Archive for January, 2015

Edited by Mike Chinn

And so I do my first review of a book I’m in, though don’t worry I won’t say much about my own story. Promise!

Published by the Alchemy Press this book contains twelve stories with pulpish sensibilities, you know the kind of things, superheroes and hard drinking private eyes, smoky bars and the noir feel of a black and white film. I’m not going to delve into each story but I will make special mention of a few to give you a feel for the book.

There’s of course a link between pulp and old fashioned B-movies, but it would be a mistake to think that the stories contained within this anthology are at all formulaic or simplistic, and in fact at either end of the book there are tales that are very erudite in the telling.

Near the start of the book Kim Newman’s Angels of Music has an intriguing proposition whereby the concept of the 1970’s TV show Charlie’s Angels is instead played out in 19th Century Paris, with Irene Adler and two other notable 19th century female literary characters as the Angels, and the Phantom of the Opera in the role of the mysterious Charlie. It’s an incredibly imaginative idea, though it didn’t quite work for me, in part because it outstays its welcome, but also because I suspect a lot of very clever references went clear over my head.

At the end of the book is Emmett, Joey and the Beelz by Ralph Sevush, a tale borne out of religious legends which I’m slightly ashamed to say I started off thinking was rubbish, confused and obvious. All credit to Sevush then because it got more interesting as it went along, and did that rarest of things because it went in a direction I didn’t remotely see coming.

Some of the stories in between are funny, like Rod Rees A Helping Hand, whilst some are downright creepy, such as The Big Picture by Iain Grant that has the feel of an old fashioned horror film of the kind where things you aren’t meant to see are glimpsed in photos taken by a cursed camera.

My favourite story in the collection is probably Rayven Black in the City of Night by Tony Richards, not just because the story of a chunk of London transported to some dark alternate universe is interesting, but also because I liked his prose, it was a fun read.

And then there was the story set in an alternate Britain of the 1950s where the new king discovers that, with great responsibility comes great power…oh hang on, that was my story You’re Majesty, but I won’t say any more about that (except to stress that that the title isn’t a grammatical error!)

With any anthology you’re likely to get stories you don’t like, but the flipside is also true and if you like your heroes to feel like they’ve stepped out of the pages of a 1950s’ comic book, or something more recent like Watchmen or Sin City, I’d be surprised if you didn’t find something to tickle your palate here.

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Directed by Tom Harper. Starring Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine and Helen McCrory.

It is forty years since Arthur Kipps encountered the Woman in Black, and Eel Marsh House has remained empty and near derelict ever since, but during the Blitz it is pressed back into service as a boarding school for children evacuated from London.

The first group of children to embark for Eel Marsh House are led by headmistress Jean Hogg (McGrory) and young teacher Eve Parkins (Fox.) They find Eel Marsh House to be a less than suitable location for a home for children, but beyond this Eve senses something else, and despite the fact that they are supposed to be alone on the island she keeps catching a glimpse of a woman in old fashioned dress.

Before long strange things start to happen, and all too soon the children are in danger as the Woman in Black’s curse rises again. With Jean dismissive of her fears, Eve’s only ally is RAF pilot Harry Burnstow (Irvine) but he has a dark secret, much as Eve does, that might impact on their ability to save the remaining children from the not so tender mercies of the vengeful spirit of Jennet Humfrye.

I really liked The Woman in Black, it was sumptuous and managed to imbue a very traditional ghost story with a modern sensibility without resorting to gore or an over reliance on jump scares. It had a great script, good direction and a very solid cast, and for all that Daniel Radcliffe was perceived as being too young to play Arthur Kipps, he gave an exceptionally good account of himself, in particular during his first night alone in Eel Marsh House in which he convincingly played being terrified without dint of dialogue.

As such I was very much looking forward to the sequel, however much of what raised the original above the average horror film bar is missing from the sequel, and whilst Angel of Death isn’t a terrible film, it rarely rises above the level of a by the numbers sequel.

Susan Hill, the author of The Woman in Black supplied the story, but she didn’t do the script, and neither did Jane Goldman who’d done such a good job on the first film. The decision to focus on a different time period is laudable but whilst initially the idea of kids being evacuated to Eel Marsh House is a nice idea, in practice it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There might be a war on but you would still imagine there would be several more suitable places to evacuate schoolchildren too than this place, a dilapidated house that hasn’t been lived in in decades, on an island surrounded by deadly mashes, with a causeway that can only be traversed at certain times of the day?

Eel Marsh House doesn’t look much different to how it did 40 years earlier, which seems odd, but it does seem a lot mistier, which is fine but too often this felt like it was being substituted for an eerie atmosphere. The Woman in Black spent as much time away from the house as in it, and this film is lacking the wider perspective and fear that we got from the local villagers and landowners who acted as both Arthur’s allies and enemies because of their own encounters the titular character.

By contrast Angel of Death is thin on supporting characters, and it seems like a crazy old blind man is all that remains of the villagers, and even Harry’s RAF base can’t provide much in the way of additional characters. Whilst this could have given the film a claustrophobic feel, much like the enshrouding mist that seems to dominate every exterior scene it only serves to make the film seem parochial in scale.

This can work, take The Others, but that film had great direction, a superb script and Nicole Kidman on dominating form. By contrast even an actress as good as McCrory is can’t do much with insipid material. Fox and Irvine are perfectly sufficient as leads, but you can’t help feeling that Fox in particular is too subdued for the lead role. It may be that it’s just that the story can’t give anyone enough to work with. Not even the director, and I’ve seen Hardy’s work on Peaky Blinders and he’s good. Much more should have been made of the similarity between Eve and Jennet and the children should have been given more to do than simply be victims.

Too often the film relies on jump scares, and sadly whilst some of them are effective others are telegraphed too easily, and the film is at its most effective when it’s relying on subtler creepiness; the Woman in Black glimpsed in the corner of shot, and in particular an effective moment where what you think is splinters of wood turns out to be fingers. Sadly these moments are too few and far between.

The film deserves praise for its period setting and desire to not rely totally on surprise to shock, but compared to the first film this is as insubstantial as the mist surrounding Eel Marsh House.

Paddington

Posted: January 7, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Paul King. Starring Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman and Ben Whishaw.

In deepest darkest Peru there lives a group of bears unlike any others, bears that are as intelligent as people. When an explorer discovers these bears he teaches them English and tells them all about England, when he leaves he suggests that they should one day visit London.

Many years later Lucy and Pastuzo, the bears the explorer met, live an idyllic, marmalade fuelled life with their young nephew, until disaster strikes and the young bear finds he has to venture to London in search of a new life. The London of 2014 is not the polite welcoming place it perhaps once was however, and finding a new home isn’t as easy as he imagined, until that is the Brown family take pity on him and offer to take him in for the night, even though Mr Brown (Bonneville) is against the idea. Because they can’t pronounce his bear name Mrs Brown decides to name him after the station where they found him, Paddington.

Although Mr Brown is adamant that Paddington can’t live with them permanently, Paddington soon becomes a member of the family, but as Paddington and the Browns search for either the explorer or one of his decedents to take care of Paddington, someone else has their eye on the little bear in the duffel coat, an evil taxidermist who wants Paddington to be the latest addition to the Natural History Museum!

Every so often a well-loved character is taken down from the nostalgic shelf, dusted down and ‘reimagined’. It’s traditional when this happens, for those involved in the new version to talk about how reverently they will treat the character, how they’re just making them more relevant for modern times, but how much care they’ve taken not to spoil what we loved about that character in the first place.

With a few exceptions, this is usually nothing more than spin and blather before a soulless mess is released at the cinema.

I’m extremely happy to report then that Paddington is one of the exceptions. It’s a truly charming little film, and one you can tell great care, love and attention has been lavished on. The script, the effects, the direction and the casting are all spot on, leaving a film it’s hard to find fault with.

The film stands or falls based on the titular character first and foremost, and the CGI is impressive, to the point where very early on you forget that Paddington’s a collection of pixels, because he’s just Paddington. However cute and expressive the digital creation is, this would be nothing without a great voice behind it, and Ben Whishaw does a wonderful job. Much as I admire Colin Firth you can see how he wouldn’t have been right for the role, he’d bring too much experience to the role, whereas with Whishaw we get a voice that is at once childlike, yet also curiously mature. We’ve all met children who seem older than their years, and that description suits Paddington to a tee, and despite the scrapes he gets into he’s actually quite a sensible little fellow, and there’s a lovableness to his oddly old fashioned politeness.

He’s helped by having good actors to bounce off. Bonneville is a great straight man for the little bear, and in particular the scene where Mr Brown and Paddington infiltrate the Geographer’s Society is a hoot, especially the debrief afterwards when Paddington drops Mr Brown right in it. Bonneville convinces as a loving, if rather stuffy father who’s forgotten how much fun he used to be. Sally Hawkins is good as the more bohemian Mrs Brown and despite their differences they make for a believable couple. The kids are good too, not remotely annoying and they too have great chemistry with the bear.

Films need a villain though, and Nicole Kidman plays the evil Millicent Clyde with so much relish you imagine she must have had a ball during filming. Throw in the ever reliable Julie Walters as Mrs Bird and Peter Capaldi as the grumpy neighbour and it’s a flawless cast.

The direction is straightforward when it needs to be, yet also quirky and inventive when the situation requires it, be it a scene using a dollhouse to show how the different family members relate to Paddington or the steampunk workings of the Geographer’s Institute. King keeps things pacey and on more than one occasion I was on the edge of my seat.

The film also has a message, Paddington is, after all, an immigrant who’s come to London in search of a better life, and much is made of the little label round his neck, harking back to English children evacuated during World War 2, and whilst the film doesn’t delve into shades of grey it has more to say than the average kids’ film, a message of tolerance for those bears less fortunate than ourselves.

If I was to be picky the Browns are that kind of middle class twee family that one suspects only really exists in films, and given the overarching message about integration London perhaps could have been shown to be more diverse. Also it’s a lean film, but in essence this is family fare, and it’s difficult to know what a longer run time could possibly bring to the table, and there’s something to be said for a film that doesn’t outstay its welcome and leaves you wanting more.

I am being very picky though because I really liked this. It’s sweet, charming, funny, exciting, plus how can you not love a film that throws in jokes inspired by Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible, and which dispenses with Chekhov’s gun (Google it!) in favour of Chekhov’s marmalade sandwich!

Highly recommended, this is a film to take a long hard stare at.

Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and Sir Ian McKellen.

 

And so we reach the final instalment of The Hobbit. We join the action mere moments after the end of the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, with Bilbo (the ever reliable Freeman) and several of the dwarves, including Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) finally ensconced within the fortress at Erebor, but with Smaug very much alive and on his way to destroy nearby Laketown.

Bard (Luke Evans) has been imprisoned by the Master of Laketown (a moustache twirling turn from Stephen Fry) whilst the remaining dwarves are with Bard’s family, along with the Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily). When Smaug attacks, Laketown appears to have no defence from the fire breathing monster’s attack, but perhaps if Bard can get free…

Meanwhile Gandalf is held prisoner until being rescued by Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman in a scene that has more to do with foreshadowing the Lord of the Rings Films than really adding anything to the Hobbit. Once free he makes his way to Erebor to find that Thorin, afflicted with Dragon Sickness, has fortified the mountain and is refusing to give the share of gold promised to the people of Laketown, treasure the survivors need if they’re to rebuild their township. He’s also refusing to let an Elven army take its own share of the treasure and has summoned a dwarf army to help defend the mountain.

Increasingly paranoid and obsessed with the Smaug’s hoarded treasure, Thorin begins to doubt even the loyalty of his own Dwarves, and for a while it looks like there will be battle between the Dwarves on one side, and the Elves and Men on the other…until the massed Orc army appears, and the scene is set for an apocalyptic conflict.

 

And so we come to the finale of a trilogy of films based on a single book. The debate about whether Jackson should have strung the story out so thinly will go on for many years, but in the end The Battle of the Five Armies shows the way the other two films should have been handled, being shorter, pacier and far less bloated than the first two films, even if it still clocks in well over 2 hours long.

For a man who started with small scale, low budget fare, Jackson knows how to marshal an epic budget, and it’s clear to see every penny up on screen, even if, after six films, he still hasn’t found a way to properly show Hobbits in longshots with humans and the like without making it look like Ian McKellen’s just stood next to a child or Warwick Davies…

Still the epic battles are truly epic, even if they perhaps lack the magnitude of those in the latter two Lord of the Rings films. As usual Jackson is aided and abetted by the stunning New Zealand scenery which truly has made Middle Earth come alive, and by a cast of thespians at the top of their game, and unlike George Lucas Jackson seems to genuinely appreciate his cast, and never elevates the special effects above the living breathing elements of his film (well at least not here, King Kong still blots Jackson’s copybook a little).

The overarching title of the film might be The Hobbit, but this is far less Freeman’s film than it is Richard Armitage’s. That isn’t to deny Freeman’s importance to the film, but Armitage dominates every scene he’s in and he’s given a great character arc to work with, showcasing paranoia, madness, greed, nobility and redemption.

Of the rest of the cast McKellen’s been playing Gandalf so long now that he must be able to slip into character at a moment’s notice, but he still manages to add the occasional bit of darkness into his jovial portrayal. As Bard, Evans has little to do beyond playing decent and heroic but he does both well, Lee Pace gives an intriguing performance as the Elven King, at once aloof and uncaring, yet also clearly affected by the deaths amongst his armies. As Legolas Orlando Bloom is as effortless as always, but as with the second film, the standout Elf is the one who wasn’t even in the book, and Evangeline Lily is once again excellent as Tauriel.

One of the major problems of all three films though has been the dwarves, and aside from Thorin and Kili I could barely tell them apart, which is odd given the likes of Ken Stott and James Nesbit are playing some of them, but right from the off they’ve been more of an amorphous mass than a set of distinct characters, and whilst Ryan Gage’s weaselly Alfird might be as two dimensional as they come, he is at least recognisable, and Gage does the best he can with the stock coward role.

Hopefully this will be the end of Jackson’s involvement in Middle Earth, unless Hollywood decide there’s no reason we couldn’t have all new adventures that weren’t written by Tolkien (in which case I’ll happily sign up for a Tauriel film right now) but I hope not. He might now get around to making his Dambusters remake, and it would be good to see him return to smaller scale films, whatever he does next I hope he takes on board the positives of this film, sometimes less is more and the best directors are those that edit!

The first Hobbit film was longwinded and laborious, and in comparison the second felt like a roller coaster ride, unfortunately it was a roller coaster ride that went on and on so long that the loops that should have been exciting became mundane. By contrast, and much like Baby Bear’s porridge, The Battle of the Five Armies is just right, and so, for the moment at least, it’s my favourite by far.

Shift

Posted: January 2, 2015 in Book reviews
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By Hugh Howey

First the usual warning when I’m reviewing a book in a series, Shift is the second book in the Silo trilogy and sequel to Wool which I reviewed some time ago. Whilst I’ll do my best not to supply any spoilers for Shift, by necessity I will need to spoil Wool, so if you haven’t ready Wool yet don’t read any further…unless you don’t mind being spoiled of course.

Still there? Ok then. In Wool we saw a dystopian society living within a giant underground silo. Whilst life was no terrible, it was no picnic, and regularly someone would either want to get out, or commit a crime heinous enough to ensure they were sent for “Cleaning” whereby they would be sent out onto the surface to use a woollen cloth to clean the only window onto the ruined world that the inhabitants of the Silo had.

Through the course of Wool we discovered, thanks to reluctant Sheriff turned Cleaner Juliette, that the Silo was not alone, in fact it was Silo 18 of 50, all controlled by mysterious forces in Silo 1 who ensured that the only person who ever knew the truth in a Silo was the Silo’s head of IT (and their appointed successor.)

At the end of Wool Silo 18 had nominally rebelled. In Shift Howey rewinds things to show us how the Silo’s came about. In the mid-21st Century we meet Donald, an idealistic young congressman co-opted by the legendary Senator Thurman to put his previous training as an architect to good use in designing a large underground facility to be used as a secure refuge for people working on a supposed nuclear waste disposal project (if you’ve read Wool— and if not why are you reading this?—then you’ll know where this is heading.)

Whilst Donald struggles with the ethics of the project as more and more is revealed to him, his story is complemented by another set in the next century that follows a man named, Troy woken from cryogenic sleep to undertake a six month shift managing Silo 1, and by default all the other Silos. Troy, like almost everyone else, is required to take drugs that supress painful memories, but when he chooses to stop taking his meds, things begin coming back to him.

Soon the novel is skipping further ahead, describing life and death inside various Silos over the years, until eventually the characters Howey has introduced in this book reach a point where they can interact with those we met in Wool.

I liked Wool a lot, although as I said at the time I thought Howey was better at plot than with characters. If anything I liked Shift more. Maybe it’s because he feels more like a product of ‘our’ time, but I found Donald a more engaging protagonist than Juliette. As before Howey’s big talent is for drip feeding you bits of the story to keep you turning the pages, and the conspiracy and what follows is highly engaging.

Wool didn’t go into detail about the apocalypse that destroyed the world, but in Shift we learn a lot more about why it happened and who was responsible. At times it’s very sad, in particular with regard to Troy, a man who’s lost most of his past, and Solo, the character we met in Wool who we here get to see in younger days.

It’s quite easy to see that this was originally self-published as a series of novellas/shorter novels and as with Wool this does make for a jarring read at times, as well as introducing an unnecessary element of repetition and one can’t help but imagine that a top drawer editor might have trimmed a little fat from the bones of these disparate parts in pulling them together into one book.

Similarly because it’s primarily a prequel, some elements do seem a trifle superfluous. Solo’s story is interesting, but really it’s unnecessary given we already got his potted history from Wool, although it does serve to make him a more rounded, more tragic character. In addition Mission’s story within Silo 17 probably could have been truncated without us losing much.

Howey’s skills with plot and world building really are superb though, and if his characterisations are sometimes a little two dimensional and his prose a bit baggy, it doesn’t stop Shift being as engaging as Wool, and I’m looking forward to reading the final part, Dust, soon.