Film Review- Alien Covenant

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The Alien series is now officially on my list of franchises that must be humanely put down (along with the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers series, both cynical cash cows devoid of any artistic merit that will continue as long as people are stupid enough to go and see them). It is such a shame that Alien and Aliens, both stone cold classics, have had their hallowed reputations sullied with subsequent sequels. When Ridley Scott returned to the franchise to direct Prometheus, I had hoped for a Casino Royale or Batman Begins type rejuvenation, but that proved a crushing disappointment. Now, with Alien Covenant, the disappointment continues, and it’s time to draw a veil over the whole sorry business. Sorry Ridley, you’ve blown it once too often.

Even though there are a few superficial changes to the format (for example, this time the fresh alien meat is a group of colonists searching for a new world) the plot plays out like an Alien bingo sheet. Crew awakened from hypersleep early? Check. Mysterious distress call from an unknown planet? Check. Foolish blundering into said unknown planet? Check. Stupid disregard for quarantine procedure? Check. Dodgy androids? Check. Bloody, body-ripping carnage ensues? Check. You get the idea.

All of which is fair enough in one sense, given that this is an Alien film. But the script is so painfully on-the-nose, with every plot turn so obvious, that what was once mysterious, unpredictable and terrifying is now merely bland, regardless of how much blood and guts is chucked onscreen (and there is plenty, believe me, along with strong language to turn off the faint of heart). Ostensibly we are meant to sympathise with recently bereaved Daniels (Katherine Waterston), and be intrigued by Michael Fassbender’s robotic duo (one of which is the same character from the previous film), but neither they nor any of the other characters develop beyond mere plot devices.

As with Prometheus, every so often the film threatens to evolve into meaning-of-life sci-fi. Certain cast members, such as the recently promoted Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), tease intriguing character arcs (Oram is set up as someone who worries he is not respected due to his religious faith). The very first scene, where Fassbender and corporate big cheese Weyland (Guy Pierce) ponder life’s big questions in a stark, white, minimalist room sparsely decorated with religious artworks and grand piano (all the better to pointedly play Wagner’s Entry of the Gods into Valhalla on), is more Blade Runner than Alien. But as with Prometheus, all such threads are lost once the carnage kicks in. Besides, quite honestly the Alien franchise has always been ill-suited to attempt the hoary old Who-made-God question. The more Ridley Scott insists on clumsily shoehorning existential musings into the franchise, and explaining the xenomorph backstory, the less I care.

On the plus side, Scott is far too talented to make a film that looks bad, and Alien Covenant is visually fabulous. The design, art direction and special effects are superb. Jed Kurzel’s music score neatly apes elements of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic original, and once again Scott is furnished with an overqualified cast, all of whom do pretty well with sorely underwritten roles. But not even a two-for-the-price-of-one Michael Fassbender can save this, and how I longed for the presence of Sigourney Weaver.

Quite honestly, if you really want a half-decent post 1986 Alien movie, try this year’s Life instead. It might be shamelessly derivative, but at least its slick, nasty, unpretentious and consistently gripping.

 

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An excerpt from The Thistlewood Curse

Here’s an excerpt from my new supernatural thriller The Thistlewood Curse.

THE THISTLEWOOD CURSE Cover (JPG Print version)

Following a particularly difficult and traumatic case, Detective Sergeant Laura Buchan goes on leave, only to hear via email about the sudden death of her friend’s husband on Lundy Island. This is the event that sets the main plot in motion.

“Laura immediately grabbed her phone to give Sally a call. She hadn’t known Charles very well, but obviously she wanted to be there for her old friend. However, she then noticed the email was very long, and that there was a great deal more she ought to be aware of first before making any calls. As she read it she felt increasingly disturbed. Sally wasn’t merely bereaved, but she seemed quite beside herself with what appeared to be the most extraordinary paranoia.

Dear Laura,

I’m very sorry to have to tell you Charles has died. He was visiting his parents on Lundy Island and literally just dropped dead. According to the doctor it was a sudden heart attack. Very unusual for someone his age, and very unlucky. The funeral is next week. He’s going to be buried on the island.

  As you can probably imagine I’m going through a lot right now, but there is something else I have to tell you. I know you’re going to think I’m mad, but I think Charles was murdered. In fact, I’m sure of it. The worst thing is I can’t prove anything. I haven’t got a shred of evidence. I’ve got nothing more than a really, really horrible feeling. I’ve not said anything to anyone else, but I need you now, more than I’ve ever needed you before. I need you to help me prove Charles was deliberately killed. Please help me Laura. I’m really, really scared.

You can download or order print copies of The Thistlewood Curse from Amazon Kindle here.

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Film Review – Free Fire

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Having missed its brief multiplex run I finally caught up with Free Fire, the latest from writer/director combo Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley, at my local arts centre. Definitely one of their more accessible films, it’s slick, violent, sweary and funny but one can’t help leaving with a certain much-ado-about-nothing taste in the mouth afterwards.

The film is almost entirely set in a disused factory warehouse in the 1970s, where a gang of IRA terrorists attempt to purchase guns from a South African arms dealer. Things begin to go south when one person in the arms dealer’s party recognises someone from the IRA party, against whom they have a rather large grudge. After that, the drama degenerates into a protracted shootout.

In many ways, this is simply the finale of Reservoir Dogs drawn out to feature length. However, the film is livened considerably by a darkly funny screenplay, and great performances from a talented cast. Brie Larson in particular is terrific, and she gets the best eye-roll in recent memory (if you see the film, you’ll know what I mean). Elsewhere there are strong roles for the likes of Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley, the latter of whom is I always find particularly good value in any movie.

Ultimately even if the film eventually feels rather monotonous, it does its thing and sees it through effectively, if pointlessly. Diverting but empty.

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The Thistlewood Curse – now available in print!

My latest novel The Thistlewood Curse is now available in print, as well as an Amazon Kindle download.

A gripping supernatural thriller, The Thistlewood Curse already has it’s first, five-star review from this Amazon reader, who claims it will “leave you with ‘novel hangover’, still reeling from the emotional storm that just picked you up and spit you out… Engaging, captivating, and immersive from the very beginning, and the plot twists were a pleasant surprise”.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

From the author of Children of the Folded Valley and The Birds Began to Sing

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?

Check out The Thistlewood Curse, and let me know what you think on Amazon.

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The Thistlewood Curse – out now!

My long-awaited new novel The Thistlewood Curse is now available to download from Amazon Kindle.

 

A gripping supernatural thriller, The Thistlewood Curse is an unashamed, page-turning mystery. It is akin to my earlier novel, The Birds Began to Sing, although darker and more frightening, particularly towards the finale.

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting articles giving background on the novel, my inspiration, details on the writing process, the cover image, extracts, my thoughts on genre blending, and more.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

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?

Download your copy of The Thistlewood Curse here. An announcement will be made regarding print copies soon.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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The first Guardians of the Galaxy has steadily climbed in my affections on repeat viewings, to the point that it definitely ranks in my top three Marvel movies, mainly because of the poignant subplot involving Peter Quill’s mother. I suspect the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is unlikely to grow on me in the same way. There is enough goodwill from the first film to make it an enjoyable experience overall, but the law of diminishing returns definitely comes into play here.

We’re reintroduced to Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt) and his motley gang of alien weirdos – Gamora (Zoe Salanda), Drax (Dave Bautista), Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) – in the midst of an adventure involving a huge tentacled monster and a peculiar, snooty, vaguely fascist alien race. As ELO’s Mr Blue Sky plays over the opening credits, we’re back on familiar turf, with well chosen pop songs punctuating the action just as effectively as in the original.

Where the film is less effective is in a somewhat plodding and predictable narrative, which follows similar plot beats to the first film, but ends up being a tad overblown. For example, the use of Yondu’s arrow is dialled up to 11, but this makes it less clever and fun than in the original. There are still plenty of laughs, as old characters such Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) turn up again. An amusing if pointless Sylvester Stallone cameo liven proceedings, along with new characters including empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Ego (Kurt Russell), with the latter turning out to be… Well, I won’t say, even though it was spoiled by the trailer.

Director James Gunn outdoes the visuals of the first film with some truly spectacular planets, aliens and monsters, but whilst this is undeniably bigger, it isn’t really better. Certainly in the finale, visual effects fatigue begins to kick in, and five (count ‘em) post-credit sequences punctuating the credit roll feels a tad excessive. I’d have axed at least three of them.

Themes of family, including absent fathers, sibling rivalry, adoption and so forth, crop up too. But they are less subtle and emotionally satisfying than in the original film. Ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 lacks the light touch of its predecessor, and even though flashes of anarchic irreverence do break through, it is largely a case of treading water.

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The Thistlewood Curse – out tomorrow!

My new novel The Thistlewood Curse is released tomorrow on Amazon Kindle.

Set almost entirely on Lundy Island, The Thistlewood Curse is a nail-chewing, page-turning supernatural thriller with a gripping central mystery that will keep you guessing to the very end.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

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?

You can pre-order The Thistlewood Curse from Amazon Kindle here. An announcement will be made regarding print copies soon.

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Film Review – Their Finest

Their-Finest

Their Finest offers an intriguing glance into the British Film Industry during World War II, through the eyes of a woman appointed as a scriptwriter during those dark times.

Said woman is Catrin (Gemma Arterton). Initially given the rather sexist assignment of writing the “slop” (women’s dialogue) in wartime information shorts, she is subsequently seconded to a major Dunkirk themed propaganda production. Here she meets cynical co-writer Tom (Sam Claflin), with whom she gradually forms a close bond. She also meets the entertainingly vain Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), a full-on luvvie who initially objects to being cast as drunken comic relief, but over time comes to admire and respect Catrin’s talents.

I liked this film for several reasons. As someone whose twin passions are writing and cinema, Their Finest appeals to me at that level alone. Performances, script and direction are all good, and in addition to the fine leads, the supporting cast includes memorable roles for the likes of Eddie Marsan, Richard E Grant and Jeremy Irons. Lone Sherfig (who also directed An Education) conjures a genuinely compelling atmosphere of life during wartime, all the more fascinating for being witnessed through the eyes of a film industry soldiering on in the face of the London Blitz.

Gaby Chiappe’s finely observed screenplay (adapting Lissa Evans’s novel Their Finest Hour and a Half) is historically interesting, witty, romantic and poignant. There are many interesting themes explored including artifice versus realism, particularly through the film-within-a-film approach, which also candidly shows how half-true tales of thwarted heroism were retold as tales of cinematic courage, for an understandable greater good, morale wise. As Tom says, regarding the popularity of cinema during wartime, people want an order and logic in their films that contrasts with the unpredictability and chaos of their daily lives. With random tragedy able to strike at any time, the need for such films was all the more important.

It also touches on the empowerment of women, and how some men feared that having been called upon to do jobs men traditionally did, women “would not go back into their boxes” after the war. Even the most sympathetic of male characters in the film is depicted engaging in the casual sexism of the time – not because the film is waving fingers, judging them by 21st Century standards, but because it is both relevant to the subject matter and an accurate reflection of the way things were.

In short, Their Finest is an entertaining and satisfying piece of work, well worth watching.

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The Thistlewood Curse out on the 1st of May!

After a few delays, I am pleased to finally announce that my new novel The Thistlewood Curse is available for pre-order on Amazon Kindle!

Set almost entirely on Lundy Island, The Thistlewood Curse begins as a detective story but evolves into a suspenseful supernatural thriller.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

From the author of Children of the Folded Valley and The Birds Began to Sing

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?

You can pre-order The Thistlewood Curse from Amazon Kindle here. An announcement will be made regarding print copies this week. Watch this space.

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Film Review – The Handmaiden

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First, the obligatory upfront warning: The Handmaiden contains explicit and prolonged sex scenes, sexual themes, violence and bad language. Those familiar with the extreme cinema of Park Chan-wook (best known for the Lady Vengeance trilogy and more recently Stoker) will have an idea of what to expect, so if you do see this film, proceed with caution, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot (which is very loosely based on Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith), as preserving the surprises is important and the best way to approach it is to know nothing about it.  During the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, Sook-Hee (Tae-Ri Kim) is hired as handmaiden to Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Hideko lives in a large mansion with her sinister Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) who is obsessed with books and has an extensive but forbidden library. Occasionally Kouzuki sells one of his rare books, but rather than part with the original, arranges for a forgery to be sold instead, courtesy of master forger Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha).

What happens with these four characters throughout the rest of the film is gripping, shocking, intoxicating stuff with some genuinely brilliant twists and turns. It has the air of an erotic thriller, but with Chan-wook’s uniquely twisted sensibilities (plus a dash of Quentin Tarantino’s narrative jiggery-pokery). At times one is reminded of Daphne Du Maurier (particularly Rebecca), Les Diaboliques, and even the Wachowski’s pre-Matrix neo-noir Bound. Atmosphere oozes from every frame, with Chan-Wook’s nigh-on flawless direction and tremendously committed lead performances resulting in an exceptionally strong piece of filmmaking. Chung-hoon Chung’s immaculate cinematography and the music score by Yeong-wook Jo provide the icing on the cake.

There are two versions of The Handmaiden currently in cinemas. One is a shorter cut which apparently feels more like a “thriller”, the other an extended cut (erroneously called the “Director’s cut”) which contains extra footage, including more of the romantic elements. I saw the latter version. However, both versions contain enough of the afore-mentioned graphic sexual content to raise serious eyebrows. It is ironic that a film which inherently condemns pornography contains so much of what could arguably be called pornography. There are many academic arguments one can read online as to whether or not the various lesbian trysts are too “male gaze”, but quite honestly my own take is somewhat ambivalent. A film that dares to go to the places this one goes to should inevitably contain at least some hot-under-the-collar material. However, I can also see the opposite point of view. Could some of what was in the film be labelled gratuitous? It wouldn’t be hard to make that case.

Either way, The Handmaiden is a superbly crafted film, even if it is likely to be a problematic one for many viewers.

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