematography and an indie heart married to a blockbuster head.

So why didn’t I enjoy this more?

Partly it’s the story that lets it down. Based upon an ancient legend and it feels old. Seriously, the rightful heir escapes his death as a child and returns as a man to get his vengeance is a story we’ve seen time and time again, and no amount of money can quite make up for a generic plot.

Pacing wise the story trudges at times, and I’ll admit to shuffling in my seat more than once and wondering how long was left to go. The mystical elements don’t quite chime with the grounded nature of the world Eggers has created either. He seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it, and while ambiguity worked well in The VVitch, it jars here. How authentic can the world you’ve created be after all, when the hero has a magic sword that can only be unsheathed at night?

Visually impressive yet something of a slog, this is a film I admired more than I actually liked. Not terrible by any means but this Viking epic didn’t exactly pillage my emotions.    

By Lawrence Block

Ex-cop come unlicensed private eye Matt Scudder is out drinking, he’s always out drinking, but on this particular night he’s at an after hours drinking establishment called Morrisey’s, run by Irishmen with links to the IRA. When two gunmen stick up the join the owners hand over the cash without a fuss, but later they ask Matt to help them track down the culprits. Matt refuses, but soon finds himself working several other cases. One of his drinking buddies, Skip who co-owns one of the many bars Matt frequents, has his clean set of books stolen and is now being blackmailed for their return, meanwhile a drinking acquaintance named Tommy is arrested for the murder of his wife and his lawyer hires Matt to dig into the killers.

Matt takes on both cases, though he isn’t confident he can be much help in either one. What’s for sure is that he’ll walk a lot of miles, talk to a lot of people and drink a whole lot of booze before he comes to realise that certain events are more closely tied together than he might have imagined.

As I’ve intimated before, this is one of the first, maybe even the first, Matt Scudder novel I ever read thirty odd years ago. This book, along with Eight Million Ways to Die, which preceded it, marked a shift in the Scudder novels (in fact Block had intended Eight Million Ways to Die to be the last Scudder novel, instead he talked himself into writing a short story to finish Scudder’s story off and liked it so much that he turned it into this novel and he liked that so much that he wrote a whole heap more novels!).

The big shift is that this novel is clearly being told in flashback by a now sober Scudder, ten years in the future. Hence it’s gritty 70s setting and the fact Matt is still drinking like a fish. Now I’ll be honest, reading the opening chapter and I did struggle a bit, I think it’s because Block introduces so many characters all at once, but soon the story settles down and it’s a doozey. A robbery, a blackmail plot and a murder, and Scudder is embroiled in all three. More than this though, it’s a meditation of drinking. Scudder isn’t the only character who drinks to excess, there’ Skip for starters, and others too, and even as Scudder trudges the mean streets of New York booze is never far from his thoughts or his actions and there’s a horrible inevitability to his life, and the lives of those around him that’s really quite poignant. It’s incredible to think Block almost cut the character loose right before he became so much more interesting.

As always Block’s prose is fantastic, and the cast of characters he creates is incredible. Even people who wander into a single scene seem fully formed. As for the mysteries, as is usually the case Scudder solves the crimes not through some Holmesian deductive reasoning, but via solid detective work, asking questions over and over again until something shifts, and the ending, though kinda depressing in a lot of ways, is also incredibly satisfying.

As a final point, you have to love the title, taken from a song by American folk singer Dave Van Ronk. Not only is it an incredible poetic line on its own, but taken in context with the rest of the song’s lyrics it serves as a philosophical theme for the whole book, especially the scene were Scudder and another character listen to the song (and relisten to it) while drinking another night away.

And so we’ve had another night
of poetry and poses,
and each man knows he’ll be alone
when the sacred ginmill closes.

Anyway, an excellent book and highly recommended.

The Batman.

Posted: April 16, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard,  Andy Serkis and Colin Farrell.

Watched in March.

The vigilante known as Batman (Pattinson) has been fighting crime in Gotham City for two years. Though looked on suspiciously by most in the Gotham City Police Department, he has an ally in Lieutenant James Gordon (Wright). When the mayor is murdered by a criminal calling himself The Riddler (Dano) Gordon involves Batman because the Riddler has left a riddle addressed to the caped crusader.

The Riddler also leaves evidence to suggest the mayor was corrupt and in the pocket of Oswald Cobblepot, known as the Penguin (an unrecognisable Farrell) a lieutenant of crime boss Carmine Falcone (Turturro). As Batman investigates further he crosses paths with car burglar Selina Kyle (Kravitz) who works at Penguin’s club and seems to have a relationship with Falcone.

As the Riddler kills more and more of Gotham’s elite, and reveals more and more dirty secrets, Batman finds himself increasingly isolated, with only Gordon, Selina and faithful butler Alfred (Serkis) for support. But worse is to come, because the Riddler has set his sights on another doyen of Gotham, billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne!

Another year, another Batman! If Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ was effectively Year One, Reeves’ ‘The Batman’ is most obviously Year Two, and while it isn’t perfect it’s still a hugely enjoyable entry into the Batman canon featuring a great performance from Pattinson.

It has to be said that this is a dark Batman film (in all sorts of ways) darker even than Nolan’s entries, riffing on things such as Se7en and Saw. Even more grounded than Nolan’s entries as well, this might be as realistic as Batman ever gets, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (much as I love the gothic exuberance of Tim Burton’s two films). The Gotham City here is grim and dirty, a place you wouldn’t want to visit, let alone live in, and the closest comparable Gotham would be from the excellent tv series ‘Gotham’.

It would be unfair to say this was just an exercise in grimdark however, Reeves is saying something, and Batman evolves over the course of the film, starting as a harbinger of vengeance and ending up as more a symbol of hope.

As Bats, Pattinson is simply superb, eschewing the growl that sometimes made Christian Bale’s Batman seem a trifle silly, and with perhaps the best Batsuit to date (sleek, manoeuvrable and yes that Bat symbol on his chest is probably made from the gun that killed his mom and dad) he’s very, very good, and utterly convincing as a winged avenger. He is perhaps slightly (but only slightly) less successful as Bruce Wayne, but in part that’s because we get to see less of Bruce, and unlike Bale’s Wayne, and perhaps more like Keaton’s, this Bruce shuns the limelight, quite literally, and there’s a wonderful recurring motif that sees Pattinson struggle with bright sunlight because he spends so much of his life in the dark. I walked out feeling like I’d possibly seen the best cinematic Batman (well outside of Lego Batman and Adam West obviously, and I mean all that stops Keaton being number one by a country mile is a suit so rigid it looks like he’s some kind of invalid.  And Keaton remains the best Bruce Wayne by far, and I’ll shut up now!)

As The Riddler, Dano is about as far away from Frank Gorshin’s Riddler as you can get, even a more grounded Riddler like Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith has nothing on this guy. Dano’s Riddler is one part incel, one part serial killer and one part internet troll, and that he has his reasons is never enough to make him remotely empathetic, he’s a monster who delights in horrible murders and in generating fear (which does lead to an interesting comparison with Batman.) Dano is one of those quiet yet brilliant actors who immerse himself in a role and does the simple things very well.

Another actor immersing themselves in a role is Colin Farrell as Penguin, again Reeves plays up the mobster angle and plays down, well, the Penguin aspects. Some people have been sniffy about his performance, but I thought he was very good, of course you could ask why they didn’t just hire a larger actor for the role, but Farrell himself is very good, menacing yet also curiously likeable at times.

This film isn’t just about the Bat of course, it’s also about the Cat, and Kravitz is very good as Selina Kyle, again playing up the cat-burglar aspect of the role and playing down the feline aspects. She’s more Anne Hathaway than Michelle Pfeiffer (or Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt or Lee Meriwether) which makes sense in this film. (Of course this is Kravitz’s second Catwoman because she’s also in the Lego Batman movie!) Perhaps the best thing about Kravitz’s Kyle is how much of a chameleon she is, changing personas as often as she changes her wigs and outfits. There’s definite chemistry between her and Pattinson and she makes for a good foil for Batman.

On paper Serkis should make for a great Alfred, but I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe the fact Bruce and Alfred had a somewhat testy relationship in this film didn’t help. Similarly Wright makes for a good Jim Gordon, but it would have been nice to see him get more agency rather than just being someone there to hold Bats’s cape at times.

Three other things I loved about this. One is the soundtrack which is fantastic, the second is the Batmobile, a souped up muscle car that fits this film’s aesthetic perfectly, and the third is that fact that, for all that Batman skulks around in the dark and punches people really hard, he’s also a detective, an important aspect of the character that’s often overlooked but here it’s front and centre.

Yes it’s a trifle grim, and yes it’s waaaay too long, and yes it falls into that Return of the King/The Last Jedi trap of making you thinking it’s over when there’s still a lot to get through, but despite all this I really, REALLY enjoyed it and I sincerely hope we get to see Pattinson in the Batsuit again.

by Mark Salisbury (with contributions by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith.)

Since it began in 2014 Inside No. 9 has surprised and thrilled viewers. Each episode if a self-contained 30 minute story, with the only the number nine (and a small brass hare) as linking features. The seventh series is about to start and Pemberton and Shearsmith show no signs of running out of ideas, the breadth of what they do with the format is amazing, from murder mysteries to kitchen sink dramas, gothic horror to corruption in football.

I already own the scripts for the first three series (reviewed here) and was lucky enough to get this book for Christmas and what a wonderful book it is too. Jam packed full of gossip and info on every episode from the first five series, this is a book for fans of Inside No. 9, but also for anyone interested in the process of making a tv series. Full of behind the scenes photos, interviews with cast and crew and analyses of every episode. Dealing with everything from how Shearsmith and Pemberton get from an original idea scrawled in a notebook to an award winning script, to how the production crew built a multitude of sets, from a French couchette to a 17th century barn, a call centre to a gothic mansion.

A fantastic read. There’s really only one problem, it only covers the first five seasons! Hopefully we’ll eventually get a follow up covering the next five (or maybe the next four as I have a feeling the guys might see nine series as an appropriate place to finish.)

The Shining

Posted: April 1, 2022 in Book reviews, horror
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By Stephen King

(Finished in March)

<Note the following may contain some mild spoilers for the book and the film>

Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy and his five-year-old son Danny move into the remote Overlook Hotel located in the Colorado Rockies. The hotel has closed for the winter and Jack has taken a job as caretaker. Jack is an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic with anger management issues. Previously he accidentally broke Danny’s arm, and more recently he lost his job as a teacher after assaulting a pupil.

Before the last of the Overlook’s staff leave, Danny meets Dick Halloran, the Overlook’s black chef. Halloran recognises a kindred spirit in Danny, Danny has ‘The Shine’, the same as he does, a psychic ability to read minds and experience premonitions.

Before he goes Dick tells Danny to avoid room 217, and tells him he might see the spirits of people who died at the hotel, but makes it clear that they can’t hurt Danny. He also says that if Danny’s ever in trouble he just needs to call out to him with his mind and Dick will come running.

At first the lonely hotel seems the perfect place for the family to reconnect, and the ideal spot for Jack to finish the play he’s been working on, but snowbound isolation, coupled with the spirits that haunt the Overlook begin to insidiously worm their way into Jack’s mind. Dick Halloran was wrong, the Overlook is dangerous, especially when it finds something it wants, and it wants Danny!

I have a curious relationship with the film of the Shining. I’ve seen it precisely twice and on neither occasion have I particularly enjoyed it. I saw it first in my teens and was left unmoved, and then saw it again a few years ago and had a similar reaction, though in part maybe this is down to how many pastiches of the film I’ve seen over the years (UK sitcom Spaced in particular riffs on it a lot). But then I watched Mike Flanagan’s excellent film version of Dr Sleep, which reawakened my interest in the story of the Overlook, and I had a friend who similarly hates the film recommend the book, so I thought, why not?

So fair warning here, I’ve not always been King’s biggest fan, especially in long form—I do love his short stories though—for every novel of his I’ve liked there’s been one that left me cold, so I began reading The Shining with some trepidation.

The first thing to say is that it’s so much better than the film on just about every level. Clearly a damaged individual, the Jack of the book is incredibly complex. Unlike Nicholson’s film Jack who’s basically nuts before he even sets foot inside the Overlook. Similarly Wendy is more than just the Kubrick demanded hysterics of Shelley Duvall, Danny comes across better too. It’s also wonderful to see that Dick Halloran doesn’t risk it all to get to the Overlook only to be murdered the moment he arrives!

All the characters and fully rounded, though at times a little too fully rounded, and the downside to seeing so deeply inside of them is that sometimes we get to see different perceptions of the same event, and sometimes you just want King to get on with it! The characters don’t even reach the Overlook for some time, and it’s some time later before anything spooky happens.

As for the supernatural stuff, some of it is very affecting, Danny’s visit to Room 217 for example. Similarly some of the imagined conversations Jack has with the guests at the perpetual party, and there is something unsettling about the whole Unmask! Unmask! thing!

Other bits aren’t as disturbing; however well he writes I couldn’t take the topiary monsters seriously.

King can write well though, and even if I wanted him to get a move on at times, I was always engaged (I found Jack’s exploration of the history of the Overlook especially fascinating) and even at a relatively early stage in his career you can see how good he is at what he does.

Could have been shorter, and could have been spookier, but I still enjoyed it and it’s a damn sight better than the film!