Archive for December, 2017

Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisey Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac.

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“This week on homes under the hammer, retired Jedi Luke Skywalker is looking for a new hovel, will Rey be able to find something to suit him?”

We pick up the story not long after the end of The Force Awakens. On a remote planet Rey (Ridley) has finally found Luke Skywalker (Hamill) who she hopes can be persuaded to re-join his sister, General Leia Organa (Fisher) and help the Resistance defeat the First Order. Meanwhile the Resistance must evacuate their base after the First Order arrive. Poe Dameron (Isaac) leads an attack to buy time for the Resistance fleet to escape but victory comes at a cost.

With the Resistance unable to elude the First Order former Stormtrooper Finn(Boyega) joins forces with a Resistance mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to attempt a dangerous mission that, if they’re successful, could see the Resistance fleet finally able to give the First Order the slip. Meanwhile Kylo Ren (Driver) struggles to find his place in the Universe after killing his father in The Force Awakens. Is he a truly powerful warrior in his own right, or just a wannabe Lord Vader?

And manipulating events throughout the universe is the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) the overlord of the First Order who wants to crush the Resistance, and destroy Luke, the last Jedi…

First a quick note to point out that this review contains only the vaguest of spoilers!

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And so we come to our third Star Wars film in three years, an amazing sequence and not one I’d have ever imagined happening ten years ago. In 2015 we had The Force Awakens, a shockingly good Star Wars film and arguably now one of my favourite in the franchise. Then last year we got Rogue One, a prequel set just prior to A New Hope. Now a lot of people really loved Rogue One, but it was a film I struggled with. I liked it, I just couldn’t bring myself to love it.

And now we have The Last Jedi, the direct sequel to The Force Awakens, so where does it sit in relation to the last two Star Wars films, and in the franchise overall? Well deciding where it slots into the franchise is not a question I really feel I can answer. I’d need to see it again, maybe even more than once (and truth be told I need to see Rogue One again as well) in order to make a judgement call.

What I can do is give you my emotional gut reaction to The Last Jedi. It didn’t grab me the way The Force Awakens did, but by the same token it gripped me emotionally far more than Rogue One, and it has to be said that it has a harder job as the third film in three years, lacking the shock value of The Force Awakens.

There is a lot to enjoy in The Last Jedi; great performances, great battles, and, more importantly, having the rug pulled out from under you again and again regarding the expectations you walked in with. But for all it’s good points it’s a film that infuriates. The longest Star Wars film to date it’s too long by half an hour at least, but the length would be more acceptable if the pacing was better. It’s worrying when a film seems to come to a natural end and then proceeds to go on for another half an hour or so and give us another big battle. Watching this film again will be interesting with hindsight, knowing what’s to come I might be more relaxed about the pacing and enjoy it more.

On the plus side, as long and uneven as it is, the film never bores, although during the quieter moments you might find yourself questioning certain things and spotting plot holes. By contrast The Force Awakens was a film that just didn’t let up, and didn’t give you the chance to ask “Hang on. what about…” type questions.

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Kylo Ren was a bit embarrassed after cutting himself shaving.

But it’s good that TLJ isn’t just a copy of TFA, instead it charts its own path, and on writing and directing duties Johnson has done a good job, and he’s aided by some great performances. The central quartet of Ridley, Boyega, Driver and Isaac are as good here as they were in TFA. In particular Driver and Ridley share some great scenes and both play being conflicted very well. In particular whilst Kylo Ren still hasn’t quite lost that whiny teenager edge, Adam Driver gives us a villain with more nuance than the average bad guy, and yet again Daisy Ridley completely convinces as Rey, tough as nails but as desperate as Kylo Ren to find her place in the universe.

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“Does anyone know how I turn this off?”

And this is a film where several characters develop over the course of the movie. Boyega continues to be a joy to watch, a cocky sureness married with superb comic timing, if I have a problem with his role it’s that he doesn’t seem to get enough to do and he seems a little relegated by his side mission. As Poe Dameron Isaac gives it his all as the uber brash X-Wing pilot, and he has one of my favourite lines from the film. He’s also good butting heads with Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and he too has something of a learning curve.

In many respects however this is Hamill and Fisher’s film. Hamill is just wonderful in this, essaying Luke as a somewhat broken, very grumpy old man, who made a mistake with Ben Solo and fears making another with Rey. It was worth his absence from TFA to have him here, older, wiser, yet still that young man looking to the horizon. And of course this film packs the additional emotional wallop of giving us Carrie Fisher’s last performance, though no one realised it when they were filming, and as melancholic as it is to see her on the big screen, I’m glad to say that Leia gets way more to do here than she did in TFA; barking orders, making big decisions, and generally putting a certain flyboy in his place. It’s a joy to see and just a damn shame that we won’t see it again.

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“No, you’re a scruffy looking nerf herder!”

The newer characters don’t fare as well. Tran is the best of the bunch as Rose, an ordinary Resistance fighter who proves anything but, and she and Boyega have some nice chemistry. Laura Dern doesn’t really convince as Holdo though, and Benicio del Toro doesn’t get nearly enough to sink his teeth into as codebreaker DJ.

Everyone’s new favourite droid BB8 is back, and he’s as cool as he was in TFA. Poor old R2D2 doesn’t get much of a look in however, and though they get a bit more screen time, C3PO and Chewbacca feel similarly side-lined, as does Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma who’s barely in it, though at least she fares better than Maz, whose return basically happens via Skype (it is very funny though). Rounding out the cast is the ever reliable Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux (and yes folks, his aide who looks a bit like Vivian from the Young Ones is actually Vivian from the Young Ones!)

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Chewie really wasn’t sure about his new co-pilot…

There are some great effects and some great set pieces, and plenty of weird and wonderful new creatures to populate the Star Wars universe, including the adorable (but essentially pointless) Porgs. I can’t shake the feeling however that this was a film that had one too many characters, one too many crazy cgi aliens, and one too many set pieces (in particular Finn and Rose’s trip to a casino planet, whilst hardly superfluous, is a weak point).

I’m being picky of course, because this is a great film, with great character moments, a huge amount of humour, and some genuinely unexpected plot skews, it’s just that (at the moment) it doesn’t quite break into my Star Wars top three, but as I say, I suspect repeat viewings may change this.

Anyway, go see it, and May the Force be With You!

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Things suddenly felt a touch Rogue One, which didn’t fill Finn with hope for a long life!

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Edited by Mark Morris.

I was hunting for something new to read in Waterstones and this caught my eye. I like a good horror anthology, plus I’d read some of the authors before.

There are nineteen stories in the book, and I’ll try and say a bit about each one, in particular shining a spotlight on the ones I really liked, and the ones I really didn’t!

As with most anthologies, the stories within this books pages are a mixed bag. This is both the strength of an anthology—if you didn’t like a story chances are you might like the next one—but also a weakness—it can be hard to keep your momentum going, especially if you get several rum tales in a row.

An added problem with any story, no matter its length, is that often some stories are great set-ups with weak endings, and sadly there was a lot of that in this book. This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy those stories, it’s just a shame the endings didn’t live up to the central idea.

The collection opens with The Boggle Hole by Alison Littlwood, which is a fairly mild horror, a nice way to ease yourself in, though not one of the highlights of the book.

Next up is Shepherd’s Business by Stephen Gallagher, a well written story centred on a young doctor taking up a position on a remote Scottish island. I liked this, and the story ended up going somewhere I didn’t expect.

No Good Deed by Angela Slatter is an excellent tale of magic, poisoned brides and revenge from beyond the grave. Definitely one of the highlights, although I’d say it leaned more towards fantasy than horror.

The Family Car by Brady Golden has an interesting premise, a young woman whose family vanished in the family car years before suddenly finds herself stalked by the titular vehicle, but the ending let it down.

I adored the writing at work in Four Abstracts by Nina Allen. It gripped me from the off and I got really involved and engaged with the characters. The ending is a damp squib but there’s much to enjoy before you get there thankfully.

Sheltered in Place by Brian Keene is a sharp little tail with a wonderful twist in the tale.

The Fold in the Heart by Chaz Benchley is a romantic tale set around the Cornish coast. It’s ok but didn’t really grip me.

Departures by A.K. Benedict is an inventive tale where the newly dead wind up in limbo, which is an airport bar.

The Salter Collection by Brian Lillie is a delightfully creepy tale of demons and hidden messages on old wax cylinders. It ends a bit abruptly but has a nice atmosphere.

Speaking Still by Ramsey Campbell is a pretty stock tale of messages from the beyond the grave.

The Eyes are White and Quiet by Carole Johnstone is an interesting post-apocalyptic story, though it doesn’t get much time to breathe unfortunately.

The Embarrassment of Dead Grandmothers by Sarah Lotz is a darkly humorous story about a young man who takes his gran to the theatre, only to have her die in her seat, suffice to say that the young man doesn’t do what any normal person would do in this situation. It’s ok, but a bit throwaway.

Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) by Adam Nevill is a turgid tale of a man who goes on a date with a woman from work to a local deserted zoo. It goes exactly where you expect it to go and takes ages getting there.

Roundabout by Muriel Gray has an interesting central conceit—a monster living on a roundabout—but like the previous story it’s a bit of a slog to read.

After struggling with the previous two stories, The House of the Head by Josh Malerman was a welcome improvement. Yet again the ending is a bit of a let-down, but the story of a haunted dolls house is wonderfully creepy anyway.

Succulents by Conrad Williams is sadly another tale that didn’t connect with me. A father and his young son take a bike ride whilst on holiday in Spain and the tour guide makes the father partake of a strange fruit with strange results.

Dollies by Kathryn Ptacek is one of the highlights of the book, as a young girl grows up she names each of her dolls Elizabeth and in turn each of them “dies” of smallpox. Not an easy read but it’s well written and heads in an unsettling and unexpected direction.

When it comes to stories with weak endings, The Abduction Door by Christopher Golden is the reverse, I thought it was fairly average until the final few pages where it really comes alive and has a hell of a twist. Another highlight.

Rounding out the anthology is The Swan Dive by Stephen Laws, a grim and gory tale of a man who tries to commit suicide and finds himself led on a murderous tour of Newcastle by a demonic creature. It’s not the best the book has to offer, but is far from the worst and is a good way to finish the book.

All in all your typical anthology, a mixed bag and if you like horror you’re bound to find something to like here.

The Hunter

Posted: December 7, 2017 in Free fiction, horror, science fiction
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Over time humanity grew and spread, like a field of bishop’s weed, quickly dispersing far beyond their point of origin. They covered the globe and then reached further, at first just tentatively into the solar system, but then they grew smarter, they grew bolder.

Some stayed behind, most went to the stars. It made his life harder, but however far they went he grew adept at locating them. He had long since learned to create copies of himself, corporeal shadows that ensured he could track millions of them at once across a thousand worlds.

His list grew year by year, but so did his guile. Whether you lived in a bunker on Mars, or sailed the crystalline seas of a world three hundred light years from Earth, he would find you.

At night you would secure your doors and sleep soundly, and whilst you dreamed he would enter your home, bypassing any alarm, any lock. He would stand by your bed and watch as your chest rose and fell, rose and fell.

And when you woke the proof of his visitation would be there at the end of your bed. A neat parcel, tied with a bow. Just what you’d wished for.

And one nebulous facet of Santa Claus would cross your name off his list.

Until next year…

 

Justice League

Posted: December 4, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa and Ray Fisher.

Ok first a little spoiler warning. I’m going to talk openly about one element of Justice League. I doubt it’s a big secret giving the publicity and casting information that’s out there, but if you really want to go into JL completely blind you might want to skip this review until after you’ve seen the film.

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“I’m pretty sure Captain America dropped that shield.”

In the aftermath of Superman’s death the world is in mourning, and humanity seems to have lost hope. Into this void an ancient force of evil named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) returns. Steppenwolf was defeated and exiled from Earth thousands of years ago, but now has returned to gather three Mother Boxes, powerful artefacts that, if combined, will give him the power to take over the world.

Sensing the oncoming storm Bruce Wayne (Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gadot) try to form a team of superheroes to defeat Steppenwolf, but this proves easier said than done. Arthur Curry (Momoa), also known as the Aquaman, has no interest in the world of men. Barry Allen (Miller), the Flash, is only interested in proving his imprisoned father’s innocence and the Cyborg Victor Stone (Fisher) is struggling to adapt to his new powers after being cybernetically rebuilt following a car accident.

As Bruce and Diana struggle to put a team together, Steppenwolf begins acquiring the Mother Boxes. With the world on the brink of destruction Bruce Wayne suggests a controversial course of action that involves the return of Earth’s greatest hero, but will he be the man he used to be, or will he prove as much of a threat as Steppenwolf?

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“Put the trident down, all I said was that I thought something smelt fishy.”

And DC’s attempt to catch up with Marvel continues as they provide the DC version of Avengers Assemble only, and let’s get this out of the way right off the bat, nowhere near as good. This film had a troubled shoot, and when Snyder had to stand down due to truly horrible personal circumstances, Joss Whedon (who, remember, wrote and directed both Avengers films) came on board to finish off post production work, which entailed him acting as uncredited director on the reshoots. He’d already been working on the script to such an extent that he’d got a writing credit, being bought in to provide a touch of levity to Snyder’s darker tale. Looking at the finished film it’s often very easy to see the bits Snyder did and the bits Whedon did, and it looks like substantial work was done to the film during post production. $25 million was spent on reshoots (going by Wikipedia the average for this kind of film might be $6-10 million) and infamously because Henry Cavill was already working on another film and had a moustache they had to digitally remove it!

When remains is a film that tonally is inconstant to say the least, and let’s be clear it isn’t a good film, and yet by the end I was kinda enjoying it and, though hard to say for sure, I’m sure a lot of this was down to Whedon. It’s far from the best DC film—Wonder Woman is clearly the best by a mile and Man of Steel is second; in my opinion somewhat underrated—but by the same token compared to the godawful mess that Suicide Squad was, or the turgid drudge of Batman Vs Superman its ok. Damning with faint praise there.

It isn’t helped by the need for Bruce and Diana to search out each hero initially. Yet again you see the shortcuts DC have to make and realise how much grunt work was done by those end credit scenes were Sam Jackson would rock up and talk to a hero about The Avengers. Marvel’s wider storyline grew organically, DC’s feels incredibly forced.

A lame villain with an army of CGI insects doesn’t help. Which is no disrespect to Hinds whose voicework is good, but Steppenwolf is just another generic ancient evil with a turgid backstory, much like Apocalypse in the last X-Men movie. He just never comes across as a threat. Oh for a Loki!

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Everyone agreed the heroes didn’t look quite as cool and imposing in the daylight

The turning point for the film comes with (spoiler!) Superman’s resurrection, though if you imagined he wouldn’t be back almost immediately, well I have a bridge I’d like to sell you). Cavill has his detractors but I think he’s a great Superman, especially when given the chance to be noble and, well, super, and the film noticeably lifts when he arrives. The initial confrontation post his resurrection is probably the best part of the film, and there’s a wonderful visual gag featuring Superman and Flash that’s almost worth the price of admission alone.

As Diana Gadot feels extremely comfortable now, this is her third outing as Wonder Woman and one can see her in the role for years to come. Affleck for me is a good Batman and a good Bruce Wayne, and possibly the only actor to feel comfortable in both roles. Which doesn’t mean he’s the best Bruce or the Best Bats, just maybe the best Bruce and Bats. Thankfully he isn’t required to be as sociopathic here as he was in BvsS, and he gets some drily humorous lines. As Aquaman Momoa pretty much just has to look imposing and channel his inner surfer dude, but he comes into his own a little towards the end. Given I thought Cyborg might be the weak link Fisher brings enough to the role that he felt as much a member of the team as anyone else. Rounding out the league is Miller as Flash and I’m a little torn. On the one hand he gives a funny, engaging performance, I just felt that he was the butt of everyone’s jokes a little too often. Less might be more next time out because he is very good.

Completing the cast are some great actors who get somewhat short-changed. JK Simmonds as Jim Gordon never really connects, and Jeremy Irons as Alfred doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. The real waste however is Amy Adams. She’s a fab actor but she’s required to do very little here aside from look sad or lovingly at Clark. It’s a real shame given she’s probably the best actor in the damn movie and she’s laden with terrible dialogue.

As I say it’s easy to see where Whedon’s hand is at work (it’s the parts where people sound vaguely like human beings…er, or at least Kryptonians.)

Variable in tone, with lousy villains with a paint by numbers plot, far too much CGI and way, WAY too much slow motion, and, after the good work of Wonder Woman a return to a more lascivious take on the Amazonian superhero—at times the camera seems to be permanently attached to Gadot’s bum, although to be fair we do get gratuitous shots of Cavill and Momoa with their shirts off so fair’s fair I suppose and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like Wonder Woman’s posterior, we just didn’t need to see quite so much of it.

The action swings from terrible to quite good, and the dialogue is similarly all over the place. There is a nice bit where Bruce points out the curious contrast between himself and Clark which probably deserves to be in a better film.

But again, I have to stress that the Justice League themselves are all engaging, it’s just a shame they’re stuck in a film that’s required to do so much heavy lifting because DC continue to play catch up. Hopefully the groundwork laid here will lead to a more enjoyable Justice League 2, let’s just hope it’s Whedon rather than Snyder who’s at the reins.

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Ben got a little miffed when Gal kept asking for Matt Damon’s phone number…