The Death Cure (2018)

death cure poster

The story that began with The Maze Runner (2014) reaches its conclusion with the delayed (after an on-set accident) final part of the trilogy. Can Thomas finally escape from WCKD’s attentions? Can a cure for the deadly Flare virus be found before the whole world is turned into zombies? Can I remember much of anything about the previous movies, or in fact the books they are based on?

To be honest, I went to see this for lack of better options, and an excuse to try out the new 4DX screen at my local cinema – that’s the one where the seats throw you about, air puffs at your ears every time a bullet is shot, and the occasional weird scent is wafted at you. Hmm. Okay, it did add a certain something to the whole experience, but striping away that novelty, the film underneath was just a bit… so-so.

I was desperately unimpressed with the middle installment of the trilogy, The Scorch Trials (2015), so there was no way I was going to rewatch it for the plot reminder – although I possibly could have done with it. Still, there’s not vast amounts that you can’t pick up – Brenda must have been bitten at some point, for instance, and Minho captured. Thus we begin with a reasonably action-packed rescue scene. Get used to it: the original movie was about escape, the second all about running away from various things, and now we have the rescuing everyone repeatedly.

It’s not a bad movie. It’s not great, either, although it is an improvement on the previous film. The acting is reasonable, it’s been made well enough and has some interesting and effective visuals. Ultimately, though, I think the story underneath just isn’t as strong as it thinks it is.

Released: 26th January 2018
Viewed: 27th January 2018
Running time: 142 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10


The Handmaid’s Tale (season 1)

handmaids tale poster

It’s been well over a decade since I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and over 30 years since it was first published) but the power of the story stayed with me. It was enough to make me a little cautious about this adaptation, too: both for the usual reason (what if it’s not well done?) and just the feeling of not wanting to go into too dark a place with my viewing. I’m so so glad I gave this a go, though, as it’s one of the best bits of television from 2017!

Set in a not-too-distant future, attacks on America’s government have opened the way for a new regime: a back-to-basics, fundamentalist Christian one, with more than a few ideas that are very unsavoury. The Handmaids, for instance: faced with plummeting birth rates, fertile females are rounded up, tagged, and sent to breed with the most powerful men – whether they like it or not.

The Handmaid of the title is June (Elizabeth Moss, perhaps best known from Mad Men), who we follow as she is ‘placed’ in the home of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) and his wife (Yvonne Strahovski, formerly of Chuck), expected to produce a child for them. You’d perhaps think that she’d be well treated in between times, given the importance of her role, but she’s a prisoner and an object, and treated accordingly. Still, nothing quite as awful as is revealed in the flashbacks, explaining how this bizarre and awful regime not only gets started, but how on earth it can continue.

Although massively shocking, I think there’s actually a little less graphicness on the screen than there was in the books, which is a bit of a relief to be honest. That said, there is more than enough here to make anyone feel powerfully uncomfortable – and that’s kind of the point. The kicker for me wasn’t the horrendous treatment of women – not just the handmaids, but all the women – which I was expecting from reading the book, but that as the series progresses and we piece together all the flashbacks, that there is a perverse kind of logic in how this new political systems starts. Tying in things like climate change brings the whole thing more into the present day, only adding to the oomph factor.

Add in fantastic performances from the entire cast, high production values, and some amazing if un-flashy visuals, and this was just compelling from start to finish. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger (as does the book, if I recall), but hurrah – we’re getting a second series! Bring it on!

First broadcast: May 2017
Series: 1 (renewed)
Episodes: 10 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

murder on the orient express poster

Famous detective Hercule Poirot has just solved yet another baffling case – the resolution of which we see at the start of this movie – but he feels weary and out of sorts. He’s a little love lorn, as it turns out, but generally just tired of being a famous detective. However, his planned vacation goes a little awry when one of the thirteen other passengers is murdered. Of course Poirot is called upon to use his skills: because they are now trapped on an avalanche-blocked train, high in the mountains, with a murderer.

I have absolutely no recollection of any previous adaptation of this, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous and lauded novels, which I have also failed to read. So, for me this was still quite the mystery, which really added to the experience – something that I’m not sure many viewers would have. However, I have a sneaky suspicion that I did at one time know the ‘whodunnit’, or the story was even less well handled as the who reveal was a little less than the stonking surprise it perhaps should have been.

That’s rather my general view of this movie: given the cast, the obviously generous budget, the pedigree of the material and the opportunity to put on the big screen something that hasn’t really been done for decades – why isn’t this just somehow better?

On the plus side, it looks absolutely gorgeous. The period detail, the scenery, the train itself – all wonderful. And yes, the cast is an amazing list of names to gather in one place: Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz… phew!! And, of course, director, theatre luvvy, and bearer of the most amazing moustache seen on screen this year, Kenneth Branagh.

And… that’s perhaps the problem. Or rather, Branagh himself might be. The movie gives so little time to any of these amazing actors, relegated to bit-parts and almost-cameos, that it’s hard to care as much as I think we should about their characters. Instead, we get a few too many self-indulgent moments with the great detective laughing oddly at Dickens, or sighing over a woman’s photo – trying, perhaps, to add complexity to his character when I’d suggest the detective should be the least well-rounded person in the story, to be honest.

So. Y’know, I’d still say go and see it. It’s lush and lavish, and the sort of thing I do rather wish they’d make more of. Okay, I’m a bit so-so on the idea of the end-of-movie hint at a sequel (it does bookend the story, which also starts with a different case), but I’d probably still go and see it, just for the spectacle. That said, I’m reliably informed that if you have fond memories of David Suchet in the role from back in the 1980s-90s, then this is going compare poorly. You have been warned!

Released: 3rd November 2017
Viewed: 6th November 2017
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6.5/10

The Dark Tower (2017)

Dark Tower poster

We seem to be living in a time when the old adage, “The book was much better”, doesn’t always apply. Fantasy in particular has come on in leaps and bounds, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones – we know that such adaptations can be, well, pretty darn fantastic. It’s a shame, then, that Dark Tower comes along to remind us that the transfer to the big screen is still a process fraught with dangers, and doesn’t always quite reach those dizzying heights.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I don’t have to look those words up. This is an opening line that is stuck in my head, opening an 8-book story that has near-mythical status for me. As a teen, finding two previously unheard of books (yes, I do predate the internet LOL!) by my then-favourite author was the stuff that dreams are made of (literally: I dream variations on this scenario to this day). That I had to wait eight years between books 3 and 4 puts even GRRM to shame! 😉

Roland Deschain is a gunslinger, one of Midworld’s peacekeepers (and more); in fact, the last gunslinger: his is a world that is slowing down and growing thin. But Roland has one last mission: to reach the Dark Tower, the nexus of all worlds, to keep it safe lest the whole universe collapse. Or, at least in this movie, to catch up to the Man in Black and get his revenge for the slaughter of everyone he ever knew.

A potted version of all this is sort of squeezed into the hour and a half of movie, and I think that’s the first disappointment: of all the richness of the world built up over eight books, we get to see so little of it. I was thoroughly baffled by the choice of focusing the movie on Jake (a youngster having dreams about the Tower et al) rather than on Roland (Idris Elba), and setting large chunks in New York rather than Midworld. Bah!

“One more time around the wheel, old friend.”

While Idris is his usual wonderful self (but who should definitely be getting meatier scripts!), and the lad playing Jake is thankfully largely unannoying, the real stand out performance for me was Matthew McConaughey as Walter (O’Dim? Paddick?), aka the Man in Black. Oozing menace, he flicks his fingers and commands people to kill, or simply to stop breathing, purely because he can. Of all the changes made from the source, throwing more of a spotlight on Walter was a good one, I’d say. Without spoiling anything from the books, he seems to have more of a continuity to his story, which was actually quite interesting to see.

What was less interesting, however, was the cliched “let’s destroy the world” plot. I just kept thinking about the line from Guardians of the Galaxy: why would you want to destroy the universe when you’re “one of the idiots that lives in it?” Argh!

Through the piece there are little nods to both the books and the wider Stephen King bibliography (not that the two aren’t entwined, of course!). Look out for the fairground attractions – Pennywise and Charlie the Choo Choo – or the graffiti urging us to “All Hail the Crimson King”, or the talking raccoons in the commercial (Oy!). I was in two minds about these: they’re somewhat pointless if you’re not a fan, but if you are then in a way they’re little reminders of all that we’re skipping.

I have a feeling I could waffle on about this movie, or at least the books, for another 90 minutes myself! So, let me summarise: The Dark Tower is absolutely not the huge mess that some earlier reviewers wanted to make it out to be. If you go in expecting a straight adaptation of the wonderful books, then you will be disappointed. If, however, you can view this as… a different way the story could have played out, perhaps… then it’s at the very least rather interesting. And if you’ve never read the books at all, then it’s still a decent if short fantasy-action flick telling a fairly self-contained story with some intriguing characters.

Personally, I enjoyed it despite the flaws. I wish there could be eight movies, to tell it all ‘properly’. But this little slice is a nice addition to the overall world, which I still hope to see more of from the rumoured TV series, even if it’s not with the great pairing of Elba and McConaughey.

Released: 18th August 2017
Viewed: 22nd August 2017
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian poster

Based on a French comic book, Valerian and Laureline, this movie sees these two Special Agents trying to save the titular City of a Thousand Planets – that is, a space station peacefully hosting hundreds of different alien species – from a mysterious threat.

Reviews have been pretty scathing about Valerian, and I would have to agree with most of them: the plot is both weak and convoluted, the acting is barely adequate, and even the title is insulting, leaving out the other main character who turns out to be probably more kick-ass than her male counterpart. Pfft. And as someone said: removing the painful attempts at ‘romance’ would have made for a far superior movie – it’s borderline creepy at points, tbh.

And yet, it’s still worth the watch. In fact, despite saying all of the above, I’d still go back to see it tomorrow – because it looks gorgeous. So yes, I can put up with a so-so plot and meh characters, and sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Knowing this comes from Fifth Element director, Luc Besson, perhaps explains some of the visual marvel. I don’t think this is anywhere near as good – mind, I do love FE – but it’s definitely going to be one I leave on when it’s on the telly, purely to look at.

The one part of the movie I did think they nailed absolutely is the opening montage. Perfectly accompanied by the wondrous Space Oddity (David Bowie), we see the next 800 years of human space exploration encapsulated in a series of meet’n’greets aboard the growing ISS. It’s a hugely touching reminder than humanity can be non-jerks, at times.

The rest drifts off a little into a series of semi-random adventures for Valerian (a wooden Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne and her power eyebrows), including a subplot about a dream that feels like it’s from a different draft of the movie. Still, there are some fun alien species along the way, some well-realised (virtual) sets including a marketplace in another dimension (the future of Amazon, perhaps?), and a pretty good score to keep the feet tapping.

Go in – as I did – with low expectations, and have a little fun!

Released: 2nd August 2017
Viewed: 9th August 2017
Running time: 137 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

American Gods (season 1)

I’d long thought American Gods was probably my favourite Neil Gaiman book, so an on-screen adaptation made me both excited and nervous. Would it translate from the page?

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison when his wife dies. As he tries to make his way home for the funeral, he’s repeatedly approached by the rather shady Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane) – who seems to know more about Shadow than he should. In Wednesday’s company, Shadow meets an array of very very odd… people. Some are keen to have Shadow turn against his new employer, others are – well, not exactly friendly, but at least not trying to kill them. Yet.

Meanwhile, somewhere in America… for every race that travelled to this melting pot of a country, another god made the journey with them. From fertility goddesses to djinn, the old gods are still there – but now there are new gods, too: media and technology, and more. So, who’s side are you on?

This was not an easy story to try to portray on screen, methinks, and as such full kudos to the production team for managing it so well. I’d recently reread the book in preparation for watching this, and mostly that did help a lot with understanding what was going on – there are more than a few strange parts that must have been utterly bonkers without that background. However, a few strands ARE changed – notably around Laura Moon, Shadow’s (ahem) dead wife – which did leave me scrabbling for just a little bit (I’m still not sure I understand the fly spray), especially as we hit flashbacks.

Overall, though, this is a tad bonkers but very worth the watch. The casting in particular is fabulous, with so many famous names and faces, including Gillian Anderson (in so many fab guises!), Emily Browning, Peter Stormare, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bersen, Kristin Chenoweth – I could go on! The range of deities and oddities on show is just as packed as the book, and I loved the way the ‘Somewhere in America…’ sections translated.

I’m disappointed that so little of the story could fit into one series, though, so ideally I’d love to have binged all – I dunno, three, six, ten or however many we’re going to get. Bring it all! 🙂

First broadcast: May 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 (and already renewed)
Episodes: 8 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 8/10

Big Little Lies (series 1)

“A perfect life is a perfect lie.”

Life in Monterey is pretty perfect. Great schools, great beach, gorgeous weather, gorgeous people. How irksome that Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has to deal with her ex and his new partner, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), having a daughter in the same class as her youngest. Her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) – gorgeous, filthy rich, and sickeningly still in love with her twins’ father (Alexander Skarsgard) – joins her in befriending newcomer and single mom, Jane (Shailene Woodley), especially after mutual ‘frenemy’, Renata (Laura Dern), starts a feud on day one of school.

So far, so mundane, right? Except, all of the above – and the bulk of the series – is actually told in flashback. In the ‘now’, we get snippets of police interviews, the other residents of Monterey sharing all the dirty gossip, all the little lies that led up to a shocking murder…

Ooh – can we say tension?! I freaking loved this TV show, not least because of the way the story is told, keeping you guessing right til the end the who, the how, and the why.

The initial draw had been that cast, and they are awesome. I’ve since heard interviews and the fact that these are ‘older’ (!) actresses getting super-meaty roles should not go unnoticed. Mostly I’m a plot person, and the edge-of-the-seat, need-to-know is still what impressed me most, but quite frankly those pitch-perfect performances, each with their own dark issues and web of lies surrounding them, would see me happily watch it all again even now I know the answers!

Now, usually I will choose to read the book before watching an adaptation, but for one reason or another I started the TV series first – but picked up the book a few episodes in. I’ll review the book shortly, but I have to say I love the way the story is subtly altered to ramp up the tensions even more.

It’s not exactly an easy, cheery, watch – this is one very dark show about all the secrets of marriages and relationships – but absolutely worth the time. And read the book, too – the alterations are a masterclass in storytelling, just as an added bonus!

First broadcast: March 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 so far, talks about a second series reported
Episodes: 7 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10