Film Review: Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019)

***No ending spoilers***

This is a British independent film, written and directed by Thomas Clay. It is set in 17th Century England just after the civil war, and stars two of Britain’s finest actors, Maxine Peake, and Charles Dance. With my interest in the period, and having seen the excellent casting, I was excited to be able to watch this free on TV, courtesy of Channel 4.

The scene is rural Shropshire, the year 1657. Cromwell rules in England, and the Puritans enforce religious observance. They are against any other religious beliefs, and do not agree with revelry, drunkenness, or excessive celebrations. Some ordinary people opposed the Puritan restrictions. They embraced ideas about female equality, free love, and asserted that there was no heaven or hell, only earthly life. To the Puritans, they were heretics and blasphemers.

Fanny Lye is married to Captain John Lye, a man who served with distinction in the Parliamentary Army and returned home to buy a farm and land in the county. Despite her poor background and lowly upbringing, he married Fanny, giving her security as his wife, and also a son, Arthur. But he is a hard man, and a strict Puritan. He beats both Fanny and Arthur for the slightest reason, and regards her to be his property.

Returning from church one Sunday, the family is surprised to find two strangers in their house. They had arrived naked, and stolen clothes to wear. The young man claims that he and his wife were robbed on the road to Salisbury, and asks to stay until they are able to continue their journey. He also says he served in Cromwell’s regiment in the war, so Captain Lye takes pity on him.

But when men arrive at the farm looking for two heretics who are wanted for fornication and religious crimes, the young man takes Arthur hostage, threatening to kill him if they are betrayed. The men are the local constable, the High Sheriff of Shropshire, and his assistant. The Sheriff holds a warrant to arrest and execute heretics, and anyone harbouring them. But Captain Lye refuses him entry, claiming to have not seen any strangers.

After this incident, the film takes a darker turn. The young couple stay on at the farmhouse, and the atmosphere changes to one of great tension. Afraid that they will kill his wife and son, the enraged captain tries to overpower them, but is injured and securely tied up. He is then forced to listen as his wife is seduced by the teachings of the new religion, and then made to watch while she makes love with both the man and woman at the same time.

He bides his time to take his revenge, but nothing works out as we expect it to.

I really enjoyed this film. The atmosphere of repressive 17th Century England is second to none. Set design and scenery is completely convincing, as is every member of the small cast, especially Maxine Peake on brilliant form. Yes, it has one sex scene, and some sudden and brutal violence. But it is all in context, and no worse that you would see on any modern TV drama.

Yet another ‘small’ film that shows there is more to see than the big blockbusters that are so popular.

Here is a trailer.

Film Review: Brightburn (2019)

**No plot spoilers.**

This film was shown on TV over the Halloween period. I had never heard of it, but recorded it on the PVR.

The action begins in a remote farmhouse in the small community of Brightburn, Kansas. A couple is in bed one night when something like an earthquake shakes their house, and they see a bright red light out in the woods.

Then we have moved on. They have a baby, a small boy. They are blissfully happy, and enjoying the rural life in the American Mid-West. As the boy grows, it becomes apparent that he is exceptionally clever, much to the delight of his parents. (Elizabeth Banks, and David Denman)

But Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is not popular at school, and becomes something of a loner. He is occasionally bullied, and not really accepted by his peers. Once he reaches puberty, things start to go badly wrong. Chickens are killed, Brandon begins to sleepwalk and hear voices, and the boy also discovers something hidden in the barn that will have a devastating effect on all of their lives.

The film then starts to turn into a horror film, (as advertised) and we see that young Brandon has some very unusual powers. These include super-strength, being able to move at lightning speed, and also being impervious to cuts, bruises, or injury.

Are you thinking what I was thinking? Superboy, Superman as a child. Raised by kindly parents who are devoted to him, and determined to keep his secret.

That is definitely the inspiration for this film, until it takes a very dark turn. This Superboy is actually Superbad, and it is not that long until we discover just how bad he is.

Despite having some of the expected ‘jump-scares’, this is a really enjoyable film. It takes a familiar story, and turns it on its head, blending sci-fi with horror to great effect. Many of the set-pieces are very well done indeed, and the cast take it all very seriously throughout. One of those ‘small films’ that delivers more than so many blockbusters.

And if you do watch it, stay right to the end, and during the credits too.

The ending is great!

Here’s a trailer.

Film Review: The Nightingale (2018)

I watched this Australian film recently on television, attracted by some great reviews, and the fact that it had won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

(Although I will avoid plot spoilers, I have to state from the outset that this film contains unsettling images of rape, racism, and extreme violence.)

The year is 1825, and Britain rules Australia as a colony. The Army enforces that rule with an iron hand, treating the Aboriginal people appallingly, and using convicts as servants and labourers. One such convict is the Irish waitress, Clare. She is the Nightingale of the title, as her singing voice is admired by the soldiers, especially the officer, Hawkins. He also lusts after her, and uses his power over her to keep her captive even though she is married, and has a baby.

Hawkins is supposed to be sending a letter recommending that Clare and her husband are freed, but he refuses to do so. When she challenges him about that, he rapes her. Her husband discovers the assault and confronts Hawkins and his sergeant, resulting in a fight. This is witnessed by a visiting Colonel, who tells Hawkins afterwards that he is unsuitable for promotion. Enraged, Hawkins resolves to travel to Launceston, to plead his case in person with the area commander. He orders his sergeant to accompany him, along with a junior officer, Ensign Jago, and three civilians, including a small boy.

But before departing, Hawkins resolves to settle things with Clare and her husband. Holding them at gunpoint assisted by Jago and his sergeant, he rapes Clare in front of her husband Aiden, then commands the sergeant to do the same. All the while her baby girl is screaming, and Aiden is beside himself with rage. So Hawkins shoots her husband, then tells Jago to keep the baby quiet. He throws the baby across the room, killing it as it hits the wall. Then he is told to finish off Clare, and hits her with the butt of a musket. Thinking they are all dead, the soldiers depart for Launceston.

However, Clare survives, and she enlists the help of a young aboriginal tracker, Billy, to follow the men to get revenge for her family.

What follows is an arduous trek across country, during which Clare finds a new respect for her guide and his culture. On the way, they encounter shocking treatment of Aboriginals by white overseers, and have to learn to work together against the terrain and elements to survive. Clare also eventually catches up with the soldiers, relying on her guide to help protect her from them.

If you can get past the often distressing scenes, this is a powerful film in every respect. Casting is perfect, with outstanding performances by all the leads, direction is flawless, and the atmosphere and period of the early 19th century is completely convincing. The cinematography on the rugged landscape of Tasmania is wonderful, and it has much to say about racism, colonialism, and the dark side of the British Empire.

I thought it was excellent, and it will stay in my mind for a very long time.

Here is the official trailer.

Film Review: Ad Astra (2019)

One very hot afternoon when I was feeling a bit ‘floppy’, I sat down to watch this film that I had recorded from the TV a while ago. It is a Space/Science Fiction film set in an unspecified future not that far removed from what we know now.

People are living on The Moon, and commuting there by commercial spaceship. Others are living on Mars, long enough for someone in their late 20s to have been born there. On Earth, we would recognise daily life, though NASA has been replaced by ‘Spacecom’, a branch of the US Military.

Brad Pitt stars as astronaut Roy McBride, a major in Spacecom. He is dedicated, committed, and very focused. So much so that his wife has left him. He is the son of a very famous astronaut, a man who travelled to Neptune to try to discover alien life and is believed to be dead. Then strange energy pulses begin to cause devastation on Earth, as anti-matter is projected through space. The authorities trace the source to Neptune, and believe it is something to do with the earlier mission involving Roy’s father.

So Roy is recruited to travel to Mars, where a special laser-guided communications system can project his message to Neptune, hoping to discover if his father is still alive, and responsible for the anti-matter pulses. First he travels to The Moon, where a special rocket wil take him to Mars from the dark side. We soon discover that The moon is a dangerous place. Not unlike the old Wild West, it is lawless, and bothered by Space Pirates trying to steal the valuable minerals. (Or anything else) After an encounter with said pirates, Roy gets to his spacecraft to travel to Mars.

On the way, they answer a Mayday call from a Norwegian spaceship. (Norway apparently has a space programme by then.) If you have ever watched any modern Space epic, you can guess that doesn’t end well. But Roy survives, and continues on to Mars. Once there, he is used by Spacecom to contact his father, and then suddenly told he is being sent home. When he discovers that they intend to explode a nuclear bomb on his father’s old spaceship, he hijacks the ship carrying the bomb.

No more spoliers in this long film, (124 minutes) so I will stop outlining the plot.

What we have to do is to suspend some belief, ignore the science, and treat this a lot like an adventure film set in space. Yes, we have elements of Conrad’s book ‘Heart of Darkness’, and the film ‘Apocalypse Now’, but ‘Ad Astra’ manages to overcome those comparisons with some excellent special effects. Those effects are never overblown, and mostly believeable. In fact, they are on a par with Kubrick’s ‘2001’ at times.

Much of the film is slow-paced, but the viewer always understands why. I didn’t feel it dragged too much, though some complained that it did. If you can forgive the liberties taken with some of the science, and treat it like a drama, you should not be disappointed. Hollywood stalwarts Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones make the most of small but significant roles, and though I didn’t know anyone else in the cast that well, they all did their jobs supporting. (Including Liv Tyler as Roy’s wife, mostly seen in flashback.)

This is Pitt’s film completely. He is in every scene, and earned his money. Brad stepped up, delivering a quiet performance with no flash, in a film that I surprised myself by enjoying.

Here’s a trailer.

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.