Alien: Covenant (2017)

The Covenant: a colony ship, heading to a remote planet to allow its cargo of 2000 sleeping colonists to start a new life. When it hits a damaging neutron field, synthetic life form, Walter (Michael Fassbender, once again the only interesting character in the whole piece), wakes the crew to help deal with the disaster. Shaken by tragedy, a mysterious signal leading them towards an even more inhabitable planet than the one they were aiming for seems like a dream come true. But given this is a sequel to Prometheus (2012) and a prequel to Alien (1979), the audience is more than aware that the dream is far more likely to be a nightmare…

I had low expectations and yet somewhat high hopes for this movie. I thought Prometheus was a horrible mess, confusing in its attempt to come up with some (un)godly backstory to the classic franchise, and executed sloppily from start to finish. Covenant surely couldn’t be any worse, right?!

Well…!! It seems like a lot of attention has been paid to the complaints from last time, so sure, this story is a bit less mystical and vague, and ‘woo’ – we have the classic xenomorphs back (I wasn’t *that* fussed, tbh!). Alas, every single other problem seems to have been ported across wholesale: crew I don’t care about in the slightest, thus making the peril they face less than gripping? Check. Clunky plot holes and/or events that fit the joining up of narratives more than logic? Check. Drippy Ripley-wannabe utterly failing to impress as Sigourney Weaver’s successor? Oh, triple check. Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

Set 10 years after the Prometheus went missing – although while the crew all seem aware of this fact in retrospect, they still all do the “It’s impossible that there’s human life out here!” without a single ‘what if…’ crossing their tiny brains – there is still a bit of a gap to explain what happened between the two. A few flashbacks attempt to bridge this, but I was still left with a sense of “Hmm, is that really likely?!” – even in fiction as wild as this, you still expect people to act like people, unlikely random coincidences to not happen every time, and a whole extra stage in a creature’s lifecycle not just to crop up because the first prequel skipped it but it needs to come back!

But, the bulk of the ‘now’ of the movie should make up for this, and while it’s not dreadful for a slasher-horror gore fest, I loathed the lazy ‘crew bonding’ device of making them all married to someone who gets picked off – so, oooh, we’re going to feel for them! Urm, no. Someone is killed off at the very start, but as we hadn’t even met the character at that point it’s really hard to care, and the hysterical spouse reaction is jarring until we get the explanation. Would the story have been any different if that character had survived? Not much. Yes, it changes the actions of another two characters but it just struck me as the laziest possible way to stimulate those motivations and ‘feels’. I don’t care for the obvious manipulation.

I will allow that this film looks gorgeous – the design has always been a very strong element with even the prequels. And, I will also allow that my own disappointment that this wasn’t better is leading me to be very harsh. But… meh. Something about this whole movie just struck me as reactive and a bit lazy, and overall desperately unsatisfying.

And yes, I will still go see the third planned prequel: I might be being harsh, but Covenant is better than Prometheus, so hope springs eternal! o_O

Released: 12th May 2017
Viewed: 12th May 2017
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 5/10 – disappointing

Inferno (2016)

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in hospital with no memory of the past few days – indeed, he cannot recall how or why he’s in Italy, never mind why someone might have been shooting at him.

Despite hallucinations and sensory overload from his head wound, it’s not too long before the Professor of symbology is dashing through Florence solving puzzle clues left by a madman – leading to nothing less than a plague that will wipe out half of mankind! Assisted by the lovely genius doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones, soon to be seen in Rogue One), Langdon chases puzzles based around Dante’s inferno – the poet’s defining vision of hell. Unable to remember or figure out who they can trust, can the duo prevent the apocalypse?

Having seen a lot of movies in a short space of time, this was easily the most disappointing. It does that usual thing of being very Big and Flashy, and ultimately hollow and not desperately satisfying. On the other hand, that sounds pretty much right for a Dan Brown adaptation 😉

What is done well:  the opening of the movie has a good stab at portraying the effects of head trauma, and the special effects showing Langdon’s hallucinations of Dante’s hell. These look pretty great on the big screen, although aren’t necessarily used as well as they could have been. Certainly, by the time we get to the end they’ve been shown so often as to have lost much of the drama.

The rest isn’t awful by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s all a bit ‘meh’ at the end of the day – the kind of movie that helps me see what some of my blockbuster-phobic friends have against this kind of soulless, big screen ‘movie of the week’ spectacle that ultimately manages to be borderline on entertainment only if you switch your brain off. And while I will argue with them massively over superhero movies, this one isn’t really worth the effort.

Overall: if you liked the first two, this one’s probably a little better. Maybe.

Released: 14th October 2016
Viewed: 15th October 2016
Running time: 121 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

Ben-Hur (2016)

Judah Ben-Hur is a pacifist prince in a Jerusalem being overtaken by Rome, until his adopted Roman brother, Messala, returns from the wars and falsely accuses Judah of treason. After 5 years as a galley slave, a shipwreck and chance meeting with a chariot racing team in town for the opening of the new ‘circus’ (arena) gives Judah a chance for revenge.

I’d suggest that the trailers for Ben-Hur have been quite clever in ramping up the action – that shipwreck, the iconic chariot race – and yet utterly fails to mention to the unwary that this is, in fact, something of a religious movie. Because there happens to be a local carpenter in the area, telling anyone who’ll listen that “love is the way”…! I wonder if this is the reason so many reviews are so dire?!

But then, the movie offers plenty of reasons to rate poorly anyway. The CGI is rather obvious, as is the tale of redemption being played out. That said, the action and tension are reasonably well handled – right up until the preachy last act, sort of glued on after that chariot race.

Ah yes, the chariot race. It starts well, but to be honest the tension just didn’t last for me as it kept going. The necessary speed of the thing goes from ‘wow’ to ‘wait, did it finish?’. It doesn’t help that the CGI is quite in your face, nor the knowledge that the 1959 version is one of the classic scenes of cinema, ever – and was pretty much just done for real. This? Meh, in comparison.

Overall, though, it wasn’t actually as dire as I’d feared. I do like Roman history – even if it is horrendously brutal (more in suggestion than gore on screen, right enough, but still a bit of a shock for a 12A). Still, the story isn’t really presented as well as it could have been given the scope, alas, making the raison d’etre of the piece really just those two big action scenes. Hmm.

Released: 7th September 2016
Viewed: 9th September 2016
Running time: 125 minutes
Rated: 12A but quite gory and violent

My rating: 5/10

Gods of Egypt (2016)

In ancient Egypt as portrayed in this movie, the gods have chosen to live among mortal kind, ruling them as kings. However, when Osiris decides to pass the throne on to his son, Horus, his brother Set decides he wants to rule all of Egypt, not just the barren desert. Blinded and defeated, it takes a cheeky mortal thief, Bek, to draw Horus back into the fight to save the kingdom from Set’s evil rule.

The biggest thing about this movie is the critical slating it received – wow, but did people hate this movie! I knew that going in, and thus am left in that awkward position of admitting I actually kind of enjoyed it 😉

Which isn’t to say that this is a good movie, or that it doesn’t have about a gazillion flaws. The story line is cliched, the casting is occasionally atrocious (the ‘white washing’ accusations generated a heap of apologies, but personally I mean Bryan Brown as Osiris and Geoffrey Rush as Ra – what?!), and I was stunned by how awful some of the CGI is. Given the scale and ambitions of the film, surely getting the effects right would have been a priority?! But no: I got the impression that they sunk the money in the finale, leaving the beginning looking very ropy indeed.

Special mention, too, to just not bothering with some of the basics: the gods are meant to be several feet taller than the mortals. Basic physics: when wading through water that comes up to a god’s knees, it should be probably about half-drowning the shorter mortal, not just at his knees, too. It’s just so sloppy!

But… you know what, I was in the mood to be entertained, and somehow I was. It helped that my expectations were low, and that I love Egyptian mythology. I also wasn’t too put out watching Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (aka Jaime Lannister) running around in a leather mini skirt for a couple of hours (although really, he could have washed his hair!) 😉 I know the casting was controversial on other levels, but letting the heroes be in their 40s actually slightly impressed me. Unlike the teenage-y ‘mortal’ character, who left zero impression. Hmm.

I’ll repeat: this is not a good movie. But it’s also not as awful as all that, and vaguely entertaining for popcorn fare if you’re in the right frame of mind for it.

Released: 17th June 2016
Viewed: 29th June 2016
Running time: 126 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10 – more enjoyable than the critics had it, while still being pretty dreadful in many regards!

Criminal (2016)

When CIA operative Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is killed in action, his employers gamble with an experimental medical procedure to recover his memories. Transferred into the head of sociopathic prisoner, Jericho (Kevin Costner), can the memories be recovered in time to complete Pope’s mission – stopping an anarchist from bringing down the world’s governments?

Criminal was a decent idea handed to a great cast, but sadly drowned in a poor script. The action is high (as are the violence and gore – I winced more than a few times!) and I was quite impressed with several of the performances. Costner’s character changes and develops a great deal over the film, and while I’m not a big fan, he handles it all very well. Reynolds may never be allowed to play so small a role again, after the success of Deadpool, but his presence adds a nice counterweight to what could have been mistakenly given to a lesser-known face.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast have been given rather shaky roles. Jordi Molla is a truly one dimensional baddie, which is just no good up against the increasingly morally unbalanced Jericho. Worse, Gary Oldman’s CIA chief does nothing bar shout and make horrendously poor decisions. Unfortunately, the plot hinges on the outcomes of those awful decisions and it becomes more than a little distracting. One ounce of common sense from the character, rather than irrational violence, and the story would have fallen apart. Argh!

Overall, then, this is gory popcorn fare – or should be, if we were only allowed to switch our brains off. Alas, the dreadful ‘science’ and unlikely character decisions stretch credulity wafer thin, which is a shame given some of the strong performances.

Released: 15th April 2016
Viewed: 22nd April 2016
Running time: 113 minutes
Rated: 15 with a lot of gore, violence, and swearing

My rating: 5/10

Cruel Crown – Victoria Aveyard

“As usual, Julian gave her a book.”

Cruel Crown comprises two short stories, Queen Song and Steel Scars, both prequels to the novel Red Queen, which kicks off the series of the same name.

The first, Queen Song, was my favourite by far, telling the story of Coriane, the King’s first wife. This chilling little tragedy is hinted at in Red Queen, and it was quite fascinating to hear the full dark tale. It also gives more background into Elara, a key player in the main novel.

The second tale, Steel Scars, didn’t impress me as much. It’s told by Farley, as she takes her first mission command as part of the Red Guard. There are hints as to why she joined, but not really the same character exploration, I felt, as the first tale. Starting before the events in Red Queen, it covers the period up to Farley’s introduction in the main novel. It also fills in a bit of back/side story between that and the end of the novel, but still felt rather slight and uninvolving. I also really disliked the ‘memo-style’ communication – I’ve always found it hard to slow down my reading enough to pay attention to such ‘to’ and ‘from’ type things, so find them irritating.

Overall, then, I’d give the first story 6/10 and the second maybe 4. For fans of Red Queen, these are nice little additions to the background, but nothing you have to read for the main narrative.

The version I read also included a sizable chunk of preview of the next book in the series, Glass Sword.

NetGalley eARC: 208 pages / 2 stories
First published: 2016
Series: Red Queen, prequels 0.1 and 0.2
Read from 19th-22nd April 2016

My rating: 5/10 for the pair, but the first one is definitely better than the second.

All Their Minds in Tandem – David Sanger

“Veterans: Are you fixing to forget?”

A mysterious man appears in a small town in West Virginia. Both seem haunted by the (American Civil) war, not so long over. As the stranger’s life mingles with those of the townsfolk – three sisters hiding their varying griefs, families torn apart by violence, the town bully and more – can his gift, the manipulation of memories, help them? And what of the strange doctor, the only man in town with too few memories – what dark secrets lie in his past?

I really wanted to like this book, it sounded so quirky and mysterious and the 1800s setting was a nice change (and fairly well done, I thought). But… it really was only ‘ok’, not great. The story never lives up to the promise of the blurb (“Twin Peaks in the 1800s” – just, no), rather meandering through the entangled lives of several of New Georgetown’s residents.

At first, the book is excellent at setting up various mysteries. Who is the strange figure above the bar, never seen but playing the most beautiful music? Why can’t the doctor remember his past? What dark family secrets sent the Marianne sisters’ uncle into seclusion in the woods? It’s not that these aren’t answered, mainly, but I just never felt the answers lived up to the initial hype.

It seemed to me like the author had a lot of ideas (possibly too many), a lot of (sometimes very cool!) images in his head – like the locomotive train rusting in the forest – that are introduced as if they will have great importance, but then never do. Why is the main character introduced as ‘The Maker’, a title which is dropped early on and never repeated or explained? We circle back to some events, sometimes via flashbacks, but overall the tapestry was just a little too loose for me – perhaps I’m expecting too much plot, when this is more of a ‘literary’ novel? Certainly the flowery language – more than a few rather overblown descriptions, alas – suggests that was the aim. Hmm, says I.

Either way, I do object to the biggest, climatic event seemingly happening at the three-quarters mark. This leaves quite a large chunk of novel tasked with not-really-tying-up some of the lesser ‘mysteries’. The ending is… well, I’ll go with partly satisfying, more than I was expecting given the oddness of the tone.

Overall: if it had lost half of the twirly descriptions and poetic meanderings, I probably would have enjoyed this more as a quirky little tale rather than a slightly over-long, possibly overly-ambitious, and ultimately a tad disappointing novel.

NetGalley eARC: ~464 pages / 42 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 21st-28th March 2016

My rating: 5/10