Split (2016)

“Kevin has 23 distinct personalities. The 24th is about to be unleashed.”

I confess, I spent the first few minutes wondering if I was in the right movie screen – no James McAvoy, unless one of his distinct personalities really looks like a teenage girl. Serves me right for trying to know as little as possible about the film before going in, as it turns out this is as much a kidnap horror/thriller as it is a psychological drama – or is it a bit of a supernatural something-or-other? Knowing that the director is M. Night Shyamalan (6th Sense, The Village, Unbreakable, etc) might give you a few clues…

Perhaps with better expectations I might have liked this movie more. Certainly, McAvoy gives a strong set of performances, easily distinguishing between his different personalities and oozing menace, when appropriate, or childlike innocence at other times. There’s a lot to find fascinating in exploring disassociative identity disorder – which unfortunately this movie only touches on the edges of.

For me, both the thriller and supernatural elements rather took away from giving any real ‘meat’ to the psychology. Three genres is just too many; none get to really shine, and indeed I felt by the end that they were treading on each other’s toes, so to speak – one providing a lazy get-out for another, etc.

Biggest flaw, though, was the ending – or rather, lack of. As the story started to come to a climax, I had at least three different ‘guesses’ on what we might get thrown at us. I don’t mind that I was wrong – in fact, that’s best! – but I didn’t feel we then had any kind of proper resolution.

Not awful, definitely watchable, but largely disappointing.

Released: 20th January 2017
Viewed: 27th January 2017
Running time: 118 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6/10

Nerve (2016)

Are you a Watcher or a Player? Watchers pay to watch the Players take on dares, in this game which is like Truth or Dare without the truth. Kiss a stranger, try on a $4000 dress… but as the dares get crazier the urge to break the one rule – don’t tell! – gets stronger. And then… well, you’ll have to watch to find out!

In my weekend of binge watching movies at the cinema, Nerve ended up being the stand out film. My expectations weren’t high, and yet it impressed me: yes, skewed towards a more teenage audience, but then that urge to do something drastic to shake your life up never really goes away, I reckon.

The quiet little girl needing to become more adventurous is Vee, played by a doe-like Emma Roberts, with Dave Franco helping her navigate the world of the Nerve game. They make a charming enough pair, although Roberts felt a little whiny as the stakes get higher. What surprised me more was the story telling hangs together better than I would have expected, allowing the showy on-screen graphics (simulating the tech world) to impress rather than be the only substance.

I found Nerve a pleasant surprise: a well-thought out near-future (if you watch closely, you’ll see the clue that it’s 2020, as well as a cheeky headline about Franco sibling the senior ;)) and good levels of tension, while at the same time a rather damning cautionary tale about social media and anonymous internet interactions dulling our humanity. Worth the look.

Released: 11th August 2016
Viewed: 28th August 2016
Running time: 96 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

Mechanic: Resurrection (2016)

Okay, I confess: trashy action movies are my guilty pleasure. You know going in that you aren’t about to get Shakespeare, but there is a good chance of a whole lot of butt-kicking fun! And in the list of action heroes, Jason Statham generally amuses me, neither taking himself too seriously (or at all, in the marvellous Spy) or crossing the line into silly, and generally looking believable with the kicking and punching and the overall meanness.

I have only vague recollections of the first Mechanic movie (it had Ben Foster in it, and a record player) but it really doesn’t matter. M:R is just A.N.Other action flick, maybe a touch of backstory from the previous installment, but it’s all laid out for you anyway and largely irrelevant.

What we’re left with is: old frenemy turns up and using his not-real-but-sort-of-real affection for Jessica Alba, manoeuvres the Stath into carrying out three ‘impossible’ assassinations, each having to look like an accident. But hey, it’s okay: pains are taken to point out how morally unpleasant the victims are. Cue the MacGyver-ish assembling of nifty tools of destruction, some gravity-defying stunts, and a lot of behind kicking.

There’s not a lot else, apart from the huge disappointment that Jessica Alba is clearly there only for the lingering shots of her behind walking into the sea. Her character is former military, and yet manages to need rescued repeatedly, being too delicate not to be easily overpowered by every bloke who grabs her wrists. Hmm. Tommy Lee Jones gets a nice just-more-than cameo role, but otherwise this is The Stath doing what The Stath does – churlish to complain about that, but the framework is just a bit too flawed for me.

Released: 26th August 2016
Viewed: 27th August 2016
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 4/10 – Stath doing what Stath does, but the woeful female character loses it big points

End of Watch – Stephen King

“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

In Mr Mercedes we met retired detective, Bill Hodges, and serial killer, Brady Hartfield. Then, in Finders Keepers, we follow the adventures of Bill and his new partners in anti-crime with a new case to solve. Right at the end, though, we get a glimpse of Mr Mercedes again, and a hint of the plot to this, the third and final installment in the trilogy.

To say it’s the strongest of the three, possibly, still isn’t saying too much. I rather get the impression that neither of the previous installments did so very well (in King terms; I imagine they still sold bucketloads), being somewhat pedestrian crime/mystery books and not the unsettling horror for which King better known. The solution? Throw a supernatural element into the final installment – and yup, it felt to me like the author was back on more familiar ground, a little more assured with the plot structure.

I was actually disappointed by the hint of this at the end of book 2, but actually it works well enough, with added ‘people drama’ from the lives of the main cast to round out the story. Classic King this is not, but it was an enjoyable enough read, albeit not one that’s going to linger with you for long.

Hardback: 354 pages (several subdivided parts, plus ‘interludes’)
First published: 2016
Series: Bill Hodges trilogy book 3
Read from 3rd-10th August 2016

My rating: 6.5/10 – disposable beach read

The Fireman – Joe Hill

“Harper Grayson had seen lots of people burn on TV, everyone had, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.”

No one knew why the tattoo-like marks started to appear on people’s skin: intricate swirls of black and gold. But it’s a deadly beauty: from ‘Dragonscale’ to smoking (and we’re not talking cigarettes!), and then a plague of human combustion.

Harper is a school nurse, but as the Dragonscale takes hold of the population civilisation goes into emergency mode. She spends her days volunteering at the hospital encased in a hazmat suit, but is that enough to protect her? If the worst happens, though, her husband has a plan…

The Fireman is a sprawling look at the end of the world (probably), as this infection grips hold of the population. And, suffice to say, it’s not just the spore that can be deadly. The big strength of this book is probably the way it shows human nature: fear, hope, survival, and even pettiness creeping in despite the horrors being faced.

This is my first experience of Joe Hill’s writing, and my impression is that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree – Hill, of course, being the son of horror master Stephen King. I could easily imagine The Fireman having come from King-the-elder’s pen: the slow build, the focus on the human stories amid catastrophe and chaos. The Stand  is a book that sprung to mind, thematically at least, while almost all of King’s later works have had that same achingly slow description of ‘normal’ life woes amid the horror.

Which… is both a strength and a weakness, including here. Yes, it can let you really understand and feel for the characters. And yes, it takes the book out of the shock-for-the-sake-of-it pace, allowing petty (that word again) horrors – generally the people kind – sicken the reader even more than the pandemic.

Other advanced reviews of this book have been absolutely glowing with praise, and I get that. But, while I can appreciate the book, and did enjoy it, I just didn’t love it. The pace irritated me a little (I felt I needed a break halfway through – from the length of the book, and the unswervingly grim and tense mood). I didn’t actually come to care for the characters much, despite spending so much time with them, which was kind of ‘hmm’. And, for such a long book, I didn’t really feel I was reading anything new in the story – as I said, reminders of some of ‘dad’s’ work, and of another book dealing with a fungal spore pandemic, which a few years back surprised me in ways this just didn’t.

It took Mr Hill 4 years to write this book, and I’m a little sorry I couldn’t love it more. I’m still planning on trying some of his earlier works, though, as the writing is strong. As it is, I can appreciate the time and effort that’s gone into it, and it stands as an impressive enough, solid piece of work – but, maybe just not as great as I expected  or hoped for.

NetGalley eArc: ~768 pages / 145 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 16th-30th May 2016

My rating: 6/10

Money Monster (2016)

Money has become nothing more than a series of 1s and 0s flowing through computers. Just a stream of data, zipping through the ether – at least until a ‘glitch’ hits the network.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the OTT host of a stock market daily tip show, introducing his hyped up suggestions with ridiculous bump’n’grind dances, entertaining the masses with a larger than life personality, and generally making his producer Patty’s (Julia Roberts) life difficult. But Lee’s life is about to get a whole lot more difficult, too: when his ‘safer than the bank’ stock plummets, wiping $800 million of bits off that computer data, one unlucky investor shows up in the studio. He has a gun, and he wants answers.

Money Monster is a taut, realistic drama. There is action and sooo much tension, but it never blows into melodrama. There are also a surprising number of laughs – again, in a realistic way, arising without set up and eliciting real belly-laughs from the unsuspecting audience.

The performances are excellent, particularly Clooney, willing to make himself a rather sad and ridiculous case. His platonic chemistry with Roberts is lovely to watch: a mature (well…!) working relationship, no silly romance shoe-horned in. Jack O’Connell rounds out the main trio, playing the lost and ruined gunman hit by one blow too many in a life already full of failure.

There’s nothing extra-flashy – save the cast list, perhaps – here, nothing shoved into the story to make it ‘more exciting’ in the Hollywood way. Props to director, Jodie Foster, for a keen eye for the reality of a story being all that’s really needed.

Released: 27th May 2016
Viewed: 27th May 2016
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

John Le Carré adaptations have been with us since the sixties, on and off, with most of us just not realising it. A Most Wanted Man (2014), The Constant Gardener (2005), and the wonderful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are all from Le Carré works. However, the name has become something of flavour of the month ever since the BBC’s The Night Manager, so I think this new cinema offering will do well off the back of that.

And, in many ways, it deserves to. There’s an excellent cast, from Ewan McGregor and Naomi Harris as the couple trying to overcome some relationship troubles, to Stellan Skarsgård playing ‘close enough’ Russian sort-of bad guy, and Damian Lewis as a posh British intelligence worker (amusingly, the usually posh Mark Gatiss goes all ‘northern’, which rather distracted me). All of the performances are very good.

The plot also has promise. Russian mob accountant, Dima, suspects the writing is on the wall for him and his family as he’s forced into signing financial control over to the old boss’s son. Approaching McGregor’s lone British holiday maker in a restaurant one night, he’s soon asking for a favour: take this information to ‘your MI6’, tell them there’s a deal to be made.

Of course, nothing goes quite to plan, with the stakes growing more and more desperate. Can the Russian save his family? Can the government man convince his bosses they should help? And just how far is the ‘everyman’ willing to go for strangers and spies?

Everything sounds like the perfect set up for a great thriller – and that’s where this movie fall down for me a little. It’s not all that, well – thrilling. It is extremely well made, looks gorgeous, ticks all the right boxes – apart from that one: I never felt surprise during the events. Which is kind of a flaw given the genre.

That said, I actually did enjoy this. There was no edge of seat feeling, but it was still very slickly done. A decent watch for any night of the week, although just as well on TV as the big screen, to be honest.

Released: 13th May 2016
Viewed: 13th May 2016
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6/10 – it’s not showy and there are few surprises, but it’s done with style