Archive for October, 2019


We shouldn’t have come here. If the journey from Earth hadn’t been so tortuous, if we hadn’t felt so weary, and if our ship hadn’t been on the verge of falling apart, I think we’d have turned around, because this world wasn’t what we envisaged.

It was harsh. Cold. We didn’t understand. We thought it was a world to be tamed, a world we could shape in our own image. The reverse was true.

The days are short, but the years are agonizingly long. This world takes decades to orbit its sun. By the time the climate began to warm we had almost forgotten what heat felt like. We welcomed it. We didn’t understand.

The ice melted.

Then we melted.

We assumed it was a disease, some horrible affliction that turned flesh into water. We threw every meagre resource we had left at it. Perhaps if the scientists hadn’t fallen victim first, or if ship’s computers still functioned, we might have understood, though I doubt we could have stopped it.

Drugs. Quarantine. Prayer. Nothing worked. One by one we succumbed. One by one we died. Or thought we did.

The dream followed. A languid, fluid dream. Our thoughts merged, memories slithered and twisted around one another like a nest of snakes. We were no longer individuals, we were a gestalt. It was beautiful, no secrets, and yet no guilt, because we no longer had any sense of self. We floated in perfect chaos all summer long.

Then winter returned, and the ocean froze. Suddenly we found ourselves corporeal once more, only now it was different. Not only because we’d got used to our disembodied dream state, no, it was different because we didn’t coagulate as the individuals we’d once been. Now we were curious, hybrid entities. Mongrels made of memories. A Frankenstein’s monster of thought stitched together from disparate recollections and desires.

We were confused and frightened. We were in pain. Somehow, we evolved the ability to move, becoming stiff, creaking giants of ice. We tried to find harmony, but we didn’t understand ourselves anymore, and we certainly didn’t understand each other. There was fear. Distrust. Liquified togetherness gave way to solidified separation.

We disagreed. We argued. Eventually we fought. Winter was long and violent and terrible. Death was beyond us, but suffering wasn’t.

Summer eventually ended the war. Those rigid creatures of ice collapsed once more into wonderful anarchy. We ebbed and flowed and dreamed, and we were happy. Only now, somewhere in that collective sentience, there was a hint of fear, the knowledge that winter would return.

Which of course it did.

That was so long ago. We cannot comprehend how many winters, how many summers. A thousand? A million? It makes no difference. Time only matters when we’re ice, when we are liquid, we’re beyond such pettiness.

We are solid now. I am solid now.

I am ancient, and yet at the same time brand new, because this particular collection of thoughts and memories has never coalesced before. I am old. I am young. I hurt. I am newly born and already I long for summer, but summer is so very far away.



Posted: October 22, 2019 in Film reviews

Directed by Rupert Goold. Starring Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock and Jessie Buckley.


In 1969, and with her unreliability meaning she struggles to get work in the United States, Judy Garland (Zellweger) accepts an offer to perform at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London. She’s initially a hit, but her ongoing struggles with drugs and alcohol make her performances increasingly variable, one night she gets a standing ovation, the next she’s booed off stage.

As her life begins to unravel, she flashes back to her life a child star, and the strictures that were placed upon her that still haunt her decades later.


It’s definitely the era of the biopic. I worked out I’ve seen four at the cinema in the last year. Bohemian Rhapsody, Stan and Ollie, Rocketman and now Judy, and to some degree or another I’ve enjoyed them all. Judy eschews the broad canvas of time employed by Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman and focuses on a specific part of its subject’s life. It perhaps has most in common with Stan and Ollie. Both films revolve around fading stars who leave Hollywood and decamp to London in order to perhaps get one final hurrah.

Whilst Stan and Ollie is a relatively light, affectionate piece—albeit one that packs an emotional punch—Judy is something darker. Laurel and Hardy had their vices, but they were nowhere near as messed up as Judy Garland, and the film pulls few punches in its flashbacks to the 1930s, where Darci Shaw does an excellent job with limited screen time as the young Judy. Here we see the starlet deprived of food and fed a diet of amphetamines to keep her working (and burn her fat off) and barbiturates to allow her to sleep and in the present day of 1969 Judy is still addicted to drugs, and still has issues with food. She’s now added booze to her list of problems.

I’ll be honest, it took a little while to accept Zellweger as Judy, not because she doesn’t put in a fine performance, but because she’s so recognisable she doesn’t always get lost in the role the way Taron Egerton did in Rocketman for example. Instead you often can’t lose sight of the fact that this is Zellweger playing Judy Garland, but then again perhaps Judy Garland was playing Judy Garland?


My opinion shifted during the film. Maybe I just needed to acclimatise, but whatever the reason in the space of two hours I went from “This is Judy Garland’s Diary” to “Give that woman an Oscar, now!” Certainly Zellweger deserves a nomination at least, if only for that final performance of Over the Rainbow.

The film is well put together, and whilst the script rarely surprises—these biopics tend to have their own tropes and this film is no exception—there are two areas where the film truly comes alive. The first is all razzmatazz. When Zellweger gets on stage she owns it, and her singing is wonderful; and kudos for not only singing well, but singing well like Judy Garland. The second area is more intimate, and features (an imagined as it turns out) incident where Judy goes home with two gay men for dinner. It’s heartfelt, and beautifully scripted and acted, by Zellweger and Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira as Stan and Dan.


“My singing wasn’t that bad, was it?”

As the woman charged with keeping tabs on Judy, Buckley is very good as Rosalyn Wilder, never quite letting her disdain for some of Judy’s actions mask her growing affection for her. Wittrock is similarly good as Mickey Deans, the man who’ll become Judy’s last husband. There’s also decent work for Rufus Sewell as Judy’s ex-husband, though Michael Gambon has little to do as impresario   Bernard Delfont.

Really this is Zellweger’s film all the way though, and even if at times she doesn’t quite vanish into the part, she’s never less than mesmerising, and boy that girl can sing!

A solid film that rises above average by virtue of a great central performance and some wonderful musical numbers. It may not have the exuberance of Rocketman or the joy of Stan and Ollie, but Judy still deserves her place on centre stage.



Posted: October 15, 2019 in Film reviews

Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro and Frances Conroy.


Gotham City in the 1980s is a destitute place. There is large scale unemployment and a garbagemen strike sees trash piling up everywhere. Crime is rife. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an aspiring comedian who makes a living as a party clown. His outfit often marks him out as a target for thugs, as does a condition that cause him to involuntarily laugh at inappropriate moments. He lives with his mother Penny (Conroy) and is attracted to his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz.) Arthur has mental health issues and relies on social services for medication.

Constantly harassed, and with funding taken away from the support he relies on, Arthur becomes more and more disconnected from society. His stand-up routine flops, and when he’s mocked by his idol, talk show host Murray Franklin (De Niro) he becomes increasingly estranged from reality.

How much degradation can one man take before he breaks, and what does it take to turn a mild-mannered man into Batman’s arch nemesis, the clown prince of crime himself. Joker?


So here we are. Joker arrives, riding waves of adoration and controversy. A film that at once is lauded for a sensitive portrayal of mental health, yet derided as reinforcing stereotypes about people with mental health problems being a danger. A film supposedly a beacon for incels, to the point where some theatres in America took precautions lest someone try to emulate the mass shooter who targeted a Dark Knight showing.

To be honest much of the chatter has magnified certain elements of the film, but whilst dark, extremely dark, at times, this isn’t a film that’s anywhere near as hollow and nasty as something like Rambo. Joker has something to say, and even though you might not like what that is, you can’t deny its importance.

Beyond anything else however, Joker is an exceptionally fine piece of filmmaking, and you have to admire the chutzpah of making an R rated Joker film that riffs on Martin Scorsese films. I’ve read several interviews with Todd Phillips, and he rarely comes across well, but you have to give the guy kudos for a fantastic exercise in direction. Gotham is a dark, twisted and yet utterly grounded city, and whilst personally I’d always lean towards a slightly more gothic Gotham (somewhere between the Burton movies and the Gotham tv series) you can’t fault that the city is a character in itself. Ostensibly it’s New York in the 70s and 80s with the serial numbers filed off, but it feels real, a visceral nightmare of a city, the perfect breeding ground for a chaotic villain like Joker.


However good the script is, however good the direction is, the true reason for its success is Phoenix who is simply mesmerising. Arthur’s fear, anger and frustration are etched into the actor’s features, he makes us empathise with a man we might not always like, and the transition from meek and mild, to bloodthirsty confidence is utterly convincing. Phoenix lost a lot of weight for the part, leaving Arthur Fleck sinewy, almost skeletal, which is perfect for the character. I’m still surprised, and slightly disturbed, that Phoenix clearly took some inspiration from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and often Arthur dances naked, admiring his form in the mirror, clearly trying to understand his own nature. It’s not a connection I would have thought of, but it works perfectly here, and manages to make Phoenix’s Joker very different from all the other screen incarnations we’ve seen. This isn’t a broad take ala Romero or Nicholson, and it isn’t the slithering, reptilian Joker of Ledger either. And thank goodness it isn’t the preposterously over done gangster Joker that Jared Leto foisted on us.


Is he the best incarnation of the Joker? That’s up for debate, but he’s the perfect Joker for this film. And I think it needs to be stressed, it isn’t that Joker is a phenomenal comic book movie. First and foremost, it’s a phenomenal movie in its own right, and I hope both the film and its star get Oscar nods.

The cast is sparse, but American Horror story’s Conroy is superb as Arthur’s mum, and their relationship is uncomfortable without ever crossing the line into icky, and De Niro is in good form as a smarmy talk show host, reinforcing those Scorsese links if you hadn’t already noticed.


There are a few elements I’m not completely sold on. I don’t like turning Thomas Wayne into a blustering blowhard, and whilst Arthur is never really portrayed as a hero, at times he veers a little too close to antihero, which the Joker really shouldn’t be. These are minor quibbles though, in what is a fantastic piece of cinema with something to say about mental health, inequality, austerity and society in general.

And there is one element I particularly love (feel free to skip this as it’s slightly spoilery) and that is the set of steps that features heavily. For much of the film we see Arthur doggedly trudging up hill, a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders struggling with society’s expectations. Later on, when he’s become Joker, he gleefully dances down those very steps, a literal descent into madness, but he’s confident now, breezy even, because he’s finally happy with who he is. That was the moment I realised just how good this film was.


I can see how it won’t be for everyone, and if your idea of the Joker is Caesar Romero prepare for one hell of a shock, but this is top notch filmmaking on every level, with a standout performance from perhaps one of the finest actors currently working in Hollywood.

Man, if you’d told me two of my favourite films this year would have come out of DC I really wouldn’t have believed you! (the other being Shazam!)

Highly recommended.


Century Rain

Posted: October 14, 2019 in Book reviews, Regarding writing

by Alastair Reynolds

4c770b1828bf0238c48e0dc428755aec-w204@1x300 years in the future Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by a catastrophe known as the Nanocaust.  Verity Auger is an archaeologist whose specialty is retrieving historical items from the ruins, and she has a particular interest in Paris. After a disaster during one trip to the ruined Paris she’s offered a way to redeem herself, a once in a lifetime chance to visit a place that shouldn’t exist.

In 1959 Wendall Floyd is an American jazz musician and detective in Paris who’s been hired by the landlord of a young woman, Susan White, who died in mysterious circumstances. The police think it was an accident, the landlord believes it might be murder, and hires Floyd to get at the truth. There are few clues, but one thing Susan left behind was a bundle of documents to be passed to her sister.

Her sister’s name; Verity Auger!

There’s so much going on in this novel that at times it’s intoxicating, and much as I love Reynolds’ work, this might be my favourite of his books I’ve read so far. It takes a certain level of confidence to set a novel 300 years in the future, and simultaneously in a version of 1959. Nanotechnology, wormholes, alternate timelines, jazz, noir, space opera and one of the most original takes on time travel I’ve seen make this a treat for the senses.

The characters are great, from Floyd, the world weary gumshoe in the style of Bogart, to Auger, the restless archaeologist whose obsession with the ruined earth means more to her than her children, and various characters in both streams of the story feel alive, be it the likes of Custine and Greta in 1959, or Cassandra, the enhanced human from Auger’s world. It’s like Reynolds decided he wanted to write a space opera, but he’d also just seen Casablanca (and there are quite a few nods to Casablanca in here) and decided he wanted to write a noirish detective story as well. Rather than do one after the other he obviously decided to combine the two, with wonderful results.

As always Reynolds’ writing is superb. If the book has a flaw it’s in the length, there are huge sections—in particular a wormhole trip late on—that could have been trimmed, but he’s such a good writer I almost didn’t care. There are some elements he brings to the table too late—be warned, it’ll be 300+ pages before you find out the difference between the Threshers and the Slashers—but again this didn’t spoil my enjoyment.

Reynolds even manages to squeeze some horror in, with some truly terrifying bioweapons who look like children, until you see them close-up!

Dazzlingly original, exceptionally well written, fun, romantic and exciting I can’t recommend this highly enough, probably the most I’ve enjoyed the book for a couple of years. The only downer is that he’s said he has no plans for a sequel, which is a shame as I need more of Floyd and Auger!

Ad Astra

Posted: October 11, 2019 in Film reviews

Directed by James Gray. Starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.


In the near future the solar system is hit by a succession of power surges that threaten to wipe out humanity. After almost being killed by one such surge, astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) is informed by space command that the surges may have originated from Neptune, where a mission known as the Lima Project disappeared 16 years before. The commander of the Lima project was Roy’s father H. Clifford McBride (Jones).

Roy is tasked with going to Mars to send a signal to Neptune, in the hopes that his father is still alive. His journey begins on the Moon, where he comes under attack from brigands on the lunar surface, and as he travellers on to Mars he will encounter other dangers.

Is his father still alive though, and if he is can Roy reach him in time to stop the Lima Project destroying all life in the solar system?

When the trailers came out for Ad Astra I got excited, a cerebral science fiction film that promised action as well, throw in fantastic cinematography and Brad Pitt and surely it was going to be a cracker.

What’s amazing about Ad Astra is how all those things combine to make a film that’s so inert, committing the cardinal sin of being boring, to the point that even the action scenes are dull. The fact they make little narrative sense just adds annoyance to the tedium.


On the face of it this is Apocalypse Now in space, only instead of heading upriver to find colonel Kurtz, Roy is heading to the outermost reaches of the solar system to find his father who may or may not have gone insane. The trouble is that with any kind of quest or road movie, it’s a fine line between a journey that feels organic and one that feels like a series of lines drawn between random spots on the map, and too often it feels like the plot of driving the characters rather than the characters driving the plot.

It doesn’t help that many of the set pieces don’t make any sense. The moon buggy gun battle for example. Why does Pitt even have to take a moon buggy anyway rather than taking a shuttle to the other side of the moon? Don’t even get me started on how come the Moon seems to have Earth normal gravity. I can accept some artistic license once we reach Mars given its gravity is almost 40% of Earth, on the Moon gravity is just a little over 15%.

Once he heads into space we then have a random distress call that diverts his ship to a space station where we get another set piece, again it’s random and seems to serve no purposes other than to, presumably, pep up a script it was felt wasn’t exciting enough. Each set piece has the feel of something inserted because it was felt something had to happen, like those books that swear they can teach you to write a script (remember your inciting incident needs to happen on page 25 or you fail!)

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As the insular Roy, Pitt is very good, or at least he would be if writer/director Gray allowed him to be. Pitt’s performance is spot on, but clearly Gray didn’t have faith in his star, because why else would almost every scene of Pitt clearly struggling with his inner demons be accompanied by a voiceover where Roy explains what’s going through his head. The comparisons with First Man are startling, that too featured a closed off, insular astronaut, but whereas Damien Chazelle let Gosling’s acting do the talking, Gray feels the need to tell rather than show.

When he shows up Jones is good, he just doesn’t get nearly enough to do, and the ending is something of a damp squib, still he fares better than Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler and Ruth Negga who are all completely wasted in wafer thin roles.

The most annoying thing is that there’s the kernel of a great idea here about the existential horror of being alone in the universe, it’s just handled so poorly. I wonder if one day we might get a Blade Runner style redux; strip out the voice over, lose fifteen or twenty minutes and there might be an interesting film here, but as it stands for me this failed on pretty much every level (though it looks good). My advice, watch First Man instead.


Downton Abbey

Posted: October 4, 2019 in Film reviews

Directed by Michael Engler. Starring Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton and many, many others!


Its 1927 and the Earl and Countess of Grantham, Robert and Cora Crawley (Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) receive word from Buckingham Palace that the King and Queen plan to come to Downton Abbey to stay during a royal tour. Whilst the news is greeted with excitement both above and below stairs, it soon becomes apparent that even though the royals are only staying one night, their visit will cause headaches for all concerned, especially when it becomes clear that the royal household’s own servants will be expecting to supplant Downton Abbey’s redoubtable staff for the duration of the stay. Throw in a potential assassination, a thief, several romantic trysts and some other assorted domestic kerfuffles, and it promises to be a very busy time for all concerned!


So, I was never a fan of Downton when it was on TV, but I have watched the odd episode here and there, and read a few articles so I didn’t go into this blind, still I likely wasn’t as up to speed as fans will have been. Thankfully my lack of expert knowledge didn’t dent my enjoyment in the slightest because, a few minor issues aside, I found this to be a very engaging, very good film.


The first thing to say is that a huge part of its success must be laid at the feet of Julian Fellowes. His script is a master class in squeezing dozens of characters and plotlines into a relatively short film, and not only that, but providing enough of a character sketch to allow newcomers to understand who’s who and what’s going on, without alienating existing viewers. It’s also a script that takes many clearly beloved characters and gives each his or her moment to shine. That some get more to sink their teeth into than others is probably unavoidable, what’s clear is that no one’s excluded.


There are some missteps, a potential assassination plot winds up little more than a damp squib for instance, but on the whole,  each interweaving tale has a beginning middle and end. You could argue it doesn’t do anything really radical, except it does, and one plot involving a gay character in the 1920s is thoughtfully handled, feels very honest and isn’t the kind of hackneyed thing we might once have got. Other than that you can argue it’s a trifle predictable, but predictable isn’t always a bad thing, especially not when its done this well. I was never bored, and the script manages to be funny, sad, sweet and uplifting without ever really crossing the line into saccharine. In particular Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton are a joy to watch (as I believe they are in the show) and their snarky banter is almost worth the price of admission alone.

It’s hard to single out specific cast members, because everyone feels very at home in the characters, but aside from Smith and Wilton, Allen Leech makes for an amiable romantic lead as Tom, and Kevin Doyle gets one of the funniest moments as a starstruck footman—and the film is laugh out loud funny at times—while Robert James-Collier gets the meatiest, and in some ways sweetest, story as Barrow.


The direction is good, and the cinematography suitably luxurious. At times, especially in the first act, the director seems a little too in love with the house, and eventually all the drone shots become a trifle wearing. On occasion it feels a little televisual, but these moments are few and far between, and as enjoyable as it is there’s something a little odd about two groups of servants bickering as posh folk luxuriate above but this never spoiled my pleasure, and again this lead to some highly amusing scenes, and credit to David Haig as the official page of the back staircase (or whatever he was).

To begin with I was wary but by the end I was enjoying myself so much that I’m now seriously thinking about binge watching the show now, and if there’s a sequel, well sign me up!


I’d like to nail my colours to the mast, team Edith all the way, Mary can go take a running jump 😉