Archive for May, 2013

Fast & Furious 6

Posted: May 31, 2013 in Film reviews

Directed by Justin Lin. Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Dwayne Johnson.

And so the sixth instalment of the franchise rolls into town. The Fast and the Furious started life as a thriller about undercover cops and street racing but has morphed into an action blockbuster franchise, with the fifth instalment taking the series into overdrive and making a ton of money into the process, whilst bringing together disparate characters from the previous films, as well as introducing new ones such as Johnson’s secret service agent, Hobbs. For someone like me, who’d only ever seen the first film, the fifth proved a revelation, some dodgy cgi aside it was a fun, exciting action film, and so I was looking forward to the sixth.

Question is does it fire on all cylinders or stall at the first junction?

The film picks up from the end of the fifth, and Dominic (Diesel) Toretto’s gang of high speed criminals are living the high life on the proceeds of the mammoth heist they pulled at the end of the last film. They don’t get much time to relax however, because all too soon Hobbs is asking for Toretto’s help in taking down a British mercenary named Shaw who has his own crew of drivers and who is stealing the components of a bomb (or some other dangerous device, I can’t quite remember the details!) Hobbs is pretty sure Toretto will agree, especially once he shows him evidence that one of Shaw’s team is Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) who was Toretto’s girl, and who (supposedly)died in Fast and furious 4. Toretto is surprised at this, unlike those of us who saw Fast Five as this fact was revealed in the post credits sequence!

Hobbs’ hunch was spot on, and Toretto has no hesitation in joining Hobbs’ hunt for Shaw, and though he says he doesn’t want the others to join him, well they aren’t about to let him do this alone, not when they’re a family (albeit a dysfunctional, criminal family) and not when the script demands it.

Next thing you know the entire crew have decamped to London, but can they take down Shaw and rescue Letty, and does Letty even want to be rescued?

Ok, cards on the table time here. Fast and Furious 6 is not going to be winning many best picture awards but, if you’re in the right frame of mind it’s a very enjoyable film. Yes it’s somewhat predictable, and yes the formula is fairly obvious. Hunky guys + sexy girls+ fast cars + explosions + witty banter = $$$, but breaking it down to those terms does the film a disservice, because frankly plenty of films in the last few years have had the same ingredients and produced flat, tasteless soufflés. Fast and Furious 6 may be mere candy floss, but it’s quite tasty candy floss, and is certainly the most enjoyable non-super hero action film I’ve seen this year, way better than Die Hard 5 or Olympus has Fallen.

None of the cast are great actors, but then they don’t need to be for a film like this; Diesel, and especially Johnson, have the kind of screen presence plenty of ‘real’ actors would probably kill for, even if the man formally known as The Rock does seem a bit too pumped up. The rest of the cast are solid, although Rodriguez’s conflicted expression that she wears for much of the film gets a little tiresome, still she and newcomer Gina Carano prove they’re more than just pretty faces, with a couple of bone crunching fights every bit as exciting as those between the male characters. Tyrese Gibson and Chris Bridges again form an amusing double act, and given the large number of characters everyone gets their moment or two in the spotlight, although Shaw is a fairly generic villain with a curiously oblique agenda.

Because much of the action is set in London, the film may annoy a lot of British viewers with a somewhat skewed portrayal of life in the capital. Apparently you can drive around the city at 100mph, all the CCTV cameras in the city are run from one office, and though British gun laws are very strict apparently the average pawnshop is still licensed to sell firearms!

The other downside to the film is the fact that we’d already seen so much of it. The trailer features part of the climax, and I’d already seen the bit on the Spanish motorway where they race with a…(well just in case you haven’t seen it I won’t spoil it) before another film just a few weeks before. It is a shame Hollywood are stooping to such tactics, there’s plenty of exciting scenes they could have shown that wouldn’t give so much away.

But despite this I liked the film. It won’t appeal to everyone, but like the A-Team a likeable cast and a fast pace cover a multitude of sins, aside from a few leaden ‘contemplative’ scenes in the middle where Diesel and co struggle to expand their range. Plus either their cgi has got better, or this film featured more real driving, which is to be applauded either way.

Oh, and don’t leave when the credits start to roll, because just as with Fast Five there’s a sneak peek at what FF7 will involve, and crikey it’s a heck of a reveal, which means FF7 might even end up more exciting than this one…

So, my final Top Gear review; FF6 is like an American muscle car, not built for long comfortable journeys, and with lousy fuel economy, but boy it looks cool…

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Our Father

Posted: May 22, 2013 in Free fiction
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The wooden walls surrounding him shook and shuddered like a coffin hoisted onto pallbearers’ shoulders.

Nigel was used to it. For over thirty years he’d ridden the paternoster to and from his office on the twelfth floor. Today was the last time though. He clutched a potted peace lily to his chest. The oversized retirement card he’d somehow wedged into his briefcase.

There was a moment of darkness as the car passed between floors, but then he saw the ninth floor landing. Sociology. A student was stood waiting. He wore jeans that looked like they were about to fall down around his ankles, a t-shirt with an offensive logo, and the vacant look in his eyes that so many of his contemporaries shared. The look that each year Nigel had felt slightly less inclined to want to change, until he hit the point when he knew it was time to go.

For a moment it looked like the teenager was going to step onto the carriage as it dropped past, his body tensed as if he hadn’t noticed someone was already there. Technically there was room for two, but etiquette leaned away from stepping onto an already occupied car.

And then he finally noticed Nigel, rocked back on his heels and decided to wait for the next one. The paternoster rumbled on, and in a moment he was gone. The eighth floor was devoid of life. This belonged to Psychology, though there were a few cramped offices reserved for sociology professors the department were trying to encourage out.

It was when he saw the sign for Media Studies on the seventh floor when he realised that this was it, that his academic life was over. When he’d first come here there’d been no such thing as Media Studies, and the seventh floor had accommodated Drama. But as in all things the old eventually gave way to the new. A history professor knew that best of all. Drama gave way to Media Studies, and he would give way to young (she was only 50!) Rosemary Butters.

Only the paternoster defied replacement. To remove it would cost a small fortune, and to replace it with an actual lift would be almost impossible, so even if it was removed it would leave a gaping wound in the heart of the university, one that would never heal.

He had no such illusions about his own passing, he would be a small cut on the University’s flesh, nothing more, one that would pain it, but one that would heal quickly, and wouldn’t even leave a scar.

Sometimes he thought the mechanical heart of the paternoster would go on driving it, even if the world were to end. Ironic that such an old fashioned contraption defied oncoming technology.

The building did have a lift as well, but it was a tiny affair that was only ever used when the paternoster was out of action (a rare occurrence) and even then it usually broke down soon after because of overuse by the queues of staff and students that quickly built up.

There were the stairs of course, but nobody used them for more than a couple of floors, unless they were on a New Year health kick.

There was a sharp jar as the car reached the third floor; Theology’s territory. The jar was nothing to worry about, just an early warning, a gentle reminder to ensure people looked up and saw the sign advising (in bold red letters) that they MUST get off at the ground floor, and that continuing to ride the car as it dipped into the bowels of the building before sweeping around to come back up the other side was STRICTLY FORBIDDEN!

Not that this stopped people, and by all accounts it was still a rite of passage for most freshers.

Nigel had never done it. Oh he’d stayed on and ridden over the top, but that wasn’t prohibited. The signs didn’t tell you not to do it; they just advised you to keep still and not move around too much.

It’d been a little unnerving the first time, like a fairground ghost train. Fear embraced you along with the darkness, because you couldn’t quite shake the feeling that some low obstacle would take your head off.

Subsequent journeys had been dull, pointless, and he’d quickly tired of the experience. But in more than thirty years he’d never ridden the paternoster all the way down, under the building and back up the other side.

As the ground floor began to appear time seemed to slow, just a glimpse at first through the gap created at the bottom of the car, growing bigger as the car descended. Soon enough it reached the event horizon, the moment where it was first safe to step off.

Nigel didn’t move. He watched as the floor of the paternoster and the ground floor met, a moment of equilibrium before they parted once more, acquaintances who briefly became lovers, then went back to merely being friends again.

Even as the ground floor moved upwards there was still time to step out of the car. Nigel clutched the plant closer to his chest and gripped the handle of his briefcase a little bit tighter.

Darkness, but this time it didn’t pass as the open car moved to another floor, this time it enveloped him like the sea claiming a drowning man, one who’d been chained to an anchor because he continued to drop, and this surprised him, he thought the car would only descend the depth of another floor, but it seemed much further.

He was considering pulling the emergency cord—it would be embarrassing but it wasn’t like he’d have to see these people again after today—but before he could put his briefcase down the car stopped dead with a jolt. A heartbeat later and it started to move to the left.

It was noisier down here in the darkness. The rattle and thump of the mechanism no longer shielded by distance or concrete, now the beating of the paternoster’s heart was impossible to ignore.

Each beat was long drawn out groan, like an asthmatic pensioner drawing his final few breaths, and each time Nigel imagined that this would be the last one.

But on and on it went. The darkness and noise were cloying, and so were the smells. The scent of dirt and oil, of layer upon layer of grease, and he imagined the cogs and axles of the engine that drove the device must be coated in the stuff, like arteries clogged with accumulations of cholesterol.

He detected other smells beneath the grease, the whiff of something rotten, as if an animal had died down here, the odour of a backed up toilet. And despite the clunking beating of the mechanical heart he heard the creak of the wood around him, straining as if under pressure, and the skittering of tiny feet, rats he guessed, though he couldn’t shake the sudden notion of skeletal fingers rapping against a wall.

He’d shrunk into himself, lowering his head into his shoulders in case something in the gloom was going to snag him. He knew it was unlikely given how many people had taken this trip, but still fear of the unknown gripped him.

The noise and the darkness didn’t help, and neither did the slowness of the journey. He’d imagined it would just take a few seconds, a minute at most, but it seemed like he’d been down here for much, much longer.

The stench was getting worse. He kept his mouth shut, not wanting to breathe any of the foulness in, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that his pores were absorbing the stink, and his skin prickled at the thought. His heart had begun to pound, and again he considered pulling the emergency cord.

Except to do that he would need to reach up, reach into the void, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that, if he did, his fingertips would make contact with something that wasn’t supposed to be down here, wasn’t supposed to be anywhere.

And then a red light flared in the darkness, a rose blooming and dying in the darkness. He jumped when he saw it, and felt a tiny stab of pain in his chest that made him clutch the flowerpot even tighter. When it winked again he was less taken by surprise, but his unease wasn’t going away. He tried to tell himself that the light looked closer purely because he was moving towards it.

When it flashed again it was much brighter, and as it faded he was sure he saw something in the wan vermillion afterglow, spindly limbs clinging to the wall. Pipes, he told himself, just pipes, but he dreaded the next flare of light.

And then there was another jolt as the car stopped once more, then began to ascend, and he let out a slightly embarrassed sigh of relief as the machine noise started to recede.

He could still hear skittering below, could still see the blinking red light, though now it was below him, now it illuminated nothing. The car seemed to be struggling to rise, and he backed up against the carriage wall, annoyed at his skittishness yet somehow convinced that in the darkness below him something clung to the bottom of the car, something that was even now clambering over the edge. A creak of wood made him whimper.

And then light, bright, wince inducing light as the car reached the ground floor, his head emerging as if that drowning man had escaped his shackles and had broken the surface once more.

There was no hesitation this time, no hint of nostalgia or of missed opportunity. As soon as he was able to he stepped up and out of the car. It was an awkward, ungainly manoeuvre, and he almost stumbled, almost fell face first onto the floor, but he just had to get out of the wooden box.

Even once he was clear he didn’t look back, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he might see scratch marks scored deep into the wooden floor of the car he’d occupied. He felt somehow infected. He could still smell the paternoster on himself, permeating his clothing, and now he just wanted to get home, to shower and change.

He gave a shudder and walked away from the paternoster, not favouring it with a final glance. The paternoster didn’t care. It rumbled on behind him.

Ancient…
Relentless…
Forever …

Directed by J. J. Abrams. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Public Safety Announcement: I’m going to try and avoid giving anything away, but I can’t guarantee some of the things I say won’t be spoilery, so if in doubt watch the film then read my review.

There’s a line in Star Trek: Insurrection when Picard says, “Does anyone remember when we were explorers?” It’s a telling comment that, at the time, was meant to be a nod towards the on-going Dominion War story in Deep Space 9, though in truth it’s a comment that could be attributed to most of the Trek films, irrespective of their generation. You can argue that, on the big screen, an action adventure romp is more crowd pleasing than something with a more cerebral edge. You could also point out that the two Trek films that most accurately featured the Enterprise going where no one had gone before were The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier, neither of which tend to rank highly when people talk about their favourite Star Trek films.

So the first thing to say about Into Darkness is this, there isn’t a lot of exploring in it…

The film does open on a Class M world with the crew of the Enterprise trying to save a low technology civilisation from an erupting volcano, a task that requires dropping Spock into the volcano. Typical, send the Vulcan to sort out the volcano…It’s a nice little self-contained story that feels very much like an episode of The Original Series and sets up some of the themes of the film, about sacrifice and about bending the rules to save those you care about.

After these events however, Kirk (Pine) finds himself in hot water for breaking the Prime Directive, and it looks like he may lose command of the Enterprise, whilst Spock (Quinto) who dropped him into that hot water, looks likely to be reassigned as well. Luckily (for Kirk and Spock at least if not for other characters) it’s at this moment that a mysterious terrorist named John Harrison (Cumberbatch) launches a brutal attack on the upper echelons of Star Fleet.

Harrison escapes to the Klingon home world (renamed back to Kronos from Quo’nos because obviously the movie going public can’t deal with apostrophes).

Kirk demands to be allowed to be allowed to go after Harrison, and Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) agrees, authorising Kirk to take prototype photon torpedoes that will enable him to wipe out Harrison without having to risk setting foot on Kronos) The torpedoes are duly delivered, along with a new female science officer (Alice Eve) who isn’t quite what she seems.

When Kirk finally catches up with Harrison he discovers he isn’t what he seems either…

There’s an odd dichotomy to Into Darkness. It should be better than Star Trek. It has a more coherent plot, it has far better villains (I like Eric Banna but Nero was naff) and it isn’t encumbered by having to introduce characters in the way the first (eleventh!) Trek film was. Yet for all this it isn’t quite as enjoyable.

It is enjoyable though, an action packed, well-paced long distance race of a film that barely stops for a canny breather every now and then before barrelling on again. The set pieces are very good (even if at least one feels very familiar) and on a couple of occasions genuinely jaw dropping.

As with the first Abrams’ Trek film, one of the biggest strengths is the crew, they get who these characters are (even in their modified alternate universe states) and again the actors live up to the role, primarily the big three. Pine’s Kirk is perhaps the least effective of the three of them this time around, which is a shame as he pleasantly surprised me in the first one. This isn’t to say he’d not good, I just wanted a bit more oomph from him. Quinto is quietly brilliant as he was first time around, and probably really is the best Spock we could get, even if he never quite scales the nuanced heights that Nimoy scaled decades ago. The stand out of the three though, as before, is Karl Urban’s McCoy, a note perfect portrayal as the irascible surgeon that channels just enough of DeForest Kelley’s performance whilst still stamping his own style on the character.

The rest of the “main cast” get their moments to shine, though some have more moments than others. Zoe Saldana continues to be very good as a very different Uhura, and whilst I wasn’t keen on his portrayal first time around I found myself warming to Simon Pegg’s Scotty. John Cho doesn’t get a great deal to do as Sulu, but he does get a great scene sitting in the centre seat, whilst Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is perhaps the least well served of the cast.

Anyone who’s watched him in films and TV knows how great a screen presence Benedict Cumberbatch can be, and he doesn’t disappoint here. Dominating scenes without having to say a word he manages, for the most part, not to slip into over acting mode, which must have been tricky to do. Harrison is cold, intelligent, ruthless, and strong enough to beat the crap out of a whole bunch of Klingons without getting out of breath. His motivation is interesting, without being particularly developed, and he as I said he does skirt close to screaming madman on occasion, but never crosses the line, and he’s a great foil for Kirk and Spock.

Weller plays an interesting character in Admiral Marcus, although again he’s a little too one dimensional, whilst Alice Eve certainly looks every inch the Original Series crewwoman with her blonde bob, though it would have been nice to see her have more involvement than she does, and much as she looks very nice in her bra and panties, the scene adds nothing to the film aside from titillation and it was a shame to see.

What problems Into Darkness has stem largely from the script, and specifically arrive in the final third of the film. Taking iconic characters and using them in new and different ways is perfectly acceptable as far as I’m concerned, and much as I’m no fan of remakes, remaking a film isn’t the most heinous crime in the world. However taking iconic scenes from a previous film and reusing them almost note for note in a supposedly original film I find disingenuous to say the least, and possibly, to quote Spock, somewhat offensive. I’m sure it looked great on paper, and JJ Abrams and co no doubt imagine they’re being oh so clever in swapping character X for character Y before essentially playing the scene out in exactly the same way as before, but I found it utterly jarring and it pulled me out of film.

It also ignores the fact that these characters have nowhere near the history behind them that the original characters in the original scenes did, so there’s less emotional engagement, and the drama is further negated by the sledge hammer solution to the problem that surely most people will have seen coming a mile away.

It’s a real shame that a production company charged with reimagining and revitalising a franchise should feel the need to lift so blatantly from an earlier film it’s supposedly trying to get away from, and in particular a film widely acknowledged as the best of the bunch, because all it does is remind you how powerful the original scene was, and it weakens the new film into the bargain.

The upshot is that, while a week ago I left the cinema after seeing Iron Man 3 with a huge grin on my face, I left Into Darkness with a slight frown. I was still smiling, I was just a bit annoyed with it.

I liked it a lot, and in fact can’t wait to see it again (in 2D this time, 3D IMAX was pointless)and it might be that I enjoy it more next time around, I’m just a trifle confounded by the thematic choices made in the latter third.

Frankly I’m willing to bet no other film this year will make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end with just a glimpse of the Enterprise or a few notes of the soundtrack like this film did though, so while it isn’t quite Deep Space nine out of ten, it comes close, it’s just a shame the film makers didn’t have the courage to keep doing something different.

Long before The Devils of Amber Street I published my first novel, City of Caves, via Lulu, where it remains for sale to this day and can be purchased in either electronic or more traditional book formats via the two links below.

http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/paul-starkey/city-of-caves/ebook/product-17401848.html

http://www.lulu.com/shop/paul-starkey/city-of-caves/paperback/product-4976945.html

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“Adam Kember’s life is finally starting to reach equilibrium. He might be living in a refugee camp, might be forced to work as a teacher, a farmer, a soldier, but at least he’s safe from the marauding hordes of bloodthirsty ferals that stalk the near future world he inhabits.

Except now a mysterious group of soldiers and scientists has arrived— they plan to enter the ruined city of Nottingham in search of the mythical patient zero, the original source of the vampire-like plague that has almost destroyed the world…and they want Adam Kember to go with them…”

Iron Man 3

Posted: May 3, 2013 in Film reviews

Directed by Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey Jr. Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley.

And so, a year after The Avengers (oh go on then, Avengers Assemble) blew most viewers away (certainly me as it was my top film of 2012) one Avenger gets his third outing, as Robert Downey Jr. dons the armoured suit once more as Tony Stark.

The film opens several months after the events of the Avengers film, where Iron Man helped take down an alien invasion fleet, and Tony Stark almost died closing a wormhole. Still traumatised by the events of that day, Stark can’t sleep, and spends his nights working on a whole host of new prototype suits. This doesn’t please his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Paltrow), who’s now moved into his home.

Meanwhile the American Government is trying to track down a vicious terrorist mastermind called The Mandarin (Kingsley) who appears to be behind a series of bombings across the globe that leave no trace of a bomb… When Stark’s former bodyguard (Jon Favreau, relieved of directorial duties but still allowed to attend the party it seems) is injured in one such blast Stark issues a challenge to the Mandarin to come and face him, even going as far as to provide his home address. The Mandarin duly obliges by sending helicopter gunships to attack, destroying Stark’s home and very nearly killing him and Pepper.

With only a single battered suit and a slender clue as to the true nature of the bombings, Stark sets out to find out more and defeat the Mandarin, but is everything as it seems, and just how is sleazy scientist Aldrich Killian (Pearce) connected to the Mandarin?

The first thing to make perfectly clear about Iron Man 3 is this. It isn’t as good as the Avengers, though frankly I’d have been amazed if it had been given what a perfect storm of a film that was. This isn’t to denigrate Iron Man 3 however, as it’s pretty close to being one of the most enjoyable superhero films.

A huge part of the film’s enjoyment stems from Downey’s performance, and yet again kudos to whoever originally had the idea of getting him to play Tony Stark, because as casting decisions go it’s a doozy, and whilst you can imagine someone else playing most superheroes, it really is impossible to imagine anyone else doing Iron Man justice. It takes a certain class of actor to play a character who’s arrogant, superficial and, quite often, downright rude, yet for that character to still be as engaging and downright likable as Tony Stark is.

From flirting with Pepper to bantering with Iron Patriot and the bad guys, to creating a snarky double act with a young boy and making it anything but cringe worthy, Downey Jr. is superb, and he owns every scene he’s in, though it’s testament to the fact that Downey Jr.’s ego probably isn’t anywhere near as big as Tony Stark’s that he doesn’t insist on Stark being an infallible, indestructible, dull character, and he’s even quite happy for someone else to lay the final smack down on the bad guy.

Of course even Downey Jr. can’t save a film from being a washout, or from just being a bit average, on his own; Iron Man 2 proved that and as well as the film’s lead, credit needs to be given to its director and one of its screenwriters, Shane Black, the man responsible for writing Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and a whole host of films featuring witty banter and set and Christmas…er, kind of like this one!

Black’s line is banter and Downey Jr.’s pithy delivery really are a match made in heaven (as anyone who’s ever seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang can attest) and he directs well, keeping the pace going and making it a thrilling ride.

Cast wise the film is filled with talent. Paltrow plays a great Pepper, and it really is refreshing to see the male lead in a relationship with a woman who’s actually not much younger than him, rather than someone half his age. Guy Pearce is pretty much excellent in everything he does, and he doesn’t disappoint here, smoozing around dressed like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Rebecca Hall is somewhat underused, but thankfully Don Cheadle’s role gets meatier as the film progresses.

The star of the show though (aside from Robery Downy Jr. and maybe the kid) is Ben Kingsley as the nefarious Mandarin. He’s fantastic, and it’s a performance you won’t forget in a hurry…

The film does take a while to get going, and there are times in the early stages where it feels a little all over the place, but once things start to slot into place earlier events suddenly take on a whole new meaning, and whilst some have criticised the wham bam ending, I actually quite enjoyed it, and whilst it is cgi heavy, that’s only to be expected, and Black does at least avoid the trap of having faceless characters who might as well just be from a video game slugging it out, and for much of the action Downey isn’t even in the suit. We’ve come a long way since the horror that was Spider Man vs. the Green Goblin all those years ago; two faceless masks in a pointless fight.

At heart the film could be accused of being somewhat hollow, though I’d argue there is some meat beneath the flashy effects and snippy dialogue, but even if there weren’t, not every film has to be deep and meaningful. At the end of the day what I most want from a film is to be entertained, and Iron Man 3 did just that. Funny, action packed, exciting. It’s no understatement to say I had a big grin on my face when I left the cinema.

Iron Man, gold standard….