Joker (2019)

joker poster

From Cesar Romero through Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger, Batman’s Joker has gotten darker and less comic-book-y as a character. The more recent films featuring Batman (either Christian Bale, or Ben Affleck) have been getting grittier and darker each time. And then we have Joaquin Phoenix, in director Todd Phillip’s new take on the villain’s origin story – which I can only describe as, imagine taking away all of the comic book. Imagine looking for murky reality, a believable, real-world take. Which is what makes it so damn chilling.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) struggles with mental illness(es), with society, pretty much everything. His life is grim and filled with tragic pointlessness. We see him dressing up as a clown for work, only to be brutally beaten by a group of kids. We see the hellish weight-loss the actor went through, each rib on bruised display. We see every human interaction tinged with dismissiveness, or cruelty, or just a sense that things aren’t right.

I was in two minds about seeing this movie: was it glorifying violence? Using mental illness as a scapegoat? Hmm. But those elements certainly add to the disturbing nature of the film, the thought-provoking aspects of it all. And then there’s a performance and a half from the lead actor – as excellent as Ledger was with the character, the unwavering focus here allows for so much more.

I said thought provoking, and I mean it. There is something dangerous about a film that has a person snap and get his own back on all the bullies and horrible people – a sentiment you want to cheer, but not the degree to which it quickly descends. It skirts so close to verite, the backlash against the rich as the poor suffer so much – Thomas Wayne personifying this well, even though the Batman links almost took away from the movie for me. Is it fair to use Fleck’s mental illness as a background to it all – or is it the constant failures and disappointments that break him?

I’m still not sure there aren’t more issues with the movie than good points, but as art and only art – wow. Edge of the seat stuff, even knowing (mostly) how the character turns out. You are waiting to see how far things are pushed, how awful they will get, whether that line will be crossed from ‘entertainment’, not just on screen.

And still – utterly worth seeing. Joaquin Phoenix disturbed me, which was the point – but also because I strongly remember watching him as a child (when he took the name ‘Leaf’) in Parenthood, not much older than me, wearing every line on his face. I spent long moments thinking things were ‘off’, only to realise that yes, Arthur is an unreliable narrator. To be honest, there are a lot of parts of the film – the dancing, for instance – that don’t really ‘fit’, but somehow add to the character even if it’s just a visual awkwardness to match the personality. And, those moments allow a use of music that fits so perfectly, and the oddest moments – the all-over-the-net dancing down the steps, for instance – serve in lieu of the touches of humour we might expect from other ‘superhero’ movies.

It’s so not a superhero movie (which is why the Batman stuff didn’t work for me, I suppose), but as a backlash against the decades of superhero-fluff (even the ‘we’re much darker and more series’ ones), just… wow. Couldn’t have gone much further in the opposite direction! It’s a psychological drama, more Taxi Driver than anything else (almost too much, some suggest?). It’s not an easy watch, it’s not ‘enjoyable’ – but it’s powerful and haunting and worth watching just for the performance.

Released: 4th October
Viewed: 11th October 2019
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 9/10

Lost and Found – Orson Scott Card

lost and found cover

“Ezekiel Blast liked to walk to school alone.”

Ezekiel Bliss has an unusual ‘gift’: he is aware of lost objects around him, and has an urge to return them to their owners. Sounds useful, right? But who wants a stranger approaching them with a muddy scrunchie? And if someone approaches you with a valuable, lost item, how else could they have known it was yours unless they’d been the one to take it, right?

Shunned and mistrustful, Ezekiel plods through life as best he can, until the day a girl decides she’s going to walk to school with him. Soon they pair are caught up in a kidnapping case, and part of a research group looking into ‘micropowers’ – things like Ezekiel’s finding ability.

I’ll start by saying this: Lost and Found has nothing in common with OSC’s most famous work, Ender’s Game. The sci-fi element is as low-key as the micropowers being used and investigated, with the plot being centred more around the group – Ezekiel, Beth, FBI Agent Shank, and Mr Bliss – being pulled into the search for a missing child. However, the story is probably more about relationships and loss, and navigating life when you’re a bit too different.

I didn’t really know what to expect, and overall I wasn’t entirely blown away by the mystery or world-building – micropowers are interesting, but they aren’t really explained or deeply explored beyond being the central plot device. But I was sucked into the story almost from the get-go, mainly by the dialogue-driven character interactions. I liked that the grown ups are pulled into the quest, it’s not just the kids. And those kids are smart and self-deprecating, very not-annoying!

Overall, a decent read – nothing earth-shattering, but held my interest despite feeling vaguely familiar, either plot-wise or maybe just in tone – I couldn’t put my finger on it. But while I’m not branding it a ‘must-read’, it won’t disappoint if you do find yourself picking it up.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 21 chapters
First published: 10th September 2019
Series: none
Read from 27th-31st August 2019

My rating: 7/10

The Kingdom – Jess Rothenberg

kingdom cover

“One hour after the murder the room where they at last found him was so cold they wondered, at first, if he had frozen to death.”

What if Disneyland had a more Westworld kind of a thing going on? That’s the premise of this book. A magical Kingdom, where ‘hybrids’ are bred part machine part flesh, to reintroduce extinct species and provide a playground for anyone rich enough to visit. It’s more Disney visitor park than WW immersive, and there are only seven ‘Hosts’ – I mean, ‘Fantasists’ (I hated that word, btw) – all female, as apparently the male versions were ‘too unsettling’.

Our story follows one of these android Princesses, Anna. It’s told in a similar way to Big Little Lies, starting with courtroom transcripts before the main tale is told in flashbacks as we discover who has died, and why. Slowly, Anna’s perfect existence is shown to unravel at the edges: is their safe haven more of a cage? Is someone messing with their data files? Is there a bigger conspiracy going on than Anna can imagine?

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the read, but as the references above show, it all just felt like a mash up of several other ideas. Heck, the author even uses the phrase “Violent delights have violent ends” – yes, it ties in well with the Romeo and Juliet theme (being originally from that play, before being used in Westworld) that is rather clunkily thrown in (I get it, it’s from Anna’s point of view, but still meh), but it really only highlights what felt like a lack of originality.

I could forgive that more easily if the story did anything new or exciting or just wowed me in any form. Instead, it never felt like it rose above its derivativeness, for me, and the weakness of the ending only confirmed that feeling of ‘meh’. It’s not a dreadful read by any stretch, but nothing hit any high notes for me at all – if you’re less familiar with those inspirations, then your mileage may indeed vary.

NetGalley eARC: 352 pages / 68 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 7th-14th July 2019

My rating: 6.5/10

The Taking of Annie Thorne – CJ Tudor

taking of annie thorne cover

“Even before stepping into the cottage, Gary knows that this is bad.”

Joe Thorne is back in his childhood town. Nothing’s changed; everything’s different – mainly Joe. As his lies – his resume, his gambling habit, his very reasons for being back – start to unravel, slowly, through the course of the novel, we start to find out about all the dark things that happened in Joe’s past. What he and his friends found in the abandoned mines. What happened to his little sister…

The Chalk Man was a standout read for me last year before (where is time going?!). TToAT is similar enough to appeal to fans of that book, using a similar flashback structure, but not slavishly following the same pattern. We still have the dark past, the childhood horrors. This time I’m reminded not of IT and The Body, but other works of Stephen King: Desperation and Pet Semetary. And yet, these are not copies or pastiches, so mentioning those inspirations isn’t giving away as much of the story as you might think.

Joe is not the most likeable of characters, and yet he is. The gambling and drinking problems add a very dark element – in a way, even more so than the ‘horrors of the pit’. That, I think, is where CJ Tudor’s work appeals to me a little more (these days) than King’s: the psychological horror rather than the supernatural, the deeper look into a person’s thoughts.

I’m going to say the book is creepy rather than out and out horror, but there are tinges of both. I am absolutely going to use the word ‘unputdownable’ – after a Saturday morning read in bed, I was disappointed not to be able to go back to the book later that evening, but also utterly unwilling to creep myself out before sleep! So I ended up reading the last 40% (!) on Sunday morning, in one go!

The ending is satisfactory rather than outstanding, but the entire story is well crafted and well written, and well worth the read.

NetGalley eARC: 352 pages / 38 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 5th-10th February 2019

My rating: 8/10

A Simple Favour (2018)

A Simple Favour poster

Single mom Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) has a seemingly perfect life: bubbling with energy, running half the school committees, and host of her own cookery vlog. But one day she meets fellow mom Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) and finds a new level of ‘perfect’. Which woman has it better? Perhaps their growing friendship – however odd Emily seems – might have improved things for both women, until the day that Emily disappears.

I absolutely loved this movie, despite a few inconsistencies in tone. The beginning and end are definitely black comedy, but in the middle things just get a fair bit darker and less fun. There are twists I did and didn’t seem coming, but through it all I was completely engrossed.

There was something here that made me think, too. The two ‘perfect’ lives are of course anything but, and the slow reveal of secrets is very well done. That said, it’s easy to see why Stephanie finds Emily so inspiring – I, too, was eyeing up Blake Lively’s wardrobe and music tastes and overall chicness, and thinking ‘wow’. Ironically, on-screen hubby isn’t quite up to Ryan Reynolds standards, but amusingly enough her tipple of choice is Aviation Gin…  😉

This is one to see without spoilers, but definitely one to see, I reckon. Like the character’s lives it’s not quite perfect, but it’s a cleverly done thriller with eye candy to spare.

Released: 20th September 2018
Viewed: 23rd September 2018
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 9/10

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

mission impossible 6 poster

The sixth installment in the Mission: Impossible movie franchise sees Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and crew (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg) once again facing a world-threatening situation. This time, however, the CIA have sent in a ‘minder’, in the form of a mustachioed Henry Cavill (this being the reason behind the truly awful de-facial hair CGI in Justice League), who has instructions to terminate Hunt should he turn rogue. Which seems highly sensible if you’ve seen any of the previous movies.

I do enjoy the grand spectacle of these movies, and you could never suggest they’re anything less than well-made and sufficiently budgeted for some spectacular action sequences.

However… something about this just didn’t click in quite the same way as the previous installments. I’m not quite sure what it was – almost, perhaps, the little hints of seriousness overwhelming some of the daft fun I was after? I also found it all over-long – 2½ hours, really? – most of which wasn’t necessary for the plot, slight and nothing too novel as that was.

That said, I still enjoyed the whole thing ‘enough’. You can’t fault the effort and work that goes into making these, and it’s doing its best to have a bit of heart and not just be a mindless action movie.

Released: 25th July 2018
Viewed: 31st July 2018
Running time: 147 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Summerland – Hannu Rajaniemi

summerland cover

“Rachel White flung the cab door open, tossed the driver a banknote and dived into the rain.”

England, 1938. The war is over, but not the way our reality had it. In this version of events, death is no longer a closed door. Instead, we can see through the windows to ‘Summerland’, send messages, maybe work out ways to have visitors once in a while…

The real-world branch of the British intelligence services is now known as the Winter Court. Even in these hallowed halls it’s not the best time to be a woman, as Mrs Rachel White knows well. When one of her missions goes awry, her gender is used against her and she finds herself in the typing pool. But a highly trained, accomplished spy treated so poorly is surely ripe pickings for the other side to turn…

I’ve been meaning to read some of Hannu Rajaniemi’s work for ages now – I’ve got his Quantum Thief trilogy on my shelves (well, in boxes right now, as I’m moving!), and in fact I know some of his colleagues at Edinburgh Uni. So when this stand-alone title popped up on Netgalley, I jumped at the chance!

And if I’m being honest, I was just a tad disappointed. The world-building is excellent with lots of cool ideas about how the ‘afterlife’ might be and how it could interact with our reality. There are also some intriguing hints of how this kind of revelation would affect people’s minds, and of course how history diverts along with the discoveries, using real historical figures alongside the fiction. The fairly standard, Le Carre-esque Cold War spy thriller is lifted with those hints of the fantastical.

However, I never really clicked with any of the characters somehow, and I think that left me a little less engaged with the book that I would have liked. Rachel was meant to be the key character, she was likable enough and wasn’t putting up with being treated like a 1930s housewife, but… hmm. It possibly didn’t help that half the time we followed someone on the other side of the spy game, and he came across as something of an over-privileged school boy toff of the kind I cannot stand.

I’m still very much looking forward to backtracking to Quantum Thief – the writing here was good – and despite my so-so feelings on this one I’d certainly want a look if more of this world appears on the page.

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 24 chapters
First published: June 2018
Series: none
Read from 12th June – 14th July 2018

My rating: 7/10 – well-written, intriguing concept, but I didn’t quite click with it all