Archive for February, 2022

Nightmare Alley

Posted: February 24, 2022 in Film reviews

Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn, Richard Jenkins, and Ron Perlman.

It’s 1939 and Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) buries a body beneath his home before setting fire to the house and heading out on the road. In need of work he links up with a carnival, working initially for a carny named Clem (Defoe), who runs the geek show, and explains to Stan how he lures alcoholics into working as a geek, a broken man who’ll eat live chickens.

Soon Stan is also working for clairvoyant Madam Zeena (Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (Strathairn). Their act relies on a detailed code that passes between them so that Zeena can appear to have psychic powers. Stan begins to pick up some of their skills, and suggests to Molly (Mara) a girl he’s fallen in love with that they could be successful running a similar act.

Two years later Stan and Molly are living in Buffalo and making money as a psychic act performing to the wealthier members of society. Everything is going well until Stan begins to cross the line that Zeena and Pete warned him about, that you should never fool people that the dead can talk to them. Soon Stan is embroiled with an icy psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) and a dangerous man named Grindle (Jenkins) desperate to connect with his dead lover.

My second cinema trip of the year so far, and a corker of a film from Guillermo del Toro. I wasn’t familiar with the 1940s’ original or William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, but I tend to like del Toro, loved the noir aesthetic and the cast is great, so I thought it was worth giving a go, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It is a tad long, feels somewhat of a film of two halves and if you don’t figure out early on how it’s going to end, well, you probably just haven’t watched as many films as me, but in truth none of this matters because the film is a superb evocation of other times and other places, whether it’s the dirt and grime of the carnival, or the clean modernity of the city, and unsurprisingly there’s more honesty from the carneys than the city folks.

Del Toro’s direction and the cinematography are excellent. It’s a beautiful film to look at, even when it’s showing you something ugly, although the shift from the carnival to the city is a little jarring (but then maybe that’s the point.) From the dirt and grime of the carnival to the veneer of the big city, every frame looks amazing.

People have rightly pointed to Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932, but I also felt the film had a curious kinship with Blade Runner once Stan ventures to the city. Blanchett’s ice femme fatale feels like a blonde Sean Young, with her coiffured hair and perfectly painted lips, and the art deco skyscraper she has an office in definitely feels like Deckard might walk in at any moment. There’s even a scene with a polygraph that evokes the Voight-Kampff test.

The cast are top notch, led by Cooper who’s come a long way since he was Sydney Bristow’s best mate in Alias all those years ago. He’s a very good actor, and has a rare ability to play both noble yet slightly shabby at the same time, he did it well in A Star is Born and he does it well here. However good the rest of the cast is, this is his movie, and it wouldn’t be half as good without him. 

Blanchett was born to play Lilith, cool and assured yet fragile as glass. Collette couldn’t put in a poor performance if she tried, and she and Strathairn make for an engaging couple. Defoe is very good as Clem, genuinely terrifying when he calmly explains how he grooms potential geeks.

Mara as Molly is perhaps lumbered with a character who’s less interesting, though she’s always important to the plot, and continues to provide a link between Stan and the carnival, even after they move to Buffalo. Credit also to Ron Perlman and Mark Povinelli as a pair of carneys concerned for Molly’s welfare.

As I say it is a long film, and towards the end it starts to feel it, and the shift from, carnival to the city is very noticeable. It’s fair to say I found the first half perhaps a little more interesting than the second, but the film does hang together well, it looks amazing, and the cast are great. It’s a shame it hasn’t done better at the box office, but I do think it’ll pick up some Oscars.

Cage of Souls

Posted: February 12, 2022 in Book reviews, science fiction

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

It is the far future, the sun is swelling, and beneath its bloated gaze the earth is dying. Shadrapar is the last city on Earth. A city built upon the ruins of multiple previous societies, a civilisation where nothing new is created, where only the past is mined. Stefan Advani is a rebel, a heretic, driven to hide in the world beneath Shadrapar before being arrested and exiled to The Island, a floating prison deep in the humid jungles far from Shadrapar.

Beaten, humiliated, fearing death on a daily basis, Stefan begins to document his incredible tale of survival, but at the end of history can there still be hope for humanity, or is it time to make way for something else?

I actually bought this book about nine months before I actually got around to reading it, the curse of a large ‘to read’ pile. All I can say is that I wish I’d read it sooner because it’s superb!

As ever Tchaikovsky’s world building is off the charts. The city of Shadrapar feels very real, as does the world beneath it, but they pale into comparison next to The Island and the jungle around it. His descriptions are vivid, I saw the place in my mind’s eye, I smelt the place too, experienced the oppressive humidity of it, and felt like I was sharing a cell with poor Stefan. 

The story is told in the form of a memoir written by Stefan, and as such it bounces around in time somewhat, and there are several flashbacks to his before The Island, and despite knowing he will end up in prison, it is interesting to see how he got there, and the curious things he encountered beforehand, some of which have relevance for his new life.

There’s a bunch of interesting characters, including a sadistic marshal, a dashing duellist turned prison warden, and even a man who claims to have come from Earth’s past, and at the centre of it all is Stefan, not perfect, not a superman, he’s often weak and cowardly, and at times you might wish he had a trifle more agency, but he is a prisoner for much of the story don’t forget, and he never feels less than real.

Though there are moments of triumph, this isn’t the cheeriest of novels, there’s a melancholia that hangs over the story that’s as palpable as the mugginess that hangs over The Island, but there is perhaps some hope, even here at the end of history, even if that hope might not refer to humanity.

Tchaikovsky’s prose is always excellent, and despite its big ideas, this story rattles along at a decent pace. It might meander here and there, but the world and characters he’s created are so interesting you probably won’t mind too much.

Highly recommended.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted: February 5, 2022 in Film reviews

Directed by Jon Watts  Starring Tom Holland Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon and quite a lot of other people…

(Watched in January.)

Back to the cinema again! Quick warning, this review will be spoiler free insofar as the major plot points of the film go, however I will have to talk about the cast, which does include some surprises. Now I think it’s pretty common knowledge who else is in this film, but just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock and really would like to go into this cold, then maybe skip this review until you see the film.

The previous film ended with Mysterio framing Spider-Man for his own murder, and with J Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons the man who was born to play him) revealing that Peter Parker (Holland) is Spider-Man. While Peter is arrested, he’s soon released, although the world is now divided into those who believe him, and those who believe Msyterio’s fake news (feels very relevant doesn’t it!). Not only does Peter’s life become something of a nightmare, but this rubs off on his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Batalon), and when all three are turned down by MIT Peter visits Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch, who I’m liking more and more in the role) to ask him to cast a spell that will make people forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. This seems relatively straightforward but when Peter realises that MJ, Ned and Aunt May (the underused Tomei) will also forget that he’s Spider-Man, he tries to get Strange to alter the spell mid casting.

In the end Strange gives up, but it seems that he’s cast enough of the spell to have an unexpected impact on the multiverse. Rips are forming in the fabric of reality and villains from other universes are bleeding into Peter’s. Faced with a pantheon of evildoers Spider-Man’s going to need some help…

Okay, last chance…

Maybe it’s just the novelty of sitting in a cinema again for the first time since October and Bond, and only the second time since the pandemic hit, but I really really enjoyed this, and given this appears to be the sixth highest grossing film of all time it seems I’m not alone.

Not bad for a film that takes much of its inspiration from the excellent Into the Spiderverse and from that meme of Spiderman pointing at himself, and a film that lifts much of its cast from pre MCU Spidey films made between 2002 and 2014.

Sure, some elements of the plot don’t make a heap of sense when you think about them, but it doesn’t really matter because the film works so well on a visceral, emotional level, and the script and direction are punchy enough that even thought it’s two and a half hours long, it never outstays its welcome.

Holland continues to excel in a role it seems he was born to play, and I hope any rumours of him stepping down are wide of the mark, especially given where Spidey winds up at the end, wearing possibly my now favourite movie costume (side note one thing I’ve always slightly held against Holland’s Spidey is the patronage of Tony Stark and the gadget laden nanobot infused outfits.) Holland is great though, whether it’s as poor put-upon Peter—and he gets some hefty emotional scenes here—or as quippy Spider-Man.

His chemistry with Zendaya is wonderful, but perhaps not too surprising given they’re a couple in real life, and despite not always having enough to do, she does it well, as does Batalon as Ned whose chemistry with Holland can’t be attributed to an off-camera romance!

Cumberbatch has definitely relaxed into the Dr Strange role, though his accent still feels forced, and he has some good scenes with Holland, there’s also an amusing joke at his expense when we learn he’s no longer Sorcerer Supreme. He isn’t in it much, but Benedict Wong is always a joy to watch as Wong.

Now onto the villains, and what a clutch of bad guys our Peter must face. The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Electro, Lizard and Sandman! Some fare better than others, in particular Lizard and Sandman get short shrift, but that’s probably to be expected.

As Norman Osbourne Willem Dafoe is just amazing, and proves that he didn’t need that stupid costume back in 2002, his unmasked face is scary enough when he’s in Goblin mode, and he manages to flip between decent human being and maniacal psychopath with ease. Returning as Doc Ock Alfred Molina is also great, and to be honest Jamie Foxx probably gets a better run as Electro then he got in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Of course, as great as it is to see these bad guys show up, what’s even better is when Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield step through from their own universes.

When it first leaked that Dafoe, Garfield, Maguire and co were playing a part here I surmised, as did most people I imagine, that these would be little more than cameos, but the reality is something altogether much better, they’re in the film a lot, they each get their moment to shine and they’re absolutely not here to just make up the numbers, and the brotherly affection that develops between the three Peters is simply wonderful, especially with regard to Garfield as the somewhat side-lined middle child. Now I always loved Garfield in the role, but his films perhaps weren’t stellar, but here he finally gets to shine, and while unlikely, the notion of us seeing Garfield and maybe even Maguire again as Spider-Man is more films a mouth-watering thought.

There’s also a very funny joke shared between the three relating to the very different powers one Spidey has (I’ll say no more.)

The film’s funny, action packed, emotional, joyous and also heart-breaking, and it’s kinda weird to say given this is, what, Holland’s sixth cinematic appearance as Spidey, but this almost feels like the origin story we never got (with him at least).

Just great on every level, sure the plot maybe needed a bit of tightening up, and yes it is kinda hard to tell our three Spideys apart in the final battle, but minor, minor quibbles. This is amazing, this is spectacular, this is friendly neighbourhood…ok that didn’t work.

It’s great. Watch it!