Archive for August, 2017

By Joe Hill

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In the near future mankind is ravaged by a spore known technically as Draco Incendia Trychophyton but more colloquially as Dragonscale, or merely The Scale. Once infected victims display black and gold markings on their skin that look like beautiful tattoos but, sooner or later, the disease causes the victim to spontaneously combust, so as well as death by disease, large scale fires become a fact of life.

School nurse Harper has been infected. She and her husband, Jakob, had discussed what to do if they became infected, and had considered mutual suicide, the trouble is, since that discussion Harper has discovered she’s pregnant, and now she doesn’t want to die, instead she wants to try and bring her baby to term before the Dragonscale gets her, much to Jakob’s chagrin.

Luckily help is at hand from The Fireman, a mysterious stranger who leads Harper to a refuge where a group of the infected have discovered a way to control the Dragonscale. What initially appears to be a paradise might soon descend into something more akin to hell on earth, and Harper and her newfound allies will have to fight many battles, against friend as well as foe, if they’re to survive.

 

Do you watch The Walking Dead? It’s ok if you don’t, this isn’t a mammoth spoiler. Anyway, in the second season of The Walking Dead the survivors chance upon a small farm and stay there…and stay there…and stay there…and, well, not a great deal happens. The Fireman is a bit like season 2 of The Walking Dead.

Hill’s central conceit is a great one. The Dragonscale is a wonderful creation, and the first section of the book where Hill details the spread of the disease and the gradual disintegration of civilisation is wonderfully evocative.

The trouble begins when the Fireman takes Harper to Camp Wyndham (I see what you did there, Joe). Given the size of the book (close to 800 pages) I was expecting some kind of sprawling epic where Harper and the Fireman have to cross a barren wasteland to find safety, and whilst this does happen, eventually, you have to wait until almost the end before this odyssey begins. In the interim what you’re faced with is 300+ pages dedicated to the folk at Camp Wyndham. Suddenly a book about the end of the world turns into something smaller scale, with some of the group eager to implement a cult style leadership.

Now that’s fine, and it isn’t like small groups falling apart isn’t a staple of the post-apocalyptic genre. I mean, Joe’s dad has handled this kind of subject before, in the Stand or Under the Dome, or the novella The Mist.

You might think it unfair to compare a man who’s gone out of his way to escape his father’s shadow with that father, but given this book is so clearly influenced by King’s work, and given in his introduction Joe admits shamelessly stealing his dad’s ideas, I think it’s a fair thing to do (in fact it was only when I read other reviews after finishing the book that I realised just how many Stephen King Easter eggs there are in the book).

The Stand is a similarly doorstep sized hunk of a book, but in that King provides a large cast of characters, both good and bad, and tells the story from multiple viewpoints. By contrast 99.9% of the Fireman is told from Harper’s POV, which means Hill has to pull all kinds of literary contortions in order to keep her in the mix, or have stuff happen off camera. As a result none of the other characters really come alive because we rarely get inside their heads. In particular the Fireman is poorly served, and spends much of the novel off camera, sick or otherwise incapacitated. The reason for this is clear, having given him what are effectively superpowers, Hill has to keep finding ways to keep him out of the picture lest he resolve every problem by throwing some handy fireballs. It might not be so bad, but Harper never really comes alive, but then that’s hardly surprising given her defining character trait is that she’s a huge Mary Poppins fan, and that’s about it. By contrast the Fireman’s defining trait is that he’s British (though he never feels it to this Brit).

So what you’re left with the story of a group of survivors turning on themselves and turning to a crazy religious leader, which is what King did in The Mist, only he did it much better with two thirds of the page count.

Another issue is the Dragonscale itself, and whilst initially Hill keeps it fairly grounded, by the end of the book it’s gone from something that’s at least vaguely plausible, to something completely preposterous that imbues people with magical powers.

The book picks up in the final couple of hundred pages, although even here it lollygags, and more than once I found myself wishing Joe would just get a move on.

A great concept, a strong first act and an ok final act are let down by an overwrought, overlong and over-written middle section, paper thin characters, out of the blue betrayals worthy of a WWE wrester’s heel turn, and fantastical events that break many of the rules Hill laid out initially about the Scale.

I think a decent editor could have lopped half the book and still left something coherent, and probably better. As is this is a fire that burns white hot at first, but which soon fizzles out before sparking into life once more near the end just when you think the embers have finally  gone cold.

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Atomic Blonde

Posted: August 22, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by David Leitch. Starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy.

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As a feeling of icy dread enveloped her, Charlize knew the game was up, they’d finally caught up with her for all those overdue library books!

It is 1989, and the Berlin Wall is on the verge of coming down. James Gasciogne, an MI6 agent, is shot and killed by a KGB assassin who liberates from his corpse a list of all Western agents working behind the Iron Curtain, a list that could prolong the Cold War for decades.

Ten days later MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is brought in to MI6 headquarters to be debriefed by MI6’s Eric Gray (the ever-reliable Tony Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman)

After Gasciogne’s death Broughton was sent into Berlin to retrieve the list, and to identify Satchel, a high level double agent within MI6 who’s provided the Soviet Union with valuable information for years, and who might have betrayed Gasciogne to them. Helping (or possibly hindering) her is David Percival (McAvoy) the Berlin Station chief who’s gone somewhat native.

As Broughton’s debrief continues it soon becomes clear that things didn’t go remotely to plan, but did Broughton locate the list, and just who is Satchel?

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You can tell it’s the eighties, everyone’s smoking indoors!

Seeing the trailer for Atomic Blonde you’d be mistaken for imagining the film is a female led actioner ala John Wick film with added period setting, but whilst there are visceral set pieces to rival Keanu’s (the director apparently co-directed the first John Wick and was involved in the second) the film doesn’t come close to John Wick’s nonstop pace.

Based on a graphic novel it’s clear to say that the film has issues. It’s late eighties setting is stylised within an inch of its life, and its soundtrack, whilst great, is a little too on the nose at times. There’s lots of neon and handy graffiti style graphics to explain where certain scenes are set. All in all the style is a little overwhelming.

Then there’s the tone. Atomic Blonde can’t quite decide what kind of film it wants to be. On the one hand it clearly does want to parlay Theron as a female John Wick, but as I said it isn’t quite action packed enough, by the same token it wants to give us an espionage thriller ala Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, but the plot is nowhere near serpentine enough and the action scenes tend to spoil the mood.

What’s most surprising about Atomic Blonde, having said all that, is that rather than fall between two stools it somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts, and, though it took a little while, I ended up really enjoying it.

The cast are great. Theron’s already proved she can handle action, but she steps up her game here, and whilst there’s something superpowered about her agent at times, she throws herself into every fight with gusto. There’s no holding back and you feel every punch or kick (whether she’s taking them or dishing them out) at whilst not quite believable she does at least rely on cunning rather than brute strength to win many skirmishes. When she’s not fighting she’s icy cool, and her British accent is jolly decent into the bargain, plus she looks amazing in most every scene, from her thigh high boots to her Debbie Harry inspired hair, and she’s the best thing about the film.

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Nice tank-top James!

Close behind is McAvoy. Really nobody makes seedy look quite as appealing as McAvoy does and he’s at his sleazy best here as an agent who probably likes the Berlin underbelly a little too much.

Jones and Goodman give it their best back home, and there’s further glamour in Berlin courtesy of Sofia Boutella (who seems to be in everything these days, which isn’t a criticism as she’s always good) as a naïve young French agent who becomes embroiled in Broughton’s and Percival’s dealings. Finally there’s Eddie Marsan in fine form as a Stasi agent who stole the list and who now wants to defect.

The film is too long, and features a few too many double bluff endings. Like I say too often it’s style outweighs its substance, and as a final point I have to say that I’m sick and tired of the list of agents plot device. It wasn’t probably wasn’t new when Mission Impossible did it, never mind when Skyfall did it, so it’s really past it’s sell by date by now, so, Hollywood, can we pretty please have a new spy McGuffin?

But. Despite all those points there’s a lot to like about Atomic Blonde, so whilst it doesn’t quite go nuclear, it doesn’t fizzle out either. It’s worth it for Theron and McAvoy, a cracking soundtrack and the action scenes, one of which in particular is probably worth the price of admission alone, so please Check (point Charlie) it out!

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“Take that back about Snow White and the Huntsman!”

Dunkirk

Posted: August 3, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Fionn Whitehead.

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It is May of 1940, and after the invasion of France by Germany large numbers of allied soldiers have retreated to the seaside town of Dunkirk. With limited numbers of naval vessels available to transport the men back to England, and with only one pier, “The Mole”, that large ships can dock with it seems unlikely that Churchill’s hope of rescuing even a tenth of the 400,000+ men trapped by the advancing Germans, and under constant attack by the Luftwaffe, is possible.

But as the soldiers on the beach struggle to survive, and the RAF struggle to win the aerial battle, there may still be hope in the form of a flotilla of tiny pleasure boats, many crewed by civilians, who are making the dangerous crossing to France…

 

And so, decades after he first conceived the idea, Nolan’s desire to tell the Dunkirk story finally reaches our screens. There are many words that could be used to describe this film, but the first that springs to mind is magnificent.

Precious few films are perfect, and I’ll discuss a few tiny issues I had with Dunkirk later, but initially I think it’s important to laud what is a truly phenomenal piece of cinema. Short by Nolan’s standards, and with minimal dialogue, Dunkirk is a tour de force that marries exquisite cinematography with impeccable sound. This is a film that pretty much succeeds on every level.

Nolan’s decision to split the film into three parts, each of which has their own unique timeline, is at once complex yet also incredibly simplistic—certainly when compared with films like Memento, or Inception or Interstellar. Nolan has always seemed fascinated by time, but if you think about it the decision to focus on a triple narrative showing the evacuation from the perspective of land, air and sea, demanded some temporal dislocation to do the story justice. So for the men on the beach we experience a week, for those on the little boats it’s a day, but for the Spitfire pilots with limited fuel it’s just an hour.

Whether it’s in sweeping views of the beach itself, the unforgiving seas, or the bright blue skies where planes clash, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have produced visuals you cannot take your eyes off. Allied with the visuals though are the sounds. Hans Zimmer’s ticking clock of a soundtrack ratchets up the tension, but the sound effects that really drive home the terror. Unexpected gunshots ring out, each one devastatingly loud. Stuka dive bombers scream towards the ground, their deadly payload exploding on the beach. Torpedoes streak through the water, and rivets pop and metal screams as ships sink.

This is not a war film in the typical sense. We barely see any German soldiers, yet they loom over everything like an implacable force of nature, as if they were less an army than an out of control forest fire or a tsunami. This is a disaster film. This is a story of survival against all odds.

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Tom was getting a little paranoid that Nolan always seemed to want to make him wear a mask…

The cast are excellent. Wearing a mask for much of the film Tom Hardy is excellent as spitfire pilot Farrier, and if they gave out Oscars for eyes alone he deserves one, because he imbues every moment of indecision perfectly. Quite frankly if Nolan wants to make a Battle of Britain sequel and bring back Hardy I’d be all for it and I really had to fight the urge to cheer every time Tom shot down another German plane.

As Commander Bolton, Branagh is marvellously resolute, channelling the likes of John Mills to perfection. Similarly Rylance utterly convinces as Mr Dawson, owner of one of the little ships.

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Ever the gentleman Sir Ken even doffs his hat to German dive bombers

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, Harry Styles (who apparently Nolan didn’t realise was a huge music star, yeah right….) as Alex and Barnard as Gibson do well with less notable roles. Not that they aren’t important, in fact they’re the heart of the film, but as with something like Blackhawk Down there comes a point where soldiers tend to merge a little into one.

The rest of the cast are uniformly great, with Cillian Murphy turning in a fine performance as a shell shocked solider, and James D’Arcy giving it his best stiff upper lip as one of Commander Bolton’s fellow officers.

I did say I had a few issues. For one thing the beaches do look a little empty, and you never quite believe there are almost half a million men there. I can understand why Nolan did this, showing a great expanse of empty beach does enhance the sense of isolation for those men we do see, but it’s a shame the epic scale of the evacuation wasn’t just a bit more evident, and this is also true when it comes to the flotilla of pleasure boats. There were hundreds but the way they’re filmed it looks like just a handful. Again I understand, Nolan is showing a snapshot of the evacuation, not the whole thing, but again it would have been nice to get more of an idea of the scale of the evacuation.

There are some issues around the lack of non-white faces, we see the odd black face amongst the French but that’s about it and it’s historical fact that there were Indian troops serving in the British Expeditionary Forces. Of course you can argue since they numbered in the hundreds amongst hundreds of thousands, and since Nolan is only showing a fraction of the evacuation, that logically we wouldn’t have seen them, but it is a shame we don’t at least a glimpse.

Overall though, this is a fantastic film, and one that kept my heart racing and my eyes glued to the screen throughout its 106 minute run time. At once old fashioned but also bang up to date, this is one of my favourite films of the year so far and I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t get Oscar nominations aplenty.

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There’s only One Direction lads, back to Blighty!