Directed by John Krasinski. Starring Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou and John Krasinski.

Another in my irregular series of films I would have seen at the cinema. Please note, while I won’t be including spoilers for this film, discussing it will involve spoilers for the original Quiet Place so be warned!

In an opening flashback we see the arrival of the aliens that will soon ravage the Earth and view how the Abbott family (including Krasinski as dad, Lee) survive the initial assault.

We then return to the present and pick up immediately after the end of the first film, where the surviving members of the family Evelyn (Blunt) Regan (Simmonds) Marcus (Jupe) and Evelyn’s new-born baby are attempting to find more survivors. They come across Emmett (Murphy) once a family friend but now an embittered survivor reeling from the death of his family. Emmett is reluctant to let the family stay but Evelyn convinces him to give them some time to rest.

When a song comes on the radio Emmett explains that it’s been playing over and over for months. Regan deduces that it’s a message from another group of survivors and sets out to find them, hoping the discovery that her cochlear implant can disorient the aliens can be weaponized.

As Regan travels into unknown territory and into peril, those who stayed behind aren’t safe either, and there are other dangers now beyond the aliens.

A Quiet Place is one of those films that came out of nowhere, a low(ish)budget monster movie with a great hook, what if the world was invaded by monsters who, although blind, had incredibly sensitive hearing and the only way to survive was to commit to living in a world of near total silence? Despite a huge plot hole it succeeded because the script, direction and performances were all top drawer. The script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, rewritten by Krasinski, was excellent, and Krasinski’s direction was spot on, creating a tense environment where the slightest noise could mean certain death. Added to this the cast were superb, with the standout being Simmonds, deaf in real life. When the first film was a hit a sequel was inevitable, it’s just a shame we had to wait over a year from when it was supposed to come out. As with any such sequel the most important question is, is it as good as the first one?

And the answer is, almost, which I think for the majority of sequels is a ringing endorsement. It lacks the surprise factor of the first film, and the bigger budget means more action set pieces and perhaps a little less of the intimate tension of the original but it’s still a superior monster movie.

Again the cast prove one of the film’s greatest strengths. Blunt is a superb actress, and she’s not afraid to take a back seat to let others shine. For a while I worried she was taking too much of a supporting role but thankfully as the film progresses she comes into it more, though the real leads in this film are Simmonds and Jupe, who are both great once again. I love how Jupe plays Marcus as almost perpetually terrified, but who wouldn’t have PTSD in this world? He gets to develop more this time, becoming more of a hardened survivor by the end of the film. Simmonds carries on her star role from the first film, and again is the best thing about the film. Determined and willing to stride into the unknown, despite her disability—which as the film shows is exacerbated in this world because she can’t hear when she’s made a noise—yes you might call her foolhardy, but the character has agency, and drives the story onwards, and it’s great to see someone differently abled being shown as up to the task of survival as anyone else. This leaves Cillian Murphy who’s long been an actor I’ve admired and he slots into the film perfectly as Emmett. Like Blunt his American accent is spot on and he essays a man who’s lost everything perfectly, and you’re never quite sure if he’ll do the right thing. As he did so well in Peaky Blinders and Dunkirk he does a thousand-yard stare with scary authenticity, leaving you in no doubt that Emmett is a man who’s seen horrible things.

Djimon Hounsou rounds out the cast. Another actor I like but he isn’t given much to work with here, in fact his character doesn’t even get a name!

While the world is broadened somewhat it doesn’t go all globe trotting or epic on us, retaining the small scale that worked so well. Yes there’s more CGI, and yes the aliens seem a trifle familiar but coming up with truly original monster designs is a tough ask. Despite their familiarity they’re still a potent threat and in Krasinski’s hands a source of unbelievable tension at times.

Don’t shout it from the rooftops (“they” might hear) but roll on A Quiet Place Part III if it can be this good.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Posted: September 20, 2021 in Book reviews

By Agatha Christie

Towards the end of the First World War, the household of Styles Court is rocked by the death of its elderly owner, Emily Inglethorp. It is quickly ascertained that she has been poisoned with strychnine and suspicion immediately falls upon her younger husband, Alfred.

Staying at the house is Arthur Hastings, a solider recuperating away from the Western Front. Hastings had recently discovered that his friend, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, is living in the nearby village, having arrived in England as a refugee. Hastings asks Poirot for his help in solving the crime, though he feels the detective may be past his prime.

Poirot begins his investigation, but there are numerous suspects, and it will take all his powers of deduction to solve the crime.

And at the ripe old age of 50 I decided to read my very first Agatha Christie novel. I’m not sure why I waited so long. In part I had a fear that I would find her prose stuffy, and I thought perhaps it would be all terribly polite and staid. And in truth I’ve always been more interested in the hardboiled detective who solves the crime by shoe leather and determination rather than deductive reasoning. Also given I have several friends who are huge Christie fanatics I was wary of not enjoying her work!

 The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the perfect place to start, being Christie’s very first novel, and thusly the first appearance of Poirot, although it seems apparent that Christie’s style will evolve and improve, and if this is the case then I look forward to reading more of her novels, because I enjoyed this one and if they only get better then I’ll definitely keep reading!

Christie’s prose, even in her first book, is top notch, incredibly descriptive yet not so bogged down in detail that it’s remotely a chore to read. There are myriad characters, yet I rarely got any of them confused, everyone is distinct with their own foibles and characteristics. Hastings’ description of Mary, for example, is joyfully poetic. Poirot leaps off the page from the off, this curious little Belgian. His age isn’t clear but given Hastings had worked with him in the early 1900s he’s obviously no spring chicken (given how many Poirot novels she’ll go onto write I understand Christie will keep his age nebulous.)

Any fears I had about prudishness were soon tossed out of the window as well, there’s extramarital affairs and some quite near the knuckle (for the time) commentary. Plus there’s something awfully ‘today’ about Poirot being a refugee.

Hastings is a trifle dull, and the fact that we only see things from his perspective is a tad annoying. In particular the way Poirot keeps things from him rankles a little. It’ll be interesting to see how Christie manages the plot when writing in the third person.

In terms of the murder itself, halfway through I thought I had it all figured out. I was wholly wrong, which is a good sign, although Christie does keep some things hidden most of the clues are right in front of you. It’s a little convoluted, and some clues are very tenuous, but again I understand Christie dials this down a little going forward.

Suffice to say it won’t be another 50 years before I read Agatha Christie again!

Double Indemnity

Posted: September 5, 2021 in Book reviews

James M. Cain.

Walter Huff is an insurance agent. Though basically a decent man he begins an affair with Phyllis Nirdlinger and, seduced by the idea of committing the perfect murder, conspires with her to kill her husband for the insurance money, which will be doubled due to a double indemnity clause specific to death involving a railroad accident.

The murder goes as planned but things soon start to fall apart. Walter’s colleagues at the insurance company than smarter than he thought, and Phyllis is a lot more dangerous than she appears…

Shameful to admit but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the film, or if I have it was a long time ago, but given I’ve been reading a lot of Chandler recently when I spotted this in the second-hand book shop how could I say no.

The first thing to note is that Cain is no Chandler, in fact in many ways he’s the antithesis of Chandler. Chandler is all about mood and character, dialogue and (wonderfully) purple prose. Plot is often the last thing at play in chandler’s work. By contract Cain’s prose and dialogue are a lot more workmanlike, but his plotting is superb. It’s not that he’s inferior to Chandler, they’re just completely different kinds of writers, even though they wrote in the same genre, and it makes for a really interesting contrast.

And it’s the plot that sells Double Indemnity.  From Huff’s initial dalliance with Phyllis, to planning the perfect crime, to trying to get away with the perfect crime, but this is no A to B to C story, Cain throws some bumps in the road.

It’s s short book (more a long novella than an actual novel) and a quick read, in part down to Cain’s style which will keep you turning the pages. The use of first person is good for getting inside of Huff’s mind—in many ways his agreeing to kill the husband seems less about Phyllis’ wiles than Huff’s own intellectual desire to game the system he’s spent years being a part of—but it does render Phyllis, initially at least, as little more than a cipher. It’s only later that her true femme fatale nature becomes apparent.

Anyway, this is a cracking little read, and you can totally see why Hollywood lapped it up. I’m interested in reading more Cain now, The Postman Always Rings Twice next perhaps?

By Max Brooks

A (very) short anthology by Max Books, the man who gave us World War Z. Usually I wouldn’t go through each and every story in an anthology, but given this one is so brief, just four tales, it seems churlish not to, so here you go…

Closure Limited: A Story of World War Z

The titular story is an interesting tale of an organisation that provides a very unusual form of closure for those who’ve lost loved ones to the zombie apocalypse. Just try not to think about it too much.

Steve and Fred

The weakest story of the four, really less a story than two unconnected vignettes stitched together. Steve is a bad ass on a motorcycle, trying to get he and his colleague to a rescue chopper. Fred is a man trapped in the bathroom by a horde of zombies. There’s little to connect them, and both tales just peter out without going anywhere. A shame, the central conceit of Fred’s story is actually very interesting.

The Extinction Parade

The best story in the anthology. A tale of what another breed of supernatural monsters gets up to while the zombies are munching their way through humanity. This was great from start to finish.

Great Wall: A Story from the Zombie War

A drab first person account of the zombie apocalypse, much like the ones that made up World War Z, and if it’d been included within that larger exploration of WWZ it would have been just fine. Here it’s ok, not great though.

I really enjoyed World War Z, but this was disappointing. I bought it second hand and I doubt I’d have paid full price for it, and even if it’d contained four great stories rather than just the one it wouldn’t have been worth full price. I understand the desire to make money off the back of a successful book, but this is a lousy example of ripping people off with some deleted scenes from WWZ or hastily written stories. Brook’s prose can be decidedly average, it’s his ability to get into characters heads and show the War from multiple perspectives that made WWZ so good and it’s lacking here for the most part.

It was diverting enough, and if you can find it cheap it’s worth it for The Extinction Parade, but definitely not worth full price!

The Scarlet Gospels

Posted: August 21, 2021 in Book reviews, horror

By Clive Barker

The magicians of the world are living in fear. They’re being picked off one by one by the Hell Priest, a demonic Cenonbite known to some as Pinhead, although he abhors that sobriquet. The Hell Priest is killing them off, taking their magic, learning all that he can learn about the dark arts as part of a plan to make himself the new ruler of Hell.

Harry D’Amour, a former cop turned occult detective, travels to New Orleans after being hired by one of the recently deceased magicians via his friend Norma. Norma is a medium. She’s blind but can see the dead, and she tries to bring them comfort in their afterlives. The magician wants Harry to erase all signs of his occult double life before his family can discover them, but it’s a trap, set by the Hell Priest himself who has need of Harry.

D’Amour has no intention of becoming the Cenobite’s servant however, and makes his escape.

However, when Pinhead kidnaps Norma and takes her to Hell, Harry has no option but to follow. He and a small group of friends must face myriad trials, and the darkest evils of the underworld if they’re to save Norma, but can Pinhead be stopped before he usurps Lucifer himself?

This is the first Barker I’ve read in a while, and I have to say I was drawn by the cover, because when I spotted it, I’d recently rewatched the first three Hellraiser films (Hellraiser > Hellraiser 3 > Hellraiser 2 if you’re interested) and so the presence of Pinhead on the cover intrigued me. I was a bit worried that I hadn’t read a whole raft of Harry D’Amour and/or Pinhead stuff but it turns out there isn’t a huge amount out there, and in any event, Barker neatly explains who the various characters are so well it hardly matters.

It’s an odd novel, and probably one I enjoyed the first half of better than the second, but Barker writes well, and I raced through it (always the sign of a good book). Oddly I preferred it before the characters venture to Hell itself, it’s always difficult trying to put down on paper a realm we have no frame of reference for, and at times Hell feels a trifle pedestrian, people seem to have jobs, there are suburbs…it felt more like a magical realm in a fantasy novel, with demons instead of orcs, but then at other points it’s suitably weird. It’s worth noting as well that at times Pinhead, sorry I mean the Hell Priest (Barker hates the Pinhead tag), is a more interesting character than Harry, or in fact any of Harry’s friends, though that’s always the problem with scene stealing villains I guess, and with Pinhead there’s the added bonus of hearing Doug Bradley’s dulcet tones in my head whenever he spoke, which likely helped bring the character to life.

Fast paced, gory, and featuring Pinhead on top demonic form, this was an enjoyably diverting read, now if you’ll excuse me, I have a puzzle box to solve.

So back in November I won a pitch competition to write a story for 2000AD (The UK premier comic book) You can find out about the competition here.

Today my story was published in prog (issue) 2245. I’ve been a huge fan of 2000AD since I was ten years old, so suffice to say this was a dream come true.

2000AD is available in all good comics stores, newsagents and can be purchased online too! Here’s a copy of the cover, and the first page of my Terror Tale.

Terminal World

Posted: August 9, 2021 in Book reviews, science fiction

By Alastair Reynolds

It is the distant future and human civilisation is largely confined to Spearpoint, a huge artificial spire around which various cities weave. For some reason different parts of the city exist in slightly different realms, meaning technology that works in one won’t work in another. At the top of the spire live the post human Angels in the celestial levels, but below them there’s Circuit City, then Neon Heights, Steamville and Horsetown.

When an Angel falls to its death, landing in Neon Heights, a pathologist Quillon, a man with a secret, will be forced to run for his life, and embark on a quest that will see him descend through the various parts of Spearpoint assisted by an extraction specialist, Meroka, and eventually she will lead him away from Spearpoint, into the wilderness that surrounds it, a lawless land filled with crazed Skullboys and biomechanical Carnivorgs.

But there might be some order out there after all, a force that broke away from Spearpoint centuries ago, and with their help, perhaps Quillon can put an end to the zones once and for all.

I’m a big fan of Reynolds, but for some reason this novel didn’t grab me quite as surely as his others have. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as his others.

Part of the problem is perhaps that I’ve just not that into steampunk, and there’s also the shifting tone. The story starts out quite noirish, before morphing into an action adventure and then into a western before shifting again to steampunk.

Perhaps there’s just a little too much going on, and even by the end a lot of things don’t make much sense. I’ve just read that Reynolds himself says the story isn’t set where I thought it was, and various clues as to the real location went right over my head.

Reynolds’ imagination is, as always, on top form, and even if the idea of different zones where different technologies work sounds bonkers, he makes it work. It’s a long book and there are stretches where you wish he’d get on with it.  It doesn’t help that Quillon seems quite a dry protagonist, even though he’s one of the most human people in the story.

In many respects there something for everyone here; incredible worldbuilding and high concept sci-fi ideas, as well as vicious foes and bloody shootouts, not to mention a fleet of airships and a lot of air-to-air combat. That it doesn’t always slot together neatly is perhaps the reason I didn’t fall quite in love with it as I have others (Though in fairness you could cite Century Rain as another high concept melding of different genres, though I loved that one to bits).

Still highly recommended.

Oh yes, and Reynolds published some excised vignettes from the book if you’re interested. I would recommend reading the book first however.

Spectre (2015)

Posted: August 1, 2021 in James Bond

And so I reach the end of my journey, for the moment, obviously should No Time to Die come out as planned  I’ll see and review it, but for now, this is it.

As you’ve probably noticed it took a while before I got around to Spectre. Mainly because it’s not a Bond film I have a huge amount of affection for, but if this journey has taught me anything it’s that my view of a particular Bond film can evolve over time. Films I thought I loved I’ve found are incredibly flawed, and films I thought I’d hated I found new respect for. And I’ve come to realise that no Bond film is completely irredeemable, even Octopussy has Roger Moore dressed as a clown defusing a nuclear bomb after all…

So I genuinely did go into Spectre with my heart open to revising my opinion…

 And maybe it just caught me at the right time, but I rather enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still incredibly flawed, still nowhere near as good as Skyfall or Casino Royale, or OHMSS or TLD or LTK or Goldeneye or LALD (you get the idea) but I certainly wasn’t bored and there are things to like about it. So, pour yourself a pyrolytic digestive enzyme shake, and let’s do this!  

The dead are alive…

As foreshadowing goes this is quite enigmatic but given the person it’s referring to isn’t someone we’ve met before, isn’t someone James has even mentioned before, it’s needlessly oblique, it’s not like it’s Le Chiffe or Silva. Does lead nicely into Day of the Dead however.

This is a cracker of a pre-title sequence, in fact at times during the rest of the film you might wonder if they’d spent a little less money and time on this, and a little more on the rest of the film it might have been better. But I’m being churlish. The opener gives us something Bond is occasionally very good at, showing us something we’ve not seen before and this is gorgeous to look at, and yes that one long tracking shot is quite clearly not one long tracking shot, and yes it’s a trial run for 1917, but it still flows very well. And you have to love 007’s outfit!

Soon he’s listening in on some baddies planning to blow up a stadium. Not if Bond can help it. He detonates their explosives, blowing up their building, and taking out the building he’s in as well! Luckily, and not for the last time in this film, Bond’s immediate vicinity seems bereft of innocent civilians, so I’m sure no one was hurt in the carnage…

Within minutes Bond chases down the assassin Sciarra. The helicopter stunts are insane, but having prevented all those deaths in the stadium Bond proceeds to put lord knows how many lives at risk because if that chopper came down it was going to take hundreds with it, luckily he prevails, dropping Sciarra to his death, but not before stealing his ring, for some reason?

Cue tentacle porn titles and Sam Smith wailing. I’ll never love that song but it has grown on me.

Now to London where Bond meets with Basil Exposition…er I mean M. I feel genuinely sorry for Finnes, after a strong start in Skyfall he’s immediately undermined by Bond being a dick to him, going off on his own adventures (Bond, go rogue, surely not?) blowing up buildings and basically being about as dismissive as you can be. The relationship between Bond and M has always been snippy, but rarely has 007 shown so little respect for his boss. To further dent Finnes’ part he has to tell us all about the merger of MI5 and MI6, and the fact they’ll have a new boss, and speak of the devil and the hot priest from Fleabag shall appear! Bond says he’ll call him C, I mean we know what he means but it still feels awfully random.

Cue visit to Q (via Tanner explaining MI6’s old HQ is scheduled for Chekov’s demolition). Q shows off a new tricked out Aston, but unfortunately 007 won’t be getting it (spoiler, 007 will be getting it). He will be getting smart blood?? And a watch…WITH A VERY LOUD ALARM! Nudge nudge, wink wink…

Bond encounters Moneypenny who tries to give him a box of stuff from Skyfall but he tells her to pop to his flat later. Setting aside the obvious creepiness of this, what a pointless scene. In a film that’s way too long there’s a minute or two you could have snipped right there.

Bond eventually takes the box which contains some more exposition, though most of it is conveniently burned. He also shows Penny a video of M, no not that M. Christ I know Bond’s treated women as disposable over the years, but the fact that Craig’s now haunted from beyond the grave by not only Vesper, but his old boss is going too far. Anyway M told him to kill Sciarra, and to ensure he attends the funeral.

This will be tricky but luckily he co-opts Moneypenny and Q to help, putting their careers on the line in the process. And he nicks that Aston Martin…so, Bond’s not flying to Rome, he’s driving? When’s the funeral, a week next Wednesday?

After magically teleporting himself and the car to Italy he shows up at the funeral and gets a funny feeling about one of the mourners before ‘flirting’ with the widow.

Ah Monica Bellucci, how excited I was when they announced you were going to be in the film, and how disappointed when I realised you’d wind up with less screen time than Paris Carver. Still, her return home is possibly my favourite bit of the film and Bellucci sells it fantastically. A woman coming home, knowing she’s about to die. She plays some music, takes a drink and goes for one look at Rome. It’s a beautiful scene and a fantastic bit of acting.

Bond saves her, then shags her…I mean maybe she’s into it? It’s hard to tell. For a franchise that wants people to believe it’s no longer as sexist as it once was, Bond’s actions here, as with Severine last time out, approaches Connery levels of uncomfortable.

But hurray Monica B survives!

Bond’s off to a boring meeting now. I’m sure on paper it seemed creepy and mysterious, but it doesn’t translate onto screen. Blofeld’s entrance is ludicrous, as is all the whispering and uncomfortable silences. To liven things up Mr Hinx turns up and gouges some guy’s eyes out.

Blofeld reveals that he knows James is there. Bond scarpers but Mr Hinx is in hot pursuit and there follows a tense and exciting car chase through Rome…

A Jaguar runs after an Aston Martin along the Tiber River banks during the shooting of the latest James Bond movie “SPECTRE”, in Rome, Wednesday, March 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Angelo Carconi, Ansa)

Well there’s a car chase, but one so lacking in tension that Bond has time for a chat with Moneypenny during it. Remember what I said about civilians being conveniently out of the way? I’m not sure what time it’s supposed to be in Rome, but it appears 99.9% of the populace got an early night.  

Still it looks good, even if it’s more car advert than car chase (give me 007 in a yellow 2CV over this any day) and it’s nice to see the car’s gadgets, before Bond dumps it in the Tiber. Seriously 007 should be the Taxpayer’s Alliance’s public enemy number 1! I’m not sure how Bond, and Q, explain this.

007 travels to Austria to chat with Mr White, who’s in hiding. Not a very good hiding place is it really, Moneypenny knew where he was, and SPECTRE knew as well, in fact they knew first, so how does Bond get there before Hinx?

Jesper Christensen’s Mr White has been an oddly recurring presence in the Craig films, but this is better than Bond interrogating some random he has no history with, and they have some nice interplay. Cue the kite/hurricane line and White’s hyperbolic “He’s everywhere!” Clearly not mate or he’d have got there before Bond. White kills himself but not before sending 007 off to protect (and/or shag) his daughter.

Enter Ms Swann stage left. Now I’ve felt all along that Blofeld is less interested in Bond than in Madeline, and this viewing did nothing to dissuade me from this line of thinking. As a child Madeline shot Blofeld and he’s out for revenge. She says James led them to her, but she seems to be operating under her own name, so would a global criminal network with a huge interest in surveillance really need a rogue MI6 agent to locate her?

She’s grabbed by Hinx. Bond goes after them in a plane. This is actually a lot of fun (probably the last time you can utter that word about the film) and Bond soon rescues Madeline, not that she really wants him too.

I forgot to mention Q’s random appearance and his drama’less escape from some bad guys. Again, wasted minutes.

One has to wonder just where that ring had been given it seems to have DNA and fingerprints from Blofeld, Le Chiffre, Green and Silva on it! Frankly an invisible car is more logical!

I quite like Bond and Madeline’s interlude in L’Américain, don’t get me wrong, they still fall in love way too quickly, but there’s some nice dialogue, and Bond drunkenly threatening a mouse is funny, especially when it turns out the mouse does know more than it’s letting on.

Cue the train, and a chance for Madeline to show she knows how to use a gun, and to give us the story of the man who came to kill her father. The dinner scene is a shallow redress of Bond and Vesper from Casino Royale, but have to say, Léa Seydoux looks exceptionally nice in that dress!

Look out, Mr Hinx is back…for some reason? I mean what’s the logic of this? Bond and Madeline are on their way to see Blofeld, Mr Hinx doesn’t need to bring them. I mean maybe Hinx has gone rogue, and is out for revenge, or maybe Blofeld wants Bond out of the picture early, but whichever way you look at it there’s little narrative sense other than ‘we haven’t had any action for ten minutes, do something!’.

Fair dos the fight is very good, but yet again any innocent civilians mysteriously vanish, outside of a few blink and you miss them moments the train may as well be empty but for Bond, Swann and Hinx. Kudos for Madeline for showing she wasn’t joking about knowing how to use a gun before Hinx proves he can talk after all, hilarious.

No one on the train calls the police. Bond and Madeline are allowed to get off in the middle of nowhere. Cue classic car arriving to take them to Blofend’s secret lair and unnecessary time spent changing outfits, I get the Dr No homage but this film is already too long, just get to the point!

Not that the point’s worth rushing too. I’m sure on paper the appearance of Blofeld was every bit as exciting as Silva’s arrival in Skyfall. On screen not so much. Waltz is a great actor, but he’s given nothing to work with here. We get some guff about surveillance, Blofeld shows Madeline video of her father’s death and then tortures Bond, except he isn’t really torturing Bond, he’s torturing Madeline. One exploding watch later and they escape in perhaps the dullest action sequence of the entire franchise as a series of bad guys step into view and let Bond shoot them one by one.

The London stuff is a poor finale to a Bond film, and I know they were kinda stuck because rewriting the final act could only do so much but its all so horribly plotted. Madeline walking away from Bond thus allowing her kidnap, Bond taken by Spectre goons who he again takes out with little effort, all to contrive Bond, Blofeld and Madeline in MI6 HQ. Meanwhile there’s a dull countdown to the Nine Eyes going live (never quite sure what it’s going to do once live?) and then Bond shoots down a moving helicopter, with a pistol, at night, from distance, from a moving boat.

Not that the final act is completely beyond redemption. The Hildebrand safehouse is a lovely touch, and yes it’s a complete rip off of Bond/Dryden in Casino Royale, but M vs C is nicely handled, and thankfully M gets some fricken agency back! Plus the scene between Bond and Blofeld on the bridge is great, harking back to both M earlier in the film and Bond in Skyfall, sometimes a licence to kill is a licence not to kill.

And then Bond and Madeline drive off into the sunset…bet we never see her again 😉

What annoys me most about Spectre is how the same team who made Skyfall could make something so inferior in every way. The narrative choices grate. I can still recall an interview where it was said they felt enough time had passed that people wouldn’t make Dr Evil connections, why then lift the premise of Goldmember, where Austin and Evil are brothers? Why imply Blofeld has been behind everything all along, clunkily retrofitting every Craig film to make this one work? I can accept it for Le Chiffre, White, Green and Quantum, but Silva never struck me as anyone’s henchman so it did him a huge disservice.  And then there’s the reveal, much like Khan in Star Trek into Darkness it’s a reveal for the sake of the audience, not the characters. Bond has no idea who Blofeld is, the same way Kirk hadn’t a clue who Khan was. It is I James, the author of all your pain (yet for how all powerful I am, I couldn’t just have one of my myriad agents kill you years ago.)

I like Waltz but he’s miscast, in fact all three of the main villains are done a disservice. Waltz, Scott and Bautista all deserved better, in particular hiring a man like Dave B, a man with excellent comic timing and a booming gravelly voice, then effectively making him mute is a crime against cinema.

But as I said it isn’t like I didn’t still enjoy this, Seydoux has grown on me as a Bond girl, and she and Craig have more chemistry than I initially thought and the cinematography if nothing else is wonderful. The plot may be paper thin and some of the set pieces a little lacking, yet I was never bored, and though the film does go on a bit it flew by unexpectedly.

So as Spectre is the longest Bond film (though it’s about to lose that record) so this review is my longest too. Some may feel I’m unduly hard on Spectre, but it just so disappointed me after Skyfall. Perhaps it will continue to grow on me, and really there are far worse entries in the franchise, there was just so much potential here and it was wasted on a film that wasn’t really about anything. If the run time had been punchier or the action scenes more exciting, I could have forgiven the plot holes (see Skyfall for further details) or if the plot had been sharper I could forgive the lack of tension, but as it is Spectre is poor, it’s just nowhere near as terrible as I’d convinced myself it was!

And that’s it for now, unless I do Casino Royale 1967 and Never Say Never Again of course…and now I can do my epic run down of all the Bond girls! Gotta do something till I can see No Time to Die!  

Black Widow

Posted: July 19, 2021 in Film reviews

Directed by Cate Shortland. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and Ray Winstone.

So it’s been almost eighteen months since I’ve been to the cinema, and frankly I’m not sure when I’ll feel comfortable going (Bond, only Bond) but that shouldn’t mean I shut up shop when it comes to my film reviews, right? I’ve been neglecting my blog and that stops right now. Not that I’m going to review every film I see on the small screen, but maybe the odd one, certainly those new films I would definitely have seen on the big screen, and where better to start than with Marvel’s latest.

It’s 1995 and Natasha Romanoff seems like any other American girl living in Ohio, except she isn’t American, she’s Russian, as is her sister Yelena and her parents Alexi (Harbour) and Melina (Weisz). They’ve been spying on the west, but SHIELD is onto them so the makeshift family escape, just in time. Back in friendly territory Natasha and Yelena are handed over to the tender mercies of General Dreykov (Winstone) who enrols them in the Red Room, where he trains them to be ruthless assassins. Black Widows.

Flash forward to 2016 and Natasha (all grown up and now Scarlett Johansson) is on the run following the events of Captain America: Civil War. She wants to disappear but when mail is redirected from her safehouse in Budapest she’s targeted by Taskmaster, Dreykov’s latest weapon, a man capable of mimicking the fighting style of anyone he fights (spoiler, he’s not played by Greg Davies).

After her run in with Taskmaster Natasha heads to Bucharest where she crosses paths with Yelena (all grown up and now Florence Pugh) who explains that the Widows are no longer conditioned by training to obey, now they’re forced to obey by a mind controlling chemical. Yelena escaped and now she wants to free the rest of the Widows. With a chance to exact revenge on Dreykov as well as freeing the Widows, Natasha agrees to assist. They’ll need some unconventional help though, which means twenty years after they were last together, it’s time to pull a very dysfunctional family back together.

So, let’s cut to the chase, I bloody loved this, and the fact that I didn’t see it on a big screen didn’t dent my enjoyment in the slightest, though who knows, maybe I’d have loved it even more if I had gone to the cinema rather than watching on the TV?

And yes I get the complaints some have made that it is, to some extent, a redress of Captain America: The Winter soldier (Taskmaster is a riff on Bucky, the finale takes place on a crashing helicarrier type craft, and there is another similarity but that would be a spoiler) but this didn’t dent my enjoyment in the slightest.

This is a slightly more grounded spy thriller, and when I say grounded that’s in the loosest possible way, because this is still Marvel. It also fills in some of the gaps in Natasha’s story; we finally see the Red Room; we get to understand Bucharest and we meet Dreykov.

Johansson is, obviously, superb and it is a shame that this is likely the last time we’ll see her in the role. In an ideal world we’d have had a Black Widow film five or six years ago, and then we might have been able to squeeze in a second. Never say never, and they may tempt her back some day, but if this is the last we see of Natasha then it’s a good swansong for the character. Johansson gets to do more than just kick arse though, there’s a lot of humour in this film, as well as righteous anger, and it’s a more thoughtful performance than you might expect.

It says something about Scarlett that she allows multiple scenes to be stolen right out from under her by Pugh, Weisz and Harbour. A less generous actor might have insisted the film was all about her, and Johansson must have had a lot of creative control here, but part of what’s great about it is that it’s an ensemble.

This is the third film I’ve seen Pugh in, and the third great performance I’ve seen her give, and they’ve all been very different (Little Women, Midsommer and now Black Widow). she convinces in the fights, has great comic timing and bounces off Johansson like they really were sister, a spiky yet affectionate double act, and you have to love the running joke about Natasha’s power pose which was, so I hear, something Pugh herself came up with. If Pugh winds up the next Black Widow, then I think Marvel have made a very canny choice.

As the somewhat buffoonish Alexei, David Harbour is wonderful. An aging, out of shape super soldier (he’s the Red Guardian, the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America) he’s a man obsessed with the fact that he never got to fight Cap, even though he regales people with a lot of tall tales about how he did. Again I’ve seen complaints that the character is too much of a joke, and harks back to Thor’s midlife crisis in Endgame, but frankly I think people need to lighten up. Marvel is full to the brim of ripped, heroic male characters, the odd loveable idiot isn’t going to bring down the house of M. What matters is that Alexei is a joy whenever he’s on screen. He’s funny and he bounces well off all three of the women in his ‘family’.

As the mom Rachel Weisz possibly has the least to get her teeth into, but her presence is important to the family dynamic, she’s integral to the plot and she convinces as nerdy scientist and a lethal Widow herself.

The weak link cast wise is probably Winstone, but much as people have derided his performance, I thought he was good, he bought a creepiness to Dreykov that was needed, but yeah his accent was more London than Lubyanka.

This is only the fourth film that Cate Shortland has directed, and its clearly the biggest in terms of budget, but again Marvel score with a relatively unknown director. You wouldn’t think this was her first big budget blockbuster.

The only slip is the matter of a section that seems to be missing near the end, but Shortland has said this was intentional. I guess they could have done a bit more with Taskmaster as well given his unique fighting style.

Script wise the film goes to some darker places, darker than you might expect, and there’s a prevailing sense of the horrors perpetrated on women by men in power, primarily Dreykov. As the old man says near the end, he works with the most plentiful resource in the world, young girls, and it’s easy to read the Widows as a metaphor for trafficked sex slaves. Women forced to do terrible work and treated as little more than chattel. Suffice to say when the tables are turned on Dreykov I let out a little cheer.

An exciting, well-paced action film that manages to be light and funny one minute, yet pack an emotional punch the next. The cast are great, the set pieces awesome and the direction assured. I just wish this wasn’t the last time I’d see Scarlett Johansson kick arse as Natasha Romanoff.  

By Catriona Ward

Ted lives in an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street. He shares his house with his daughter Lauran and his cat Olivia. Ted is something of a recluse, and all the windows of his house are boarded up. Ten years ago Ted was briefly a suspect in the disappearance of a young girl, and now that girl’s sister, Dee, has moved into the house next door.

Ted doesn’t realise who Dee really is, but Dee knows who Ted is, and she knows what he’s done…

Sometimes hype is just that, and like most people I guess I’ve been burned many times, yet despite this when you hear good things about a particular book or film it’s hard to ignore, and I heard a lot of good things about The Last House on Needless Street, an awful lot of good things, and in the end I decided ‘what the hell?’ and bought it.

Let’s be clear from the off here.

Believe the hype!

Ostensibly this appears a straightforward story, but the blurb is spot on, you think you know this story, you think you know what’s going on, but you really don’t, and while I did eventually twig was going on, the book took me down several blind alleys before I realised, and even after I thought understood the story still had some surprises for me.

This is a book full of unreliable narrators, including Ted, Lauran and Olivia, yes even the cat gets her own chapters!

Ward’s prose is excellent, and I’m especially impressed with how each character had their own unique voice, too often I’ve read novels written from multiple first person POVs where everyone sounds kinda the same, but that isn’t true here. In addition even characters you may perceive as monstrous come across with enough empathy to make you care about them, even if its only to pity them.

An excellent page turner, one that’s emotionally difficult to read in places, and one that’ll keep you guessing, even if you get what’s going on. It’s clear Ward put a lot of effort into this book and it shows on every page. Is it a thriller, a horror story, or something else entirely? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Highly recommended.