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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Possessor

On the evidence of Possessor, writer/director Brandon Cronenberg is a chip off the old block. This sci-fi film shares much of the DNA in his father’s early work, particularly films like Scanners and Videodrome. However, the premise of Possessor – about assassination via proxy through human possession – could just as easily have been developed by Christopher Nolan along more sci-fi action thriller lines, rather than the psychological, ultra-gory horror route explored here.

The film follows professional possession assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough). The true nature of her work is unknown to her estranged husband and son, and already the job is starting to take a toll on her psyche. She agrees to undertake a major hit, in which she possesses the future son-in-law to a wealthy man, whose business interests involve data mining by spying on web and phone cameras. That such business is considered entirely legitimate in the not-too-distant future is disturbing enough, but Tasya’s carefully planned narrative – the assassinations are engineered to have plausible narratives for the various fall guys – begins to fall apart when the suppressed host consciousness begins to fight back.

Things start to get weird and gruesome. In fact, they get very gruesome indeed. A strong stomach is required, but genre fans will be used to this kind of thing, as it harks back to David Cronenberg’s heyday. Performances are strong, not just from Riseborough. The supporting cast includes Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Christopher Abbot, who is particularly good as the possessed man who tries to regain control. Obviously, this won’t be for everyone, but I found it intriguing and gripping, with some interesting social commentary (the afore-mentioned data mining for instance) alongside the bloodthirsty grunge.

UK Certificate: 18 (uncut version)

US Certificate: R (NOTE: The US version has been substantially censored to tone down the violence, sexual content, and nudity. The version I watched for this review was the UK uncut version.)

Content Warnings: Very strong bloody violence and gory images, strong language, strong sexual content, drug use, nudity, disturbing scenes.

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Books

Peaceful Quiet Lives: Themes

There can be no doubt that my latest novel, Peaceful Quiet Lives, has been informed by the ongoing so-called culture wars in America. These culture wars, whether social, political, or religious have been a simmering division in America as far back as I can remember, and in one sense, are nothing remarkable in a western democracy.

However, in recent years, these divisions have become a lot more exacerbated. I’ve also noticed a militant tendency in the language and behaviour of extremists on both sides that is remarkably similar. This militancy, fuelled by social media, television news, and opportunistic politicians, has stirred up some serious unpleasantness. One need only look at the aftermath of the recent US election for evidence.

Let me be absolutely clear: Peaceful Quiet Lives is not a political statement of any kind. It came to me in a strange download in early 2018, whilst writing my (as yet unreleased) Dark Ages set romantic fantasy tale Ravenseed. After getting this download, I wrote Peaceful Quiet Lives purely because I thought it was a good story. I had no political agenda at all.

The central idea – regarding opposite extreme authoritarian states being two sides of the same militant coin – I thought would make an intriguing backdrop for a doomed romance. But I also wanted the novel to be a satire of the worst fears of both sides in the US culture wars. The first half of the novel plays on fears that the US could turn into a religious theocracy. The second half sends up fears that the US is headed for a “woke” dystopia. The novel isn’t so much intended as a warning against both scenarios, neither is it an attempt to lash out in despair at the current problems in America, but rather it is an exercise in absurdity. I hope the tragic lunacy of such a future is inherent within the text, and that as a result, perhaps the fears of both sides will be eased, just a little.

Despite such grandiose ambitions, I hope people enjoy the novel as simply a damn good read.

By the way, the title derives from a couple of New Testament verses; one urging people to live a quiet life and mind our own business (in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4), and another passage urging prayer for those in authority, that we might live peaceful and quiet lives (in 1 Timothy chapter 2). The title is ironic on a number of levels, since events in lives of Sam and Eve are neither peaceful nor quiet.

Here is the blurb from the back of Peaceful Quiet Lives:

Two Nations Under God. Can their love survive in either nation?

Life, love, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are a distant dream for Sam and Eve. Their forbidden love falls foul of laws in both nations born from the ashes of the Second American Civil War.

A satire of political and religious fears, Peaceful Quiet Lives is a thought-provoking and powerful dystopian future shock.

Peaceful Quiet Lives is available as a download or paperback from Amazon. Order your copy here (in the UK) or here (in the US). It is also available from Smashwords here.

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Books Films

I’m on Medium

I’m now posting regularly on Medium, so head over there to “clap”, follow, comment, and generally make supportive noises, if you feel so inclined. I will post both film and book articles that are exclusive to that platform, but I’m starting with a couple of film pieces (written for Medium publication Cinemania). Here are links:

Stop Saying Home Cinema Systems Are As Good As Real Cinemas

The Real Reason Some Star Wars Fans Hated The Last Jedi

Categories
Film Reviews Films

Film Review – The Midnight Sky

Since I find myself back in lockdown, I will once again temporarily revert to a weekly film review from new (or new-ish) films released online. As a major vaccination campaign is now underway in the UK, I sincerely hope this will be the final phase of reviewing streaming rather than cinema releases.

With that minor sulk out of the way, here are my thoughts on Netflix’s The Midnight Sky, Mark L Smith’s adaptation of a science fiction novel by Lily Dalton-Brooks, directed by and starring George Clooney.

In the year 2049, an unspecified catastrophe has rendered Earth all but uninhabitable. The human race appears doomed. One man left on the surface is terminally ill astronomer Augustine (Clooney), who resides alone at an Arctic observatory. However, Augustine soon discovers he is not alone. A mysterious, mute little girl called Iris (Caoilinn Springall) apparently missed the earlier evacuation of the observatory, and has been left behind with him.

Flashbacks reveal in earlier years, Augustine theorised the possibility of colonising one of Jupiter’s moons. A spaceship called the Aether was sent to see if such colonisation was possible, and is now returning. However, the crew are ignorant of the disaster on Earth, and cannot understand why they have lost contact. Aware of the Aether’s mission, Augustine and Iris decide to make the dangerous journey to a different observatory further north with a stronger transmitter, in order to warn the Aether not to return.

Performances are good, especially from Clooney, who hits just the right note of compelling melancholy gloom. He’s a man laden with regret, quietly determined to make some kind of amends in his final days. Springall is also terrific in her non-verbal performance, expressing much with facial features and bodily actions. A scene where she mischievously flicks peas at Clooney is a particular delight. Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo are also good, as members of the Aether crew, though their characters aren’t as well developed as I’d have liked.

The interspersing of Gravity style peril in space, and Revenant-ish trek through the Arctic wilderness is effective and compelling for the most part, albeit somewhat uneven. I suspect many viewers will predict the twist in the tale, but it still delivers a solid emotional punch. Visual effects are well done (especially a scene involving zero gravity blood droplets), and the drama is enhanced by a fine Alexandre Desplat score.

In some ways, the film feels like The Martian in reverse, with a dash of Silent Running and a pinch of Where Worlds Collide. Whilst the film does tap into contemporary environmental concerns, the lack of specificity about the catastrophe undermines the urgency in any inherent warning. The hints dropped seem to indicate accidental nuclear detonations, rather than global warming or the like, but this is never made clear. Also, without a clear explanation of what happened to the Earth’s population – there’s some reference to underground shelters that won’t last – the ending is actually far bleaker than it initially appears.

All that said, The Midnight Sky is a compelling watch for the most part, worth sticking with for Clooney and Springall’s performances in particular.

UK Certificate: 12A

US Certificate: PG-13

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Books

Peaceful Quiet Lives: Initial Reviews

Reviews have started to come in for my latest novel Peaceful Quiet Lives. So far, all are positive five-star raves, but what most surprised me is how different facets of the novel are standing out to different people, depending on the personality, temperament, and background of the reader.

For example, one reviewer on Amazon called it “political science fiction on a very high level”, citing “parallels between the societies in the book, and the current political climate, where you are labelled as a traitor for having a deferring opinion”. He goes on to call the book “deadly serious”, saying it sends shivers down his spine.

By contrast, one reviewer on Goodreads said the novel had “several laugh out loud moments”, calling it “thought-provoking, disturbing, and at times hilarious”. He goes on to label the novel “an awesome thought experiment concerning what extremes of left and right ideology could lead to, should freedom of speech disintegrate in our post-modern era”.

Another five-star review on Amazon commented: “Who doesn’t love a great love story?”, focussing on the romantic plight of protagonists Sam and Eve, who are chewed up by the political machinery of the narrative.

Why not give Peaceful Quiet Lives a read yourself, and discover how you respond to it? Here’s the blurb from the back of the book to whet your appetite:

Two Nations Under God. Can their love survive in either nation?

Life, love, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are a distant dream for Sam and Eve. Their forbidden love falls foul of laws in both nations born from the ashes of the Second American Civil War.

A satire of political and religious fears, Peaceful Quiet Lives is a thought-provoking and powerful dystopian future shock.

Peaceful Quiet Lives is available as a download or paperback from Amazon. Order your copy here (in the UK) or here (in the US). It can also be ordered from Smashwords here.

Categories
Books

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

2020 ended with something of a bang for me, with the release of my dystopian future shock novel Peaceful Quiet Lives. I’m going to continue posting articles about that novel as readers continue to respond to it, so that’s the first thing to expect from yours truly this year.

I’m also submitting my fantasy novel Ravenseed to mainstream publishers this month. The first draft of this Dark Ages set tale of love, lust, betrayal, and vengeance was written in early 2018. I have since polished it to the point where I am happy to submit it for scrutiny. Who knows? Perhaps by the end of the year it will have been released. I hope so, as I’m very proud of this novel.

My gothic mystery horror/thriller novels Spectre of Springwell Forest, The Irresistible Summons, and Phantom Audition are also going to be re-released very soon, with brand new covers. Keep an eye out for those, as the new covers are fabulous.

In addition, I’m planning on writing a sequel to my as yet unreleased fantasy/horror novel for children, The Faerie Gate (which I wrote back in 2014). I originally planned this sequel as an entirely separate story, but as I began to plan the narrative, I realised it fitted perfectly into the same universe as The Faerie Gate. The new novel will be a standalone tale, but much larger, and more epic. It might even end up being more than one volume. In fact, in size and scope, it could end up being to The Faerie Gate what The Lord of the Rings is to The Hobbit. In view of such potential lengthiness, I’m not sure I’ll finish writing the first draft this year, but I certainly plan to get as far as possible into the story.

All of which means, my long-planned science fiction anthology will probably remain on hold for the foreseeable future. I’ve written one novella and one short story from the various outlines I had planned, but due to other writing commitments and the inability to bend time and space, I’ve still failed to make any progress since 2019. I’ll get there one of these days.

I’ll continue to update the blog on a regular basis, with various articles and the usual film reviews. I’m also hoping to record a new series of The Tangent Tree, so watch this space for news of that as well.

As to whether I’ll release anything else, I’m uncertain at this point, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. After all, last year I said I was going to take it easier, and I ended up releasing Peaceful Quiet Lives. Perhaps this year will prove just as busy.

Categories
Films

My Ten Favourite Films of 2020

2020 has been exceptionally unkind to cinema, so for the first time ever, this list has a couple of entries I didn’t watch on a big screen, due to lockdown. I have added an explanatory footnote to both films, to distinguish them from the others that were viewed in the cinema. These are exceptional circumstances, and I can assure you my stringent, cinema-release-only qualifying criteria will almost certainly be reinstated next year, assuming the Covid situation improves.

Anyway, a quick note before we dive into the list: I desperately wanted to include Pixar’s Onward, but competition for space was just too strong. However, it’s a lovely film, so please consider it placed at number eleven. (No, I’m not going to talk about Pixar’s upcoming Soul bypassing cinema altogether and going straight to streaming. I’m still in denial about it.)

In the meantime, here are my ten favourite films of 2020 (NOTE: to qualify, films had to be released during 2020 in the UK).

10. 1917 – Sam Mendes’s pseudo-single shot long-take World War I picture is hugely impressive on a technical level, but cinematic bravado slightly distracted from the emotional core of the story, especially on a second viewing. Nonetheless, 1917 is a stunning piece of work, featuring brilliant performances and gorgeous cinematography.

9. Away – Gints Zilbalodis wrote, directed, animated, and even composed the score for this silent, surreal, utterly absorbing labour of love, over a period of eight years. Filled with achingly beautiful images, and fascinating themes (including depression, grief, and survivor’s guilt), this captivating work deserves to be far more widely seen.

8. Mangrove – The first in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe quintet, this brilliant drama about the real-life trial of the so-called Mangrove Nine is a slow-burn, gripping gem. Seething with rage at injustices suffered at the hands of institutionally racist police and judiciary, the film also manages to celebrate the resilient spirit of London’s West Indies community, and features superb performances from Leticia Wright and Shaun Parkes. (Viewed on television.)

7. Mank – A monochrome gem from David Fincher following the writing journey of Herman J Mankiewicz, as he crafts the screenplay for what become Orson Welles’s undisputed classic Citizen Kane. Featuring a great performance from Gary Oldman, beautiful cinematography, and tons of fascinating historical titbits for movie buffs, Mank is simultaneously a love letter to, and exposé of, Hollywood’s golden era. But it also has contemporary resonance, with concerns about the 1930s US economic collapse, media manipulation, and political corruption all having an all-too alarming relevance in 2020.

6. Saint Maud – In a year that has been superb for horror directorial debuts, I could just as easily have gone with Relic or His House in this list, but Rose Glass’s film narrowly edged them out, mainly for the astonishing central performance from Morfydd Clark. This is arguably more disturbing psychological drama than horror, but nonetheless, this low-key character study builds up a deeply nightmarish head of steam amid the religiously delusional shenanigans.

5. Rocks – Director Sarah Gavron, writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, and an extraordinary cast of young girls all contribute brilliantly to this acclaimed, slice-of-life gem about a close-knit circle of multi-cultural inner-city London girls. An exceptionally well-observed, bittersweet joy.

4. The Personal History of David Copperfield – Much press attention was focussed on the colour-blind casting in Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield adaptation, but my focus was simply on how delightfully entertaining it is from start to finish. Dev Patel is fantastic in the lead, ably supported by a great supporting cast, which includes Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, and Ben Whishaw (as the odious Uriah Heep, one of my favourite Dickens antagonists). Wonderful stuff.

3. Tenet – Depending on your point of view, Christopher Nolan was either brave or foolhardy to release his mega-budget, mind-bending sci-fi espionage thriller in the midst of a global pandemic. Box office suffered as a result, and there was the usual quibbling about eccentric sound mixing (not something I can hear a problem with myself), but despite all this, Tenet is explosive, magnificent, must-see-on-the-big screen entertainment. I loved it.

2. Uncut Gems – An astonishing, career-best central performance from Adam Sandler lies at the core of Benny and Josh Safdie’s brilliant drama, about a narcissistic New York jeweller who bites off more than he can chew. A masterclass in how to make an utterly gripping film centred on an unpleasant protagonist. (Viewed on television.)

1. Parasite – For once, a Best Picture winner I agreed with. Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece mingles black comedy, social satire, thriller, horror, and tragic melodrama. It’s an astonishing, brilliantly acted, scripted, and directed tour-de-force; an utterly singular piece of cinema, and one that is best experienced without any prior knowledge of the plot.

After a tumultuous 2020 that featured many studio tentpole postponements, 2021 looks stuffed to the gills with sleuths, superheroes, ghostbusters, intergalactic messiahs, Bonds, and other blockbusters. Time will tell if the independent gems get crushed by such a sledgehammer slate. I hope not.

It only remains for me to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Categories
Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Let Him Go

On paper, Let Him Go ought to be run-of-the-mill genre pulp. Instead, it is first-rate cinema, mainly due to superb lead performances from Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. I went in with no expectations, and came out elated by what will probably be my final cinema trip of 2020.

Essentially, it’s a slow-burn revenge western, albeit one set in the early 1960s. Montana based George and Margaret Blackledge (Costner and Lane) grieve the loss of their son in a riding accident. Their daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter) then remarries into a backwater criminal family in North Dakota. Her new husband Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) is physically abusive to both her and the Blackledge’s four-year old grandson. Soon they move from Montana to North Dakota without leaving a forwarding address. Margaret determines to track them down and get her grandson out of an abusive situation, but former lawman George is hesitant, knowing the legal ramifications. Furthermore, the Blackledges face formidable opposition in the form of the Weboy matriarch Blanche (a truly terrifying Lesley Manville).

Lane and Costner carry this film brilliantly. Their relationship is beautifully played with understatement, and the shorthand that comes with years of marriage; an element very well observed in writer/director Thomas Bezucha’s adaptation of Larry Watson’s novel. Supporting performances are also excellent, particularly from Manville. The film takes time to build up a head of steam, but when it finally explodes into melodramatic violence, it is all the more potent. The locations are shown off to great effect by cinematographer Guy Godfrey, and the drama is enhanced by a splendid Michael Giacchino score.

In short, if superheroes or re-released Christmas classics don’t appeal, and you’re looking for a grown-up piece of genre entertainment in cinemas, Let Him Go hits the spot to tremendously satisfying effect.

UK Certificate: 15

US Certificate: R

Content Warnings: Violence, domestic abuse.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Wonder Woman 1984

I’ll cut to the chase: Wonder Woman 1984 is almost as good as the first film. Director Patty Jenkins has crafted another heroic adventure with excitement, humour, and heart to spare. That said, it’s worth adding as a caveat that I haven’t seen a new fully-fledged superhero film all year (I’m not counting Birds of Prey or The New Mutants), so perhaps my enthusiasm should be taken with a tiny pinch of salt, especially as I was fortunate enough to see it at the cinema. Not everyone will be able to, alas, but if you can, do make the effort.

The Washington DC set plot concerns Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) working with fellow archaeological specialist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), and old flame Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), to identify the origin of a mysterious stone with apparent wish-granting magical powers. The bizarre return of Steve, who died heroically in the World War I timeline of the previous film, is evidence enough that the stone’s power is real. Thickening the plot is failed oil-businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who wants the stone for his own nefarious ends.

The action sequences are well done, especially the vehicular chase seen so prominently in the trailers. However, for me the most thrilling action was in the opening flashback to Diana’s childhood participation in a brutally difficult sporting competition, and the foiled robbery sequence that immediately follows, in a 1984 DC shopping mall.

Speaking of the 80s, the vibes of that decade amuse but don’t distract from the film. Yes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood is playing in the background, and there are jokes about parachute pants, but besides 80s nostalgia, action, and special effects, there are some very engaging performances. What I enjoyed most is the romantic element, played beautifully between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. Jenkins cleverly inverts the fish-out-of-water scenario of the first film, this time with Pine as the fish.

I should reiterate that Gadot is iconic in the lead, as per the previous film, and again inviting comparison with the equally iconic Christopher Reeve in the classic Superman films of yesteryear. Certain sequences reminded me a Superman II in particular, what with fights in the White House, and having to choose between love and superpowers.

Kristen Wiig is equally good, and her character arc is well thought through. Without getting too heavy handed, Jenkins alludes to #MeToo concerns (with Gadot as well), and there is some surprising, obviously unplanned contemporary resonance in Maxwell Lord’s descent into madness; a role played superbly by Pedro Pascal. He simply cannot bear to be thought of as a “loser”.

It is arguably a little baggy in places, and it doesn’t really break new ground, but all things considered, Wonder Woman 1984 is a very enjoyable sequel. It even has a touch of season-appropriate spiritual wisdom, with themes of being careful what you wish for, personal sacrifice for the greater good, and the power of unconditional love.

UK Certificate: 12A

US Certificate: PG-13

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Books

Download Children of the Folded Valley and The Thistlewood Curse FREE

Two of my novels are available from Smashwords FREE to download (in various formats) until the 1st of January. Click on the links below to get your FREE copies of The Thistlewood Curse (a supernatural mystery thriller), and Children of the Folded Valley (by far my most popular novel to date). As an added bonus, both also feature the first three chapters of my most recent novel, Peaceful Quiet Lives.

Children of the Folded Valley: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/459663

The Thistlewood Curse: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1059037