Aladdin (2019)

aladdin poster

I’m far from convinced about this plan to turn all the Disney cartoons into live-action movies. Beauty and the Beast (2017) sort of summed things up for me: not as good as the original, why did you bother? I ran screaming at the thought of sitting through Dumbo (2019), and the trailer for Lion King (2019) looks like a car crash, quite frankly. And yet, Aladdin (1992) is one of my favs from the House of Mouse, and so triumph or disaster, I was curious to see what they had done to it.

So, you know the story. Street rat and petty thief falls for the princess and winds up being used as a pawn by the evil vizier. But, instead of handing over the magic lamp he’s been tasked to steal, Aladdin ends up with a genie granting him three wishes. Can he improve his life, win the princess, yadda yadda yadda?

There are a few minor deviations in this new version. Princess Jasmine gets a new song and a 21st Century update, now trying to convince her father that a girl can be a ruler, not just a wife. I approve! It also felt very well done, imo, quite organically woven into the script and not just a tacked-on moment of ‘girl power’ (I’m looking at you, Endgame!).

The other big change that hits you the most is the loss of the wonderful Robin Williams as the genie. I can’t imagine anyone being brave enough to step into those shoes – but then, if it was going to be anyone, Will Smith makes a lot of sense. He’s been derided quite harshly for the role, but – perhaps going in with such low expectations – I actually think he manages pretty well. Still, it’s a little jarring mixing the genie we know with the Fresh Prince persona slipping through, and then a sweet if odd choice of adding in a crush on the princess’s handmaiden. Hmm.

Otherwise, it feels like the aim was to match the cartoon as closely as possible, and this might have been a flaw. The rooftop chase parkour looks like CGI not gone entirely right, and a few other scenes too end up looking cartoonish – and not in a good way, often running at a slightly odd speed or just looking juddery.

So… I dunno. It wasn’t awful, even while it wasn’t great. I was entertained enough but would rather watch the original. On the other hand, it was far more successful than e.g. B&tB, and more than I expected. I’m glad I quenched my curiosity, I’m mildly impressed that they translated as much of the animation as they did, and if nothing else, Friend Like Me and Prince Ali are fab songs – and Will Smith does them well.

Released: 22nd May 2019
Viewed: 8th June 2019
Running time: 128 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 6.5/10

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Holy Sister – Mark Lawrence

holy sister cover

“The roar of a crowd invades you like a living thing, reverberating in your chest, taking its answer from your lips without permission.”

(Usual warning: while I try to avoid spoilers, mentioning a character here could serve as a spoiler of who survives earlier novels. The series rocks – go start at book 1! :))

We’ve followed Nona Grey from a scrawny waif to a powerful fighter. But as her strength and abilities have grown, so too have the threats: the ice is closing the corridor, the Empire is under attack from both sides, and powerful people have personal grudges against ‘little’ Nona.

Holy Sister is split into two timelines, one picking up straight after the events at the end of Grey Sister, and the other three years later – so, echoing the jump in the previous book. The short story, Boundserves as a good little bridge between the two time periods, without being necessary.

At first I thought this style might be irritating, but it works really well. We know certain things have happened, but have to find out how. And in the later timeline – oh my goodness, there is so much to find out! This isn’t just a wrapping up of events, this is an explosion of everything! What the shiphearts might be, all about the focus moon, and of course: what kind of Sister Nona will choose to be.

Assassin nuns with magical abilities is a fab premise for a book. But the characters – Apple and Kettle, Nona and Ara, Abbess Glass – these make the story. And what a story – and what an ending! Definitely recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Book of the Ancestor book 3 (of 3)
Read from 16th April – 4th May 2019

My rating: 9/10

Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman

preludes and nocturnes cover

Graphic novels should, it feels, appeal to me a whole lot more than they do. As it is, I read so fast the artwork tends to get lost, and it’s tough to make myself slow down enough to savour it. It works, then, to go back for rereads – like this, of a series that I rather adore.

I love Neil Gaiman’s work anyway, but never more so than with his tales of the Endless: Death, Dream, Desire, et al. The first collected volume is wholly centred on Morpheus, the ‘Sandman’, the King of Dreams.

We start when a cult’s ritual to summon and bind Death (Dream’s big sister) goes awry, and it’s the dreamlord who ends up trapped in a bubble for decades. Meanwhile more than one world starts to fall apart. Fair enough to assume Morpheus will escape, but can he fix everything his absence has caused in the worlds?

And so we set off on an extremely dark and bloody tale that takes our hero to hell and worse. There’s no shortage of cameos, tying this into the wider DC universe: from Arkham Asylum and a few familiar inmates, to a certain John Constantine, and a character that would go on to spawn (pun intended) further comics and a whole TV series: Lucifer Morningstar (looking not very much like Tom Ellis, and a great deal like David Bowie, as it happens…!).

Talking of looks, the artwork… to be honest, doesn’t do a great deal for me here. It’s fine, but it’s not as special as my brain remembers or I think the series deserves. It does improve, but at this point in both the series and the decade, it’s all just a bit so-so.

The story, however, is where it’s at. Gaiman also draws heavily from myth, from Cain and Abel to the Fates, and much more. It makes a lot of sense that Dream is so key to story telling, and all stories are part of it. I love the interplay, the different strands, the way all these realities clash and combine.

Much as I adore the overreaching story (in 11 volumes or so) I’d have to agree with the author in his afterword that these opening chapters are him finding his feet. It’s only towards the end that I really felt we were starting to settle into the characters.

But, the best is very definitely still ahead, so well worth dipping a toe into the beginnings…!

Trade Paperback: 240 pages / 8 sections
First published: 1989
Series: Sandman book 1
Read from 31st March – 6th April 2019

My rating: 7/10 – and so much more love for the rest of the series

Bound – Mark Lawrence

bound cover

“‘So what, Nona Grey, is X?'”

This short story takes place between the events of Grey Sister and Holy Sister in the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. You don’t need to read it to enjoy the main series. Indeed, you’d need to be quite the fan to get this, as it’s quite costly for its brevity – I would have baulked totally if the rest of the series hadn’t come to me as review copies.

The aftermath of the events at the end of the former book aren’t described until flashbacks in book 3, but we pick up with the novices back in Sweet Mercy convent. Someone is poisoning the younger members of the Sis nobility, and Sister Kettle is determined to find out who. Who better than Ara to go undercover, back in the society role she left behind?

There’s nothing to dislike about this story. It deepens the bond between Nona and Ara that we’ve seen along the way, and explains a little more about ring fighter Regol’s place in the ongoing story.

That said, it’s a bit of an outtake in my opinion. You don’t need to read it for the rest of the series – and, that in itself detracts from the tale. Still, one for fans, and I am definitely that!

kindle: 49 pages
First published: 2018
Series: Book of the Ancestor book 2.5 (of 3)
Read from 17th-18th April 2019

My rating: 7/10

Grey Sister – Mark Lawrence

grey sister cover

“The dissolution of any monastery or convent is not something to be lightly undertaken.”

Red Sister was one of my favourite fantasy novels in years, so much so that when the final installment (Holy Sister) fell into my little paws I didn’t hesitate to go back for a reread before this middle installment.

Following the events from that first book, the surviving novices and sisters have returned to the convent of Sweet Mercy. But politics abound in the Empire, and Nona Grey has to face not only the trials of Mystic classes, but the hatred of a wealthy lord, the schemings of an emperor’s sister, and the horror of the Inquisition.

One of the things I loved about the first book was the world building, and the hints that things were more than they seem. Where are the four races from? Who are the Missing? We get a little more information about the shiphearts and the Arks here, but no real answers. More questions, of course! Foremost of those would be: who the heck is this Keot? The author even pre-warns us before starting the story that we’re not meant to know who he is, he has just ‘appeared’ since the first volume.

We also seem to have jumped forward a fair bit of time which felt a little jarring. Given the amount that happens in book 1, especially at the ending, it doesn’t feel right that the span from then to ‘now’ was so quiet – Keot aside. And to skip over all of his introduction… argh!

Some of the characters have changed, too, in ways that might have made more sense if the passage of time wasn’t so truncated. Kettle, for instance, is almost more friend than teacher now, which doesn’t not make sense, but still.

But, that all soon falls by the wayside as we are once again caught up in the politics and scheming of a world that is slowly being consumed by ice. Nona’s self-discover has led to much great confidence and some new fighting techniques, and if that at times felt a little Logan-esque to me the action still stays high and the intrigue abounds.

Of course there is an element of middle book syndrome, with most things already explored to an extent but no resolution. Still, book three is in my hands and started, so I won’t complain too much! It’s still very well written, intriguing fantasy, and I cannot wait to see where it’s going to end.

NetGalley eARC: 417 pages / 47 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Book of the Ancestor book 2
Read from 26th March – 15th April 2019

My rating: 8.5/10

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

thor 2 poster

Ah, don’t say I’m not good to you… this isn’t the worst chapter of the MCU, but it’s certainly not a high point. I’ve put off watching it so long I have 9 days and 13 movies left in my rewatch ‘Road to Endgame’. Well. Let’s see what we can do!

At the end of the first Thor (2011) (spoiler warning!) Thor and Jane Foster are separated by the destruction of the Bifrost. We pick up with both pining for the other. We also pick up Loki’s story, as the end of Avengers (2012) sees him returned to Asgard in chains.

But first, we get a little history and a voice over, about the Dark Elves and their desire to use an ancient, all-powerful substance called the Aether. Stopped by Bor, Odin’s father, the Aether is too powerful to destroy and is buried somewhere it will never be found… well…!

On the plus side, this movie gives us those ongoing stories, and a lot of very lovely visuals – including more of Asgard – and another of those Infinity Stones backstories (there is mention of stones, even if this one is a liquid-like substance). However, in also giving us more of fan-fav Loki (who apparently wasn’t meant to be in this movie, at least not so much) it dilutes the use of the new enemy, the Dark Elves, led by a very awkward-looking Chris Eccleston, so fresh from regenerating the entire series of Dr Who. Loki and his story are very good and very well done, but the film suffers majorly from the meh of the new race and its powerful weapon.

That said, as with so much of this series, it does benefit from being seen as part of the bigger whole, especially the character development of Thor and Loki, and even Odin. We get glimmers of humour that made Ragnarok (2017) my probably-favourite of the MCU when it’s allowed to come to the fore.

Able to view it like that it’s not as bad as all that, even though it was a bit disappointing at the time. In hindsight, though, there are a lot of little moments that will echo in future movies, so I’m glad of the rewatch.

Released: 30th October 2013
Viewed: 9th November 2013 / 16th April 2019 (most recently)
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Hellboy (2019)

hellboy poster

When the Blood Queen, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), first tried to usher in an Age of Monsters, it was King Arthur (yes, that King Arthur, as the voice over tells us!) and Merlin who stopped her. Unable to end her unnatural life, they settle for dismembering her and sending the caskets of her pieces (arms, head, etc) to be buried at the four corners of the world.

Rescued as a spawnling at the end of World War II and raised by Professor Broom (Ian McShane), Hellboy (David Harbour) is about to have his ‘teenage’ angst moment, wondering why he helps the humans kill the ‘monsters’, when he himself is so obviously part of the latter group. And of course, a sorcerous little voices isn’t shy of pushing that thought into his head…

This is a reboot of the Hellboy series, following two films starring Ron Perlman in the titular role. He was so good, even if the movies were a bit mixed, it was a tricky prospect thinking of anyone else stepping into those boots. In fact, I’d say David Harbour (previously the sheriff in Stranger Things) is one of the best things about this adaptation, capturing the look, the snark, the entire attitude.

Alas, reviews were not promising going in to this – but it does help having low expectations. It’s not actually bad, just a bit overly-busy and slightly odd in tone. It is, however, very comic-book-esque, which fits rather well with the source. I think that sways how people find the whole thing.

Still, it was far from perfect. It loses points from me because it rehashes the story I’ve already seen. I was going to say the fantasy-leanings were a bit fresher, but no, we’ve had faeries and goblins and that kind of thing in both of the previous attempts. Ho-hum.

Harbour was good, but the rest of the cast did very little for me except hurt my ears with atrocious, plummy and fake English accents. Why?! Although of course it’s tough not to like Ian McShane being very himself. His voice-over at the beginning is a high point, detailing daft fantasy things with a lot of swearing and a very non-fantastically sensibility (“They were call the dark ages for a f-‘ing good reason”).

Ah yes, the swearing. This is a 15 and they do seem to be going to town on the blood splatter and cursing to try and make the most of it. There were a few points that did make me wonder just how awful you’d have to get for an 18 rating.

So… yeah, and no. It wasn’t awful, by any stretch. I was plenty entertained. But I couldn’t say it was a good movie, or even the best they could have made. Disappointing? A little. But no regrets on having seen it.

Released: 11th April 2019
Viewed: 14th April 2019
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10