Category Archives: reviews

queen of scots book

Film vs book: Mary Queen of Scots

The CW’s Mary Queen of Scots soap opera Reign took an axe to historical accuracy. Yet beneath the fashion and fantasy, the vital beats were there; Adelaide Kane’s Mary married the Dauphin of France, before returning to a turbulent Scotland as a teen widow.

Now, we have a wannabe serious, grown-up movie, inspired by John Guy’s sympathetic biography – originally published as My Heart is My Own.

We pick up with Mary (Saorise Ronan) washing up on the shores of her native land. She takes one look and retches. Her half-brother James is a bastard (as in Jon Snow), while the country is in thrall to David Tennant’s firebrand Protestant cleric John Knox.

Then there’s her cousin, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Screenshot_2019-07-19-09-30-16-01.jpeg

Mary had become Queen of Scots as a baby, but through her grandmother (Henry VIII’s sister) she also had a claim to Elizabeth’s throne.

Having grown up safely in the French court, critics saw Mary as a pampered princess. Guy, however, describes a charismatic, multifaceted diplomat.

The movie shows this by having Elizabeth’s courtiers say, “She’s formidable, Madam!”

At nearly 6ft tall, Mary liked to dress as a man to punk ambassadors. Just don’t expect to see this in the film – she might have been a fun gal by 16th century standards, but in steely Saorise Ronan, Mary is a straightforward, strong heroine.

She marries a vile brat named Darnley, who is murdered by Bothwell (established early as Mary’s sworn defender but absent for most of the movie), who then coerces Mary into marrying him instead.

The film dashes through the sequence of events leading to Mary’s downfall.

Her flight to Elizabeth climaxes in a fictional meeting in a laundry shed. Despite losing her own country, Mary won’t shut up about what a superior Queen she’d be. Facing her young, beautiful ‘rival’, Robbie looks shook. The greatest enemy to her insecure, frail Elizabeth is ageing before modern medicine or Instagram filters.

In Guy’s (well-researched) revisionist account, Mary was Britain’s unluckiest ruler, prey to Elizabeth’s Catholic-hating advisors, the Protestant Reformation, and the factionalism of the Scottish nobility. Tragically trusting of family, Mary – still only in her twenties – had disastrous taste in men.

For Josie Rourke’s film, this is largely simplified to Mary being the victim of gender bias. She’d have been best friends with her cousin-over-the-border if it weren’t for the patriarchy. The fact that one of them chopped the other one’s head off should serve to remind us, the #metoo generation, that men suck.

Sure, it’s just a film. But if you want historical fan fiction about the perils of female leadership in a male world, featuring ‘woke’ royals, you’ll have more fun with Reign over on Netflix.

Grindelwald dvd on white table

Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald – film review

You’d imagine J.K. Rowling had earned enough goodwill that people might give her the benefit of the doubt.

But even before her Fantastic Beasts sequel started filming, there was controversy. Firstly it centered on her support for tabloid-stricken star Johnny Depp, 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.

Then a scene in the trailer supposedly broke canon, before the release of the official cast list drew fury for messing with timelines established in books/minds.

But J.K writes great mysteries and she doesn’t make it up as she goes along, right?

OK, there are some potential canonical problems here, but it’s only the second film of five. What’s worse is the critical consensus that it’s the worst Potter ever – that it has too many characters and confusing subplots,no clear protagonist, and exists only to set up later chapters.

To be clear, the first Beasts wasn’t fantabulous – my review was basically, “Wow how hot is Colin Farrell?!” However, I could see it was the start of a story that promised to tap into the richer HP mythology.

Crimes opens with an impressive action scene, even if the criminal was actually already free, and just wanted his escape to have a certain degree of flair.

Depp’s take on the character is more Black Mass than Captain Jack, but dark magic must take a toll, as Jamie Campbell Bower’s blond, handsome, spindly young wizard is just a mirage in the Mirror of Erised.

Grindelwald’s crimes include cruelty to cute critters (justice for Antonio!), murder, and nearly destroying Paris. He’s also guilty of making hot Dumbledore lovesick and mopey…after they spent a summer together in their teens, to put this in perspective.

The benignly manipulative Dumbledore has twisted Newt’s arm into protecting Credence – who is trying to discover his origins. And what a persuasive way Dumbledore has – “Hey Newt, you’re not popular, funny, or charming, but you do what’s right!”

So did Rowling have this new sibling twist planned, or did she come up with it between script revisions, à la George Lucas with Luke and Leia?

Well, there was a distinct lack of buildup. Audiences didn’t really finish the first movie speculating about a particular character’s parentage.

Of course Dumbledore always knows more than he lets on. “For the Greater Good” and all that – old ways die hard. Personally, I’ve always suspected he broke his dad out of Azkaban.

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It’s fantastic Rowling is adding to the mythology of her world. I hope she stays true to her vision. Shame she didn’t leave this new franchise simmering in the cauldron for a bit longer.

The Aftermath: Book vs film review

It’s “Stunde Null” – zero hour – for a defeated Germany following WWII. Sadly for audiences of The Aftermath, time stands still.

The screenplay puts us in the picture: more bombs flattened Hamburg in a single weekend than were dropped on London during the entire conflict. Among the scores who died in the firestorm, was the wife of non-Nazi architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård).

Top British officer Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) requisitions Lubert’s palatial home, but being a decent fellow, doesn’t send its owner packing. Joining the mansion share – it could be a reality show – is Morgan’s wife Rachael (Keira Knightley), still grieving the death of their only son Michael in the Blitz.

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If she’s a bit chilly with Lubert and his resentful daughter Freda, things are quite tepid in the Morgan marriage too, with Rachael angry her husband would rather save Germany than confront their loss.

The obvious love triangle relies on the actors’ good looks to sell a shift from mistrust to lust. When Lubert lunges at Knightley it’s only because he resembles Skarsgård that it isn’t terrifying.

(Personally, I find Clarke a far more attractive option.)

Sacrifices have to be made from page to screen, but it’s like the filmmakers dropped a payload on the book, with the final romantic twist axed, and Lewis’s political role reduced to nothing.

The cast try to do justice to the novel’s well-developed characters, and things are picturesque enough to want to Google “houses on the river Elbe”.

🍔🍔 1/2

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

20190323_104422-02.jpegWe first meet Rachael Morgan, muttering to herself on a train, as she travels to Germany with her 11-year-old son Edmund. The death of her older boy Michael has caused her to ‘think with a limp’.

Now her war-weary husband wants her to sleep with the enemy – staying in the home of widowed German architect Stefan Lubert and his teenage daughter Freda.

Rachael’s pretty, but provincial – not a fashion plate. She mixes with the class-conscious army wives, all ‘uncultured cuckoos in the fancy nests of other birds.’

Freda notices how the Englishwoman talks to herself, how her hands shake. But Herr Lubert’s boyish enthusiasm reanimates Rachael, as he talks about his professional ambitions, art, and grief. In this zero hour, they both want a better world, where people talk about their feelings.

It’s a slow burn between two people brought together by loss – compared to the onscreen soap opera, where Keira can’t get her kit off fast enough.

Clueless Lewis belongs to the stiff upper lip brigade, yet when he’s not battling the world over Germany’s fate, he’s drawn to his translator Ursula.

With their parents busy, Freda and Edmund roam. Joining fellow Hamburgers clearing rubble, Freda meets a Nazi youth interested in Chez Lubert’s occupants, while Edmund befriends a feral gang – including the enterprising Ozi – who are in thrall to a sinister older boy.

The Aftermath has a compelling premise. Its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense lead to a dramatic finale, unlike the film’s thin action.

🍔🍔🍔1/2

Red Sparrow book vs movie review

Jennifer Lawrence stars in this grisly thriller as Dominika, a Bolshoi prima ballerina whose dance career is kiboshed when her clumsy partner (Sergei Polunin from Orient Express) delivers a gruesome, bone-shattering injury during a live performance.

Dominika’s uncle Vanya doesn’t believe in bad luck. High up in Russian Intelligence, he informs her that her dance partner is shagging her understudy, provoking Dominika to club them with her walking stick.

After forcing her to seduce a gangster in scenes that end in a bloodbath, Vanya recruits his niece for sexpionage, shipping her off to become a ‘Sparrow’. She’s then deployed to Budapest to entrap a CIA agent called..drum roll..”Nate Nash” – yes really – who is handling a Russian mole, code named MARBLE.

Who is MARBLE? I’m not saying, but Nate Nash shares more chemistry with them during a brush-past in a nighttime park than he does in an entire movie with JLaw, who has unfortunate magnetism with Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts).

The comparison was inevitable, but Red Sparrow isn’t a Black Swan-style psychological thriller. It’s also not the action movie you might expect – there aren’t any scenes where Dominika uses her dance skills to shimmy between laser beams or strangle adversaries with her thighs.

Instead it’s a bleak thriller that defines itself with icky, graphic nudity and sadistic violence, all while garroting itself with gibberish like the scene where Dominika alters her appearance with a home hair dye kit, transforming from raven to platinum. If only!

It doesn’t help the authenticity, especially when it’s already a stretch to buy the premise that a limping Moscow ballet star could slip undercover for Mother Russia.

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Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (2013)

Director Francis Lawrence decided against having an actor portray the real-life Russian president in the movie, because he was too scared it would have been a “different movie”! (Like that would have been a bad thing?!)

Putin does get to feature in Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel. The movie had already set the barre (haha) pretty low for me, so I really only expected a trashy airport read. But the author is former CIA, and the novel bristles with tradecraft and insights into modern Russia.

Dominka is born into privilege – her parents a revered former musician and a revered academic – and she’s a child prodigy with the curious gift of synaesthesia.

She studies at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, until a rival ends her promising future. When her father dies, her uncle reels her into his dirty work before offering her a clerical role, which she rejects, demanding entry to the Foreign Intelligence Academy (AVR) – the first woman to be admitted.

Book Dominika is fiercely idealistic and patriotic, wanting to serve her country in an elite job. She finds herself belittled as a female operative and abused and betrayed, before she turns double agent, whereas movie Dominika is more out for herself.

She spars with Nate over politics, but ultimately their romance felt pretty tepid on the page too. Uncle Varya doesn’t look like Matthias Schoenaerts, and there are no incest overtones.

It’s still quite icky, and they torture the shit out of people – the filmmakers didn’t go out on a limb in that regard! But it’s an ambitious thriller that might have been improved with a series.

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FILM REVIEW Solo: A Star Wars Story might have been suited to TV streaming series

I was sceptical when Alden Ehrenreich – who doesn’t look or sound anything like Harrison Ford – was cast as young Han. Ford is tall, rangy, and rugged; Alden could be a member of a galactic boy band (except he’s solo).

After a troubled production and reports of an acting coach, it seemed like the odds of Alden successfully navigating young Han were approximately 3,720 to 1.

But the wise-cracking smuggler never set much store by the odds, ‘cos if you’ve got enough swagger, you can pull anything off. I can vaguely imagine Alden morphing into Original Trilogy Han, better than I could reconcile Hayden Christensen with the man in the mask – even after I saw it lowered onto his charred face.

We meet young Han on his scuzzy home planet of Corellia, long before he met a Princess and fathered a Supreme Idiot. He’s serving a slimy crime boss – a bit like Rey on Jakku – except Han and his girl Qi’Ra have time for trips to the hair salon.

When an escape bid sees Qi’Ra captured, Han signs up for a stint with the Empire, where he meets thief Tobias Beckett (least imaginative SW name ever) and his gang. They chuck Han to ‘The Beast’ – no not a Rancor…it’s Chewbacca!

The pair are drawn into the world of a crime syndicate, where Han’s old flame Qi’Ra has risen through the ranks as a top lieutenant. (Was it just me or did a certain bad guy look happy to get ‘closer’ to Emilia Clarke’s Bond girl femme fatale? Isn’t he a cyborg/robotic below the waist?)

It all whizzes along as a straightforward, pulpy adventure, lacking the awe that Star Wars ought to inspire. It feels rather “Adventures of Young Han” – more suited to Disney’s new streaming channel.

Han could be a dark character like Anakin: he was enslaved, before fighting for the Empire and losing his childhood sweetheart. But all he wants is to be a cool pilot and make a quick buck. Under the leather jacket, he was always one of the good guys.

🎲🎲

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 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 been crunched under those 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 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 locating Himiko’s resting place when Lara turned up with Croft’s map, which pinpoints the exact spot the tomb is hidden.

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.

FILM REVIEW: Black Panther

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.

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

My most charitable reading of Black Panther – a Marvel product – is that it’s a self-contained story about family, duty and honour.

Set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, the War of the Panthers is a kind of kid-friendly Game of Thrones, with warring cousins and tribes, and where the future of the kingdom hinges on revelations about an individual character’s parentage. (I’m not alone in spotting the GoT parallels; Panther star Daniel Kaluuya made the link a year ago.)

Wakanda’s language, artwork, and costumes are meant to be grounded in real-world African traditions, while its secret high-tech infrastructure is powered by magical sources of an alien element called Vibranium.

New king T’Challa isn’t a flashy show-off à la Tony Stark, even if his royal duties include dressing up like a panther. A noble character haunted by his father’s death, he’s trying to  protect his people at the same time as overcoming his nation’s isolationism.

It’s to Chadwick Boseman’s credit that he 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, planning to lead the country in a more hawkish direction.

Killmonger might even claw his way into the Top Ten Movie Villains of All Time. Because the superhero is king, the superhero is the brand, but the performances should be key. If Hollywood is committed to saving the endangered species of the mega-movie star, it won’t find a better candidate.

Wind River cameos Teen Wolf’s Ian Bohen! From Sicario, Soldado’s Sheridan

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, hoping you don’t have nightmares.

Taylor Sheridan’s screenwriting has already given us Hell or High Water, and 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, Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner is another FBI agent out of her depth. We’re no longer in Sheridan’s native Texas, but the wintry wild west of Wyoming.

Jurisdictional matters have pulled Banner in to investigate the death of a teenage Native American girl, 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.

Although Olsen is in charge of the investigation, his deep connections to the land and to the dead girl’s marginalized community mean the story belongs to Renner’s softly-spoken cowboy.

We get no backstory to Olsen’s character, who dresses like she should be reading the news in a warm studio somewhere. (‘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.”‘)

Where Macer was caught at the border by political forces beyond her control, Banner plants face-first into a community blighted by poverty, addiction and hopelessness. It’s unclear if she’s meant to be a symbol for governmental disinterest and mishandling.

Vertigo-inducing camerawork aside, Sheridan delivers like previous directors of his scripts. Incidentally, Wind River isn’t his directorial debut, despite what he said at Sundance, where the movie won praise, especially for the final gun battle (where Teen Wolf’s Ian Bohen – due to appear in Sicario sequel Soldado – makes a cameo!).

Wind River isn’t as ambitious as Sicario, with its tension between the leads. The violence, however, when it comes, is more personal, but no less shocking, while the creepy sense of dread outlasts the film.

Murder on the Orient Express – 2017 millennial version

“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. Having just dodged the new, BBC Little Women over Christmas, I was worried I’d caught the same faux fatigue. I’ve seen a stage play of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, while the still-fresh ’94 Winona Ryder film with a young, scene-stealing Kirsten Dunst is in my DVD collection.

I realized my aversion wasn’t because Winona Will Forever Be My Jo March! – it was because it looked genuinely bad. The accents sounded atrocious, and the actresses were more like sorority sisters in 2018 than impoverished, Civil War-era siblings. (Dunst at least was the right age to play Amy.)

Agatha Christie’s ’34 novel Murder on the Orient Express, featuring detective Hercule Poirot, has also been regularly re-crafted for screen. So there was a lot of online negativity around director-star Kenneth Branagh’s new blockbuster version; a perfectly good, Oscar-nominated 1974 Sidney Lumet adaptation already exists, so there was no need…

Au contraire, mon ami! OK, no need maybe, but judging by the box office, people were attracted to 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 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, and an OTT moustache. 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.

This brings us to another problem people have with the movie – Ratchett is 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.

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, including Beauty and the Beast’s Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley (a less grating Keira Knightley), and rising actress Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) as a enigmatic aristocrat. Plus Leslie Odom Jr. (Tony winner for Hamilton) is Dr Arbuthnot – played in ’74 by that old dinosaur Sean Connery.

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 an immersive experience, capturing the allure of the golden age of travel. And of course there’s that much-raved about epic five minute 65mm Steadicam closing shot.

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.

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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! 

What is the Personal Shopper movie about? Explanation

It’s 2007, before teen audiences would learn that Kristen Stewart was to be their Bella Swan. There’s such outsize acclaim for her tiny role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, you’d be forgiven for thinking the former child actress was being prepped for major stardom.

While Twilight made Stewart an object of fascination, it also made her a fixture on Hollywood’s Most Hated lists. Now, she’s the ‘Best of her Generation’ — as Olivier Assayas described her after directing her to a César (the first American to win the French Oscar) for her role as an assistant to a neurotic actress in Clouds of Sils Maria.

Assayas would write Personal Shopper with Stewart in mind to star as Maureen, a young expat in Paris. Once again, she’s cast as a celeb flunky, running around upscale boutiques for her spoiled supermodel employer, Kyra.

But Maureen is more than an underling. She’s a psychic medium, in limbo in the French capital mourning her twin brother, who died from a heart defect she shares. The film opens with her alone at night in his eerie mansion, trying to reach him on the other side.

The angry spirits that appear to Maureen, scratching out her artwork, appear terrifyingly real to her. 

Stewart is so believable when she mumbles about the challenges of finding portals to the other side, she’d make a decent living as a psychic if she left showbiz. From that truthful base, she even makes the name ‘Maureen’ plausible on a twentysomething.

When she’s harassed by text messages, we question whether she’s 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? Is this all in her head?

Viewers have come up with some overly-intricate theories, confused by the way the script decides to glide from supernatural psychological horror to whodunnit.

In the final scene, Maureen encounters a ghost who begins trying to communicate with her – one knock for yes, two for no. She asks the ghost if it’s Lewis, and it seems to say it is. She asks if it’s at peace, and the answer is ambiguous. Then she asks if it’s in her head. It knocks for yes.

Perhaps the best way to interpret it would be through this J.K. Rowling gem: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – film review

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.

In fact, the French-Belgian Valerian et Laureline comics were a suspected early influence on George Lucas.

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 romance 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). There, different alien species all pool their knowledge in brilliant harmony. Or not.

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 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!)

The 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?

Alien: Covenant – film review

There are 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 I wouldn’t be much good.

However, in this sci-fi franchise, I’d be well-qualified. From the hardscrabble marines of Aliens to the inept scientists of Prometheus, Xenomorph Expedition’s workforce aren’t exactly first draft.

This brings us to the Covenant, a beautiful hunk of a ship housing a crew of married couples, jolted out of hypersleep by a neutrino burst. (Yes I’m totally going to 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 David (the crew were so stupid and hostile he had to murder them) and sole human survivor Shaw (Noomi Rapace); I loved the blueness, the weirdness of it. I was probably alone in the universe in just wanting Prometheus 2: More Dodgy Philosophizing.

Instead we’ve got Covenant. Its newly-awakened crew are lured from their target planet by an eerie transmission of Shaw singing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads‘. Upon hearing her, I realized I didn’t care about these new Covenant losers, and I never would.

The only person against deviating from their planned course is the Ripley-esque Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Widowed when Captain James Franco got Anakin Skywalker’d in his malfunctioning sleep pod, she’s 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 to explore this strange new world. Despite knowing nothing about it, they’re soon moaning and stopping for cigarette breaks like it’s a routine rekkie.

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

We know where this sequel-prequel is headed: a CGI face-off with an Xenomorph in the halls of the Covenant. It’s Aliens, minus the snappy dialogue and (my earlier disrespect notwithstanding) the cool supporting cast.

People who didn’t like Prometheus (there were a fair few) have got their way: Alien Covenant is a return to typical, hardcore blockbuster terrain. They should back away from this franchise and send it back to a permanent cryo-sleep.

👾👾

Ghost in the Shell – film review

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 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 ‘cos the robot workforce is coming to take everyone’s jobs.)

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

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

The performances match the spectacle, with Pilou Asbæk as Major’s second in command, Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano as their boss, Juliette Binoche as the scientist Dr Oulet, and Michael Pitt as the villain. 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 her 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 seemed 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.

Beauty and the Beast – film review

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 one 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 seems to be on these days.

I was aware there was a lot of fuss surrounding this particular release. Belle –  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.

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.

In the face of naysayers, Watson’s been busy selling Beauty as a modern, empowering, feminist take on the fairy tale. Her Belle is courageous. Just a simple village girl, she knows her own mind and has no trouble rejecting Luke Evans’s ghastly Gaston.

So 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 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.)

There are probably a dozen things to nitpick (the CGI; the length; the accents) but my audience applauded, and I’ve been happily humming the songs since I left the cinema.

Jackie – more claustrophobic horror than corridors of power

Who in their right mind would want to live in the White House?

In Pablo Larraín’s unsettling look at the days following the assassination of JFK, life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is more claustrophobic horror than corridors of power. (It’s no coincidence that it’s reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining – Larraín is a huge Kubrick fan, with some of the shots a deliberate homage to the filmmaker.)

Basically a three-hander starring Natalie Portman as widow Jackie Kennedy, Mica (Under the Skin) Levy’s score, and a gore-spattered pink Chanel suit, Larraín has rejected a cradle-to-the-grave biopic formula in favour of the experimental snapshot.

There’s a basic framework in the form of an interview Jackie gave to a journalist (Billy Crudup) a week after the assassination. The film jumps back and forth between three timelines – the interview, Jackie’s infamous 1962 televised tour of the White House, and her husband’s funeral.

Leading up to the release, critics were hailing Portman’s performance as Oscar-worthy. There seemed to be a potential stumbling block; Portman’s imitation of Jackie’s whispery baby voice sounds absurd, no matter how ‘accurate’ it’s supposed to be. Even Larraín admitted he initially thought Portman’s accent was “too much.”

If this had been a more conventional picture, (imagine a Netflix series entitled Camelot) it might have been disastrous. When Claire Foy was asked about getting the young Queen Elizabeth’s cut-glass 1950s accent right for The Crown, she said it would sound so alien today, they went with a “modulated” version instead.

Perhaps Portman could have tried a similar approach, but a strange thing happens; her diabolical performance becomes another string in Levi’s discordant score. It works. The actress is terrific in this crazy, mannered straitjacket, every gesture and inflection significant and strange, her only false note the row with brother-in-law Bobby.

Portman isn’t a perfect physical match, but even that works – the tiny, frail figure of Portman swallowed up by shock and grief. She resembles a little girl clopping about in Kennedy’s heels and bouffant hair, like she raided the dressing-up box.

She’s not entirely fragile – she’s vicious as she wrong foots Crudup’s unnamed journalist. “Don’t think fer a secahnd I’m going to leht you pwint thaht,” she lisps.

This is Jackie crafting her husband’s legacy. It’s the gulf between her public persona (style icon, embodiment of the American Blue Blood) and her private persona, the woman who mentions her miscarriages again and again. With the brittle talents of Natalie Portman, Jackie is like shattered glass. Best of all, it’s only 90 minutes. Go see!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – film review

Ransom Rigg’s YA fantasy Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children sold millions and has been translated into 40 languages. Now Tim Burton’s adaptation has found a perch at the top of the US and international box offices.

On the advice of his shrink, the story’s hero Jake has left his Florida home for rainy Wales, hoping to unravel his Grandpa’s tales of growing up in an orphanage for “Peculiars” with extraordinary abilities – ranging from super strength and invisibility, to a girl with teeth at the back of her skull, and a lad who likes to belch up a swarm of bees.

Count me out of school dinners at this place.

peculiar

20th Century Fox. (Halloween costumes sorted!)

Jake finds a gateway to the 1940s orphanage, which exists on a one-day time-loop. He bonds with Emma Bloom (rising star Ella Purnell), a Burtonesque blonde ingénue who’d float away without her platform shoes. Poor Jake – she’s blooming beautiful, but she’s also an octogenarian who used to fancy his granddad.

Headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) is a “Ymbryne”, who can a) manipulate time and b) transform into a falcon – a mother bird hiding her young from Samuel L. Jackson’s mad scientist and the monstrous, eyeball-chomping Hollowgasts.

The most haunting moment comes when she gathers her pupils to reset the day, and she plays the popular WWII era song Run Rabbit Run on the gramophone. We know Grandpa witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust (Hollowgast?), but the movie does not engage further with the historical context.

The movie has some scary imagery, but it wasn’t the dark fantasy elements that I found most unnerving. As if being cursed with a set of teeth at the back of your skull and dodging evil creatures that want to eat you isn’t bad enough, imagine being trapped for an eternity at school.

It’s driven at least one Peculiar mad; seer Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone) – among stiff competition – is the creepiest inhabitant of this child prison world, with his old-fashioned manners and weird fixation with tailoring.

There’s something skin-creeping about the movie, like a Victorian era freak show. It’s like one of those nursery rhymes with a sinister meaning – and as someone who spent their childhood secretly hoping they’d fall through a wardrobe into Narnia, it’s a fictional fantasy world I would not want to visit.