Film Review: Knives Out (2019)

This film was released to stellar reviews, both from critics, and many bloggers. I didn’t much like the sound of an ‘Agatha Christie-Style’ film that wasn’t actually written by Agatha, so waited until it arrived on TV (Film 4) to watch it. I finally got around to doing that last night.

Now I have to say that I rarely turn off a film before the end. I am usually happy to give even the most disappointing film its full running time, in the hope of being proved wrong. So if I tell you now that I turned this off after 45 minutes of its 2 hours+ running time, you are already getting some idea of how this review is going to go.

Let’s examine this in detail.

Stellar cast.

Daniel Craig.
Christopher Plummer.
Jamie Lee Curtis.
Chris Evans. (Who?)
Joseph Gordon Levitt.
Toni Collette.
Michael Shannon. (Great actor)
Don Johnson.
M. Emmet Walsh.
Frank Oz.
And many more…

Written and directed by Rian Johnson. (No relative, never heard of him. Have you heard of him?)

What could go wrong?

Well the first thing that could go wrong is that Daniel Craig plays an American private detective called ‘Benoit Blanc’. Someone decided that this actor, who is from England, should play Benoit with a ‘Southern American’ (as in New Orleans) accent. That fell at the first hurdle, so completely ruined the film. In the same way that Dick Van Dyke’s ‘London’ accent completely ruined ‘Mary Poppins’.

Daniel Craig might be an accomplished actor in many roles, but accents are not his forte. And a deep-south American accent was one too far for his talents.

After that, someone gets killed, everyone else except Benoit is a suspect, and after listening to his accent for 40+ minutes, I turned off this lamentable film.

That’s it. That’s the review. It is bloody awful, and if you liked it, I must have been watching a different film.
Here’s a trailer.

If you want to see Agatha Christie done properly, watch this instead.

Film Review: The Sisters Brothers (2018)

***No final plot spoilers***

It has been some time since I watched a western, but this one was on TV with no advertisement breaks, and the cast list appealed to me. This is an adaptation of a novel. I haven’t read the book, so will not be commenting if it is true to the original story.

1851, and the Gold Rush is in full swing on the west coast of America. A powerful and mysterious man, known only as The Commodore, sends two hired killers on a mission to find and kill a man named Warm. They are the mis-matched brothers named Eli and Charlie Sisters.

Meanwhile, The Commodore has engaged the services of a well-spoken and efficient private detective. His name is John Morris, and he is on the trail of Warm, so he can find him and hold him captive until the brothers arrive to do the dirty work. Warm has a secret chemical formula for identifying gold under water at night. The Commodore wants Eli and Charlie to torture the chemist, write down the formula, and then kill him.

So the quest begins.

We soon discover that Charlie is a quick-tempered drunkard, who is ready to cause trouble and shoot off his gun at every opportunity. By contrast, older brother Eli is a relatively gentle person, pining for his beloved schoolteacher, who he had to leave behind in their home town. Morris finds Warm and pretends to become his friend, waiting for the opportunity to detain him pending the brothers’ arrival.

But they are delayed by all kinds of obstacles. One of their horses is attacked by a bear, and while sleeping one night, Eli is bitten by a huge spider, almost dying from the poisonous bite. When they finally arrive at the rendezvous in Jacksonville, they learn that Morris and Warm have teamed up, and fled to the gold fields. In the next town, they are betrayed by a conniving female saloon-keeper, and have to shoot their way out to freedom.

When they finally catch up with the chemist and the detctive in the California gold fields, things do not turn out as the viewer might suspect.

So, back to that casting, which made me watch the film in the first place.

John C Reilly is the older brother, Eli. Always a reliable actor, and completely convincing as the ruthless killer with a warm heart inside. His brother Charlie is played by Joaquin Phoenix. I can often take or leave that actor, and in this film I didn’t think it mattered who played the brother. Being aggressive and acting drunk has been done by many before, and some have done it better.

British actor Riz Ahmed plays the chemist, Warm. Again, he does a good enough job, but I could have thought of a dozen others who would have done it just as well. Rutger Hauer, near the end of his life, has a mere cameo role as The Commodore. His longest scene is in a coffin, so his talent was rather wasted.

It turned out to be Jake Gyllenhall who stole the film for me, a close second to John C Reilly. His erudite detective was a compelling character portrayal, and I would have liked to have seen even more of him in that film.

Full marks for historical accuracy too. From the saloon interiors, the costume department, and even the weapons used by everyone totin’ a gun.

Cinematography was first rate, as the film is undoubtedly ‘photographed’. It is a film of two halves in many ways, and the second half is far superior to the first. So, stick with it, and you will be rewarded by the latter section. By the way, the soundtrack is really good!

Far from being a landmark film, but better than many I have seen in the same genre.

(The first 25 seconds of this trailer is intentionally dark)

Book Review: Sisters Of Shiloh

Some years ago, I bought a used hardback copy of this book. It is set during the American Civil War, a period that interests me. I decided to keep it in the car, something to read when waiting for things. Things like hospital appointments, a wife on a shopping trip, or being too early when arriving at the Doctor or the Vet.

It took some time to get even one third of the book read in that way. Not that there was anything bad about it, I just wanted to keep it handy in the car. Last week, a four-hour wait for my brakes to be replaced on the car provided the perfect opportunity, and I finally finished reading it.

This is the story of two sisters, as the title suggests. Beginning with their teenage years in Virginia, we see the younger sister Libby fall in love with Arden, much to the annoyance of Josephine, who doesn’t like the man at all, and is going to miss her now married sister. One month after the wedding, the civil war begins, and Arden joins the Confederate Army, assigned to Stonewall Jackson’s brigade.

As the fighting intensifies, they hear of a battle in nearby Maryland. Jackson’s brigade has been involved, and the talk is the fighting was bad, with heavy casualties. The sisters travel to Sharpsburg, (also known as the Battle of Antietam) the scene of the battle. On the grisly battlefield, Josephine fnds Arden terribly wounded, and by the time Libby joins her, he has died. In a rage, Libby cuts off her hair, and vows to join the army, to kill Yankees in revenge for her husbands death.

Fearing for her sister’s safety, Josephine does the same, and they volunteer for Jackson’s brigade, pretending to be young boys who are cousins. They call themselves Thomas and Joseph, and are readily accepted as recruits, due to the need to replace all those recently killed in battle.
(This may sound like a stretch, but it is worth noting that there are many contemporary examples of this happening, on both sides.)

The writing excels in the small details. The problems the girls face in concealing their gender from the rest of the troops in their unit. The harsh weather conditions of extreme heat and cold, with poorly-clothed and underfed soldiers having to undertake long marches then go straight into battle. The day-to-day routine and boredom of life in camp between campaigns, followed by the edge of the seat tension as the sisters find themselves on the firing line in the midst of some of the biggest battles of the civil war.

Along the way, one sister finds love, the other still searches for revenge and peace of mind. They argue, they make up again, and most of all, they display that unbreakable bond of family love, and specifically the unselfish love between the sisters Libby and Josephine that sees them through the worst times imaginable.

This is more than a war story, and much more than a love story. It is a great read, and highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction.

Film Review: Venom (2018)

**No Spoilers**

I don’t usually watch any films associated with the Marvel franchise, but this one was on TV. Tom Hardy is in it, and so is Riz Ahmed, both excellent British actors. So I recorded it, and then forgot about it.

Then last night, Julie went out with a friend, so I flicked through the recordings on the PVR and decided to give it a go.

This will be a short review.

A wicked businessman is funding space explorations. He discovers aliens, and brings them back to carry out experiments using their tissue.
(Which looks a lot like fast-moving congealed spaghetti, in various colours)

Some of his test subjects die, but others get super powers.

Tom Hardy plays a hard-hitting investigative reporter who gets fired for an aggressive interview of Riz Ahmed’s wicked businessman, losing his girlfriend in the process.

At some point in the film, Tom becomes infected. He survives, and is now host to an alien that speaks to him in English, and is able to take over his body when it likes.

Cue a great deal of CGI and special effects, a lot of chasing around, and few bad people getting their heads bitten off by the alien.

You can guess the rest.

If you like this kind of thing more than I do, and don’t mind actors of great talent wasting their time to earn the big bucks, here’s a trailer.

Outside: Serial Overview

My recent fiction serial ‘Outside’ concluded last Saturday, and as usual I am presenting an overview of how it was received, and the writing process, for anyone who might be interested in such things.

It was about Sudden Onset Agoraphobia, featuring a young woman named Gillian who dealt with the grief of losing her mother by refusing to go outside, and becoming a recluse.

She started a blog, but soon became disllusioned with the lack of engagement. However, one of her blog followers attracted her as a friend, another woman in a similar situation that she could relate to. Unfortunately for her, this turned out to be a man, using deception to gain information about Gillian for nefarious purposes.

This serial was well-received from the start, with negligible drop-off of readers. As the story became much darker, a couple of you told me that you would not be continuing to read it. Naturally, I completely understand that.

Unlike some other serials, there was a remarkable consistency of views for each episode. Allowing a week for some bloggers to catch up or batch-read, stats showed 121 views of each epsiode right up until part thirty, when it dropped to 119. Based on that, I think the total views for all thirty-five parts will be close to 4,225.

Comment engagement was very encouraging. Many readers expressed concern for Gillian, and others tried to guess what might happen in future episodes. As the writer, this aspect of posting a daily serial is the most satifying for me, and more rewarding than any number of overall views.

I returned to my usual formula when writing this series. The ending was noted down before I started part one. Then I began to work the story back from that ending, taking down notes of names of characters and significant events in my notebook. With one exception when I was too busy, I wrote the following day’s episode the evening before, and had it rady to post.

There will be another serial soon. This will be based on a ‘First Line’ suggestion from a fellow blogger. I will also compile all 35 parts of ‘Outside’ into one complete story, sometime this week.

Thanks are due to everyone who read it, all of those who commented, and anyone who shared any part of it on social media.

Film Review: My Cousin Rachel (2017)

***No spoilers***

This is the second film adaptation of Daphne Du Marier’s novel. The first was in 1952, starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland. Unfortunately, I have never seen the 1952 version, so the modern remake is spared my usual complaint about remakes on this occasion.

It is an historical romantic drama, set in England and Italy during the early 19th century. Trying to avoid spoilers, I can only give a vague outline of the plot. A young orphan is taken in and raised by his cousin, living a comfortable life in 1830s Cornwall. Philip adores Ambrose, the older relative, who is exceptionally kind to him.

Ambrose decides to travel to Italy, to improve his health in the sunny climate. Philip is left in the care of his godfather, Mr Kendall, and his daughter Louise. She grows very close to Philip, and expects that one day they will marry. News arrives from Italy. Ambrose has fallen madly in love with a widow named Rachel, and they are married. She also happens to be a distant cousin of the family.

Very soon, letters arrive from Philip. His illness is becoming worse, and he suspects Rachel and her lawyer friend, Mr Rainaldi, of colluding to poison him. Young Philip is worried, so makes the long journey to Florence to confront Rachel. On arrival, he is devastated to discover that Ambrose is dead and buried. Rachel has left the country, and the lawyer Rainaldi tells him she has left everything to him, in accordance with Ambrose’s original will.

Not long after he returns to England, Rachel arrives at the family home in Cornwall. Philip is immediately smitten by the beauty of the older woman, and begins to lavish gifts and attention on her, much to the chagrin of Mr Kendall, and his daughter Louise. He tells Rachel he wants her to have the inheritance, as Ambrose’s widow, but she declines. Eventually, he forces it on her legally, along with the extensive collection of jewels once owned by his mother.

But he soon starts to become ill, with similar symptoms to those suffered by cousin Ambrose. Then he finds letters in a trunk of books left by Ambrose, and becomes convinced that Rachel is guilty. She stalls his concerns by becoming his lover, but the tension builds when she refuses to marry him.

That’s it for the story. I will say it has a satisfying twist that I suspected, but still enjoyed. Period detail is wonderful, and the casting feels just perfect too. Rachel Weisz as Rachel is simply lovely to look at, as well as playing her role to perfection. Sam Clafin is very convincing as the naive, love-struck young man, and the under-used Iain Glen strikes just the right note as the concerned godfather.

An exceptionally good film that I enjoyed much more than I expected to.

(For the information of UK readers, this should be available free on All4, the Channel 4 streaming service.)

Here’s a trailer.

Blog Stuff

As we come to the end of the month, and Autumn looms, I felt prompted to have a review of my blog once again. Regular readers will be aware that I cut back on my posts recently, and that has a significant effect on views and followers, just as I had expected. That isn’t a complaint, as that was my intention. And it worked.

On my Home page, WordPress now lists my follower total as 8,481. I am happy to report that I have had a reduction in ‘fake followers’ lately, and only a few companies trying hard to promote their goods by following my blog. There are also fewer followers without Gravatar links or posts on their own blogs. That’s great to see.

Including this one, I have posted 3,482 posts since 2012, and had 541,620 views of my blog. Even after posting less, I still get between 225-400 views a day, much easier to deal with than the 600+ I enjoyed previously.

I am currently following 114 other bloggers, and with six exceptions, they are all posting and active. If nothing arrives from those six bloggers by the end of 2021, I will follow six different ones after Christmas.

Guest Posts are still popular, and I would like to remind all my followers, old and new, that the offer remains open indefinitely. If you would like a guest post here, just send me an email to petejohnson50@yahoo.com

The latest series of fictional short stories has been well received, with views more than comparable to my usual serials. Each first line was suggested by a fellow blogger, and this is a good way to engage with others in the community. Using links to their blogs also helps make us all better known to each other, further developing the feeling that we are all in this together.

Any post about my dog Ollie guarantees a lot of interaction. As he gets older and slower his popularity never wanes, and he remains very much the heart and soul of my blog, with his many admirers and his ongoing adventures on our dog walks.

My blog trundles along in the same old way, and I still love being a blogger as much as I ever did.

Film Review: Black KkKlansman (2018)

**No Spoilers**

I used to be a big fan of the work of American film-maker, Spike Lee. Over the past few years, I seem to have missed a lot of his releases, and I got a bit miffed with him for remaking the wonderful Korean film ‘Old Boy’ for no good reason.

When ‘Black KkKlansman’ came along in 2018, I was intrigued to discover it was a true story, and there was a lot of praise from both critics and audiences for this historical take on one policeman’s story. Last week, it was on TV here, so I decided to watch it.

If you don’t know about the real events, they concern the first-ever black policeman to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department, in 1972. Ron Stallworth was a college educated man who sported a large afro hairdo, and had a desire to become a police officer. Most of his colleagues are overtly racist, so the police chief sticks Ron in the boring job of the Records Office, where he is subject to racist abuse and intimidation by many of the white officers.

When he applies to become an undercover detective, that coincides with a visit to the city by black power activist, Stokely Carmichael. The chief sees an opportunity to use Ron to infiltrate Carmichael’s supporters, and he does a good job getting to know them and being accepted by them.

Following this, Ron is reassigned to Intelligence, and cheekily decides to apply to join the Ku Klux Klan, the racist group very active at the time. He does all this over the telephone, but when the local KKK organiser insists on meeting him, he has to get a white colleague to impersonate him. The added difficulty is that his colleague is Jewish, and must hide that fact from the other KKK members he meets.

With no spoilers, that’s the plot.

This is a long film, over two hours forty minutes on the TV version I watched. It covers a deception that leads right up to the then head of the KKK, David Duke, and has much to say about racism in America at the time, in the 21st century, and in an historical context. It uses clips from the film ‘Birth of A Nation’, as well as photos from lynchings and murders of black men in the past, and at times has a documentary feel.

During the scenes when the undercover cops face the danger of being discovered by other KKK members there is genuine tension, and the 1970s setting is very well rendered, with clothes, vehicles, and sets all feeling authentic. Casting is good too, with John David Washington as Ron, Adam Driver as his Jewish undercover colleague, and Michael Buschemi (looking uncannily like his brother Steve) as the third member of the team. Harry Belafonte makes a dignified appearance as Jerome Turner, and Topher Grace is a good choice for David Duke.

I wanted to really like this film. It is an important subject, and we all know that the KKK is still very active today, emboldened by the Trump years.

But, there’s a big BUT.

Parts of the film are played as a comedy. I got the feeling at times that Washington was channelling a young Richard Pryor. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there is anything remotely amusing about the KKK. And for that reason alone, I was left feeling very disappointed.

But you might like it, so here’s a trailer.

Film Review: Destroyer (2018)

Another 2018 film that had escaped my notice, until it arrived on the BBC recently. Nicole Kidman starring? That has to be worth watching.

**No spoilers**

Kidman plays a haggard LAPD police detective in a film that runs along two time lines. In 2018, she is worn out, drunk most of the time, and unpopular with her colleagues. She is almost unrecognisable as Nicole Kidman too, with clever use of prosthetic make-up, and a very gruff voice. The 2002 part of the story brings us a more familiar Nicole, as her and her partner are undercover police officers, infiltrating a dangerous gang of bank robbers.

The two time periods swap from scene to scene, so make sure you are wide awake when watching.

Essentially, this is a revenge thriller. In 2002, the detective and her partner are going along undercover on a robbery. Something goes badly wrong, leaving her shaken and disillusioned. Then in 2018, she receives a message that brings it all back, and goes on a one-woman revenge spree to find the leader of the gang from back in the day.

Unfortunately, it comes with a lot of well-used plot devices.

*She has spilt from her husband.
*She doesn’t get on with her teenage stepdaughter, who runs around with older men and refuses to behave.
*She keeps her detective partner in the dark about what she is doing, and ignores requests from her superior officers to report in.
*There is a hint at something dark in her past that is slowly revealed.
*She operates a ‘Dirty Harry’ style of justice for anyone she finds connected to the gang.

For a lot of the film I was thinking, ‘Seen it all before’.

Of course, the fact it is a female detective and not a male one is something different, but otherwise it is situation normal for a modern cop-thriller.

BUT.

Very close to the end, something great happens. The film turns full circle, and we realise that what we have been watching wasn’t exactly what we thought it was.

Just for that, it was worth watching. It really was.

Despite the fairly large cast, it is definitely a one-woman film. Kidman is in every scene, and dominates those scenes. She is physical, no-nonsense yet vulnerable, and perfectly credible throughout. Probably why she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.

Film Review: The Old Man And The Gun (2018)

I had never heard of this film, but reading through the TV guide, I spotted the cast. Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, and Keith Carradine. They were all pretty old by 2018 when this film was released, and they had been brought together to film this true story of one of America’s most prolific bank robbers and prison escapers, Forrest Tucker.

Free to watch, so why not?

Most of the film is set during the 1980s, with minimal flashbacks to establish some of the back story. Forrest is a gentleman bank robber. He passes notes across the counter, telling the clerk there is a bank robbery in progress, and he has a gun. Sometimes, he shows the gun, just to convince them he is serious. They are usually bemused. Here is a smartly dressed old man, smiling and affable, yet he is robbing their bank. They fill his case with money, and he strolls out tipping his hat and smiling as he goes.

We see Forrest carrying out some meticulous planning. For bigger jobs, he takes along his sidekicks to help with diversions, driving, or just carrying the loot. He appears to have no wife, and no romantic connection that stops him traversing the country to carry out robberies in many different states.

Then one day, he meets an elderly widow, Jewel. (Spacek) He likes her from the start, and she obviously likes him. Her car has broken down, and he gives her a lift home, discovering that she lives on a heavily-mortgaged horse ranch. She could sell, but loves her horses enough to want to stay.

What follows is a gentle film, as gentle as the bank robber, Forrest. There are no shoot-outs, and the only car chases are short, and in flashback. Forrest cannot stop himself robbing banks. Despite falling for Jewel, he continues his crime spree, and comes to the notice of Dallas detective, John Hunt. (Casey Affleck) He slowly begins to put the pieces together, and is soon on the trail of the elusive Forrest and his cronies. Then the FBI gets involved, and the search is on.

Okay, with no spoilers, that’s about it. Redford gives an easy, almost sleepy performance as Forrest. He is very ‘Redford’ throughout, and his role is not too taxing. Danny Glover and Tom Waits do solid jobs as his occasional partners, and Sissy Spacek is perfectly cast as the elderly love interest. For me, Casey Affleck stood out, as the determined cop who is actually thinking of quitting the force, but his enthusiasm is rekindled by his hunt for the gang of old guys. I think he is constantly underrated, and should get more starring roles. And the always reliable Elizabeth Moss makes the very best of a small role as the daughter Forrest never knew he had.

Don’t expect any excitement, and you won’t be disappointed. Just enjoy some old actors close to the end of their careers, and a couple of young ones who have much more to offer yet.