Tag Archives: movies

HBO REVIEW: Catherine the Great, an epic open romance

In Catherine the Great, HBO and Sky’s new four-parter, nearly everyone talks like they’re starring in The Crown (Jason Clarke does his own thing – more on him later). Luckily the big fur hats let you know you’re in RUSSIA.

With Helen Mirren playing Catherine, the series aims to provide a balanced image, celebrating her as a socially enlightened female ruler in a man’s world, while not shying away from the fact she ruled with an iron fist.

Politics and empire-building are just a backdrop, though. The true heart of the piece is slowly revealed to be the passionate, complicated bond between Catherine and her military leader Potemkin (Clarke), whose existing letters to each other show a loving, open relationship, and an almost modern way of working together.

In the series, Catherine has usurped her husband and their son. Amid tension with her military co-conspirators – including her estranged lover Orlov – she glimpses the swaggering Potemkin. Catherine likes hunky (younger) men, but she’s running a country, so she gets her lady-in-waiting to test his er, political prowess. 

By hour two, we’re two years into the Russo-Turkish war, and Potemkin has been away covering himself in glory, rising through the ranks. Catherine impulsively orders his return, only to ghost him. They try to make one another jealous, before having an awkward chat about their exes.

It’s true Catherine had multiple lovers, and her sexual liberation gave rise to fake news. Even now, urban legends persist – including the notorious slur involving a horse. Despite the recent press hype, Catherine and Potemkin’s onscreen romance is only steamy in the sense that they (eventually) kiss in a bathhouse.

They settle into domestic bliss, but, rather like the ‘action man’ Prince Phillip portrayed by The Crown, a (literally) thrusting Potemkin becomes petulant and bored. He wants to Make Russia Great, annex the Crimea, and shag half the population while doing so.

As Potemkin, Clarke goes from a clean-cut Aussie Don Cossack, to sounding and looking like the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.

Poor Catherine can’t live with him, but she can’t live without him. Mirren pines for him and distracts herself with toy boys – some actually procured by Potemkin, who has the comical nerve to be jealous.

We’re reminded she’s a brilliant woman, and a patron of the arts, but she mostly indulges in sex, paranoia, and bickering with her son and her council. It rather presents a sad case of living long enough to see yourself become the villain, tossing the Voltaire on a bonfire.

Its difficulty is having three decades of history, and only four hours. There needs to be a focus, and the series loses sight of it. Only a pivotal final scene goes a long way to redeeming Catherine the Great as a bittersweet mini-epic about one of history’s greatest love affairs. 

7 Hair-Raising Books & Movies for ‘Halloween’

What scares me probably doesn’t scare you.

At Halloween, a lot of bloggers do horror or ghost-themed posts. I’ve always avoided the genre – not out of snobbishness – but because I always end up sleeping with the light on.

Something has changed lately, and I binge-watched three seasons of American Horror Story without flinching! I’m living my best, devil-may-care life.

This a post about some of the scary books and films I’ve encountered recently. Stuff that creeped me out for…reasons. Mostly I just want to do a round-up post.

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!!

I don’t know what they were smoking when they came up with this. Like Annihilation, it was originally a Paramount piece, dumped on Netflix when the studio didn’t know how to market it.

A SIMPLE FAVOUR by Darcey Bell

Why is it scary? It’s a gleeful little domestic suspense whose main character, Stephanie, is that terrifying breed: a mommy blogger.

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A Simple Favour feels like a younger, less elegant Gone Girl. 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.

Debut novelist Bell mercilessly satirises Stephanie’s ‘Captain Mom’ routine. Of course I’m not so happy about the way she writes about us Brits. I don’t know what we ever did.

We get the perspectives of Sean, Emily, and Stephanie – via her thoughts and her inane blog. Ahem. They’re all liars, for different reasons. Emily is reckless and predatory; Stephanie is an insecure dolt. (A “fuzzy bath mat pretending to be a person”, according to Emily.) Sean is…Sean.

Emily’s grand scheme is dumb, but it’s less a true mystery, more a biting satire.

A SIMPLE FAVOUR (movie)

Why is it scary? Directed by Paul ‘Bridesmaids’ Feig, the adaptation of Bell’s novel veers unevenly between black comedy and thriller.

The performances are fun – Emily’s (Blake Lively) unhinged fashion designer boss (Rupert Friend) makes a hilarious cameo. Lively is perfect for Emily, while Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie isn’t just a bath mat, as she evolves from timid mom in cat socks to confident crime solver.

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

THE FORGETTING TIME by Sharon Guskin

Why is it scary? Noah, 4, is Haley Joel Osment. Booted from preschool for talking about guns and..Harry Potter, he hates water, and wants his ‘other mommy’.

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When Noey’s (ugh) doctors suggest schizophrenia (!) hysterical ‘mommy-mom’ Janie contacts past life investigator Dr Jerry Anderson. (Guskin includes excerpts from work by UVA’s Dr Jim Tucker, who inspired the book.)

Janie is dim for an architect, and rude and ungrateful to dementia-stricken Jerry, who is racing to finish his research. I felt greater investment in him as he considers his life, and tries to solve the mystery of Noah’s memories.

Early interactions with secondary characters involve many ‘encouraging smiles’ and eyes ‘welling with concern’ or ‘shining with sadness’. Once it gets going though, it’s an intelligent and thoughtful story about three families’ grief.

SERENITY

Why is it scary? The marketing department hawked it as neo-noir. I saw the trailer, and I swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. It’s notorious for its stupid ‘twist’.

Set on a fictional tropical island, 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, who wants him to have an ‘accident’ at sea with her abusive husband, Jason Clarke.

Then it gets really weird. I want to say this movie should be canned but Clarke blames culture-wide resistance to experimental, ambitious films. Hmm. Maybe like Eli, it could have found fame on Netflix.

LULLABY (THE PERFECT NANNY) by Leila Slimani

(translated by Sam Taylor)

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Why is it scary? 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 full grasp of her villain.

PET SEMATARY

Why is it scary? It’s not. But Jason Clarke plays another bad dad/husband.

I’ve never read any Stephen King (remember I have to sleep with the light on) but apparently King himself hails this as one of the best adaptations of his books.

Somehow, I’ve managed to watch The Shining, and in comparison, Pet Sematary seems like basic horror.

There are some well-publicised changes. The ‘child’ isn’t the toddler son but the older girl – and the young actress, Jeté Laurance, is excellent and would be perfect casting for a Greta Thunberg biopic.

Lady Bird Review

Snapshot reviews: Lady Bird + others!

Lately, I’ve hated movies a lot more. 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 and blogging with some of the latest, more highly-acclaimed movies – after all, Oscars are a sure indicator of quality, right?! Errr…. First up:

FIRST MAN

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 was essentially 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

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 (and a spot-on English accent).

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

LADY BIRD

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

Set just post 9/11, she can’t wait to ditch her hometown of Sacramento and head east for college – 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 to Sacramento.

Little Women still looks insufferable. 🐞🐞🐞🐞🐞

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

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

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 and 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

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 and heavy-handed period detail.

Staged mockumentary-style (à la Drop Dead Gorgeous) I, Tonya follows 90s champ skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and her 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 and playfully presented – she’s a gutsy chick sticking it to the snooty skating authorities, who never gave her a chance. An interesting take, challenged by some.

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

DUNKIRK

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 from the last few years? Recommendations please! Lx

Is the MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS film as good as the book?

The CW’s Mary Queen of Scots soap opera ‘Reign’ took an axe to historical accuracy. But beneath the fashion and fantasy, the vital beats were there; Mary wed the Dauphin of France, and returned to rule Scotland as a teenage 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 (like Jon Snow), and David Tennant is 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 – yet Guy describes a charismatic and 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 this final sequence of events leading to Mary’s downfall, until she flees to Elizabeth and a fictional, arty meet-up in a laundry room.

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 and Instagram filters.

In Guy’s (well-researched) revisionist account, Mary was Britain’s unluckiest ruler, prey to larger neighbours and the combined forces of Elizabeth’s Catholic-hating advisors, the Protestant Reformation and the age-old factionalism of the Scottish nobility. She was tragically trusting of family, and – 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.

Fine, it’s only a film. But if you want historical fan fiction about the perils of female leadership in a male world, featuring ‘woke’ royals, Reign is on Netflix.

Top Ten Tuesday: Adapt This! Page to Screen

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**

FANTASTIC BEASTS: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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

But before her Fantastic Beasts sequel even started filming, there was controversy over her support for her tabloid-stricken star Johnny Depp. It prompted 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, and then 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? 

Well, 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 that 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.

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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 enriching the mythology of her world. I hope she stays true to her original vision. It’s a pity she didn’t leave her new franchise simmering in the cauldron for a lot 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 hit Google with “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 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 notes 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 what matters.

It’s a slow burn, 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, even 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, and its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense make a dramatic finale, unlike the film’s thin action.

🍔🍔🍔1/2

Monthly Blog Wrap-Up Thing

Someone said the other day that Januarys are a lot like Mondays i.e. the hardest and bitterest of the bunch. The weather is bone-chilling (North Americans, I know the UK’s got nothing on you!) and the horizon seems pretty bleak and empty.

Of course this year I’m still coping with the death of my dad. Thanks to everyone for the responses to that post.

Anyway, I’ve decided to do these monthly wrap-up things, which at the moment would be an accounting of my failures, but I think they’re a good way of trying to connect more with readers and fellow bloggers and give others an insight into my cold, crazy life on the Isle of Wight.

Also it’s fun to chuck words and photos and links at the page. It’s like gluing stuff to the screen and standing back.

Currently Reading

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Considering everything, it probably isn’t surprising that I’m still finishing my reads for this, er, last, month. I started with Jane Fallon’s newbie revenge chick lit Tell Me a Secret, as I love her wicked sense of humour and her cat’s Twitter tantrums.

I went mad and bought a copy of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and I love it – it feels  more focused than her debut Conversations with Friends.

January Blog Posts

Only a Red Sparrow review I’m afraid 😦 It got a fine response, thanks to the fascination with Ms Jennifer Lawrence.

Movies I watched

Apart from X-Men Days of Future Past on Netflix, zilch. I want to see Mary Queen of Scots, but I can’t leave the house as my cat has taken to screaming when she can’t find me. She sounds like an escapee from Jurassic Park. The vet wonders if it might be her eyesight.

She’s starred on my blog before, as a fan of Guardians of the Galaxy, and the other day she ‘disliked’ a video on Youtube! Go Kitty! She’s outlived everyone but me…

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JURASSIC PARK

Success!

I am stingy with successes. It’s been all about survival. But my successes are:

Finally returning to my novel. I’m working at the moment on little snippets of text and redrafting a lot of the 20,000 words of tripe I produced a couple years ago. I’m also trying to come up with a structure or outline so I have a clearer idea of where I’m headed.

I have an irrational phobia of various online payment methods, but I purchased some sweet filters from an Instagram planner app. Please head over and give me a follow on IG – I can follow back and I’m finally getting better on that platform.

Coming up

I’m taking it easy on myself. I’m busy decluttering my hoarder father’s possessions, God rest him. In the spring they will find my emaciated corpse surrounded by piles of junk.

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I’m wondering if I should look into hiring some kind of blogging coach to help me turn this little blog into something more professional and commercial. It’d be nice to have a little business. Any blog coaches out there?!

Happy Feb Lx

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 lets her know that her dance partner is shagging her understudy, so Dominika clubs 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 is eventually 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 perhaps 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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catherine steadman something in the water movie

BOOK REVIEW: Something in the Water….

While scuba diving on your dream honeymoon, you discover something sinister. Do you a) report it to the authorities b) speed away and pretend it didn’t happen, or c) get in way over your head?

Sadly some people – like film school grad Erin and her jobless banker husband Mark – don’t make good choices.

Catherine Steadman’s debut isn’t exactly a hidden gem. In the UK I couldn’t avoid the hype, while across the pond it was a New York Times Bestseller and a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. (Steadman is an accomplished actress herself, with Downton Abbey among her credits.)

With Witherspoon’s new production company Hello Sunshine set to make the Something in the Water movie, normally I would have been all over this like a shark in a feeding frenzy, but it was described as a ‘beach read’, which put me off.

Luckily, I took the plunge when Jonetta @Blue Mood Cafe recommended it!

After a much-admired opening chapter, we head backwards as our narrator Erin plans an exclusive London wedding and a honeymoon on Bora Bora, with sumptuous descriptions of super-first class travel and deluxe wedding menus.

Their showy lifestyle is funded by Mark’s job in investment banking, while Erin has a creative background and is working on a documentary about prisoners on the verge of release.

Her greatest catch is a gangland legend named Eddie Bishop, who knows a scary amount about Erin. But she has bigger problems; before the honeymoon, Mark lost his job in spectacular, escorted-from-the-building-by-security fashion.

Then they find something in the water that could literally change their fortunes forever – if they’re smart. Ahem.

The narrative is shadowed by the fear and mistrust caused by the financial crash, and the subtleties of the class system. When Erin visits the home of another one of her prisoners, she is paranoid about sounding condescending or bourgeois.

Yet while Mark – used to babysitting wealthy clients – flies First Class like it’s no big deal, Erin is a fish out of water. She quickly learns that having real money isn’t all about buying nice things, so much as it’s about avoiding the rules.

The sickly way Mark talks to Erin – like she needs constant soothing and reassurance – grates, but then she really ramps up the stupid, making rookie criminal mistakes (not that I’m an expert!) and being really, really slow on the uptake, so maybe he was right.

I know some readers expected more confrontation or climax, but the story is less about who the bad guys are and what they want, and more about what greed and dishonesty do to normal people, and how much we ever truly know each other, even that stunning Millennial couple with the perfect life.

“Careful what you wish for…”

🌴🌴🌴🌴

Mini movie reviews for the weekend!

I live on an island, and I have to get a boat to see most of the cooler stuff on at cinemas. But with movies coming out so fast on digital platforms and DVD, why spend all that money on choppy trips to the multiplex?

Flatliners 

How did the Oscars miss this little gem about five medical students stopping their hearts to experience the afterlife?

It starts out strong thanks to a talented cast including Ellen Page and Diego Luna. Keifer Sutherland cameos but he’s not reprising his role from the original and imparting any wisdom like “Don’t stop your hearts!” so it seems pointless.

With such a great cast, I’d have loved a dark psychological drama about ambitious, cutthroat young medics playing God. Sub-par horror.

Ingrid Goes West 

Aubrey Plaza gains your sympathy and alarm as a woman with an unspecified mental disorder whose only meaningful connection comes via Instagram. With inheritance money she heads to California to trick her way into insta-star Taylor Sloane’s seemingly perfect life.

But where Instagram is just a career tool for blandly commercial Taylor, for needy Ingrid it’s toxic. After a suspenseful and sun bleached hour of social media satire, the final act becomes more of a “psycho” thriller, and possibly sends confused messages about mental health.

The Limehouse Golem

The late Alan Rickman was set to lead this lurid, Ripper-style mystery, until his illness meant Bill Nighy took over as the elegant Inspector Kildare, investigating the grisly Limehouse murders.

Music-hall star Lizzie Cree is on trial for killing her husband – who Kildare suspects may have been the infamous Golem. Hoping to save the angelic-looking accused from the gallows, he dashes around an atmospheric Victorian London (it’s a treat to see Karl Marx pop up as a suspect).

An entertaining spin on the never-subtle dead prostitute genre. Nighy is softly restrained, but Olivia Cooke – who looks like a cross between Carey Mulligan and Jenna Coleman – is the standout.

Victoria & Abdul 

Queen Victoria had her summer home, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. She holidayed here with her family, and it’s where she retreated during her long mourning for Prince Albert.

The widowed Queen’s relationship with John Brown was dramatized with Judi Dench and Billy Connolly in 1997. Dench returns opposite Ali Fazal as Indian manservant Abdul, who incited jealousy and panic among her household and the imperialist government, including son Bertie (Eddie Izzard).

Dench’s frail old lady might be Empress of India, but she’s outlived her loved ones, and feels trapped and lonely. It’s a devastating depiction of old age. I think it’s meant as a feelgood, comedy-drama like The King’s Speech, but the larky tone and silent comedy jar with the classism and racism of the British Raj.

Viceroy’s House 

Following WWII, the British Empire was dying, and Victoria’s great-grandson Louis Mountbatten was dispatched to the Indian subcontinent to bury the Raj with dignity.

The 1947 partition of India triggered one of the bloodiest upheavals in history. Here it gets the Downton Abbey treatment, with a fictional ‘upstairs, downstairs’ romance between two servants in the Viceroy’s palace. It’s a stately, well-lit costume drama. Not my cup of tea.

mother!

Jennifer Lawrence is in an unpleasant relationship as dutiful wife to selfish creative Javier Bardem. When her quiet home is invaded by uninvited guests Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, Bardem won’t tell them to shove it, much to Lawrence’s dismay.

mother! feels like a bad M. Night Shyamalan, before it becomes an unmistakable Darren Aronofsky fever dream. An ambitious climate change allegory which draws incoherently on the Bible, it’s messy and chaotic, but JL is a force of nature.

All the Money in the World

This is where they recast Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer so that audiences and Oscar voters wouldn’t be distracted by the misconduct allegations against the former. It’s based on the 1973 kidnapping ordeal of tragic John Paul Getty III in Italy, and how the boy’s tight-fisted billionaire grandpa had to have his arm twisted to pay the ransom.

Of all the movies I’ve just reviewed, this is the one with the most general appeal. It’s watchable, but there’s something airless about it.  It’s strongest point is Michelle Williams and her chemistry with negotiator Mark Wahlberg.

The Book Blogger Insider Tag!

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Hi everyone! My focus recently has been on reviews, especially movie reviews. I wanted to open up my blog and vary the posts a bit, and Q&As always tend to be popular. Thanks to Jenny in Neverland for this open book tag!

Top 3 Book Pet Peeves

a) When people ask “..and what are you reading at the moment?” with the anticipation that you’ll confess you only ever read Vogue magazine…b) When someone spills orange juice (or any kind of beverage) on my books. It’s only happened to me once, but it was my teacher and she practically marinated Amanda Foreman’s Duchess of Devonshire biography…c) Books that are too big to sit on my shelves and have to be laid flat. Grrr.

Perfect Reading Spot

At home somewhere. Especially next to a radiator. Or if it’s sunny, I’ll sit in the garden with my cat.

3 Book Confessions

a) I nearly always think the book is better than the film.. b) I feel awful if I don’t finish a book – I expect a lot of people feel like that! I had to force myself to finish Swing Time by Zadie Smith…c) Books are forever and parting with them is hard.

Last Time You Cried Reading a Book

I did tear up a bit at the end of The Lost Wife. It’s by Alyson Richman, who I think has a background in art history. It’s a very beautiful romance set against the backdrop of the Holocaust – the romance didn’t affect me, but the camps at Terezin and Auschwitz, were, sadly, very real.

Number of Books on Your Bedside Table

Zero. I keep a ‘to be read’ pile in a corner on my desk. If I fall asleep in bed with a book I wake up with it on my chest. And my cat near my head.

Favourite Reading Snack

No snacks! I drink an iced coffee.

3 Books You’d Recommend to Anyone

Lion was a great memoir, better even than the film, which was good too. I loved American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone, so…Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield feels like an ‘anyone’ book. Harry Potter is always a good distracting read that most people could enjoy.

A Picture of Your Favourite Bookshelf

Um, I really don’t have one! Nearly all my books are in stacks or in boxes. One day, if I have a favourite bookshelf, I’ll post a photo.

How Much Books Mean to You (in 3 words)

Quite a lot.

Biggest Reading Secret

I remain committed to physical books. I love the smell of newly-bought books, although there is often something about the smell of secondhand books that I don’t like.

Sometimes I get an electronic copy as back up, to make it easier for me to get through, especially if I’m not enjoying it or if I’m tired. I find varying the medium helps break the experience up. Also e-books make it easier to go back and look for something, and make notes. Yes it’s pricier, but I don’t read that many books (for a book blogger) and it’s a worthwhile way to spend my time.

***

That’s all and thanks for reading! I’m excited to have several book reviews coming up on my blog over the summer, and I’ll also be posting short reviews on my Instagram page. Bye for now, L.

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. Where 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 as if the odds of Alden successfully navigating young Han were approximately 3,720 to 1.

But the wise-cracking smuggler never did set much store by the odds, ‘cos if you have enough swagger, you can pull anything off. So I can vaguely imagine Alden maturing into Original Trilogy Han. (Way better than I could reconcile Hayden Christensen with the man in the mask – even after I watched it lowered onto his charred face.)

For starters, Solo is a straightforward, pulpy adventure that introduces 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 did on Jakku, except Han and his girl Qi’Ra clearly have time for appointments at the hair salon.

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

Beckett is stealing hyperfuel for a crime syndicate, but at the first sight of pirates, Han drops his shipment, angering boss Dryden Vos. He wants his fuel or else, so it’s all aboard the Falcon for that infamous Kessel Run. Dryden orders Qi’Ra, now his top lieutenant, to supervise them.

Now Han could be such a dark character: he grew up in Corellia’s murky underworld as a child slave, he fought for the Empire on a planet resembling a WWI hellscape, he lost his childhood sweetheart. But all he wants is to be a cool pilot and make a quick buck.

But Qi’Ra knows that under the cocky attitude, he’s one of the good guys. (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?)

Given the box office, sequels are unlikely, and there’s going to be a lot of analysis about what went ‘wrong’. I’m no expert, but Rogue One benefited from novelty and from charged audiences wanting something to sustain them until Episode VIII.

Solo feels very “Adventures of Young Han” – perhaps suited to Disney’s new streaming channel. It lacks the ‘event’ feel and the awe that Star Wars, including Rogue One, has always inspired.

And no, I didn’t get the significance of the dice either. 🎲🎲

NETFLIX REVIEW: Annihilation – future cult classic or subpar sci-fi?

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

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

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

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

We see Lena Portmansplaining cellular senescence, AKA aging, to Kane. They playfully argue over whether God can make mistakes, and discuss the unusual ‘silence’ around Kane’s deployment. Kane tenderly says they will be under the same stars, but Lena mocks the idea of pining for her husband.

Kane goes MIA, before materializing a year later at their home, clearly unwell. The couple are ambushed and held in a facility where Lena meets creepy wierdo Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that Kane volunteered for and escaped the Shimmer, but is now in multi-organ failure.

With Oscar Isaac on a ventilator, a guilt-wracked Lena joins Ventress on the next Shimmer trip. The rest of their team are all damaged in different ways: an unkempt Tessa Thompson is self-harming physicist Josie, Gina Rodriguez is recovering addict Anya, while geologist Cass is a grieving mother. “We’re all damaged goods here,” she explains.

Inside the Shimmer, radio waves are scrambled, and time is distorted. DNA gets reshuffled and recombined; flowers twist into the human form, deer have tree branches, alligators have shark teeth.

“The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything,” realizes Josie. When Cass is killed by a mutant bear, its jaws open and her voice screams for help. Josie doesn’t want terror to be her surviving fragment, so she walks peacefully into the flower mannequin forest, with shoots and buds already sprouting from her self-harm scars.

Yuk. The thought of being broken down and incorporated into this new ecosystem proves grotesque. Ventress rages that it feels like the onset of dementia – although dying of cancer and resigned to her fate, she wants to face the alien entity while still herself.

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

annihilation swimming pool

F U Humanity!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I must check and see if Scott Thomas did any interviews to promote this artistic endeavour, because I just live for her 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 movie blockbusters were empty calories. Unpopular I know, but Marvel makes me feel like I overindulged on Haribo candy (and the DCEU feels like toothache).

Black Panther – yet another Marvel product – is also a self-contained story about family, duty and honour. Set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, the War of the Panthers is a kid-friendly Game of Thrones, with warring cousins and tribes, and the future of the kingdom hinging on revelations about an individual character’s parentage.

(I know I’m not alone in spotting the GoT parallels, as Daniel Kaluuya made the link a year ago.)

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

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

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

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

Netflix Review: Mudbound Book vs Movie

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

A female-helmed drama about two families – one white, one black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South, Mudbound’s script is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’). It’s perfectly-timed, with the industry under scrutiny for #OscarsSoWhite.

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

Distributed by Netflix (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere) Mudbound sees stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drag his kids and wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), plus racist father Pappy, to a dilapidated farm in the Mississippi Delta where the frequent rains strand them in acres of mud.

Their lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), who keeps house for the McAllans. They are joined by Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both returning from WWII Europe.

The veterans form a bond that riles Pappy, while Laura becomes infatuated with her brother-in-law – although unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she isn’t checking his shirts for lipstick, or taking her frustrations out on Florence.

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

This is an interesting projection, as – in what is a very long and slow movie –  writer-director Dee Rees seems to concentrate on the friendship between 6’2 leading man Hedlund, and quirky little character actor Mitchell, miscast as the noble Ronsel.

Rees keeps Jordan’s strategy of spreading narration between six characters, but Hedlund emerges as the hero. He’s more enlightened than his book counterpart – instead of being shocked by interracial dating, Hedlund leers: “Ever been with a white girl?“.

It’s a shame that, along with other splashes of dark humour, his drunken encounter with a hapless cow has been culled.

What the picture does achieve, despite its small budget, is a truly epic look, especially in the flashback scenes. We get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, which earned her the distinction of becoming the first woman to be Oscar nominated in the category.

Deferential Oscar voters also handed Blige a best supporting actress nod for doing little more than look dignified with her arms crossed, while Dee Rees earned an adapted screenplay nomination for turning a historical suspense into solemn prestige.

🏆 1/2

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

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

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

Yes, it felt like Star Wars. Like the OT, the sequels are funny (levity is actually good in a movie like this.)

The only thing I hated was Luke’s treatment. I understand from a franchise perspective he had to go, but did they have to make him so repulsive? The only way they could have made him more disgusting would have been to have him hit on Rey.

Still, I get the people bewildered by the backlash. Frankly, certain fans needed to get their heads out of their half-cocked theories.

Rey’s parentage.

Before TFA, I thought Padmé-lookalike Rey was Han and Leia’s kid (sadly for them, it was Kylo), and that Kylo was a Vader-obsessed loser (lol true) wanting to continue the bloodline with Rey (also true).

But trailers that hinted at Rey’s Skywalker identity were protecting the Ben Solo reveal. Just half an hour in, a guileless Rey turns to Finn and says: “Luke Skywalker! I thought he was a myth.” Neither Han nor Leia knew her, plus she had romantic tension with Kylo.

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

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

ren

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

But hey, there were people who thought Palpatine wasn’t Darth Sidious right up until Revenge of the Sith. This time around, 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!

‘Cousins fighting’ never struck me as having the pathos of duelling father and son, but those theories got entrenched.

Kill the theories

I’d buy a ticket for Episode IX for Driver’s performance alone. Abrams will be back, book-ending the trilogy, although anyone hoping he’ll overturn the Reylo romance, or make Rey a Solo might be in for future disappointment.

Perhaps there was some explanation for the Kylo-Rey connection held back from Jedi, but I’m not going to hold my breath…

There are only three theories I’m prepared to stick my neck out for – the good guys will win, there’ll be another incarnation of the Death Star, and fans will be vocally unimpressed.

On the Millennial mainline: Murder on the Orient Express

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

The word ‘remake’ provokes a knee-jerk hostility, and having just dodged the new BBC Little Women over Christmas, I was worried I’d caught the same faux fatigue. I’ve seen a stage play of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, and 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 seemed 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. There was a lot of online negativity around director-star Kenneth Branagh’s new blockbuster Orient; 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 pulled in by the promise of this gorgeous new production – which loses a lot of the mystery and suspense of the Lumet version, while upping the action.

David Suchet’s performance in the 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! 

The Last Jedi: Luke what you made me do

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

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

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

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

Leia had been through terrible losses too – her entire planet, her son, her…Han. Luke skulked off to let her deal with everything on her own. The Luke that millions loved would never have been so weak.

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

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

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

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

It’s not Luke’s story now. This is a franchise hoping to pick up new fans. Considering Luke looked like he last took a bath that night 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.

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

Um, so on that note,

xx —-Merry Christmas!—- xx