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scary books movies

Halloween book & movie mash!

At Halloween, a lot of bloggers do horror-themed posts. I’ve always avoided the genre, but something has changed lately, after I binge-watched three seasons of American Horror Story without flinching!

Now that I’m living my best, devil-may-care life, here are the scariest books and films I’ve…encountered recently.

PET SEMATARY – novel by Stephen King

Wow, this was my first Stephen King novel. I loved his writing, and the book’s salt-of-the-earth characters. I was gripped up until the end, when Louis Creed spends the entire last quarter of the novel scaling a graveyard fence trickier to surmount than Fort Knox.  

PET SEMATARY (2019 movie)

Jason Clarke’s Louis Creed grabs a shovel and hops over a wall about a foot high, before getting to work digging up his dead kid.

They’ve switched the roadkill from baby Gage to an assured Ellie Creed, aged from 5 up to 9. Young Jeté Laurence is a revelation in the role. She’s so creepy, who knows what she’s channeling onscreen. Maybe it’s Greta Thunberg – the actress would be a shoo-in for the inevitable biopic about the young eco-warrior. 

A fun, clearly committed take on a classic tale. 

ELI (Netflix)

Why is it scary? Well, it goes something like this…

Viewer: Oh goody, a standard ‘sick kid in a haunted house’ tale.

Eli: WE’LL SEE WHAT SATAN HAS TO SAY ABOUT THAT!!

THE FORGETTING TIME – novel by Sharon Guskin

Noah, 4, sees dead people. Well not exactly, but booted from preschool for talking about guns and…Harry Potter, he’s scared of water, and wants his ‘other mommy’. When Noey’s (ugh) doctors suggest schizophrenia (!) hysterical ‘mommy-mom’ Janie contacts past life investigator Dr Jerry Anderson. 

There are ‘encouraging smiles’ and eyes ‘welling with concern’ or ‘shining with sadness’. Janie has to be the dimmest architect (apparently Guskin just wanted her heroine to have a professional career). She’s rude and ungrateful to dementia-stricken Jerry, who is racing to finish his research.

Guskin includes excerpts from work by UVA’s Dr Jim Tucker, who was a loose inspiration for the character. I felt greater investment in him as he ponders his life while solving the mystery of Noah. It’s easy to imagine Harrison Ford in the role. 

Once we escape Janie, The Forgetting Time develops into an intelligent, moving and thoughtful story about three families’ grief. I’m sorry I hated it at the start. 

SERENITY (2019 movie)

Notorious for its very strange twist, it’s one of the biggest box office duds of 2019. But the marketing department hawked it as neo-noir, and I still swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker.

Set on a fictional tropical island, Matthew McConaughey’s washed-up war vet Dill toils as a fisherman/gigolo, obsessed with catching a tuna he’s named ‘Justice’. Poor Djimon Hounsou is stranded as first mate and conscience.

Sexy thriller undercurrents arrive with Dill’s femme fatale ex Anne Hathaway. She wants him to have an ‘accident’ at sea with her abusive husband, Jason Clarke – who blames Serenity’s failure on a culture-wide resistance to experimental, ambitious films.

Nah. I’d say this movie should have been canned.

LULLABY (THE PERFECT NANNY) – novel by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor)

It’s the infamous killer-nanny book that won prestigious awards and was one of the most hyped books of 2018.

I was worried it would be tacky or exploitative, but it’s a darkly literary novel, which explores themes of race, class, motherhood and domesticity. The Moroccan-French Slimani is incredibly clever, and the prose is sublime – but I wasn’t sure the author had a full grasp of her villain.

A SIMPLE FAVOUR – novel by Darcey Bell

When fashion PR Emily disappears, leaving her British husband Sean and their young son behind, her deluded ‘best friend’ Stephanie sets out to discover the truth.

We get the perspectives of Sean, Emily, and popular mommy blogger Stephanie – via her thoughts and her inane blog. Emily is reckless and predatory; Stephanie is an insecure dolt. (A “fuzzy bath mat pretending to be a person”, according to Emily.)

Implausible twists aside, A Simple Favor is a dark, tongue-in-cheek thriller and cool satire. (Although I’m not so happy about the way she writes about us Brits. I’m not sure what we ever did.)

A SIMPLE FAVOUR (2018 movie)

Directed by Paul ‘Bridesmaids‘ Feig, the adaptation of Bell’s novel struggles with the tricky balance of black comedy and thriller.

The performances are fun – Lively is perfect as Emily, while Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie is no fuzzy bath mat, evolving from timid mom in cat socks to confident crime solver. Emily’s unhinged fashionista boss (Rupert Friend) makes a hilarious cameo. 

Unfortunately Kendrick’s mucky secret doesn’t work on the screen. It’s just plonked in a flashback, when it is way too lurid to pass unexplored or without greater payoff.

Lady Bird DVD

Film reviews from the 2018 – 2019 Oscars

Lately, I’ve hated most movies. Where I used to watch any old thing, I withstood two minutes of the latest Guardians of the Galaxy before switching off.

I began to wonder if I was on a permanent downer. I decided to ease myself back into film-watching with some of the latest, more highly-acclaimed movies – after all, Oscars are a sure indicator of quality, right?! First up:

FIRST MAN (2019 nominee) 

Having glanced at the Neil Armstrong biography First Man (Ryan Gosling) is based on, I expected it to be as entertaining as a double seminar on the physics of rocket propulsion.

It’s the practical effects that really excel; NASA were apparently firing men to space in tin cans. “You’re a bunch of boys,” rages Claire Foy’s formidable Mrs. Armstrong. Sometimes that’s all it takes…

I’d rather watch Brad Pitt fight Moon pirates tho.. 🐞🐞🐞

THE FAVOURITE (2019 nominee)

A luminous Restoration-era comedy-drama, The Favourite is the fictionalized tale of ailing Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) relationship with brash aristocrat Sarah (Rachel Weisz). They’re depicted as carer/patient, friends, and as lovers, with Sarah the power behind the throne.

Where Mary Queen of Scots was a traditional costume drama with a woke angle, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is unconventional to its marrow.

Emma Stone, so insipid in La La Land, inserts herself into the bawdy period setting – and the Sarah/Anne relationship – with razor-sharp skill (plus a spot-on English accent).

Where women in power are as vile as the men. 🐞🐞🐞🐞🐞

LADY BIRD (2018 nominee)

At her Catholic private school, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ (Saorise Ronan) is embarrassed by her relatively poor background, so she mean-girls to fit in with an edgier crowd.

Set just post 9/11, she can’t wait to ditch her hometown of Sacramento for college on the coast – upsetting her hard-working mother, frustrated that her daughter can’t be grateful for what she has. (I’d say putting a continent between them is clearly for the best.)

Even if Lady Bird needs to spread her wings, director Greta Gerwig makes their shared hometown look like bliss. It’s a love letter to contentment, and Sacramento.

Little Women still looks insufferable. 🐞🐞🐞🐞🐞

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2018 nominee)

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) believes local cops failed her slain daughter, so she rents three billboards with a damning message for Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), provoking his Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) into a conflict that escalates to Molotov cocktails.

In Martin McDonagh’s earlier, 2008 cult hit In Bruges, you felt sorry for Colin Farrell’s bungling hitman, even though he (inadvertently) shot a child. You laughed when he beat up the Canadian Guy. In Ebbing, senseless violence makes viewers wince, while racist thug Dixon never endears like Farrell.

A ‘dark fairy tale’, or just full of plot holes? 🐞🐞🐞

GREEN BOOK (2019 nomine)

Named after the pre-Civil Rights guidebook for African-American road trippers, Green Book is based on the true story of classical/jazz musician Dr Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) tour of the South.

Meant as heartwarming fare about the power of friendship, comedy is mined from the pairing of the refined Shirley with his driver/heavy Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), an uncouth, working-class Italian-American.

So feelgood, you could almost forget why it was called ‘Green Book‘!

Yikes, Aragorn really went to seed. 🐞🐞🐞

I, TONYA (2018 nominee)

This reminded me of David O. Russell’s American Hustle, so a no-go for me straight off the bat-on. It’s something to do with the camerawork or heavy-handed period detail.

Staged mockumentary-style (à la Drop Dead Gorgeous) I, Tonya follows 90s champ skater Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) connection to the attack (orchestrated by her husband, Jeff Gillooly) on her rival Nancy Kerrigan.

Tonya’s traumatic childhood and abusive marriage are set to retro tunes. She’s playfully presented as a gutsy chick sticking it to the snooty skating authorities who never gave her a chance. An interesting take, challenged by some…!

As stressful as Margot Robbie’s frizzball hairdo. 🐞🐞

DUNKIRK (2018 nominee)

Christopher Nolan’s film about the evacuation of Allied soldiers in WWII sees practical effects again triumph. Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance do stoic bravery; pilots Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy do stoic RAF fighter cover, while young soldiers including Harry Styles run the gauntlet.

Historical disaster re-enactment. 🐞🐞🐞

What are your fave films that featured at the Oscars in the last two years? Recommendations please! Lx

books on white background

Adapt this! Page to screen – Top Ten Tuesday

This is my first ever Top Ten Tuesday, a book blog meme created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010, moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January 2018.

“Page to Screen” is this week’s topic. This is a list of books I’ve read, off the top of my head, that I’d like to see adapted/re-adapted, or are being adapted, etc…

Circe by Madeline Miller This current bestseller about Circe, daughter of Helios, Greek god of the sun, has already been optioned for a TV series. May the gods descend from the heavens if they stuff it up!

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson This is one of my favourite novels, with its historical family saga meets Sliding Doors-style alternate timelines. I’d love to experience this atmospheric novel up on screen.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber They did an Amazon pilot on this, starring Rob Stark from Game of Thrones. It’s the most melancholy book I’ve read (FYI Faber’s Under the Skin became a cult classic starring Scarlett Johansson).

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman would make a fine movie if they get the tone right. It’s already been snapped up by Reese Witherspoon…sure. I don’t know why, but I got a slight Mike Leigh/Happy-Go-Lucky vibe.

Leia, Princess of Alderaan This is a YA Star Wars canon novel by Claudia Gray. I think Solo was doomed because fans just didn’t want a movie centered on Han. A series or a movie about a young Leia? A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one.

After Mrs Rochester This is actually a play Polly Teale wrote after adapting Jane Eyre for stage. It’s based on the troubled life of Jean Rhys, writer of Wide Sargasso Sea. We’ve had Colette, so why not Rhys?

Gates of Fire Rights to Steven Pressfield’s historical epic about the Battle of Thermopylae were acquired by George Clooney’s production company years ago, before vanishing into antiquity. Here’s a good article about why Gates of Fire never made it to the big screen.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews I did a post about the Jennifer Lawrence movie and the book it was based on. The film..and even the book (first in a trilogy) have a certain ick factor, but there’s still potential for a TV series about spy/ballet dancer Dominika.

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook. Only recently done, but attempt #1 was dull, and they could redo in ten years! I know they have to alter things for screen – my only unfulfilled expectation was not to be bored out of my ever-loving skull.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is Kirsten Dunst’s proposed directorial debut. While I’ve great faith in Dunst (who has co-written the script) as an actress, this is a huge challenge!

**Lx**

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.)

tombraider

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.

The Last Jedi: Luke what you made me do

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. But, then, depression set in.

It wasn’t disappointment over Rey’s parentage. Frankly, certain fans needed to get their heads out of their half-cocked theories. Sure, after the first trailer for The Force Awakens, I thought Padmé-lookalike Rey was Han and Leia’s kid, while Kylo was a Vader-obsessed loser (true) wanting to continue the bloodline with Rey.

But then I actually saw the film. Just half an hour in, a guileless Rey turns to Finn and says: “Luke Skywalker! I thought he was a myth.”

When Rey told BB-8 her parents would be back, ‘one day’, you could tell from Daisy’s delivery that Rey was in denial. As Maz said: she already knew the truth.

ren

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

But there were people who thought Palpatine wasn’t Darth Sidious right up until Revenge of the Sith. Fans insisted Rey was either Kylo’s twin (despite the age gap), or Luke’s child with an unknown woman – perhaps Obi-Wan’s daughter!

Considering Luke looked like he last took a bath on Endor, he probably 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.

This brings me to the biggest of my problems with Rian Johnson’s movie. His bizarre vision of Luke no longer resembled the son of Skywalker, but his step-uncle Owen Lars. Festering away on an 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 might have got a cheap laugh (a very nervous one, in my theatre), but the Luke that millions loved would never have been so weak, skulking off to let Leia deal with everything on her own.

OK, he was never the coolest member of the gang – even after maturing into the calm, lethal Luke of Return of the Jedi, 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 glimpse of that Luke when he Force-beamed himself across the galaxy, wearing an outfit that would have made Padmé Amidala proud. Poor old Mark 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 hoping to pick up new fans, and I can imagine committees overseeing the new global franchise want to lob most of the original trilogy off the edge of Skellig Michael, along with that lightsaber.

On that note, I wish you all,

xx —-Merry Christmas!—- xx

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?

To the Bone – Netflix review

To the Bone opens with two alien stick figures walking down a bright corridor. It’s peaceful, as the beings glide from the light towards the camera….and into a group therapy session/art class, where a girl is feigning righteous anger at magazines for promoting thinness.

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

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

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

It’s Ellen’s stepmom who is the driving force behind finding a new specialist, Dr Beckham. Yes. Dr Beckham. He’s described as ‘unconventional’, although it’s not clear why. Because he’s played by Keanu Reeves?

He agrees to treat Ellen as an inpatient at Threshold, a facility for young people with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Ellen befriends an annoying show-off named Luke. He already knows who Ellen is, thanks to an angsty subplot about her Tumblr artwork inspiring a girl’s suicide.

Family therapy with Keanu proves to be a waste of time, although it does allow the film to communicate the contemporary understanding that eating disorders are complex conditions with no single ’cause’.

The film is good at portraying the powerlessness and frustration that families often feel, although viewers are likely to be as confused as Ellen’s sister, wondering why she doesn’t “just eat.” Anorexia is abstract and internal. Films can show emaciation with weight loss, body doubles, makeup and CGI. But anorexic thoughts, or a compulsive urge to get ‘down to the bone’, is a challenge for storytellers.

The opening moments promised something more creative, and Ellen’s out-of-body experience where she see finally sees her malnourished form without the veil of anorexia also had the hint of something more inspired.

But To The Bone is a typical teen drama with a stock message of hope, recovery, and fighting for your own identity, and an old-fashioned little made-for-TV flick that would have slipped by unnoticed on Netflix’s roster if it weren’t for the valuable controversy.

At least star Lily Collins emerges from it well, having proved there is way more to her than being beautiful and the product of nepotism.

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.

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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.

Mini movie reviews for 2017!

There was a monumental flub at the Oscars ceremony this year: I wasn’t invited! The organizers obviously read my blog and know I don’t like travelling. Yes, yes, that must be it.

La La Land

La La Land follows Emma Stone’s aspiring actress Mia, and jazz musician Seb (Ryan Gosling), two selfish creatives who supposedly fall in love in modern-day LA.

A ‘tribute’ to Hollywood Golden-Age musicals, there seemed to be a troubling lack of memorable, knockout numbers.

Captain Fantastic 

Viggo Mortensen is raising six kids off-grid in the Pacific Northwest forest, including preteen River Phoenix lookalike Rellian, and Bo (a standout George MacKay), who has secretly applied to and got into every Ivy League college.

When the children learn their mother has died in hospital, Viggo buses them to her funeral across country. Along the way, Bo and Rellian discover they’re clueless about the world, while their cousins are Typical Western Teenagers in all their ignorant, idle glory.

I was expecting a fish-out-of-water comedy, but it’s a balanced little drama that holds back from portraying Viggo’s character Ben as either enlightened or misguided.

Doctor Strange 

Bad guys led by Mads Mikkelson vandalise a book, making Smug Superior Being Tilda Swinton go all Inception on them.

When Doctor Strange, an arrogant surgeon…I mean a surgeon, damages his hands in a car crash, he turns to Smug’s sorcerers for advice on spatial paradoxes and continuum probabilities. Smug is reluctant to train him in case he turns to the dark side and starts damaging library books.

Eschewing the metal-clanging showdown of superhero tradition, everyone Parkours over buildings and moving stairways. It’s like Hogwarts on acid. To think I nearly made it through a Marvel thingy without resorting to headache pills, then I got vertigo instead!

Deepwater Horizon

Based on the 2010 offshore rig disaster, early scenes establish Mark Wahlberg as a family man with a cutesy movie daughter whose school project explains daddy’s job deepwater drilling to the viewer.

Luckily, we’re soon off to the rig! Once the jokey banter has been mined to completion, wild-eyed BP exec John Malkovich starts giving Transocean employees grief. If you’ve seen the SNL sketch of Kylo Ren as an Undercover Boss – it’s like that.)

Its strength is the no-let-up action (the director is Peter Berg).

The Light Between Oceans

…or as I keep calling it – The Light Between Oscars – was once tipped to give Alicia Vikander another shot at Best Actress after 2016’s The Danish Girl.

Based on the novel by M.L Stedman, Australian serviceman Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) returns from WWI to live in his remote lighthouse with wife Alicia Vikander – who is such an ingénue it looks like Fassy plucked a child bride from the sea too.

After she suffers two harrowing miscarriages, a lifeboat with a corpse and a squalling baby washes ashore, which they decide to raise as their own. Things take a Hardyesque twist when Fassy stumbles across Rachel Weisz weeping beautifully in the graveyard of the same church where the Sherbournes are holding the christening.

Vikander’s performance is so intense, she almost manages to trick the audience into thinking this overwrought melodrama is psychological horror, questioning whether the lighthouse and the baby are manifestations of her character’s break with reality.

Manchester by the Sea

Deep in a wintry Boston suburb, depressed janitor Lee’s (Casey Affleck) guilt-ridden existence is ruined by the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), forcing him to return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for teen nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Like another Oscar contender, Jackie, the film is all about planning a funeral, except here the ground is too hard and cold to bury the dead. Flashbacks show Lee as a boisterous man married to Michelle Williams. The couple have a shared tragedy – the cause of Lee’s misery and the reason why he can’t stay.

Heaven knows how Kyle Chandler could come up with this Hedges kid, who is otherwise fine (cringe-worthy crying scene aside) as a selfish teen who doesn’t want his grimy life uprooted, or to be stuck with a violent, inarticulate time bomb.

Affleck is scarily believable, while the movie is saved from being too harrowing as it somehow finds humour in loss.

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!

Fleur Delacour

Mini reviews: a wimp’s Halloween movies

It’s Halloween, surely a time for a movie fan like me to seek out traditional scary flicks like The Blair Witch Project, or Poltergeist.

Except I have a long list of fears, and horror movies are on it. My coping strategy used to be that if I watched one, I’d immediately see another to stop the nightmares from the first. If I’m scared at night thanks to The Babadook, a dose of The Woman in Black would calm my fears. After all, they can’t both be real, right?! Right?

Given the problems with this logic and my sensitive disposition, I just avoid horror. But I blog about movies now, so I thought I ought to gingerly dip a toe back into the world of toil and trouble…

The Ones Below

It’s more of a psychological thriller than a horror, but the title sounded reminiscent of the Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer classic What Lies Beneath.

Clémence Poésy is married to a nice bloke (Stephen Campbell Moore). They’re both media/creative types and have a gorgeous cat, a lovely flat and a baby on the way.

A new couple move in downstairs – the Governor from The Walking Dead (David Morrissey- shouty) and his blonde wife (Laura Birn), who are also expecting a baby.

Despite the fact the two couples are clearly never going to get along, they have a dinner party. An unfortunate tangle of factors leads to tragedy, and middle class competition turns to revenge.

David The Night Manager Farr is the first time film director, from his own script. It felt a little like a one-off TV movie, but the echoes of Polanski, and Poésy’s emaciated appearance give it a woozy, memorable vibe.

JUMP SCARES: Zero

NIGHTS HIDING UNDER THE COVERS: None, but my aversion to dinner parties and The Walking Dead still stands.

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It Follows

Aaaargh what was I thinking?! David Robert Mitchell’s modern horror masterpiece already has me hiding under the covers.

An evil, unstoppable force takes on the guise of various gruesome-looking individuals, and stalks people to death.

The ‘thing’ is passed around like a virus – you have to sleep with someone to infect them, but if it kills its victim it comes back down the chain to snuff you out.

A cast of relatively unknown actors help make it fresh and disorientating.

JUMP SCARES: One

NIGHTS HIDING UNDER THE COVERS: Two so far!

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The Gift

“It’s just one dinner and it’s over…” No no no it’s NEVER over. The past returns to haunt thrusting tech professional Patrick Bateman when he moves to California with his wife Rebecca Hall.

An unrecognizable Joel Edgerton stars as Bateman’s old school friend colleague, an unattractive misfit (“Gordo the Weirdo”) who wrecks havoc with his target’s marriage.

Edgerton wrote the screenplay and makes his directorial debut, and the result is impressive. Hall is great, her character’s reaction to Gordo veers so far from movie convention and the ending is wonderfully subtle.

JUMP SCARES: One but I really jumped!

NIGHTS HIDING UNDER THE COVERS: Nope, but when will people stop having uncomfortable, wholly avoidable dinner parties?

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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.