Archive for July, 2018

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson and Sean Harris.

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It’s two years since Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his IMF team captured terrorist Solomon Lane (Harris), and the remains of Lane’s organisation, The syndicate, has mutated into a group known as The Apostles.  The Apostles latest job is buying three plutonium cores for an environmental fundamentalist known only as John Lark, who plans to build three nuclear bombs to usher in a new world order. In Berlin Hunt and his comrades Benji (Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Rhames) attempt to recover the plutonium but fail, leading the new CIA Director Erica Slone (Angela Bassett) to pull rank on the IMF Secretary Alan Huntley (Alec Baldwin) to place her own man onto Hunt’s team as they move to Paris to intercept John Lark as he deals with an arms dealer named The White Widow (The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby). Sloane’s agent is August Walker (Cavill), a single minded CIA assassin who has little time for the IMF’s tactics of deception and rubber masks.

A spanner is thrown into the works when MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) returns with a secret agenda. As double crosses abound, and nuclear bombs are set, can Hunt and his team save the day, or is this one mission that really will prove totally impossible?

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It’s kinda sobering to realise Tom Cruise first played Ethan Hunt 22 years ago. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s made more Mission Impossible films than any actor has been Bond other than Connery and Moore!

It is a curious franchise however, with odd tonal shifts and big gaps between some of the films, although they’ve been more frequent recently. For me the quality has been variable, and as a fan of the original TV series some of them have skewed too much towards high octane action at the expense of the clever sting operations that were the show’s stock in trade.

What you can’t deny is Cruise’s star power, and his athleticism, he’s 56 for God’s sake! And here we are imagining Daniel Craig might be getting too old to play 007. It’s still amazing that Cruise does so many of his own stunts, although this time he did manage to break his ankle so he’s nowhere near as invincible as he once was.

But you’re not here for an appraisal of Tom Cruise’s physical condition, you want to know if the film is any good, and yes it is, really good. It might even be my second favourite (after the original).

Christopher McQuarrie returns as writer and director, which was a slight worry given that Rogue Nation was such an uneven affair, a film that frontloaded its best scenes and ended up with a damp squib of a finale set in London (which eerily mirrored Spectre which came out a few months later and suffered from the same problem.)

This time the pacing is spot on, well, mostly. The film is still too long, and a trifle baggy in the middle. One car chase through Paris is immediately followed by another car chase through Paris, plus the finale, whilst very good, runs way longer than the 15 minutes we’re supposed to believe it is.

636679576547803713-mcj-04602rBut I’m quibbling. I enjoyed it a lot. Cruise owns the screen (as usual) and is ably supported by a top notch cast. Rhames and Pegg have such a natural rapport that you almost wish they had their own spin off series, and Ferguson proves, yet again, that she might be one of the best Bond girls we never had. As Walker Cavill brings a sneering physicality to the role, imbued with a lot of charm (and yes I’ll say it, he’d make a great Bond). Returning villain Sean Harris is something of a weak link, if only because he’s so understated, because this isn’t really a film for understatement. Baldwin and  Bassett bring the necessary gravitas, and special mention to Kirby playing the daughter of Max (Vanessa Redgrave’s character in the very first Mission Impossible film though this is quite subtle) and there’s even a place for Michelle Monaghan to return as Ethan’s long hidden wife (hard to believe she was in Mission Impossible III).

35774The stunts and set pieces are impressive, although often they seemed a trifle familiar because they’re riffs on things you’ve seen in another Mission Impossible, or a Bond, or a Bourne, but maybe it’s impossible to be truly innovative these days.

Aside from some clunky—but probably necessary—exposition on occasion, Christopher McQuarrie’s script is clever and funny, even if everyone’s motivations seem a trifle vague. It’s also nice to see McQuarrie not treating his cast like idiots, but as smart professionals, and there’s some wonderful bluffs and double bluffs going on here, and it’s nice to see some old school Mission Impossible schemes, even if things end up needing helicopter gunships rather than rubber masks to resolve matters in the end.

A tad too long, and I can’t rule out it ending up essentially being just A N Other big budget action film to get lost in the forest of such films, but I enjoyed it a huge amount while I was watching it and really, what more do you want?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to watch this film. Go on, don’t make me disavow you!

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8391123Edited by Mike Ashley

As regular readers of this blog may have worked out by now, I have a certain love of the post-apocalyptic genre. It’s not that I want the world to end, I just find the concept fascinating, so when I spotted this book, promising 24 tales of earth shattering cataclysm, well, how could I resist!

Ashley neatly splits the anthology into three sections, the first deals with the apocalypse itself, and its immediate aftermath, the second focuses on the medium term future, and the final, shortest section throws us thousands, even millions of years into the future, to a world beyond humanity.

I feel a little like a broken record here, but as I always say an anthology is something of a lucky dip, on the downside this means there will be stories you don’t like—and there were more than a few of those in here—but the flipside is there will always be some diamonds in the rough—and again there were plenty of those.

I won’t go through all 24 tales, but I’ll try and highlight the ones I enjoyed most, and mention some couple I really didn’t like at all.

The anthology begins with When We Went to See the End of the World by Robert Silverberg, it’s a fairly lightweight, amusing tale but when dealing with apocalypses it’s probably best to start small.

When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow has a novel set of heroes who begin to rebuild society in the aftermath of a global bioweapon attack. Despite a certain level of nerdy wish fulfilment I enjoyed it.

The End of the World Show by David Barnett slips humour back into the equation, as the world faces an increasingly surreal end, and the last line’s just wonderful in context.

Fermi and Frost by Frederik Pohl is a grim, yet curiously hopeful portrayal of survival during nuclear, and is definitely one of the more realistic stories in the collection.

I’m a big fan of Alastair Reynolds, and his story, sleepover, is a humdinger, incredibly inventive it postulates a apocalypse like no other and he deftly keeps you guessing for some time as to what the nature of the cataclysm actually is. As with most great mysteries, you can argue the story falls apart once you know the secret, and there’s definitely an element of The Matrix about it, but still very enjoyable.

Now we move into the medium-term post-apocalyptic future.

I wasn’t keen on Moments of Inertia by William Barton. It’s tale of a rogue star went to some interesting places but took too damn long to get there and I couldn’t really empathise with any of the characters.

Pallbearer by Robert Reed was probably one of my favourite stories in the collection. Can’t say it was stunningly original, but I just loved the author’s voice as he describes a post pandemic world where evangelical Christians believe they’re the chosen survivors of God, but the truth might be very different. Really, I could have kept reading this story for the rest of the book.

And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear starts out like an old school Mad Max style story, with the heroine, a biker courier, racing across irradiated American to deliver a package, but it goes somewhere very unexpected. It ends rather abruptly but I’m willing to forgive the author.

A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber is a story I’ve read before, many, many years ago in my teens. I’d found it really interesting back then, but sadly in hindsight it’s clunky and archaic. Bonus points for the nostalgia rush however.

Guardians of the Phoenix by Eric Brown is another somewhat old school Mad Max style tale of survivors struggling in a drought ridden world where the only water is buried deep underground. There’s some great imagery (ships becalmed in the middle of deserts) and a smidgen of hope at the end. Another highly recommended one.

Life in the Anthropocene by Paul Di Fillippo on the other hand might be the one story I really hated, full of longwinded names, made up gobbledygook technology and annoying post-humans. It isn’t that long, but I really struggled to get through it.

Terraforming Terra by Jack Williamson has a neat idea about successive generations of clones on the Moon watching Earth recover from an apocalypse so they can reclaim it, but I wasn’t keen. I couldn’t get my head around the characters, and the narrative is told in the first person by successive iterations of the same individual which makes no sense. It goes on way too long and ends with a Bradbury style twist that frankly Bradbury did better.

We’re into the distant future now, with tales that finish off the anthology by taking the (very) long view.

F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre’s World Without End is an utterly depressing, yet utterly engrossing tale of a young woman cursed with immorality who ends up the last human, doomed to wander the Earth as millennia pass. The choice of main character is interesting, and again the author’s voice very good. I really liked this one.

Hard Sci-fi legend Stephen Baxter has a wonderful grasp of deep time, and he demonstrates his skill here as The Children of Time provides snapshots of successive human offshoots that survive millions of years into the future. Again there’s a melancholic tone to the tale, but again it’s well enough written that I enjoyed it.

The final story, The Star Called Wormwood by Elizabeth Counihan, on the other hand, left me cold, and it’s a shame the book didn’t end with Baxter’s tale.

On the whole I enjoyed this anthology, though it maybe dragged on a little, and whilst a more general horror/sci-fi anthology can mix things up a little, here the relentless grimdark gets a tad wearing, even though Ashley tries his best to inject hope and humour where he can. In the end there’s only so much world ending even a fan of the genre can take!

First Through the Door

Posted: July 12, 2018 in Free fiction
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Danny was leader of the firearms unit, so he was always first through the door.

So it was Danny who saw Melissa struggling with Lionel, Danny who saw the knife in Lionel’s hand, and Danny who pulled the trigger before Lionel could stab his defenceless wife.

Naturally there was an inquiry, but Danny was a highly decorated officer, it was deemed a righteous kill.

Melissa inherited her husband’s fortune and moved to Dubai.

Six months later Danny resigned. He couldn’t do the job anymore. He had nightmares. The force offered him a desk job, he said he needed a clean break.

He travelled the world. Eventually he ended up in Dubai where he married Melissa.

Suspicions were raised, investigations undertaken, but the detectives could find no evidence of collusion. No evidence Danny and Melissa had met before that fateful day.

Still, questions remained.

After all, Danny was always first through the door.

 

Ocean’s 8

Posted: July 11, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Gary Ross. Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna and Helena Bonham Carter.

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Eventually the team would get down to planning the heist, after they watch Magic Mike one more time…

When Debbie Ocean (Bullock playing George Clooney’s character’s sister) is released from prison she wastes no time in putting into action a plan to steal a $150 million dollar Cartier necklace, a plan she’s been working on for five years to a point where she believes she’s worked out all of the kinks.

She ropes in her former partner Lou (Blanchett) and together they begin assembling a team, including a fashion designer with money troubles (Bonham Carter) a fence (Paulson) a computer hacker (Rihanna) a pickpocket (Awkwafina) and a jeweller (Mindy Kaling). Also integral to the plan as an unwitting dupe is ditzy actress Daphne Kluger (Hathaway).

The plan should go off without a hitch, but the involvement of insurance investigator John Frazier (James Corden) could pose trouble, and Lou worries that Debbie might be using the heist to get revenge on the man responsible for her incarceration, namely shady art dealer Claude Becker (Richard Armitage).

Will the gang get away with it, or will Debbie wind up back behind bars, along with her new accomplices?

 

When Steven Soderbergh made a modern version of the 60’s Rat Pack film Ocean’s 11, it’s debatable whether anyone thought it would lead to multiple sequels, but here we are with the fourth film in the franchise, albeit one with a completely new cast. The idea of an all gal heist flick might have put some backs up (for some reason) but I had no issue with it, in fact given I was always a bit lukewarm towards Ocean’s 11 anyway (If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know Soderbergh films often leave me cold) I was quite looking forward to it, and whilst Ocean’s 8 is far from perfect it’s a heck of a fun ride while it lasts.

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She’s a mistress of disguise!

The film’s main strength is in its casting. Bullock is a good lead, able to convince as a dowdy convict and as a glamourous jewel thief, and her role in pulling the team together is well handled. She sparks well with Blanchett (who’s one of those actors rarely less than brilliant) and together they make for a good partnership.

Helena Bonham Carter seems to be having a blast as the kooky, Irish accented fashion designer—although with Bonham Carter in some roles you can’t help feeling she may just be playing herself—and having seen her in several seasons of America Horror Story I know Paulson’s always good value, and she is again here as the fence turned suburban housewife (albeit with a suspiciously large eBay presence). Everyone gets their moment to shine, and this extends to the least famous members of the crew in Kaling and Awkwafina. In particular I really enjoyed Awkwafina’s dry wit. Really the weak link is probably Rihanna, although maybe that’s just down to a role that essentially requires her to just type a lot and on occasion smoke a huge blunt.

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You jammy bugger, Armitage!

Of course, I’m not forgetting the 8th, and unaware, member of the team, and much like Bonham Carter Hathaway seems to be having a huge amount of fun hamming it up as airhead Kluger, and on occasion she pretty much steals the movie.

There are the token guys as well. Armitage is solidly sleazy as Becker, and whilst never the greatest actor in the world, Corden isn’t remotely as terrible in an underwritten role as some have suggested.

The direction is slick and the soundtrack oozes cool. The sets and clothes add to the sense of style and glamour, but if the film falls down it’s in the script, or rather the plot. It’s not that it makes no sense, and there are some nice twists, but everything seems a bit effortless. There are obstacles that spring up in the team’s way, but none of them are remotely insurmountable and each one is resolved with ease. In many respects the film reminded me of the original TV show of Mission Impossible, where most weeks the elaborate scheme would go off without a hitch. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I just wish Debbie and co had had to fight a little harder for their win because there’s never any real sense of jeopardy.

You can argue it’s style over substance, but when a film is this much fun who cares, not everything has to be deep and meaningful, and I for one would relish seeing Ocean’s 8 become Ocean’s 9, so long as they keep the cool, keep the humour and keep the cast: they just need to up the drama a bit.

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Please take care on the subway, it’s crawling with criminals.