Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, based on a memoir by Peter Turner, is about the brief but passionate relationship between Peter and Oscar-winning but fading Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, who had memorable supporting roles in films like It’s a Wonderful Life, In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat. Peter and Gloria met in 1979, two years before Gloria died, when Peter was a much younger struggling stage actor in Liverpool. After striking up an unlikely friendship they fell in love.

Exceptional performances from Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in the lead roles more than make up for the occasional feeling that their story is somewhat rushed and disjointed. Bening is particularly wonderful, and I predict an Oscar nomination. There are also fine supporting performances from the likes of Julie Walters, Stephen Graham and (in one memorable scene) Vanessa Redgrave.

Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay flashes between in 1979 and 1981, and Paul McGuigan’s direction effectively switches between the two time periods by having Peter literally open doors into the past. McGuigan’s directorial flair is also demonstrated in a later pivotal scene, which is shown twice – once from Peter’s frustrated point of view, and again, more movingly, from Gloria’s, as she attempts to hide her illness from him and deliberately drive him away.

The sense of time and place is very well done. For example, early in their relationship, Peter and Gloria attend a screening of Alien and are seen amongst the shocked audience during the notorious chest-bursting scene (“Well that was f***ing terrifying” is Peter’s verdict, in the pub afterwards). Liverpudlian terraced housing contrasts with more glamourous LA and New York settings, and somehow the combination of grit and glamour makes the love story more credible. The chemistry between the leads is excellent, particularly in Gloria’s occasional moments of insecurity about the big age gap, and the tender, heartbreaking way Peter looks after Gloria as she becomes ill.

I should add the usual warning about bad language and sexual content for those who appreciate them, but all things considered, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a very fine weepie, brilliantly underpinned by two outstanding leads.

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Film Review – Justice League

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A very troubled production history has beleaguered DC’s Justice League film. It had already been plagued by reshoots when personal tragedy meant director Zack Snyder had to be replaced by Joss Whedon. Another round of rewriting and reshoots ensued and, quite frankly, the resultant film is a mess.

The big problem isn’t so much the casting. After all, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the finest superhero casting choice this side of Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and her solo film from earlier this year was a blast. But here she is hamstrung by a deeply uninvolving narrative. Ben Affleck’s older, more jaded Batman is also less impressive, and most of the time simply reacts to special effects.

Elsewhere Ezra Miller crops up as Barry Allen/The Flash. His turn is amusing, but I prefer Grant Gustin from the current TV series. There’s also Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg, a character with a sorely underwritten backstory. Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman is equally underwritten, and as for the villainous Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), he’s an utterly one-dimensional bore at the centre of yet another thingy-of-ultimate-power-that-will-destroy-the-world plot. Not even the quips of Alfred (Jeremy Irons) make much of an impact. Think Avengers, but far less fun.

It’s really, really hard to care about any of the characters, because they spend the entire film in swamped in ludicrous, weightless visual effects. There is no sense of real jeopardy, and the utterly inevitable return of one key character following the events of the equally dull Batman v Superman looms heavily over proceedings in a get-on-with-it sort of way.

To be fair, I did rather like Danny Elfman’s music score, especially when he quoted his own Batman theme from the Tim Burton movies, and John Williams’s iconic Superman theme. However, such incidental pleasures aside, Justice League really is, at best, a deeply indifferent experience. Superhero fans or younger viewers will probably derive some enjoyment from it, but wider audiences would be better off steering clear.

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Download The Birds Began to Sing FREE – for five days only

Love a gripping, page-turning psychological thriller? Download my novel The Birds Began to Sing absolutely FREE – for five days only!

Here is the blurb from the back of the novel:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

Some review snippets:

“Mystery, drama, conspiracy theory, and some supernatural intrigue. A real page turner!” – Anonymous, Barnes and Noble.

“Well written, poetic in places, funny at times and with a plot that will keep you turning the pages…” – Al Gibson, Amazon.

“What a magical work of art! You’re really missing out if you don’t read this one.” – A Critical Reader, Amazon.

“Absolutely loved this. Properly chilling.” – Alice R Brewer, Amazon.

“This was really a great read and I loved the twist. Did not expect it at all.” – Jennifer, Amazon.

“A terrific read for lovers of suspense and mystery. Big thumbs up!” – Mickey, Amazon.

The Birds Began to Sing can be downloaded from Amazon Kindle FREE here – for five days only.

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Film Review – The Death of Stalin

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Very loosely based on the political tumult following Stalin’s demise, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a superb, darkly hilarious historical satire, and a must-see for Iannucci fans.

Amid the chaos and paranoia after Stalin’s death in 1953 Soviet Moscow, different members of the Committee plot and scheme, going from sycophancy to mad power grabbing. Vain, inept Deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the natural successor, and is backed by Stalin’s unspeakably evil secret police chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale). However, jester turned player Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) tries to swing things in his favour, by getting the rest of the Committee to side with him, and take down Beria in the process. Weaving in and out of these schemes is Molotov (Michael Palin), an unhappy, rather pathetic individual who sold his soul to Stalinism to the point that he still insists his wife deserved incarceration, even after she is returned to him from prison. Stalin’s traumatised, near-suicidal daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and his boozing, useless son Vasily (Rupert Friend), lurk uneasily in the background, unsure of their fate. Bouncing obnoxiously around everyone is aggressive war hero Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), whose military assistance is required for any potential coup.

The cast are uniformly excellent, the script razor-sharp and the direction inspired. Frankly, this is the best political black comedy in years, brilliantly satirising the climate of absolute fear that existed in Stalin’s Russia. For example, Paddy Considine appears in a small role as the radio producer of live piano concerto. Towards the end of the broadcast he receives a call from Stalin himself, asking for a recording of the event. Upon discovering the broadcast wasn’t recorded, he has to tell the tired musicians to re-perform the concerto, detain the audience to maintain correct acoustics (absurdly dragging a few people in off the streets, since some people had already left), and find another conductor (who mistakenly believes he is being rounded up to be sent to a labour camp) when the previous conductor accidentally rends himself unconscious. It’s an hysterical, farcical opening that perfectly sets the tone (I should add the usual warning here for very strong language).

Yet what makes the film truly great is that the laughter often dies on our lips. No attempt is made to shy away from the genuine atrocities – ludicrously unfair arrests, incarcerations, torture, executions and so on – making the point that whilst the film is funny, Stalin’s Russia most emphatically was not. The Death of Stalin has terrifying relevance in today’s world where certain nations could well end up gripped by a similar climate of fear. One wonders what a certain Mr Putin would make of this film.

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Film Review – Paddington 2

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Every bit as good as it’s predecessor, Paddington 2 is an absolute blast for the entire family, and one of the best films I have seen this year.

After the events of the first film, talking bear Paddington is happy in his London home with the Browns. When he decides to buy his aunt Lucy an antique pop-up book for her birthday, he gets a job in order to save up. An hilarious and disastrous stint as a barber leads to slightly more gainful employment as a window cleaner, and soon Paddington almost has enough to buy the treasured book. But has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) also has his sights on the book, for his own nefarious purposes, and a convoluted mix-up leads to Paddington being framed for the theft.

The cast are as superb here as in the original, with Ben Whishaw voicing Paddington perfectly. Hugh Grant is a terrific, hugely entertaining, master-of-disguise villain, every bit as boo-hiss as Nicole Kidman’s psychopathic taxidermist in the first film. The Brown family return too, in the form of Hugh Bonneville’s Henry (decidedly miffed at being passed over for promotion in favour of some young upstart), Sally Hawkins’s Mary (as wonderfully kind, imaginative and courageous as ever), Samuel Joshlin’s Jonathan (peer pressure causing him to hide his love of steam trains), Madeleine Harris’s Judy (getting over a boyfriend by starting her own newspaper) and Julie Walters’s Mrs Bird (still telling it like it is, and having tremendous fun into the bargain). Jim Broadbent returns as antique shop dealer Mr Gruber, along with mean-spirited Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi), and new characters in the form of Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) and a particularly harassed judge (Tom Conti), both of whom add to the tremendous, whimsical fun.

Director Paul King helms some splendid slapstick action set pieces, notably the break-in sequence when Paddington gets framed, and the train chase finale (a thrilling stand-out). It goes without saying that the special effects are great, but in addition to laughs and thrills, the film is perfectly pitched for just the right level of Mary Poppins-esque poignancy, particularly in the tear-jerking, note-perfect final scene. The Greek chorus  Calypso band return too, materialising in increasingly surreal places. But this doesn’t feel at all odd in a film that features a tour-de-force sequence with Paddington inside a pop-up book.

On a moral and spiritual level, there is an understated, non-preachy but clear message about how seeing the best in people can help them change for the better, reflecting the themes in the Michael Bond source books. Paddington’s effect on people is often akin to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Without his presence in their lives, things could have gone horribly awry. The London Paddington lives in may be nothing more than a fantasy, but it’s a beautiful fantasy. Yes, we might wish life was like the world of Paddington, but we can all determine to see the good in people, and if that isn’t a positive message to send in a film aimed at all ages, I don’t know what is.

Unquestionably the must-see family film of the year, Paddington 2 is that rare thing: a sequel that equals the original. There are absolutely no excuses for not going to see it. Oh – and make sure you stay for extra hilarity during the end credits.

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All my novels now available as paperbacks from Amazon

At long last, I have stopped procrastinating, deferring, delaying, dilly-dallying, putting off, hanging fire, dragging my feet, beating about the bush and taking a rain check (or a “precipitation verification” as I sometimes call it, since the expression, American in origin, uses the spelling “check” rather than “cheque”). At any rate, I have finally decided to get off my backside and do what I should have done long ago and, to finally come to the point, ensure all my novels are available in paperback from Amazon Create Space, complete with physical pages that you can actually turn.

With that deliberately silly paragraph out of the way, to be more succinct, all my novels are now available from Amazon in dead tree format. Simply click here, and you’ll find them all listed accordingly.

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Film Review – Murder on the Orient Express

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Hercule Poirot’s luxuriant moustache is depicted far more as described in the novel in Kenneth Branagh’s new take on the Agatha Christie classic. Here the sheer volume of exquisitely groomed whiskers are endlessly distracting to quite amusing effect, far more so than the relatively austere moustaches depicted in previous Poirot adaptations, from Peter Ustinov to David Suchet, and of course Albert Finney’s take in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of this same title. Moustaches aside, this new Murder on the Orient Express is an adequately entertaining ride, certainly worth a watch even if you already know the famous twist ending.

The set-up is familiar, with Poirot on the eponymous train alongside a glittering cast of suspects, any one of which could be the killer. A soon-to-be-dead Johnny Depp brushes shoulders with the likes of Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer and Josh Gad.  Some of these actors get to do more (Pfeiffer for instance, who is superb), but others are left with little to work with. As Poirot Branagh provides an interesting take, focussing on the character’s famous fastidiousness but emphasising his moral quest, wanting to see the world as it should be and therefore noticing whenever something is amiss.

Directorially, Branagh provides some agreeable visual flourishes with the 70mm format, including swooping CGI enhanced aerial shots of trains passing through spectacular, mountainous landscapes (trainscapes?). There are also a couple of cleverly executed overhead shots in the carriage at key moments when the body is found and examined, which I can’t decide whether I liked or not. On the one hand they are technically very proficient, but on the other hand I felt they were drawing attention to themselves at a time when I’d quite like to have seen the character’s faces.

Still, on the whole this is a solid, entertaining adaptation of a very well-known mystery. I prefer the 1974 version, as I loved the more sinister opening, and the notorious denouement felt more unsettling than it does here, but I will concede that it has dated somewhat. Besides, whichever version one prefers, there can be no doubt that this new version features the most spectacular moustache.

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Film Review – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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I’ll cut to the chase:  director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a stone cold masterpiece. Capitalising on the promise shown in his previous works, Dogtooth and The Lobster, here he crafts his best film yet; a mesmerising, profoundly uncomfortable tale guaranteed to have you squirming at the off-kilter atmosphere of awkwardness and dark humour, giving way to sheer oppressive dread and building to an unimaginably horrible finale.

With that introduction, I have probably turned off one audience and turned on another, which is all to the good. The Killing of a Sacred Deer certainly isn’t for everyone – and here I must add the regulation warnings for sexual content, violence and bad language – but it is an absolute must for any serious fan of cinema. I don’t want to spoil too much about the plot, but the initial set-up concerns a somewhat unusual teenage boy Martin (Barry Keoghan) who insinuates his way into the life of cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), their teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and their younger son Bob (Sunny Soljic). At first it appears Steven feels sorry for Martin, following the death of his father on the operating table, and has taken him under his wing. Yet every exchange feels off somehow, and the viewer immediately senses something is wrong. Gradually, as terrible events befall Steven and his family, it becomes apparent that he is being subjected to a terrible revenge.

This revenge plays out like the tale of Iphigenia from ancient Greek mythology, which is continually alluded to in the brilliantly spare screenplay. Every scene drips with unseen menace, and whilst I would hesitate to describe this as a full-blown horror film, it is disturbing almost to the levels of something like The Exorcist. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis composes exquisitely precise shots with meticulous framing and eerily sterile, clean lines that echo the cinema of Stanley Kubrick (particularly The Shining). High angle tracking shots and God-like overhead angles give the impression of something else, possibly supernatural, watching events. For example, one early sequence when Steven addresses a hall filled with medical colleagues is filmed with wide-angle lenses that make the scene feel just that slight step outside of reality, subtly hinting at something infuriatingly out of reach yet lurking, waiting to strike.

Performances are uniformly superb, especially from Farrell. Kidman is also terrific, particularly in one terrifying moment of icy logic where she explains to her still-in-denial husband what must be done to extricate themselves from their predicament. In addition, Alicia Silverstone is quite brilliant in one hideously unsettling scene, as Martin’s mother. The use of sound adds to the nightmarish atmosphere, as do the eerie musical choices (which includes snippets of Ligeti). Not only did this film have me on the edge of my seat throughout, but it has disturbed my dreams and waking ever since the end credits rolled. Be warned: The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that most splendid and alarming of things, a film that scars.

Again, I suspect I am putting off one audience, and making this a must-see for another. With a film this incisive, challenging and rigorously cinematic, that is exactly as it should be.

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You can’t please everyone

This goes without saying really, but all authors need to learn they cannot please everyone all the time. Tolkien famously wrote in his foreword to The Lord of the Rings that certain elements of his novel were singled out for damning criticism by some, only to be particularly approved of by others. The point is that even when you write a blatant masterpiece like The Lord of the Rings, someone will always find something to complain about.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

Whilst I wouldn’t dare compare myself to Tolkien, I recently had a similar experience of sorts, with my most recent novel The Thistlewood Curse. One reviewer remarked that the novel took too long to get going (although the review was a good one overall). This amused me, because it was my initial instinct as well. I had stripped back much of the opening, because I wanted to get to the island and to the murder mystery as soon as possible.

However, when I tested this draft on a number of readers, said readers suggested the novel would benefit from having extra chapters inserted in the first act to explain more about the background of the central characters, so that you really feel for them in the horrific and traumatic events of the finale. I agreed with their assessment and did as they suggested. The result was, I believe, a more satisfying novel that added real emotional punch to what would otherwise have been a clever but cold mystery story.

I stand by my choice, but still… it was interesting that at least one reader would have preferred less character background and a faster paced opening. It proves that whatever you do, however good your writing is, you really cannot please everyone.

Make up your own mind by picking up a copy of The Thistlewood Curse here.

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Film Review – Thor Ragnarok

thor-ragnarok-photo-Chris-Hemsworth

One key returning character from the Marvel Universe in Thor Ragnarok has been thoroughly spoiled in trailers, posters and other publicity around the film. Had this particular reappearance not been revealed by the marketing department, it could have been a wonderful surprise, and as such that is a bit of a shame. Promotional missteps aside, Thor Ragnarok is an irreverent, enjoyably ridiculous slice of entertainment.

A marked improvement on the still entertaining second film, Ragnarok is shot through with the offbeat comic sensibilities of it’s director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What we do in the Shadows), and is all the better for it. The film begins with an amusing confrontation between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and giant fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown), before the real plot, about villainous Hela (Cate Blanchett) attempting to conquer Asgard, kicks in.

The ensuing events are a lot of fun, and feature amusing cameos from Sam Neill, Matt Damon and certain superheroes from other strands in the Marvel Universe, as well as familiar characters including Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Heimdall (Idris Elba), Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and the afore-mentioned character whose return really should have been kept under wraps. New characters also appear, in the shape of Skurge (Karl Urban), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Korg (Waititi himself) and most amusingly Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).

Performances are effective, even though Blanchett’s villain is a little one-note. Certain things are predictable, but this is more than made up for through the sheer number of laughs and high quality banter between characters. In fact, in many ways this feels like the bright, anarchic romp that the second Guardians of the Galaxy film couldn’t quite manage to be.

There are also hints of interesting, slightly subversive subtext amid themes of empires built on lies that are then covered up. One thinks of British colonialism amongst other things, although perhaps I am reading too much into it. That said, as sins of fathers finally come home to roost, one is more likely to be distracted by the colourful special effects.

In short, with Thor Ragnarok, the Marvel juggernaut shows no signs of slowing. As usual, stick around for a couple of end credits scenes.

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