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Posted: September 23, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Renée Knight

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Documentary filmmaker Catherine Ravenscroft finds a book titled The Perfect Stranger on her bedside table and though she can’t remember how she acquired it she starts reading it. All too soon she realises that she is the subject of the book, renamed as ‘Charlotte’. The novel is a fictionalised account of events that happened 20 years ago after her husband Robert had to come home early from a family holiday, leaving Catherine alone in Spain with their 5 year old son Nicholas. What happened in those few days in Spain is a secret Catherine has told no one in the last twenty years, but now the book proves just the start of a campaign by retired teacher Stephen Brigstocke who is determined that Catherine should pay for what happened back then. As her life begins to fall apart can Catherine save herself from the deadly fate that befalls her literary counterpart Charlotte, or will Stephen get the revenge he feels he is owed?

 

I picked this up because it had an interesting premise. What would happen if you began reading a book and quickly realised that it was about you, and in particular about a dark secret from your past? I wasn’t seduced by the “It’s the new Gone Girl!” label on the cover (mainly because I’ve never read GG, only seen the film) but that should have given me some warning. As a rule of thumb books that tell you how brilliant they are on the front cover rarely are, especially when they compare themselves to something else.

My first problem with the book is that it took me a little while to get into it. The narrative shifts between Catherine and Stephen’s perspective, only Catherine is in the 3rd person and Stephen is in the first person. I’m not sure why this was done, except to provide a contrast between the two points of view, and perhaps because whilst Stephen thinks he knows what happened in Spain, only Catherine would know for sure.

The book also shifts in time, between 2013 and 1993, and it took a little while to acclimatise myself to the shifting perspectives and times. I persevered and the book did become more engaging, and Knight’s prose and structure did hook me somewhat, against my better judgement. I wouldn’t quite call it a page turner, but it did prove a quick read because I wanted to find out what was going on.

The trouble is that what’s going on is pretty flimsy and hangs on a multitude of contrivances, and like a bad sitcom plot everything could be resolved pretty quickly if characters just sat down and talked to one another. I can understand Catherine’s reluctance on one level to dig up a traumatic event, but when a man seems hell bent on ruining your life and possibly even killing you and your son, surely it’s time to bite the bullet. Other characters just believe second hand testimony as if it was gospel, which is especially vexing when late on a certain character seems to have held doubts all along.

I’m sure the author would claim that it’s all about guilt and secrets, and how you get to a point where you can’t reveal what really happened because of the hurt you’ll cause, but in the end it feels like a house of cards, and every narrative trick the author uses seems really obvious in hindsight.

It doesn’t help that not one character is remotely empathetic. Sure towards the end you begin to feel for both Catherine and Stephen, but up to this point neither is that likable, nor is Catherine’s husband or their layabout son. None of them ever felt ‘real’, even Catherine’s job as a filmmaker seems flimsy, like the author just googled the job and then barely took any notes. This is bizarre given Knight herself was a documentary filmmaker for many years.

It’s not terrible, and it isn’t like Knight is a bad writer, I just wish her characters had been warmer and her plot a little meatier. As it is this is an ok book that you can’t help feeling was sold on the basis of an intriguing elevator pitch, but which never quite lives up to its billing.

 

 

 

Bridget Jones’s Baby

Posted: September 22, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Sharon Maguire. Starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth and Patrick Dempsey.

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You won’t believe what the cast of Bridget Jones’s Diary look like now!!

On the cusp of her 43rd birthday Bridget finds herself single and childless, a fact her mother chooses to remind her of. At the funeral service for Daniel Cleaver (no Hugh Grant this time I’m afraid) she sees her ex, Mark Darcy (Firth) and his wife. None of her friends is able to help celebrate her birthday, so she spends the evening alone. At least her career is going well, she’s now a television producer and has become friends with her news anchor Miranda (Sarah Solemani).

 

Miranda encourages her to go away for the weekend with her, and Bridget accepts. She’s expecting a classy mini break but Miranda whisks her off to a music festival in the middle of nowhere. Wearing completely the wrong outfit Bridget falls flat on her face in the mud, but is rescued by a handsome stranger, Jack Qwant (Dempsey). Later a somewhat inebriated Bridget accidentally wanders into Jack’s Yurt and the two have sex (as you do!).

Several days later she attends the christening of her friend Jude’s (Shirley Henderson) baby where she meets Mark once more. Mark confesses that he and his wife are getting a divorce, and he and Bridget have sex (as you do!)

Flash forward several weeks and Bridget discovers she’s pregnant. Unable to get a DNA test done whilst she’s pregnant Bridget resolves to involve both potential fathers in her pregnancy, only without telling either man about the other! In this she is helped by her OB/GYN Dr Rawlings (Emma Thompson who also co-wrote the script along with Helen Fielding and Dan Mazar).

Can Bridget keep up the deception? Will she keep her job in the face of a ruthless new boss, and will she find true love with either Mark or Jack, and just which one is the father anyway?

 

A lot’s happened since we last ventured into the world of Bridget Jones. Zellweger took a six year break from acting and returned looking somewhat different, Firth won an Oscar and became a Kingsman, and Helen Fielding wrote a third Bridget book where she killed Mark Darcy off!

With all this in mind, not to mention a 12 year gap since Edge of Reason, I had to wonder whether the old magic could still work.

Well the answer is, I’m very pleased to say, yes it can, albeit with some caveats. As before the beating heart of the film remains Zellweger, who once again makes you forget she’s actually from Texas and convinces as a middle class English girl from the Home Counties, albeit a somewhat romanticised Home Counties. She imbues the character with such genuine warmth that it’s nigh on impossible not to love Bridget, no matter how rubbish she is, though it’s fair to say she isn’t quite the disaster area she once was, but in her mid-40s she’s still not quite got the hang of this adult business: One empathises! Bridget isn’t perfect. She wears the wrong thing, she does the wrong thing, and quite often she says the wrong thing, and despite the somewhat romanticised world she inhabits this continues to make Bridget Jones one of the more realistic movie heroines. It pains me to say it but I’ve never had a James Bond moment, I have had plenty of Bridget Jones’ moments however! Zellweger might look a little different (and whether it’s surgery or just aging who cares) but she’s still the same old Bridge.

The presence of Firth’s uptight Mark Darcy is also of vital import. The film survives quite well without Hugh Grant but it’s hard to imagine it would have been any good without Mark, and yet again Firth proves what a fantastic actor he is, because it takes a lot of talent to imbue such an apparently cold character with so much warmth, but yet again Firth does it, providing a master class in subtlety. Just watch the joy when he discovers he’s going to be a dad, and the pain when he realises it might not be his baby. I don’t know what Fielding thought she was doing killing him off but I’m very glad the film series at least is taking a different path.

As the third corner of the triangle Dempsey tries his best, but whilst Jack is a nicer guy, and a far better potential suitor, than Daniel Cleaver ever was, he lacks Grant’s caddish charm. Of the rest of the cast pretty much everyone from the previous films is back, though their roles are a tad limited—still it’s nice to see Shirley Henderson, James Callis and Sally Phillips again; I just wish we’d seen more of them, and the same applies to Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent as Bridget’s mum and dad, though Jones does have her moments.

Thompson isn’t in the film much, but the benefit of being one of the writers is that you can give yourself the best lines, and her wily doctor is quite amusing. The standout for me though is Solemani as Bridget’s new BFF. She has good comic timing and a nice line in physical comedy and it’s a shame that she’s increasingly side-lined as the film goes alone.

Plot wise it’s safe to say this is a film that treads familiar ground, and rarely does anything especially unexpected (although there’s a nice double bluff at one stage that did catch me off guard) but that’s not really what you want from this kind of film, you want a warm, familiar, comfortable blanket of a film, and on this level the film succeeds. Contrivances abound but, again, if you ignore these and just go with it the film’s a lot more enjoyable.

The script feels dated. Setting aside the elephant in the room (woman in successful job but only man and baby can make her truly happy) a lot of the jokes riff on things that would have been funnier a year or two ago; social media/cat videos/ hipster beards, and even the Ed Sheerin cameo seems like it would have worked better a couple of years ago. I guess the film had been in development for some time but it’s a shame it couldn’t feel a little more 2016 and a little less 2014!

But still it’s funny, I laughed all the way through and there’s some physical comedy involving a revolving door near the end that’s almost worth the price of admission alone.

This film is warm, funny, loveable and ever so slightly clumsy, much like Bridget herself. I do hope this is the last one though, Bridget deserves to have her happy ending and sail off into the movie sunset.

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“I’m just saying, if you wince it does look a little like Hugh Grant.”

Fifty Years Ago Today…

Posted: September 8, 2016 in Star Trek
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Fifty years ago today NBC aired the first episode of Star Trek. It wasn’t the first episode made, not by a long chalk, Gene Roddenberry had made ‘The Cage’ a pilot featuring Captain Christopher Pike rather than Captain James T Kirk (or is it James R Kirk?) over the winter of 1964/65, but it was famously rejected by NBC for being too cerebral and the episode in its original form didn’t air until the late 1980s (although substantial parts of it were used in the season 1 two-parter The Menagerie).

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Too cerebral? I think NBC were just bighead’ist!

By the time NBC authorised a second pilot Pike (actor Jeffrey Hunter) had jumped ship and the only character to survive from the first pilot was Leonard Nimoy’s Mr Spock (Majel Barrett would return, but as nurse Chapel rather than Number One). The new captain was William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk (though no one knew that’s what the T stood for for a long time!).

Oddly this second pilot—the wonderful Where No Man Has Gone Before— wasn’t aired on 8th September 1966. Instead the first episode anyone outside of the production team saw was The Man Trap, with  Where No Man Has Gone Before airing a couple of weeks later. The Man Trap is, in fairness, best described as a run of the mill episode of Trek, though it does have a few advantages over the second pilot. Firstly the crew are in the uniforms they’ll wear for the entire three season run, more importantly The Man Trap features Deforest Kelley’s Dr McCoy, and even though the triumvirate of Kirk/Spock/McCoy probably wasn’t quite planned at this stage (initially only Shatner and Nimoy got top billing) it’s clear from the off that McCoy will be an important character-heck the episode revolves around him.

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“Gimmie some salt, baby!”

This tale of an alien creature impersonating McCoy’s lost love also sets the tone for plenty of Trek episodes to come; the barren frontier world, long dead civilisations where threat still lurks, alien creatures beyond comprehension, the expendability of redshirts (ok technically none of the expendable crewmen were in red but metaphorically speaking they’re redshirts!) …and it also provides a handy lesson; if your ex comes back on the scene complaining about a lack of salt in his/her diet, RUN!

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Damn it, Janice, stop leading on the salt vampire with your sexy condiments!

Opinions on that first episode were mixed, but I doubt even the most fervent supporter of the show would have thought that, fifty years later, we’d have just seen our 13th Star Trek film at the cinema (Star Trek Beyond) and that we’d be preparing for the arrival of our sixth Star Trek series (Star Trek Discovery, though in fairness it’s the seventh series if you count the animated series).

This is the third big 50th in the last few years. First Bond, then Dr Who and now Trek. As with 007 and Who I was not around at the beginning, but when the BBC began showing Star Trek in the 1970s I was immediately and irrevocably hooked. Some shows from my youth are, in hindsight, a trifle naff but some are still magnificent. Star Trek, along with Blakes 7, falls into the latter category. I could list the naff ones but, oh for the sake of argument let’s just say I’m looking at you Buck Rogers in the 25th Century!

When The Next Generation was announced I had trepidation. A new Star Trek? A Klingon on the bridge? I needn’t have worried and I loved Next Gen (though time has not, I fear, always been kind to it.) Initially I was wary of Deep Space Nine but it rewarded my patience, whilst with Voyager I experienced the opposite reaction, and when Enterprise came along I think I, like many other Trekkies/Trekkers, was somewhat tired and jaded. It was time for a rest.

When in 2009 the movie series was rebooted I was initially horrified at the recasting of Kirk, Spock et al, but I quickly grew to love the new versions of my old favourites (especially Karl Urban’s exceptional take on Bones). And now, fifty years after The Man Trap aired, we’re just a few months away from a new series; Discovery.

But what makes Trek so enduring? In part it’s the notion of a future that hasn’t fallen into dystopian chaos—the 23rd and 24th Centuries are no Hunger Games, instead Trek is one of the few sci-fi franchises that manages to be hopeful about humanity. Beyond this though Trek has the kind of broad storytelling canvas that many storytellers can only dream of. Trek can be thoughtful and cerebral (don’t tell NBC!) but it can also be gritty and action orientated. It can be funny, moving, romantic and, let’s be honest here, downright camp and cheesy. Perhaps only Dr Who comes close in having that expansive kind of pallete. I’ll always love Star Wars, but however great it is the franchise rarely deals with big ideas or with anything controversial in the way Trek has.

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I think they’re trying to tell us something but it may be too subtle to figure out…

Yes the show could be clunky and heavy handed at times, but this was a show that put a woman, and a black woman at that, on the bridge of a starship and mentioned her ethnicity precisely once in three seasons (said mention coming courtesy of an alien representation of Abraham Lincoln.) An Asian man was at the helm, it had an alien science officer, and at the height of the Cold War a Russian! Later series would feature an African American captain, a woman in the centre seat and, yes, women in catsuits, but don’t hold that against it.

Fifty years on Trek still has stories to tell, and as you may have noticed I have a new category on my blog dedicated the Star Trek, so expect a fair few blogs in the coming months, along the lines of ones I’ve done for Bond. I plan to rank the shows, rank the captains and, if I find the time, rank the films.

These are the continuing voyages of the Star Trek franchise, its ongoing mission to go where no one has gone before…

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Oh my God! I only just realised that I picked a Next Gen pic that didn’t feature Beverly Crusher! For shame, Starkey, for shame!

Terminate with Extreme Prejudice

Posted: September 4, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Richard Belfield

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I picked this up second hand for about 50p earlier in the year as it looked interesting (and was obviously cheap). Finally decided to give it a read. It’s written by (I think) a former ITV journalist and it’s quite old now (2005) so parts were out of date—this was written in a world where Gaddafi and Bin Laden were still alive, when British and American troops were still heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, long before the Arab spring  or ISIS.

It’s an interesting read, though at times the author has a tendency to make stories that should be exciting or engaging a little dull. He does delve into the history of assassination, in particular focusing a lot on the Hashashin, the Islamic sect from whom we draw the word assassin, and this part is interesting, especially as it debunks a lot of the myths (that they were drugged and tricked into believing paradise awaited them). There’s also an interesting section on the death of Thomas Becket and whether Henry II had actually wanted him killed when he gave his vague order for someone to rid him of this troublesome priest. There are also interesting references to other historical killings such as one that occurred during the French Revolution, and to the many attempts on the life of Queen Victoria.

On the whole though the book focuses on the twentieth century, for the most part the latter half of the century, but there’s reference to the death of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. Reading the blurb I had expected a wide ranging discussion of hitmen at all levels, but—aside from some Mafia related killings—Belfield focuses on the use of political assassination, which is fine but a broader take would have been nice.

The Cold War, the KGB and the CIA feature heavily here, and Belfield makes the point that the KGB gave up on assassination after a few high profile failures (several instances where KGB hitmen turned up on the doorsteps of their targets and said “I’m supposed to kill you but I actually want to defect”) whereas the CIA couldn’t stop with the killings, from the activities of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala in the 50s, to the ludicrous attempts in Castro’s life and the killing of South Vietnam’s President Diem.

There’s a heavy focus on the big assassinations of the 1960s (JFK, RFK and MLK) and discussions of patsies, be they Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan or James Earl Ray. The author has a tendency to lean towards a conspiracy theory if one exists which is fine, but such theories are often just that; theories.

Later in the book he’ll lean even more this way; when discussing the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside of the Libyan embassy in the 1980s he pretty much suggests it was a CIA conspiracy, though I’m not sure how much evidence there is of this. Worse is to come of the Princess Diana chapter. He mentions a host of discrepancies in people’s accounts of the evening in Paris, challenges some supposed facts, but though he’s clearly desperate to imply that she was assassinated he never seems able to tie the various threads together, or to offer any coherent theory that wouldn’t require the British government, the French government, the CIA and the paparazzi to all be in cahoots, which seems improbable to say the least, especially given that he’s spent a lot of the book so far telling us how incompetent all these government assassins are, and  that such an attempt on Diana’s life might well have have failed if she’d just fastened her seatbelt.

It’s a shame the book wasn’t written a little later, because whilst he mentions an instance of an Al Qaeda operative being killed by a drone, he obviously predates a time when this would become commonplace. Interesting in part this book is let down by a certain dryness to the prose, and an obvious desire to see conspiracies around every corner. By all means give it a go if you have an interest in the subject, just don’t take it all as gospel.

 

 

Suicide Squad

Posted: August 12, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by David Ayer. Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto and Jai Courtney.

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No matter how hard they looked a decent script was nowhere to be found.

In the aftermath of the events of Batman Vs Superman US intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) proposes building a team of super villains, who she will control through various means from emotional blackmail through to explosives implanted in their necks, to fight any meta-human threat that presents itself. After demonstrating the viability of her plan at a meeting of senior military and intelligence types— by using Dr June Moone (model Cara Delevingne who is surprisingly not terrible) an archaeologist who is possessed by the spirit of an evil force that transforms her into Enchantress—Waller gets the go ahead to create the team.

The squad will comprise Enchantress, hitman Deadshot (Smith) a man who never misses, Harley Quinn (Robbie) who was once the Joker’s psychiatrist before she fell in love with him and then fell into a vat of chemicals, Captain Boomerang (Courtney) whose ‘super’ power is bloody obvious, El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) an LA gangbanger who has flaming powers, Killer Croc  (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) a criminal with a skin condition that make him look like a reptile, and Slipknot (Adam Beach) a man who can climb anything! The team is to be led by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) the US’s best special forces operative, who also happens to be in love with Dr Moone. The final recruit is a volunteer, Katana (Karen Fukuhara) a martial artist who wields a sword that can steal the souls of those it kills.

When a supernatural force begins destroying Midway City Waller orders the Suicide Squad into action, but can this disparate band of immoral criminals ever find a way to work together, especially when the force they’re up against is so powerful, and just how will they handle the involvement of The Joker, who wants his girlfriend back.

If you want an idea of how much of a mess this film is don’t worry, you’ll probably figure it out in the first fifteen minutes or so (if not sooner). The film opens with a clandestine meeting between Waller and various intelligence types in a restaurant where she lays out her idea for the squad, throwing a TOP SECRET file on the table before providing a snapshot of some of her recruits, most notably Deadshot and Enchantress. Don’t worry if you miss this bit, because in about five minutes or so Waller will attend a larger meeting where she’ll lay out her idea for the squad before providing a snapshot of each of her recruits. Yup that’s right, this is a film that has so little faith in its audience that it feels it has to explain everything twice…if not three times. By the time the story goes anywhere we’ll have been introduced to most of the squad members at least twice, and in Deadshot’s case about four times! There’s an axiom in writing of show don’t tell, as far as Ayer (who wrote the script as well as directed) his axiom seems to be show and tell, then show and tell some more…

Thankfully the film does get better as it goes along, but that’s not saying much given how lousy the opening section is. Yet again what we have here is DC cutting corners (just like they did with Batman Vs Superman) in an attempt to jump cut to Marvel levels of success, and as such the film has to introduce, well everyone as we’ve met none of these characters before, even the Joker is an all new Joker. Of course plenty of team based films have introduced characters cold and made us care about them in a short space of time (take The Dirty Dozen which is one of many films Suicide Squad desperately wants to be) but Ayer’s script isn’t nearly good enough to do this. Captain Boomerang gets barely a thumbnail character sketch, whilst Killer Croc doesn’t even get that. Meanwhile Deadshot’s love for his daughter and Harley’s love for Joker and shoved down our throats repeatedly, and even then neither of them get much personality beyond this. Flag is just a generic honourable soldier with a tragic romance subplot tacked on, and Slipknot and Katana are added to the team as an afterthought. El Diablo is potentially the most interesting character given he’s one of the few with genuine super powers and, despite his cliché look, is perhaps the most philosophical of the bunch, but when we get his backstory it’s as ham-fisted as Deadshot’s.

The trouble is Suicide Squad isn’t quite sure what kind of film it wants to be, in tone or in plot, and it isn’t confident enough in its characters to let them truly be bad guys, so rather than a truly anarchic (wo)men on a mission war movie, what we get is a bunch of misunderstood scallywags, none of whom are quite as bad as they’ve been painted, and no worse than Waller in the final analysis. This despite the fact that Deadshot’s killed hundreds, Harley is a psychopath, Croc may be a cannibal and El Diablo didn’t get to be leader of a gang by being nice to people. And so each character is undercut; Deadshot doesn’t kill women or children and he loves his daughter so he can’t be all bad, Harley’s fantasy is just to be a normal woman (which, and bear in mind she was a highly trained psychiatrist, apparently involves being a housewife and mother—how progressive).

Everything about Suicide Squad screams that it’s a film that thinks it’s way cooler and more anarchic than it actually is. Take the soundtrack replete with songs that were antiauthority back in the day, but now have slipped into mainstream cliché (Sympathy for the Devil ooh how daring). Nowhere is this ‘look at how rad we are’ view more apparent than in Jared Leto’s Joker. His craziness is all surface. The metal teeth, the tattoos, the outfits, it’s all external and his performance leaves much to be desired. I appreciate that a lot of his scenes apparently ended up on the cutting room floor, but maybe there’s a reason for that? He just never comes across like the Clown Prince of Crime. Heath Ledger made a fantastic, and very original, Joker with just some facial scarring and a kooky walk. He was scary. By contrast Leto’s Joker seems to have been designed within an inch of his life, which given we’re supposedly talking about a genuinely crazy, genuinely chaotic individual, kinda misses the point by several miles.

The rest of the cast do their best. Smith is probably the standout, because we are talking about a man with genuine star quality, the trouble is that you can never really buy him as an emotionless killing machine, he plays the part more like the good guy who’s just happened to fall in with the wrong crowd. Robbie is great as Harley and she owns the role, and the outfit, from the first moment you see her. She gets plenty to do and many of the film’s best lines, and however sexualised she is she never feels like she’s just there to be eye candy. Really the only problem with Robbie’s portrayal is the same as Leto’s, in that I don’t buy that Harley is genuinely batshit crazy.

It comes to something when there’s an argument for Jai Courtney being one of the best things in a film, but despite getting little to do Captain Boomerang is genuinely funny. Killer Croc could be anyone, so it’s a shame when you realise this is the guy who was Mr Eko in Lost. Kinnaman tries but has little to do aside from act tough/vulnerable as the script demands. Delevingne is genuinely creepy as the Enchantress, but convinces far less as Dr Moone. Davis seems to have mistaken just being monotone for being a sociopath but, as I’ve said, kudos to Hernandez for imbuing El Diablo with so much pathos.

As seems to be the default colour pallete for DC movies actual darkness is seem as a suitable substitute for emotional darkness, and the fight scenes tend to be generic gun/sword/baseball fights with nebulous creatures who are never really introduced, and are just there to be cannon fodder for the ‘good’ guys. The actual head bad guy is terrible. His sister is better but even so when you get to the final battle all you can think of is how much like Ghostbusters this is. It’s a weird tonal shift and sadly it doesn’t seem to be coincidental given that, once the fighting’s over, the film shamelessly lifts a moment from the end of the original Ghostbusters.

But then it’s hardly surprising given this film clearly wants to copy other films, and no more is this evident than in its aping of Escape from New York. Don’t get me wrong, EFNY is one of my favourite films, and there’s nothing wrong with homageing a classic every once in a while, but having tiny explosives inserted in everyone’s necks is just a little too on the nose, plus by drawing comparisons with Escape from New York you just make Suicide Squad’s flaws all the more telling. Carpenter made a truly dark and anarchic film, he and Kurt Russell gave us a real genuine antihero and never needed to sugar coat him in order to make him engaging.

Suicide Squad is a film that wants to have its cake and eat it, to be subversive yet also multiplex friendly and thus falls between two stools and succeeds in neither aim. If you want a subversive comic book film featuring lots of violence and a lead who doesn’t fit the standard superhero template go watch Deadpool which is everything Suicide Squad isn’t.

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Gratuitous Harley Quinn pic because…look I don’t need a reason ok!

 

Trigger Mortis

Posted: August 10, 2016 in Book reviews, James Bond
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By Anthony Horowitz

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It’s 1957, the dawn of the space race and just a few weeks after the events of Goldfinger. James Bond has returned to London with Pussy Galore in tow. He isn’t sure about their burgeoning relationship, and so when M assigns him a new mission Bond is grateful to get some space. He’s to take part in a motor race at the infamous Nürburgring track in Germany. MI6 fear SMERSH have plans to assassinate a famous British racing driver and it’s up to Bond to stop them. First he’ll need some coaching from a lady racing driver in handling the Maserati 250, and in preparing for the Nürburgring track which isn’t forgiving of novices.

Before Bond can get to Germany events with Pussy will reach a head, but even after he takes part in the race this will prove only the start of the adventure. Whilst observing the Russian team he will see a notable SMERSH general in conversation with a Korean businessman named Jai Seung Sin, whose name has been Americanised to Jason Sin. In investigating Jason Sin Bond will be led to America, to a rocket base and eventually to a diabolical scheme that threatens to cause huge destruction in New York. He’ll also meet a young woman named Jeopardy Lane, and he’ll discover just how cold, ruthless and evil Jason Sin is.

 

And so Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider young adult spy thrillers, as well as the man behind Foyle’s War on ITV, becomes the latest novelist to take on the mantle of Fleming. Horowitz’s novel might be the most Fleming like not to have been authored by Fleming, in part because a few hundred lines of text, and certain story elements came courtesy of an aborted TV show Fleming himself had been working on. Horowitz explains at the end roughly where Fleming’s prose kicks in, suffice to say that it’s nigh on impossible to see the join, which is testament to Horowitz’s aping of Fleming.

This is also a novel that feels more like Fleming due to its setting. This is, apparently, the first Bond novel to sit in the 1950s since Kingsley Amis wrote Colonel Sun. This also allows Horowitz to follow on immediately after a Fleming novel, and to bring back an iconic Bond girl, although to be honest this doesn’t really go anywhere, and one can’t help feeling that the involvement of Pussy was just for publicity’s sake, and perhaps even to add to some padding—but I’ll get on to the plot later.

Firstly as I’ve said Horowitz’s take on Fleming is top drawer. Horowitz writes a story that feels like Fleming, without having to rely on the mimicking of all too familiar tropes, ala Sebastian Faulks’ effort. The period setting negates any of the technical issues that plagued Jeffery Deaver’s present day take on the character (where Bond had an app for everything), and Horowitz’s 007 feels more at home in 1950s’ Germany and America than William Boyd’s did in 1970s’ Africa. In some ways Horowitz’s prose is a little too close to Fleming, in particular in how he writes the female and non-white characters; Horowitz walks a fine line but just about manages to write like Fleming without quite falling foul of mid twentieth century casual racism and sexism.

The plot, once we get there, is interesting, even if it does feel a little by the numbers, and it’s aided by Jason Sin who’s a nasty piece of work. Still the problem is how long it takes to get there. The first section of the book which involves Bond training to be a racing driver, whilst also resolving the Pussy Galore storyline, feels largely extraneous, and Horowitz loses points for replaying an iconic murder technique so blatantly.  Once the race at Nürburgring is out of the way the book picks up pace, and it’s nice to see Bond playing detective as he follows Sin’s trail. Jeopardy Lane is far from just being a damsel in distress, and saves Bond’s bacon several times, yet she still never quite manages to stand out from the Bond girl crowd, and her name seems a little too on the nose, much like the book’s pulpish title, one can’t help thinking Fleming might have come up with something a little better.

It’s a good book though, with a slightly too familiar plot outweighed by Horowitz’s way with prose, his portrayal of Bond as someone not quite as bad as the villains, and for subjecting Bond to something I don’t think we’ve ever seen before which, given it’s a fear of my own, worked a little too well.

Not perfect but for my money the best of the four most recent Bond entries. Given they’ve yet to reuse an author I wonder who we’ll get next?

Star Trek Beyond

Posted: July 29, 2016 in Film reviews, Star Trek
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Directed by Justin Lin. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Idris Elba.

 

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To not watch this film would be illogical

 

The USS Enterprise is three years into its five year mission under the command of Captain Kirk (Pine) and several members of the crew are on the verge of making big decisions about their futures. Kirk is struggling to find meaning in their continuing voyages, and has applied for a Vice Admiral position at the huge Yorktown star base, suggesting Spock be given command of the Enterprise. Meanwhile Spock (Quinto) is considering leaving Starfleet to re-join the remains of his race on New Vulcan, a decision given added impetus by the news that his older self from the other timeline (i.e. original Spock as played by the late Leonard Nimoy) has died.

Before either man can quit the Enterprise, a badly damaged spaceship exits a nearby nebula and makes it to Yorktown. The sole occupant is an alien woman who advises that her crew is stranded on a desolate planet inside the nebula. The nebula is largely unexplored and long range communications won’t work, but Kirk readily agrees to take the Enterprise in on a rescue mission.

When they arrive at the planet however they find it’s a trap and the ship is attacked by a swarm of attack ships led by an alien named Krall (Elba). As the Enterprise is torn apart Krall and his soldiers board it looking for an ancient artefact that Kirk acquired on a recent mission. Kirk ensures Krall doesn’t get it, but by this point the Enterprise is in pieces, and Kirk orders an evacuation.

Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) escape in a life pod, whist other members of the crew escape in a variety of novel ways. Once down on the planet Kirk and Chekov head for the remains of Enterprise’s saucer section. Meanwhile Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) have been taken captive by Krall. Spock meanwhile is teamed up with Dr McCoy (Urban) and bickering ensures. Scotty (Simon Pegg) has run into an alien scavenger named Jaylah (Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella) who may be able to help.

With no ship, and with Krall in possession of a deadly alien weapon, can Kirk and his crew stop him before he enacts a terrible revenge on the Federation?

 

For a while it looked like 2016, Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, might pass without any new Trek, and whilst Bryan Fuller’s Star Trek: Discovery won’t air until the New Year between it and Star Trek Beyond it’s good to know that Trek’s far from dead.

As with many creators and franchises out there I’ve had a somewhat fractious relationship with JJ Abrams’ take on Trek. When the reboot was originally announced I was horrified, but then I saw Star Trek in 2009 and loved it. And having re-watched it just last week I can confirm that I still love it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still clunky in places, still annoys me at times, but when it hits the mark (as it so often does) its magnificent and is one of the best Trek films. Sadly the same can’t be said of its follow-up Into Darkness which not only shamelessly miscast Cumberbatch as Khan, but then went on to hide the fact he was Khan, resulting in a dramatic reveal midway through the film which meant nothing to Kirk and co and was only there for the fans (see also Blofeld in Spectre). Suffice to say that trying to remake The Wrath of Khan is never a good idea (See Star Trek Nemesis for further details).

When the first trailer for Beyond came out I was underwhelmed. Lots of explosions and not much else. The snippet of hope was a scene between Spock and McCoy that I hoped better represented the film as a whole, and thank goodness it did!

Because I liked this, I liked it a lot. In fact I loved it and I sat there grinning most of the way through in a way I haven’t done since maybe Deadpool and definitely The Force Awakens.

It would be wrong to suggest the plot isn’t flawed. It steers a little close to Star Trek Insurrection at times, there are a lot of similarities, though to be fair it tells a similar(ish) story better than Insurrection.

As with even Into Darkness the cast help make it a great film. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than these three playing the lead three roles (well aside from William Shatner, Leonard   Nimoy and DeForest Kelly obviously!) It was obvious long before Star Trek that Quinto was a shoe in to make a good Spock, but having never seen Pine before in anything he was very much an unknown quantity. Thankfully he has been great from the start, successfully marrying the better aspects of Shatner’s performance to create a Kirk who is at once something of a maverick, yet also the kind of commander people would walk into hell for. However great these two are it’s Urban, yet again, who steals the show, as a friend said to me, of the three you can tell he has really studied DeForest Kelly to given a nuanced performance that stays just the right side of parody.

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Damn it I’m a doctor not an action hero!

 

McCoy gets most of the best lines, and most of them are at Spock’s expense. The decision to split the group into different groups is, on the whole, a good one. Whilst we get less of the Kirk/Spock friendship it’s good to see the classic Spock/McCoy banter and bickering, and Urban and Quinto play it to perfection.

The loss of Yelchin is all the more tragic given his young age, but having been somewhat overlooked in the previous two films there’s some minor comfort in Chekov getting a lot more to do here, and he makes a good foil for Kirk.  

Pegg has often felt like the odd man out for me, at times his Scotty doesn’t convince, but credit where credit’s due he throws himself into the role with a brio that covers a multitude of sins (plus he gets bonus points for having helped write the film.) he also has a nice interplay with Boutella who, in a fairly short time, ingratiates herself with the crew—whether she will return is anyone’s guess but I’d be happy to see her return.

Saldana and Cho probably get the short end of the stick and the least to do, although even they get their moments, no mean feat with an ensemble like this.

That leaves Elba as Krall and to be honest much as I love Idris Elba, initially I thought he was a weak antagonist, a powerful actor submerged under too much latex, but as the film went on he got better (there is a reason for this but I won’t say any more) He’s not the best Trek villain ever, but he’s far from the worst.

Fast and Furious director Lin injects a lot of energy into the film. It careens along at pace, yet he isn’t afraid to slow things down to inject some humour or emotion. This isn’t just some mindless action film, it has the Original Series deeply ingrained in its DNA and probably feels more like a Star Trek film then the previous two films. That doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s better than Star Trek 09, but it is more consistent. This is a crew comfortable in their roles in a story where the day is not saved by phasers but by different people from different cultures working together, showing humanity at its best, and its worst.

Also a word for composer Michael Giacchino who yet again does a great job, and the reboot Trek theme is still really cool

It’s funny, it’s exciting, it looks gorgeous and, best of all, it feels like Star Trek, and as I’ve heard said elsewhere, the real shame is that I’d kind of love to see this group in another story next week, sadly we’ll have to wait a few years.

I may be biased by virtue of being a huge Trekkie, but I loved this, so ignore the Spaced quote Pegg slipped into the script, don’t skip to the end, sit back and enjoy the ride!

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In your face Shatner, you never got a funky command jacket!