Those of you who have followed my writing over the years will know I once self-published a science fiction adventure trilogy primarily aimed at the Harry Potter/Alex Rider demographic. They were entitled George Goes to Mars, George Goes to Titan, and George Goes to Neptune. I withdrew these novels from publication as they didn’t exactly sell in great numbers, but now they have been published again, this time with new titles.
Why the new titles?
After a bit of research, I discovered people thought the originals sounded like picture books for very young children, when in fact these are aimed at all readers. For the young and young at heart, if you will. Anyone who enjoys a great science fiction adventure, child or grown-up, will enjoy these novels. Consequently, the novels were retitled The Martian Inheritance, The Titan War, and The Neptune Conspiracy respectively, under the umbrella title The George Hughes Trilogy.
Are the titles all that’s changed?
No. Because my standard of writing has improved a great deal since the original manuscripts were written (as it should), I decided to give them a thorough polish before re-releasing them. I’ve removed lots of superfluous dialogue tags, unnecessary descriptions, redundant or repetitious passages, and in the first novel in particular, quite a bit of unnecessary political backstory that rather held up the action. These new versions are brisker, tighter, and frankly more fun to read. I shaved off about 9,000 words from the first novel (originally written in 2006) and about 5,000 words off each of the subsequent sequels (originally written in 2012 and 2014, respectively).
Rest assured, the stories themselves have not changed.
What’s The George Hughes Trilogy about?
I’m glad you asked. In 2005, I came up with the story of thirteen-year-old orphan George Hughes, in what is now The Martian Inheritance. He goes from rags to riches when he discovers he is the sole proprietor of the planet Mars, due to a land registry claim made by his ancestor. Because humans are landing on Mars, he has exclusive rights to sell plots of land to film stars, pop stars, former presidents, and other celebrities with more money than sense, who want to build Martian holiday homes.
Unfortunately, this makes George an assassination target, as other sinister parties covet Mars for themselves. George is protected by the Mars Trust, an organisation set up by his late ancestor, and by a mysterious secret agent called Giles. They journey to Mars together and uncover a sinister conspiracy as well as an alien threat. Along the way, they are joined by the spoiled but spirited Meredith, the daughter of a rich industrialist who wants to build on Mars. An action-packed, thrilling, twist-laden adventure ensues.
What about the sequels?
I originally intended the first novel to be a standalone. But the voices in my head wouldn’t allow it. I don’t want to get into spoilers regarding the sequels, but I’ll say three things about them.
1) The second novel, The Titan War, involves Titan, time travel, and parallel universes. It’s probably the most action-packed of the three and features a much darker, deadlier alien threat than in the first novel.
2) The third novel, The Neptune Conspiracy, still has plenty of action, involving Neptune, miniaturisation, and a lot of big twists. But at the same time, the focus here is on a more psychological, emotionally complex character arc for George.
3) I think the novels get better as they go along, so yes, I like the third one best.
They’re not just for children?
I’m very proud of these novels, and no, they are absolutely and emphatically not just for children.Along the way, some of the preoccupations present in my other novels manifest themselves, including themes of fundamentalist religious oppression, abuse of power, and the responsibilities of the rich. Not that I mean to be preachy. I wrote these novels with no loftier intent than to craft exhilarating, gripping sci-fi tales, with an emphasis on adventure.
There isn’t enough fun sci-fi on bookshelves in my opinion. It all tends to be very highbrow and serious. Despite their occasional darker, more serious themes, the George Hughes adventures are meant to be great entertainment for all ages. So why not give them a go?
Where can I buy them?
Paperbacks and ebooks are available from the usual outlets, including Amazon and Smashwords. By far the best option is to pick up a paperback or ebook of the omnibus edition, which contains all three novels at a discounted price of three for the price of two (on Amazon in the UK here, in the US here, or on Smashwords here). Failing that, the novels can be purchased individually.
The Birds Began to Sing: An aspiring novelist enters a mysterious writing competition at a sinister mansion.
The Irresistible Summons: A television producer who debunks the supernatural encounters a genuine haunting in a London office block.
Phantom Audition: The grieving widow of a famous actor begins to suspect a supernatural hand at work in his apparent suicide, linked to his final acting role.
Spectre of Springwell Forest: A mother comes to believe her young daughter is cursed, after discovering a mysterious painting in her attic containing a gradually revealed figure, which only she can see.
The Thistlewood Curse: A detective and her paranormal consultant suspect supernaturally assisted murder after the sudden heart attack of a Lord’s son on Lundy Island.
Uncle Flynn: A timid boy gradually overcomes fear and mollycoddling as he searches for hidden treasure on Dartmoor with his enigmatic uncle.
Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge: A monster, a mad scientist, and a haunted house… That’s just the beginning for a boy who finds himself caught between spy factions near the end of the Cold War.
Echo and the White Howl: A exiled young wolf seeks revenge after his Alpha father is murdered by a pack rival.
The George Hughes Trilogy
The Martian Inheritance, The Titan War, and The Neptune Conspiracy: Teenager George Hughes unexpectedly inherits the planet Mars. He finds himself the target of covert assassins, hostile aliens, and even darker forces. But he also comes under the protection of a mysterious secret agent, and finds friends in unlikely places.
Children of the Folded Valley: A man looks back on his past when he grew up in a mysterious cult cut off from the rest of the world.
Peaceful Quiet Lives: Forbidden lovers fall foul of laws in both nations that emerged following the Second American Civil War.
Love vs Honour: Teenage lovers pretend to convert to Islam and Christianity to appease each respective set of parents.
All titles are available from Amazon here (in the UK) and here (in the US). Some of the above titles are also available from Smashwords.
If you enjoy my novels and short stories, please consider supporting my writing on Patreon or Ko-fi. Thank you.
Sci-fi/Thriller. A journalist investigates a tech company manufacturing nightmare suppressing nanotech for children. “Sweet Dreams” refers to the technology involved, which the journalist comes to believe may be linked to an increase in suicidal tendencies among young people. Her investigations uncover conspiracies, cover-ups, and eventually murder.
Fantasy. A Dark Ages knight undertaking a quest to rescue the young woman to whom he is betrothed. She has been captured by a mysterious Beast and taken into a mysterious and dangerous uncharted forest. On his quest, the knight encounters bandits, witches, and strange supernatural beings, journeying ever deeper into the forest, and ever deeper into himself.
Science Fiction/Horror. The near future. No one knows where the giant spider nests came from, but nations are adjusting to the challenge of living alongside dangerous oversized arachnids. A mercenary desperate for money to purchase medical treatments that can save his wife is hired by an influential businessman. His objective: Infiltrate a spider nest on a mission of vengeance.
A curious IT technician discovers the truth about traffic wardens in this surreal, sinister, rather silly conspiracy thriller.
The only short stories of mine currently available in paperback/e-book are those selected for Infestation: A Horror Anthology, which also features two short stories, Influencer and White Horse, exclusive to that volume. Copies can be ordered here (in the UK) and here (in the US). Digital versions are also available from Smashwords here, as well as the various outlets to which they distribute (Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo, for instance).
Papercut and Once in a Lifetime were originally traditionally published by Dragon Soul Press for their First Love and All Dark Places anthologies respectively. These collections are now out of print, though copies can be obtained via sellers. Papercut is also available to read in both short story and adapted screenplay form on this blog, here.
Medium allow three free reads per month for non-subscribers, so for unrestricted access to my short stories and other articles, I’d recommend becoming a Medium subscriber. This also gives you the ability to write and publish your own articles, and make money doing so, should you wish to go that route. I benefit financially if you use this link to become a Medium subscriber, so if you wish to support my work, subscribing that way is a huge help.
I have a new Patreon page, and I’d love you to take a look at it.
I’ve resisted having a Patreon page for some time, because of the begging bowl baggage with which I associate it. However, I believe I have found a way to give potential supporters back something of value. If I am serious about this full-time writer malarkey, especially with my ambition to land a mainstream publishing deal for my novels, I need to be realistic about the costs involved. My Patreon page is a means of (hopefully) addressing this reality. I lay out my writing goals over the next year in some detail, so potential supporters can see exactly what their contributions will fund.
What am I offering?
On my Patreon page, I offer various levels of monthly support (plus a link to a newly created Ko-fi account, for anyone who wishes to go the one-off donation route). Those who support me will get certain exclusives, including writing updates, video updates, film of the month recommendations, alternative cover imagery, interesting deleted segments, and early access to short story and novel chapter drafts (in some cases, a year or more ahead of official release). I’m going to serialise one (and possibly more) of my novel drafts, exclusively on Patreon, though my first literary preview will be for my upcoming ghost story, Vindicta (part 1 is already up).
I’m also offering the chance for Zoom interactions, either to offer my writing expertise (such as it is), or else to simply chat about books, films, and so forth.
Please do check out my Patreon page here and consider supporting me. If nothing else, have a good laugh at the video of me at the edge of Wistman’s wood on Dartmoor, in desperate need of a haircut.
(This is a shorter verison of an article originally published on Medium).
First, a warning: Damien Chazelle’s new film Babylon is packed with sex, nudity, violence, swearing, drug abuse, multiple bodily fluids, and elephant excrement. In fact, the pachyderm scatological gross-out occurs in the very first scene, direct to camera. This repulsiveness sets the tone for what follows, during the depravity and debauchery at the latter end of Hollywood’s silent era, before the coming of sound changed everything. Proceed at your own risk.
Is it worth the risk? Not really. Babylon has its defenders among critics, but I’m not one of them. It’s a shame, as I loved Chazelle’s previous films, Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man. With this however, Chazelle puts his considerable talents in service of a script that, like rather too many films I’ve seen lately, thinks it is a lot more profound and deep than it really is. Yes, I’ll concede Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, and Margot Robbie give excellent performances, but in truth, I didn’t care for a single character in this sordid, headache-inducing slog. It plays like a pornographic version of a Baz Luhrmann film, with plenty of Luhrmann’s opulent excess but none of his beating romantic heart.
The plot concerns Manuel “Manny” Torres (Calva), a Mexican hoping to gain greater influence within the film industry. He meets star-in-the-making Nellie LaRoy (Robbie), with whom he is instantly smitten. After making heads turn at a drug-fuelled wild party, Nellie proves a hit with producers and gets her big break. Manny also catches the eye of big but fading star Jack Conrad (Pitt), who gives him a leg up in the business. Success follows, but The Jazz Singer and the coming of sound threaten to change everything, as does the impending Hollywood Production Code, which wants an end to all the immorality, onscreen and off.
This is familiar territory for anyone with an iota of interest in Hollywood history, but it has been covered far more interestingly in better, less overlong and self-indulgent films. For example, Singin’ in the Rain dramatises the challenges of adapting to sound with wit and charm, something Babylon sorely lacks. Furthermore, Babylon has the temerity to reference the aforementioned classic musical, even including snippets of it in what is doubtless meant as a profound, cathartic celebration of cinema (in a finale I won’t spoil), but it simply made me wish I was watching that instead. Filmmakers, beware: I love Singin’ in the Rain. It’s an iconic masterpiece you invoke at your peril.
I’ll concede a couple of minor points of interest. Firstly, the experiences of Black trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) briefly shine a spotlight on how racism became a much bigger problem in the industry during the coming of sound, with studio bosses kowtowing to the racist censorial demands of segregationist southern states for financial reasons. Secondly, Tobey Maguire’s frightening mob boss is captivatingly nasty, even if the horror-ish sequence concerning him is rather out of kilter with the rest of the film. More seriously, the central relationship between Manny and Nellie and their unrequited love lacks focus or emotional punch, with the relentless partying, orgies, and ill-advised rattlesnake baiting drowning out anything meaningful or deep.
I suppose one could argue the film has a certain kineticism, especially during an early sequence exploring various silent film sets and their chaotic, health and safety nightmare shenanigans. And yes, the film works well on a technical level, with Justin Hurwitz providing a fine score. But after three hours, I felt exhausted rather than entertained, relieved the film had finally finished, and painfully aware I’d experienced neither involvement nor insight.
My advice is this: Save yourself the bother, and watch Singin’ in the Rain again instead.
I meant to watch this last year but have been rather tardy getting to it. After finally trundling off to see it last night, my expectations were high, considering some of the strong reviews. Sadly, writer-director Ruben Östlund’s dark satirical comedy Triangle of Sadness proved a disappointment, mainly because it’s not very clever and not very funny.
The plot concerns insecure male model Carl (Harris Dickinson) and his manipulative influencer girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean in her final role). Their characters are established in an argument about who should pay for dinner in an expensive restaurant. Subsequently, they attend a luxury yacht cruise via tickets procured by Yaya’s influencing, rubbing shoulders with the stupidly rich, including arms dealers, Russian waste management entrepreneurs, tech billionaires, and so forth. The cruise is punctuated by lunatic requests that massively inconvenience the ship’s crew, whose job is made all the harder by the fact that their captain (Woody Harrelson) spends most of his time in his cabin drunk. Amid all this, Carl and Yaya continue to bicker, with Yaya flirting with a member of the crew and Carl complaining, resulting in said crew member getting sacked by tyrannical chief steward Paula (Vicky Berlin).
All this meandering incident makes a rather on-the-nose point over and over again: The rich typically aren’t very nice people, and there’s far too much inequality in the world. Well, duh. I didn’t need to be bludgeoned over the head with this not particularly profound revelation, by a cast of horrid characters whose reprehensible behaviour quite honestly isn’t all that compelling. At two and a half hours, Triangle of Sadness is also a long haul, and thinks it is a lot cleverer than it is.
In fairness, it is well acted and directed, and more or less holds the attention, but for an alleged comedy, I simply didn’t find myself laughing. OK, maybe a little giggle during an opening scene involving Carl with other male models that pokes fun at how models look broodingly down on their viewers when marketing something expensive, and how cheerful they are when it’s something we plebs can actually afford. Other than that, the jokes fell flat. One major set piece involving gross-out sea sickness gags is revolting rather than amusing. I even struggled to raise a satisified smile at an ironic gag involving the aforementioned arms dealers and a hand grenade.
The film eventually arrives at a moderately interesting, albeit unsubtle table-turning scenario involving looked-down-upon toilet cleaner Abigal (Dolly De Leon). For a brief moment, it appears we might move beyond the aforementioned no-brainer point about the selfish, power-crazed greed and hypocrisy of the rich. However, it all ends up being much ado about nothing, with an ending that clearly wants to be regarded as cleverly ambiguous, and a point of avid post-viewing discussion, but I doubt anyone watching will be engaged enough to bother. At best, it might provoke a lazy “ending explained” google search, even though there really isn’t anything to explain.
Ruben, we get it. You don’t like rich people and think we need a playing field-levelling socialist revolution. You didn’t need Woody Harrellson’s American Marxist to spell it out for all of us nitwits in the dark in drunken conversation with a Russian capitalist (a colourful Zlatko Burić). As Basil Fawlty would say, perhaps we could get you on Mastermind. Special subject: The bleeding obvious.
Ultimately, I found this less triangle of sadness and more rhombus of indifference. I certainly didn’t hate the film, but emerged from the cinema feeling deeply underwhelmed, and quite at odds with the critical praise lavished upon this heavy-handed misfire.
I’ve had a busy start to 2023. Whilst writing the first draft of my latest novel, I’ve also been posting on Patreon and Medium, as usual.
On Patreon, I’ve added a number of new insights into my writing, updates, and other exclusive bits and pieces for my supporters. For instance, they now have chapters three and four of my novel The Balliol Conspiracy, which I’m serialising the draft, pre-edited version of, as a special bonus for those supporting at “Knight of the Dillon Empire” level (£8 per month), or higher. The Balliol Conspiracy, which will almost certainly be retitled when I eventually decide what to do with it, is a romantic psychological mystery-cum spy thriller a genre apart from my usual gothic oeuvre.
For Knights of the Dillon Empire, here are the two latest instalments.
Stanley Orchard goes to visit his mother, having picked up the mysterious left luggage suitcase he’d bid for in an online auction. His mother has some surprising personal news, and an intriguing visitor.
My awkward video update shenanigans continue, and once again, as per my December update, my eldest son tries to muscle in on the act, leaving various sarcastic captions as I spout about what I’ve been up to. I’ve had some supporters tell me they are patrons for these video updates alone, as they enjoy watching me squirm on camera. I shall continue to indulge their sadistic whims. These updates are available from the lowest support tier and up, so if you wish to become an “Ally of the Dillon” Empire, it’s a mere £2 per month.
Supporters on Patreon at “Free Citizen of the Dillon Empire” level or higher (£4 per month) get these exclusive updates and insights into progress on my latest novel, and my writing process in general. If you want news about what I’m up to, you’ll hear it here first.
Elsewhere, I’ve been busy on Medium. Herewith some highlights, beginning with the first part of this series I’ve just started.
That’s a wrap for this month. Thank you again for all your support, and as always, an extra huge thank you to all my supporters on Patreon – Claus, Robin, Eric, David P, Steve, Emma, Sterling, Galina, Ian, Gillian, Yasmine and Ville, plus those who have contributed one-off donations on Ko-fi. Also, thank you to Ruth and Iain, and David S, and to every one of you who has bought books, reviewed books, and promoted or supported me in other ways. You know who you are, and I wouldn’t be here without you.
If you aren’t already a supporter on Patreon, please take a look at this link, which outlines my writing goals for the next year, clearly stating how much I wish to raise and why, and offering support levels of £2, £4, £8, and £25 per month, with different benefits at each level. Please consider supporting me, even if only at the lower level, as every pound makes a huge difference.
Those of you who aren’t Medium subscribers get three free reads per month. However, if you decide to subscribe to Medium to read all my work (and the work of many others), please do so via this link, as it means I financially benefit from your subscription.
Taking its cue from Westworld, Blade Runner, Black Mirror, Humans, and any number of other android-gone-wrong sci-fi you’d care to mention, M3GAN is nonetheless an engaging high-tech horror in its own right. It also owes a debt to the likes of Child’s Play, but with an AI spin, as well as smidgens of Robocop and The Terminator, with the latter referenced particularly heavily in the rather conventional final act.
However, the best stuff comes before that, with the android in question being the brainchild of pioneering engineer Gemma (Allison Williams). She has a breakthrough with a girlbot called M3GAN, which her uptight CEO David (Ronnie Chieng) is keen to get on the market yesterday. Unfortunately, Gemma finds herself inconvenienced when her sister and her husband die in a car crash, leaving her looking after their nine-year-old daughter Cady (Violet McGraw).
Cady is understandably upset, though curiously Gemma doesn’t seem that bothered about the death of her sister. Nor are we given any satisfactory explanation as to why, beyond her apparent obsession with her work. This not entirely convincing setup is quickly overlooked when M3GAN bonds with Cady, showing an alarming ability to emotionally connect, which ought to ring alarm bells to anyone with a brain.
It doesn’t take too much predictive power to see M3GAN’s protective protocols are going to take matters too far, leading to the expected nastiness. But along the way, writers Akela Cooper and James Wan throw up a few interesting bits of food for thought, especially concerning what could happen in a world where humans form unhealthy bonds with emotional support androids. Again, this is nothing new, with the likes of AI: Artificial Intelligence being a touchstone for such subject matter. But director Gerard Johnstone builds a modicum of tension, creating a few memorable set pieces, and a touch of satire, particularly of dubious technologies aimed at pacifying children.
As for M3GAN herself, she’s voiced by Jenna Davis to appropriately chilling effect. The visual effects surrounding her imaginatively murderous contortions are well done. The rest of the cast is good enough, especially McGraw. All in all, it’s a satisfying albeit ultimately rather silly and by-the-book slice of sci-fi horror. I daresay sequels are inevitable (M4GAN? M5GAN?), which is annoying as it doesn’t need them. But in the meantime, genre fans can do a lot worse than M3GAN.
Films with unlikeable protagonists are a hard sell to general audiences, but sometimes they have the most interesting stories. In the case of Todd Field’s third film in over twenty years, prestigious Berlin Philharmonic orchestra conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett on top form) is an extraordinarily compelling character. In an opening sequence, she is introduced by an interviewer with such a detailed, impressive CV that some viewers have reportedly been duped into thinking she’s a real person. Others (such as Marin Alsop speaking to the Sunday Times) have condemned this film for being “anti-woman”, stating: “I’m offended by Tár as a woman, as a conductor, as a lesbian”. Others still, such as film critic Mark Kermode, have broken ranks with fellow critics who have largely lauded the film, claiming it is too smug and pleased with itself.
I offer that rather rambling prelude to my review for one important reason: I believe great art jabs raw nerves and provokes differing reactions. My reaction to Tár is that it is a riveting masterpiece and essential viewing for any serious lover of cinema. There are three primary reasons why: Cate Blanchett’s aforementioned outstanding central performance, Field’s stunning direction (a compelling bid for auteur status), and finally his first-rate screenplay; a fiercely intelligent, uncompromising, nuanced piece of work that provokes much thought by refusing to do the moral heavy lifting for the audience. Quite frankly, there aren’t enough films like this, so it is refreshing to see one as outstanding as Tár in a mainstream cinematic landscape so dominated by exercises in condescending hand-holding reassurance.
Although long (158 minutes) there isn’t an ounce of fat in this lean fillet mignon of a film. Lydia Tár’s fall from grace is an extraordinary cinematic journey full of contemporary resonance. For example, concerning the subject of cancel culture, in a brilliant early scene, a student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) tells Lydia during a lecture that as a “Bipoc pangender person” he considers Bach and other “cis white male” composers irrelevant, and that he disapproves of Bach’s sexual shenanigans. Lydia promptly challenges him with a firm separate-art-from-artist stance; gently at first, then with increasingly scathing remarks, culminating in a rhetorical question about whether he’d be preferred to be judged in auditions on his musical talent or his personal life. She condemns identity politics as “the narcissism of small differences” leading to “the most boring of conformities”, claiming (as the student storms out) that “unfortunately, the architect of your soul appears to be social media.”
She clearly has a point — not just about complacent cancel culture groupthink, but she could almost be speaking about the timid output of contemporary mainstream Hollywood. Yet her behaviour here provides insight into her subsequent, often subtle acts of manipulation and abuse of power (her menacing of a school bully provides additional foreshadowing). The incident with the aforementioned student ultimately comes back to haunt her, for reasons I won’t spoil, suffice it to say, what I most love about this film is that it doesn’t pander. It doesn’t spoon-feed. It wants you to think and make up your own mind.
We’re also introduced to Lydia’s partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic), as well as Lydia’s efficient but increasingly unhappy assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant). Lydia is in the midst of preparing for a recording of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but when she sets her sights on Olga (Sophie Kauer, a real-life musician), she develops a fixation which, in conjunction with revelations of past predatory incidents, threatens to undo the maestro.
Performances are excellent, not just from Blanchett but from the entire cast, which in addition to the main support includes meaty bit parts for the likes of Mark Strong and Julian Glover. Field’s writing is packed with fascinating arcane detail about the world of classical music, and his direction is sublimely cool and controlled. Many of his compositions conjure an almost gothic, claustrophobic sense of dread, with Lydia’s labyrinthine apartment all the more sinister when she wakes at night to the sound of mysterious noises. At times, the film feels like a thriller, with a sense that someone is watching her. A curious shot in the opening scene behind the head of a red-haired character hints at stalking, as do the genuinely eerie nightmare sequences, and unnerving moments whilst Lydia is out running. The use of Berlin locations is particularly effective during the latter. It also goes without saying that the film showcases some remarkable music, including Mahler and also Elgar, as well as an agreeably unsettling original score by Hildur Guðnadóttir.
At the centre of it all, Blanchett’s superb performance carries the drama. She’s a joy to watch as she breathes life into a difficult, complex, contradictory, all-too-believable character who, for all her monstrous tendencies, is not a monster but recognisably, painfully human. Apart from anything else, she’s also great in the darkly comic moments (including one involving an accordion that had me in hysterics).
Not everyone will love this film, but even if you hate it, Blanchett’s brilliance is undeniable. I fully expect an Oscar win to follow. As for Todd Field, in view of his sparse earlier output (In the Bedroom in 2001 and Little Children in 2006), I hope he decides to be a mite more prolific from now on. We need artists like him to provide challenging, incisive, grown-up drama more than ever.
Set in a Kent seaside cinema, circa 1981, Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light outwardly appears to be Cinema Paradiso-style upbeat nostalgic comfort food for film buffs. Actually, it’s a good deal darker and not especially nostalgic or steeped in film lore, save for the scenes with Toby Jones’s predictably fastidious projectionist. There is something quite magical about old-school celluloid projection, and these little details of a bygone era tug at my cinematic heartstrings. Damn, I miss 35mm.
To the main point, however, this is primarily a rather uncertain drama featuring Olivia Colman’s lonely front-of-house manager, Hilary. It is apparent from the start that she suffers from mental health problems, though the full extent of these is not immediately revealed. She’s also having an indifferent affair with the cinema manager Ellis, played by an against-type Colin Firth, who makes a convincing slimeball adulterer. Actually, he’s doubly repugnant for reasons that come into play later.
Young new employee Stephen (Michael Ward) brightens things up for Hilary, and the two form a relationship of sorts. But Hilary’s past trauma threatens their little romance. Also, the rise of racist, violent skinhead culture in Thatcher’s Britain rears its ugly head, further complicating matters. In between this, we get an episodic clutch of rather forced metaphors (a wounded pigeon feels particularly on-the-nose) raised above average by strong performances, mainly from the always brilliant Colman.
It all looks terribly pretty, with knockout cinematography from Roger Deakins, and evocative attention to period detail in the production design, courtesy of Mark Tildesley. I enjoyed playing spot the film poster in the lobby backgrounds, along with old brands of snacks, and the old UK film certificates displayed at the ticket booth (U, A, AA, and X, for anyone who remembers). It’s also fun listening as famous films play from inside the screens, during lobby scenes (for example, the opening of Chariots of Fire can be heard at one dramatic moment).
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contribute an appropriately restrained, melancholy score. Also on the soundtrack are songs from bands like The Specials, whom Stephen likes for their blending of black and white culture, as well as being just great music. This is thematically apt, and sadly timely, given the recent passing of Terry Hall (The Specials’ lead singer).
All things considered, I ought to be hardwired to love this film, yet I didn’t completely fall in love with it. This is mainly due to the uneven screenplay. Although intermittently effective, and despite being a bit of a passion project for first-time screenwriter Mendes (drawing on some personal experience of his mother’s mental health problems), it doesn’t coalesce as a fully satisfying whole. Nor does it feel as though Empire of Light is saying anything particularly fresh or radical. But what it is saying, it says well enough. Besides, for all its faults, you’d have to be made of stone not to be at least a little moved by the final scenes.
In short, a mixed bag, but not entirely without merit. As usual Colman’s performance makes it all worthwhile.
In 1955 Jim Crow-era Mississippi, Chicago-based Black fourteen-year-old Emmett Louis Till (Jalyn Hall) visited his cousins. After ill-advisedly flirting with white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), tragedy struck. Emmett was lynched, resulting in his bereaved mother Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) campaigning for justice, and becoming an important figure in the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Despite foreknowledge of historic events, Till director Chinonye Chukwu creates considerable suspenseful anxiety from the events leading up to Emmett’s death. Mamie’s grief and subsequent righteous anger is stunningly portrayed by Deadwyler, who gives a performance that dominates every scene. Whether loving her son, grieving her son, or delivering dramatic fireworks in the courtroom finale, it is impossible to tear your eyes from her face.
Chukwu wisely keeps her camera on said face during the above scene, rarely cutting elsewhere, and even following her protagonist out of the court when she refuses to hear the final verdict, as she already knows what it will be. I’ve no idea if that’s factually accurate, but it’s a great dramatic choice for this film. After all, this isn’t a Perry Mason-style fun thriller set in an impartial courtroom. It’s an important moment showing Mamie’s contempt for the openly racist police, spectators, judge, jury, and court officials.
There are a few noteworthy supporting turns too, including from Whoopi Goldberg, and especially from the young Jalyn Hall. His fun-loving but naïve demeanour accentuates the gut punch of his demise, not least because despite all Mamie’s warnings about the need for him to behave differently in Mississippi, he still falls foul of murderous racism.As Till’s great-uncle, John Douglas Thompson contributes a noteworthy turn too, powerfully portraying a man facing a horrible snap decision with no good resolution either way.
Overall, this is a restrained film, largely sparing us the brutality of the lynching itself. It plays out in a brief wide shot of the buildings where it takes place, with muffled blows and screams audible in the distance. Other telling details add menace to the drama. For instance, the way Black passengers move to segregated carriages as the train approaches the Mason-Dixon line. It is also interesting how Chicago is still shown as not entirely bereft of racist attitudes, in an early scene in a department store.
Other praiseworthy elements include Abel Korzeniowski’s score and other moments of unshowy deft cinematic craftsmanship from Chukwu. For instance, the subtle “trombone” dolly-zoom on her face when she hears news of her son’s death. A later scene in which she asks to see her son’s body hides the corpse with clever framing, until she asks to be alone with him, at which point the horrific injuries are shown in detail.
All things considered, Till is a strong piece of work that generates a palpable sense of outrage, chiefly due to Deadwyler. Well worth a watch.
Happy New Year from the Dillon Empire. I hope you’re enjoying your holiday. Time to reveal some of what I have planned for 2023, writing-wise.
Firstly, I’m penning another gothic mystery novel. This one involves a young woman caught in a web of blackmail, but that noir-ish opening gradually gives way to potentially supernatural horror elements that creep into the narrative. I don’t want to say too much more at this stage, but I’ve already written chapter one, and I hope to have a first draft within the next three months. The finished novel should sit nicely alongside my previous gothic horror-thrillers, including Spectre of Springwell Forest, The Irresistible Summons, and Phantom Audition.
Secondly, I plan to make good on one of my unrealised goals of 2022 and publish an overdue second volume of short stories. This one will probably stay away from horror, but it will contain romance, science fiction, fantasy, dark comedy, and various other genres. Most of the stories have been previously published on Medium and one or two other places, but at least two stories will be exclusive to this volume.
Thirdly, I plan to revise and polish The Hobbford Giant, so it is ready to show to agents and publishers, should the need arise. I wrote this novel last year, so I’m ready to take another look at it, having given a decent interval of time for the dust to settle on my objectivity. I have a good feeling about this one, so watch this space.
Fourthly, I shall continue pushing my gothic mystery The White Nest (real title still redacted for now) with literary agents, in the hope of securing mainstream publication. I’ve had some encouraging noises on that front, but nothing certain yet. It would be great to get to the end of 2023 with something concrete.
On top of this, I plan to continue writing on Medium and Patreon, and I have one or two other platform launches I’m planning for 2023, which I’ll keep quiet about for now. As ever, watch this space. Thank you for all your support of my writing endeavours, and once again, Happy New Year.
Welcome to the annual selection of my ten top films of the year. I say “top” films rather than “favourite” or “greatest” because, in truth, I can’t really consider any of these favourites without a second watch, and some of these I’ve only seen once. However, my final selection made enough of an impression to wind up on this list. As for “greatest”, my views on that are well documented, ie I don’t consider a film “great” or a “classic” (a term carelessly chucked around by less thoughtful film commenters) until at least ten years have allowed it to mature to that status, like a good single malt whisky. For more of my thoughts on what constitutes a great film, by all means, disappear down this rabbit hole.
Some additional points on criteria: To qualify for this list, the film in question has to have had a UK cinema release (even a limited one) during 2022, and I have to have seen it in the cinema. Films only available on streaming are ineligible, as they therefore aren’t “cinema” by definition, but more like “TV Movies”, as they used to be called. No, I don’t care if that makes me sound like a curmudgeonly “gatekeeper” (if you’ll forgive my use of an immensely irritating term I see splattered around these days, with reference to people who actually know a damn thing about cinema history). I may have made some allowances during the pandemic, but 2022 was the first year cinemas were open without interruption since 2019, so no more of this newfangled streaming nonsense. Cinema is the primary place to see films, and that is a tenet of the Dillon Empire carved in stone for all eternity.
Another critical point of order: I refer you again to the opening of my previous paragraph: To qualify, the film has to have been released in the UK in 2022. I am well aware US release dates are sometimes different, and indeed release dates differ throughout the rest of the world. However, my list is based purely on UK release dates, hence no mention of films such as Tár, The Whale, Babylon, Empire of Light, or The Fabelmans (all due for release in the UK early next year, so will qualify for my 2023 list, should they prove worthy).
On a related note, I didn’t get the chance to see The Lost Daughter, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and The Power of the Doguntil early this year, when in fact they were all 2021 UK releases. Why did I wait? I wanted to see them at the cinema, not on streaming, and where I live in southwest England, sometimes that means I have to wait for them to show up at independent venues. But I never regret waiting. True love waits, and all that. And yes, at least one of those films (The Power of the Dog) would have been on my 2021 list, edging out another film. So one has to bear in mind the inevitability of such excellent films occasionally falling through the cracks.
What didn’t make the cut?
Before I get to the list, first a quick glide through my cinematic year. The first film I saw in 2022 was The Electrical Life of Louis Wain; a quirky, enjoyable piece of work that I was sad to leave on the sidelines. Parallel Mothers is another one I regret omitting, despite its flaws. Lots of people loved Belfast, but it didn’t hit the spot for me in quite the same way. And despite the deluge of critical praise heaped on cinematic art-installation piece Memoria, quite frankly I nearly fell asleep watching it.
Nor did I have my sights on The Eyes of Tammy Faye, or the immensely entertaining trio of The Duke, The Phantom of the Open, and The Lost King. Leaving out the latter was particularly painful, as I enjoyed it so much, despite certain shortcomings. By contrast, I didn’t particularly mind omitting Red Rocket, as I much preferred Sean Baker’s previous film, The Florida Project. Nor did I mind leaving out Everything Everywhere All At Once; a film everyone except me seems to love, but I found it exhausting and headache-inducing. A shame, as I really wanted to like it.
Drive My Car proved more positive, though I found it overlong, and Ali & Ava is worth a special mention too, despite also failing to secure a slot in the top ten. No space either for potential Oscar contenders She Said and The Woman King, both strong films. Nor could I fit in romantic comedy Mr Malcolm’s List, despite being thoroughly charmed by it. Leaving out Bowie celebration Moonage Daydream also hurt a little.
Moving on to blockbusters, The Lost City proved a modestly enjoyable riff on Romancing the Stone, but it wasn’t memorable enough to include. Jurassic World: Dominion was an utter disappointment, and the less said about James Cameron’s wet fish Avatar: The Way of Water, the better. On the plus side, Top Gun: Maverick flew its way into blockbuster history, smashing all manner of box office records. I enjoyed it, will concede it is an improvement on the original film in every respect except the soundtrack, but I don’t think it is as good as many have claimed.
Animation-wise, it’s not been a stellar year; or at least, not in mainstream Hollywood. I suppose The Bob’s Burgers Movie was enjoyable, as was The Bad Guys, and Minions: The Rise of Gru did what I expected of it. By contrast, Disney and Pixar seem hellbent on streaming self-harm, denying a gem like Turning Red a cinema release, and putting out superfluous Toy Story spin-off Lightyear instead. As for the interminably preachy Strange World, please don’t get me started. On a more positive note, I enjoyed anime Beauty and the Beast variant Belle quite a bit, even if it did rather try and bludgeon me into touchy-feely emo submission. Even more positive are the two outstanding animated films that made my top ten, about which more in a moment.
Superhero films seem to have hit a rather indifferent patch this year. I enjoyed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and even the much-maligned Thor: Love and Thunder, but neither hit anything like the highs of previous Marvel endeavours. As for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, I found it rather dull, despite the undeniably poignant open and close, paying tribute to Chadwick Boseman. Black Adam didn’t do much for me either and I think it’s best for all concerned if we draw a veil over Morbius. I suppose The Batman is the closest thing we had to a solid superhero film this year, though it is somewhat overlong and fell short of Christopher Nolan’s magnificent Dark Knight trilogy.
Quite honestly, I’ve rather had it up to here with superhero films, and I think we could all do with a decade-long moratorium on the genre. Perhaps that way, some more interesting and original filmmaking could come out of mainstream Hollywood. Yes, I know that’s unlikely to happen. Still, I can dream.
On a different note, I want to give a special shout to Matilda: The Musical. This opulent, charming musical adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic is my favourite “family” film of the year, in the sense that most people understand the term. Personally, I don’t like to say “family film” as “family” isn’t a genre, and one could argue The Godfather is a “family” film. But I’m sure you take my point, ie that it’s a lovely film for all ages. I’m just sorry US audiences appear to be only getting it on streaming, which frankly is not on. I suggest taking to the streets in protest against streaming. Down with this sort of thing, as Father Ted would say.
Bill Nighy’s standout performance is the centrepiece of this poignant, low-key gem from Oliver Hermanus and Kazuo Ishiguro. Adapting Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (itself partly inspired by Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich) they conclusively prove not all remakes are bad. Nighy’s indifferent life as a post-war London bureaucrat is given a shake-up when he receives bad news from the doctor. He wants to do something of significance with what is left of his life, and after forming a close friendship with the much younger Aimee Lou Wood, he finds a new purpose. Melancholy, elegiac, and bittersweet, this gets under the skin in true Ishiguro style. Expect Oscar nominations to follow.
As far as I’m concerned, Flee deserved to win Best International Film, Best Animated Film, and Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars. It was nominated for all three but won nothing. A crying shame, as this stunningly animated account of an Afghan refugee’s traumatic journey is harrowing but immensely gripping. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s creativity eats the screen, with imagery ranging from detailed colour to monochrome minimalism for the darker moments. Covering a range of incident including the subject’s encounters with human traffickers, corrupt post-Soviet Russian police, coming to terms with homosexuality, and the ever-present threat of being sent back to a home country caught in a vicious cycle of war and religious extremism, Flee is riveting cinema.
Director Robert Eggers continues to impress with this vivid, bloody, bonkers tale of Viking vengeance. Featuring a muscular central performance from Alexander Skarsgård and a committed turn from the always excellent Anja Taylor-Joy, this may be infused with mythology and madness, but never at the expense of realism. As spectacle, this is top-notch stuff, with sublime icy Nordic visuals particularly impressive on the big screen, where you can all but feel the shivering winds amid the gruesome mayhem. Nicole Kidman also appears in the supporting cast, and has a standout scene worth the price of admission alone.
Do we really need another film of Pinocchio? Apparently, we do. Guilllermo Del Toro’s masterful stop-motion animation adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s novel puts a subversive, surreal, surprisingly moving spin on the timeless fairy tale. Ignore those mollycoddling twits saying this is too alarming for children. Yes, Del Toro’s take embraces dark themes, but the discussions around death and grief are handled in a way that I consider entirely appropriate for family audiences. Not only does it look stunning, but Del Toro adds strongly anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian undertones, and has interesting things to say about the nature of father/son relationships. In short, it’s a beautiful piece of work, and my favourite animated film of 2022.
Renate Reinsve is brilliant as the protagonist of Joachim Trier’s Oscar-nominated Norwegian drama that pretends to be a romantic comedy. In fact, the tone is more tragicomic, with emotionally messy coming-of-age threads woven into the sublimely enjoyable whole. As one of Reinsve’s romantic interests, Anders Danielsen Lie plays a particularly interesting supporting character who I found oddly relatable. One particularly euphoric sequence, involving a moment when time is frozen, remains one of the most exhilarating pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen all year.
A blockbusting nail-biter that both celebrates and critiques Hollywood spectacle, featuring great lead performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer. Some criticised Jordan Peele’s unusual sci-fi monster movie as being too narratively dense and lacking the discipline of his earlier films like Get Out. I don’t agree. If anything, I enjoyed Nope even more. Like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve, Peele is one of an increasingly rare breed: An uncompromised auteur filmmaker working in mainstream Hollywood. His work here is singular and brilliant, filled with unique images best appreciated on an IMAX screen.
The second Norwegian film on this list, and my favourite horror film of the year. This kids-with-powers tale swiftly abandons X-Men territory for something more Village of the Damned-ish, but remains very much its own beast. Director Eskil Vogt retains a grounded realism throughout, not defining anyone as an outright villain, despite some appalling acts (including hideous animal cruelty). When events escalate into murder, even then Vogt is careful to paint these children as emotionally immature, complex characters, whose backgrounds as well as poor impulse control have a bearing on their actions. This just makes it even more disturbing, especially as the adults remain oblivious to events throughout.
Park Chan-wook’s twisty-turny romantic thriller features electrifying chemistry between insomniac detective Park Hae-il and murder suspect Tang Wei. Both the romantic elements and the thriller aspects are brilliantly handled, with Chan-wook’s innovative directorial style playing with points of view and fantasy versus reality to sublime effect. For instance, the way Park Hae-il imagines himself in scenes where he wasn’t present isn’t just a gimmick but becomes increasingly visually important as an indicator of his state of mind. An undercurrent of dark humour plays out in the detective sequences, with the romance building a vividly melodramatic head of steam that lingers long in the consciousness. In short, this is right up my street, and I absolutely loved it.
On a small Irish island circa 1923, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell go from friendship to feud. Although laced with pitch-black comedy, this is a profoundly sad tale on several levels, with Gleeson’s digit-severing self-mutilation threats both a potent metaphor for the Irish political situation of the time, and an astute comment on male pride. In some ways, the key character in the film isn’t Gleeson or Farrell, but the troubled character played (brilliantly) by Barry Keoghan. He’s considered the village idiot, but revealed as someone far more complex, thoughtful, and troubled, with his subplot beautifully interwoven with the main plot, adding sublime layers of irony. Brilliantly written, acted, and directed, and featuring atmospheric island landscapes that make great use of Aran Island locations, this darkly hilarious but unsettling drama ought to go on to Oscar nominations.
I agonised over whether this or The Banshees of Inisherin should be my number one choice. In the end, I’m opting for Charlotte Wells’s extraordinary debut feature, as I found it so hauntingly moving. This small miracle of a film may not sound remarkable in terms of plot; a single father and his adolescent daughter bonding during a holiday in a Turkish resort circa the late 1990s. But the luminous atmosphere of understated poignancy, simultaneously realistic and dreamlike, elevates this exploration of parent-child relationships, coming of age, loss, and the nature of memory to deep and profound effect.
Wells makes particularly clever use of reflective surfaces, which adds to the feeling of vivid recollection of a halcyon past. Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio deliver performances that are so convincing, I kept forgetting they were actors. The deftly deployed slow burn of tiny details emotionally creep up on you, culminating in an astonishing final shot that lingers long in the consciousness. You won’t listen to Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie in the same way ever again. A perfectly formed gem that left me in tears, and my favourite film of 2022.
That’s (almost) it for 2022. Next year, an inevitable glut of superheroes, sequels, and reboots looms on the horizon. I confess I’m not enthralled at the prospect of any of these, save the second part of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation, and I suppose the next Mission Impossible may be fun. I am looking forward to Tár, The Fabelmans, Oppenheimer, and a few others. Megan looks agreeably nasty too. However, I suspect as with this year, the bulk of the cinematic gold will be found outside mainstream Hollywood.
I finally got around to seeing Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio. What took me so long? I wanted to see it in the cinema, as watching a film by Del Toro for the first time on streaming is anathema to me. Unfortunately, UK screenings have been limited, but my patience paid off and I got the chance to see the film properly at the rather wonderful Barn cinema Dartington, a local independent here in southwest England.
A long-gestating labour of love for Del Toro, this stop-motion adaptation is simply sublime. You might not think you need another version of Pinocchio given the various takes scattered throughout cinema history. These include Disney’s famous animated version from 1940, Robert Zemeckis’s pointless live-action remake of the Disney animation from earlier this year, Steven Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick’s masterful sci-fi spin on the tale: AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), and Matteo Garone’s 2019 adaptation, for which I have a soft spot. However, trust me when I say Del Toro’s version more than justifies its existence. It might just be one of my top films of the year.
The Del Toro stamp is evident from the opening image, a pan down from a pine cone revealing a grieving Geppetto at a graveside, who has lost his child. The film goes into a flashback showing the relationship between Geppetto and his young son Carlo (his name presumably a nod to the book’s author). This poignant first movement gives the story genuine emotional heft, with Geppetto creating the rough-hewn wooden Pinocchio in drunken grief. Pinocchio is subsequently brought to life by Del Toro’s equivalent of the Blue Fairy (some kind of forest spirit, adorned with Del Toro-esque eyes on her wings).
Much of the rest of the story is familiar, but again, it is given a uniquely Del Toro-esque spin. For example, the sequence when Pinocchio and the other boys become donkeys is replaced with Pinocchio getting military training to fight in Mussolini’s army. The anti-fascist underpinnings echo back to earlier Del Toro masterpieces such as Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
Vocal performances are uniformly superb, with the likes of David Bradley, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Christoph Waltz, and Finn Wolfhard all contributing excellent work. But for me, Ewan McGregor rather steals the show as Sebastian J Cricket, the put-upon moral voice of reason who (initially at least) would rather be writing his book. Gregory Mann is also excellent in the dual role of Pinocchio and Carlo.
The stop-motion animation is lovingly crafted under Del Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson’s supervision. The screenplay, which Del Toro wrote with Matthew Robbins, bravely explores death and grief, and has interesting things to say about father/son relationships. As the film points out, in moments of despair, fathers can say things they don’t mean, sometimes holding their children to unreasonable why-can’t-you-be-more-like-so-and-so standards, failing to appreciate them for who they are.
This is also a rather subversive take on Pinocchio. Given how the original revolves around the titular puppet learning to obey and behave, in this version, unthinking obedience is questioned at every turn. This is true near the start, when Pinocchio goes to church, shocking a congregation when he demands to know why everyone loves the wooden rendering of Jesus on the cross, but doesn’t give him the time of day. It’s a stark, feather-ruffling moment highlighting religious hypocrisy and prejudice. But the film cuts deeper still, with Del Toro using the early years of Mussolini’s reign as a framework for his anti-authoritarian themes. Not only do people want to exploit Pinocchio (such as carnival owner Count Volpe), but the fascists also want to turn him into a propaganda-spouting deadly weapon.
Alexandre Desplat contributes a fine music score, and though the songs aren’t perhaps particularly memorable (at least on a first viewing), this is a minor nit in an otherwise superb piece of work. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is the best-animated film of the year, and a wonderful watch for children and adults alike, despite the dark themes.