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A collection of chilling short stories and novellas published in 2012.

I always have a feeling of trepidation when I buy a book like this. The days when I hung onto every book I ever read are long gone, and I read a lot of anthologies like this, so I always worry that I’ll pick up an anthology I’ve read before. Luckily within the first couple of stories it was clear I’d never encountered this collection before, so phew!

As with any anthology there’s good and bad in here, which at least means if you didn’t like a tale, you’ll probably like the next one, or at least the one after that.

There’s 26 stories in here and I don’t intend to go through all of them, but I will highlight the ones I thought were most impressive, and maybe some of the duds as well…

Some Kind of Light Shines from Your Face by Gemma Files is an interesting tale of carnivals and Greek myths in the Depression era dustbowl. Like the location its set in, it’s an arid read, and the notion of Gorgons existing on the edge of 1930s American society is an intriguing one.

The Photographer’s Tale by Daniel Mills is a story of a possibly haunted lens that allows a photographer in 19th Century America to see more than he’s bargained for. This is one of my favourites, the conceit is an intriguing, if not wholly original one, but the execution is well handled, and like all the best horror, it’s about more than is at first apparent, in this case the sins of the past and a profound guilt at past wrongs.

The Tower by Mark Samuels is one I didn’t like. Maybe I didn’t ‘get’ it, and I’m sure this tale of a man who sees a mysterious tower in London that he can never reach has a broader meaning I’m just not understanding, but I was glad to get past it.

I’m a sucker for a pulpy detective story, especially one with supernatural overtones, so I enjoyed Dancing Like We’re Dumb by Peter Atkins. The punkish lesbian detective Kitty Donnelly makes for an engaging narrator, and while the end was a trifle limp, for the most part this tale of possessed old records was a blast!

In Miri by Steve Rasnic Tem the protagonist is still haunted by what can best be described as an emotional vampire who he had a relationship with at university. An uncomfortable story with some disturbing ideas behind it.

Sad, Dark Thing by Michael Marshall Smith is a meditation on depression and a cautionary tale about driving down remote backwoods’ roads!

Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar by Robert Silverberg is an interesting tale of a mysterious phantom town in colonial India, told in the style of Kipling. I liked it, but did feel it was more a fantasy tale than an out and out horror. There’s more than a touch of Brigadoon about it.

The Crawling Sky by Joe R. Lansdale touched a nerve somewhat because his tale of a demonic presence living in a well in the old west is kinda similar to something I’ve written myself! True what they say, there’s no new ideas under the sun. Luckily our respective tales deviate quite a bit! Anyway, it’s good.

Wait by Conrad Williams was a little disappointing, but bonus points for his cave system being modelled on Poole’s Cavern in Buxton which I’ve been to, and the idea of caves that have remained sealed for millions of years is an interesting one, even if the execution was only so-so.

The Ocean Grand, North West Coast by Simon Kurt Unsworth features an interesting trio of characters, with a grand old art deco hotel providing the fourth. The ideas at work were intriguing, but like so many horror stories the ending was somewhat limp.

The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer by John Ajvide Lindqvist is an unsettling tale of a father and son who move to a remote cabin, where the son begins piano lessons but soon starts playing music that should never be played…

Like I say, a decent anthology, albeit the usual mixed bag of good and bad tales, but I’m sure there’s something in here to provoke a few nightmares!

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X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Posted: June 29, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Simon Kinberg. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp and Jessica Chastain.

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It is 1992, nine years following the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, and the X-Men are now well established as heroes. Mutants are no longer hunted, and even Magneto (Fassbender) has stopped fighting, concentrating instead on founding a home for mutants on a remote island. Meanwhile Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is enjoying the adoration that the X-Men bring and has no compunction in sending them on increasingly dangerous missions despite the warnings of Mystique (Lawrence, doing the minimum amount to fulfil her contract). When a space shuttle is threatened by what seems to be a solar flare, Xavier insists the X-Men travel into orbit, despite the misgivings of Beast (Hoult). When disaster strikes Jean Grey (Turner) saves the day, but also absorbs a significant amount of energy.

Back on Earth Jean finds her telekinetic powers have become much stronger, and she’s also begun to remember her past, and a tragedy that Xavier forced her to forget. Increasingly belligerent Jean’s powers, and her rage, grow exponentially, with tragic results for the X-Men. As she goes on the run her exploits make humankind fear mutants again. Hunted by human and mutant alike Jean’s only ally is Vuk  (Chastain) and alien who understands the power Jean now wields, but does Vuk really want to help Jean or does she have an ulterior motive and can the X-Men bring themselves to take down one of their own?

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It’s scary to realise that it’s almost 20 years since X-Men first hit our screens. No one could have guessed the film could be a success, and no one could have guessed how huge a star a certain Mr Jackman would go on to be. There have been 12 films in the X-Men universe so far, and to say their quality has been variable is an understatement. X2 was a rare sequel better than the original, but the follow up (which also featured the Jean Grey/ Phoenix story and was also written by Kinberg) Last Stand was awful, and the Wolverine film that followed was possibly worse. The franchise was reinvigorated by the superb First Class, slipping back in time and recasting the actors, bringing in the likes of McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence, but the franchise has struggled to come close to that highpoint again. Days of Future Past was enjoyable, thanks in no small part to Jackman, but Apocalypse was mediocre at best, not terrible but not exactly exciting.

And so we come to Fox’s penultimate film in the franchise before they had it all over to Disney, and whilst not unenjoyable, the X-Men exit with a whimper rather than a bang.

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Part of the problem is the story, and however much Kinberg wanted a chance to do the Dark Phoenix idea better (a chance afforded by Days of Future Past rewriting the timeline) it’s still a story we saw not that long ago. The story veers all over the place, and whilst Chastain is eerily alien, Vuk never feels like enough of a threat. The dialogue is clunky, and the “maybe we should be the X-Women” line is well intentioned but seems like a sop, especially when for large portions of the film it’s male characters doing much of the heavy lifting.

Lawrence doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort, and some of the younger cast do seem a trifle overawed or side-lined, take Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, though it is hard to express much emotion when your eyes are constantly covered up, or Shipp as Storm who doesn’t get nearly enough to do. Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler is good fun however.

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Turner is good, and gets to show quite a range, but for saying the film is about her, at times the focus shifts too far away from her and she becomes less a character than a plot point. Still the Queen of the North continues to impress as an actor, though the accent takes a little getting used to.

McAvoy, Fassbender (as Magneto) and Hoult are all great actors, and not a one of them feels like they’re phoning it in, but they can only do so much with the material at hand, and the film, like many X-Men films, is kinda hamstrung by feeling the need to be an allegory of the civil rights movement, all the time, and I’m not sure how many times Magneto can flit between sides in the conflict, it all starts becoming a trifle samey.

I wasn’t bored, there’s some neat humour, some good performances, and some enjoyable set pieces—especially the fight on the train—but every time you think the film is going to spring into life it backs down or diverts down a narrative alley.

An enjoyable but in the end eminently forgettable superhero film, but it is at least better than Last Stand (and probably Apocolypse). I guess we wait now to see what Disney will do with Professor X and co, but I can’t help thinking whatever that is, they’ll do it better.

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“I think I can see Micky Mouse from here!”

 

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And so we come to the final Bond film of the 60s, and a somewhat unique beast given its atypical length (until Casino Royale this was the longest Bond film by far) unconventional structure (certainly in comparison to most of the franchise) and of course, most notably, the fact that it’s the one and only time George Lazenby straps on the Walther PPK.

If I’m asked to name my favourite Bond film, OHMSS tends to trip automatically off my tongue, but it had been a few years since I’d seen it so, as with each film in this re-watch, I did have a little trepidation going in, would it live up to my lofty expectations, or would it appear I’ve been labouring under a false belief all these years.

Let’s cut to the chase, I bloody love it!

It really is a top-drawer film, a proper film in so many ways, and it’s interesting to compare it to the mishmash that was You Only Live Twice. The script here is far stronger, which helps enormously, and by all accounts this is the Bond flick that adheres most directly to the book (which I really must read again). Peter Hunt’s direction also helps. One can’t help feeling that he’s choosing to direct a film, not a Bond film, and I wonder if the franchise could do with trying that again some time.

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Given it’s his one and only film, let’s talk Lazenby. Old George gets a rough time from critics, he’s wooden, he can’t act, he’s a joke. In all honestly Lazenby could be considered one of the weakest elements of the film, yet also, conversely, maybe it’s strongest asset. In the end however good Rigg is (and we’ll come onto Dame Diana shortly) this film succeeds because of that final scene, and the fact that George sells it in a way many another Bond actor might not have. It’s even more evident after so recently watching YOLT, but just imagine Connery in that final scene. I shudder at the very thought. It’d be like Austin Powers at the start of The Spy who Shagged Me “Way hey, I’m single again!”.

Lazenby won’t ever win a best Bond contest, but he was the perfect Bond for the perfect Bond film. His inexperience and vulnerability make this film work, and sure, he wouldn’t have been half as good in something like Goldfinger, but in OHMSS he’s spot on, and I really wish he’d done one more film, and that the producers had decided to focus on Bond getting revenge rather than the half hearted attempt Connery makes during Diamond’s pre title sequence (but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

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I do love a happy ending…

Lazenby certainly has the look, and it’s amazing to consider he was just 28 when this was made! And really I don’t think he’s that terrible an actor all things considered, and he potentially could have grown into the role. He has the physicality, and convinces in the action scenes, but also the romantic ones. He and Diana Rigg may or may not have hated each other during filming, but onscreen at least they effortlessly play the part of two people madly in love, and however much Diana may have been carrying George at time in those scenes, it really does take two to tango, so I think he deserves some credit.

Yes his delivery of some lines is a little ropey, and he doesn’t have the witty delivery of Connery (or Moore or Brosnan) but he arguably gives one of the greatest bits of the franchise when he’s cradling Tracy’s head in his lap.

tracy3So let’s talk Tracy. Oh my, if OHMSS is my default fave Bond film, then Diana Rigg is my default fave Bond girl, and let’s be clear here, she more as likely always will be. Beautiful and determined, ethereal yet steely, Diana Rigg is nothing short of magnificent, and after all the, let’s be honest, insipid Bond girls we’ve had up to now (excepting Fiona Volpe of course) Tracy is a breath of fresh air. This is a character with true agency, a damaged soul who, lest we forget, when we first meet is trying to kill herself. She’s a risk taker, a woman who, as her father says, has burned the life out of herself by living too fast. This is a woman who gambles with money she doesn’t have and then pays her debt in Bond’s bed, which is her decision, unlike certain other 007’s Lazenby does give her the option of not paying her debt in this fashion. Yes, you could argue she’s a damsel in distress who needs Bond to save her, but I think that’s a flawed assertion. What rises Tracy way above the average is that she chooses to let Bond save her. He doesn’t just rescue her, she lets him rescue her.

And of course she’s quite capable of looking after herself, she skis as well as Bond, drives as well as Bond, and is pretty handy in a fight as well, just see how she despatches Gunther late on—and interesting to note that the Bond theme that started playing when the attack on Piz Gloria began, cuts out just as she kills him, almost like she was 007 (now there’s a thought to rile an awful lot of fans!)

She’s also quite capable of turning on the charm, and the scene where she quotes James Elroy Flecker to beguile Blofeld is so joyous I think I could watch it on a loop all day.

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“Who loves ya baby!”

Ah, Blofeld. Savalas is an interesting choice, the very antithesis of Pleasance, and not remotely like Charles Grey who’ll be up next, but if he perhaps isn’t an urbane foe, he does at least make for an intimidating one. You can’t imagine Donald Pleasance or Grey in a bobsleigh after all. He’s not the best Blofeld, but he might well be the most dangerous. His grand scheme is bonkers, and it’s nice that even he acknowledges that his price is ridiculous!

As Tracy’s father Draco Gabriele Ferzetti has the kind of easy charm that places Draco on a par with Kerim Bey or Tiger.

Ilse Steppat is wonderful as Irma Bunt, albeit there are shades of Rosa Kleb to the character. I hadn’t realised that she sadly died just a few days after the film’s release. She was only 52.

Tragedy would also befall another cast member, albeit later in life. I won’t go into Angela Scoular’s demise here, but I will say that Ruby Bartlett was a joy, can you imagine a Lancashire gal like that turning up in a Bond film these days?

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This certainly never happened to the other fella!

There are some other famous faces in amongst Blofeld’s angels of death of course. Catherine Schell would go on to play Maya in Space 1999, and before eventually winding up as Patsy in Ab Fab,  Joanna Lumley would of course follow in Diana Rigg’s boots by being in the (New) Avengers.

The recurring characters get a few nice moments, in particular Lois Maxwell plays nicely against Lazenby, and there’s a nice moment between her and M (such a shame Maxwell didn’t get the job as M, imagine that dynamic when Bond came in for his assignment!) Q’s wedding day advice to Bond is quite amusing as well.

The action scenes are top notch here, although you do have to wait a while, 007 doesn’t kill anyone until we’re 90 minutes in. This gives the film room to breath of course, and allows for the courtship of Bond and Tracy, Casino Royale will attempt the same thing, only slightly less successfully as it will be squeezed in near the end.

Eventually we get ski chases, and car chases, helicopter attacks and Lazenby sliding along the curling track firing a submachine gun, and we get that bobsleigh chase as well. Not to mention Bond’s escape from the cable car control room is quite hairy as well.

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Bond also gets to do some actual spying, breaking into Gumbold’s office and his safe before making off with his copy of playboy, and then going under cover as Sir Hilary Bray.

And okay, here’s where we get one of the film’s several contrivances. Why doesn’t Blofeld recognise James?  I mean they have met, that both men look different doesn’t negate the fact that technically they’re the same men they were in YOLT. Maybe 007’s had plastic surgery (an idea that didn’t make the final script) maybe Blofeld banged his head when he was escaping that exploding volcano or maybe, like Lois Lane, Ernst Stavro is easily fooled by a pair of glasses?

In the end it doesn’t spoil the film one iota, and nor does the convenience of Bond happening to bump into Tracy at the ice rink.

I’ve said this is my favourite film, and features my favourite Bond girl, but it also features my favourite Bond tune. No, not We have all the time in the world, though Louis Armstrong’s song is a doozy. I’m referring to John Barry’s instrumental. A wonderfully evocative and exciting track that still gets my heart pumping to this day, and yes I even like it better than the James Bond theme!

You can quibble about the producer’s decision to hark back to the previous films all day—scenes from the past films play over the titles, when Bond is considering resigning his draw is full of all manner of props from other films (though how he got Honey’s knife off her I’ll never know) and we even get a man whistling Goldfinger as he cleans Draco’s office—and you can be annoyed at Bond breaking the fourth wall for the one and only time, but I really don’t care, and Bond’s “This never happened to the other fellow,” like the title track, never fails to make me smile.

A Bond film like no other, with a Bond girl like no other and, most importantly of all, an ending that knocks the stuffing out of you, OHMSS really is magnificent.

Now on to the seventies and the return of a familiar face…

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Rocketman

Posted: June 1, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden and Bryce Dallas Howard.

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Crippled by a morass of addictions (drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping!) Elton John (Egerton) checks himself into rehab and looks back on the events that have brought him to this point, from his childhood (when he was still Reginald Dwight) as a boy with cold parents, his father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and his mother Sheila (Howard), where he first showed an aptitude for the piano, to the formation of a song writing duo with Bernie Taupin (Bell) and his troubled relationship with music producer John Reid (Madden). Despite his success Elton has to keep his sexuality a secret, which puts more pressure on him. As he spirals down into drug fuelled depression can he find salvation?

 

There’s a curious sense of déjà vu in many respects when it comes to Rocketman. An unconventional looking rock star who has to hide his true sexuality, a man incredibly successful yet perhaps doomed to a life of loneliness, a world of excess; drugs, sex, booze etc. A manipulative lover/manager who takes advantage of our hero, and the true friends he comes to realise he needs after all.

So far so Bohemian Rhapsody (throw in the fact that Madden’s character features in BR too, and that Fletcher finished off the directing on the Freddie Mercury biopic and you’ve pretty much got a full house) yet curiously these films are chalk and cheese in every other respect once you scratch beneath the surface. While BR was a pretty straightforward biography of Mercury, Rocketman is something altogether more, if you’ll pardon the pun, mercurial. It’s hard to say for sure but it feels like with this film Fletcher had far more freedom, which is odd in some respects given the subject of this film is still very much alive and involved in the production, but this isn’t some vanity project, or at least if it is it’s quite clearly of the warts and all variety, because Elton doesn’t necessarily come out of it as a virtuous hero, quite the reverse. Yes he’s manipulated, and yes he’s forced to live a lie, but he’s also something of a dick, and he freely admits it when he gleefully tells his rehab group that he’s been a C***T

Central to the film is the casting. Curious to consider that, originally and many moons ago, Justin Timberlake was in line to play the part, but that does make a bit more sense than Tom Hardy who was attached more recently. I like Hardy, but I can’t see him as Elton John.

Egerton on the other hand is perfect. He looks the part, and he bloody acts the socks off the part but, maybe more importantly, he sings the part too, so really, if Remi Malek got an Oscar and mimed, shouldn’t Taron be up for a statuette himself next year? He’s got a great voice, and he plays the two sides to Elton perfectly (the brash showman and the lonely, insecure man behind the huge glasses). From wowing them on stage, to crying his eyes out alone, Egerton is never less than perfect.

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But the casting is spot on throughout. As Elton’s long-time collaborator Taupin, Bell is astonishing, even more so given of the three male leads he’s the most understated. That Bell makes the impression he does despite sharing the screen with two men who get to chew the scenery tells you all you need to know about his acting ability. Apparently Barbara Broccoli has considered him for Bond—now I can see why (though he’s probably not tall enough).

On the subject of Bond let’s talk Madden. It’s weird but when the Bodyguard was on so many people were suggesting he could be 007, but I didn’t see it. Oh, lordy I see it now. Odd given in the Bodyguard he was a straight close protection officer, and here he’s a gay music producer, but he owns the screen, displaying more presence than I’ve seen from him before. With dark hair and smart suits he prowls the screen, a dangerous, incredibly masculine predator. John Reid is not a nice man, but Madden keeps it just the right side of moustache twirling. I hope Barbara was watching!

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Which brings us to the fourth major cast member. Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mum. I spent the whole film wondering where I knew her from, then I saw her name come up at the end and had a genuine “No Freaking Way!” moment. As with the three leads Howard is perfect, and you wouldn’t know she wasn’t British. She also, in some respects, has the hardest job because of all the characters she has to play the widest range in terms of her age, and she does it well. She also manages to make an unlikeable character at least somewhat empathetic. She might be cold, but she isn’t inhuman.

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Special mention for national treasure Gemma Jones as Elton’s loving gran, and Stephen Graham as foul mouthed empresario Dick James.

Fletcher’s direction is excellent, and the film plays like a musical at times, with characters bursting into song and the sudden appearance of a troupe of dancers. This melding of the real and the fantastical works wonderfully, and is probably the perfect evocation of the duality of Elton John’s life.

I’ve probably never considered myself a huge John fan, but it’s only when you hear the songs that you realise, oh he did that one, and that one, and that one…and even the tunes I didn’t recognise I liked.

On the story side it’s hard to know what is true and what, perhaps, is exaggeration, but this is clearly no whitewash at the end of the day, despite John and husband Furnish’s presence behind the scenes.

Funny, sad, joyous, colourful, dramatic; this is a gem of a film that’s meticulously directed and wonderfully acted. I liked, and still like Bohemian Rhapsody, but Rocketman blows it out of the water on every single level.

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Directed by: Chad Stahelski. Starring Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston and Ian McShane.

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Former assassin John Wick has been declared excommunicado by the shadowy criminal organisation known as the High Table. On the run he has one hour before every hitman in the city, if not the world, is after the $14 million dollar bounty on his head, and this time his friends Winston (McShane) and Charon (Reddick) can’t help him, and nor can the Bowery King (Fishburne). With only his wits and his skills to rely on John travels from New York to Casablanca, and seeks grudging assistance from the mysterious Director (Huston) and Sofia (Berry) another former assassin who’s now running her own Continental hotel in Morocco. Meanwhile the Adjudicator (Dillon) exacts justice from those who’ve foolishly aided John in his actions.

Can John stay alive long enough to reach the one man who might be able to call the High Table off, and if he does, will he be willing the pay the price of forgiveness?

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I’ve probably said this before, but when word of the original John Wick leaked people weren’t overly excited, so the notion that we’re now into the third instalment of a franchise that seems as unstoppable as Wick himself, with likely a fourth on the way, is amusing. But then John Wick was so good there had to be a sequel, and when the world that was created was expanded in the second film, a film that ended on a cliff-hanger, a third instalment was always on the cards.

And they say films named after their characters can’t be successful.

Parabellum is an exquisitely shot, balletically choreographed action film filled with interesting characters, let down only by a slight hint of repetitiveness, because there are only so many fights you can see before they all start to blend into one another, and though the makers of the film seem endlessly inventive when it comes to devising new ways for Wick to kill people (and the stable and library fights are a delight) in the end there are too many interchangeable skirmishes with guys in back alleys here.

That said the penultimate fight (between two assailants) in the Continental hotel is so good it’s practically worth the price of admission on its own, although it does kinda dilute the final mano-a-mano.

One of the things that’s always lifted these films above the average action fare is the wonderful world of the High Table and the Continental existing parallel with our own, like a kind of exceedingly violent Harry Potter universe, with payment in gold coins, and markers exchanged for favours, and an intriguing array of people (though sometimes you have to wonder if maybe everyone’s on the High Table pay-packet). Having had the cast expanded in the last film, here we get Huston vamping it up to eleven as a Roma gang boss/artistic director at a very extreme ballet/wrestling school, and Berry as a female Wick, complete with a canine fixation and a natty talent for killing an exceptional number of people as easily as you or I might prune some roses.

In particular Berry shines here. I’ve not always been her greatest fan, and I don’t think she was a great Bond Girl, but Sofia’s so awesome that I wouldn’t be averse to a spin off.

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It’s nice to see Reddick get more to do than just stand behind a desk here, and McShane is always a joy to watch. We don’t get much of Fishburne but maybe that’ll change in 4. Dacascos’ fanboy admiration of Wick elevates what could have been a stock bad guy role, and Dillon is wonderfully aloof as the adjudicator.

Plot wise the film isn’t very inventive, with the story existing on rails; John goes to Point A so he can then go to Point B and then back to Point A, but I guess plot was never the selling point of the franchise so much as watching Keanu despatch a whole lot of bad guys. There is the addition of a lot of humour this time, even if you do feel slightly guilty for laughing as various people are horribly maimed/killed!

The choreography and cinematography are where the film really shines, although again the neon lit finale does feel a tad repetitive of the second film.

This film is still a step above the standard action fare. It’s Funny, action packed and gorgeous to look it, but I really hope they try and do something a little different in 4 rather than sticking to the formula of 2 and 3, because there is a law of diminishing returns here. More please, but also, maybe, less?

On a final note, given one of the baddies in the original film was Theon from Game of Thrones, it was amusing to see another GoT alumni show up! Always nice to see a former stalwart of British TV doing well for himself, and this is a film featuring two of them!

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Picnic at Hanging Rock

Posted: May 24, 2019 in Book reviews
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71xqeY6UPhL.jpgBy Joan Lindsay

It’s Valentine’s Day 1900, and in Australia the girls of Appleyard College, a private boarding school, undertake a picnic to Hanging Rock, a distinctive geological formation created by volcanic activity millions of years ago. During the afternoon four students wander off to climb the rocks. Eventually one of the girls returns, distraught and dishevelled. A search is conducted but no trace of the girls is found, and in addition it’s discovered that one of the teachers is missing too.

As the days pass the search becomes more and more intense, but even after one of the girls is found the mystery is no nearer to being unravelled. Did they fall and die in an ancient cave, were they carried away by nefarious individuals intent on rape and murder, or is there a more mystical explanation?

We may never know, but the disappearances hang heavy over the staff and pupils of the school, as well as a young Englishman who was almost the last person to see the girls, and tragedy will follow tragedy, because with no resolution in sight, can anyone really move on?

 

I half remember watching the film as a child (and probably being unimpressed because there was no grand reveal) but this may be a fake memory for all I know. I do know that the tale of Australian schoolgirls going missing in the outback seeped into my consciousness, especially since it became apparent that it was a true story.

Except of course it isn’t, that was just a literary trick of author Lindsay, the 1960s equivalent of Myrick and Sanchez insisting that three students really had wandered into the woods in search of the Blair Witch and vanished into thin air.

It’s a heck of a good device however, and the book is peppered with pseudo journalistic prose.

Even after reading it I’m unsure whether I liked it. In very real terms you can argue not much happens, the disappearances happen very early on and (spoiler) the mystery is never resolved (There is a missing chapter that provides far more of an explanation-more on that later). For much of the book, which is lean but not a quick read, it’s more about the effect the disappearances have on everyone else.

Still it has kind stuck with me. There’s a dreamlike quality to some of the prose, and a fascination with nature that’s a little unsettling, and Lindsay does sprinkle tiny clues here and there. The fact that watches stop working near to the rock formation, the fact that the missing teacher, Miss McCraw, is a mathematician obsessed with finding short cuts, a death later on that its never clear whether is murder or suicide, and the sense of dread hanging over the school, as if everyone is somehow cursed.

Lindsay is prone to waffle at times, and though it becomes clearer later on, initially it’s difficult to determine who various people are, despite a list of characters at the start of the kind you might find in a play, and the fact that two of the missing girls are Miranda and Marion doesn’t help.

Lindsay does catch you off guard, in particular the return of the one girl who’s found to school does not go remotely as I’d have imagined.

A book that’s as intriguing as it is infuriating.

* * *

Ok, now a few spoilery bits

The missing chapter, which I’ve only read a precis of, seems to make it abundantly clear that the girls travel through some kind of time warp, possibly even transforming into animals as they go (very aboriginal). Still this leaves questions. The girls meet a woman they don’t recognise but it must obviously be Miss McCraw, except she doesn’t recognise them and vice versa, could it be that she’s been in this other world far longer? Enough time to lose her mind and become unrecognisable to the girls? And where does this leave Irma, the girl who’s found, how come she isn’t discovered during the initial search? Was she caught up in some other time, and spat back out later?

I can see why her editor suggested excising the chapter, the best mystery is one that isn’t explained after all.

A couple of other points. First is Mike’s failed romance with Irma. The book suggests he steps away from her because it’s Miranda he was drawn to (as it seems is everyone) and in many respects he’s clearly guilt-ridden for feeling that he rescued the wrong girl, but I wonder if Lindsay had more at play here. Mike’s friendship with his uncle’s coachman, Albert, is quite intense, and remember, though Mike heads off to the Northern territories, he’s quite insistent that he wants Albert to go with him, so are they merely friends, or something more, something neither man could admit to?

There’s certainly a homoerotic undercurrent at work in the book, as I’ve said everyone seems enraptured by Miranda, and again this seems to go beyond friendship in the case of some of the girls.

Finally there’s the mystery of what happens to Sara, the orphan Mrs Appleyard, who’s never presented as anything but a nasty piece of work, detests. At first I thought Mrs Appleyard killed her, but in hindsight I realise we’re supposed to realise Sara killed herself, which explains why Mrs Appleyard was searching her room, she was looking for the suicide note.

Mrs Appleyard does at least get her comeuppance, making her way to the Hanging Rock and hurling herself from its heights. I wonder though, was her intention suicide, or was she hoping to escape her many problems by somehow following the girls and Miss McCraw to wherever, or whenever, they ended up?

You Only Live Twice (1967)

Posted: May 21, 2019 in James Bond
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“You can watch it all on TV, every Bank Holiday Monday.”

So here we are with the penultimate (official) Connery Bond film. It’s been two years since Thunderball, and SPECTRE have graduated from stealing nuclear bombs to stealing entire spaceships as they plot to create war between the USA and the Soviet Union. Luckily the British believe someone else is to blame, and suspect that someone is in Japan. After faking 007’s death to give him room to manoeuvre, Bond’s despatched to Japan, a country where men come first, and a film Mike Myers got far too many jokes out of…

There was a time when, if asked about my favourite Connery film, I might actually have said this one. In hindsight I can see why; hollowed out volcanos, a great Blofeld, Little Nellie, spaceships! It’s just that watching it now its flaws are all too clear. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable Bond film, it just means it’s one you’re better off not thinking about in too much detail.

Really it’s the plotting that lets it down. Let’s set aside for a moment the notion that somehow war between America and the Soviets would leave China and the rest of the world untouched, set aside how rockets can take off without anyone noticing, especially given that Bond seems to be in the vicinity around the time of one launch. The big question is, why go to the trouble of building a spaceship that eats other spaceships, why not just blow the other craft up? It’s not like anyone is going up there to search for clues.

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There are other annoyances, why for instance does Helga Brandt, who let’s not forget has Bond tied up and at her mercy, release him, just so they can then get in a plane that she can bail out of to leave him to die? It makes zero sense. It isn’t like they’re that worried about linking Bond with Osato Industries. I mean, a car full of goons tries to perforate 007 immediately after he walks out of the company’s headquarters. Couldn’t they at least wait for him to walk around the corner?

It feels almost blasphemous to say this, but the blame must surely lie with the screenwriter, the late, great Roald Dahl.

nellieGaping plot holes wider than the mouth of a volcano aside, there are some great set pieces here. Bond’s ‘death’ and funeral are great, as is his meeting with M aboard the submarine. It’s great to see Bond in navel uniform (and special mention to how gorgeous Lois Maxwell looks in uniform too). Bond’s fight atop the buildings of Kobe docks is wonderfully staged, and shot, especially the aerial filming. It does seem like following on from Thunderball being the film with all the scuba divers, You Only Live Twice is the film with all the helicopters! From Tanaka’s magnet carrying chopper (mad but fun) to Little Nellie and Bond’s dogfight with four bigshots, and then there’s the helicopter heading in and out of the volcano. Throw in the aerial filming and the producers must have got a job lot!

Let’s talk more about the dogfight. Little Nellie is wonderful, and it’s nice to see Bond return a vehicle in one piece (mostly) for once. By modern standards it might be a bit static, but I still love it.

And no discussion of set pieces would be complete without mention of Tanaka’s ninja attack! The modern Bond films seem to have dispensed with the small war finale, which is a shame, and this one is a doozy, made all the better by the set Ken Adam and his team put together. No CGI back then so that’s a hell of a set!

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Cast wise You Only Live Twice does well in some departments, and poorly in others. Pleasence is wonderful as Blofeld (and for me still the definitive Ernst Stavro) but his reveal is late on in the film, shame we didn’t get more of him. Still it is delicious when he tells the Chinese agent who accuses him is extortion that “Extortion is my business.” I mean seriously guys, it’s the E in the organisation’s name! As an aside on SPECTRE working practices, yet again people don’t get much of a warning, straight to the piranha tank for you, Miss Brandt!

As Tiger, Tetsurō Tamba is great, recalling Kerim Bey in From Russia with Love.

176On the Bond girl front things aren’t so strong. Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki is good (and I love the way she refers to Bond as Zero-Zero) aside from the fact that she curiously throws herself at Bond with no preamble, it’s like we were missing some scenes that suggested more of a connection between them. Still, she’s capable and her acting isn’t bad. Shame she gets murdered. Double shame that Connery can’t be arsed to get that cut up about it. I’m so glad he isn’t around for the next film.

Aki’s replacement as Bond girl is Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki (yes that’s her name!) who’s something of a wet fish if you ask me, not that she’s given much to work with. That leaves Karin Dor as Brandt. It’s clear what the producers were going for; if a villainous European redhead had proven so successful last time out, why reinvent the wheel. Oh dear. Dor does her best, but sadly Brandt isn’t a patch on Fiona Volpe.

And then there’s Connery. You can tell he’s fed up by now, he just doesn’t seem to be putting the effort in, though he isn’t helped by the script. Expressing practically no emotion at the death of Aki is unforgivable though. I’m not suggesting he break down in floods of tears, but he barely waits a minute before talking to Tiger about his upcoming wedding!

Ah the wedding, which brings us (not so) neatly onto a discussion of sexism and racism. Women don’t get treated especially well here, and did Tiger really just refer to a woman as sexiful? On the plus side Bond doesn’t lie on top of anyone till she gives in or blackmails anyone into sex so maybe that’s an improvement.

Culturally in many ways the film isn’t as bad as you might imagine. The wedding, and Sumo scenes are both treated with some semblance of respect, and on the whole Japan isn’t viewed as being backward and Tiger and his people are portrayed as smart and competent. It’s just shame that we then get Bond’s transformation into a Japanese man, which is about as convincing as Gary Johnston’s transformation into an Arab in Team America. Bond looks less like a Japanese fisherman than a guy off to infiltrate the Romulan Empire, he just needs pointed ears.

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John Barry’s score is great, mixing western and eastern themes, though Nancy Sinatra’s title track is a tad forgettable. The space effects are nicely done and still hold up today, and kudos for perhaps one of the grisliest deaths in the franchise as an astronaut is left to die alone in orbit; shudder. Talking of astronauts, I wonder what did happen to those two cosmonauts and the other American astronaut? Also what was Bond going to do if he had been able to get into the rocket? You get the feeling he hadn’t thought this through. Oh well, guess some other 007 will have to be the first (and only) Bond in space!

On the ‘not them again front’, Burt Kwok is back, and spot Ed Straker and Scott Tracy (Ed Bishop and the recently departed Shane Rimmer, both of whom turned up in multiple Bond films) and if you look closely one of the Russian mission control guys is a certain German Colonel from Allo Allo.

Perhaps the best WTF is this though. Remember the girl who promises Bond a very special duck in the pre title sequence, well the actress, Tsai Chin, is one of the poker players in Casino Royale!

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There’s a lot to enjoy in YOLT, but more care should have been taken with the story. YOLT seems a curious book to try and adapt given it follows on directly from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (apparently OHMSS was planed to be the next film after Thunderball but they had trouble finding a snowy setting so decided to squeeze another one in first. As I’ve already said, I’m glad about this because I firmly believe a Connery version of OHMSS would have been nowhere near as affecting as the one we’ve got.)

Still, Bond in uniform, Little Nellie, the focus on Japan, Blofeld’s reveal, space rockets, and did I mention a fricken hollowed out volcano? This is fun, it’s just not a great film in the Bond pantheon.

Anyway James Bond will return, but he might look a trifle different…

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