Film Review – Knives Out

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Knives Out is an exceptionally well-crafted old school murder mystery from writer/director Rian Johnson, recalling various Agatha Christie greats, and related twisty-turny films such as Sleuth. If like me you are a connoisseur of the genre, you will find much to enjoy here, in this tale of a famous crime author who supposedly commits suicide on his 85th birthday, amid a country house full of potential murder suspects. Deep south private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play. And yes, he nails the accent as well as the killer.

Naturally, a film like this requires an all-star cast, and Knives Out doesn’t disappoint in that area. In addition to Craig, you get Christopher Plummer, as murdered novelist, Harlan Thrombey. Other family members are played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Katherine Langford. There’s also a key role for Ana de Armas, as Harlan’s nurse, Marta.

Although this is first and foremost a delicious entertainment, there are traces of political commentary in the film; perhaps unintentional, but nonetheless reflecting what is clearly important to the director. Harlan’s family could be seen as America in microcosm, in their tediously polarised differences of political opinion, the often casually racist attitude to Marta (a running gag has them unable to agree on her country of origin), and in particular their hypocrisy when it comes to her treatment, even from characters who profess sympathy. One also can’t help but wonder whether the character of Jacob (Jaeden Martell), a sixteen- year old alt-right internet troll, isn’t a personification of a certain vocal (but I’m convinced minor) faction of Star Wars fandom, who took exception to Johnson’s previous film, The Last Jedi.

Of course, none of that is preachy or explored in great detail. Nor does it matter that I predicted the killer very early. The chief pleasure comes from watching Blanc unravel the how and the why of the puzzle with Poirot-esque aplomb (and just a dash of Columbo in there too, I fancy). I wonder whether Daniel Craig could be tempted back for further cases? I hope so. At this point though, Knives Out is a deftly plotted, witty, satirical whodunnit, with an awareness of genre that contains just the right amount of send-up. All in all, great fun.

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Film Review – 21 Bridges

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Director Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges is a fast, exciting, no-nonsense cop thriller which in its disciplined 99 minutes manages to deliver in satisfying if not ground-breaking style. Featuring a strong lead performance from Chadwick Boseman, it recalls the great cop thrillers of yesteryear, without necessarily adding anything particularly distinguished to the pantheon.

Boseman is Andre Davis, a highly skilled and morally upright detective who has no regrets about shooting the bad guy when the occasion demands. A tragic past is revealed in a strong opening, as a child at his father’s funeral. Incidentally this scene makes clever use of that passage in Romans Chapter 13, about those who do evil should fear, because rulers (and their agents, cops) do not bear the sword in vain. All of that sets up Davis, who is then assigned to investigate a drug heist that went wrong and ended in the murder of several policemen. The killers are on the run with the loot on Manhattan island, and to stop them escaping, Davis decides to close all twenty-one bridges onto the island, in an effort to tighten the noose and locate them before 6am the following morning (when the FBI insist the island will have to reopen).

Kirk milks the ticking clock premise with aplomb. Memorable action scenes include a thrilling foot chase that recalls The French Connection. Elsewhere there are nice directorial flourishes, such as the lovely overhead shot of the funeral at the start, with lines of policemen replacing their caps in a sea of white dots. Performances are good – not just from Boseman, but also the supporting cast which includes JK Simmons, Sienna Miller, Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch, and Alexander Siddig.

Whilst certain elements of the plot are predictable, the genre thrills are deployed with lean efficiency. 21 Bridges isn’t going to be remembered as a classic, but it is a decent, solid, three-course dinner of goodies and baddies police thriller. The usual cautions for violence and bad language apply, to those who like to be warned.

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Christmas Presents: The One-Offs

Looking for the perfect Christmas present for that difficult relative? Why not give them a book this year? To be more specific, why not give them one of my books?

In this, the final of three articles, here’s a look at two of my novels that are one-offs. I don’t write teenage romantic drama, but I did write Love vs Honour as I couldn’t get the story out of my head. Although it begins as a romance, the story contains many of the themes present in my other novels – religious oppression, abuse of power and so on – and this is a much darker tale than it first appears.

In the case of Children of the Folded Valley, it’s a dystopian tale of about a man looking back on his life growing up in a cult, but with a sci-fi twist. It is also by far my most successful novel (to date).

Here’s is the blurb from the back of each novel:

LvsHonour 1600 x 2400Love vs Honour

Two Religions. Two Deceptions. One Love.

When Johnny meets and falls in love with Sabina, their bond proves stronger than a teenage holiday fling.

Fearing the disapproval of their strict Christian and Islamic families, they undertake an elaborate deception to continue seeing one another. Johnny pretends to convert to Islam whilst Sabina pretends to covert to Christianity to appease their parents.

But how long can this deception last before it unravels?

Click here to order Love vs Honour.

Folded Valley coverChildren of the Folded Valley

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood in amysterious valley cut off from the outside world, where he grew up as part of a cult called the Folded Valley Fellowship.

In this seemingly idyllic world, the charismatic Benjamin Smiley claimed to be protecting his followers from an impending nuclear apocalypse.

But the valley concealed a terrifying secret.

A secret that would change Smiley’s followers forever.

Click here to order Children of the Folded Valley.

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Christmas Presents: Children’s Novels

Looking for the perfect Christmas present for that difficult relative? Why not give them a book this year? To be more specific, why not give them one of my books?

In this second of three articles, this post explores my children’s novels. Yes, I don’t just write gothic mystery horror thrillers. I have also dabbled in children’s adventures, mainly aimed at the Harry Potter/Alex Rider demographic. Most of these novels were written for my children, often at their request (Echo and the White Howl was penned for my youngest for instance, who wanted a story about wolves). But these stories aren’t just for children. They are for the young and young at heart, often tackling themes and ideas that are just as incisive for the adult reader.

Here’s is the blurb from the back of each novel:

Uncle Flynn_CoverUncle Flynn

When timid eleven year old Max Bradley embarks on a hunt for buried treasure on Dartmoor with his mysterious Uncle Flynn, he discovers he is braver than he thought.

Together they decipher clues, find a hidden map and explore secret tunnels in their search.

But with both police and rival treasure hunters on their tail, Max begins to wonder if his uncle is all he seems…

Click here to order Uncle Flynn.

DrGibbles_1600x2400_front coverDr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge

September 1987.

Curiosity lands Tim Rawling in a world of secrets, spies and a desperate race against time.

The haunted house, the monster and the mad scientist are only the beginning of a terrifying adventure…

Click here to order Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge.

Echo and the White Howl Cover 10 (FINAL)Echo and the White Howl

When a wolf pack discovers humans lurking near their territory, Echo senses dark times ahead.

Despite the warnings and omens, Aatag, the pack Alpha, refuses to flee… leading to a cruel turn of events that forces Echo into exile, and a quest for revenge that will change the pack forever.

Click here to order Echo and the White Howl.

 

B17Kak0+TOS._SL250_FMpng_George Hughes Trilogy (comprising George goes to Mars, George goes to Titan, George goes to Neptune)

From the back of George goes to Mars:

When George Hughes discovers he has inherited the planet Mars, he goes from poverty to becoming the richest boy on Earth overnight.

Accompanied by his new guardian, a mysterious secret agent, and a crew of astronauts, George voyages to Mars to sell land to celebrities wanting to build interplanetary homes.

But sabotage, assassination attempts and an alien threat plunge him into a deadly adventure.

Click here to order the George Hughes Trilogy.

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Christmas Presents: The Spooky Quintet

Looking for the perfect Christmas present for that difficult relative? Why not give them a book this year? To be more specific, why not give them one of my books?

In the first of three articles, this post explores the gothic mystery horror/thriller offerings from yours truly. Incredibly, none of these five novels – which I refer to as my “Spooky Quintet” – have had a single bad review. Check out Amazon or Goodreads, and you will see they are all raves. Also, if you’re worried about how scary these might be, some are more at the thriller end of the gothic mystery spectrum, and some more at the horror end. However, they are all page-turningly gripping, and full of suspense. For more information about the scariness factor in each, click here.

Here’s is the blurb from the back of each novel:

The Birds Began to Sing_1600x2400_Front CoverThe Birds Began to Sing

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.

Click here to order The Birds Began to Sing.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)The Thistlewood Curse

Can a ghost murder the living?

Lawrence Crane’s powers of astral projection are put to the ultimate test when he and his lifelong friend Detective Laura Buchan investigate a mysterious death on Lundy Island.

Sensing a dark power at work, they attempt to identify a human assassin under the control of supernatural evil.

But can they escape a terrifying, centuries-old curse?

Click here to order The Thistlewood Curse.

SSF coverSpectre of Springwell Forest

Lily Henderson has a horrifying secret buried far in her past. She hoped it would never be revealed. Now she has no choice.

To save her family, Lily must keep them from returning to the village of Springwell, where she lived with her first husband and young daughter decades previously.

In the past, after moving to Springwell, Lily encounters secretive locals, government scientists, and rumours of a ghost haunting the forest.

Are they linked to the mysterious deaths of local children? Do paintings by a local artist predict when tragic events are getting closer? Will Lily’s daughter be next?

“Two were taken. More will follow.”

Click here to order Spectre of Springwell Forest.

Simon Dillon - Irresistible Summons full resThe Irresistible Summons

How far would you go to bring your loved one back from the dead?

Television producer Naomi Levinson makes documentaries debunking the supernatural.

When asked to film a promotional video for computer game company Persephone, she considers the task beneath her talents. But as production gets underway at the Persephone office block on London’s Canary Wharf, a mysterious disappearance, ghostly sightings, and lingering tragedy from Naomi’s past lead her to believe she might have stumbled into a genuine haunting.

As Naomi continues to investigate, past and present collide in a horrifying conspiracy. Cutting edge technology and ancient evil meet, leading to the discovery of a shocking and terrifying secret that could change the nature of life and death as we know it.

Click here to order The Irresistible Summons.

PHANTOM AUDITIONPhantom Audition

He buried himself in a part, but never returned. Now she wants to know why.

Small-time actress Mia Yardley, recently widowed wife of renowned actor Steven Yardley, discovers her late husband’s secret acting diary.

The diary details appointments made with a psychic medium, who advised Steven on which roles to take. It also raises questions about his mysterious and inexplicable suicide.

Seeking answers, Mia speaks to the medium, but in doing so is drawn into an ever- deepening mystery about what happened to her husband during the final days of his life. Eventually, she is forced to ask the terrible question: was Steven Yardley murdered by a vengeful evil from beyond the grave?

Click here to order Phantom Audition

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Film Review – Blue Story

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Last night I risked life and limb to see Blue Story – a tale of London gang culture – at my local Cineworld multiplex. Cineworld is the main cinema chain that hasn’t followed the example of the Vue and Showcase chains and banned the film in the UK. In justifying their decision, Vue and Showcase said there have been several “incidents” around showings of this film. The only incident we have any details of are that of a headline-making foyer brawl in Birmingham, which included a teenager who carried a machete. Thankfully no-one was seriously hurt or killed. Nonetheless, a rather quaint moral panic has ensued, even though the brawl in question may well have had nothing to do with Blue Story. Said panic seems to be dying down now, with Vue and Showcase saying they will reinstate the film this weekend, now they’ve got additional security in place (whatever that means – pat-downs to check for machetes, presumably).

At any rate, all the publicity around the film (including interviews with the director, Andrew Onwubolu, aka Rapman) has obviously given it a major boost. What would have come and gone as a well-acted and directed, but minor work in the genre, will instead now have its own significant footnote in British film history. Incidentally, the sold-out screening I attended was packed with well-behaved and attentive young people. I’m pleased to report there was no disruption from machetes or mobile phones.

The plot concerns Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Micheal Ward), best friends who attend the same secondary school in Peckham but live in different postcodes, each of which have different warring gangs. At first they determine to stay out of the gangs and remain friends, but they are gradually drawn into the conflict. A romantic subplot involving Timmy and his sweet, sensible love interest Leah (Karla-Simone Spence – who does very well in essentially a voice-of-reason role), also ends up becoming a factor in the inevitable cycle of tragedy.

The notion that this film encourages or endorses violence is clearly nonsense. Yes, there is violence on display here (and bad language and sexual scenes too, for those who appreciate warnings about such things), but all of it is contextually justified, and to my mind none of it glamorises gang culture. Rapman clearly has his heart in the right place, and even underscores his obvious points – the absurdity of fighting over a postcode you don’t own, choosing to break free from the vicious circle – with rap interludes that act as a kind of Greek chorus. In short, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss is about.

Blue Story is a fine calling card for Rapman. It isn’t destined for classic status, and the subject matter is familiar, but it is a satisfying and powerful piece of work.

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Phantom Audition interview on The Tangent Tree

Recently Samantha Stephen interviewed me on a short, spin-off episode of The Tangent Tree, regarding my latest gothic mystery novel Phantom Audition. Listen on Spotify, Podcast Addict, or iTunes, or just click here to listen on The Tangent Tree website.

Phantom Audition is published by Dragon Soul Press, and is out now. Click here to get your copy.

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Film Review – Frozen II

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A sequel to 2013’s animated smash Frozen was always going to be a difficult trick to pull off. Have Disney managed? Well… for me, not really.

Let’s start with the good news: the animation is staggeringly beautiful, and the visuals inspired. Whether it’s autumnal forests, fire spirits, water horses, stone giants, stormy seas, or snowy wastelands, Frozen II is nothing if not a feast for the eye, especially on a big screen. The ear is in for a treat too, even if the songs aren’t quite as instant-earworm as Let it go. Speaking of which, there’s even a rather witty dismissal of that ludicrously overplayed song in writer/co-director Jennifer Lee’s screenplay. The vocal cast – Kristen Bell, Idina Mendez, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, et al – are all on good form too.

The plot? Well, it’s a rather convoluted tale that delves into the past of royal siblings Anna and Elsa’s parents, involving a diplomatic mission in an enchanted forest that went pear-shaped. As a result, Anna and Elsa, and returning characters Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven, leave their castle in Arendelle to try and set things right. Along the way, they make new friends, face new perils, and try to discover the origin of Elsa’s power.

Whilst all this gives the characters stuff to do, as a sequel it all feels a bit superfluous. Anna and Elsa’s relationship doesn’t evolve in any significant way, nor do they evolve as individuals. Yes, they discover a few secrets from their past, but these are mostly predictable things that don’t lend themselves to interesting character arcs. There are themes of embracing change and taking things step by step (“doing the next right thing”) though they aren’t explored with anything like the depth of, say, Pixar’s Inside Out. On the plus side, there are some fun moments for the supporting cast – for instance, Olaf trying to dismiss his fears, and Kristoff’s inept attempts at marriage proposal. However, none of this adds up to a thematically satisfying whole.

Although Frozen II will be a smash hit, and children everywhere will enjoy it, I suspect in time it will be remembered as a diverting but pointless sequel to a far superior original.

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Phantom Audition blog tour begins today!

PHANTOM AUDITIONOver the next month, my latest gothic mystery novel Phantom Audition is going on tour! There will be a bus, an entourage, roadie, and… No, hang on. Not that kind of tour. A blog tour. Phantom Audition will be promoted on several blogs and websites, some of which will contain interviews, guest posts by yours truly, and possibly even syndication to national newspapers in the US (fingers are well and truly crossed on that front). At any rate, please keep an eye on my Facebook page and the blog over the next month for full details. The first stop – at Pump up Your Books – can be found here (along with an extract of the novel, a rather nice animated version of the cover to the left, and one or two other things).

Phantom Audition is published by Dragon Soul Press. Click here to get it on Kindle or in paperback.

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Film Review – Le Mans 66

le-mans-66

A love of motor racing is not required to enjoy James Mangold’s Le Mans 66 (known as Ford v Ferrari in some territories), just as it wasn’t required to enjoy other recent racing related films including Rush and Senna. I have absolutely no interest in the sport (or any sport for that matter), yet found myself riveted by this fact-based tale of Ford’s challenge to Ferrari’s supremacy in the notoriously gladiatorial 24 hour Le Mans race, circa 1966.

Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) initially dismisses the idea of making a racing vehicle, despite being urged to by his staff. “James Bond doesn’t drive a Ford,” one marketing executive tells him. “That’s because he’s a degenerate,” Ford replies. Eventually though, after being insulted by Ferrari, Ford decides to go all-in to win Le Mans. He employs designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and maverick driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), both of whom butt heads with the corporate suits at Ford, as they try to design a car that has a chance of winning.

At the heart of the story is the friendship between Shelby and Miles, and their David and Goliath struggle echoes the well-worn sports film template of Rocky to very good effect. Damon and Bale are both superb, and there are generous supporting turns from the likes of Ray McKinnon, Noah Jupe, and Caitriona Balfe (the latter making the most out of an essentially one-note role). Mangold’s direction is spot-on, both in his observation of the relationships, and in the pulse-pounding racing sequences.

The disheartening interference from cowardly corporate schmoozers will likely strike a chord with those who deal with middle management purgatory on a regular basis. As other critics have noted, it is also possible read this as an allegory about Mangold’s own experiences working within the Hollywood studio system, especially in his struggles to make Logan.

All things considered, Le Mans 66 is a very entertaining and satisfying spectacle with real heart amid the roaring engines.

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