BOOK REVIEWS: Annihilation & The Book of Strange New Things..

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As a coward, I’m too scared to see ‘It’. I know it involves an evil clown and sewers and things that float down there – and of course that it started out as a book by Stephen King.

I’ve actually been staying home, working on my reading list. I’ve chosen novels that are being adapted for the big (and sometimes small) screen, featuring heroes light years braver than yours truly.

One such pick was Annihilation, the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series, a novel that King himself called ‘creepy’…

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Book Haul! Future adaptations Ophelia & The Lost Wife

Earlier this year I read Lion, about a little Indian boy, Saroo, who gets lost in Kolkata, and survives on the streets before being adopted by an Australian family. As an adult he tracks down his mother and sister in India by using Google Earth.

The incredible true story became a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel. I watched it and couldn’t help but be disappointed – it wasn’t a patch on the book. Yet if I’d seen it in theatres first, I wouldn’t have bothered reading about Saroo’s journey.

I decided I’d better get cracking before I’m tempted to laze in front of the screen. I’ve packed my incredibly packed (not really) reading list with some future adaptations and it’s quite a mix – YA, historical, science fiction. Here goes the YA/fluffier reading

Ophelia, by Lisa Klein

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Ophelia by Lisa Klein

Get thee to a nunnery…not as passionate as Juliet, or bold and witty as Beatrice, Ophelia has always seemed a flimsy role.

But Lisa Klein’s re-imagining of Hamlet from his love interest’s perspective has forever banished thoughts of her as a tragic waif.

We meet Ophelia as a motherless girl moving to the court of Danish King Hamlet, with her ambitious father Polonius and callow brother Laertes.

Under Queen Gertrude’s slightly capricious care, Ophelia grows into an exceptionally intelligent woman I can see inhabited by Daisy Ridley. She catches the eye of Prince Hamlet, and becomes an expert on botany and herbology, curing the ailments of people at court.

What if she used those skills – and her formidable intelligence – to try to survive the tragedy that engulfs her family and Denmark?

I was a bit doubtful when I read that the characters talk with ‘contemporary language’, but it’s not “Yo Hamlet, your mother’s a total MILF.” (Gertrude will be played by Naomie Watts.) They don’t speak in blank verse, but there is a vivid sense of time and place.

As a professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature, Klein knows the setting and characters, and the result is a very atmospheric YA novel with a genuinely impressive heroine, although I did find the final quarter heavy-going.

Wrapped back in July after shooting in the Czech Republic, the film will star George MacKay – who was very good in Captain Fantastic – as Hamlet, and Tom ‘Draco Malfoy’ Felton as Laertes.

The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman

Daisy Ridley is having a busy year (or two). In this, she is slated to play a young art student in WWII Prague.

Lenka, a young Jewish woman living with her well-heeled family, falls in love with a classmate’s older brother, Josef, who is following his father’s footsteps into medicine. They marry, but when he escapes with his family for the USA, Lenka’s own family are unable to follow, and the couple are torn apart.

This is well-researched (life in Prague before the occupation; the artwork of Jews suffering in the ghetto Terezin; the bravery of a few to produce an underground movement) but I couldn’t take to it.

Richman’s prose is flowing and romantic, but this is no epic, ambitious narrative. I didn’t believe Lenka and Josef were real people, just paper-thin dolls Richman could draw and colour in. I also really have doubts about her decision to start the novel with the conclusion.

The secondary characters are very lightly daubed on the page, and their stories basically end when it is clearly very convenient.

It’s hard to dismiss this as lightweight when Auschwitz and Mengele – names which strike immediate horror – appear in the text. Lenka’s choices and circumstances are naturally going to be heart-wrenching, but if I wanted to read a deeply affecting account of the Holocaust, there are plenty of books out there.

I suspect Richman just isn’t a writer I could enjoy. It’s far too early to say anything about the movie, but I hope they change it so that the ending….is at the end.

Next week, I review some forthcoming sci-fi adaptations….

Game of Thrones, where the rules are all wrong

Dany-02Farewell Season Seven. You left me even more Thrones-ambivalent then ever before.

And farewell Viserion! Considering all the characters who met tragic ends, I don’t know why I sniffled when a CGI dragon took his leave.

Moving on, because everything was anticlimactic after that poor innocent (Reminder to self: He’s not real!) firebreather slid into his icy grave. Sob.

…But seriously that Night King is a legend in his own icy mind. OK, he can throw a javelin, but Westerosi politics would shatter him. To defeat him, I propose a marriage alliance with Cersei. I can’t think of a worse fate for any man.

Get Littlefinger on it, he’s the wedding planner…oh. He was murdered by that pesky trio of non-acting Stark kids. Totally ungrateful of them, because there’d literally be no show without his scheming, and all three would be busy accruing student debt instead of playing princesses, blank-eyed assassins and three-eyed ravens.

We’ve got pompous psychic Bran, and pompous psycho Arya. I’ve touched on this before, but what would people call Bran if he threatened to cut off his sister’s face and wear it? Ramsay Bolton? Hannibal Lecter?

When psycho Arya isn’t menacing Sansa, she’s missing dear old dead dad Ned, like the rest of us. He haunts the show, rattling his chains and reminding us how good Thrones used to be.

Arya recalls how he caught her secretly practicing archery. “I knew that what I was doing was against the rules, but he was smiling, so I knew it wasn’t wrong,” she says. “The rules were wrong.”

There’s a lot of talk now about changing the world, about ‘breaking the wheel’ and making Westeros a better place. Tyrion tried bandying around alternative political systems to absolute monarchist Daenerys. At The Wall (R.I.P) a group of largely illiterate men elect their leader. He hopes this might catch on and pave the way for a brighter future.

Careful what you wish for T – the last lot stabbed Jon full of holes after an incredibly divisive campaign and election, and his wounds still look kind of oozy and gross.

It’s not just the rules that are wrong; the rhythms of the show are as disordered as the crazy seasons. Thrones took too long on the road to this point, and now they’re rushing through with dazzling set pieces to reach the end.

And the show isn’t fooling anyone. After a final season of death, deprivation and dragon human suffering, it’ll all end with a benevolent fairyland ruler – beautiful like Daenerys, but good like Jon. Their child, I’d imagine. Stark-Targaryen 2019.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets comes at you fast

valerian-v-poster-full-highres-01The search for a male star who can replace Harrison Ford continues. As the eponymous Valerian, Dane DeHaan is supposed to be a happy-go-lucky, square-jawed hero and roguish galactic agent.

Instead he looks like he should be playing a space cadet in some sort of academy somewhere with fellow cast member Clive Owen as the bullying principal.

Unfamiliar with the comics, I briefly and mistakenly thought Valerian and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) were siblings, like a Luke and Leia crime-fighting duo.

But Valerian drools over Cara (more than Luke did Leia) and it quickly gets annoying to watch the little twerp sexually harassing model Delevingne. “He’s got no chance!” I thought.

The French-Belgian Valerian et Laureline comics were a suspected early influence on one Mr. George Lucas, and watching Valerian, I could lovingly remember the prequel trilogy. The romance between the leads is pure Attack of the Clones level space crash, complete with stilted dialogue.

There are hints of Avatar’s Na’vi in the humanoids from the destroyed planet of Mül, who stow away in the bowels of a giant free-floating metropolis called Alpha – the City of a Thousand Planets – where different alien species all pool their knowledge in brilliant harmony.

There’s a plot involving the annihilated planet, Alpha’s Commander Clive Owen, plus a kidnapping and a little MacGuffin creature everybody is trying to get their hands on.

Agents Valerian and Laureline both get captured umpteen times and have to save each other – Laureline puts a giant mind-reading jellyfish on her head to find Valerian, who later has to swoop in with a shapeshifting Rihanna to stop Laureline from getting her brains eaten by a race of master chefs on Alpha.

My largely teenage audience were probably there for RiRi, but it’s just a cameo really. There’s a rushed immigration subtext involving her character, and the film has a message of love conquering all.

Director Luc Besson has an established reputation for style over substance. Valerian – his passion project – is a zany, hot mess, with the characters slaloming and sloshing around his crazy pinball machine universe. I tried to enjoy it – I loved the score and the soundtrack – I just would have liked better dialogue too.

Verdict: Valerian comes at you fast, but it was like being forced to spend two and a quarter hours on the now-defunct Bubbleworks ride at Chessington. Isn’t it amazing the childhood nightmares that can be dredged up years later?

The Light Between Oceans is Instagram-worthy, if not awards-worthy

The Light Between Oceans, or as I keep calling it – The Light Between Oscars – was once quite buzzy, tipped to give its star Alicia Vikander another shot at Best Actress after she lifted the trophy for The Danish Girl in 2016.

It’s based on a very popular work of historical fiction – the global bestseller by M.L Stedman. An Australian serviceman, Tom Sherbourne, returns from WWI. He marries Isabel (Vikander), and they go and live in his remote lighthouse.

After Isabel suffers two harrowing miscarriages, a lifeboat with a dead man and a squalling baby washes ashore.

A hesitant Fassy lets his young wife keep the baby and raise her as their own. Things then take a Hardyesque twist when Fassy stumbles across Hannah (Rachel Weisz) weeping beautifully beside a memorial at the church where the Sherbournes are holding their child’s christening.

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Entertainment One

This is, I think, the first big studio film by Derek Cianfrance, director of the indie hit Blue Valentine (which I skipped – Ryan Gosling does my head in).

Light is a melodramatic, sweeping romance but Vikander is so intense, and the premise so far-fetched, I wondered if it would veer off into psychological horror, with the lighthouse and the baby manifestations of the character’s break with reality.

Apart from that early, creepy suspense, there’s nothing else to save the movie from being, well, a bit overwrought really, with an ending that felt badly rushed.

Rachel Weisz is surprisingly – given her character’s predicament – soft, a gentle undercurrent to the lighthouse couple. Fassy gives a very reserved, stoic performance as the traumatized veteran, while the new Lara Croft Vikander is a storm to be reckoned with once again.

As husband and wife, they have an interesting chemistry and are quite contrasting onscreen. Vikander is still such an ingénue it looks like Fassbender might have plucked a child bride from the sea. He’s a rarefied thespian; she’s raw and tumultuous.

By all means, I think people should see The Light Between Oceans, just for all the talent on board. It is probably the most beautiful film of last year, with its stunning seacoast and the stark lighthouse interiors. You could Instagram the living daylights out of it.

Game of Thrones season 7 is short and full of terrors

At the start of season seven I wrote a grumpy post about how much I didn’t love Game of Thrones. Once they used up Grim’s good books (the first three!) from the Ice and Fire series, and then outpaced the novels entirely, the HBO show worsened.

Of course, I carried on watching for the sheer spectacle. It’s fun to read the theories and get into the post-episode breakdowns. Plus – with a few glaring exceptions – it’s a fine cast, so it’s easy to invest in the characters (knowing full well they’ll get killed off when you do).

I like to muse over which character I’d be if Westeros were real, although I’d probably be stone cold dead. I’d try to live by the sea, eking out my days and avoiding trouble. (Wait – that’s my life here on Earth!)

The Red Priestess gig looks good. They never seem to feel the cold, and Stannis’ erstwhile sorceress possesses the hocus-pocus to look fab at 400 years old.

I’d love to be that arch and dramatic, but I’m more of a Gilly, the girl who thought being a Wildling made her “sound a bit dangerous.” She’s currently in the Citadel with Sam, who has turned out to be a total wildcard. Westeros can’t be doomed with mavericks like Sam around.

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Knocking spots off that Targaryen girl: Hannah Murray as the absent Gilly. Credit HBO

Meanwhile, Jon is busy stomping around Dragonstone for his precious obsidian. (He got Davos to make those cave drawings, right?)

I hope Tyrion gets behind Jon, and I hope Jon & Dany don’t happen. Kit needs something to act opposite, and Jon, like Robb, needs to avoid exotic bimbos and marry a nice Westerosi girl. Meera Reed is available…

Because Bran is the Three Eyed Raven now apparently, and people are gunning for Sansa to claim the North. So far, Sansa has excelled at two things: being brutalized and running a castle. She was born to be a good highborn wife and run the domestic sphere – not command men or be a politician.

High on my Thrones wish list though is seeing Jaime get together with Brienne, assuming she’ll still have him after he got sucker-punched by an old lady. I suppose the Kingslayer is a catch, although I wouldn’t want Cersei’s cast-offs. Ugh. I think in the books he was well shot of her by now.

Hopefully the Drogon near-miss and the dip in a lake will bring him to his senses, finally.

It’s winter for our heroes, but summer for us fans. Years of trudging through the seasons have led to this payoff –  dragons over Westeros, Stark reunions and the unveiling of secret Targaryens.

And yup, we’ve already hit this season’s halfway point, for it is short and full of terrors…(Come back Melisandre!)

To the Bone…

to-the-bone-sundance-e1495026297494-03To the Bone opens with two alien stick figures walking down a bright corridor. It’s peaceful, as the beings glide from the light towards the camera.

….and into a group therapy session/art class. A girl is feigning righteous anger at magazines for promoting thinness, when a sarcastic voice interrupts.

“Ugh. Society’s to blame. The world is so unfair. I have to die.” Meet Ellen (Lily Collins), a twenty-year-old anorexic artist bored out of her mind. “There’s no point in blaming everybody. Live with it,” she sneers, before holding up a crude sign saying “suck my skinny balls.”

Not eating makes you cranky. The anorexic Queen of Shade – in off-duty model chic – goes to the middle-class Californian home of her stepmother and half-sister, where she does sit-ups, counts calories, and misses meals. Anorexic stuff.

Ellen’s mother and her lesbian partner are living at their ranch in Arizona and “feeling blessed” on Facebook. Ellen’s father is always working, and interestingly, he’s never onscreen.

His wife, Ellen’s stepmom, played by Carrie Preston, is the driving force behind finding a new specialist, Dr Beckham. He’s described as ‘unconventional’, although it’s not clear why. Perhaps because he’s good-looking and played by Keanu Reeves. He agrees to treat Ellen, as long as she is admitted as an inpatient.

She moves to Threshold, a facility for young people with anorexia and other types of eating disorder such as bulimia and binge eating disorder. Here she befriends a young Brit patient named Luke, who is an annoying show-off. He already knows who Ellen is, thanks to a whole angsty subplot about her Tumblr artwork supposedly inspiring a girl’s suicide.

Family therapy with Keanu Reeves proves to be a waste of time, although it does allow the film to communicate the contemporary understanding that eating disorders are complex conditions with no single ’cause’. The film is also good at portraying the powerlessness and frustration that families often feel.

Viewers are likely to be as confused as Ellen’s sister, wondering why she doesn’t “just eat.” Anorexia is abstract and internal. Films can show emaciation with weight loss, body doubles, makeup and CGI. But anorexic thoughts, or a compulsive urge to get ‘down to the bone’, is a challenge for storytellers.

Perhaps anorexia could be better explored through fantastical, less literal means. To the Bone’s opening moments promised something more creative, and Ellen’s out-of-body experience where she sees her malnourished form with a different lens also had the inkling of something more original.

As balance, there’s a cringe-making dance scene that goes on forever, as artsy dance scenes tend to do.

Verdict: Lily Collins proves there is more to life than being beautiful and the product of nepotism. To the Bone is a conventional teen drama, with a message of hope, recovery, and fighting for your own identity.

Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls was one of the biggest, most hyped literary hits of 2016. Debut author Emma Cline’s manuscript had sparked a bidding war and was optioned by a powerful Hollywood producer before it sold, let alone reached shelves.

Amy Adams-lookalike Cline is young, enigmatic, and like the heroine of her novel, grew up in sun-kissed California. Her coming-of-age tale is set during the late sixties, and, rather sensationally, is based loosely on the infamous Manson cult and their brutal murders.

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Cline’s Manson-like group is seen through the eyes of 14-year-old outsider Evie Boyd. Her parents are newly divorced; her father is living with his young girlfriend in another town, while Evie’s mother is busy dating and following every New Age trend going.

Evie studies the studio portrait of her late maternal grandmother, a famous, beautiful actress. “The realization was bracing” she thinks, “we looked nothing alike.” Poor Evie has a dour best friend who finds a new best friend, who then throws a drink in Evie’s face.

Crippled with insecurity and at a loose end, Evie’s the kind of girl Russell Hadrick preys on. He’s teaching his followers about a “new kind of society”, one that’s “free from racism, free from exclusion, free from hierarchy.” Only it’s not Russell, but his teenage lieutenant Suzanne, who holds a dark glamour for the immature Evie.

Some of the girls in thrall to Russell have vague histories of abuse and violence; Suzanne’s a sly one, both her past and her motives and feelings regarding Evie remain obscure. During her long summer at the group’s decrepit ranch, Evie becomes a little less passive, acquiring coarser edges from Suzanne and the others as they scavenge, steal, and drop acid.

There’s a second, sad thread in the novel with middle-aged Evie – still a tragic, weak figure. We know, from that Evie, that she wasn’t there for the murders, and she considers whether she – deeply average Evie – could have killed. But she wasn’t under Russell/Manson’s sway, and Cline doesn’t explore factors behind the Manson murders – Helter Skelter etc.

The 1969 Manson slayings still hold lurid fascination, and perhaps The Girls wouldn’t have been so hyped if not for Manson’s hole in pop culture.

The novel has been compared to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, which was also a queasily authentic look at the horrors of being a teenage girl, although featuring much lower stakes teenage misery. The Girls could have been a bleak and weirdly woozy debut about the forces that shape and ruin girls’ lives even without the cult-murder backdrop.

I’m just glad I finally crossed it off the reading list.

Game of Thrones is back…

IMG_20170717_180832-01Are you glad it’s back? And by ‘it’ I mean the TV phenomenon that’s as big as Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings?

I’m not a constant admirer of the Game of Thrones juggernaut anymore. Characters get arranged into starting positions for epic showdowns, rinse and repeat. This season has seven episodes, and “Dragonstone” probably won’t be the only hour devoted to groundwork and prepping the set pieces.

We had Sam in the library, and Sam emptying bedpans. We had Emilia “I Can. And I Will” Clarke strutting around her ancestral home like a plump 12-year-old trying to be a haughty catwalk queen. (And I’m not sure the show has enough time to explore the attraction dangling between her eunuch warrior and her handmaiden.)

Like Dany, Sansa is coming into her own, as the Lady of Winterfell. Soft-hearted Sansa now feeds her husbands to hungry hounds, and while I’m all for character growth, not every female character has to be a Strong Woman, and Strong Women don’t have to commit grisly murders to be powerful.

Perhaps they don’t know what to do with Sansa – the whole rushed, overripe Ramsay plot was not her book story – and Sophie isn’t a believable enough actress to play a ruthless killer AKA junior Cersei. Thanks to her dreary line readings and whiny nasal voice, I use Sansa scenes for any unpleasant chores, like putting the recycling out.

But Sansa, like sister Arya (they look nothing like sisters), is probably part of George R.R. Martin’s endgame, and can’t be bumped off.

Maisie is a good little actress, but she seems super-aware that there’s a huge audience who love Arya and who think a bloodthirsty (female) child assassin is cool, and maybe this awareness is sometimes ever so slightly to the detriment of her performance.

Arya is on her way to King’s Landing, where Bad Uncle Euron is trying to woo Evil Queen Cersei and come between her and Jaime, who have reached that stage where they’re more brother/sister, than red hot lovebirds…oh yeah.

There were things I liked, I promise, I’m not as grumpy as Sandor Clegane, who is still with the Brotherhood and in delightfully surly form, shaming Thoros’ topknot hairdo. (He’ll be coming for Jon’s man bun next.) The Hound is seeing visions in the flame, and it sounds like those screeching ice men are going to overcome the Wall by just….walking around it?

Really? Give fans their answers already!

(OK maybe I am as grumpy as the Hound after all.) 😉

Channel 4’s The Windsors

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Channel 4

Channel 4’s spoof royal soap opera The Windsors – which just returned for a second run – may not be subtle, but it’s a fun distraction, and if there’s any one thing this blogger is addicted to, it is fun distractions.

The actors (led by Harry Enfield as Prince Charles) all give outrageous, panto performances. They’re either gin-soaked villains and/or monumentally, irredeemably stupid. The Queen and Prince Phillip are spared, save for the Duke’s expletive-riddled written missives (“Dear Funny Foreigner…”) which are read out by other characters.

(Their absence is more than fine though, as the Queen and the Duke have got The Crown, and it’s on Netflix and it’s waaay more prestigious.)

Although The Windsors is meant to be silly, all the characters are actually quite sweet and sad and touching, like poor Fergie (Katy Wix), desperate to be allowed back into the fold.

I’ve read the anonymous comments about the real Royal Family on places like Mail Online and people can be harsh and resentful (to put it lightly). Then there are fawning blogs, where for ‘Princess Kate’ fans, she’s Cinderella. The Windsors writers Bert Tyler-Moore and George Jeffrie have the former Miss Middleton as a gullible sweetheart from a family of travellers, because why not?

With the media focus on the ‘main three’ of Kate, William and Harry, Fergie’s girls have been relegated to bit-part players, but Tyler-Moore and Jeffrie have made B&E (Ellie White and Celeste Dring) main characters, which is nice. They’re depicted as airhead Sloanes who didn’t get the memo that they’re on the fringes of their own family, which..isn’t so nice.

It makes me feel almost sorry for the real Yorks, who sadly lack a certain media-friendly, fashion-savvy charm (constantly referred to as the ‘ugly stepsisters’), unlike the willowy Delevingne sisters, or even the Middletons. (I’ve written before that in our appearance-obsessed age, nothing would end the monarchy faster than an unattractive princess/future queen waiting in the wings.)

Pippa too (played here by the very talented Morgana Robinson as a vampish vixen seething with sisterly jealousy) can’t be seen to be having too much fun, before some online commentator yells: “Your sister is royal not you!!!” It’s as if to kowtow to the Cambridges, we have to remind ourselves we have some dignity by gloating at the position of the ‘lesser’ royals and royals-by-association.

Miss Markle, are you sure you want to join the cast of this real-life institution?!

The Windsors series 2 consists of six episodes. It continues on Channel 4 in the UK on Wednesdays. Get ready for the arrival of one President Trump!

BOOK REVIEW: My Sweet Revenge by Jane Fallon

In the summer, my cat makes me sit outside where I can’t get any WiFi. Apparently she is too scared to stay in the garden by herself, and just feels safer if I’m there.

I suppose I could spend my enforced no-WiFi time doing Yoga and meditating on how I became so devoted to such a demanding creature, but it’s really a great chance to catch up on some reading. It’s like relaxing on the beach with a good book, only with cat babysitting thrown in, and lots of purring.

My Sweet Revenge was written under the furry supervision of author Jane Fallon’s diva moggy Ollie (she’s a girl) Fallon-Gervais, so it’s only right it should be read while under the paw too. Let me explain: Ollie has her own Twitter account (37,000 followers) and my familiarity with her social media antics clued me in that I would love Jane’s world. Not that Jane writes Ollie’s Tweets, of course.

So I really have to thank Olls – because this isn’t the kind of book I’d grab off the shelf; I know it’s not necessarily a popular term, but ‘chick lit’ isn’t generally for me. (Fair play to all such writers out there –  I know I would never have the talent to write it.)

As expected, Jane Fallon’s work (she is now the author of seven best-selling books) has far too much drama and deceit to be fluffy or girly. It’s like chick lit written by a secret evil genius with a blonde ponytail.

Jane’s latest heroine, Paula, works in a bakery (hence that mouthwatering jacket cover) and her idea of getting back at her (apparently) cheating husband isn’t just to fling a cream pie in his lying face.

See? That would be the plot of my own romantic revenge novel.

Paula and her husband Robert met at drama school; his acting career took off, hers didn’t. Robert’s not exactly Benedict Cumberbatch famous, more like second-billed lead on a soap (or ‘long-running drama’) famous, and beloved by the nation’s grannies. The couple’s teenage daughter Georgia is the only celeb sprog on the planet to not be an aspiring actress/photographer/model, and has her heart set on medical school instead.

Their life is shattered when Paula makes a discovery leading her to believe that Robert is having an affair with a gorgeous co-star named Saskia, who is married to a producer on their show Farmer Giles (!). Paula doesn’t confront her husband, deciding instead to execute a scheme for retribution that will make him fall back in love with her, while scuppering any chance he has of happiness with Saskia.

The story is mean, addictive, and about as unlikely as a sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, calorie-free pastry ever tasting good. But Jane Fallon was a producer for shows like EastEnders and This Life, and is a famous-adjacent person herself. With her powers of observation, she’s made this book really authentic and insightful. Paula is a great main character – likeable and with enough gusto to keep the reader engaged.

I honestly could not see the twists coming. The book has been an absolute joy and a great vacation read.

Verdict: I haven’t enjoyed a story partly-set in an eatery so much since Pushing Daisies folded.

The Mummy and Wonder Woman

I haven’t been enjoying the cinema very much lately. I keep getting hit with mild vertigo every time I go. I think I’m overpowered by all the fragrances and aftershave that people seem to douse themselves with before they head to the multiplex, and well, I’m sensitive.

Yet I have bravely fought on, just like the wondrous Diana of Themyscira charging across No Man’s Land into enemy fire. (OK slight exaggeration.)

I realise everything has already been said about Woman Woman so I’ll keep it very brief: It’s a really good superhero movie. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are great (all the cast are), and I thought the decision to shift the backdrop to WWI worked really well.

Well done DCEU, I always knew you had it in you.

The Mummy was… a different experience.

The Tom Cruise-starrer kicks off Universal’s Dark Universe, but it seems there just wasn’t any appetite for another Mummy. It needed amazing word of mouth to entice people.

My first surprise was that it was a 15 certificate, although as the movie progressed I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t a 12A. It starts off a bit dark and intriguing, with Russell Crowe in the modern day finding some crypt, then a load of exposition involving Ancient Egypt and a curse, before we’re back to the present where tomb raider Tom Cruise triggers said curse.

I would make a crack about Cruise being too old for his action hero thing, but a load of fifty-somethings (and one seventy-year-old) totally crushed me at running 5k (3.1 miles) last week, so actually I’ll just keep my mouth shut on that score.

Chris Martin’s girlfriend is also in the movie as a… I can’t really remember. Archaeologist who has an affair with Cruise. Blonde hair?

I felt sorry for the actress Sofia Boutella because her Mummy is an interesting idea. Ahmanet is an Egyptian princess who got royally screwed over and then makes bad choices by entering into a pact with the evil god Set. She is way scarier than campy old Imhotep. (Weird thing, there was a guy who looked just like that crazy high priest right behind me.)

It’s a heavy, oppressive summer blockbuster, with out-of-control sound levels, but there is a good movie in there – perhaps it was the rumoured troubled production. Keep going Universal, you’ll get your Wonder Woman.

REVIEW: Alien: Covenant (randomly deleted..)

There are probably certain things you just know about yourself – like whether or not you’d be cut out for daring interplanetary exploration. Personally, I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be much good.

Only in the jumbled Alien franchise, it seems I’d actually be well-qualified. In Interstellar the crew represent the best of humanity; they’re the bravest, the best scientific minds. Compare this to the inept crew of Prometheus, and the hardscrabble, quotable marines of Aliens. Truth is, Xenomorph Expedition’s workforce are never exactly first draft. No offence, Ripley, ma’am.

This brings us to the Covenant, a beautiful hunk of a ship that houses a crew made up of married couples, all jolted out of hypersleep following a neutrino burst. (Yes I’m going to totally pretend I know what that is.) Playing nursemaid is Walter (Michael Fassbender), the nice android brother/updated model to Prometheus’ smarmy malcontent David.

Now I loved Prometheus. I loved the blueness of it, I loved Shaw – despite everything – and I loved David because the crew were so infuriatingly stupid and hostile you rooted for the evil robot genius. Shaw and David survived the events of Prometheus together and set off to track down the Engineers – the race who created humans.

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Sadly missed: Dr Elizabeth Shaw Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

I was probably alone in the universe in basically just wanting Prometheus 2, and with ‘Covenant’ in the title it looked like my prayers might still be answered. More dodgy philosophizing please! I avoided trailers and publicity because I wanted to be surprised in the theatre.

People who didn’t like Prometheus (and, ahem, there were a fair few) had made their feelings known, and as with all things, those who shout the loudest tend to get their way. So I had to get over the disappointment that Covenant wasn’t a continuation of the adventures of David and Shaw, but a return to typical – if bloody – blockbuster terrain.

Covenant’s newly-awakened crew are lured away from their target planet by an eerie transmission that I think was Shaw singing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. Upon hearing her, I realized I just couldn’t care about these Covenant losers and I never would.

The only person against deviating from their planned course is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), our Ripley-esque heroine. Widowed when Captain James Franco got Anakin Skywalker’d in his malfunctioning sleep pod, she’s also now second-in-command to Billy Crudup’s wimpy Captain Arm (OK it’s Oram, but it sounded like they were saying ‘arm’).

Daniels and Arm lead some of the other marrieds and a security team on this strange new world and despite knowing nothing about it, people are soon moaning and stopping for cigarette breaks like this is just a routine rekkie. There’s no professionalism, no training, no common sense. I wanted to scream at the screen: “It’s not Earth guys!”

Luckily David is back, so ha-ha for our marrieds! Bye, suckers! David’s been busy experimenting with the Engineer’s black goo bio-weapon, which infects the Covenant idiots, who are so rubbish with firearms they shoot up their own landing craft.

Apart from the creepy android-on-android flute scene, we know where all this is headed: an all-action face-off with an Xenomorph through the halls of the Covenant. This is Aliens minus the snappy dialogue and (my earlier disrespect notwithstanding) the memorable supporting cast.

If Ridley Scott couldn’t do a George Lucas and remain unrepentant following Prometheus, insisting this was the prequel story he always wanted to make only he didn’t have the tech – it might have been better if this venerable franchise had stayed in a permanent cryo-sleep since the 80s.

TV REVIEW: King Charles III on BBC2 and PBS

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BBC/Drama Republic

When “Charles III” trended on Twitter last Wednesday there were probably more than a few people who thought that an era had ended.

Luckily, Wednesday’s tweets were not about the accession of Charles III, but the BBC TV adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s award-winning future history play. After the glossy Netflix hit The Crown, and ITV’s vapid Victoria, King Charles III was an unsettling “what if”.

First staged in 2014, the play imagines the current Prince of Wales as a tormented ruler who causes constitutional chaos by refusing to grant Royal Assent to a bill passed by Parliament.

What draconian new law upsets Charles so much he’d risk the monarchy? Banning homeopathy on the NHS? War on one of his other pet causes? Nope, he’s royally hacked off at a nasty bit of legislation that restricts the freedom of the press. (Hooray for Charles! Journalists probably aren’t his favourite people.) Cue rioting outside the palace and Diana apparitions wafting down the corridors.

The actors in this play-turned-TV-drama make the blank verse dialogue sound easy (most of the cast are veterans from the stage run). The late Tim Pigott-Smith is Charles; Chris Oliver is a dithering, weak-willed Wills; Richard Goulding a dour, hunched, Daniel Radcliffe-like (Prince) Harry.

The cast aren’t attempting precise impersonations of their characters so much as original portrayals of real people in a parallel universe ; the only thing Goulding’s Harry shares with the prince is red hair.

Poor Harry. While the real ‘spare’ has created a role for himself, in the play he’s a ‘ginger joke’. There’s an unlikely love interest in a working-class woman named Jessica (Tamara Lawrance), and embarrassing scenes featuring the lovelorn prince with Working Class Londoners who (weirdly) don’t recognize the fifth-in-line to the throne.

Jessica is definitely no Meghan Markle, the glam, clever, highly-educated American actress and true-life Harry girlfriend. Markle came along too late to be written in, although there is Camilla (Margot Leicester), and there is Kate (Charlotte Riley.)

The BBC were criticised for portraying William’s wife as a scheming Lady Macbeth, a gimlet-eyed Duchess determined to dethrone her father-in-law. After all, Catherine has always seemed more quietly traditional than quietly revolutionary.

While the real Kate doesn’t strike me as someone particularly career-driven or interested in public service or power, in Bartlett’s play her children’s royal status is jeopardized. She’s protecting her children and their future, their social standing. As Riley has pointed out, she’s merely being ‘pragmatic’.

This is an interesting, dark little 90 minute horror which reminded me of Pablo Larraín’s crazy Jackie biopic: powerful, haunting music (by Jocelyn Pook), a country in limbo and mourning. But it’s the blank verse that gives the production a menacing, War of the Roses vibe. Just unsettling.

REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell

The live-action Ghost in the Shell is a box office dud then, and there are people who are really happy about that. Not necessarily because they are die-hard fans of the original Japanese manga and anime, but because of so-called “whitewashing”.

To some, this movie was actually an “opportunity” to cast a hitherto largely unknown Japanese or Asian-American actress, instead of a big Hollywood star. But Paramount hired Scarlett Johansson, the Tony Award-winning actress who looks good in a catsuit.

Her character is Mira, or Major. Created by the shadowy Hanka Robotics, her brain is housed in a fully cybernetic body. People have all kinds of cutting-edge enhancements, like X-ray vision, but we’re told Mira is the first of her kind and the future of humanity.

As an agent of an elite government task force called Section 9, she is dispatched across a grimy, futuristic city to fight criminals, like the mysterious hacker Kuze. (Forget whitewashing – the robot workforce is coming to take everyone’s jobs.)

There were very mature themes and concepts that were posed by the cult 1995 anime movie. But this 12A (or PG-13) remake really struggles doesn’t really bother with questions like: “What is it to be human in a technologically advanced society?”

Ghost is basically a dark, stylish actioner that doesn’t get too philosophical. As with director Rupert Sanders’ debut movie Snow White and the Huntsman, it is remarkable for dazzling visuals and sounds.

The performances do match the spectacle, with Pilou Asbæk as Major’s second in command Batou, Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano as the boss of Section 9, Juliette Binoche as the scientist Dr Oulet, and Michael Pitt as the villain Kuze. Johansson, for her part, has onscreen appeal and proven action prowess. She might not be able to open a $100 million movie, but she can carry one.

This isn’t a kitschy fun film, like Johansson’s 2014 sci-fi hit Lucy. It isn’t as famous a property as other recent blockbuster releases, like ‘Kong’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and it just didn’t capture the public imagination. Ultimately, Ghost was probably doomed to fail.

Still, it isn’t the travesty that the 46% Rotten Tomatoes rating suggests. (The casting negativity may have had a discouraging effect on critics.) Yes, the story needed more work, but the soundtrack, the cool visuals, and the acting make it a solid three out of five stars.

REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast

I was never a Disney kid. I managed to avoid nearly all the studio’s nineties hits, including the ‘classic’ Beauty and the Beast. The only Disney animation I ever saw on a reasonably big screen was The Lion King, and that was just because I was trapped on a ferry to France at the time.

So I wasn’t going to take umbrage with the live-action remake offensive that Disney is on. Still, I was aware there was a lot of fuss surrounding this particular release.

For starters, Belle – or one Ms. Emma Watson – is said to have passed on La La Land for the role, which is pretty understandable: nobody could have known that the Damian Chazelle-directed feature was going to become such an overrated hype job.

And luckily, Watson has come up smelling of roses. She’s made serious bank as Belle and will now have first pick of future roles. She’s young enough and pretty enough – she’ll get her Oscar. Cynicism intended.

Watson has also been front and centre in the media selling Beauty as a modern, empowering, feminist take on the fairy tale. For what it’s worth, I think Belle is brave and courageous. Although a simple village girl, she knows her own mind and has no trouble rejecting Luke Evans’s ghastly Gaston.

Despite all the concerns that the movie was going to be a retread of a ‘problematic’ tale, once the friendship between Belle and Beastie is established, he’s revealed as her intellectual equal, and thankfully he doesn’t turn on her like a snarling dog later on.

To my utter surprise, Emma Watson is not nails-down-a-chalkboard. (Maybe she wouldn’t have been bad in La La Land; she can’t particularly sing, but then neither can Emma Stone.) She looks great too – I was really impressed by the costumes.

The rest of the cast are all on good form, including Ewan McGregor as a candlestick holder, Ian McKellen as a clock, Emma Thompson as a teapot, Dan Stevens as the Beast, Kevin Kline as Belle’s pa, and Josh Gad as Gaston’s sidekick Le Fou (what gay storyline?).

If I’m going to nitpick, I’d say it’s too long and I wasn’t 100% on the Beast’s CGI, but my audience applauded and I’ve been happily humming the songs since I left the cinema. One of the year’s biggest movies.

Blogger Appreciation Award

Last month, I was nominated for the Blogger Appreciation Award by the Green Onion Blog. How cool is that? Very Cool.

I would like to extend my thanks to the G.O.B AKA the blogging superhero Green Onion for this award. I love all things green and oniony.

And Japanese Cherry Blossomy! Spring is finally on the horizon and hopefully the allergies that have wiped me out for the last few weeks will ease. Until Hay Fever season at least…

Now, I think I’m supposed to write a few things about when and why I started my blog. Briefly – I started this blog a little timidly in 2014. I had no idea what to write about, just that I had always wanted a creative career.

Last year I finally had the confidence to start blogging more regularly. I’m still a bit reticent, but I’m finding my voice at last. I’m not in a position to give any advice exactly, because my situation is of course very unique to me.

But if you’re lacking in confidence, take your time. (Or dive right in, what do I know?!) Eventually you find your niche and make new bloggy friends along the way.

This brings me to the fact that this award is an opportunity for bloggers to share a little appreciation around.

This is difficult really – I’m sure I’m not big enough or influential enough to really boost smaller sites, and I don’t want to pester busy bloggers with yet another award nomination. So I would just like to say that I appreciate the incredible knowledge and hard work of all the bloggers I follow, including The Green Onion Blog, Captain’s QuartersJason’s Movie Blog,  Raistlin0903, English Language Thoughts, & Oliver’s Twist and too many others to name!

Mini Reviews: Doctor Strange, Deepwater Horizon, Kubo And The Two Strings

Well, there was a monumental flub at the Oscars ceremony just over a week ago: I wasn’t invited. I know right! (The organizers obviously read my blog and know that I don’t like travelling. Yes, yes, that must be it.)

Last year I watched part of the show, but that was only because I was up all night with a streaming cold. This year I went to bed, knowing full well there wouldn’t be any nice surprises. Sigh. #OscarsSoDull.

But I don’t want to write about the awards and their tedious machinations and untrammelled sexism/ageism. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on the fact that some of the films I’ve got the most enjoyment from over the last few years have tended to be nominated in the technical categories.

Out of this year’s crop of visual effects nominees, I’d seen Rogue One and eventual winner The Jungle Book, but it was time to check out the other contenders…

Doctor Strange 

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A bunch of baddies led by Mads Mikkelson rip some pages out of a book and chuck it on the floor, so Smug Superior Being Tilda Swinton goes all Inception on them. Meanwhile, Doctor Strange, an arrogant surgeon with a good grasp of popular culture, has a horror car crash and damages his hands.

When he goes to Smug Being for a cure we swap medical blah blah for spatial paradoxes and continuum probabilities. The Avengers may protect us from physical perils, but Smug’s Sorcerers, including Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), guard against mystical threats.

Smug doesn’t want to train Strange because she fears he may fall to the dark side like Mads and start damaging library books, but po-faced Mordo vouches for him. Cumberbatch and Ejiofor score some very actorly shouting matches, but poor Mads and Strange’s GF Rachel McAdams appear to have settled for the more thankless Marvel roles.

At least we don’t get the usual metal-clanging-against-metal final showdown that superhero movies usually give us. Instead, Strange and the crew do some Parkour and freerunning over buildings and stairways that move and shift like Hogwarts on acid.

Anyway, thanks Doctor – I made it through a Marvel thingy without resorting to the headache pills.

Deepwater Horizon

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In Peter Berg’s re-staging of the 2010 offshore rig disaster, early scenes set electronics technician Mark Wahlberg up as a family man married to Kate Hudson, who will be pulling worried-wife-on-the-phone duties.

There’s a scene where their cutesy movie daughter demonstrates her school project (“My daddy’s job”) on deepwater drilling (which goes right over my head because these things always do), and then we’re off to the rig.

Once the predictable one-liners and jokey banter have been mined to completion, we get a highly volatile situation onboard the rig where wild-eyed BP exec John Malkovich is riding roughshod over Transocean employees, including Wahlberg and Kurt Russel. If you’ve ever seen the SNL sketch of Kylo Ren as an Undercover Boss – it’s that kind of atmosphere.

Once the first thing goes wrong on the rig it seems to start a chain reaction and from there the action doesn’t let up. This is devastating movie mayhem that makes Titanic and every other disaster movie look tame. Berg lets the explosions do the talking, at the expense of both characterization, and the sentimentality and jingoism that I expected.

Watching Horizon, I got the impression the explosion occurred because Malkovich was a money-hungry %$&*. “We just the help ya’ll hire to drill a hole”, grumbles Russell. The reality was more complex, but the movie does its best to serve as a tribute to survivors and those that lost their lives.

Kubo and the Two Strings 

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Kubo is the latest stop-motion from Laika studios, the same people behind The Boxtrolls and Coraline. This latest offering got a major thumbs up from all quarters, and was hailed as the animation movie of the year.

Set in ancient Japan, young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson – Rickon in Game of Thrones) lives in a cave with his ailing mother. No ordinary boy, he is a one-eyed storyteller who can bring his origami figures to life. He uses his magical gifts to entertain local villagers, but he must be home before it gets dark.

This is because his grandfather and wicked aunts (who dwell in some kind of cold spiritual realm) plan to steal his other eye. When Kubo stays out one night, the aunts appear, and his mother uses the last of her magic to spirit him away.

Charlize Theron voices Kubo’s monkey-guardian in the kind of bored, superior tone she might use for press interviews, while Matthew McConaughey plays a dopey samurai-figure cursed to live as a beetle. Ralph Fiennes resurrects the ghost of Voldemort for the Moon King, and Rooney Mara memorably lends her voice to the fluttering Dementor-like aunts.

Kubo definitely has atmosphere to spare and a beautiful soundtrack, but I could see the plot surprises coming. I have to acknowledge the painstaking work that goes into creating something like this, but I know the child me would have been bored, and far less reverential.

BOOK REVIEW: Lion (A Long Way Home: A Memoir) by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose

In 1980s India, five-year-old Saroo, like many small children in poor communities, looks after a younger sibling; he has special responsibility for his baby sister Shekila. He washes and feeds her, and plays games of peekaboo. Saroo’s streetwise big brothers, Guddu and Kallu, take care of each other and little Saroo.

With no father at home, their mother works on construction sites, carrying rocks and stones on her head in the baking heat. Despite this hardship, Saroo is lucky – his family are poor, but they are, Saroo will recall, “reasonably happy”.

Saroo’s mother is warm and kindhearted, and neighbours in their dry, dusty central Indian town watch out for each other. The little boy loves flying kites, chasing butterflies and tagging behind his older brothers when they hustle for food and money.blogbooks2

On one longer jaunt with his eldest brother Guddu, an exhausted Saroo is left to nod off on a bench on a railway platform. When he wakes up, it is dark, and his brother has vanished. Saroo stumbles onto a waiting train and goes back to sleep.

Childhood memory can be unreliable, but certainly Saroo finds himself alone and trapped on a moving train that carries him 1,500km east to the megacity of Kolkata.

There, people mainly speak Bengali. Saroo speaks Hindi, and is unable to pronounce the name of his town or his last name. (It later turns out he was mispronouncing even his first name – his name is actually Sheru, or ‘Lion’ in Hindi.)

He spends a unbelievable three weeks on the streets until an older boy takes him to a police station. After attempts to establish his identity fail, he finds himself first in a frightening juvenile home, and then mercifully in the care of a adoption agency, ISSA, before being flown to his adoptive parents in Tasmania – Sue and  John Brierley.

From the impoverished child with broken teeth and a heart murmour, Saroo grows up into a healthy and amiable adult, a “proud Tassie”. Yet he never forgets India or fully moves on. Nobody can find his original home until a new technology – Google Earth -leads him to months of searching, and reunites him with his past.

My thoughts (updated after seeing the movie)*

This is a remarkable story that captured the attention of the world. Reading Lion, it’s impossible not to empathize with little Saroo as he finds himself trapped and terrified, then lost amid Kolkata’s immense Howrah Station.

Despite the pitiless indifference and random cruelty of adults – not to mention some of the sinister near-misses he had on the streets – the adult Saroo says that his journey left him with a sincere belief in the goodness of people.

80,000 children go missing in India each year, yet Saroo mercifully does not seem to suffer from any form of survivor’s guilt (this was the driving force in the film adaptation*). Instead he emphasizes the importance of grabbing opportunities when they are presented.

Lion is obviously now a major Oscar-nominated movie starring Nicole Kidman, but I’m very glad it jumped out at me from the bookshelf first. 5 stars.

TV REVIEW: SS-GB Episode 1

Where The Crown was a soothing, nostalgic view of Britain’s unique greatness, new BBC drama SS-GB is a nightmare vision. Based on Len Deighton’s 1978 alt-history novel, it depicts a dystopian 1941 in which the Nazis won the Battle of Britain and invaded London with their swastika flags and spiky road barriers. Hitler’s head is on postage stamps and Buckingham Palace is in ruins.

Naturally, the conquerors are busy imposing their brutal rule on the country in other ways too. But Sam Riley’s Superintendent Douglas Archer – a Humphrey Bogart-esque detective with a throaty growl that recalls Christian Bale’s Batman (top tip – subtitles ON) – just wants to keep on policing like nothing has happened.

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