Archive for March, 2019

Us

Posted: March 31, 2019 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker.

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In 1986 Adelaide Thomas holidays in Santa Cruz with her parents. One evening she wanders away from the boardwalk and enters a hall of mirrors where she encounters her doppelgänger. The experience is so traumatising that for a time she becomes mute and has to undergo therapy.

In the present-day Adelaide (Nyong’o) returns to Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe (Duke) daughter Zora (Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Alex). Adelaide is nervous, still haunted by events that happened as a child, but she tries to put these aside and enjoy the trip. Once there they meet up with their friends Kitty and Josh (Moss and Heidecker) and their twin daughters.

When Jason gets lost on the beach Adelaide panics. That night she explains to Gabe about her childhood trauma. He’s convinced that all she saw was her own reflection, but then the children tell them there’s a family standing in the driveway. It soon becomes clear that the family in the driveway are their doppelgängers, and they’re very, very angry…

 

In 2017 Peele’s Get Out took everyone by surprise, a smart satire that was made for peanuts yet made millions. It was Peele’s directorial debut and it immediately cemented his reputation as both a writer and director. It was clear he’d have no trouble securing the green light for any kind of follow up he wanted, and people were eager to see what he’d do next, certainly I was. I had a few issues with Get Out, it was smidgen too funny in places underscoring the dread, but on the whole it was great; original and with something to say about race.

us-movie-1553126874.jpgSad to say therefore that I came out of Us a little disappointed. If Get Out was a taut, clever film that mostly balanced scares and laughs, Us is a sprawling mess that often veers too far towards comedy and was rarely as creepy as it could have been, worst than this though, where Get Out had a great central idea and ran with it, Us feels too much like Peele has thrown as many ideas as he can against a wall, and whilst some of them stick, too many slide down to the floor.

One can’t fault the cast however, and each of them is excellent in dual roles, especially Nyong’o and Wright Joseph, with Nyong’o doing most of the heavy lifting as the leader of the ‘Tethered’. She’s superb, and they really do feel like different people, a loving mother and a malevolent attacker.

Some of the funniest moments in Get Out came courtesy of Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent Rod, and in Us, Winston Duke takes on a similar role. He’s very funny, of course its debatable whether he should be quite as funny as he is, and that’s part of the problem with the film, because at times its so funny that it does kind of undercut the tension. Take the moment the family start comparing kill scores for example. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need that in horror, it’s just here it’s all very broad, and much like Rod in Get Out, at times it feels like Gabe is in a different film.

As a side note if they ever decide to gender swap the Joker, Elisabeth Moss has to be considered!

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Peele has a good eye, and there’s some good imagery at work here, lots of reflections and use of shadows to reinforce the notion of duality, he directs humour very well and he does direct some creepy moments; that said it says something when probably the creepiest moment in the film is in the first ten minutes when young Adelaide visits the hall of mirrors. Peele can also clearly write well, his dialogue and characterisations feel real. The problem is the plot, and whilst it’s a curious thing to say, this is a film that gives us too much information, but at the same time too little. Peele’s said he has a whole mythology created for the world of the Tethered, and this clearly shows, but in trying to show off some of this mythology, whilst maintaining an air of mystery, the film falls between two stools.

There’s some disturbing imagery on view in the world of the Tethered, but by showing it Peele prompts more questions that he then provides answers for (where do the jumpsuits and scissors come from, how can people survive just on rabbit, how do the Tethered know exactly where to find their above ground doubles?) and the longer the film goes on the more preposterous it becomes and the more you have to suspend your disbelief. Suspending disbelief is something I do quite well, I’m a sci-fi/horror fan so it comes with the territory, but Peele demands too much and the final act really did have me saying “seriously?” That said one of the central twists is nicely done and does work.

jordan-peele-us-movie-first-trailer-01-320x180It is intriguing, and Peele does clearly have something to say about the American underclass rising up—and it’s surely no surprise that they wear red, there’s a clear allusion to Trump supporters here, and Us also means US, but whilst this might have worked well as a 45 minute Twilight Zone style episode (and I’m still looking forward to Peele’s TZ reboot) that gets in and out before you have time to consider the ramifications, at almost two hours this film gives you far too much time to think and notice plot holes.

I didn’t hate it, and I will watch it again, knowing what kind of film it is going in might mean it goes up in my estimation, but on first viewing it’s ok but nothing special. There could have been a creepier, tauter film here. Less is more, but in the case of Us I’m afraid More is less.

 

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By Nick Clark Windo

s-l300In the near future, everyone is connected to the Feed, a near constant link to both the internet and everyone else’s thoughts and feelings. In this world Tom and Kate struggle to retain some sense of themselves, opting to go ‘slow’ on occasion by turning off the Feed. When a world-wide cataclysm hits however, everyone’s connection to the Feed is severed. In this new, harsh post-apocalyptic world Tom and Kate, plus their daughter Bea, struggle to survive, but even in a world of famine and disease, plagued by bandits, there is an even greater threat out there. Just why does everyone have to be watched as they sleep?

 If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know I love a good post-apocalyptic tale (hell I’ve written two post-apocalyptic novels, City of Caves and Darker Times) so this novel intrigued me when I spotted it in the book shop, and I just had to buy it.

It’s a curious read, and it would be harsh to say I didn’t enjoy it, and it certainly kept me hooked to the end, but by the same token I found it flickered between being really interesting, and incredibly mundane.

The central premise is fantastic, most of us today would struggle to survive without the trappings of technology, and Windo turns this up to 11 by envisaging a world even more reliant on the internet than ours, and then taking it away from them, and the notion of people having to learn things they never really knew, just accessed, is intriguing, but even more fascinating is the addition of a more insidious threat, and a curious invasion that was behind the collapse of civilisation. There’s also a killer twist at one point which certainly took me by surprise.

I think the trouble is that outside of the window dressing, Windo doesn’t quite know what story he wants to tell, and for too much of the page count what we’re left with is characters trudging from one location to another, camping out, feasting on berries, and talking, they do a lot of talking, which would be fine if it was always interesting, but too often the book’s just a bit turgid.

And whilst the setting is fantastic, this is a double-edged sword because it separates us from the characters. It’s like writing an opening chapter set in the Star Trek universe, then destroying the Federation, it’s hard to understand what people have lost when we can’t necessarily relate to it. Similarly it took me a while to realise the book is set in England (at least I’m pretty sure it’s England). I’m not sure whether muddying the waters as the location was a deliberate choice to appeal to as wide a market as possible, but again it serves only to distance the reader from the story. Similarly Tom, and especially Kate, seem little more than ciphers. The most interesting character, Sylene, who we meet later on is perhaps the most fully rounded person in the book.

Like I say, the premise and twist are worth the price of admission alone, and there’s a nice hint of something akin to Wool about the world, I just wish the story hadn’t been quite so bleak, and quite so meandering. You could have chopped 50/100 pages out and not really damaged the story.

Tentatively recommended.

Tempo

Posted: March 21, 2019 in Free fiction, Published fiction
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Just a quick note that my time and space bending sci-fi thriller Tempo is free to download for the next 5 days. Remember you don’t need an expensive Kindle to read it, there’s a free Kindle app you can use on a phone, tablet or computer 🙂

If you do download and read a copy all I ask is that you consider adding a short review, they really do help!

UK link

US link

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Captain Marvel

Posted: March 19, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg and Jude Law.

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Far from Earth, on the Kree home world of Hela, Starforce member Vers (Larson) struggles with curious visions of her past, she also struggles to control the special abilities she possesses. Her mentor Yon-Rogg (Law) tries to help her channel this power.

During a mission to rescue an undercover operative Vers is captured by Skulls, shapeshifting aliens who are the sworn enemy of the Kree. The Skrull leader Talos (Mendelsohn) subjects Vers to a memory probe, dredging up memories of a woman named Dr. Wendy Lawson (Benning). Vers escapes from her captors and steals a fighter. She flies to the nearest planet, which turns out to be Earth. Fearing Earth will be infiltrated by Skrulls, Vers attempts to stop Talos and his soldiers, and in the process runs into SHIELD agents Nick Fury (Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Gregg). When Vers and Fury team up, the trail to Dr. Wendy Lawson also leads to a missing air force pilot named Carol Danvers, who looks a lot like Vers…

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And so, more than a decade after the Marvel Cinematic Universe got started, we finally get a female led Marvel superhero film. Sadly it isn’t a Black Widow film, but hey, maybe one day. Not for the first time in recent years, Captain Marvel arrives with a whole heap of online trash talk, in the same way the Ghostbusters reboot and Wonder Woman did, and it’s a shame some men can’t accept a woman in a title role but hey, quality usually wins out, as it did with Wonder Woman, and already Captain Marvel seems to be a huge hit. Nice going misogynists!

Captain Marvel arrives in the slot that last year gave us Black Panther, and whilst I don’t think it’s as good as Black Panther, it’s still a hugely enjoyable film from a stable that, lets be honest, rarely slips up these days. Unlike Black Panther, Captain Marvel isn’t an epic tale, it’s something altogether more personal, but that’s no bad thing, and it’s nice that Marvel are shaking things up a little, let’s be honest, we’re going to have plenty of city smashing come Avengers Endgame.

The film has an important message about female empowerment, but also has something to say about refugees, and it’s nice when a film surprises you, and in several respects Captain Marvel did. Are the girl power elements a trifle heavy handed at times, maybe, or maybe that’s just how I saw it as a bloke, did they ever overshadow the story, or my enjoyment? Not at all, in fact No Doubt’s I’m Just a Girl playing over a fight scene just made it more impressive.

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Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)Anyone who’s seen Larson in anything knows how good an actress she is, but she’s also embraced the physicality of the role, training for nine months and it shows, and her performance is interesting because Danvers isn’t some unrealistically perfect character, she’s flawed. Larson seems to be channelling more than a hint of Tom Cruise circa Top Gun, and much like Maverick, Danvers is something of a renegade, a fly by the sear of your pants, impetuous, fools rush in kind of character, and occasionally she’s a little annoying, but in a good way; it proves she’s real.

The Top Gun comparisons don’t end there of course, given there’s a cat named Goose who damn near steals the film!

Jackson’s been playing Nick Fury for a while now, but it must be challenging having to play a character who’s 25 years younger! The de-aging effects used on Jackson (and Gregg) are eerily good. There was a moment, when both men first show up, when it seemed jarring, but frankly after a minute or two I forgot I wasn’t just watching Samuel L Jackson circa 1995, and Jackson gives one of his most engaging performances for quite some time. This Nick Fury’s a lot of fun, and Jackson and Larson bounce off each other so well that you’d sign up for another buddy movie in a flash.

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Mendelsohn is also very good, Talos has a lot of the film’s finnier moments, and it’s credit to Mendelsohn that he imbues Talos with so much character, not always easy under so much latex (just ask Christopher Eccleston). It’s nice to see Benning in a dual role, and Law is impressively stoic. As Danvers’ best friend Maria Rambeau, Lashana Lynch is good value, and injects much needed humanity into the film, because she’s the one we can relate to. There’s also Hounsou and Pace reprising their roles from the first Guardians of the Galaxy films, and of course as a fan of Marvel Agents of SHIELD it’s always nice to see Clark Gregg, even if his de-aging never seems quite as convincing as Jackson’s.

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The special effects are top notch, and the film’s very funny, with Larson, Jackson, Mendelsohn and, er, the cat getting most of the funny stuff. Where it falls down somewhat is in the plot. There’s a lot jammed into the film, especially in the opening scenes where we’re in space, dealing with aliens with crazy names. This can work, just see Guardians of the Galaxy, but for me, this part of the film struggled. Luckily Danvers is soon on Earth and her buddy/buddy romp with Jackson can get started.

The 90s setting is overdone on occasion, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had with pagers and painfully slow computers, and the 90s soundtrack is very nicely put together.

If I have a problem with Captain Marvel it’s the same issue I have with most incredibly powerful superheroes (see also Superman) in that once she embraces her gifts near the end she seems a little too powerful, but that’s just me, I prefer my heroes more vulnerable (Spidey, Bats, Black Widow etc) I’m also hoping Marvel haven’t chosen now to spring her on us just so she can thwart Thanos in a month’s time.

All in all, this maybe isn’t quite the classic some are claiming it to be, but that doesn’t stop it being a hugely enjoyable romp, featuring characters I can’t wait to see more of.

Goose is gonna be in Avengers Endgame, right?

Oh, and stay right to the end of the credits. It’s a throwaway joke but still a very funny one.

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Capture

From Russia With Love (1963)

Posted: March 15, 2019 in James Bond
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And so my epic re-watch of every Bond film, in order, reaches the dizzy heights of, er, the second film. It’s fine, I have all the time in the world…

Anyway, Bond’s off to Istanbul, not Constantinople, to see a girl about a cipher machine.

There is a common nostalgia amongst some fans for the halcyon days when Bond films were realistic, gritty thrillers, before all the more fantastical elements that clearly arrived with that Roger bloke. Anyone with even a passing understanding of the franchise knows this is something of a fallacy, some of Connery’s films are the most fantastical of all (hollowed-out volcano anyone, a madman with metal hands and his own nuclear reactor?). That being said, of course some Bond films are gritty, and precious few are as grounded as From Russia with Love.

Yes, there’s an evil genius with a nefarious plan, but as diabolical schemes go it’s relatively tame. He doesn’t want to blow up Fort Knox, or start World War 3, he just wants to steal a Russian cipher machine so he can sell it back to the Soviets, oh and maybe get revenge for Dr No into the bargain by killing 007.

In many ways FRWL is the direct opposite of Dr No, there the titular villain doesn’t show up until near the end, whereas here we meet a whole host of characters before we see James Bond. Okay, Connery’s in the pre title sequence, but he isn’t Bond, it’s a feint, our boy doesn’t actually rock up for real until over fifteen minutes into the film, by which time we’ve met Red Grant, Kronsteen, Rosa Klebb, Blofeld, Blofeld’s cat, and even Tatiana! Off the top of my head the only other Bond films that come close are Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, but in neither case do we wait so long for 007.

Not that we’re bored without him, from Kronsteen’s gloriously staged chess game, to the violent delights of SPECTRE island and Klebb’s creepy recruitment of Tatiana, there’s plenty going on. If anything the pace of the film slows dramatically after Bond finally appears.

I don’t have anything against slow burn films, quite the reverse at times, but it has to be said that at times FRWL feels a little too slow. Like Dr No this feels like a film in conflict with itself, at once yearning to break the mould, yet at the same time beholden to the good old days. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it hasn’t dated as badly as some Bonds will, but for me it isn’t quite the classic many claim it to be.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t very, very good.

After exotic Jamaica, this time we’re heading for exotic Turkey, which gives the film a very different feel, and makes it feel like a Cold War thriller in a way Dr No never quite managed.

There’s interesting things at play right from the off, take Bond locating the bugs and forcing the hotel staff to move him to another room, initially this shows us Bond’s competence, but in actuallity he’s merely a pawn moving precisely as Kronsteen had predicted.

Not that 007 is some dupe, he and M are well aware this is a trap, it’s just a trap they’re willing to walk into in hopes of getting their hands on a Lektor (which it has to be said feels like a quaint McGuffin even in 1963). The only thing MI6 don’t realise is that the trap hasn’t been set by the Russians.

There’s some wonderful scenery in Istanbul, in particular the flooded catacombs Kerim Bey uses to spy on the Russians.

DI-From-Russia-With-Love-16Ah Kerim Bey, one of many of Bond allies but one who stands out more than most. There’s something a little disingenuous about getting a Mexican to play a Turk, but Pedro Armendáriz plays him so well that you hardly care. Bey arrives fully formed; noble, hedonistic, brave, intelligent, a man playing a great game in Turkey, they follow us, we follow them as his son tells Bond. Armendáriz injects so much life into the performance that it’s hard to get your head around the fact that he was terminally ill, and would kill himself before the film finished shooting.

He and Connery bounce well off each other, and again Connery is good. Manly yet playful, dangerous yet noble. For the second film in a row he expresses some distaste at violence meted out to women, though he show no compunction is meting it out himself (insert your own Connery commentary here) and when he threatens to leave Tatiana behind, you kinda think he might.

Again there’s nuance I didn’t expect to find, and a genuine sense of mortality. Just check out the look on Bond’s face as he finds himself on the wrong end of Red Grant’s gun. He imagines he’s going to die and is scrabbling around in desperation for any way to survive.

Two films in and my slight disdain in Connery’s Bond is wavering.

Of course it helps if you have a good adversary, and if Kerim Bey is an exemplary ally, then Red Grant is an exemplary villain, even if technically he’s a henchman.

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“You’ll never guess how much these shoes cose, Bond.”

If Connery moves like a tiger, then Grant is a cobra, a cold-blooded snake with only one thought in mind; his mission. Robert Shaw is amazing, marrying an imposing physique with raw menace and genuine acting talent, and however cold he might be, there’s a broiling rage behind those eyes, Grant has a chip on his shoulder, and though it isn’t as obvious here as in the book, Shaw imbues his performance with it. Grant detests Bond, and not just because he killed Dr No.

What’s most disturbing about Red Grant these days of course, is how much he looks like Daniel Craig!

As Rosa Klebb, Lotte Lenya is almost as iconic as Grant, a brutal, Machiavellian villain and one of the franchise’s finest she utterly convinces as a Russian officer turned Spectre #3, her natural aura of command never in doubt, even when surrounded by burley men on all sides. She even convinces as a meek cleaning lady, and you have to admire the way she eyes up both Grant and Tatiana.

f3wkOANYRwmzt8ATIl2hbRvF3hwAh Tatiana. Much like Ursula Andress Daniela Bianchi is incredibly beautiful, much like Andress she’s dubbed, and much like Honey Tatiana doesn’t get much to do except be manipulated or placed in peril. Yes, there’s a smidgen of agency at the end when she betrays Klebb, but it’s too little, far too late.

Vladek Sheybal is wonderfully arrogant as Kronsteen, and Lee and Maxwell are always reliable. We get Desmond Llewelyn’s first appearance as Q (though not explicitly named) and Eunice Grayson’s last as Sylvia Trench. Then there’s Walter Gotell as a Spectre agent, Gotell will go on to play General Gogol in several Moore films, and Dalton’s debut. As an interesting side note the body (if not the voice) of Blofeld belongs to Anthony Dawson, i.e. Professor Dent. Damn, this franchise is incestuous!

Now onto the gadgets. The fully stocked briefcase with its knife, gold coins and teargas bomb, is a nice prop, and manages to be both slightly ridiculous, yet also incredibly practical, and whilst woefully underpowered, Bond’s collapsible sniper rifle is cool too.

In terms of action it’s a mixed bag. It would be disingenuous to start with anything other than Connery and Shaw’s brawl in the train carriage. Even decades later it stands up as one of the best fights in the series, in part because its so brutal, with neither man willing to give any quarter, but the lead up shouldn’t be overlooked, the whole scene between Shaw and Connery is magnificent.

And it isn’t the only iconic brawl, kudos to Aliza Gur and Martine Beswick for their vicious gypsy wrestling match. The attack on the gypsy camp is well handled too, with Bond coolly striding through the mayhem despatching bad guys with ease, watched over by Grant’s angel of death.

Bond vs a Spectre helicopter is decent enough, but references North by Northwest a little too closely. I’d always believed Bond cribbing from other films was something that came later, but here they are, doing it in the second film; though if you’re going to crib from anyone it might as well be Hitchcock.

Sadly, the films becomes a bit of a slog at the end, with one set piece too many. The boat chase never really gets my blood pumping, it seems unnecessary and, frankly, a trifle slow. It also overshadows Klebb and Bond’s final confrontation; going straight from the helicopter chase to Venice might have been better.

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“You know this film isn’t half bad.”

The final scenes on the gondola are a trifle strange, and the less said about Bond’s curious wave the better, but little detracts from what is a film that’s more consistent than Dr No and remains one of the highlights of the series, and works just ss well as a chess game of a Cold War thriller as it does a Bond movie.