Archive for February, 2016

Deadpool

Posted: February 27, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Tim Miller. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin and Ed Skrein.

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When former Special Forces solder, turned low rent mercenary, Wade Wilson (Reynolds) meets with Vanessa Carlysle (Baccarin) he thinks he’s found his soulmate. After a year together he proposes, and Vanessa quickly accepts. Everything is going great…until Wade is diagnosed with very aggressive, very terminal cancer. Desperate for any chance of survival he accepts the invitation of a mysterious recruiter (Galaxy Quest’s Jed Rees) offering him the possibility of a cure, all he has to do is sign up to a secret program designed to create super soldiers.

Leaving Vanessa in the middle of the night Wade is taken to a secret hospital where he’s injected with a serum designed to activate any mutant genes he may have. In order to prompt his body into mutating Wade is then tortured by previous test subject Ajax (Skrein) and his henchwoman Angel Dust (former mixed martial artist Gina Carano).

Despite days of agony Wade continues to bait Ajax. In response Ajax straps him into an airtight chamber and removes all the oxygen. Wade’s body finally responds, his mutant genes kick in and he gains super healing powers. He’s also horribly disfigured.

Realising he can’t go back to Vanessa in his current condition his only hope is to find Ajax, who claimed he could reverse the disfigurement, and in order to hide his hideous visage he dons a red costume and names himself Deadpool. He has no intention of becoming a superhero of course, which doesn’t stop the X-Men taking an interest…

Can Deadpool find Ajax, will he win back Vanessa, and more importantly will he ever stop making dick jokes?

 

Ryan Reynolds can’t, unfortunately, lay claim to being the first man to play two different superheroes (Deadpool and The Green Lantern) because Chris Evans (Captain America and The Human Torch) beat him to the punch, but he might well be the first to play two very different incarnations of the same superhero, given he was also Deadpool in the extremely disappointing 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

In that film Reynolds’ wise ass mercenary had his lips sewn shut when he became Deadpool, which kinda missed the point. Thankfully in this second outing, a total reboot really, Wade retains his potty mouth, even after the experiment turns him into a super strong mutant with healing powers that, ironically, can’t heal his mangled face.

How you react to Deadpool might well come down to whether you go with the joke, or find his snarky asides and constant fourth wall breaking annoying. As always, gentle reader, I can only give you my thoughts…

And I absolutely loved it! Sure the plot is wafer thin (though some temporal jiggery-pokery with flashbacks helps by dropping Deadpool into the action from the start) and maybe it is just your basic origin story, but frankly when a film is this funny and this enjoyable who cares!

Reynolds isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he plays smart asses really well, and that’s what Wade Wilson is, a man who can’t stop running his mouth, even when he knows it’s just going to cause him pain. By all accounts Reynolds’ determination was one of the factors that saw this film make it to the screen, but this is no vanity project by any stretch of the imagination (and it would be a pretty strange vanity project) and this might turn out to be Reynolds career defining role because his snark and wit are perfect for the Merc with the Mouth, as Deadpool is affectionately known, but he also brings an innate likeability to the role, one of those rare actors who can play a dick, but make him a dick you want to root for.

Within a lean cast the other standout is Morena Baccarin, who’s mainly been known for her TV roles (Firefly, Stargate, V and Gotham to name but a few) but she proves here that she can more than handle herself on the big screen. Yes she’s quite obviously the hot chick she’s credited as in the titles (in the interests of equality Reynolds gets namechecked as Hollywood’s Perfect Idiot) but she has genuine screen presence and can act, instantly putting her ahead of most of the generic blondes in Hollywood. Yes the role is pretty thin, and yes she is mainly the damsel in distress, yet she puts so much heft into the role you at least imagine she has more agency than she actually does.

As Ajax Skrein is ok, even if his sub Statham Schick can’t quite keep up with Deadpool’s wit. Carano’s acting is still pretty poor but she makes up for it by being a forceful screen presence and you can really imagine Angel Dust holding her own against Colossus (a wholly CGI creation) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (seriously that’s her name) the two X-Men who feature.

Deadpool is the complete antithesis of recent superhero movies; irreverent, foul mouthed, sexy, sarcastic and utterly childish. This is a film that knows how preposterous the idea of mutants and superheroes is and isn’t afraid to share that with you. A film where the lead character nods and winks to the audience with gay abandon, even going so far as to question why we only see two X-Men—“It’s almost like we couldn’t afford any others?”—and, as I’ve said, this might annoy the hell out of you, but if you sit back and enjoy the ride, if you’re in on the joke, then this is a hugely enjoyable film.

It might have benefited from better bad guys, and perhaps the plot could have been less simplistic, it would have been nice to see more of the relationship between Deadpool and the elderly blind woman he lives with, and maybe the film is a little baggy in places but to hell with any of that, sure it’s only February but still, best film of the year so far and I can’t wait to see Deadpool and his potty mouth return.

It’s not big, it’s not clever, but boy is it funny.

 

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Zoolander 2

Posted: February 20, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Ben Stiller. Starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penélope Cruz and Will Ferrell.

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In Paris Justin Bieber is hunted down and shot by mysterious assassins. Before he expires the precocious prince of pop takes a selfie which he posts online. He is the latest in a long line of pop stars who’ve been murdered, and in each instance the victim has taken a selfie posing with what looks to Fashion Interpol agent Valentina Valencia (Cruz) very much like Blue Steel, the signature pout of renowned male model Derek Zoolander (Stiller).

The only problem is that Zoolander has been in self-imposed exile for the last fifteen years after the tragic death of his wife Matilda, and after his son, Derek Jr., was taken away by social services. As luck would have it however, Zoolander’s good friend Billy Zane has tracked him down with a message from bigshot fashion designer Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) offering him the chance to come out of retirement. On the basis that social services might look favourably on him and return custody of his son if they see he has a job, Zoolander agrees.

Billy Zane also visits another former male model, the laidback Hansel, who has also been in exile since the same tragedy that killed Matilda also left him horribly disfigured.

Though initially wary of one another Zoolander and Hansel join forces with Valencia, but can they solve the mystery of the murdered rock stars, can Derek win back his son, and just where does jailed fashion designer Jacobim Mugatu fit into all of this?

Sequels are tricky things, and comedy sequels are especially difficult even if they come out a year or two after the original, let alone if there’s been a gap of fifteen years, during which time the original film has become a cult classic. Can such a sequel ever live up to the original? Can it be anywhere near as funny?

Prevailing wisdom suggests that in the case of Zoolander 2 the answer is very much no, but whilst I can’t, hand on heart, sit here and tell you it’s anywhere near as good as Zoolander, it’s by no means the disaster some critics have made it out to be, I enjoyed it and I laughed pretty much consistently throughout the film.

Which isn’t to suggest that every joke hits home, they don’t and a lot of jokes, including ones that trade on current fads like Uber, fall a little flat. In addition there’s one miscarriage related joke that’s really in quite poor taste (even despite the very unrealistic circumstances) but, when the jokes work they’re very funny, in particular there’s a great Facebook gag, and Mugatu’s cunning escape plan still makes me giggle just thinking about it now!

What’s scariest is how little Stiller and Wilson seem to have changed in fifteen years and both slip seamlessly into the roles. Stiller’s idiot man child and Wilson’s zoned out dolt still manage to be eminently likeable, even when being ever so slightly offensive to people they meet. Newcomer to the franchise (are two films a franchise I wonder?) Cruz is great as the former swimsuit model turned fashion policewoman, providing a valuable straight woman for Stiller and Wilson to bounce off. Will Ferrell returns as Mugatu and similarly it’s like he’s never been away. Ferrell is an actor I mostly prefer in small doses, and most of his most memorable roles have been the ones where he wasn’t the centre of attention for the whole film (See Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Zoolander as prime examples) and thankfully Mugatu doesn’t outstay his welcome here. He’s in it enough to be hilarious but not so much that he becomes annoying.

Really the only failure in regard to the big hitters is Wiig, who I usually like, but buried under latex and with a curious vocal affectation she isn’t given enough time to really grab our attention and I wonder if originally there was more of her in this until they realised the character wasn’t really working?

Given his age and lack of experience I was much more impressed with Cyrus Arnold as Derek Jr. who never seems overawed by the big name company he’s keeping.

Pretty much everyone from the original film is back in some capacity and like the first film Zoolander 2 relies on a heap of celebrity cameos. Here is where the film becomes a little shakier, because though it’s fun to play spot the star at the time, in hindsight there are perhaps a few too many of them which does give the film a slightly smug, self-indulgent feel. If Zoolander was very much something of an outsider film Zoolander 2 is clearly an insider. Which doesn’t mean some of the cameos aren’t pleasing and funny, just that maybe this is a film that’s a little too pleased with itself.

Of course the counter argument is that as a film that’s all about surface and being really, really, ridiculously good-looking, that might be the point?

It’s not as good as Zoolander, and though it’s hard to be sure I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near as quotable. Some of the jokes miss their intended targets by miles and some characters don’t make a favourable impression (Atoz and Benedict Cumberbatch’s curious turn as ‘All’) and yet I laughed a lot. Zoolander and Hansel remain engaging—if stupid—protagonists and however shallow they appear it’s clear they both have good hearts so you always want to root for them.

It’s really stretching the joke now, but it is a lot of fun if you disengage your brain for 100 minutes and I think I’ll definitely be happy to watch it over and over. Ignore the critics, and no, I haven’t been taking crazy pills!

By Neil Gaiman

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An unnamed middle aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he grew up in is long gone he wanders down the lane to a farm so ancient it is mentioned in the Domesday Book. At the end of the lane is a small duck pond and when he reaches it he suddenly begins to remember events that took place when he was seven years old.

As a child the death of his parents’ lodger caused a cataclysm that enabled a malevolent force to enter our reality, a force that threatened to tear his family apart, and his only hope was the three women who lived on that old farm, the three generations of Hemstock women, including old mother Hemstock who claimed to have seen the Moon created, and Lettie, who appeared to be a girl of eleven, but also said she’s been eleven for a very long time and who claimed the duck pond was in fact an ocean.

As with the vast majority of Gaiman’s work, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantastical story of powerful, magical creatures, and what happens when these creatures of magic intersect with the ordinary world. There is no doubt that Gaiman is a fantastic writer, but at times the whimsical nature of his writing has frustrated me, take Anansi Boys for example, an intriguing idea but one that increasingly meandered and didn’t seem to go anywhere.

By contrast whilst The Ocean at the End of the Lane is of course whimsical, it also marries this with a clear narrative. Though told for the most part from the perspective of a seven year old boy this isn’t really a children’s book; in fact in his notes at the end Gaiman states that this is a book about a child for adults, contrasting it with another book he wrote at the same time which was a story about an adult but for children.

Gaiman writes the point of view character to perfection, channelling memories of his own childhood and intertwining them with things that clearly did not happen to him as a child (although reading his notes it came as a surprise to see that certain elements were factual) but it would be wrong to claim this is completely autobiographical, Gaiman has instead mined his own memories of being a seven year old boy in order to tell the story of a different seven year old boy.

There is a reason so much good horror involves children, from the perspectives of adults children are much more vulnerable, but also we remember what it was like to be children, remember all the things that didn’t make sense at the time, and the things that frightened us. We may have fears as adults but they are tangible, they are, unfortunately, for the most part quite real fears, but when we were children we were also conscious of more nebulous dangers, the monster under the bed, the shadow on the wall, the fear of being abandoned by our parents and Gaiman feeds these childhood terrors into his story.

Which isn’t to say this is a horror story, it’s not, it is a fantasy but, like the best fairy-tale, there is an element of the horrific within it and at times it is a frightening read because Gaiman so deftly puts us in the mind of our protagonist, so when he is afraid of the creature that threatens to consume his family, we’re afraid too.

And what a creature, the initial descriptions of this otherworldly thing as a sail flapping in the wind, only fabric with a face, are terrifyingly magical, but when it assumes a more conventional form it becomes all the more frightening.

But this is also a story about humour, and love, and hope and about the nature of memory.
Gaiman’s prose is a joy; being both lean and eloquent at the same time, and you can almost feel the time spent agonising over the choice of each and every word—as a writer I wish I had that level of patience.

A lovely little tale that will remind you of childhood, not only the bad things but also the good, the way as a child you form immediate and intimate bonds with other children, the way every new experience, however mundane, can seem magical.

The duck pond might seem shallow, and this novel may seem brief, but both are much deeper than you could possibly imagine.

The Big Short

Posted: February 13, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Adam McKay. Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling.

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In 2005 eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale) realises that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the American housing market is unstable. In an attempt to make money for himself and his clients he persuades major banks to allow him to bet against the housing market, so called ‘shorting’, something that no one else has done before because the housing market is perceived as completely secure. Thinking that Burry is, essentially, crazy the banks agree to his terms. His clients aren’t happy with this as they too believe the failure of the housing market is an impossibility.

Deutsche Bank trader Jared Vennett (Gosling) learns of Burry’s theory and decides he may be onto something, still he has trouble persuading anyone else to invest in his own shorting of the banks until a misplaced telephone call puts him in touch with Mark Baum (Carell) the somewhat unconventional manager of a Wall Street Hedge Fund and a man with serious anger management issues. Baum is intrigued enough to dig into the housing market, and he and members of his team (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall and Jeremy Strong) head to Florida to see if there’s any truth behind Burry’s scheme. They find evidence of large scale foreclosures, non-payment of mortgages by landlords, and dodgy business practices used by unscrupulous realtors, signing people up to mortgages they can’t afford and cutting every corner they can to make money.

On the back of their investigation Baum and Co sign up to Vennett’s scheme.

Meanwhile a pair of eager, yet naïve, investors Charlie and Jamie (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) stumble upon a discarded copy of Vennett’s proposal and are intrigued enough to want to short the market as well. The trouble is they’re too small scale to be allowed to do so, and so they have to enlist the help of retired banker (and conspiracy theorist) Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

As time passes the collapse of the housing market seems more and more likely, yet even as the economic apocalypse approaches the housing market remains buoyant due to suspect practices by the banking sector and the dishonesty of the ratings agencies, and Burry, Baum and the others come to realise the enormity of what they’re involved in. If the housing market collapses they’ll make millions, but the fallout of this will see thousands lose their jobs and be made homeless, and as Rickert points out, people will die.

The first question that pops to mind when considering The Big Short is this; can you make an interesting film about the 2008 crash when the focus of this is a lot of people in suits talking about subprime morgages, shorting, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and AAA ratings. On paper it certainly doesn’t sound remotely engaging.
And yet somehow McKay has managed to make a film that holds your attention. It’s a film that’s hard to pin down: Part polemic, part economics lesson, part detective story, it almost feels like a heist movie at times. It veers from black comedy to conspiracy drama with ease and even goes so far as to channel the documentary style of Adam Curtis. It features a top notch cast, and structurally it features not only a fourth wall breaking narrator in Ryan Gosling’s character, but also fourth wall shattering asides featuring real life celebrities providing dummies’ guides to some of the jargon on display, and whilst some have questioned this tactic, finding it jarring, for me it fitted perfectly into the narrative, and while I appreciate some comments regarding sexism, having Margot Robbie explain the nuances of subprime mortgages whilst sitting in a bubble bath ensured I paid attention if nothing else!

Actor wise it’s one of those interesting films where there are exceptional performances from actors whose characters never meet, so really we have three intertwining stories; one is essentially a single hander, featuring Christian Bale who does a great job as the eccentric genius who everyone thinks is nuts. Clearly Burry has Asperger’s but whilst some actors might have overegged the pudding, so to speak, Bale instead opts for a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of someone who has difficulties in social interactions—the fact that he doesn’t have to share any scenes with the other big hitters in the cast gives him added room to breathe.

By Contrast Carell and Gosling are right in the mix, surrounded by strong performances from the likes of Spall and co, and yet both produce good performances. As with the character of Burry, some actors might have taken Baum to extremes, but despite his background in comedy (or perhaps because of it) Carell manages to stay the right side of the fence. Carell’s Baum is a man who was angry even before he realises just how crooked the world he inhabits is, but if anything having something to focus his anger on actually seems to help him as a character, and of all the characters Baum is the one representing the audience, the one who gets truly angry about what happens, the one who expresses our horror at the situation. Gosling is almost his flipside, a glib trader who makes no bones about the fact that all we wants to do is make money, yet Gosling still makes him an appealing narrator.

Pitt isn’t in it much but he still turns in a good performance as the cynical ex-banker, a man you initially think might be a bit of a nut but who may be the sanest man in the room, and along with Carell it is he who channels the horror of what is going to happen.

The film is somewhat flawed. It is a trifle too long, and the part where we’re waiting for the crash we know is coming should feel tense yet manages to feel only baggy. Although not quite the misogynistic film some have portrayed it as, the lack of strong female characters is quite striking. Marisa Tomei as Cynthia Baum does the best she can but she just doesn’t have enough to get her teeth into, and similarly Adepero Oduye as Baum’s boss has her moments but again is side-lined too much. I appreciate that finance and banking are still seen as very masculine environments, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t women working within that world, and the omission is even more striking given that one of the focuses of Michael Lewis’ book was Meredith Whitney.

Though nuanced for the most part, at times the film does get a little sledge hammery, most notably when Melissa Leo’s Ratings Agency employee, who it becomes clear is choosing not to see the real picture, is wearing dark glasses—just in case we didn’t get the point!

The biggest failing, although perhaps also its biggest strength, is that by focusing on the clever sods who saw it coming while everyone else ignored the signs, we become a little inured to the eventual outcome, and whilst the film does try to show the effects on everyday Americans, really its main focus—and I’ll go back to the heist movie analogy here—is on the smart guys who saw flaws in the system and exploited them, and when it seems they might not make out like bandits after all, I found myself worrying because I really wanted them to succeed, which given their success means thousands upon thousands lose out, perhaps sends out the wrong message. But like I say, the focus on these characters is also the film’s big draw so you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Overall a very good film, enjoyable and educational in equal measure, I just feel like I should have felt angrier at the end than I did. Not quite AAA rated but an awful long way from Subprime.

Dad’s Army

Posted: February 7, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Oliver Parker. Starring Toby Jones, Bill Nighy and Catherine Zeta Jones.

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It’s 1944 and the invasion of France in imminent. In the south coastal town of Walmington-on-Sea the local Home Guard platoon, let by Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones) are under threat of being disbanded, and so when glamourous journalist Rose Winters (Zeta Jones) arrives to write an article, Mainwaring sees this as his chance to impress the top brass, he’s also rather smitten with Miss Winters, as is every member of his platoon, especially his second in command Sgt Wilson (Nighy).

Meanwhile MI5 are concerned that there may be a Nazi spy in Walmington-on-Sea trying to discover the plans for the invasion. With the fate of the War at stake can this bumbling group of oddballs save the day?

And so, almost 40 years after the last new episode of Perry and Croft’s seminal sitcom was broadcast, a big budget film version with an impressive cast arrives on the scene. The original sitcom ran from 1968 to 1977 and was much beloved by most who watched it (and continue to watch it to this day because you can usually find an episode on telly somewhere). There were 80 odd episodes (with even a few missing ala Doctor Who) and the characters became ingrained in British culture; the officious Mainwaring, the idiotic Pike, the off with the fairies Godfrey and Corporal Jones—with his exhortation that “They don’t like it up em!”—to mention just a few.

With all this in mind the most obvious thought that came to mind when this film was announced was that there was no way it could live up to the TV series.

And, as it turns out, that was pretty much the correct assessment. Which isn’t to say this is wholly a film without its charms, and it certainly doesn’t trample over the memory of the original, but nor does it provide anything particular new, or anything any better than might have been found in the weakest episodes of the show, with the possible exception of its more 21st century attitudes towards gender.

In terms of its cast it’s hard to envisage you could have put together a better ensemble than this, although few, if any of them quite come close to eclipsing the originals. If anyone does it’s Toby Jones, who not only essays Arthur Lowe’s officious bank manager obsessed with rank and class but manages to inject a smidgen of empathy that Lowe’s role in an ongoing sitcom precluded. Elsewhere Michael Gambon’s Private Godfrey is a joy to behold and Tom Courtenay’s Corporal Jones is fun. Which isn’t to say the rest don’t do a good job. Bill Nighy plays Wilson with a rakish charm that seems more Bill Nighy than John Le Mesurier but he’s always eminently watchable. Daniel Mays does a grand job as the show’s resident spiv, Private Walker. Blake Harrison is mostly very good as the idiotic Pike, though he never quite has the innocence that Ian Lavender had (as a side note Lavender and Frank Williams are sadly the only two original cast members to return) and though Bill Paterson does a good enough job as Private Frazer he isn’t nearly as cadaverous or miserly enough as the original.

Catherine Zeta Jones has a timeless look that perfectly translates to the 1940s, and has always been quite a adept at playing women who aren’t afraid to use their looks to get what they want and there are plenty other female characters, most notably Felicity Montagu as Mrs Mainwaring and Sarah Lancashire as Pike’s mum.

A great cast doesn’t necessarily translate into a great film however and Dad’s Army’s main problem is its twee plotting and plodding direction. There are literally no surprises here. Seriously, if you don’t twig who the spy is within about 2 minutes you should be ashamed of yourselves, and the film trades on a cosy, inoffensive, familiarity, as if it didn’t dare do anything that might besmirch the original. Ironically it might have been better, or at least more memorable, if it had trodden on the original a little or taken a few risks in order to gain its own identity.

And then there’s the direction, which is ok but the film features several ‘action’ set pieces that are anything but. An early scene featuring a rogue bull meanders, and the finale has to be one of the lamest gun battles I’ve ever seen!

And yet…I did laugh, I laughed a fair bit if I’m honest, and there was more than a tinge of pleasing nostalgia about the film that means I liked it more than I really ought to have done.

It’s well acted, occasionally amusing, and completely inoffensive, but really it’s not a film that needed to be made.

By Colin Sinclair

51tnhOj8SPL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_After an incident with his fiancée’s father’s Rolls Royce and a large body of water, Miller has lost everything; the woman he was due to marry, his place at university, and the love—and more importantly financial support—of his parents. Mum and Dad have had enough of Miller’s lax attitude and decide on tough love.

Kicked out of home Miller needs to find gainful employment, and he’s desperate enough that he’ll take a job at a seedy out of town garden centre with an eclectic group of staff, very few customers, and a side-line in the kind of foliage you don’t find in Homebase.

He doesn’t think things can get any worse, but then a bright and shiny, big new garden centre opens up across the road, a garden centre staffed by strange plastic sorts who look like they might be part of a cult.

Aliens wouldn’t really invade via a garden centre though, would they?

Pretty soon Miller and his fellow losers might find they’re Earth’s first line of defence!

First in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Colin Sinclair is one of my fellow authors published as a result of Abaddon Books’ open submission call. I should further point out that this fact has no bearing on my review, except insofar as authorial solidarity encouraged me to take a read.

And I’m very glad I did because there’s a lot to enjoy here. The fact that it’s a novella means the story never outstays its welcome, in fact it leaves you wanting more, and Sinclair’s wonderfully irreverent prose ensures it’s a fun read.

The notion of body snatching alien invasions, of plant based body snatching alien invasions, is of course nothing new, but the strength of this story lies less in the plot and more in the engaging group of characters Sinclair creates, and their interactions as they face up to what’s really going on across the road, and you care for each and every one, which given the brevity of the story is no mean feat.

Part 1950s’ alien invasion, part slacker comedy, part sitcom, part Quatermass, the tone of the story manages to be spot on throughout. I couldn’t put this down—though I had to when the train drew into the station—because I was eager to see whether Miller and co would prevail against the plant people, and in the end I came away thinking that some British production company could do a lot worse than make a heck of a low budget cult classic out of this!

Highly recommended.