Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

Nope

Posted: September 3, 2022 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott and Brandon Perea

Seen in August

After the inexplicable death of their father (always nice to see Keith David, however briefly) the Californian ranch he owned passes to Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr (Kaluuya) and his sister Em (Palmer). OJ tries to keep the ranch running, working as a horse wrangler for Hollywood, while his sister tries to make it in tinsel town anyway she can.

With money tight OJ is forced to sell some of his horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun) a former child star who now runs a small western themed amusement park nearby.

When their electricity starts to fluctuate, and the horses get spooked, OJ and Em begin seeing what they think is a UFO. With the help of local electronics whizz Angel (Perea) and legendary Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (Wincott) they set out to capture footage of the spaceship that they can sell for millions, but is everything quite what it appears?

And so we come to Jordan Peele’s third film as a director and I went in with some trepidation. I really liked Get Out, but I really didn’t like Us, so would this be thumbs up or thumbs down?

I’m happy to report it’s thumbs up, although it took a little while to get there. Make no mistake, this is a slow burn of a film, but by lord when it kicks into gear does it kick into gear! It’s also fair to say that this is a film I expect to like even more with repeat viewings, because it’s a film that might appear a trifle confusing until you get into it, with hindsight a whole heap of things make a lot more sense, in particular the flashbacks to an incident that happened to Jupe when he was a child filming a sitcom about an intelligent chimp. No spoilers here because the first flashback is right at the start. Suffice to say that what happened with the chimp does have a huge bearing on the wider story, as does Holst’s obsession with getting the ultimate shot.

At its heart this is a film about spectacle. From OJ and Em trying to get a money shot of a UFO, to Jupe’s need to put on a show and Holst’s obsession. There’s even a deranged TMZ paparazzi just in case you don’t get the message (a trifle obvious and possibly one tiny misstep?)

There are other themes but I’m not going into them as it will give the game away, not that there’s a stunning twist, but the story does take a sharp tun and it isn’t the film you think it’s going to be.   

Kaluuya is an actor I’ve admired since I first saw him in The Fades and Black Mirror. His performance here is at once understated whilst also being intense, he’s very much a man of few words, the taciturn cowboy whose eyes speak volumes (and it should be noted that he does indeed look damn cool sitting on a horse.)

By contrast Palmer is anything but reticent, her character is bold and brash and very much in your face, she brings the spark to the story and she and Kaluuya make for engaging siblings.

At first Perea’s Angel seems like he’ll be a minor character, but he hangs around and he becomes very much part of the gang.

Wincott is spot on casting, channelling his inner Hertzog to make Holst an intense, near fanatical cinematic artist.

That leaves Yeun, another favourite actor of mine, whose portrayal of the child star still haunted by the trauma of his youth is central to the story, even if it feels he’s slightly short-changed by the turn the story takes.

There are some genuine scares, and one truly horrible moment that might be one of the most unsettling things I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve heard this film compared to Under the Skin, and I can totally relate to the comparison, even though they’re very different films.

Peele’s direction is great, and he makes good use of sprawling desert vistas, the open sky, clouds and the little amusement park (which apparently you can go visit!). He does tension very well, and this film did have me on the edge of my seat on occasion.

It won’t be for everyone, and I’ve already heard that while NOPE might stand for Not Of Planet Earth, I’ve also it’s so titled because Peele thought that would be half the audience’s reaction upon discovering what it’s actually about!

It’s maybe a trifle too long and maybe takes a little too long to warm up, but it’s also stunningly original in an era of cookie cutter films. It’s well directed and well-acted. Nope gets a Yup from me!

By H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s work is seminal, and he’s been a huge influence on a host of horror and science fiction writers going forward. Despite this I wasn’t that familiar with his work. Sure, I’d read one or two stories, I’d seen a few films based on his work, and I played the Call of Cthulhu role playing game while at university, but as a fan of the horror and sci-fi genres I’d been remiss in reading many of his stories.

When I saw this beautiful hardback book going cheap in Waterstones, well I couldn’t resist. I ended up starting it quicker than I expected to thanks to a bout of covid which confined me to the house.

As always with anthologies I’ll break down how I felt about individual stories. I certainly enjoyed some of them, and I probably appreciate Lovecraft’s’ influence even more now, there is something definitely unsettling about the world of dark gods and cosmic horror he created. He is also not a terrible writer.

You know there’s a but here, right?

But, his prose can be laborious, and many stories are long and arduous to read, as such the further I got into the anthology the more reading it felt like a chore, which hasn’t put me off Lovecraft, quite the reverse, but for me at least I think going forward the trick will be to approach his work in small chunks. If I’d read a few stories then gone away and read something else before returning to read another story or two, and so on, I think I’d have enjoyed this far more.

It also has to be highlighted that Lovecraft was more than a little bigoted, especially when it comes to ethnic minorities, and at times this is reflected subtly, and often not so subtly in his work. Yes, he was a product of his time but I’m not sure that completely absolves him (plenty of his contemporaries aren’t horribly racist)  and it shouldn’t be ignored, however important he is to the genres of science fiction and horror.

Anyway, onto the stories:

The Call of Cthulhu

Perhaps the story Lovecraft is most famous for and it’s a doozy. Narrated Francis Wayland Thurston who explains that he has discovered an incredible story by going through the notes left behind by his uncle, who was a prominent professor of Semitic languages. Thurstan also finds a bizarre sculpture of a creature with a tentacled head and explains that his uncle discovered it was made by a young student in Rhode Island who crafted the sculpture based on dreams he had of incredible Cyclopean cities and of the creatures that inhabit them.

Thurstan then goes onto further studies by his uncle, whereby he encountered a policeman from Louisiana who talked of a curious cult that worshipped the old God Cthulhu. The policeman and his men had broken up what they thought was a voodoo cult, but turned out to be something much darker.

The final part of his uncle’s studies features a derelict ship in the Pacific. There was one survivor onboard, a Norwegian sailor with a tale of a mysterious island where his shipmates had lost their lives.

Thurstan travels to New Zealand and Australia to find out more.

It’s an odd tale, and like several other Lovecraft stories feels almost more like a history than an actual story, but his worldbuilding is so good, and the things he’s describing so creepy, that it almost doesn’t matter. It does go on a bit and there is some rather unfortunate language, but you can see how it spawned a sub-genre in its own right.

The Whisperer in the Darkness

Another long tale and another story recounted by a single narrator, in this case Albert Wilmarth, a lecturer at the fictious Miskatonic University. When strange things are found in Vermont rivers after a flood Wilmarth sides with the sceptics against those who claim there are old monsters living in the uninhabited Vermont hills.

When he receives a letter from Henry Wentworth, who lives in an isolated farmhouse in the Vermont hills, he begins to doubt his scepticism and he and Wentworth engage in correspondence about the strange creatures who Wentworth believes are menacing him.

Eventually Wilmarth travels into the wilderness to visit Wentworth and discovers something incredible and horrific.

A slight sidestep for Lovecraft here, there are Cthulhuish vibes here, but this is more science fiction then horror, featuring aliens rather than elder gods (never forgetting that theoretically those elder gods could be aliens too).

It’s another tale that goes on too long, but again another story that’s very interesting, although you will find yourself wondering just how dense Wilmarth is at one point.

His visit to Wentworth’s house is genuinely creepy, and the final reveal is a corker.

The Thing on the Doorstep

Daniel Upton, the narrator begins the story by explaining that he has murdered his best friend, Edward Derby, and then goes on to explain why he did. As a young man Derby had been reliant on his parents, and interested in the occult, after his parents’ death he marries a fellow student from Miskatonic University Asenath Waite. She too has an interest in the occult and moves into Derby’s home, brining with her three servants from her home in Innsmouth, a mysterious coastal town. As the years pass Daniel begins to notice changes in Derby’s personality, almost as if he was someone else. Is Asenath the villain of the piece, or curiously, is it her aged and infirm father Ephraim?

Another story that goes on far too long, but the central conceit is imaginative, and the story is genuinely unsettling.

The Lurking Fear

An unnamed reporter travels to the Catskills Mountain range to investigate reports of attacks by unidentified creatures. The attacks seem to be linked to violent thunderstorms, and also seem tied to the foreboding, deserted Martense mansion.

There’s a kernel of an interesting story here but this one just didn’t grab me, the first clunker of the collection, though it does feature a great jump scare midway.

The Shadow over Innsmouth

The unnamed narrator explains how he came to instigate a secret government investigation of the isolated, and partially deserted, seaport of Innsmouth.

Intrigued by superstitious tales about the town, including reference to an epidemic that killed off half the populace, and the rise of a pagan cult that became the town’s main religion, the narrator takes a bus ride to Innsmouth and discovers a brooding, near abandoned town, where many buildings lie empty and the locals show signs of inbreeding. A talk with a local drunk reveals a fantastical tale of old Gods and interbreeding with aquatic creatures. When the bus breaks down the narrator is forced to take a room for the night in the local hotel, and that’s when his nightmare really begins.

Another disquieting tale, and perhaps the one where I wish I’d taken a break after some of the earlier stories because I think I’d have liked it more. The history of Innsmouth is interesting, as is the narrator’s night-time adventures in trying to escape from it. It links neatly to the wider Cthulhu mythos and features a disturbing twist in the tale. It does take an age for anything to happen however!

The Shunned House

For many years the narrator and his uncle, Whipple, have been fascinated by an abandoned house in Providence. Dr Whipple has done a large amount of research tracking the mysterious, yet seeming unconnected, incidences of sickness and death that have cursed the various occupants of the house, to the point where no one will live there. There is curious fungus growing in the basement, and a strange mouldy outline on the floor that looks like a man curled up, there’s also a strange yellow vapour from time to time. The narrator and his uncle decide to spend the night in the basement, with horrific results.

There’s an interesting story here, and the title is great. As with many of Lovecraft’s works it is too long, but the way he explains the history of the house is really nicely done. I also like the way that for the most part he leaves it vague as to whether the cause is something supernatural or something more prosaic. It does go on way too long though, and the eventual resolution seems somewhat lacking.

From Beyond

An unnamed narrator details his experiences with a scientist named Crawford Tillinghast who creates a device that stimulates a person pineal gland, allowing them to see other realities and the creatures that live in them.

A short, sharp inventive tale that demonstrates one of Lovecraft’s  recurring themes, of things existing on other planes of reality.

Pickman’s Model

The story involves an artist named Richard Pickman whose work, whilst brilliant, is so horrifying that he is shunned by most in the artworld. The narrator is his friend, who Pickman takes to show his studio/gallery, squirreled away in a slum area of the city. There the narrator discovers how Pickman is able to paint such vivid monsters!

Another fairly short tale. It has a nice sting at the end and some unsettling moments throughout.  

The Nameless City

A(nother) nameless narrator discovers a lost and abandoned city in the middle of the Arabian peninsula. Whilst exploring the ruins he finds low ceilings buildings that doesn’t seem to have been designed for humans, and upon discovering a staircase leading down he descends into a bizarre necropolis where the bodies reserved are not remotely human.

I really liked this one. The decent into the lower regions of the city was incredibly unsettling (and did have me screaming for him to turn back at several points) and I enjoyed the dreamlike quality to it. It could be argued it doesn’t really go anywhere, but on the plus side it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome either. Probably the best story in the latter half of the book.

The Dreams in the Witch House

Walter Gilman, a student at Miskatonic university, rents a room in the Witch House, a place rumoured to be haunted by the spirits of Keziah Mason, an accused witch who somehow manged to escape execution, and her familiar, Brown Jenkins, a creature with the body of a rat but the face of a man. Gilman begins having terrible nightmares that feature both of them, and lead him to become obsessed with understanding a new form of geometry that would allow for the existence of other universes to be perceived.

I really struggled with this one, in part because again it’s too long, but also because of its placing at the end of the book and I was just so ready to finish it. It feels like a smorgasbord of Lovecraft’s obsessions. In some respects this makes the central story interesting, but it also makes it confused. We have the supernatural, human sacrifices, witchcraft and devilish creatures, but there’s also a huge portion of cosmic horror and science fiction given Gilman’s fascination with unearthly geometry which seems to promise the ability to teleport between worlds.

I suspect I would have liked this more if I’d read it earlier in the book.

Slow Bullets

Posted: July 29, 2022 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Alastair Reynolds

It is the far future and a huge conflict encompassing hundreds of worlds is coming to an end. Scur is a conscripted soldier fighting for one of the factions. She is relieved that war is ending, but then she’s captured by Orvin, a vicious renegade fighting for the other side who intends for her a slow, painful death.

She escapes this fate and wakes up aboard an unfamiliar ship, lightyears from any recognisable world. It soon becomes clear that the ship is filled with war criminals from both sides of the conflict, plus a large number of civilians. It also soon becomes clear that something has gone very wrong with this ship, and the worlds they left behind may no longer exist. In the midst of this chaos Scur then discovers that she knows one of the other passengers It’s Orvin. Can she overcome her desire for revenge when an uncertain future faces the mismatched crew of this ship?

As anyone who’s a regular reader of my blog will know, I’m a huge fan of Reynolds, and when I earned from free money via my Waterstones’ card, I decided to spend it on Slow Bullets, because the price had always put me off given it’s only a novella.

Whilst I’m not sorry I bought this, and it is an interesting read, it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t put this in the upper tier of Reynolds’ work. Lacking the punchiness of a short story, and the room to breathe that a full novel would have provided, Slow Bullets falls between two stools. At times it feels too long, but mostly it feels way too short.

There’s an interesting premise here and I think Reynolds should have either written it as a short story, or gone all in and made it a novel, which would have allowed him to expand on a lot of elements and flesh out the characters, most of whom, including Orvin, are quite two dimensional. Scur is interesting, as is her friend Prad, one of the ship’s original crew, but even so it would have been interesting to find out more about both of them.

The concept of the Slow Bullets themselves is intriguing (they’re not remotely what you might think) and like I said there the basis of a great novel here about survival against the odds and about the possibility of rebooting civilisation, and I did enjoy it, it just left me wanting a lot more. That being said, as a gateway into Reynold’s work this might make for a good start.

Roadside Picnic

Posted: June 18, 2022 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

It is the near future, and the world is living in the aftermath of what’s called The Visitation. Over a period of two days alien visitors landed at six locations around the Earth. No one saw the visitors, or even their means of arrival or departure. Within the six zones, each covering just a few kilometres, strange and dangerous phenomena are observed, and curious artefacts of great power have been left behind.

A subculture of scavengers, termed Stalkers, has grown up. These Stalkers illegally venture into the zones to forage for powerful artefacts which they then sell on the black-market. Meanwhile the government try to prevent the Stalkers entering the zones, while exploring them themselves to gain a technological advantage.

Redrick “Red” Schuhart is one of the Stalkers who keeps returning to the Zone, even though he knows each trip might be his last.

An intriguing book, written in 1971 by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and the version of the book I had not only features a new translation, but also information about how the original story was heavily censored by the Soviet government.

It’s an interesting book, one I’d heard of in relation to the film version, Stalker, which was directed by Andrei ‘Solaris’ Tarkovsky. It’s a book that at once deals with weighty ideas, while at the same time retains a pulpy edge. The idea of the Visitations is a novel one, and where the titular notion of the roadside picnic comes from. One character theorises that the aliens had no grand plan, and didn’t even know humanity existed, they merely stopped for a rest, perhaps for a bite to eat, and left without knowing humanity even existed, leaving their litter and junk in their wake that humans chance upon like so many insects chancing upon discarded sweet wrappers and soda cans.

The concept that we don’t understand these artefacts, even the ones that are useful, is an intriguing one, and the effect the Zone has on those who enter it; mutating the children of Stalkers, bringing the dead back to life is also curious.

In the end the story doesn’t really go anywhere, because there isn’t really anywhere to go. There are no grand revelations, we don’t understand the aliens, and possibly never will, and that, I’m guessing, is the point.

An enjoyable read, and it’s always nice to try out new authors and I may try these brothers again.

Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez and Rachel McAdams.

Seen in May.

Warning. I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum but it’s kinda hard to talk about this film without revealing certain things, most of which is revealed early on, but if you want to stay completely in the dark, don’t read on!

In another universe another Doctor Strange fights to protect a young woman named America Chavez (Gomez) who is being pursued by demonic entities intent of taking her power, the ability to travel between parallel worlds; although it is a power she can’t control. Strange is killed and America accidentally creates a portal that transports her, and Strange’s corpse, to the Earth where our Dr Strange (Cumberbatch) is reluctantly attending the wedding of colleague, and woman he loves, Christine Palmer (McAdams). Suddenly America arrives and so does the demon. With the help of the Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) Strange defeats the demon which followed America.

America is initially distrusting of our Strange as the Doctor Strange in the last universe tried to kill her to stop the demon gaining her power. In search of answers Strange visits Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) but soon discovers the individual who is really behind the demons hunting America.

Soon Strange and America are on the run, America gets them to another universe where Strange is revered as a hero, but is this place as welcoming as it first appears?

Marvel’s knack for using new and up-and-coming directors continues with a young man named Sam Raimi who I think has a bright future ahead of him. Ho ho. For some Raimi perhaps isn’t the first name that springs to mind but he’s the perfect choice here, though oddly that’s less down to his experience of big budget superhero movies (three Spidey films) and more down to his horror roots, because make no mistake, in many ways The Multiverse of Madness is a horror film, and the longer it goes on the less MCU it feels and the more Evil Dead (albeit a heavily sanitised, kiddie friendly Evil Dead! We’re talking Army of Darkness here not the first one!)

I’ve always been pretty up-front that initially I wasn’t sure about Cumberbatch as Strange, but he’s really grown into the role, and grown in my estimation, which is just as well as he seems to be one of the main focal points of the MCU’s newest phase. The accent still feels a little off at times, but he’s left the cold Strange of the first film behind and, along with in Far from Home, turned into something of a father figure, first for Peter Parker and now for America Chavez. Cumberbatch is also clearly having a lot of fun with the role. Plus, the fact that Cumberbatch is such a good actor means you’re never 100% sure you can trust him. He’s still a little vain, a little arrogant, all of which adds to the allure of the character, and makes it all the easier to imagine other universes where that vanity tips him over the edge into becoming something far darker.

However good Cumberbatch is however, this film belongs to Elizabeth Olsen. Fresh from an amazing performance in WandaVision, Olsen is incredible. Yes she’s the bad guy, but her rationale elevates her above most antagonists, and much as she did in WandaVision she gets to act every ounce of Wanda’s grief and pain and longing. The Academy won’t care of course, but I’m pretty sure there are some universes out there where her performance would get her an Oscar nod.

If there’s one thing Marvel has been guilty of its wasting talented actresses. Thankfully they seem to be putting this right. We’ll soon have Natalie Portman going all God of Thunder on us, and here Rachel McAdams finally gets something to sink her teeth into as an alternate Christine. 

Benedict Wong is rapidly becoming the glue that holds the MCU together, it’s just a shame that Wong might never get his own movie. He does get more to do here than he has in some of his recent cameo appearances at least.

Gomez is very engaging as America and I’m guessing we’ll see her again. It’s always nice to see Ejiofor, here as an alternate version of Mordo, though as with the first Doctor Strange film, again you feel that the MCU hasn’t figured out the best use of his talents.

There are a few other cameos, alternate versions of characters we know, or even new heroes we’ve yet to see in the MCU. There’s no need to spoil their presences here, though chances are you might already know about a few, and one is very obvious from the trailers. Suffice to say there’s a certain person with a shield I’m hoping to see again one day in some shape or form.

So, all in all I thought this was a very good film, and it seems to have gone down well with audience as well. My only concern was whether you had to have seen the Marvel tv shows WandaVision and What if…? In order to enjoy it? Maybe not, although I think seeing both heightened my enjoyment. Some people have said this film throws the Wanda of WandaVision under the bus but I’m not sure it does. It may have looked like Wanda had come to terms with her grief, but that was before she started studying the Darkhold. I really do hope this isn’t the last we see of Wanda, and I also hope that next time out Scarlet Witch gets to be on the side of angels.

I’ve also seen people complaining that we don’t really get a multitude of multiverses—most of the action takes place in just two—but I think that works to the film’s advantage. Things could have got very confusing.

Raimi’s direction is flawless. He’s comfortable with special effects and a big budget, but some of the jump scares he gives us are very old school, and in particular Wanda possessing an alternate version of herself if creepy as anything.

 For all that people claim MCU films are cookie cutter and all alike, well this one for sure isn’t. I certainly didn’t expect that the final battle would be between Wanda and…well, you’ll find out.

Funny, inventive, action packed and full to the brim with excellent performances, this is top tier Marvel.

Give this woman an Oscar now!

Cage of Souls

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

My story ‘By the Lake Where We First Loved’ that was accepted by Analog magazine back in November 2020 has finally been published in the January/February 2022 issue! You can’t imagine how wonderful it was to see my story in such a prestigious publication! Find out more at the Analog website.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung.

The latest in my irregular review series of films I would have seen at the cinema if it wasn’t for this pesky pandemic.

Shaun (Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) are best friends and work as parking valets in San Francisco, they lead a fairly aimless existence which annoys some of their friends. One day on the bus they’re attacked by strangers who are intent on stealing Shaun’s necklace. To Katy’s astonishment Shaun proceeds to fight the gang off, although they do make off with his pendant.

Shaun reveals to Kary that his name is really Shang-Chi and he’s the son of Xu Wenwu (Leung) the head of the clandestine Ten Rings organisation. A thousand years ago Wenwu discovered ten mystical rings which not only granted him immortality, but also God like powers. For hundreds of years the Ten Rings operates as a criminal empire, toppling governments across the world, but then in the late 20th Century Wenwu met Ying Li (Chen), guardian of Ta Lo, a village said to harbour mythical beasts. The two fell in love and Wenwu put away his rings and Li left her village to be with him. They had two children, the eldest of which was Shang-Chi.

Sadly tragedy led to Wenwu resurrecting the Ten Rings organisation. Despite being trained as an assassin Shang-Chi escaped and fled to San Francisco and a normal life. Until now. Fearful that the Ten Rings will go after his sister, Xu Xialing (Zhang) Chang-Chi flies to Macau to warn her, and Katy goes along too. All too soon they’re embroiled in an adventure that could have catastrophic consequences for the world.

Shang-Chi isn’t a character I’m overly familiar with, the notion of the magic rings seemed a little preposterous, even for Marvel, and I’ve never been a huge fan of kung fu movies, and so this idea of seeing this film didn’t grab me as much as some Marvel films have. Of course, I might have once said similar thing about the Guardians of the Galaxy, so you’d think I’d have learned my lesson. Turns out Shang-Chi is a hugely enjoyable film full of action, humour, magic and heart. As the first Asian led Marvel film it’s also a little bit different from what we’ve seen before, although it does follow the Marvel template for the most part, which of course means a giant battle at the end, albeit one that isn’t as soulless as some have been.

Liu is great as the protagonist, a handsome leading man who can clearly handle the physicality of the role, yet who’s also vulnerable and conflicted where it comes to his family.

As his sister Zhang is equally good, especially factoring in this is her first film role (it won’t be her last). This is far from Leung’s first film, he has a huge body of work behind him and he’s excellent as Wenwu, who is more than just another two-dimensional villain. Given how badly this character has been portrayed before (effectively he’s the Mandarin) it’s testament to Marvel that they went all out to give us a well-rounded villain.

It’s no surprise to find Michelle Yeoh turning up later on in the film, and as is always the case her presence elevates matters—that woman is incapable of giving a poor performance.

Michelle Yeoh as Jiang Nan in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2021 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.

There are also a couple of characters from previous Marvel films who show up, one in particular was a complete surprise and proved very funny.

Not as funny as Awkwafina of course, and it’s fair to say that Katy is my favourite character in the film, funny, snarky, brave yet also for much of the film, as Awkwafina herself has said, useless. Much like Yeoh I’ve yet to see Awkwafina be anything less than great in anything I’ve seen her in (admittedly in fewer films).

The fight choreography is superb, in particular the fight on the bus and a battle that takes place on the outside of a skyscraper in Macau! Even if it is a bit predictable, the final fight is also great to watch. The quieter moments don’t disappoint either, and this is more than just a sequence of fights strung together. Cretton’s direction is spot on throughout.

Funny, exciting and downright magical, this is top drawer Marvel and I can’t wait for the sequel!

Directed by John Krasinski. Starring Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou and John Krasinski.

Another in my irregular series of films I would have seen at the cinema. Please note, while I won’t be including spoilers for this film, discussing it will involve spoilers for the original Quiet Place so be warned!

In an opening flashback we see the arrival of the aliens that will soon ravage the Earth and view how the Abbott family (including Krasinski as dad, Lee) survive the initial assault.

We then return to the present and pick up immediately after the end of the first film, where the surviving members of the family Evelyn (Blunt) Regan (Simmonds) Marcus (Jupe) and Evelyn’s new-born baby are attempting to find more survivors. They come across Emmett (Murphy) once a family friend but now an embittered survivor reeling from the death of his family. Emmett is reluctant to let the family stay but Evelyn convinces him to give them some time to rest.

When a song comes on the radio Emmett explains that it’s been playing over and over for months. Regan deduces that it’s a message from another group of survivors and sets out to find them, hoping the discovery that her cochlear implant can disorient the aliens can be weaponized.

As Regan travels into unknown territory and into peril, those who stayed behind aren’t safe either, and there are other dangers now beyond the aliens.

A Quiet Place is one of those films that came out of nowhere, a low(ish)budget monster movie with a great hook, what if the world was invaded by monsters who, although blind, had incredibly sensitive hearing and the only way to survive was to commit to living in a world of near total silence? Despite a huge plot hole it succeeded because the script, direction and performances were all top drawer. The script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, rewritten by Krasinski, was excellent, and Krasinski’s direction was spot on, creating a tense environment where the slightest noise could mean certain death. Added to this the cast were superb, with the standout being Simmonds, deaf in real life. When the first film was a hit a sequel was inevitable, it’s just a shame we had to wait over a year from when it was supposed to come out. As with any such sequel the most important question is, is it as good as the first one?

And the answer is, almost, which I think for the majority of sequels is a ringing endorsement. It lacks the surprise factor of the first film, and the bigger budget means more action set pieces and perhaps a little less of the intimate tension of the original but it’s still a superior monster movie.

Again the cast prove one of the film’s greatest strengths. Blunt is a superb actress, and she’s not afraid to take a back seat to let others shine. For a while I worried she was taking too much of a supporting role but thankfully as the film progresses she comes into it more, though the real leads in this film are Simmonds and Jupe, who are both great once again. I love how Jupe plays Marcus as almost perpetually terrified, but who wouldn’t have PTSD in this world? He gets to develop more this time, becoming more of a hardened survivor by the end of the film. Simmonds carries on her star role from the first film, and again is the best thing about the film. Determined and willing to stride into the unknown, despite her disability—which as the film shows is exacerbated in this world because she can’t hear when she’s made a noise—yes you might call her foolhardy, but the character has agency, and drives the story onwards, and it’s great to see someone differently abled being shown as up to the task of survival as anyone else. This leaves Cillian Murphy who’s long been an actor I’ve admired and he slots into the film perfectly as Emmett. Like Blunt his American accent is spot on and he essays a man who’s lost everything perfectly, and you’re never quite sure if he’ll do the right thing. As he did so well in Peaky Blinders and Dunkirk he does a thousand-yard stare with scary authenticity, leaving you in no doubt that Emmett is a man who’s seen horrible things.

Djimon Hounsou rounds out the cast. Another actor I like but he isn’t given much to work with here, in fact his character doesn’t even get a name!

While the world is broadened somewhat it doesn’t go all globe trotting or epic on us, retaining the small scale that worked so well. Yes there’s more CGI, and yes the aliens seem a trifle familiar but coming up with truly original monster designs is a tough ask. Despite their familiarity they’re still a potent threat and in Krasinski’s hands a source of unbelievable tension at times.

Don’t shout it from the rooftops (“they” might hear) but roll on A Quiet Place Part III if it can be this good.

Terminal World

Posted: August 9, 2021 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Alastair Reynolds

It is the distant future and human civilisation is largely confined to Spearpoint, a huge artificial spire around which various cities weave. For some reason different parts of the city exist in slightly different realms, meaning technology that works in one won’t work in another. At the top of the spire live the post human Angels in the celestial levels, but below them there’s Circuit City, then Neon Heights, Steamville and Horsetown.

When an Angel falls to its death, landing in Neon Heights, a pathologist Quillon, a man with a secret, will be forced to run for his life, and embark on a quest that will see him descend through the various parts of Spearpoint assisted by an extraction specialist, Meroka, and eventually she will lead him away from Spearpoint, into the wilderness that surrounds it, a lawless land filled with crazed Skullboys and biomechanical Carnivorgs.

But there might be some order out there after all, a force that broke away from Spearpoint centuries ago, and with their help, perhaps Quillon can put an end to the zones once and for all.

I’m a big fan of Reynolds, but for some reason this novel didn’t grab me quite as surely as his others have. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as his others.

Part of the problem is perhaps that I’ve just not that into steampunk, and there’s also the shifting tone. The story starts out quite noirish, before morphing into an action adventure and then into a western before shifting again to steampunk.

Perhaps there’s just a little too much going on, and even by the end a lot of things don’t make much sense. I’ve just read that Reynolds himself says the story isn’t set where I thought it was, and various clues as to the real location went right over my head.

Reynolds’ imagination is, as always, on top form, and even if the idea of different zones where different technologies work sounds bonkers, he makes it work. It’s a long book and there are stretches where you wish he’d get on with it.  It doesn’t help that Quillon seems quite a dry protagonist, even though he’s one of the most human people in the story.

In many respects there something for everyone here; incredible worldbuilding and high concept sci-fi ideas, as well as vicious foes and bloody shootouts, not to mention a fleet of airships and a lot of air-to-air combat. That it doesn’t always slot together neatly is perhaps the reason I didn’t fall quite in love with it as I have others (Though in fairness you could cite Century Rain as another high concept melding of different genres, though I loved that one to bits).

Still highly recommended.

Oh yes, and Reynolds published some excised vignettes from the book if you’re interested. I would recommend reading the book first however.