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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – A United Kingdom

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A United Kingdom, Amma Asante’s fact-based drama about the controversial marriage between Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, flirts with Oscar-bait “worthiness”, but on the whole is a solid, absorbing piece of work. Expect nominations for David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.

In 1947 London, back clerk Ruth Williams (Pike) met and married Bechuanaland (later Botswana) Prince Seretse Khama (Oyelowo). But this marriage of a white woman to a black man caused a diplomatic crisis involving Bechuanaland, South Africa and the British Empire. Despite immense pressure from all sides to dissolve their union, Seretse and Ruth remained determined, even in the face of South African anger, British betrayal and exile.

This story is one that absolutely should be told, and although it isn’t exactly groundbreaking cinema, Asante holds the film together well. In addition to the afore-mentioned excellent leads, the supporting cast includes Jack Davenport and Tom Felton in suitably caddish Imperialist roles, which is always good value. Guy Hibbert’s screenplay contains a number of outstanding and powerful moments, despite occasional episodic lapses and tearful scenery chewing speeches that may as well be labelled “Oscar nomination clip scene”.

But perhaps I am being too cynical. A certain amount of righteous anger cannot fail to be stirred up in any viewer with an iota of moral fibre. Besides, the lessons of colonialism and racism are still all too bitterly relevant into today’s appalling global political climate.

In short, the positives of A United Kingdom outweigh the flaws, and as such it is certainly recommended.

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Books

Download Love vs Honour FREE – for five days only!

For five days only, you can download Love vs Honour for FREE from Amazon Kindle!

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I wrote Love vs Honour almost ten years ago and sat on it for some time, as it lay outside my usual genre fiction writing. Certainly young adult romantic drama isn’t something I specialise in, yet the story felt so strong in my mind, I had no choice but to ultimately release the novel.

It begins as a boy meets girl story, with a potentially controversial religious twist. It then evolves into a drama of deception, with many twists, turns and ironies, before a much darker finale which has taken some readers by surprise. I must emphasise that this novel is as much for grown-ups as teenagers, as the subject matter is not just romantic but embraces a number of complex and hopefully thought-provoking themes and ideas. I cannot say too much more for fear of spoilers.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

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?

Here are a few review snippets:

“This book is one of the few that made me cry. I love it.” – Splufic, Goodreads.

“The premise of a Christian and a Muslim pretending to convert to each other’s religion to be with each other for the sake of pure, unadulterated love creates a strangely addictive narrative.” – Graeme Stevenson, Amazon.

“The ending of the book really made the whole thing. I kept wondering where this was headed, if it was an apologist piece or would go to a more realistic place. I won’t spoil the ending except to say, read this book. It is surely worth your time!” – DM Miller, author The Religion of the Heart and The Agony of the Heart.

Love vs Honour can be downloaded FREE by clicking here. For print copies (not free) click here.

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Download Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge FREE – for five days only!

My novel Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is available to download FREE from Amazon Kindle for five days only. Simply click on the cover below.

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Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is a gripping and scary tale involving spies, monsters, haunted houses, mad scientists and lots more besides, with action and thrills to spare. It was inspired by the nightmares of my youngest son, and the book is duly dedicated to him.

Here is the blurb from the back of Dr 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.

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge can be downloaded FREE here. If downloads aren’t your thing but you still fancy giving this book a go, print copies can be purchased here.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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It was only a matter of time before a Harry Potter expanded universe outside of the main novels became a reality. Earlier this year Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a massively successful and critically acclaimed stage play (or rather two stage plays), opened in London. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them puts the Potter world back on the big screen in a major way, and will no doubt be a similar till-ringing success. With sequels in this spin-off series already announced, it seems JK Rowling’s wizarding world will be with us for some time to come.

Fantastic Beasts is set in the 1920s, and tells of the misadventures of one Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young wizard arriving in New York with a case full of magical beasts. If you’ve ever wondered what the interior of Mary Poppins’s carpet bag might have looked like, this film provides an idea, with the TARDIS-esque interior (ie bigger on the inside) of Newt’s suitcase resembling a curious and fantastic zoo filled with stunning magical creatures. Of course, a series of unfortunate incidents involving a suitcase mix-up with aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) leads to said creatures getting loose in New York. In trying to recover them, Newt’s problems are compounded by an initially hostile reception from US magical society, and darker villains – for example, the obviously up-to-no-good Auror Graves (Colin Farrell), and pseudo-religious zealot Mary Lou (Samantha Morten) who along with the abused orphans in her care want to purge New York from the presence of witches and wizards.

Redmayne is all gangly awkwardness as Scamander, not looking directly at his fellow humans but always engaging with the creatures in his care. He shares something of Hagrid’s lunacy in that sense, although he is a very different character. He also very much reminded me of Matt Smith’s Doctor Who. The supporting cast – which also includes Jon Voight, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol and Johnny Depp in a small but vital role – does well,  and director David Yates, responsible for the last four Potter movies, helms with a sure hand. Visual effects are spectacular throughout (although a little CGI heavy at times) and the various monsters and creatures a great deal of fun (I particularly loved the Niffler).

All that said, the film feels a little on the overlong side, given the slightness of the premise. One gets the impression that other subplots are being set up for sequels, and such inevitable franchise building means sacrificing a tighter, leaner film. The plot isn’t exactly unpredictable either, especially if you’re familiar with the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. However, on the plus side it’s messages are commendable, given the uncomfortable parallels to familiar American problems. Newt Scamander is very much the introverted British outsider, commenting with incredulous disbelief on (allegorical) racism, miscegenation and prejudice in general. For a start, there are the obvious misunderstandings and ignorance from Mary Lou and her misguided cause. Then there is the way wizards are kept apart from the rest of society and forbidden to marry “Nomags” – non-magical people – with such unbending strictness.

Such themes are present though not to my mind preachy, and merely add another thread to the strong moral fabric underpinning JK Rowling’s Potter universe. Although probably not destined for classic status, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is, in final analysis, a fun and diverting film for all the family.

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Books

Download Uncle Flynn FREE – for five days only

For five days only, my debut novel Uncle Flynn is available to download FREE from Amazon Kindle.

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Uncle Flynn was received very positively. On the surface it is a properly old-fashioned treasure hunt adventure, but it contains underlying themes about overcoming fear and the dangers of mollycoddling. The book is dedicated to my eldest son, and was largely inspired by our many excursions over Dartmoor, as well as a bit of local history.

Here is the blurb from the back of Uncle 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…

Here are a few reviews from various readers:

“Harking back to the wonderful adventure stories of Arthur Ransome, Uncle Flynn is a welcome return to the excitement of outdoor exploits in wild surroundings. Excitement, tension and peril combine in a well-written tale where The Goonies meets Swallows and Amazons. The evocative descriptions of treasure seeking on Dartmoor will have you longing to visit and explore for yourselves. Action-packed puzzle-solving pleasure for children and adults alike, with a neat twist in the tale to keep you guessing.”

Mrs Alice R Brewer, Amazon.co.uk

“A treasure for all ages. Kids and teenagers would love this fast-paced adventure story. Most adults would also find it a light and enjoyable read.”

B Fraley, Amazon.com

“Don’t pass this one by. I have been burning through the free NOOKbooks and this is the absolute BEST. Doesn’t matter what type of fiction you like to read, I can imagine this would capture just about anyone’s attention – and heart.”

willreadanything, Barnes and Noble.

“Could not put the book down, so enjoyed the journey. Recommended it to my 12 year old grandson who now wants me to be his book reading adviser. Loved by three generations.”

Brinney, Barnes and Noble.

“What a wonderful book for young readers and anyone else who loves a book with a great twist on an amazing story of courage over fear.”

Beansie47, Barnes and Noble.

“I’m an 83 year old woman. Your book was a joy to me. I felt I was having all the adventures myself at this ripe old age. Your book was like a cold drink of water on a hot day. Thank you.”

Joan McLaughlin, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

“I downloaded the book for my boys to read, and thought I’d just read the first few lines… Needless to say I read to the end! Well written and most enjoyable – great adventure with life lessons woven into the story.”

Cecile Weyers, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

Uncle Flynn is available to download FREE here. Print copies are also available (not free) here.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Arrival

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Denis Villeneuve is fast becoming one of my favourite directors. After a stunning double whammy of first-rate thrillers (Prisoners and Sicario) he has made the move into science fiction with the equally stunning Arrival, an intelligent and visually inventive alien contact movie.

When a dozen tall black alien spacecraft appear at key points across the Earth, Berkeley linguistics expert Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are called in by the US government to help make contact with the aliens. Will they discover why they are here? Or will miscommunication eventually result in frightened humans turning on their visitors (or possibly invaders)?

The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are clear influences on Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (adapting Ted Chiang’s original story), but Robert Zemeckis’s underrated Contact is also a touchstone, especially in a key subplot regarding Louise’s daughter. That said Villeneuve not only manages to craft a film that feels visually fresh, he has also chosen a story that cleverly ducks the usual genre clichés. For example, what other nations are doing in their efforts to communicate with the aliens is not merely lip service acknowledgement of a world outside the US, but in fact pivotal to the narrative. The resolution is also very clever in an M Night Shyamalan kind of way.

Performances are strong, special effects suitably special and Johann Johannsson’s spare score is innovative and eerie. Although messages about the importance of communication and the need for the human race to work together are hardly new to the genre, they are given a new and thankfully not too preachy spin here. Better still is the profoundly emotional undercurrent, addressing the mystery of parental bonds and grief, amongst other things, but in a way that is not depressing but positive and cathartic.

In final analysis, Arrival is a slow burning but gripping piece with plenty to arrest the eye, ear and brain. With Villeneuve at the helm of the long awaited Blade Runner sequel next year, perhaps he can pull off a stunning one-two punch in sci-fi as well as thrillers.

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Books

Download the entire George Hughes Trilogy FREE – for five days only!

The George Hughes trilogy is a thrilling, action-packed space tale set just over a hundred years in the future. Each story is a stand-alone adventure, but I recommend reading the novels in order nonetheless, as they do follow on from one another.

All three can be downloaded FREE from Amazon Kindle during the next five days.

Also, I must emphasise, these books are not just for children. Adult readers have found plenty to enjoy too (especially those who have picked up on some of the subtexts).

Here is the blurb from the back of George goes to Mars:

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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 holiday homes. But sabotage, assassination attempts and the possibility of an alien threat plunge him into a deadly adventure…

Here is the blurb from the back of George goes to Titan:

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The thrilling sequel to George goes to Mars…

A year on from his adventures on Mars, George Hughes faces an even deadlier peril as he travels to Titan on an urgent rescue mission. The mysterious Giles returns to help him, but assassins are once again on his tail, and a new, far greater alien menace lurks in the shadows waiting to strike.

Here is the blurb from the back of George goes to Neptune:

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In this spectacular sequel to George goes to Mars and George goes to Titan, George Hughes faces his most dangerous adventure yet.

Following the Titanian invasion, a deadly and very personal threat forces George to undertake a voyage to a top secret Martian research base on Neptune.

On this remote outpost, he uncovers a diabolical plot. But George is too late to prevent the catastrophe.

A catastrophe that will change his life forever…

Here are a couple of reviews from adults:

“A thoroughly enjoyable read” – Mark, Amazon.

“Reading like a cross between one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulpy Mars adventures and a Robert Heinlein ‘juvenile’, this improbable yarn (just how many “saved in the nick of time” coincidences can one novel contain?) about a rags-to-riches-to-hero boy named George was nonetheless page-turningly entertaining. Perfect rainy day/sick day reading.” – Elizabeth Olson, Goodreads.

And here some thoughts from the target audience (at least I assume so, given the tone of their reviews):

“This was totally amazing! Involves space ships, aliens and more! A totally exciting adventure you’ll love!” – Anonymous, Barnes and Noble.

“Pure awesomeness! Packed with suspense and adventure, as well as LOTS of action!” – Anonymous, Barnes and Noble.

“Best book ever!” – Anonymous, Barnes and Noble.

The George Hughes trilogy can be downloaded FREE here (book 1), here (book 2), and here (book 3). Print copies (not free, alas) can be ordered here (book 1), here (book 2) and here (book 3).

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

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Edward Zwick takes the directorial reins for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; an agreeably average action thriller elevated a little by the central relationships between Reacher (Tom Cruise), framed-for-espionage Major Turner (Cobie Smulders – best known for her role in the Avengers movies), and is-she-or-isn’t-she-his-daughter Samantha (Danika Yarosh).

Lest we forget, Zwick isn’t just responsible for cinematic gems like Glory, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, but also the woeful Legends of the Fall (truly one of the worst films I have ever seen). How does he acquit himself with a blockbuster thriller with lots of running, jumping and fighting? Well, for the most part pretty well. The plot isn’t as strong as in the previous movie, but the afore-mentioned relationships make this an entertaining watch. The machinations of the plot concern Turner framed for espionage and later murder (along with Reacher himself). Both end up as fugitives and attempt to unravel the conspiracy against them, which involves decommissioned weapons shipments, drug smuggling and… oh, the usual nonsense.

Tom Cruise hardly needs to try in a role like this, but his banter with Smulders and the wonderful Danika Yarosh provide the best scenes in the film. It is hardly groundbreaking, but Never Go Back is a satisfying additional adaptation of the Lee Child novels. There are plenty of loud and violent fight scenes which push the 12A rating in agreeable fashion, whilst cleverly keeping the nastier bone-crunching offscreen.

In short, an agreeable and intermittently exciting diversion.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Nocturnal Animals

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A slow-motion, carnivalesque montage of naked, obese Americana opens Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. This sequence is eventually revealed to be part of an art installation in a gallery owned by protagonist Susan (Amy Adams). Despite its obvious satirical undercurrent, this lurid and fleshy opening ultimately feels irrelevant to what follows, making it arguably the only misstep in what is otherwise something of a modern masterpiece.

I should caution upfront that in addition to the afore-mentioned nudity there are scenes of violence and plenty of bad language. Furthermore, whether you are offended by such elements or not, this is not going to be for everyone. It is actually a very difficult film to define. Part noir thriller, part bleak, cautionary drama, Ford’s adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan has a highly polished, deliberate, calculated sheen. Given that Ford is a fashion guru (and as exhibited in his previous film A Single Man), every single shot is meticulously crafted and designed, to the extent that it initially gives a misleading impression of superficiality, of being all surface and no substance. However, there is in fact plenty of substance.

Susan appears to have it all – an expensive, elite lifestyle with her handsome businessman husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). But there is trouble in paradise. Hutton’s latest deal is going south, and he might be having an affair. Susan begins to recognise that her existence is superficial and, though she doesn’t want to admit it, unhappy. However, when the proof of a soon to be published novel by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives in the post, a-film-within-a-film begins to unfold whilst Susan reads said novel – a violent tale that opens with rednecks running Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife and teenage daughter off a remote Texas highway.

A paper cut Susan gets when opening Edward’s novel clearly indicates to the viewer that this book is going to “draw blood”, as it were. What follows as the film cuts between Susan reading, flashbacks to her relationship with Edward, and the action of the novel, is gripping but also rather depressing. Indeed, whilst my admiration for this film is not in doubt, I can’t quite make up my mind how much I actually liked it. I think another viewing or two is in order to make that determination, but that in itself is a remarkable achievement. Nocturnal Animals is definitely a film that gets under the skin.

One sequence in particular involving the rednecks is almost unbearable in its drawn-out, menacing suspense. Performances are all terrific, and Michael Shannon deserves a special mention in a key supporting role. Other notable acting talent crops up throughout, including Laura Linney, Jena Malone, Andrea Riseborough, Isla Fisher and Elile Bamber. There’s also a brief but noteworthy cameo from Michael Sheen. Abel Korzeniowski’s lush, Herrmann-esque music score provides a splendid icing on the cake, evoking the more psychological films from Hitchcock such as Vertigo.

In summary, Nocturnal Animals is, by turns, cold, cynical, disturbing and desperately sad. Some have criticised it for lacking humanity, but I disagree with that assessment. On the contrary, I think Ford has crafted a penetrating insight into the human condition, especially with its merciless depiction of the price of pursuing materialism. Idealism, sensitivity and romanticism come crashing down in cascades of resentment and revenge. As a writer myself, I must admit I found myself uncomfortably identifying with one or two moments. For some it might just be too much of a bitter pill to swallow, but it certainly isn’t a film you’ll forget in a hurry.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – The Light Between Oceans

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It would be easy to dismiss The Light Between Oceans as melodramatic mush. The accusation is true, but with excellent performances from Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender, plus superb direction from Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines), this adaptation of M L Stedman’s novel is absolutely first-rate melodramatic mush. In fact, it’s a hugely effective weepie that tugs at heartstrings with ruthless dexterity.

I don’t really want to say too much about the plot, suffice to say it begins with World War I veteran Tom (Fassbender) accepting a post maintaining a lighthouse at a remote island off the west coast of Australia. Feeling the need for solitude, the introverted Tom thinks the posting will be an ideal place for him to recuperate following the ordeal of the trenches. However, before he gets to go to the island he meets the comely Isabel (Vikander), who is immediately attracted to him. A familiar romantic road is followed at first. Then the film takes darker turns that I don’t want to spoil here, suffice to say they absolve the film of being easily dismissed as a chocolate box love story.

Within five minutes, I had fallen in love with the landscapes/seascapes. Within ten minutes, I had fallen in love with Alicia Vikander’s Isabel. Within twenty minutes I had fallen in love with the film. And two hours later, the film had broken my heart. Yes, I’m a complete sucker for this kind of thing. Yes, it is sentimental beyond belief, but said sentimentality is undercut by the afore-mentioned dark turns. Besides, this is the kind of film you come to in order to be put through a properly traumatic emotional wringer. It provides catharsis and makes one feel alive in the same way a good horror film does. To me, weepies and horror films are like two sides of the same coin.

Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender (two of my current obsessions) are ably supported by Rachel Weisz in a key role. Cianfrance’s splendid use of locations, plus the gorgeous cinematography by Adam Arkapaw reminded me of that earthy, dirt-under-the-fingernails aesthetic of John Schlesinger’s criminally underrated 1967 take on Far from the Madding Crowd. The sound design is also worthy of special mention, with ever present howling winds and lashing seas adding to an exceptionally atmospheric piece that is beautifully enhanced by Alexandre Desplat’s lush music score.

There are a few moments where the plot becomes too contrived for its own good. And just to nit pick, one point where the film eschews Desplat’s score in favour of Funeral Canticle by John Tavener felt misjudged, purely because that piece of music, for me, is so indelibly connected to Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life. In the epic romance stakes, this perhaps doesn’t quite scale the impossible heights of Brief Encounter, Doctor Zhivago or The English Patient, but then again, what does? Such shortcomings are easily overlooked given the raw, heartfelt passion on display here. It is also worth mentioning that there are some very positive Christian viewpoints inherently endorsed by the story, regarding the importance and power of forgiveness, how the truth can set you free, and so on.

For genre snobs and cynics, The Light Between Oceans may well be dismissed as a ludicrously overheated blunt instrument. But it’s a very effective blunt instrument, one that satisfyingly ticks the kind of boxes you want ticked in this kind of story. I’m not ashamed to say I loved it.