See How They Run

Posted: September 25, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Tom George. Starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson and David Oyelowo.

The year is 1953 and in the West End Agatha’s Christie’s The Mousetrap is celebrating its 100th performance. On hand for the after party is sleazy American director Leo Köpernick (a wonderfully weaselly Brody) who’s been hired to produce the film version of the play. He seems determined to annoy everyone, so it’s probably no surprise when he winds up dead, but who killed him?

Cue the arrival of world-weary Detective Inspector Stoppard (Rockwell), assisted by inexperienced and overeager Constable Stalker (Ronan). It won’t be an easy case to solve because everyone seemed to have a motive, but can Stoppard and Stalker work out whodunnit before the killer strikes again?

It’s easy to compare See How They Run to Knives Out, both are modern deconstructions of the whodunnit genre centred around characters involved in mystery stories, both feature a cast of top notch actors having a ball hamming it us as a motley array of suspects, both feature a lead actor eschewing his natural accent, both feature a standout performance by an actress who’s the beating heart of the film, and in some respects the clever and knowing script is almost a little too clever for its own good.

I loved Knives Out.

So, it was probably inevitable that I’d love this too.

Not that See How They Run is any kind of copycat, and there are as many differences as there are similarities. Rockwell’s low-key performance is the antithesis of Daniel Craig’s Foghorn Leghorn exuberance, and the film prefers a cosy theatricality in place of Knives Out’s biting blockbuster satire (though I think they cost about the same to make). One’s set in the present, the other the past, yadda yadda yadda…

In terms of the cast I’m going to talk about Saoirse Ronan first, because she really is the best thing about the film. Anyone who’s read other reviews I’ve written of films featuring Ms Ronan will know that I’ve long been a fan. I think she’s a fantastic actor and I fully expect her to win an Oscar or two before the end of her career (and I’m slightly perplexed that she hasn’t already). She’s had meatier roles than this, but I don’t think she’s ever demonstrated her comic timing quite so well. There’s a lightness to her performance than makes it all seem effortless, wide eyed and over eager she may be, but she’s no ingenue, she’s smart and resourceful, even if she has a tendency to jump to the wrong conclusions (with hilarious results) and the film leans into its post war setting by giving her a life outside of her uniform, and tragedy in her past.

It would be easy to side-line Rockwell somewhat given the strength of Ronan’s performance, but every comedy double act needs a straight man and Rockwell’s grounded performance anchors the film and never lets it fly away into cloud cuckoo land. Given Rockwell is very capable of playing larger than life comedic characters (see Galaxy Quest!) it’s refreshing to see him taking the quieter role here and let Ronan have the spotlight. It’s a nuanced performance. Stoppard is dishevelled, he’s often drunk and he’s probably depressed, but he’s also clearly much sharper than people think. Much like Stalker, Stoppard is given a backstory, and with both the war looms large in the making of their characters. Rockwell’s English accent isn’t half bad either. 

The rest of the cast are great too. Brody has fun and even manages a moment or two of pathos as the murder victim,  Oyelowo camps it up no end as the put upon screenwriter and Harris Dickinson and  Pearl Chanda luvvie it up as Dickie Attenborough and Sheila Sim, two of several real life characters in the film, see also the ever wonderful Shearsmith’s John Woolf amongst others. Charlie Cooper as an usher and Sian Clifford as Woolf’s wife do well with limited screentime. It would have been nice to see Ruth Wilson get more to do, but everyone is almost upstaged by a Shirley Henderson cameo late on!    

The script is knowing and inventive, and while I loved how meta it was your milage may vary and I suspect others might find it annoying. Fans of the Mousetrap and Christie will either love it or hate it, I doubt there’ll a middle ground. As I said it’s a script that is almost too clever at times, though for me at least it always stayed the right side of things.

George’s direction is effortless, and the evocation of post war London is nicely done. Balancing the bright lights of the West End with post war austerity is handled well. At 100 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and if anything leaves you wanting more, and with that in mind I’ll mention Knives Out again because here’s hoping we get a sequel because  I for one would love to see another Stoppard and Stalker mystery!

Nope

Posted: September 3, 2022 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott and Brandon Perea

Seen in August

After the inexplicable death of their father (always nice to see Keith David, however briefly) the Californian ranch he owned passes to Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr (Kaluuya) and his sister Em (Palmer). OJ tries to keep the ranch running, working as a horse wrangler for Hollywood, while his sister tries to make it in tinsel town anyway she can.

With money tight OJ is forced to sell some of his horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun) a former child star who now runs a small western themed amusement park nearby.

When their electricity starts to fluctuate, and the horses get spooked, OJ and Em begin seeing what they think is a UFO. With the help of local electronics whizz Angel (Perea) and legendary Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (Wincott) they set out to capture footage of the spaceship that they can sell for millions, but is everything quite what it appears?

And so we come to Jordan Peele’s third film as a director and I went in with some trepidation. I really liked Get Out, but I really didn’t like Us, so would this be thumbs up or thumbs down?

I’m happy to report it’s thumbs up, although it took a little while to get there. Make no mistake, this is a slow burn of a film, but by lord when it kicks into gear does it kick into gear! It’s also fair to say that this is a film I expect to like even more with repeat viewings, because it’s a film that might appear a trifle confusing until you get into it, with hindsight a whole heap of things make a lot more sense, in particular the flashbacks to an incident that happened to Jupe when he was a child filming a sitcom about an intelligent chimp. No spoilers here because the first flashback is right at the start. Suffice to say that what happened with the chimp does have a huge bearing on the wider story, as does Holst’s obsession with getting the ultimate shot.

At its heart this is a film about spectacle. From OJ and Em trying to get a money shot of a UFO, to Jupe’s need to put on a show and Holst’s obsession. There’s even a deranged TMZ paparazzi just in case you don’t get the message (a trifle obvious and possibly one tiny misstep?)

There are other themes but I’m not going into them as it will give the game away, not that there’s a stunning twist, but the story does take a sharp tun and it isn’t the film you think it’s going to be.   

Kaluuya is an actor I’ve admired since I first saw him in The Fades and Black Mirror. His performance here is at once understated whilst also being intense, he’s very much a man of few words, the taciturn cowboy whose eyes speak volumes (and it should be noted that he does indeed look damn cool sitting on a horse.)

By contrast Palmer is anything but reticent, her character is bold and brash and very much in your face, she brings the spark to the story and she and Kaluuya make for engaging siblings.

At first Perea’s Angel seems like he’ll be a minor character, but he hangs around and he becomes very much part of the gang.

Wincott is spot on casting, channelling his inner Hertzog to make Holst an intense, near fanatical cinematic artist.

That leaves Yeun, another favourite actor of mine, whose portrayal of the child star still haunted by the trauma of his youth is central to the story, even if it feels he’s slightly short-changed by the turn the story takes.

There are some genuine scares, and one truly horrible moment that might be one of the most unsettling things I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve heard this film compared to Under the Skin, and I can totally relate to the comparison, even though they’re very different films.

Peele’s direction is great, and he makes good use of sprawling desert vistas, the open sky, clouds and the little amusement park (which apparently you can go visit!). He does tension very well, and this film did have me on the edge of my seat on occasion.

It won’t be for everyone, and I’ve already heard that while NOPE might stand for Not Of Planet Earth, I’ve also it’s so titled because Peele thought that would be half the audience’s reaction upon discovering what it’s actually about!

It’s maybe a trifle too long and maybe takes a little too long to warm up, but it’s also stunningly original in an era of cookie cutter films. It’s well directed and well-acted. Nope gets a Yup from me!

By H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s work is seminal, and he’s been a huge influence on a host of horror and science fiction writers going forward. Despite this I wasn’t that familiar with his work. Sure, I’d read one or two stories, I’d seen a few films based on his work, and I played the Call of Cthulhu role playing game while at university, but as a fan of the horror and sci-fi genres I’d been remiss in reading many of his stories.

When I saw this beautiful hardback book going cheap in Waterstones, well I couldn’t resist. I ended up starting it quicker than I expected to thanks to a bout of covid which confined me to the house.

As always with anthologies I’ll break down how I felt about individual stories. I certainly enjoyed some of them, and I probably appreciate Lovecraft’s’ influence even more now, there is something definitely unsettling about the world of dark gods and cosmic horror he created. He is also not a terrible writer.

You know there’s a but here, right?

But, his prose can be laborious, and many stories are long and arduous to read, as such the further I got into the anthology the more reading it felt like a chore, which hasn’t put me off Lovecraft, quite the reverse, but for me at least I think going forward the trick will be to approach his work in small chunks. If I’d read a few stories then gone away and read something else before returning to read another story or two, and so on, I think I’d have enjoyed this far more.

It also has to be highlighted that Lovecraft was more than a little bigoted, especially when it comes to ethnic minorities, and at times this is reflected subtly, and often not so subtly in his work. Yes, he was a product of his time but I’m not sure that completely absolves him (plenty of his contemporaries aren’t horribly racist)  and it shouldn’t be ignored, however important he is to the genres of science fiction and horror.

Anyway, onto the stories:

The Call of Cthulhu

Perhaps the story Lovecraft is most famous for and it’s a doozy. Narrated Francis Wayland Thurston who explains that he has discovered an incredible story by going through the notes left behind by his uncle, who was a prominent professor of Semitic languages. Thurstan also finds a bizarre sculpture of a creature with a tentacled head and explains that his uncle discovered it was made by a young student in Rhode Island who crafted the sculpture based on dreams he had of incredible Cyclopean cities and of the creatures that inhabit them.

Thurstan then goes onto further studies by his uncle, whereby he encountered a policeman from Louisiana who talked of a curious cult that worshipped the old God Cthulhu. The policeman and his men had broken up what they thought was a voodoo cult, but turned out to be something much darker.

The final part of his uncle’s studies features a derelict ship in the Pacific. There was one survivor onboard, a Norwegian sailor with a tale of a mysterious island where his shipmates had lost their lives.

Thurstan travels to New Zealand and Australia to find out more.

It’s an odd tale, and like several other Lovecraft stories feels almost more like a history than an actual story, but his worldbuilding is so good, and the things he’s describing so creepy, that it almost doesn’t matter. It does go on a bit and there is some rather unfortunate language, but you can see how it spawned a sub-genre in its own right.

The Whisperer in the Darkness

Another long tale and another story recounted by a single narrator, in this case Albert Wilmarth, a lecturer at the fictious Miskatonic University. When strange things are found in Vermont rivers after a flood Wilmarth sides with the sceptics against those who claim there are old monsters living in the uninhabited Vermont hills.

When he receives a letter from Henry Wentworth, who lives in an isolated farmhouse in the Vermont hills, he begins to doubt his scepticism and he and Wentworth engage in correspondence about the strange creatures who Wentworth believes are menacing him.

Eventually Wilmarth travels into the wilderness to visit Wentworth and discovers something incredible and horrific.

A slight sidestep for Lovecraft here, there are Cthulhuish vibes here, but this is more science fiction then horror, featuring aliens rather than elder gods (never forgetting that theoretically those elder gods could be aliens too).

It’s another tale that goes on too long, but again another story that’s very interesting, although you will find yourself wondering just how dense Wilmarth is at one point.

His visit to Wentworth’s house is genuinely creepy, and the final reveal is a corker.

The Thing on the Doorstep

Daniel Upton, the narrator begins the story by explaining that he has murdered his best friend, Edward Derby, and then goes on to explain why he did. As a young man Derby had been reliant on his parents, and interested in the occult, after his parents’ death he marries a fellow student from Miskatonic University Asenath Waite. She too has an interest in the occult and moves into Derby’s home, brining with her three servants from her home in Innsmouth, a mysterious coastal town. As the years pass Daniel begins to notice changes in Derby’s personality, almost as if he was someone else. Is Asenath the villain of the piece, or curiously, is it her aged and infirm father Ephraim?

Another story that goes on far too long, but the central conceit is imaginative, and the story is genuinely unsettling.

The Lurking Fear

An unnamed reporter travels to the Catskills Mountain range to investigate reports of attacks by unidentified creatures. The attacks seem to be linked to violent thunderstorms, and also seem tied to the foreboding, deserted Martense mansion.

There’s a kernel of an interesting story here but this one just didn’t grab me, the first clunker of the collection, though it does feature a great jump scare midway.

The Shadow over Innsmouth

The unnamed narrator explains how he came to instigate a secret government investigation of the isolated, and partially deserted, seaport of Innsmouth.

Intrigued by superstitious tales about the town, including reference to an epidemic that killed off half the populace, and the rise of a pagan cult that became the town’s main religion, the narrator takes a bus ride to Innsmouth and discovers a brooding, near abandoned town, where many buildings lie empty and the locals show signs of inbreeding. A talk with a local drunk reveals a fantastical tale of old Gods and interbreeding with aquatic creatures. When the bus breaks down the narrator is forced to take a room for the night in the local hotel, and that’s when his nightmare really begins.

Another disquieting tale, and perhaps the one where I wish I’d taken a break after some of the earlier stories because I think I’d have liked it more. The history of Innsmouth is interesting, as is the narrator’s night-time adventures in trying to escape from it. It links neatly to the wider Cthulhu mythos and features a disturbing twist in the tale. It does take an age for anything to happen however!

The Shunned House

For many years the narrator and his uncle, Whipple, have been fascinated by an abandoned house in Providence. Dr Whipple has done a large amount of research tracking the mysterious, yet seeming unconnected, incidences of sickness and death that have cursed the various occupants of the house, to the point where no one will live there. There is curious fungus growing in the basement, and a strange mouldy outline on the floor that looks like a man curled up, there’s also a strange yellow vapour from time to time. The narrator and his uncle decide to spend the night in the basement, with horrific results.

There’s an interesting story here, and the title is great. As with many of Lovecraft’s works it is too long, but the way he explains the history of the house is really nicely done. I also like the way that for the most part he leaves it vague as to whether the cause is something supernatural or something more prosaic. It does go on way too long though, and the eventual resolution seems somewhat lacking.

From Beyond

An unnamed narrator details his experiences with a scientist named Crawford Tillinghast who creates a device that stimulates a person pineal gland, allowing them to see other realities and the creatures that live in them.

A short, sharp inventive tale that demonstrates one of Lovecraft’s  recurring themes, of things existing on other planes of reality.

Pickman’s Model

The story involves an artist named Richard Pickman whose work, whilst brilliant, is so horrifying that he is shunned by most in the artworld. The narrator is his friend, who Pickman takes to show his studio/gallery, squirreled away in a slum area of the city. There the narrator discovers how Pickman is able to paint such vivid monsters!

Another fairly short tale. It has a nice sting at the end and some unsettling moments throughout.  

The Nameless City

A(nother) nameless narrator discovers a lost and abandoned city in the middle of the Arabian peninsula. Whilst exploring the ruins he finds low ceilings buildings that doesn’t seem to have been designed for humans, and upon discovering a staircase leading down he descends into a bizarre necropolis where the bodies reserved are not remotely human.

I really liked this one. The decent into the lower regions of the city was incredibly unsettling (and did have me screaming for him to turn back at several points) and I enjoyed the dreamlike quality to it. It could be argued it doesn’t really go anywhere, but on the plus side it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome either. Probably the best story in the latter half of the book.

The Dreams in the Witch House

Walter Gilman, a student at Miskatonic university, rents a room in the Witch House, a place rumoured to be haunted by the spirits of Keziah Mason, an accused witch who somehow manged to escape execution, and her familiar, Brown Jenkins, a creature with the body of a rat but the face of a man. Gilman begins having terrible nightmares that feature both of them, and lead him to become obsessed with understanding a new form of geometry that would allow for the existence of other universes to be perceived.

I really struggled with this one, in part because again it’s too long, but also because of its placing at the end of the book and I was just so ready to finish it. It feels like a smorgasbord of Lovecraft’s obsessions. In some respects this makes the central story interesting, but it also makes it confused. We have the supernatural, human sacrifices, witchcraft and devilish creatures, but there’s also a huge portion of cosmic horror and science fiction given Gilman’s fascination with unearthly geometry which seems to promise the ability to teleport between worlds.

I suspect I would have liked this more if I’d read it earlier in the book.

Thor: Love and Thunder

Posted: August 12, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Taika Waititi. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson and Russell Crowe.

Seen in July.

Thor (Hemsworth) has been bumming around the universe with the Guardians of the Galaxy, saving countless civilisations and getting into lots of fights and trying not to think about how heartbroken he is that his relationship with Jane Foster (Portman) ended many years before.

At the same time Jane has problems of her own, she has stage four cancer and is facing her own mortality. Desperate for a cure she finds herself drawn to New Asgard, and the fragmented remains of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir.

Meanwhile an entire civilisation dies except for one man, Gorr (Bale). Finding himself in the presence of his God, Gorr discovers that the deity is vain and uncaring, and has barely noticed that his subjects, including Gorr’s daughter, have died. His philosophy seems to be that he can always get more followers. Enraged Gorr uses the God killing Necrosword to kill his own God, and then vows to kill all the Gods.

When Thor learns of Gorr’s crusade he travels to New Asgard to protect it. Gorr attacks but Thor is surprised to find that New Asgard has an additional protector. Jane now wields a restored Mjolnir and the hammer has imbued her with the power of Thor.

With time running out Thor and Jane must join forces with Valkyrie (Thompson) and Korg ( Waititi) to stop Gorr.  

So let’s be honest here, 2017’s Thor Ragnarok was a joy from start to finish, due in no small part to Taika Waititi’s direction and a great script coupled with Hemsworth’s wonderful portrayal of the God of Thunder, so when it was announced that we were getting a fourth Thor film, and that Waititi was again directing I got excited. When it turned out Portman would be returning, and would actually get something to do this time, I was even more thrilled. The casting of Bale as the bad guy and the presence of the Guardians of the Galaxy were just the icing on the cake.

This is the part where I tell you Love and Thunder is terrible, right?

Wrong. It’s a highly enjoyable romp. Is it as good as Ragnarok? No but could we get that lucky? It’s flawed, perhaps even a little forgettable, but while I was watching it I had a whale of a time, and I like to think most people will.

Hemsworth could probably play Thor in his sleep now, and while some people get annoyed at his loveable idiot persona, I think it’s perfect, playing Thor completely straight wouldn’t work, he lives in a realm of magic and giants, enchanted hammers and rainbow bridges, leave the grounded stuff for Cap and those like him and Thor, don’t ever change!

When reviewing Multiverse of Madness I pointed out that previously Marvel had hired great actresses, then gave them barely anything to work with. This was very true of Portman, but they’ve made up for it here. From Jane having to deal with her cancer, to kicking Arse as the Mighty Thor. It’s a great performance and I have to say she looks fab in her Thor get up. Hands down she’s the best part of the film.

There’s a hint of Eccleston’s villain from Thor 2 in Bale’s Gorr, but while Eccleston kind phoned it in, Bale throws himself into the role, and is truly terrifying at times, but also curiously empathetic at others.

Thomson as Valkyrie and Waititi himself voicing Korg are ok, but neither land quite as well as they did in Ragnorak.

That leaves Russell Crowe, with yet another extravagant accent playing Zeus. Some people have balked at Zeus being portrayed as a vain, gluttonous, lecherous buffoon, these people have obviously never read what Zeaus was like in the myths, and Crowe nails it perfectly, he also doesn’t outstay his welcome.

Oh and the Guardians of the Galaxy show up, on the downside they’re in the film for about five minutes, on the up side they’re very funny (although Platt felt a little off as Starlord).

Waititi direction and script are good, though the film does suffer tonally. There’s no reason a film can’t be both funny and serious by turns, but tonally Love and Thunder shifts too quickly from one to another. Some of the humour is very juvenile (not necessarily a bad thing) while Gorr as a character is deadly serious. Some aspects of Jane’s cancer land clunkily, and the least said about the child soldiers are a good thing aspect the better. It’s also relatively short as Marvel films go, which isn’t a terrible thing as some of them do go on a bit, but you can’t help feeling things are missing; in particular it’s a shame we don’t see Jane’s initial transformation into the Mighty Thor.

Suffers by comparison to Ragnarok, but if you’re a Marvel/Thor fan there’s still a whole lot to enjoy here, and I’m really hoping we haven’t seen the last of Natalie Portman with a big hammer…    

Slow Bullets

Posted: July 29, 2022 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Alastair Reynolds

It is the far future and a huge conflict encompassing hundreds of worlds is coming to an end. Scur is a conscripted soldier fighting for one of the factions. She is relieved that war is ending, but then she’s captured by Orvin, a vicious renegade fighting for the other side who intends for her a slow, painful death.

She escapes this fate and wakes up aboard an unfamiliar ship, lightyears from any recognisable world. It soon becomes clear that the ship is filled with war criminals from both sides of the conflict, plus a large number of civilians. It also soon becomes clear that something has gone very wrong with this ship, and the worlds they left behind may no longer exist. In the midst of this chaos Scur then discovers that she knows one of the other passengers It’s Orvin. Can she overcome her desire for revenge when an uncertain future faces the mismatched crew of this ship?

As anyone who’s a regular reader of my blog will know, I’m a huge fan of Reynolds, and when I earned from free money via my Waterstones’ card, I decided to spend it on Slow Bullets, because the price had always put me off given it’s only a novella.

Whilst I’m not sorry I bought this, and it is an interesting read, it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t put this in the upper tier of Reynolds’ work. Lacking the punchiness of a short story, and the room to breathe that a full novel would have provided, Slow Bullets falls between two stools. At times it feels too long, but mostly it feels way too short.

There’s an interesting premise here and I think Reynolds should have either written it as a short story, or gone all in and made it a novel, which would have allowed him to expand on a lot of elements and flesh out the characters, most of whom, including Orvin, are quite two dimensional. Scur is interesting, as is her friend Prad, one of the ship’s original crew, but even so it would have been interesting to find out more about both of them.

The concept of the Slow Bullets themselves is intriguing (they’re not remotely what you might think) and like I said there the basis of a great novel here about survival against the odds and about the possibility of rebooting civilisation, and I did enjoy it, it just left me wanting a lot more. That being said, as a gateway into Reynold’s work this might make for a good start.

Top Gun: Maverick

Posted: July 5, 2022 in Film reviews
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Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Monica Barbaro, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris and Val Kilmer.

Seen in June.

Thirty years after his time at the Top Gun fighter school, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) is a navy test pilot flying the top secret Darkstar scramjet. After disobeying orders to prove the plane’s viability Maverick is approached by Admiral Cain (Harris.) If he could Cain would bounce Maverick out of the navy, but instead he is being sent back to Top Gun on the orders of Maverick’s friend, and former rival, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Kilmer.)

Kazansky wants Maverick to train a group of Top Gun graduates to fly a dangerous mission to destroy a rogue state’s uranium enrichment plant. The commander of naval air forces, Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Hamm) thinks this is a terrible idea, and makes it clear that Maverick won’t be going on the mission.

Maverick reluctantly agrees to train the group, but it won’t be easy, especially given one of them is Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Teller) the son of Maverick’s former buddy Goose. Things are further complicated by the presence of Penny (Connelly) an old flame who Maverick rekindles romance with.

As the mission draws closer can Maverick find a way to inspire these pilots to be the best they can be, and can the mission really succeed without Maverick’s involvement?

I still remember seeing the original Top Gun at the cinema as a 16 year old and I’m embarrassed to admit that it did encourage me to look into how easily one could become a naval aviator! It was an iconic film, and there has been much talk over the years of a sequel. I don’t think anyone expected it’d take over thirty years, and I don’t expect anyone thought it would work anywhere near as well as this does, and it does work really well.

It’s preposterous, it’s predictable, it was written by someone clearly obsessed with the Death Star trench scene in Star Wars (and one really hopes by extension the Dambusters) and yet it’s also hugely enjoyable.

Cruise makes no attempt to suggest Maverick has grown or changed in any way. He’s still flying by the seat of his pants, still bucking authority, still wearing the same leather jacket and sunglasses and still riding a motorbike without a helmet!

But he does it so well!

There are a few sops to Maverick aging, but it doesn’t help that Cruise looks infuriatingly good for a man on the cusp of 60 (he’s 60 now but he wasn’t when he made this, ok!)

The character shouldn’t work. He’s Peter Pan, a man who never grew up, a man who won’t follow orders and a terrible role model (seriously, how many billions does he cost the US taxpayer with that little stunt at the start of the film?) but he gets by with his innate flying ability and that damn smile. And clearly every senior officer, with the exception of Iceman, is a risk averse idiot by comparison.

As Rooster, Goose’s son (see what he did there?) Teller is very good, although this film has taken so long to make that not only is it necessary for Rooster to have unresolved issues with Mav over the death of his father, they also insert another issue, namely that Maverick got his initial application to the academy refused which put him four years behind, how else to explain how he’s an up and coming fighter jock when he’s several years older than everyone else? Teller plays it well though and there are hints of Anthony Edwards in his performance, and not all of them are subtle, just take the scene where he sits at a piano playing Great Balls of Fire in one of many call-backs to the original.

Another call-back is the presence of Kilmer in a very moving cameo. Kilmer’s health issues are well documented and the fact that his voice was recreated by AI is simply amazing.

Of course some people are notable by the absence, namely Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan, one of whom is killed off camera, the other of whom isn’t mentioned at all. I’m sure they had their reasons, too many call-backs perhaps, but you can’t dismiss the arguments of good old fashioned Hollywood sexism, heaven forbid a woman ages.

Maverick still has a love interest however, and Jennifer Connolly is, well she’s ok, but frankly her character is one of the few missteps in the film. Supposedly she’s the admiral’s daughter Maverick had a dalliance with back in the 80s. The main problem with her is a distinct lack of chemistry between her and Cruise, and their relationship feels oddly inert. Given a huge part of Top Gun’s appeal was the electricity between Cruise and McGillis, it’s strange for this sequel to feature a romance that’s such a damp squib.

Ed Harris deserves better than the stock one note admiral he gets to play, and while he’s still nominally an antagonist, Hamm at least is allowed some nuance.  Monica Barbaro and Lewis Pullman make for an amiable double act as Phoenix and Bob (they do at least let women fly planes now), and whilst he’s something of a dick, Glenn Powell’s turn as hangman shows potential star quality in the making.

The plot is ridiculous and though it did veer off into surprising Behind enemy Lines Territory towards the end, I pretty much saw every beat coming a mile away. Subtle or unexpected this film is not.

But the action is soooo good! Yes it would be a misnomer to suggest this was a film that eschewed CGI for reality given Hollywood didn’t have access to any SU-57s, or in fact an F-14 given the only ones still flying are in Iran (just in case you were wondering who the rogue state was) but all the F-18 footage seems to be genuine, with actors sitting in the rear of two seat Super Hornets to make it appear like they were flying them and it looks AMAZING.

It lacks the sexual spark and testosterone fuelled in your face attitude of the original, but the flying scenes are so much better and at least this time they didn’t have to pass off some Northrop F-5s as “Mig 28s”

This is a film that does exactly what it says on the tin, and you know what? Sometimes that’s no bad thing.

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!