Archive for June, 2017

Before the Fall

Posted: June 20, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Noah Hawley

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On a foggy summer evening a private jet takes off from Martha’s Vineyard to fly to New York. Despite the conditions it’s a routine flight, except that less than twenty minutes in something happens and the plane crashes.

There are only two survivors, one is JJ, the four year old son of the billionaire media mogul who chartered the flight, the other is Scott Burroughs, a down on his luck painter who was only on the plane by pure chance.

Scott becomes an instant hero by swimming to the shore with JJ, however in the aftermath a multitude of questions are asked about the cause of the crash; was it mechanical error or sabotage? Pilot error or an intentional crash? JJ’s father ran a right wing news service, and the channel’s irascible host, Bill Milligan, immediately cries conspiracy. So was JJ’s father the target, or was it the wall street banker who was also on board, a man who’d been laundering money for all manner of rogue states and who’d been on the verge of being arrested by the FBI.

As time passes more and more focus alights on Scott. Was he having an affair with JJ’s mother? Just how did a poor artist end up on such a lavish flight, and is there any connection to the fact that his latest work all feature disasters, including an air crash?

 

I bought this book less on the basis of the blurb on the back than the fact that Noah Hawley is the man responsible for the recent Fargo TV series, a show that’s been truly excellent to watch (at least the first two seasons, the third one has only just started and, if I’m honest, it hasn’t gripped me yet) and so I was drawn to the work of a man who’s clearly already written stuff I liked.

I was disappointed.

The cover announces that this is a thriller, but to be honest it’s not really that thrilling. Don’t get me wrong, the initial crash and Scott’s heroic swim are exceptionally well told, it’s just that after this point the book meanders, occasionally perking up, but too often veering off down side streets—where it parks up for a snooze before heading back onto main street one more.

It would be churlish to suggest Hawley isn’t a good writer, clearly he’s a very good writer, at least in script form (and I have heard people laud his earlier books). The trouble is that Before the Fall is all over the place, with Hawley skipping back and forth between past and present tense, and just when you think the plot is moving forwards he’ll drop back to before the crash and give us a chapter from the point of view of one of the victims. Sometimes there’ll be a potential clue here, but too often there isn’t, and all you’re left with at the end is a bunch of red herrings and loose threads that never got tied up.

And yes I know that’s how real life works sometimes, but a work of fiction should be tighter. For a book that isn’t that long there is an awful lot of padding. Hawley is also exceptionally pretentious, never relying on one simple word when three or four longer words will do, it’s like an exercise in “look how clever I am”, which seems odd given his experience as a script writer where brevity is the order of the day. Maybe this is him throwing off the shackles and deciding to write as many damn words as he wants.

There’s a kernel of an interesting idea here, about how the modern media react to tragedy, and how even a hero can find himself put under the microscope and suddenly be tarnished, the trouble is that idea is buried under tons of turgid prose that serves little purpose other than bumping up the word count.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the characters were anything more than cardboard cut-outs. Scott is a recovering alcoholic/womaniser/failed artist; Bill is an Alex Jones (the mad American one not the lovely Welsh one) style right wing nut. Gus, the lead crash investigator is a man wedded to the job with a failed marriage behind him who will clearly be played by Morgan Freeman in the eventual film…none of these people feel anything more than caricatures (and don’t get me started on the female characters who, in a book filled with two dimensional characters, are especially poorly served).

The book picks up towards the end but then peters out, a damp squib as the cause of the crash is revealed (and you’ll have probably guessed what the cause was long before you get to the end). Lauded as a literary thriller this is actually the kind of book that thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is, or else the reviewer is dumber than he thinks he is, that’s not impossible.

Maybe I’ll give Hawley’s prose another shot one day, but for the moment I think I’ll stick to Fargo.

 

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The Mummy

Posted: June 17, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Starring Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis and Sofia Boutella.

 

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So that’s where I put my giant head!

In ancient Egypt Princess Ahmanet (Boutella) is first in line to succeed her father, the pharaoh Menehptre, or at least she was first in line. When Pharaoh has a son courtesy of his second wife Ahmanet slips down the pecking order. Not a woman to take disappointment lightly the princess sells her soul to the God Set and gains supernatural powers. She slaughters her family but, before she can claim the throne, her father’s priests capture her and mummify her alive, burying her in a sarcophagus where they think no one will find her.

In present day Iraq, solider (and part time treasure hunter) Nick Morton (Cruise) and his long-suffering partner in crime Chris (a nice turn from Jake Johnson) survive an encounter with IS militants as they search for lost artefacts to loot. In order to survive they have to call in the cavalry, but when the army arrive so does archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Wallis).

When a cave-in reveals a hidden tomb Nick, Jennifer and Chris discover a sarcophagus. Jennifer insists it must be taken back to London, but en route things don’t go as planned. Soon the sarcophagus is lost and something monstrous stalks England.

Can the risen Ahmanet be stopped? What does this have to do with the uncovering of a Crusader tomb under London, and just what part does a mysterious Doctor played by Russell Crowe have to do with all this?

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Come with me if you want to live…forever!

Mummy films have a long history in Hollywood that began with Universal studies who, between 1932 and 1955, made six Mummy films. That these began as straight horror films with Boris Karloff as the Mummy and ended with the Mummy meeting Abbott and Costello speaks volumes about how the franchise went downhill. Just a few years later the franchise was resurrected (see what I did there) by Hammer, and between 1959 and 1971 they made four Mummy films.

Flash forward to 1999 and Stephen Sommers gave us an action adventure romp starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. More Indiana Jones than Boris Karloff the film was nevertheless a huge amount of fun and a huge success, spawning two sequels, plus a spin off (The Scorpion King) and a raft of straight to DVD sequels.

2017’s effort is clearly not the worst Mummy film of all time. What is clear is that it’s a long way short of the best Mummy film.

Its main problem is in what kind of film it’s trying to be? The 1999 version proved that turning the franchise into an action blockbuster could work, so the overall theme of the film isn’t the major problem. The trouble is that it tries too much to be all things to all people, without settling on a definitive tone. It’s not especially scary, but yet it does tread closer to horror than Sommers’ version did, and this is reflected in its 15 certificate, and whilst it’s action packed, it can’t compete with the kind of action franchises you get elsewhere. This leaves the film reliant on its performances and its script, and whilst the actors do ok, the script lets them down.

The film is incredibly derivative, not only of previous Mummy films, which you’d kind of expect, but also of other films—most notably other horror films. An American Werewolf in London is a wonderful film, and I wouldn’t decry any director who wanted to ape its glorious balance of horror and comedy, but lifting a recurring plot idea so shamelessly is so downright disgraceful that someone ought to sue. The other film , admittedly perhaps less well known and certainly less well lauded (though its truly wonderful in its own way) this riffs on is 1985’s Lifeforce; a film about a beautiful alien vampire who stalks England, sucking the lifeforce out of people by kissing them and turning them into desiccated zombies. Oh and she has a psychic link with the all-American hero who’s trying to stop her. Ahmanet’s mode of killing is so on the nose as a rip-off of Lifeforce (as is the look of the zombies she creates) that again I’m surprised legal action hasn’t ensued.

Throw in far too much exposition (hang on, it’s ten minutes since the last info-dump we’d better pause and regurgitate some more mythology) and lacklustre direction, and you’re left with a film that should be terrible. That it isn’t is down purely to some “so bad it’s great” moments and the performances.

Rumour has it that Tom Cruise had far too much creative control, and that’s part of the reason the film sucks, I can’t comment on this, all I can do is go with what’s on screen, and on-screen Tom almost saves the film through sheer force of personality. He’s engaging, funny, and proves yet again that he’s a good actor and an honest to goodness movie star.

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“I’m sorry, Tom, I can’t hide the truth any longer. I am the real monster of this film.”

If Cruise is the main reason to see the film, then Crowe’s performance is another. It’s fantastic. It’s just amazing for all the wrong reasons! I won’t go into why or how, suffice to say that there comes a point where his performance shifts and the film reaches such a level of preposterousness that you will either laugh or cry. I chose to laugh.

As the titular Mummy (or is she?) Sofia Boutella works very well. There’s a languid alien grace to her—no doubt born out of her dance training—and she’s probably a better villain than the film deserves. If anyone loses out it’s Wallis, who doesn’t get much to do other than explain what’s going on and fall in love with Nick improbably quickly.

The film will supposedly form the start of Universal’s Dark Universe, and one can only imagine that, having seen the riches Marvel/Disney have reaped in recent years, they’ve decided they want a piece of that, but the only property they own is all the old Universal monsters so, voila, let’s just reimagine the Mummy, Dracula and the Wolfman et al as superheroes/supervillains.

Based on how The Mummy has been received I wonder how many of the Dark Universe films will actually get made.

This is an unmemorable and derivative film that isn’t scary enough to be horror and isn’t action packed enough to be an action film, and yet I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. It made me laugh (admittedly sometimes for the wrong reasons) and I was never bored at least so that’s something.

Ok then, I think that about wraps up this review…

 

Wonder Woman

Posted: June 13, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Patty Jenkins. Starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.

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It’s always nice to see a woman get to the top of the career ladder

Hidden from the world on the island of Themyscira live the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by the Gods to protect mankind from Ares, the God of War. There is only one child on Themyscira, Diana whose mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) is Queen of the Amazons. Hippolyta doesn’t want her daughter trained as a warrior, but Diana sneaks away to learn the art of fighting from her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) the general who commands the Amazon army.

Eventually Hippolyta permits Diana to learn the ways of war, and even reveals the existence of the Godkiller, a ceremonial sword forged by Zeus that can kill a god.

Eventually Diana grows into a woman (Gadot) and one day a plane penetrates the magical mist that shields the island and crashes into the sea. Diana rescues the pilot, who reveals himself to be an American spy named Steve Trevor (Pine). Unfortunately Steve is being pursued by the German navy who attack Themyscira.

In the aftermath of the battle Steve tells Diana about the Great War being fought beyond the mist. Diana believes the war must be the work of Ares and convinces Steve to take her to the battlefield, certain that with the help of the Godkiller she can defeat Ares and bring peace.

Steve isn’t sure that there’s a supernatural being behind the horrors of the first world war, but he takes Diana back to England and then into Belgium where the Amazonian will be faced by the horrors of war, and the horrors of sexism, but can even an Amazonian princess wielding Godkiller stand against the fury of a world embraced by chaos?

 

And so the latest film based on DC comic book characters arrives, and on its shoulders it carries a lot of baggage. There’s the fact that it’s the first female led superhero film in 12 years (and the last one didn’t do that well at the box-office), there’s the fact that it’s the most expensive film ever helmed by a woman, oh and there’s the little matter of it following on the heels of Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad from 2016, films that made money but faced critical derision (well-earned in my opinion, especially the abysmal Suicide Squad).

No pressure then.

Really in the 21st Century the fact that Wonder Woman is, well, a woman, shouldn’t make any difference, and neither should the presence of Jenkins at the helm. Sadly it does, and whilst the film hasn’t garnered the kind of irrational hatred before anyone’s even seen it that the Ghostbusters reboot did, still you couldn’t help feeling a lot of people would be quite happy if it failed.

Not that it will, because Wonder Woman is good. Very good. The best DC film by a country mile (which admittedly isn’t that difficult) but better than quite a few Marvel films as well, and most of the issues I have with the film had nowt to do with Jenkins or Gadot.

Good stuff first. Given how variable the plotting and scripts of last year’s DC films were, Wonder Woman is refreshingly coherent. It’s a proper film with a proper narrative. Sure some short cuts are taken, some contrivances made, but none more than the average blockbuster (probably less than the average blockbuster if I’m honest) and I certainly never felt myself going “Eh?” at the screen. The film also allows itself a sense of humour. After the grimdark BvS and the ‘should have been funny but really wasn’t’ Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman balances humour and pathos well, not an easy task given the WW1 setting.

In the title role Gadot is very good, and acting wise she’s better than I gave her credit for in Batman vs Superman last year (even though she was one of the better things about that film) she has nice comic timing, looks great, and has enough presence to own the screen and convince as a goddess.

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“It’s not what it looks like,” said Steve Trevor, caught dressed as a German flirting with another woman.

As Steve Trevor (worst name ever!) Pine makes a good foil, channelling his inner Kirk but toning down his inner Shatner, charming, world weary and heroic, and whilst at times he does mansplain a bit, on the whole he and Diana balance each other out nicely.

There are a few other good parts; Lucy Davis is fun as Steve’s secretary Etta Candy, though she doesn’t get enough to do.  Similarly the rag tag commando team Steve puts together are good, but none of them gets more than a thumbnail sketch, which is a shame as they’re engaging, and Ewen Bremner’s sniper clearly has some backstory we just never get explained.

The bad guys fare worse, especially near the end, but even so the likes of Danny Huston are incapable of giving a poor performance so they’re still a credible threat.

The period setting is both a strength and a hindrance. It makes the film feel different to most superhero flicks (aside from the first Captain America film) and gives the drama some heft, but I have to say that there was something a little jarring about the mix of World War One horrors and super heroics. The symmetry works better with World War 2, because for better or worse the Nazi’s are such comic book villains, and because the conflict is more of a black and white, good versus evil war, at least on paper. World War 1 though is a war it’s harder to see as heroic.

The film is well paced and the action scenes are, on the whole, nicely done.

On the downside, It has a few too many of Zach Snyder’s fingerprints on it in places; the same muted colour scheme, the reliance of slow motion and posed shots that look good but make the film feel a little static, but I guess it does have to fit in with the rest of the DC universe. Wonder Woman looks best when Gadot or her stunt double is actually fighting. Some of the cgi effects look a tad ropey and the final battle is a bit too effects heavy (but hey it’s not the only superhero film to be guilty of that.) Also for a film championing a female lead Diana’s naiveite does seem a trifle too naïve at times, and even I winced when she squealed “Baby!” in London.

On the whole though the positives outweigh the negatives by a wide margin. This is a well put together superhero film proving (if it even needed proving) that a woman can direct a blockbuster and a woman can headline a blockbuster and I don’t think any of us have to wonder whether this particular woman will be back.

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Sir Roger Moore

Posted: June 11, 2017 in James Bond
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There’s something I hoped I’d never see, even though I knew it was an absolute inevitability. We have finally lost a Bond. Sir Roger Moore, the third man to officially play the part, passed away just a few weeks ago at the age of 89.

I know some feel it churlish to feel grief for the death of someone you’ve never met, especially someone who reached a ripe old age—a good innings as the saying goes—and yet it did hit me hard. I read something last year that tried to make sense of why we feel grief when celebrities die and the notion struck a chord with me. For many of us the people we see in films or on television, or even whose music we listen to, are constants in our lives, like a lighthouse we drive by every day, or a favourite building we pass on the way to work, and it’s always jarring when something you’ve grown accustomed to isn’t there anymore. When the light goes down or that building’s demolished.

I knew Roger Moore wasn’t going to be around forever, and yet there was a curious familiarity about the man, a sense that he was an impermeable facet of our world; as if he’d always been here and always would.

His age helped. That so many of his contemporaries passed away long before him only added to this façade of immortality. Sometimes I felt sorry for him, it must be sad to live so long and see so many friends and colleagues suddenly vanish from your world.

I won’t ramble on for ages about what I thought of him as Bond, my feelings are captured here in a blog I wrote a couple of years ago and they haven’t really changed. He was underrated as 007, and that’s a crime. I re-watched Live and Let Die not long after he passed away and it really is impressive how comfortable he is in the role right from the get go. There’s a lightness to his performance that feels natural, compare him to Lazenby who often seemed like a rabbit in headlights.

Of course it helps that even back in 1973 Sir Roger was a veteran. After some initial modelling and TV work he was signed by MGM to a seven year contract, and as such was in Hollywood during the the decline of the studio system. He wasn’t a success there and MGM released him after just two years.

It was after this that he found success on television, and Roger soon became a bona fide star of the small screen. Initially in the tv show Ivanhoe but—after some stints in American western shows—he took on the role that really made his name: Simon Templar; The Saint.

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He played the character created by Leslie Charteris for six seasons and over a hundred episodes, and if it wasn’t for a certain other role it’s possible The Saint would have always been what he was best known for but, after a couple of films and The Persuaders tv show which he co-starred with Tony Curtis, he was offered the part of Bond.

I haven’t watched nearly enough episodes of The Saint, an omission I plan to correct as soon as I find a tv channel showing it (and I also need to watch The Man Who Haunted Himself, widely regarded as Roger’s best acting role). For me though Sir Roger Moore is Bond, but it isn’t only Bond I love him for. During his tenure he made many other films, and amongst them are The Wild Geese, which I always cite as my second favourite war movie, and The Cannonball Run. Two polar opposite roles.

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As Shawn Fynn in The Wild Geese, he channels the light hearted, boyish bravado that served him well as Templar and Bond, yet with a slightly harder edge. In contrast in The Cannonball Run he was Seymour Goldfarb, a millionaire heir who so idolised Roger Moore that he had surgery to look like him! Never let it be said that Roger Moore ever hesitated to take the piss out of himself. Just one more reason to mourn his death.

By all accounts he was a joy to work with, professional and not at all up himself—I’ve read various reports that suggest he ate and drank with the crew on every film he was in, and there’s also this joyous anecdote that’s been doing the rounds since his death.

Finally we shouldn’t underestimate his charitable work with UNICEF, he’d been impressed by Audrey Hepburn’s work with the charity and he became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF in 1991. He also did good work on behalf of PETA.

At the end of the day he likely wasn’t perfect, he was a human being after all and no one is without flaws, but it does strike me that, as human beings go, the world might be a slightly better place if we were all a bit more like Sir Roger Moore.

Farewell Sir, you’re gone but you’ll never be forgotten!

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