Hide and Seek

Posted: May 21, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Ian Rankin.

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When a drug addict dies in a rundown Edinburgh squat it looks like just another junkie overdosing, but Detective Inspector John Rebus isn’t so sure. The body has been laid out in the shape of a cross between two burned down candles, and there’s a pentagram painted on the wall. Then there’s the fact that the victim, a young man named Ronnie, was covered in bruises, and the last time he saw one of his fellow squatters he told her that they had to, “Hide! Hide!”

The fact that Ronnie’s system is full of tainted heroin, whilst he has a packet of pure heroin in his hand is the icing on the cake. Rebus begins to investigate, but as he navigates the grim backstreets of Edinburgh he still has no real idea why Ronnie was targeted. Is it a case of a rough trade rent boy who messed with the wrong people or is it a satanic conspiracy? And when Ronnie shouted Hide, was this an instruction or a name, as in Hyde?

 

After reading the second Rebus book it’s interesting to consider quite what the hook was that kept the series going in the early days, because as with Knots and Crosses there isn’t really anything here that makes Rebus stand out from a whole host of other fictional detectives. He’s a former soldier and a hard-drinking loner with a taste for good music and fancy literature, which is hardly the most original characterisation for a copper. Similarly, the central mystery is fairly thin as well. As Rankin himself admits in the introduction, he was still finding his feet as a writer, and the allusions to Jekyll and Hyde (and Deacon Brodie) aren’t very subtle. Many of the potential suspects in the book merge into a bland, amorphous whole, so when the villains of the piece are revealed I had to think hard to remember who they were and what they did for a living.

I suppose the two things the series had going for it in the early days were Rankin and Edinburgh. Rankin’s hard boiled prose makes for an engaging read, and in Edinburgh he has plenty of mean, gothic streets (and grubby housing estates) for Rebus to prowl, and in many ways Edinburgh is a more interesting character than Rebus is. I like as well that Rebus is the kind of detective who solves a crime via shoe leather rather than deductive reasoning or his own genius. Much like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder it’s a case that Rebus wanders around talking to person after person until the truth shakes free.

I don’t like Rebus anywhere near as much as I like Scudder, but I do like Rankin’s prose, and his evocation of a dark and moody Edinburgh, so I’m definitely going to keep reading the series. I just hope Rebus becomes more than the sum of his parts, and/or the mysteries become a little more intriguing.

 

Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender and Billy Crudup.

 

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“I am NOT Groot!”

The colony ship Covenant is en route to the planet Origae-6. It carries a crew of fifteen plus 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos in stasis. Acting as caretaker is a synthetic named Walter (Fassbender). Disaster strikes during a routine maintenance stop and Walter is forced to awaken the crew, with tragic consequence. In the aftermath the ship picks up a strange transmission coming from an unexplored planet nearby. Further investigation shows a planet with a lush, earth-like environment and the ship’s acting captain, Christopher Oram (Crudup), decides that the colony has a better chance of survival there than in continuing on to Origae-6. Daniels “Dany” Branson (Waterston), the ship’s terraforming expert feels it isn’t worth the risk, but Oram overrules her.

Most of the crew take a shuttle to the surface and find that the planet is indeed inhabitable. All too quickly several crewmembers are exposed to alien spores that gestate inside them, eventually releasing vicious creatures that wreak havoc with the landing party. The survivors encounter another synthetic named David (Fassbender again) who arrived on this planet in the aftermath of the previous film with Dr Elizabeth Shaw. David can fend off the vicious neomorphs, but is there a deadlier monster still to make an appearance?

 

As anyone who’s read my review will know, I wasn’t enthusiastic about Prometheus, so I was initially hopeful about a new Alien film that promised to get back to basics. After I saw the trailer I started to worry again, and I’ll be honest I expected Covenant to be bad. The odd thing is whilst it is bad, it isn’t necessarily bad for the reasons I expected it to be bad.

Prometheus wasn’t enough like an Alien film (though that was hardly its sole flaw) and to be honest I thought Covenant would go too far the other way and be too much like an Alien film (I know, some people are never happy, right?) and whilst it is guilty of this, it’s Alien greatest hits medley is accompanied by a side order of “You know, Prometheus wasn’t that terrible, we should do some of that again” ensuring this is a film that’s never quite sure what it wants to be.

For all its failings at least Prometheus had a clear tone, whereas Covenant is just a messy mashup of B-movie monster flick and pretentious “thoughtful” sci-fi.

Ridley Scott provides fair warning of what’s to come in a 2001-A space Odyssey inspired flashback where Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce sans makeup this time) has a conversation with a newly online David. They talk about creators, the nature of God, and immorality and…the whole thing is about as subtle as a brick that has BRICK written on the side in neon green paint.

The film then segues into something more reminiscent of the older films, with a space ship and a crew in hibernation. And then there’s a mysterious signal from a nearby planet. If this all sounds familiar it’s clearly supposed to because the call-backs in this film are not subtle. Now don’t get me wrong, harking back to previous films in and of itself doesn’t make a film terrible. I’m a huge fan of The Force Awakens but I can see it’s blatantly riffing on A New Hope. Thing is with TFA it works because what’s new is so well done that you just enjoy the call-backs. Covenant fails so badly on its own merits that the call-backs just seem really jarring. And there are a lot of call-backs. Crew of grousing space jockeys? check; express elevator to hell, going down? Check. Fight in a cargo bay: Check…and I haven’t even listed them all because some would be blatant spoilers. And when the film isn’t harking back to Alien films, it seems intent on stealing from others. The opening space scenes feel like Sunshine, there are some echoes of Blade Runner here, and even Covenant flying through the clouds whilst a storm rages just made me think of Event Horizon. Pretty much everything in this film will make you think of something else. Probably something better.

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“Where we’re going we don’t need quarantine procedures.”

The script is flimsy, and whilst Scott is clearly still a great director (The Martian was just a few years ago) he seems incapable of being able to salvage a ropey script, and the pacing is off throughout. Using a Goldilocks metaphor, when it’s slow it’s too slow, and when it’s quick it’s too quick (seriously, if you thought AVP sped up the Alien Lifecyle you ain’t seen nothing yet!).

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“Don’t call me Ripley. You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ripley.”

Cast wise there are a lot of people in the ship and down on the planet, but most of them are cardboard cut-outs and they’re stupid in much the same way most everyone in Prometheus was stupid, and they’ll be dead soon so you don’t have to worry too much. Part of what made both Alien and Aliens good was a cast of easily identifiable characters, but here the cannon fodder just merge into the background. Initially Waterston is very good as Dany. She makes for an engaging protagonist. Until the midway point of the film where she’s shunted to one side so that Fassbender can have pretentious existential chats with himself about Shelley and Byron and talk about flute playing in a way that’ll make your adolescent-self snigger. Don’t worry, Ripley will come back to the fore in time for the finale. Sorry, I meant Dany. It’s shame as when she has something distinct to do she’s very good. Fassbender is always a joy to watch, and seeing David and Walter interact is nicely done, it’s just that their conversations are a trifle ponderous to say the least. Crudup’s acting captain is given a potentially interesting character trait as it’s awkwardly shoehorned in that he’s a man of faith. Once done this will barely be referenced again and certainly won’t seem to inform many of his actions. Of the rest only Danny McBride makes any impression as (do you) Tennessee (what they did there?) but this might be down to him wearing a cowboy hat.

One of the things I found so annoying about Prometheus was it’s need to explain where the Xenomorphs come from, completely missing the point that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re terrifying and unstoppable (mostly). They work best as creatures of mystery lurking in the shadows. Explaining their origins is like pulling the curtain away from the great and powerful Oz, and when you have them leaping around in broad daylight they’re just another CGI monster. Captain America could have turned up at the end and wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

If you found the Engineer origin of the Xenomorphs annoying, prepare for that annoyance to be dialled up to eleven as the franchise lurches in a new direction that makes little sense, and frankly I have no idea how they’ll get from this point to the beginning of Alien.

Oh, and if you don’t twig a certain plot point early on, well I envy you your cinematic naiveite!

After The Martian I thought Scott was back on form, but it seems he is only as good as the script. Covenant looks good, has a few nice ideas bubbling around, and features good performances from Waterston and Fassbender, but in the end it’s a dull mess, and whilst I was always slightly wary of the idea, I really want to see Neill Blomkamp do Alien 5 now, because it just has to be better than what we’re getting from Scott and co.

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I guess he didn’t like the cornbread either.

 

Directed by James Gunn. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Kurt Russell.

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Warning: no spoilers for Vol.2, but by necessity I will give away bits about vol.1 (if you’re one of the small number of people never to have seen it).

 

Its just a few months after the Guardians saved Xandar from the threat posed by Ronan, and the group of renegades have become famous. They’re hired by the golden hued Sovereign Race led by Ayesha (a wonderful turn by Elizabeth Debicki) to protect her planet’s precious batteries from an interdimensional beast. The team prevail and in return Ayesha turns Nebula (Karen Gillan) over to the team so they can take her back to Xandar to stand trial. Unfortunately Rocket (the genetically engineered racoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) decides to pocket some of the precious batteries, leading to a Sovereign battle fleet hunting the group down.

In the short term they’re saved by a mysterious stranger named Ego (Kurt Russell) who explains he has a link to Peter Quill (Pratt) Whilst Quill returns to Ego’s planet, along with Gamora (Saldana) and Drax (Bautista), Rocket stays behind with Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) and Nebula while he repairs their ship.

With the group divided, threats come at them from multiple directions, and if they’re going to prevail they’ll need to work as a team, and possibly even co-opt the odd enemy into becoming an ally if they want to save the galaxy for a second time.

 

It’s fair to say that Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit back in 2014. It was heralded way in advance as the Marvel film that’d be the first to fail. It didn’t, quite the reverse, becoming one of the brand’s major successes. There’s no hint of surprise with volume 2, this film comes with a whole heap of preconceptions and expectations, which is a lot to live up to.

With this in mind I have to state an opinion that might go somewhat against the grain. You see I think I enjoyed volume 2 more than the original film, and I really like the original.

In an era of generic/interchangeable blockbusters there’s something very different about both Guardians films. It’s a perfect storm of talents, both in front of and behind the camera.

As writer and director James Gunn seems to understand the balance between action and character perfectly, and its testament to his skill that he juggles such a large cast so effortlessly, giving everyone their moment, and even elevating secondary characters from the first film into something approaching main cast members, with both Gillan and Michael Rooker (as ravager captain Yondu) getting a lot of meat to sink their teeth into, and Rooker in particular threatens to steal the show on occasion.

The thing is though, quite a few characters threaten to steal the show on occasion, testament to a wonderful cast. As Peter Quill/Star-Lord Pratt is effortless. I’d still like to see him add some strings to his bow, but there’s no denying he has the cocky pirate with a heart of gold shtick down pat, and he utterly convinces as the groups de-facto leader. Zoe Saldana has a tougher job as Gamora, and she gets less to do than the others, which isn’t to denigrate her skills, because she has the hard job of being the sensible straight woman surrounded by idiots, and much like a tough defensive midfielder who does the hard work so others can play pretty football, she’s more important than you realise, and the films would be lessened by her absence.

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Don’t rile the raccoon!

The partnership of a superb CGI realisation and Bradley Cooper’s snarky delivery again pays dividends in the form of Rocket, and not once do you ever doubt that he isn’t a real, fully formed character, hell I believe in Rocket more than I believe in most human characters in many films!

Almost the star of the show however is Bautista, and Drax gets the lion’s share of great lines, with Gunn supplying the ammo and Bautista hitting the bullseyes with practically every shot. It still annoys me that the Bond producers hired a guy with such great comic timing, then turned him into a mute, but here the ex-wrestler shows yet again that, given the right role, he has genuine star quality.

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“I am Groot?”

I say almost star of the show because we really need to talk about Baby Groot. The sapling, all that remained of Groot after he sacrificed himself last time out, has grown into a small child who, let’s be honest, doesn’t appear to be the sharpest tool in the box, but this naiveite, married to an adorable character design, makes Baby Groot incredibly loveable. Seriously, if you don’t instantly fall in love with Baby Groot then you need to seek professional help, and he provides many of the film’s funniest bits, from the opening titles through to that scene with the bomb you probably saw in the trailer. Once again Vin Diesel manages to imbue each recitation of ‘I am Groot’ with subtle differences in inflection so you know he’s saying something different every time.

And I haven’t even mentioned Kurt Frikken Russell yet, an actor who was doing the kind of effortless cool Pratt does when Pratt was in nappies. In the unlikely event that I ever meet Mr Russell, rest assured my reaction will be something akin to Wayne meeting Alice Cooper.

The only real bum note acting wise is probably Stallone, who feels oddly out of place, but he isn’t in it much so don’t worry.

If I had to pick a flaw with the film, then I’d say the retro soundtrack isn’t quite as instantly cool as vol.1’s, but that’s about it. Funny, exciting, heart-breaking, with a cast to die for and a an ethos of family that’s even better than the Fast & furious franchise, this is a damn fine follow up to a damn fine original and I can’t wait to see it again!

Final tip, stay right to the end of the credits. It’s worth it!

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“And then I had to go into New York to rescue the President…”

Trigger Warning

Posted: May 5, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Neil Gaiman

 

As Gaiman himself says in his introduction anthologies can be a hard sell for publishers, and especially single author anthologies, and it’s nice that Gaiman seems fully aware of how fortunate he is, though in fairness there’s a reason his books sell and a lot of that is down to his vivid imagination and unique voice.

Trigger Warning is an eclectic collection (something he again acknowledges early on) with no distinct theme running through it, which isn’t to say all the stories are unconnected, there’s very clear links between some of them, and even when they aren’t connected you can tell the collection has been assembled with care.

Gaiman has a wonderful talent for dark fairy tales, his stories are primarily fantasy but horror enters the fray quite often, and he isn’t averse to a smidgen of sci-fi—as you can see from the story Nothing O’clock, a Dr Who tale starring the eleventh Doctor which is Who at its best, an everyday setting menaced by a rather scary antagonist.

I’m not intending to go through every story in the collection, but I’ll highlight those I really liked, and maybe some of those I was less fond of.

Firstly it has to be said that the collection features some poetry, which really made little impression on me, but that’s more to do with me than the nature of Gaiman’s metre.

The anthology starts with an introduction, but I quickly skipped this, returning once I’d finished the book because Gaiman does go into a little detail about each story here. It’s interesting stuff, and I’m not sure there are too many spoilers, but I’m glad I didn’t read this first.

The first highlight of the book for me was The Thing About Cassandra, a wonderful tale about a man who discovers his imaginary childhood girlfriend might not be so imaginary after all. It’s a great tale of the falsehoods we tell as kids in order to fit in, and has a neat twist worthy of Tales of the Unexpected or the Twilight Zone.

It’s followed by Down to a Sunless Sea, a short but ghoulish tale worthy of a dark and stormy night.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” is a nice enough story set several hundred years ago on the Isle of Skye. It builds to a satisfying resolution but I did feel it took way too long getting there.

A Calendar of Tales is like a mini-anthology all of its own, featuring as it does 12 flash fictions. Some are very good, some a bit forgettable, and the whole thing feels a little thrown together, though once I read the introduction this made sense.

The Case of Death and Honey is a moderately intriguing Sherlock Holmes story but the payoff was a bit lacking for me, though I couldn’t rightly tell you why.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury deserves kudos for the title alone and is a nice meditation on memory that manages to be a wonderful homage to the works of Bradbury, who’s clearly a big influence on Gaiman.

Click-Clack the Rattlebag is a fairly generic horror tale.

“And weep, like Alexander” is amusing, and Gaiman proffers an explanation for why we don’t have flying cars and jetpacks that feels like it may have some truth to it.

The Return of the Thin White Duke felt like a nice idea, it starts well but in the end the shift in location and tone is just too jarring.

There are a trio of stories/poems that, though probably not directly connected, feel thematically interlinked, and the collection finishes off with Black Dog a ghoulish story set in the Peak District featuring Shadow Moon, the hero of American Gods. I liked this a lot, and it actually did surprise me with its denouement.

As with any anthology this is a mixed bag, but Gaiman has such a wonderful imagination, and has such crisp, evocative prose that I found it nigh on impossible not to love the book overall.

Fast & Furious 8

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by  F. Gary Gray. Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez and Charlize Theron.

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Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Rodriguez) are on honeymoon in Cuba. Of course, this being a Fast & Furious film said honeymoon entails a road race around Havana in an exploding car but, you know, never let it be said Dom doesn’t understand the concept of romance…

Everything is hunky-dory, until Dom is approached by a mysterious cyberhacker named Cypher (Theron) who wants him to come work for her. Dom refuses, but Cypher shows him a photo and suggests he changes his mind.

Meanwhile Secret Service agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) has been given an assignment to steal an Electromagnetic pulse device from a terrorist group in Berlin. It’s an off the books job and if he’s caught the American government will disavow him and he’ll end up in prison. Hobbs quickly recruits Dom and the rest of his team/family.

In Berlin things don’t go to plan. Suddenly Dom’s switched sides, the team are on the run, and Hobbs is banged up in prison sharing a cell block with his old adversary Deckard Shaw (Statham).

But, as the true extent of Cypher’s plan becomes clear, secretive intelligence guru Mr Nobody (the always excellent Kurt Russell) decides Hobbs and the team are the only ones who can stop Cypher and Dom… but given they’re a man down he suggests a new recruit that nobody is particularly happy about.

As the countdown to Armageddon draws closer, the team must battle incredible (some might say ludicrous) odds in order to stop Cypher. But just what has made Dom betray his family?

 

It’s hard to remember that when this franchise started it was a down and dirty, not to mention grounded, series. When the fifth instalment semi-rebooted the franchise back in 2011 a scene involving fast cars dragging a bank vault through the streets of Rio suggested the franchise had left it’s roots well and truly behind and embraced a blockbuster future.

Fast & Furious 8 makes Fast Five look like a Mike Leigh film.

Be under no illusions if you go see this. It’s utterly preposterous. People and cars do things that people and cars really can’t ever do. The soundtrack is dialled up to eleven but it has to be to compete with the revving engines, gunfire and explosions which are its near constant companions, and you’ll rarely find a film more loaded with testosterone than this outside of the 1980s action movie heyday.

This film is not remotely subtle.

This film is also fantastically enjoyable. From its Cuban set piece preamble to its ice floe denouement this film doesn’t let up for a minute; fast cars, pretty girls, bald handsome men, guns, fights, jokes…it’s like a two and a half hour roller coaster that somehow never seems to need to climb before it hits you with another drop.

Yes the plot is ropey, and though Theron exudes menace her characterisation is wafer thin and it’s hard to decide just what she wants. Shaw isn’t the first bad guy to turn anti-hero but it is only a film ago that he wanted to kill everyone (and only two films ago that he succeeded in killing one of the group) but if this seems a misstep it’s not, thanks in no small part to Statham’s ebullient charm, and make no mistake the Stath threatens to steal the whole damn movie at times, and he has the best set piece in the film involving a…well, that’d be telling. Suffice to say that with his blend of charisma, comic timing and fighting skills it’s amazing he doesn’t have an action franchise all to himself, and if the rumours about a Shaw/Hobbs spin off are correct I will most assuredly buy that for a dollar.

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Jason and Dwayne’s game of Rock, Paper, Scissors got a little out of hand.

Talking of Hobbs, Johnson rarely gives a poor performance, and like Statham has so much natural charm it’d be irritating if only he wasn’t so damn charming. Whilst he’s the beating heart of the franchise it has to be said that Diesel pales somewhat in comparison to his co-stars. He still has a natural swagger, but he’s showing his age somewhat, and he’s never going to win an Oscar, and he spends most of the film looking conflicted (or trying to). There’s also a touch of narcissistic wish fulfilment going on, given his character can seemingly outwit all of the others put together.

Rodriguez is reliable as ever, and for a film that does tend to focus on blokes—and spends perhaps a trifle too long at the start leering at women’s bottoms—she more than holds her own. Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris are another double act who could probably pull off their own spin off, and newcomer Scott (you might know his dad) Eastwood impresses as the newbie and semi-replacement for the deceased Paul Walker. Really the only dud is Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel  who never remotely convinces as a computer hacker, though her GoT co-star Kristofer Hivju does make for an impressive heavy.

Special mention for Helen Mirren’s EastEnders audition as well…

Yes it’s dumb, yes it has too much cgi and yes it’s hard to know where the hell they go from here (though I seem to recall saying the same after 7) but for all its flaws it’s the kind of film most other blockbusters should pay attention to, well paced and, most of all, enjoyable. I’m not saying I want the Bond franchise to go all Fast & Furious, but they could do worse than take a few of the less ridiculous leaves out of its book when it comes to pacing and set pieces.

Utterly stupid. Utterly enjoyable.

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Both Charlize and Vin wondered who’d farted?

Raw

Posted: April 14, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Julia Ducournau. Starring Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf.

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And this is what happens when you stick Lego up your nose.

Justine (Marillier) is on her way to college to train as a vet. Her parents attended the same college, and her older sister Alexia (Rumpf) is already partway through her studies there. Justine and Alexia were raised as vegetarians by their parents, but when Justine arrives she finds that an intense hazing ritual awaits all new students, or rookies as they’re known, and part of this involves the initiates having to eat raw rabbit kidneys. Justine initially refuses, but Alexia persuades her to do it.

Soon after Justine begins to feel unwell, she develops a rash which she presumes is an allergic reaction to eating meat. A little while later and she starts to develop an unusual craving…

 

Up until about a week ago I had no idea this film existed, and in a world of franchise blockbusters it’s a pleasant surprise that this did actually make it to my local multiplex given its a/subtitled and b/is a female skewed cannibal film.

Although the first thing to make clear is that ‘French cannibal film’ really doesn’t do this justice. Exceptionally well directed its truly mesmerising to watch, and acting wise both Marillier and Rumpf are superb. In particular Marillier gives one heck of a performance, switching from virginal and timid to sexy and confident and then back again, and the shifts in her personality never seen forced.

Setting aside the more lurid elements of the film, this is a story about finding your place in the world, about growing up and discovering just what kind of person you want to be. It’s about those first painful days at university when you’re alone, trying to make new friends and trying not to miss home. It’s about being out of your comfort zone, about exploring your sexuality and about fitting in, or choosing not to fit in.

The easiest point of reference I can make to this film is the Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps (which if you haven’t seen you should really see!) which again featured sisters coming of age, and again featured appetites that are, shall we say not the norm. Just imagine Ginger Snaps without the werewolves, which is something of a recurring motif for Raw, because in many ways it’s a zombie film that features no zombies, a vampire film sans bloodsuckers.

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The first rule of Bite Club is, you don’t talk about Bite Club!

Which isn’t to suggest Raw is a strictly speaking a horror film, although obviously in many ways it is, but like the best horror films it’s more than just a scary movie, and it has something to say. It’s exceptionally dark, evocative, disturbing, sexy, funny, and shocking. At times you want to look away, not because something is happening on screen, but because of what you imagine could happen at any moment. It’s an unsettling film because you’re always on edge, and in part this is why it’s so enthralling (along with the performances).

Rumours abound that, much like the Exorcist or Robocop when they first came out, people were fainting/vomiting in the aisles. I can’t say I ever quite felt like doing either, but at times this is a wince inducing film, and not always in the moments you might imagine. The bit where Justine scratches her rash is one of the most grimace inducing bits of the film, as is a waxing scene. There’s disturbing imagery at play outside of the more horrific elements. The scene with students crawling through an underground carpark is genuinely unsettling, and with this being a veterinary school there are a lot of scenes featuring animals which again put you on edge without you knowing why.

If it has a flaw I’d say it was a touch impenetrable at first, it did take me a little while to get into it, but that might be more to do with me acclimatising to the subtitles rather than anything the film does or doesn’t do. Suffice to say that after a while I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, which given what was often happening on screen says a lot for how enthralling it is.

Proving yet again (if it even needed proving) that women can make films that are every bit as unsettling (if not more so) as blokes, this is a treat. Oh, and it has a great soundtrack too.

It isn’t a film for everyone, but I really, really liked it. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m feeling a trifle peckish all of a sudden…

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It’s going to take more than Persil to get these stains out…

By Harry Harrison

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Arch criminal turned ace secret agent, ‘Slippery Jim’ diGriz is taking some well-earned R&R. Of course for the Stainless Steel Rat this involves robbing a series of banks. He’s soon reeled in by Inskipp, the head of the Special Corps, who Jim now reluctantly works for. The Corps has something big to contend with. In the future invasion of another world should be impossible, but somehow the inhabitants of the planet Cliaand have managed to invade multiple planets with ease, and Inskipp wants to know how.

Recently (and somewhat reluctantly) married, Jim leaves his heavily pregnant wife, Angelica (one of the few people are smart and deadly as him) behind and heads for Cliaand, but with no gadgets and only his wits to rely on, and with an entire planet full of soldiers to thwart, has the Stainless Steel Rat finally bitten off more than he can chew?

And so my (very slow) re-read of the Stainless Steel Rat books reaches the second novel. There’s actually quite a gap between them, given than Harrison published this around 1970 and the first book (which I reviewed here) came out almost a decade before.

Very little has changed in the intervening time, and much like the first book this is a slender volume very much in the pulp space opera mould. Again it’s a product of its time, although in fairness Harrison does give his female characters a degree of agency (if anything Angelica is smarter and much more ruthless than Jim, he is the more cunning however) and although painted with very broad brushstrokes, he does provide a matriarchal society of Amazonian women to help Jim out.

As before this is a lightweight, non-too serious adventure.  diGriz is smarter than any opponent, so even when he’s captured you know he won’t stay incarcerated for long. That said the Grey Men he finds himself up again are somewhat creepy, and this book does feature a truly shocking event that, when it happened, made me sit up and take notice because I didn’t remotely see it coming. Suffice to say it was a trifle Game of Thrones!

As science fiction goes this is about as hard as brie, and the era it was written in makes for some anachronistic aspects of a so called future society at times. But it’s amusing, well-paced, and if the use of smoke bombs becomes a trifle repetitive, don’t worry there’s usually a surprise or two waiting around the corner.

Something of an admission however, is it wrong that I find Jim’s criminal escapades just a trifle more exciting than his life as an intergalactic James Bond?

At the current rate set your alarms for a review of book three coming sometime in 2019…