Archive for May, 2017

Hide and Seek

Posted: May 21, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Ian Rankin.

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When a drug addict dies in a rundown Edinburgh squat it looks like just another junkie overdosing, but Detective Inspector John Rebus isn’t so sure. The body has been laid out in the shape of a cross between two burned down candles, and there’s a pentagram painted on the wall. Then there’s the fact that the victim, a young man named Ronnie, was covered in bruises, and the last time he saw one of his fellow squatters he told her that they had to, “Hide! Hide!”

The fact that Ronnie’s system is full of tainted heroin, whilst he has a packet of pure heroin in his hand is the icing on the cake. Rebus begins to investigate, but as he navigates the grim backstreets of Edinburgh he still has no real idea why Ronnie was targeted. Is it a case of a rough trade rent boy who messed with the wrong people or is it a satanic conspiracy? And when Ronnie shouted Hide, was this an instruction or a name, as in Hyde?

 

After reading the second Rebus book it’s interesting to consider quite what the hook was that kept the series going in the early days, because as with Knots and Crosses there isn’t really anything here that makes Rebus stand out from a whole host of other fictional detectives. He’s a former soldier and a hard-drinking loner with a taste for good music and fancy literature, which is hardly the most original characterisation for a copper. Similarly, the central mystery is fairly thin as well. As Rankin himself admits in the introduction, he was still finding his feet as a writer, and the allusions to Jekyll and Hyde (and Deacon Brodie) aren’t very subtle. Many of the potential suspects in the book merge into a bland, amorphous whole, so when the villains of the piece are revealed I had to think hard to remember who they were and what they did for a living.

I suppose the two things the series had going for it in the early days were Rankin and Edinburgh. Rankin’s hard boiled prose makes for an engaging read, and in Edinburgh he has plenty of mean, gothic streets (and grubby housing estates) for Rebus to prowl, and in many ways Edinburgh is a more interesting character than Rebus is. I like as well that Rebus is the kind of detective who solves a crime via shoe leather rather than deductive reasoning or his own genius. Much like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder it’s a case that Rebus wanders around talking to person after person until the truth shakes free.

I don’t like Rebus anywhere near as much as I like Scudder, but I do like Rankin’s prose, and his evocation of a dark and moody Edinburgh, so I’m definitely going to keep reading the series. I just hope Rebus becomes more than the sum of his parts, and/or the mysteries become a little more intriguing.

 

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Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender and Billy Crudup.

 

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“I am NOT Groot!”

The colony ship Covenant is en route to the planet Origae-6. It carries a crew of fifteen plus 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos in stasis. Acting as caretaker is a synthetic named Walter (Fassbender). Disaster strikes during a routine maintenance stop and Walter is forced to awaken the crew, with tragic consequence. In the aftermath the ship picks up a strange transmission coming from an unexplored planet nearby. Further investigation shows a planet with a lush, earth-like environment and the ship’s acting captain, Christopher Oram (Crudup), decides that the colony has a better chance of survival there than in continuing on to Origae-6. Daniels “Dany” Branson (Waterston), the ship’s terraforming expert feels it isn’t worth the risk, but Oram overrules her.

Most of the crew take a shuttle to the surface and find that the planet is indeed inhabitable. All too quickly several crewmembers are exposed to alien spores that gestate inside them, eventually releasing vicious creatures that wreak havoc with the landing party. The survivors encounter another synthetic named David (Fassbender again) who arrived on this planet in the aftermath of the previous film with Dr Elizabeth Shaw. David can fend off the vicious neomorphs, but is there a deadlier monster still to make an appearance?

 

As anyone who’s read my review will know, I wasn’t enthusiastic about Prometheus, so I was initially hopeful about a new Alien film that promised to get back to basics. After I saw the trailer I started to worry again, and I’ll be honest I expected Covenant to be bad. The odd thing is whilst it is bad, it isn’t necessarily bad for the reasons I expected it to be bad.

Prometheus wasn’t enough like an Alien film (though that was hardly its sole flaw) and to be honest I thought Covenant would go too far the other way and be too much like an Alien film (I know, some people are never happy, right?) and whilst it is guilty of this, it’s Alien greatest hits medley is accompanied by a side order of “You know, Prometheus wasn’t that terrible, we should do some of that again” ensuring this is a film that’s never quite sure what it wants to be.

For all its failings at least Prometheus had a clear tone, whereas Covenant is just a messy mashup of B-movie monster flick and pretentious “thoughtful” sci-fi.

Ridley Scott provides fair warning of what’s to come in a 2001-A space Odyssey inspired flashback where Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce sans makeup this time) has a conversation with a newly online David. They talk about creators, the nature of God, and immorality and…the whole thing is about as subtle as a brick that has BRICK written on the side in neon green paint.

The film then segues into something more reminiscent of the older films, with a space ship and a crew in hibernation. And then there’s a mysterious signal from a nearby planet. If this all sounds familiar it’s clearly supposed to because the call-backs in this film are not subtle. Now don’t get me wrong, harking back to previous films in and of itself doesn’t make a film terrible. I’m a huge fan of The Force Awakens but I can see it’s blatantly riffing on A New Hope. Thing is with TFA it works because what’s new is so well done that you just enjoy the call-backs. Covenant fails so badly on its own merits that the call-backs just seem really jarring. And there are a lot of call-backs. Crew of grousing space jockeys? check; express elevator to hell, going down? Check. Fight in a cargo bay: Check…and I haven’t even listed them all because some would be blatant spoilers. And when the film isn’t harking back to Alien films, it seems intent on stealing from others. The opening space scenes feel like Sunshine, there are some echoes of Blade Runner here, and even Covenant flying through the clouds whilst a storm rages just made me think of Event Horizon. Pretty much everything in this film will make you think of something else. Probably something better.

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“Where we’re going we don’t need quarantine procedures.”

The script is flimsy, and whilst Scott is clearly still a great director (The Martian was just a few years ago) he seems incapable of being able to salvage a ropey script, and the pacing is off throughout. Using a Goldilocks metaphor, when it’s slow it’s too slow, and when it’s quick it’s too quick (seriously, if you thought AVP sped up the Alien Lifecyle you ain’t seen nothing yet!).

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“Don’t call me Ripley. You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ripley.”

Cast wise there are a lot of people in the ship and down on the planet, but most of them are cardboard cut-outs and they’re stupid in much the same way most everyone in Prometheus was stupid, and they’ll be dead soon so you don’t have to worry too much. Part of what made both Alien and Aliens good was a cast of easily identifiable characters, but here the cannon fodder just merge into the background. Initially Waterston is very good as Dany. She makes for an engaging protagonist. Until the midway point of the film where she’s shunted to one side so that Fassbender can have pretentious existential chats with himself about Shelley and Byron and talk about flute playing in a way that’ll make your adolescent-self snigger. Don’t worry, Ripley will come back to the fore in time for the finale. Sorry, I meant Dany. It’s shame as when she has something distinct to do she’s very good. Fassbender is always a joy to watch, and seeing David and Walter interact is nicely done, it’s just that their conversations are a trifle ponderous to say the least. Crudup’s acting captain is given a potentially interesting character trait as it’s awkwardly shoehorned in that he’s a man of faith. Once done this will barely be referenced again and certainly won’t seem to inform many of his actions. Of the rest only Danny McBride makes any impression as (do you) Tennessee (what they did there?) but this might be down to him wearing a cowboy hat.

One of the things I found so annoying about Prometheus was it’s need to explain where the Xenomorphs come from, completely missing the point that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re terrifying and unstoppable (mostly). They work best as creatures of mystery lurking in the shadows. Explaining their origins is like pulling the curtain away from the great and powerful Oz, and when you have them leaping around in broad daylight they’re just another CGI monster. Captain America could have turned up at the end and wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

If you found the Engineer origin of the Xenomorphs annoying, prepare for that annoyance to be dialled up to eleven as the franchise lurches in a new direction that makes little sense, and frankly I have no idea how they’ll get from this point to the beginning of Alien.

Oh, and if you don’t twig a certain plot point early on, well I envy you your cinematic naiveite!

After The Martian I thought Scott was back on form, but it seems he is only as good as the script. Covenant looks good, has a few nice ideas bubbling around, and features good performances from Waterston and Fassbender, but in the end it’s a dull mess, and whilst I was always slightly wary of the idea, I really want to see Neill Blomkamp do Alien 5 now, because it just has to be better than what we’re getting from Scott and co.

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I guess he didn’t like the cornbread either.

 

Directed by James Gunn. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Kurt Russell.

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Warning: no spoilers for Vol.2, but by necessity I will give away bits about vol.1 (if you’re one of the small number of people never to have seen it).

 

Its just a few months after the Guardians saved Xandar from the threat posed by Ronan, and the group of renegades have become famous. They’re hired by the golden hued Sovereign Race led by Ayesha (a wonderful turn by Elizabeth Debicki) to protect her planet’s precious batteries from an interdimensional beast. The team prevail and in return Ayesha turns Nebula (Karen Gillan) over to the team so they can take her back to Xandar to stand trial. Unfortunately Rocket (the genetically engineered racoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) decides to pocket some of the precious batteries, leading to a Sovereign battle fleet hunting the group down.

In the short term they’re saved by a mysterious stranger named Ego (Kurt Russell) who explains he has a link to Peter Quill (Pratt) Whilst Quill returns to Ego’s planet, along with Gamora (Saldana) and Drax (Bautista), Rocket stays behind with Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) and Nebula while he repairs their ship.

With the group divided, threats come at them from multiple directions, and if they’re going to prevail they’ll need to work as a team, and possibly even co-opt the odd enemy into becoming an ally if they want to save the galaxy for a second time.

 

It’s fair to say that Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit back in 2014. It was heralded way in advance as the Marvel film that’d be the first to fail. It didn’t, quite the reverse, becoming one of the brand’s major successes. There’s no hint of surprise with volume 2, this film comes with a whole heap of preconceptions and expectations, which is a lot to live up to.

With this in mind I have to state an opinion that might go somewhat against the grain. You see I think I enjoyed volume 2 more than the original film, and I really like the original.

In an era of generic/interchangeable blockbusters there’s something very different about both Guardians films. It’s a perfect storm of talents, both in front of and behind the camera.

As writer and director James Gunn seems to understand the balance between action and character perfectly, and its testament to his skill that he juggles such a large cast so effortlessly, giving everyone their moment, and even elevating secondary characters from the first film into something approaching main cast members, with both Gillan and Michael Rooker (as ravager captain Yondu) getting a lot of meat to sink their teeth into, and Rooker in particular threatens to steal the show on occasion.

The thing is though, quite a few characters threaten to steal the show on occasion, testament to a wonderful cast. As Peter Quill/Star-Lord Pratt is effortless. I’d still like to see him add some strings to his bow, but there’s no denying he has the cocky pirate with a heart of gold shtick down pat, and he utterly convinces as the groups de-facto leader. Zoe Saldana has a tougher job as Gamora, and she gets less to do than the others, which isn’t to denigrate her skills, because she has the hard job of being the sensible straight woman surrounded by idiots, and much like a tough defensive midfielder who does the hard work so others can play pretty football, she’s more important than you realise, and the films would be lessened by her absence.

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Don’t rile the raccoon!

The partnership of a superb CGI realisation and Bradley Cooper’s snarky delivery again pays dividends in the form of Rocket, and not once do you ever doubt that he isn’t a real, fully formed character, hell I believe in Rocket more than I believe in most human characters in many films!

Almost the star of the show however is Bautista, and Drax gets the lion’s share of great lines, with Gunn supplying the ammo and Bautista hitting the bullseyes with practically every shot. It still annoys me that the Bond producers hired a guy with such great comic timing, then turned him into a mute, but here the ex-wrestler shows yet again that, given the right role, he has genuine star quality.

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“I am Groot?”

I say almost star of the show because we really need to talk about Baby Groot. The sapling, all that remained of Groot after he sacrificed himself last time out, has grown into a small child who, let’s be honest, doesn’t appear to be the sharpest tool in the box, but this naiveite, married to an adorable character design, makes Baby Groot incredibly loveable. Seriously, if you don’t instantly fall in love with Baby Groot then you need to seek professional help, and he provides many of the film’s funniest bits, from the opening titles through to that scene with the bomb you probably saw in the trailer. Once again Vin Diesel manages to imbue each recitation of ‘I am Groot’ with subtle differences in inflection so you know he’s saying something different every time.

And I haven’t even mentioned Kurt Frikken Russell yet, an actor who was doing the kind of effortless cool Pratt does when Pratt was in nappies. In the unlikely event that I ever meet Mr Russell, rest assured my reaction will be something akin to Wayne meeting Alice Cooper.

The only real bum note acting wise is probably Stallone, who feels oddly out of place, but he isn’t in it much so don’t worry.

If I had to pick a flaw with the film, then I’d say the retro soundtrack isn’t quite as instantly cool as vol.1’s, but that’s about it. Funny, exciting, heart-breaking, with a cast to die for and a an ethos of family that’s even better than the Fast & furious franchise, this is a damn fine follow up to a damn fine original and I can’t wait to see it again!

Final tip, stay right to the end of the credits. It’s worth it!

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“And then I had to go into New York to rescue the President…”

Trigger Warning

Posted: May 5, 2017 in Book reviews
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25863045(Short fictions and disturbances)

By Neil Gaiman

 

As Gaiman himself says in his introduction anthologies can be a hard sell for publishers, and especially single author anthologies, and it’s nice that Gaiman seems fully aware of how fortunate he is, though in fairness there’s a reason his books sell and a lot of that is down to his vivid imagination and unique voice.

Trigger Warning is an eclectic collection (something he again acknowledges early on) with no distinct theme running through it, which isn’t to say all the stories are unconnected, there’s very clear links between some of them, and even when they aren’t connected you can tell the collection has been assembled with care.

Gaiman has a wonderful talent for dark fairy tales, his stories are primarily fantasy but horror enters the fray quite often, and he isn’t averse to a smidgen of sci-fi—as you can see from the story Nothing O’clock, a Dr Who tale starring the eleventh Doctor which is Who at its best, an everyday setting menaced by a rather scary antagonist.

I’m not intending to go through every story in the collection, but I’ll highlight those I really liked, and maybe some of those I was less fond of.

Firstly it has to be said that the collection features some poetry, which really made little impression on me, but that’s more to do with me than the nature of Gaiman’s metre.

The anthology starts with an introduction, but I quickly skipped this, returning once I’d finished the book because Gaiman does go into a little detail about each story here. It’s interesting stuff, and I’m not sure there are too many spoilers, but I’m glad I didn’t read this first.

The first highlight of the book for me was The Thing About Cassandra, a wonderful tale about a man who discovers his imaginary childhood girlfriend might not be so imaginary after all. It’s a great tale of the falsehoods we tell as kids in order to fit in, and has a neat twist worthy of Tales of the Unexpected or the Twilight Zone.

It’s followed by Down to a Sunless Sea, a short but ghoulish tale worthy of a dark and stormy night.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” is a nice enough story set several hundred years ago on the Isle of Skye. It builds to a satisfying resolution but I did feel it took way too long getting there.

A Calendar of Tales is like a mini-anthology all of its own, featuring as it does 12 flash fictions. Some are very good, some a bit forgettable, and the whole thing feels a little thrown together, though once I read the introduction this made sense.

The Case of Death and Honey is a moderately intriguing Sherlock Holmes story but the payoff was a bit lacking for me, though I couldn’t rightly tell you why.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury deserves kudos for the title alone and is a nice meditation on memory that manages to be a wonderful homage to the works of Bradbury, who’s clearly a big influence on Gaiman.

Click-Clack the Rattlebag is a fairly generic horror tale.

“And weep, like Alexander” is amusing, and Gaiman proffers an explanation for why we don’t have flying cars and jetpacks that feels like it may have some truth to it.

The Return of the Thin White Duke felt like a nice idea, it starts well but in the end the shift in location and tone is just too jarring.

There are a trio of stories/poems that, though probably not directly connected, feel thematically interlinked, and the collection finishes off with Black Dog a ghoulish story set in the Peak District featuring Shadow Moon, the hero of American Gods. I liked this a lot, and it actually did surprise me with its denouement.

As with any anthology this is a mixed bag, but Gaiman has such a wonderful imagination, and has such crisp, evocative prose that I found it nigh on impossible not to love the book overall.