Slade House by David Mitchell: Book Review.


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Those of us who loved The Bone Clocks (my review is here) get a wee Brucie Bonus in Slade House.

Although not billed, or marketed, as such it is, in fact, the follow up.

This time, rather than a six-book, sprawling epic it’s a little addendum (a bit like Michel Faber’s addendum to The Crimson Petal and the White, called The Apple).

It’s a stand alone read in its own right and could be an excellent primer for those daunted by the concept of sci-fi fantasy that was so gloriously explored in the epic mother ship that is The Bone Clocks.

It tells the story of a mysterious House that appears every nine years in a London suburb and draws win a variety of visitors who have to face pretty challenging circumstances (I’ll leave it at that).  It sets out like a ghost story, morphs into sci fi and ends up pure fantasy.

It’s short, sweet and bang on the money.

Another little cracker David Mitchell.

(Just like this review, eh readers!)

Next?

Annihilation: Netflix Movie Review.


 

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If you have access to Netflix you have a treat in store.

Annihilation is Alex Garland’s second movie as director/writer after the Oscar nominated Ex-Machina and joins his writing portfolio that includes The Beach, Sunshine and 28 Days Later – all Danny Boyle movies.

Starring Natalie Portman (usually pretty bland and fairly much so here) and the superb Jennifer Jason Leigh (who plays it down in this) it’s a full on girl power let’s take on the aliens movie without any aliens.

The story concerns five female scientists who are sent into a strange growing entity called ‘The Shimmer’ on the coast of the USA hat hat has already chewed up and spat out a bunch of marines and inexplicably threatens life on earth.  In its early days it needs dealt with and female scientists may hold the key.

Inside ‘The Shimmer’ we find a world where DNA is ‘refracted’ in such a way that flora and fauna swap DNA and the resultant organisms range from extremely beautiful to hideously malformed.  These along with a breakdown in the scientists’ own DNA and organ tissue (leading to madness) form the threats to their existence as the seek the source of ‘The Shimmer”.

In many ways the concept is pretty close to standard fare but it is treated intelligently. (Too intelligently, it seems, for the US test cinema audience who didn’t ‘get it’ and so it was released straight to Netflix.)  Portman’s back story adds interesting colour and fleshes the movie out without intruding.

Maybe they tested int in the heart of Trump country because it’s not that tricky.  Anyway, cinema’s loss, your gain.  It’s a cracking yearn, well acted, well scripted, clever and stunningly shot.  My wife, who doesn’t go for sci-fi ordinarily, loved it.

Garland is a great ideas man and is already a gifted director.  This is a sound addition to his canon of work and I highly recommend it.

 

 

Passengers: Movie Review


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5,000 passengers and 258 staff, including Jennifer Lawrence, as writer Aurora Lane, and Chris Pratt, as mechanic Jim Preston, are on a 120 year journey on the commercial spaceship, Starship Avalon, to a distant earthlike colony called Homeland.

A meteor storm causes havoc though when it leads to mechanical damage and the unlocking of Preston’s cryogenic pod.  Instead of a four month luxury approach to Homeland that’s now extended to 80 years with no way of getting back into his pod.

For over a year, with only an Android barman, played by Michael Sheen (in a brilliant nod to Kubrik’s Overlook Hotel bar in The Shining) for company, what follows is a study in mental health, romance and danger.

Dubbed Titanic in Space it’s easy to see why.

It’s a yarn with quite a nice romantic tale in reel two between Lawrence and Pratt that’s entirely well judged.

The third reel, when it all (inevitably) goes a bit Pete Tong, has echoes of Gravity but overall, to my taste, this is a far more engaging film throughout.

Some of the sic-fi is a bit bonkers.  There’s a great set piece in a swimming pool (the ultimate infinity pool) that has riled techno-geeks but, for me, it was clever and quite thrilling.

Months from now this movie will be receding into my memory quite significantly, but as a ‘don’t take it too seriously romance/action movie’ it hits all the buttons.

Decent escapism.

 

Arrival: Movie Review


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If you are looking for Star Wars levels of excitement stop right here.  This is the wrong movie.

If you love Terence Malick step this way.

OK, so we have hopefully established that this is thinking man and women’s sci-fi.  By that I mean it’s quite slow.

But it’s beautiful and crafted and emotionally engaging.  The Aliens that arrive on earth in 12 seemingly unrelated locations do not appear to be warmongers, but are they?  What is their motive?  To find that out humankind will need to collaborate globally in finding a common language or means to communicate.

That’s gonna be tricky when three of the countries involved (Russia, China and Pakistan) are not commonly associated with collaborative political  working (a bit too much Cold War/Axis of Evil rhetoric here for my liking) and indeed these are the three countries that prove most troublesome and potentially trigger-happy in the plot.

Throughout, I was wondering what would happen here if this was real and Donald Trump was in office.  It doesn’t bear thinking about frankly.

Anyway, thankfully for humankind it’s Amy Adams as a polylinguistic professor called Fiona that’s in charge of negotiations with the Montana located spaceship full of Heptapods (7 legged floating Octopi).  Beautifully and sympathetically rendered.

Her accession to the post is a direct result of her in depth understanding of the Sanskrit word for war and its meaning (A desire for more cattle) unlike her potential competitor.

(Blink and you’ll miss that.)

Forest Whitaker recruits Adams, playing a passable General in charge of alien negotiation, and Adams is joined in her quest by mathematician Ian played in a nicely understated fashion by the always excellent Jeremy Renner.

But this is Adams’ movie (she’s a n increasingly class act) and it’s obvious why she is receiving Oscar nods (I doubt this is a winning role though).

Like everything about this understated movie the cinematography and special effects are designed to seduce rather than excite, but for me Bradford Young’s Dickensian lighting underwhelmed rather than understated.

Johan Johannson’s music is a big plus.  It underscores beautifully and clearly takes some cues from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Indeed this is the movie that it most resonates with; that and 2001 A Space Odyssey.

The back story of Adams’ life has a brilliant twist that uncoils slowly but surely and makes the whole a deliciously complex tale to unravel.

It’s worth it in my  opinion; but not my companion’s, who opined that it was “two hours of my life I won’t get back, even if Jeremy Renner is nice to look at”.

Way above average, thoughtful, slow moving but grown up sic-fi.

Just don’t expect Jedi forces.

Interstellar. A review.


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Well, Interstellar has met with a mixed reception from the critics, but not the paying viewers who are currently rating it #13 of all time on IMDB.

I’m with the people.

And I find it hard to understand why the critics have been so lukewarm.

Yes, it’s a movie about the entire human condition and saving the human race (which inevitably brings it into some potentially pretentious territory – it doesn’t escape Scot free in that respect) but Christopher Nolan doesn’t let that get in the way of a good story, carefully handled special effects, some tremendous casting (the young Jessica Chastain as Murphy is just SPECTACULAR and inspired),  great acting (Hathaway and McConaughey really do pull it off – again).

Christopher Nolan seems to be maturing rather well.

I’ve seen most of his films and some tend to overelaborate in the FX department.

Not this.

When he needs a big canvas, like the icy landscape of a potential planet for the human race to inhabit (in a far off galaxy reachable via a galaxian wormhole)  he delivers it in spades.

But it feels beleivable.

I like Sci-fi that has a heart, like The Handmaids Tale, and this sure does, partly because of its big themes – the Earth is about to die because of global warming for a start –  this grounds the movie and it effortlessly cuts between dystopian Earth and not much better alternatives far, far away.

The crop burning and the dust storms that ravage the (earth) screen are biblical in their fury.  The end of the world truly is nigh.  But the alternative seems either worse or sort of non-existent for most of the movie.

What binds it though is the remarkable relationship between McConaughey’s character as the father of  Murphy (Jessica Chastain) and her aforementioned younger self,  played by Mackenzie Foy – the likeness is remarkable.

When Nolan finally goes all Matrix/Inception (as he must) he does it amazingly, in a way that makes the whole movie; theory of relativity, gravity and time continuums, and all come together like a slo-mo implosion.  It’s awesome (sorry for using that word, but it’s appropriate).

Now: a postscript.

This is a peaen to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

We have many nods in deference to the almighty Kubrick in this movie.  Not one of them any more than a doffing of the cap to one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived and I, for one, respect Nolan for that.

This is surely Nolan’s greatest movie and at 2hrs 47 mins it felt like a short.

Bravo.

(A final word.  Hans Zimmer rocks in this movie.  An outstanding soundtrack that will surely pick up yet another Oscar.)

The Shining Girls: Silence of the Lambs meets Dr Who.


credit for image to Drops of Jupiter

credit for image to Drops of Jupiter

Peter Capaldi, the erstwhile Malcolm Tucker and the new Dr Who, would have been comfortable surveying the script for this.  But too late, it’s probably already cast.  Because it’s already  “in development” as we speak, although, perhaps surprisingly, as a TV show, rather than a theatrical release, for Leonardo Di Caprio’s production company.

Time travel.  Swearing.  Grizzly homicide.  All the stuff Capaldi would have loved.  But he’ll have to make do with The Doctor for now.

Although Soutrh African writer Lauren Beukes’ has published a novel it is really a script in disguise.

But what a script.

It’s breathtakingly original in its concept and deftly played in its exposition.

Bit by bit the plot gives itself to you as you try to disentangle the hideous crimes of a man drawn to murder by some form of malevolent force that bases itself in a run down Chicago neighbourhood, but feasts itself on the antihero’s thirst for girls that ‘shine’.

Special girls who often ‘display’ as children, but thankfully don’t face the music until early adulthood.

Beukes’ antihero is certainly of Harrisian horrendousnes.

Lector would have approved.

Some of the killings are really quite graphic, others matter of fact.  All part of a plan.  And all subtly linked.

Unlike most serial killers who have time against them (only a matter of it before detection) this one has it on his side as he skips, almost blithely from decade to decade, day to day.

Out to get this bastard is sassy, spiky, frankly odd, journalistic intern Kirby who drives her mentor/boss wild with desire but enviable restraint is observed on his part (mostly).

She, a near fatal victim, but a remarkable escapee from Harper, the aforementioned fucker upper of young girls’ lives; out for revenge.  He, an ex alcoholic, divorcee with too much life under the bridge.  Sure, it’s a cliche but Beukes just about gets away with it.  (Certainly their relationship is the weakest aspect of the novel and threatens to overwhelm a badly directed screen version.)

However, in the main dialogue is good (scripty).

Character development is decent, but hardly Dickensian.

Nevertheless the whole is decidedly superior.

Gripping, pacy, original and sufficiently distasteful to give you the taste for more.

I liked it.

Looper – Movie review


Let’s get this straight.  Looper is not, as many say, “the Matrix of the 21st Century” it’s “Sliding Doors with Guns.”.

It’s  a clever attempt to play with the concept of ‘what might have been’ on a very grand scale (although, interestingly, not, as I was expecting , on a mind boggling scale).

It’s a big movie but it’s not one that, had it failed would bring the studio to its knees and I kind of liked that.  Clocking in at $30,000 ain’t really that big a deal.

It’s set in 2047 in a now ragged USA with China having taken ascendancy in the world.  I liked the fact that director and writer Rian Johnson (Brick) doesn’t turn it into Blade Runner but adds a few neat sci-fi tricks (like flying motorbikes).  Loopers are “disposal men” of their future selves who are sent back from 2077 for, well disposal,.  They are called Loopers because the film is all about time loops. 2044’s Loopers are disposed of 30 years hence (and they know it) by themselves hence “Closing the Loop”, but occasionally it goes wrong such as here where Joe (our Hero played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has to close the loop on himself (Old Joe played by Bruce Willis).  But it all goes Pete Tong and so we now have two Joe’s on the go.

You can skip the next para if you’ve not seen the movie because it’s a spoiler.

Personally, my view is we have three because Cid, the child that young Joe encounters in the second half of the movie is, in my opinion, his younger self.  Which makes the sex scene he has with Sara (Emily Blunt – Cid’s Mum) interesting because that means he’s having sex with his own mother.

OK, back to the review.

Young Cid (a remarkable performance by 5 year old Pierce Gagnon)  has Telekinetic powers and a temper that makes Linda Blair look merely snippy in The Exorcist.

I could go on but won’t because there’s a lot of detail to consume.

Suffice to say it all pans out cleverly; the various loops are closed in perhaps unexpected ways and we are left with a movie that is clever, well acted, slick and genuinely original.

It’s a definite recommendation.  8/10.

Attack The Block written and directed by Joe Cornish


I love Adam and Joe’s 6 Music show on a Saturday morning.  It’s wickedly funny and brilliantly inventive in its humour, audience engaging and cod songwriting skits (Song Wars) so the notion of Joe Cornish writing and directing an Alien movie was intriguing, if difficult to predict what the outcome might be.  But IMDB liked it so I went for it this afternoon.

Total audience?

Six.

The concept is built around what might happen if an alien invasion started in a council tower block scheme in South London and the band of brothers that inevitably unite to repel the invasion are a bunch of skanky kids and trainee villians.

It’s a nice elevator pitch, particularly when you throw in the fact that the only female in the posse is adopted, much against her will, after being held up and robbed by the bro’s in the opening scene of the film.

But I’m sorry to say it’s a bit of a curate’s egg if I’m honest.

The issue is that it can’t decide whether it’s a comedy (and if so would have been a challenger to Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland – and lost), a social commentary piece or a full-on monster movie (in which case it would be comparable to low budget shockers like Monsters, District 9 or Cloverfield – and lose to all three of them too).

In the event it’s all of these and none of them.  And that’s the problem.

It’s partly let down by casting with most of the performances at best workmanlike and at worst either amateur (which I suppose most of the cast is) or caricaturised.

The special effects are really quite good, albeit done on a budget, but imaginatively so.  In particular the monsters with their ultra-black bodies and fluorescent green teeth (nothing else) are a bit like honey monsters gone bad which gives them an air of the humorous but at times downright creepy.

I wanted to like this movie more and I suspect it’s Joe Cornish’s winning personality that has got him the funding for it and the, mostly, kind reviews.

But the truth is, it ain’t that great.

If you stumbled upon it on the telly I think you’d be pleasantly surprised but for a full ticket cinema admission it’s pushing its luck.

6/10

brave new world. aldous Huxley.


I’ve just finished rereading this some 30+ years after my first open jawed appreciation. Reading it again it strikes me as a colossal school text in comparison to what kids read today. This book sets out to define religious, scientific, economic, political, cultural, sexual and moral guidelines under the cloak of novelistic freedom of speech.

In particular the religious and political views Huxley expresses are nothing short of challenging. How I, as a 16 year old, could have been expected to take them all in is absurd and indeed even now it’s a challenge.

This book is as full of insight as anything I’ve ever read. The scientific soothsaying alone is remarkable. But for me the core of the book is played on a religious axis. It’s strong stuff indeed.

Just amazing.

Monsters


My movie-going year is suitably bookended by two Road movie love stories, each with a flavour of the apocalypse about them.  In January, The Road took Cormac McCarthy’s seminal novel and told a love story about father and son that has seldom been rivalled.  Now, in December a young British director has created a love story that is the year’s best, as a sci fantasy and for half a million dollars.  How is this possible?

Written, directed, filmed and CGI’d by the quite remarkable Gareth Edwards, this film is an absolute joy from the first slate to the last.

At every single turn he avoids excess.  The film is so lean it ‘s positively fat free.

The CGI could be Oscar winning if the Academy decide that a Sci Fi movie with CGI you barely notice at times deserves such an accolade. The cinematography is sublime and yet is filmed on a $8,400 camera (My guess is it may have been a Canon because Canon is strongly product placed throughout).

The acting, although not award winning is perfectly good.

It’s a two man show featuring the very able Whitney Able (great too in “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) looking like a young Charlize Theron, sans scars, and Scoot McNairy.

There’s no doubt which of the pair is more likely to feature in Edwards’ next movie.  The camera absolutely drools over Able for long periods of time, but hey, who’s complaining.  Reminded me a little of Bertolucci and his penchant for ravishing his young female talent on screen.

He uses a lot of very tight depth of field which, if you like it, creates a lovely soft feel with the action often moving in and ourt of focus.  This adds quality and emphasises the beauty of the surroundings that are being destroyed in a war between the US Army/Airforce and aliens who landed in New Mexico six years prior.

Of course it’s like District Nine (everyone says so) but I prefer to compare it to Apocalypse Now (and The Road).  I think Edwards might thank me for that because the movie is essentially a trip up river (as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and he has a couple of homage moments, most particularly in the Army’s motivational music;  The Ryde of the Valkyries.

The day we saw this the cinema was full of young delinquents who were clearly unimpressed.

Barely a monster in sight.

Next to no blood.

Boring.

Alien vs Predator this is not!

My daughter and I  on the other hand were enthralled.

A fine, fine debut and most certainly one of the films of the year.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: book review


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This novel is quite extraordinary.  Margaret Atwood, at her best, is a remarkable writer.  But this is perhaps her finest hour.  Her ability to write sci-fi (as in both this novel and in Oryx and Crake) in such a way that it bears comparison to Huxley and Otrwell (as opposed to Asimov and Clarke) AND to write historical period pieces such as Alias Grace and the Robber Bride is, in my experience, unmatched.

Like many of her novels a strong feminist subplot lies at the core, but that should not put male readers off because the writing is so powerful and the ideas, politics (not just sexual) and plotting are so engaging and page-turning.

The novel was written in 1985 and, like 1984 by George Orwell, it could almost have realised itself in this reader’s lifetime.

It is set, nominally, in the mid 21st century in a dystopian society ruled by men in a land called Gilead – but in reality the USA.  (Atwood’s home nation, Canada, has a minor role as a heroic state.)

Following an unnamed “war” and rebellion a male-run fascist state emerges where women become either reproductive breeders and servents or else sent to the “colonies” to clear up nuclear waste, as fodder.

Our heroine, Ofred, is one of these reproductive handmaids and tells her story across the pre- and post-rebellion period reflecting in flashback, throughout the book, on her blissful previous existence and, in the present, on the indignity of her plight.

The detail and plotting of this novel is breathtaking.  All sorts of “inventions” and political outcomes are now (in 2007) realised from what was fantasy at the time of writing.  Her political insights are incredible and her support for feminism unstinting.

This is a sublime novel and I cannot wait to see the movie again.

Do yourself a favour.  Read it.

Now!