Annihilation – future cult classic or subpar sci-fi?

A meteorite streaks past the camera. It carries some kind of alien mineral, and it ain’t Vibranium. It smashes into a lighthouse: the invasion of planet Earth has begun.

Ground Zero is covered by an iridescent dome – like a soap bubble, or a gigantic blister. They call it ‘the Shimmer’. Inside, communications fail, and those who enter don’t return. The government are keeping it top secret, but not for long; the phenomenon is expanding, and will eventually swallow up whole cities and states…

‘Annihilation’ started life as the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘weird fiction’ Southern Reach trilogy, where a nameless four-woman crew venture into the unknown Area X. (A fifth turns back.) One, a perpetual student and passionate observer of tide pools known only as “the biologist”, served as narrator.

In Alex (Ex Machina) Garland’s dreamlike adaptation, the biologist – now Lena – is played by a characteristically poised, brittle Natalie Portman as an ex-military John Hopkins professor. Flashbacks reveal a soldier-scientist cheating on her angelic-looking husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) with Daniel (Interstellar’s David Gyasi).

We see Lena Portmansplaining cellular senescence, AKA aging, to Kane, who is active military. The couple playfully argue over whether God can make mistakes, and discuss the unprecedented ‘silence’ around Kane’s imminent deployment. Kane – with big puppy dog eyes – tenderly says they will be under the same stars, but Lena mocks the idea of pining for her absent husband.

Brokenhearted Kane goes MIA – then materializes a year later at their home, clearly unwell. En route to hospital the couple are ambushed by an armed unit and held in a facility where Lena meets creepy wierdo Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that Kane volunteered for and escaped the Shimmer, but is now in multi-organ failure.

Guilt-racked over Oscar Isaac on a ventilator, Lena joins Ventress on the next Shimmer trip, although she keeps her motives secret from the rest of the team, who are all damaged in different ways: an unkempt Tessa Thompson is self-harming physicist Josie, boisterous paramedic Gina Rodriguez  is recovering addict Anya, Tuva Novotny’s geologist Cass is a grieving mother. “We’re all damaged goods here,” she explains.

Inside the Shimmer, radio waves are scrambled, time is distorted, and flora and fauna bloom unnaturally. Flowers twist into the human form, deer have dainty tree branches instead of antlers, while alligators with shark teeth stalk the scientists.

“The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything,” realizes Josie. Everything including plant and animal DNA – it all get reshuffled and recombined. After Cass is killed by a mutant bear, its jaws open and her voice screams for help. Josie doesn’t want terror to be her final surviving fragment; shoots and buds are already pushing out of her self-harm scars, and she walks peacefully into the flower mannequin forest.

For most, the thought of being broken down and incorporated into this new ecosystem would be grotesque. Ventress rages that it feels like the onset of dementia. Lena realizes that Ventress was already dying and is resigned to her fate, as long as she can face the alien entity on her own terms.

So is Annihilation about how we accept the inevitable? Some viewers saw it as a movie about cancer, or interpreted the Shimmer as a manifestation of Lena’s guilt. To others it’s really a searing depiction of depression, or all about Pokémon. Garland, meanwhile, said he was actually going for something on a theme of self destructiveness.

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F U Humanity!!

OK, but this stupid thing invaded us. And although Lena believes the organism doesn’t ‘want’ anything, it’s hard not to take it personally; there’s something about the fruiting corpse in the swimming pool and the artfully arranged skeletons that feel like they sprung from the imagination of a serial killer on NBC’s late, lamented Hannibal.

Despite the triumph of Ex Machina, Paramount had little faith in Annihilation; international rights went to Netflix. American audiences – who had the benefit of experiencing this admittedly visually and aurally accomplished movie on a cinema screen – only gave it a ‘C’ CinemaScore.

Maybe it’s because of the incoherent narrative. Some claim to enjoy the fact that it “doesn’t give us all the answers”. Others might point to the umpteen articles ‘unpacking’ the movie as a sign that it falls back on making audiences feel stupid for finding it all a bit of a muddle.

Tomb Raider’s Terrible Reboot. (OK it was more ‘meh’ than terrible.)

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London has never looked like a better location for a twee romantic comedy than it does at the start of the rebooted Tomb Raider, a capable origin story and actioner with no sense of humour or wonder.

Kickboxing at a local gym and bantering with her bicycle courier co-workers, Lara Croft is slumming it harder than most; all she has to do is sign some documents declaring her missing father (Dominic West) dead, and she inherits a fortune.

Although he’s been gone for seven years, Lara (Alicia Vikander) adamantly refuses to accept that Richard Croft – superrich business man, adventurer and aristocrat – is no more. Flashbacks show the Crofts in sappier times, where West keeps calling Lara by the nickname “Sprout”, and declaring “Daddy loves you”.

Swede Alicia Vikander is a good actress, whatever those three crazy Michael Fassbender stans say. She makes a tomboyish Lara, whose defining characteristic is bullheaded stubbornness. Having beaten the likes of Daisy Ridley for the role, she’s convincingly English enough to be to the (Croft) manor born.

While participating in an illegal and reckless bike chase through our capital’s streets, Lara crashes into a police patrol car. Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas), an associate at Croft’s company, pops up to post bail and warn Lara that if she doesn’t claim her inheritance, her father’s estate will be sold off.

I must check and see if Scott Thomas did any interviews to promote this artistic endeavour, because I just live for her witchy rants about life as an ageing actress. The still beautiful KST grits her teeth at the sight of Vikander’s dewy prettiness, and wishes the fool had got crunched under those cop car wheels.

Oblivious to the KST death rays, Lara stumps into swanky Croft HQ to meet lawyer Derek Jacobi. She finds her father’s secret office, and his pre-recorded message detailing his research into Himiko, the mythical Japanese queen known as “the mother of death” or something. Richard warns Lara to destroy his work, in case it ends up in the wrong hands.

Hot on the trail of her father’s final destination, Lara heads east but gets captured by mercenaries funded by a shadowy organisation called Trinity, who definitely qualify as the wrong hands. They’d been failing at the task of locating Himiko’s resting place when Lara turned up with Croft’s map, which pinpoints the exact spot the tomb is hidden on the undocumented island of Yamatai.

Earlier in the movie we saw a waifish Ruby Rose lookalike easily put Lara in a headlock, but her survival instinct really kicks in, as she overpowers the hired toughs in hand-to-hand combat, before discovering Richard Croft living as a Tom Hanks castaway. He mutters, “Ignore it, it’s not real, it’ll go away, it always does,” when Lara appears, which is what my dad always says when he sees me.

Seconds later Lara’s dear old pa is back to normal. So did Sprout go to Oxford, or Cambridge? Look, Lord Sprout, this girl keeps landing on her thick skull, and the only reason there’s no damage is because she’s so dense.

Sigh. Croft performs amateur surgery on an injured Lara/Sprout and finally – it’s time to raid some tombs! Or rather, stop other people from raiding them in the case of the Trinity morons versus Himiko.

In what could be the start of an exciting-sounding premise (shame it comes at the end), Lara discovers that Trinity is actually a subsidiary of Croft Holdings, and a front for a secret organisation hunting for mysterious artifacts to control humanity. If Scott Thomas is in on it, believe me, they’ll be looking for the elixir of eternal youth 24/7. I know how she ticks.

Belated Black Panther Review :)

The Hollywood Reporter recently pointed out the obvious; even Jennifer Lawrence can’t open a movie. Studios don’t look to big star names any longer, but to brands like Marvel. And without stars, it argues, studios will be “forced back on machine-honed product, which might be fine entertainment but hardly nourishes the soul”.

Now I’ve always thought superhero or comic book movie blockbusters were empty calories. This is unpopular I know, but Marvel makes me feel like I overindulged on Haribo candy (and the DCEU can feel like toothache).

Black Panther is emphatically not another glib Marvel product, but a self-contained story about family, duty and honour. Set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, the War of the Panthers is a kid-friendly Game of Thrones, where cousins and different tribes fight for power, and the future of the kingdom hinges on revelations about an individual character’s parentage.

The language, artwork, costumes and makeup of this mythical land echo real-world African traditions, while the fantasy element Vibranium – which fell from the sky eons ago –  is the source of Wakanda’s secret high-tech infrastructure.

The new king T’Challa is no flashy show-off à la Tony Stark, even if his royal duties include dressing up like a cat. He’s a noble character haunted by the death of his father and torn between righting past wrongs and protecting his people, and overcoming his nation’s isolationism.

It’s a credit to Chadwick Boseman that his graceful performance doesn’t get blasted off the screen by Michael B. Jordan’s swaggering, vicious Killmonger, who wants to swipe the throne and the panther suit, and lead the country in a more hawkish direction.

Killmonger has clawed his way into the Top Ten Movie Villains of All Time, as surely as Letitia Wright’s Shuri has won the Coolest Disney Princess crown. The superhero is king, the superhero is the brand, but the performances are key – especially the movie-star calibre Jordan and Wright. If Hollywood is committed to saving the endangered species of the mega-movie star, it won’t find worthier candidates.

They are the most distinctive performances in a strong cast: Angela Bassett is regal as the Queen Mother, Forest Whitaker is wise as a shaman/adviser, and Lupita Nyong’o is headstrong as T’Challa’s on-off love interest. Winston Duke’s renegade tribal leader M’Baku looks like the mighty Khal Drogo, although in a surprising twist he’s actually a cuddly vegetarian.

I’m not the only one to spot the Game of Thrones parallels, as Daniel Kaluuya made the link a year ago. Kaluuya plays W’Kabi, head of border security and one of Wakanda’s more reactionary voices. I suppose his relationship with Danai Gurira’s valiant General Okoye makes sense, but it seemed a bit of an afterthought. There’s a pivotal moment in a battle scene which left me momentarily dumbfounded, as I’d forgotten they were supposed to be lovers. Perhaps I zoned out. 😦

I know I zoned out during the casino scene and the car chase; casinos and car chases are two of my least favourite things in movies. Yet beneath the special effects, there’s a gentle, sincere exploration of Wakandan politics and culture which makes Black Panther the most invigorating, sane addition to the comic book genre.

Fantastic Beasts: the five crimes of Grindelwald

One of the great mysteries of the Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was how a movie that gained rave reviews, an ‘A’ CinemaScore and crossed the $800 million milestone at the box office has come to be considered ‘lacklustre’.

Dark magic could be at work, although admittedly Beasts wasn’t without its flaws. Still, I doubt the studio are wringing their hands, as Twitter and Youtube were buzzing when the teaser trailer for the next movie – The Crimes Of Grindelwald – was released last week.

If he’s going to be sinning against the magical world, what crimes should we expect Gellert Grindelwald to commit?

Escape custody.

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That look spells murder. We don’t know how much time has passed since Newt managed to outsmart Grindelwald and deliver him to the wands of MACUSA’s Aurors, but judging by his long hair and hollow face, he’s been captive for a few months at least.

Apparently audiences groaned when Colin Farrell’s disguise vanished to reveal a bloated and bleached Johnny Depp – an American megastar cameo-ing in a franchise dominated by talented, lower profile (mainly British) actors.

Following that rushed reveal, hair and makeup have worked magic, casting a Revelio charm on Depp’s cheekbones. Grindelwald needs a hell-raising rock star vibe, and Johnny Depp fits the bill perfectly.

Witches and wizards turn a blind eye to his true nature – as his former admirer Dumbledore confessed: “Did I know…what Gellert Grindelwald was? I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”

End Madam Picquery’s incompetent reign of smugness.

“Do you think you can hold me?” Grindelwald asked MACUSA’s useless, smug and incompetent Madam Picquery, giving her a contemptuous stare down. Playing Picquery’s second fiddle Graves took all of Grindelwald’s patience and self-restraint.

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Still in a job?: Madam Picquery

This is the witch who refused to accept that her city had an Obscurial problem, and failed to notice that her right-hand man was being impersonated by the world’s most wanted wizard – all while lecturing European officials for letting him slip through their fingers.

Picquery ignored Tina’s pleas when she apprehended Newt on his arrival in New York, yet later claimed outrage that Tina didn’t inform her of his presence straight away. She had them both arrested, before the pair were nearly executed by Graves/Grindelwald.

I’m surprised more fans didn’t pick up on Picquery’s Fudge-like incompetence.

Kick Newt Scamander’s head in. Again.

If I were a bumbling, animal-loving Brit wanting a quiet life – which I am – and I had thwarted the evil plans of a deranged dark wizard, I would stay as far away from that individual as possible.

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We adore him: Magical bigwigs are terrified Dumbledore will make his own power play

Except Dumbledore is clearly a hard man to say ‘no’ to. “I can’t move against Grindelwald,” he tells Scamander in the trailer. “It has to be you.”

Ugh, why? Last time Newt encountered an enraged Grindelwald, the wild-eyed dark wizard pinned him to a railway track and tortured him with Sith lightening.

Newt should have been airlifted by Thestral to New York’s version of St Mungo’s. Somehow – and this is a symptom of the badly rushed final showdown – Newt was fine in seconds. (Or perhaps we bumbling Brits are made of sterner stuff and Dumbledore’s faith in the underdog is justified.)

In the cinema you had to strain to hear Grindelwald’s parting words to Newt: “Will we die just a little?” It was probably ad-libbed by Depp when he couldn’t remember his lines. He meant to say “You’re going to die, little British Hufflepuff weedling.” Gulp.

Corrupt Credence Bowlcut some more.

While Newt crashed all over New York looking for his missing critters – with his equally hapless No-Maj sidekick Jacob (comedian Dan Fogler) – in tow, the international threat of dark magic bubbled away like a cauldron in the background.

A third plot line saw teenage orphan Credence Barebone wreak havoc as an Obscurius. Cowering in fear of his religious, witch-hunting adoptive mother Samantha Morton, Credence was then groomed and brutally rejected by Grindelwald, before the dark wizard realized the boy’s raw destructive power.

Don’t expect Credence to be transfigured into a sunny character any time soon. It’ll take more than a new life with the circus and the motherly(?) attention of a fellow performer to turn that Obscurial frown upside down.

Grindelwald looks like he has his Bellatrix Lestrange – Vinda Rosier (played by Poppy Corby-Tuech), from one of Britain’s ancient and prestigious magical bloodlines.

Will he will try to recruit young Credence again? Harry Potter and Tom Riddle were both neglected orphans who made very different choices. What side will Credence choose?

Mass slaughter for the greater good.

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Hands off my Niffler!

‘For the greater good’ is Grindelwald’s philosophy and his justification for his actions in the wizarding war. Yet ‘Crimes’ is only the second movie in a franchise that will span a 19 year timeline, so it’s unlikely we will see Grindelwald do his worst yet.

Potterheads will know most of the main cast are safe. Little is known about Newt’s brother and his enigmatic fiancée, Leta Lestrange, played by Zoë Kravitz, but it seems unlikely that such promising characters will get bumped off too quickly.

Grindelwald will probably target Muggles, but personally, I was more gutted when Dobby the CGI house elf took his last breath than by any other tragedies in Harry Potter’s world.

Newt’s beasts could be in serious peril this time.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is out 16 November this year.

New to streaming & DVD: Wind River lingers like a chill…

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I wish I hadn’t watched Wind River on a Saturday morning. It’s an evening movie; when it’s over, you can lock your doors and hopefully not have nightmares.

That’s the unsettling effect Taylor Sheridan’s latest had on me. I’m currently working through some of the most buzzed-about movies of 2017, and of course this was something I wanted to see.

Sheridan’s screenwriting career so far has given us the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, and the Denis Villeneuve-directed Sicario, which starred Emily Blunt as an idealistic FBI agent helplessly mixed up with shady alphas Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro in the war on drugs.

In Wind River – Sheridan’s first time as writer-director – Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner is another FBI agent out of her depth, this time not in Sheridan’s native Texas but in the wintry wild west of Wyoming.

Jurisdictional matters have dragged Banner in to investigate the death of a teenage Native American girl, who was found frozen and barefoot in the snowy tundra by Jeremy Renner’s quiet wildlife officer, Cory Lambert, for whom the case has disturbing echoes of his own grief.

With his deep connections to the land and to the dead girl’s marginalized community, the story belongs to Renner’s softly-spoken cowboy as he supports the outsider FBI and the tribal police. (The Native American cast includes Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, and Twilight actress Julia Jones as Cory’s ex-wife.)

Technically Olsen is in charge of the investigation; she’s not completely robbed of agency like Sicario’s Kate Macer, yet she has no backstory, and we never learn what makes her so driven.

Olsen does look like she should be reading the news. She is comically underprepared for the conditions and isolation (‘Shouldn’t we just maybe wait for some backup?’ she bats her lashes. ‘This isn’t the land of backup, Jane … this is the land of “you’re on your own.”‘) I wasn’t sure if she was merely incompetent and inexperienced, or if she was truly meant as a symbol for governmental disinterest and mishandling.

Where Macer was caught at the border of political forces beyond her control, Banner plants face-first into a community blighted by poverty, addiction and hopelessness. The violence, when it comes, is more personal and depressingly universal, but no less brutal and shocking.

Verdict? Despite the shaky camera triggering my vertigo, I thought Wind River was another well-made action thriller. Renner and Olsen are great, but I don’t feel that the movie is as ambitious or exciting as Sicario, perhaps because it lacks the tension and moral conflict between the leads.

Sheridan really stands out for his dialogue, and as auteur he delivers on a similar level to previous directors of his scripts, especially in the realistic-yet-stylish bursts of violence, and that creepy sense of dread that outlasts the film.

The SOLO trailer saunters on to our screens. I already love Qi’Ra

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I wasn’t going to post about the new Star Wars spin-off trailer, when and if it ever arrived. But after being ill and feeling so low, a trailer has been about the most demanding thing I’ve been able to watch and review in weeks.

Solo seems so nonchalant about the whole publicity machine, like it knows it’s a surefire hit anyway. The action scenes, the visuals and the extension of the Star Wars mythology will probably make it another Rogue One.

Of course the cast looks great too. Emilia Clarke, who has really grown on me lately, looks very regal.

Qi’Ra sounds like a Game Of Thrones name, but ‘Kira’ was actually Rey’s original name during The Force Awakens production, and it also crops up a lot in the old pre-Disney books and games. I always thought it was a nod to the director Akira Kurosawa, whose Hidden Fortress was a direct influence on a young George Lucas.

Donald Glover as Lando will walk away with Han’s movie (payback for Han taking the Falcon), while Alden Ehrenreich – who looks and sounds nothing like Harrison Ford – is probably going to be the most divisive element.

Although Alden is diminutive next to Ford’s 6’1, and his voice is nasal-sounding, they’ve still slapped the same hairdo on him that Ford had in the Originals, as if that’ll help. Fans have offered unconvincing in-canon explanations for the physical differences like, “Oh men can have growth spurts really late”, or ‘Voices deepen with age.”

I’ll just accept that they either couldn’t or wouldn’t find someone more like Ford (I think people at Lucasfilm really wanted Alden, and a Ford clone from Kamino would’ve had the door slammed in his face). Alden’s obviously a talented actor, even if he isn’t a movie star/leading man, and he has to make the role his own.

Younger kids and future generations will probably like Alden more than Harrison anyway. He’ll be their definitive Han.

The galaxy is changing.

Awards Watch: Mudbound – gripping page-turner to solemn Netflix prestige

“Mudbound is the Oscar movie we need right now,” admonished The Washington Post.

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The female-helmed drama about two families – one white, the other black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South, does seem to embody the term “Oscar bait”, with its all-star cast and script adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).

It is also extremely well-timed; it follows in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, and appears during a season when the industry is under scrutiny for its systemic sexism.

One snag – Mudbound is distributed by the inexperienced awards player Netflix, and voters apparently remain sniffy about a streaming service project that shuns traditional theatrical runs.

There was a landslide of articles emphasizing the tough shoot and the transformation of star Mary J. Blige, and warning voters that the movie should not be overlooked.

For me, Mudbound’s Netflix berth (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere) meant I actually got to see it – while I can’t compare it to its competition, as Oscar movies tend to reach UK screens after awards season.

Narrated by members of both the McAllan and the Jackson families, the story unfolds when stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drags his prim wife Laura (a simpering Carey Mulligan) and their small children to a dilapidated shack/farm in the Mississippi Delta, where the frequent rains leave them stranded in acres of mud (book Laura resentfully names their new home “Mudbound”).

The lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), with the latter keeping house for the McAllans. Their voices (the film keeps the novel’s strategy of switching narration between six characters, but stays light on the exposition) are joined by Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both returning from WWII Europe.

The friendship between the two veterans riles the local racists, including the vile McAllan patriarch, Pappy. The film, like the novel, starts with the end – Pappy’s burial. But in the book we know immediately that his death wasn’t the “natural, timely passing of an old man” – something that isn’t resolved until the final chapters.

Laura becomes increasingly infatuated with her handsome pilot brother-in-law after he appears at the homestead in his uniform and aviator sunglasses, but unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she doesn’t jealously check his shirts for lipstick and perfume, or take her frustrations out on Florence.

Some writers have described the movie as being focused on Florence and Laura as two Strong Women whose differing views of the world are shaped by race and class. According to Refinery39, “both women…feel the growing weight of a patriarchal society bearing down on their shoulders…”

This is an interesting projection, as writer-director Dee Rees focuses primarily on the friendship between two men: Jamie and Ronsel, with Hedlund’s Jamie portrayed as more heroic and enlightened than his book counterpart, whom Laura eventually pities, realizing she married the better – if dull and dependable – brother.

So much of Jordan’s gripping historical page-turner has been cut (including a drunken Jamie’s tragic yet funny encounter with a hapless cow) that I can’t work out why the movie is still a two hour-plus slog.

With a small budget and short shoot, it has a sparse yet epic feel, especially in the flashback scenes, and we get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography.

Morrison’s deserved Oscar nod makes her the first woman nominated in the category, while Blige became a best supporting actress nominee for her performance as Florence, despite doing little more than look dignified with her arms crossed. Dee Rees, meanwhile, is nominated for adapted screenplay, for turning a compulsively readable historical suspense into solemn prestige.

The Last Jedi theories died so hard (start the Episode IX speculation)

There was lots of red in The Last Jedi, from the blood-coloured soil of Crait, to Snoke’s crimson throne room. And while critics were in raptures – Rian Johnson is an auteur after all – a lot of hardcore fans were left, well, seeing red.

After watching the film on preview night, I came soaring home like Princess Leia through space. VIII had laughs, lightsabers and a brooding Adam Driver.

Yes, it felt like Star Wars. The sequels have the humour gene, after it skipped a generation with the prequels. (Levity is actually good in a movie like this.)

The only thing I hated was Luke’s treatment. I understand from a franchise perspective why his story had to end, but did they have to make him so repulsive? As I wrote before, the only way they could have made him more disgusting would have been to have him hit on Rey.

At least I’m consoled that Luke got a badass final send-off scene: “See you around, kid.” I still don’t like Rian’s choice overall, but a month after the release I can sympathize with people bewildered by sections of the backlash.

Frankly, certain fans needed to get their heads out of their half-cocked theories. Take Rey’s parentage. Sure, before Awakens, I thought Padmé-lookalike Rey could be Han and Leia’s kid (sadly for them, it was Kylo), and that Kylo was a Vader-obsessed loser (lol true) wanting to continue the bloodline with Rey (also true).

But if trailers hinted at Rey’s Skywalker identity, it was only to protect the Ben Solo reveal. Half an hour in, a wide-eyed, guileless Rey turns to Finn and says: “Luke Skywalker. I thought he was a myth.” Neither Han nor Leia knew her, plus there was that intriguing romantic tension with Kylo.

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Kylo sticks his throbbing red lightsaber past Rey’s trembling open mouth. “Why, Kylo, it’s HUGE.”

I watched Flashback Rey and thought: “That kid’s old enough to remember who her parents are.” When Rey told BB-8 her parents would be back, “one day”, you can tell from Daisy’s delivery that Rey was in denial. As Maz said: she already knew the truth.

So going into VIII, I was quietly confident who her parents weren’t.

But there were people who believed Palpatine wasn’t Darth Sidious right up until Revenge of the Sith, so of course fans were capable of insisting Rey was either Kylo’s twin, or Luke’s child with an unknown woman – perhaps Obi-Wan’s daughter!

Cousins fighting’ never struck me as having the pathos of duelling father and son, but those theories got entrenched. People were so certain, so presumptuous, and ‘Reylo’ shippers got attacked (“Yuck – they’re related!”).

To be fair, some people just wanted an in-universe explanation for Rey’s precocity.  But even if Rey were a Kenobi or a Snoke-Kardashian, it wouldn’t explain why Anakin’s lightsaber called to her and gave her visions, or how she used mind tricks like an old pro.

I didn’t rule out (I actually hoped for) Rey to have a mystical reveal at the heart of VIII. Perhaps they bottled it. Rey, Luke, Kylo and Snoke have all now produced unfamiliar feats (plus Leia’s interesting display of her own latent abilities), so fans are going to see the Force wielded in new ways that serve the story.

And people ignore how much remains the same. When I first saw Return of the Jedi, I couldn’t believe the Emperor got chucked down a shaft. Now like the Emperor, Supreme Leader Snoke was a powerful Force user. Like the Emperor, he was physically damaged and protected by his guards. And like the Emperor, he could be killed. Yet so many fans thought he was ‘a cool bad guy’ and were more excited by him than Rey and Kylo.

Yup, fan fires were really stoked with Snoke. As with Rey’s parentage, pet theories – that he was Darth Plagueis and/or a force-sucking vampire from beyond the known galaxy – became canon. Except the movie was never about Snoke, just like the originals weren’t about Palpatine. The story is about Rey and Kylo, and in order for Vader’s heir to reach his capacity to get worse, he had to smoke Snoke.

Snoke was always doomed – they just brought it forward a movie!

I’d buy a ticket for Episode IX for Driver’s performance alone. If rumours of a time jump are true, we might get a more mature and in-command Kylo Ren – although given his unpredictable nature, it’s up in the air.

Abrams will be back, book-ending the trilogy, although people hoping he’ll roll back the Reylo romance, or still insisting Rey is a Solo(!) might be in for further disappointment. Perhaps there was some explanation for the Kylo-Rey connection held back from Jedi (Rey did make off with those sacred Jedi texts), but I’m not going to hold my breath.

At the moment there are only two theories I’m prepared to stick my neck out for – the good guys will win, and there’ll be another incarnation of the Death Star.

Writing a film blog: what to see in 2018

Well, the new blogging year got off to a stellar blogging start for me. As I tried to streamline and organise my content, my site threw a massive toddler tantrum and created a raft of technical problems.

It’s probably the developmental stage the blog is at – the terrible twos and threes. It’s not a baby anymore, and its parent (me) still hasn’t got a clue.

I never set out with a plan of starting a movie review website. I began blogging about whatever took my fancy, and I quickly discovered I was writing mainly about the random films I watched.

Initially I wrote as if I were working for the neglected arts section of a paper. I was almost apologetic about it. Now, I’d say I’m a blogger/nerd/fan. (Of course I can adapt my style for a range of topics and publications, if any paying editors are reading! 2018 would be a great year to hire me!)

About that content streamlining – I’m going to focus on recent(ish) releases on DVD/digital platforms – both film and television – and on loosely movie-related book reviews, plus news and gossip (for example, sometimes I have really deep thoughts about things like casting for Fantastic Beasts), and of course on 2018 cinema releases.

2018 Movies

Annihilation – Top of many a movie fan’s list. Partly because it is out soon, and partly because it starts with an A. And also because it is directed by Ex Machina’s Alex Garland. In the UK this will find its creepy, weird-science way on Netflix. I am grateful for Netflix.

Ophelia – Daisy Ridley movies are a bit rare right now, but that’s changing! Ophelia will have its Sundance premiere and should hit cinemas later this year.

Tomb Raider  – Is it just me, or are people not rooting for Alicia Vikander? 😦 Prepare for an avalanche of articles and comments about her body.

Mary Magdalene – Gamely providing the whitewashing controversy for the year, Rooney Mara is in the title role, with Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. It’s directed by Garth Edwards (Lion), and will definitely be interesting.

Sicario 2: Soldado – The first Sicario took my breath away. Now hardmen Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin are back, without Emily Blunt or director Villeneuve.

Solo – You hear that Last Jedi backlash Disney? No, of course you don’t – you’re far too busy scrambling to salvage Solo to hear the din. Oh, and counting the $$$.

Mary Queen of Scots – Saorise Ronan has always reminded me of Cate Blanchett, who famously played Elizabeth I. But Ronan is Mary, and Margot Robbie the Tudor queen. I’m a fan (?) of this period of history, so this release is firmly penciled in.

Robin Hood – A new gritty take. I know nothing else about it, except it’s giving me King Arthur vibes. It does star Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and he plays such a great baddie.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web –  David Fincher and former Lisbeth Salander Rooney Mara are both out over at Sony, in favour of Claire Foy and Don’t Breath’s Fede Alvarez. Claire Foy is hot right now, but Lisbeth?

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – After a rushed and disappointing reveal in the first movie, the most recent photos show Johnny Depp is looking better (slimmer, cooler hair) as villain Grindelwald.

On the blogging skills front, I think it’s important to interact more. 

I have personal goals too, but all lifestyle, photography attempts, career failure, fashion and non film-related book reviews I’m going to shove over to my Instagram page, and maybe eventually start another blog. (I give it five minutes; I hate Instagram.) If anyone wants a followback on Twitter or Insta, let me know. 🙂

Most of all, I just want to finish the first draft of my novel.

But one thing 2017 taught me, is that I’m devastating at sticking to resolutions and lists, when I put my mind to it. I’ve never had a motto before, but my motto for the year is: Do. Or do not. There is no try. What is yours?!

On the Millennial mainline: Murder on the Orient Express

“Not another remake!” is a familiar online cry, normally accompanied by declarations that Hollywood has run out of ideas.

The word ‘remake’ provokes a knee-jerk hostility – and having just dodged the new BBC Little Women over Christmas, I was worried I’d caught the same faux fatigue. I’ve already seen a stage play of Louisa May Alcott’s perennial, while the still-fresh 1994 Winona Ryder/Christian Bale film with a young, scene-stealing Kirsten Dunst sits in my DVD collection.

Luckily, I realized my aversion to the Beeb’s take wasn’t because Winona Will Forever Be My Jo March! – it was because the new three-part show looked genuinely bad. The American accents sounded atrocious, and the actresses looked more like college girls in 2017 than impoverished sisters during the Civil War. (Dunst at least was the right age to play Amy.)

Agatha Christie’s 1934 Murder on the Orient Express, featuring her best-known creation – genius detective Hercule Poirot – is another novel regularly adapted for stage and screen.

I saw a lot of online negativity around the release of director-star Kenneth Branagh’s new blockbuster Orient. A perfectly good, Oscar-nominated 1974 Sidney Lumet adaptation already exists, starring Albert Finney, the argument kept going, so there was no need…

Au contraire, mon ami! OK, no need maybe, but judging by the box office, people were pulled in by the promise of this gorgeous new production – which loses a lot of the mystery and suspense of the Lumet version, while upping the action.

David Suchet’s performance in the long-running BBC Poirot is considered closest to Christie’s peculiar, egghead creation. Where Suchet was an odd duck, Branagh’s detective is eccentric by way of a comedy Belgian accent, an OTT moustache and little perfectionist quirks, like straightening peoples’ ties. He certainly knows his own worth, calling himself the “greatest detective in the world”.

We meet him in Jerusalem as he closes a preposterous jewel theft case (easily the dullest bit), and then finally he’s on the Orient thundering west across Europe when an avalanche derails the train. While trapped high in the stunning Alps, a passenger named Ratchett is murdered, making everyone in First Class a suspect.

Was it Judi Dench’s Russian princess? Or could it have been Michelle Pfeiffer’s vampy husband-hunter, or Penélope Cruz’s missionary (reminding me of her early role as a nun in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother)?

There’s an achingly relevant younger cast, giving us the first chance to see Daisy Ridley outside Star Wars, and she’s fantastic, like a lighter, less grating version of Keira Knightley. Rising actress Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) is a enigmatic aristocrat, and Leslie Odom Jr. (Tony winner for Hamilton) is Dr Arbuthnot – played in ’74 by that old dinosaur Sean Connery.

Fresh off Beauty and the Beast, Josh Gad is the gangster Ratchett’s assistant, bringing us to another problem people have with the movie – Ratchett being played by none other than alleged train wreck Johnny Depp.

Depp-boycotters should know that despite starring prominently in the marketing bumf, he plays a) the most hateful character (“I do not like your face,” says Poirot) and b) is swiftly bumped off, with a troupe of Hollywood actors all in the frame for his brutal stabbing. Imagine if they’d cast Harvey Weinstein as a baggage handler.

Although the critics have insisted that it all “offers nothing new,” the contemporary cast open the story up with different races, nationalities and ages – even if everyone only gets a thin slice of screen time. (Michelle Pfeiffer alone is worth seeing.)

Cinema continues to modernize and amaze us, and Orient is meant as an immersive experience, with a much-raved about epic five minute 65mm Steadicam closing shot. Orient is like being in a theatrical snow globe, and it really captures the allure of the golden age of travel. And I hate travel.

Perhaps I liked this film for superficial reasons, but it was surprisingly poignant, presenting a moral conundrum for Poirot – the man who sees everything as right or wrong with no in-between.

Leaving me only to add that I didn’t cry at the end when the Patrick Doyle score was playing. I got some orange juice in my eye, and anyone who says otherwise is 100% lying.

Like my review? Please consider liking it and following my book, film and lifestyle blog as we go forward into 2018! Happy New Year everyone! 

The Last Jedi: Luke what you made me do

Actor Mark Hamill said he hated everything Rian Johnson decided to do with his character, Luke Skywalker, in The Last Jedi. I’m sure he later changed his mind (it’s hard to keep up, Hamill speaks his mind a lot) but I have to agree with the actor’s first instinct.

I understand what happened between Luke and Ben. Luke, like Anakin, wanted to stop a bad thing from happening. Luke sensed the danger in Ben, and had the fateful impulse to strike the boy down while he slept. He was immediately repentant, but it was too late – Luke had created the thing he sought to avoid.

Living with the legacy of Vader,  it’s not surprising Luke sees the dark side in shadows and minds everywhere. Yet what I saw in The Last Jedi was not the son of Vader, but the true son of Owen Lars festering away on that island. The only way he could have been more revolting would have been if he’d hit on Rey.

Chucking the lightsaber over his shoulder may have got a laugh (a very nervous one, in my theatre) but as I watched the story unfold, it struck me that his twin sister should have understood that Luke had gone to a lot of effort to disappear, and let him go.

Leia had been through terrible losses too – her entire planet, her son, her…Han. Luke skulked off to let her deal with everything on her own. The Luke that millions loved would have regrouped.

Let’s be honest – he was never the coolest member of his gang. He had to work to become the calm, lethal Luke of Return of the Jedi. And Han still laughed in his face. Luke wasn’t necessarily the obvious tough guy type, but he was resourceful, and he never gave up.

We got one fantastic scene of the Luke who faced down Darth Sidious, when at the end of The Last Jedi, Skywalker Force-beamed his soul across the galaxy to tell his hilariously unhinged nephew that he’s a stupid ass, while wearing an outfit that would have made Padmé Amidala proud.

Did Luke think Kylo was beyond redemption, or did he know it wasn’t his personal destiny to save him? Kylo is Rey’s problem now. Sucks to be her.

Although he hasn’t always been as well-regarded by the wider public – or by some journalists, incredibly – Hamill was the real acTOR out of the classic trio. Carrie was a true original and a writer, Harrison was the movie star. And Hamill gave a great send-off performance, even if he didn’t agree with the director’s vision.

It’s not Luke’s story now. This is a franchise looking to pick up new fans, and it’s about a younger crew. Considering Luke probably last took a bath the night he celebrated with the Ewoks on Endor, he likely didn’t have any children to carry on the family name. Unless ‘Broom kid’ (Tamiri Blagg) is Luke’s long-lost son. No, I’m joking, please.

I imagine creatives overseeing the new global franchise want to lob most of the inherently limiting original trilogy off the edge of Skellig Michael too, along with that lightsaber.

Fans should be happy Lucasfilm haven’t decided to hit the reset button on the galaxy, and cast the OT as part of the extended universe, some kind of alternate timeline, and just remake the lot.

Um, so on that note,

xx —-Merry Christmas!—- xx

Cinema 2018 to stay lively with The Crimes of Grindelwald

When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came out last year, it looked like a barrel-scraping side-adventure about the bumbling Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) chasing an escaped zoo around Jazz Age New York.

However, there wasn’t much else on at the cinema, so I mistakenly asked to see Fantastic Creatures, and my considered review was basically, “Wow how hot is Colin Farrell?!” However, I could see it was the start of a story that promises to tap into the richer HP mythology.

Last month, a cast photo from the sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald gave us our first look at Jude Law’s young(er) Dumbledore, alongside Johnny Depp as the dark wizard Grindelwald.

Filmmakers behind the billion dollar franchise were stunned that the online response focused on Depp and allegations of domestic abuse, prompting director David Yates to release a statement via his agents Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs.

“Duh, he’s literally playing Wizarding Hitler, like literally,” shrugged Yates. “Let’s hope nobody takes a pop at Eddie Redmayne and accuses him of drop-kicking a Niffler. Now that’d be a real PR nightmare!” he laughed.

Colin Farrell – who played Grindelwald in disguise – was very popular in the role. Described as having an “air of triumphant trickery” in Deathly Hallows, Grindelwald sounds like prime Johnny scenery-chewing potential, but have they not seen Farrell’s over-the-top Bullseye in 2003’s DaredevilThere are worse things than being magically stuck looking like Colin Farrell, especially as Johnny’s Grindelwald looks like an older version of Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys.

In Deathly Hallows we learned that the teenage Grindelwald’s friendship with Dumbledore ended in tragedy. Only when the books were finished did Rowling reveal that Dumbledore was gay and had terrible taste in wizards.

It might sound like the Grindelwald/Dumbledore relationship will blast poor old Newt off the screen, but the magizoologist will hopefully have an interesting dynamic with his war hero brother, Theseus, who is married to Newt’s former (I’m going to go with unrequited) love, Leta Lestrange, played by Zoë Kravitz.

Alongside Newt, also back from the first movie are Ezra Miller as the Smoke Monster, Alison Sudol and Katherine Waterston as the charming Goldstein sisters, and comedian Dan Fogler as No-Maj Jacob. I do hope his bakery is doing well.

I watch things like this to see what talented actors do with their characters, and I love the cast for this movie (even without Farrell), so I’m sure I’ll be catching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald when it’s released on 16 November 2018.

Kylo Ren takes off his helmet. And his shirt. (Spoilers)

All the teasing, all the memes, that SNL sketch and the parody Twitter accounts took their toll on poor Kylo Ren. There is only so much all-round mockery an unhinged young Dark Sider can take.

Supreme Leader Ren will see you now.

Snoke huh? His faith in his apprentice, misplaced may have been. Snoke – the biggest, baddest guy in the galaxy, worse than Sidious, worse than Vader; his apprentice kills him with a two finger salute, a literal sleight of hand.

I mean, the creation and the appearance and the presence of Snoke ARE terrifying, but that’s it. He didn’t see it coming, like Han Solo. In fact, I think even Han had an inkling of what would happen when he stepped out on that teeny tiny, narrow bridge in The Force Awakens.

Of course Jedi is so twisty, I honestly kept expecting Snoke to force-knit himself back together after getting lightsabered through the middle. (Talking about smoking torsos, I can confirm Kylo Ren is shredded. Kylo Ren has an eight-pack.)

I’m a bit hazy straight after my first viewing, and I’m not sure when Kylo made the decision to snuff Snoke.

I think it was when he found out that Snoke had been arranging those Force FaceTimes between him and Rey, when Kylo thought it was just fate. Even in TFA, when Kylo wanted to be Rey’s ‘teacher’, it seemed he might be prepared to cast Snoke aside for her.

When Rey calls him ‘Ben’ he gives her a sulky side-eye and basically ignores it. Still so much angst. So far, we seem to have ascertained that Rey is Rey Random of non-famous parentage. Kylo’s a bit of a snot about it, as if it’s good of him to see her as an equal, what with his mom being a princess and all.

Great performance by Adam Driver.

I just can’t believe it’s been two years since the last Star Wars (one year if you count Rogue One, but somehow, I never seem to). There are many journeys and other strands to this huge and very long movie, and I’ll probably do a review in a week or so. For now, MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU!!

A ghost story for a chic spooky season: PERSONAL SHOPPER starring a striking Kristen Stewart

It’s 2007, before audiences would learn that Kristen Stewart was to be their Bella Swan, and there’s dizzying acclaim for her tiny role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Anyone would think that the former child actress was being prepped for major stardom.

Of course, Stewart totally killed the Twilight gig, and became an object of obsession for girls everywhere, and a fixture on Hollywood’s Most Hated lists. Now, in 2017, she’s finally the ‘Best of her Generation’ — as Olivier Assayas described her after directing her to a César for her performance as a personal assistant to a neurotic actress in Clouds of Sils Maria. 

Stewart made history as the first American to win the French equivalent of an Oscar, and Assayas would write Personal Shopper with her in mind to star as a young expat in Paris. Once again, she’s a flunky to an unpleasant celebrity, only this time we merely glimpse the supermodel employer – Kyra – who dispatches her to upscale boutiques to pick up couture and priceless baubles for the red carpet.

Instead it is Stewart’s Maureen who takes centre stage, and she is so much more than an underling: she’s also a psychic medium, a grieving twin sister, and an artist. And who exactly is the model here? KStew looks preternaturally gorgeous when she tries on her boss’s designer clothes.

Maureen hates her job, but she’s in limbo in the French capital mourning her brother, who died from a heart defect she shares. She sits alone at night in his Parisian mansion, waiting for him to show her a sign from the other side. The building creaks and the pipes rattle, before a rageaholic spirit scratches out her artwork.

Later, when Maureen is harassed by text message, we’re supposed to be unsure whether or not she is at the mercy of something more sinister than a fashionista; have ghosts made the jump-scare to the digital era, or has she got a stalker?

If this sounds like a weird blend of high fashion, ectoplasm, and suspense…you’d be right – it really is an engrossing addition to the whodunnit/horror/coming-of-age genre.

And it probably wouldn’t have worked with a typical lead actress. But Stewart has such incredible authenticity and sincerity, that when she talks – or does that notorious Stewart mumble, mumble, shuffle – about the difficulty of finding portals to the spirit world, it seems perfectly reasonable.

From that truthful base, she is fascinating; you just want to keep watching her and watching her.

Verdict: Personal Shopper is a beautiful and detailed treat, from the Vionnet and Chanel dresses, to Maureen’s beanies, polo shirts and sloppy sweaters. It looks like a fashion shoot, all carried off with Stewart’s trademark insouciance and ambiguity.

She even makes the name ‘Maureen’ sound cool.

For those that celebrate it, have a Happy Halloween! If you have a low fear threshold, check out my Guide to Scary Movies, or if you fancy a really creepy read try the book that inspired Alex Garland’s new movie, Annihilation.

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

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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.

Recently, I’ve been reading books that are being adapted for the big screen, and one such pick was Annihilation, the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series, a novel that King himself called ‘creepy’…

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer

Four women are sent by a secretive government agency to investigate Area X, a quarantined coastal zone in the USA.

The Biologist, the Psychologist, the Surveyor and the Anthropologist (no names are given in the book) uncover a terrifying force writing on the walls of an uncharted subterranean tower: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…”

As if I had breathed in the spores from the cover, Annihilation is immersive, sinister, and genre-defying. It is part of a trilogy, but it can definitely be read as a standalone story.

One problem I had is that it takes the Biologist’s field journal as its source material, and while she may be happy spending hours observing lifeforms in tidal pools, I’m not! (The novel also flashes back to her life with her husband, who volunteered for the previous, doomed Area X expedition.)

I hope the movie doesn’t end up feeling like Alien Covenant – scientists behaving stupidly while trudging through the wilderness and wrestling with weird mind-bending phenomena.

Luckily, it’s directed by Alex Garland, who proved he knows a thing or two about creepy tension with Ex Machina, and it stars Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Oscar Isaac.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber 

From a woman of science to a man of faith. The King of the North has gone interstellar in the Amazon pilot ‘Oasis’.

It takes as its veeery loose inspiration Michel Faber’s (author of Under the Skin) melancholy novel The Book of Strange New Things, which was published in 2014, before the Netflix phenomenon!

The good book focuses on Chaplain Peter Leigh, who leaves his beloved wife for a job with a shadowy multinational, who task him with ministering to the native inhabitants of a distant colonized planet named Oasis.

Peter’s new congregation were introduced to the Bible by his (missing) predecessor, and they’ve taken to it enthusiastically, calling themselves Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, etc. Their ‘faces’ resemble “a placenta with two foetuses…nestled knee to knee.”

To speak their language, Peter would “need to rip off his own head and gargle through the stump.” (Any linguists want a challenge?!)

It’s not a mystery or a religious satire, but a tale of grief and failure of communication – interplanetary email can be a bitch.

The Amazon pilot is very different. It’s a budget sci-fi, and the sad heart of TBOSNT is gone. There’s no word yet on whether it will go to series, but the book is certainly worth the near-600 pages.

I’m currently slogging through the latest Zadie Smith, but I should be back with a Wind River review soon……

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 picking up the memoir.

As a film blogger, I’d already packed my incredibly packed (not really) reading list with some future adaptations and it’s quite a mix – YA, historical, science fiction. I better get cracking before I’m tempted to laze in front of the screen. 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 whom 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, while the secondary characters are very lightly daubed on the page, and their stories end (tragically) when it is clearly very convenient, which undercuts the tragedy.

I also have doubts about Richman’s decision to start the novel with the conclusion.

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

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. So much for harmony!

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 is like spending 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.

the-light-between-oceans

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.

gilly

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!)