Category: Reviews


Arrival - movie posterArrival is sci-fi tale told with an air of intense realism. Alien objects appear around the world and humans are “invited” to check them out and try to figure out what’s going on. The aliens make no hostile moves, but tensions and miscommunication between the nations of Earth escalate nonetheless. But, this isn’t really a film about aliens, it’s about communication, linguistics and the relationship between language and perception.

If humans who speak different human languages perceive the world in subtly different ways, and if learning a new language can change your perception, what changes to perception might we experience if we were to learn a completely alien language?

I am utterly in love with this as a concept for a film. It is fascinating to me how people classify their world and how language is integral to this. We learn the word for something at the same time we learn what that thing is, and so the two things, word and concept, become inseparable. We think in our language.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist and is therefore hyper-aware of language. She takes on the job of trying to communicate with the aliens, and this is explored in very real detail, interesting in itself as a “what if?” exercise. However, it is the exploration of the further implications regarding perception that make this film truly thought provoking.

Other events happening in the background of the film explore the idea that careless communication does damage, whether it’s the omission of information, or the choice of one word instead of another. It’s particularly poignant after the events of 2016 where fake news, echo chamber social media and misrepresentation of facts have been hot topics. In Arrival, the simple presence of the alien objects causes a mass breakdown of society and it’s completely believable because it’s based on phenomenon of communication that we see every day.

Every aspect of this film explores a different idea of communication and language. The film opens on a montage of a little girl growing up and then becoming sick and dying as a teenager. Because of our understanding of the language of film, our instant assumption is that this is backstory. It’s in the past. Later we’re forced to question that assumption. So, the film even goes so far as to be a commentary on the language of film.

In the space of a feature film, you are lead on an introductory journey into the subject of linguistics and communication, including being pulled into the dialogue yourself when prompted to confront your own assumptions. All the while you’re following engaging, human characters (including the aliens). There is emotional and intellectual stimulation on multiple levels. Arrival is simply an outstanding piece of film making.

Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It is out in cinemas now.

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Tenth Man Down by Chris Ryan (book cover)

Geordie Sharpe and his SAS team are sent to Africa to train government forces in the war torn nation of Kamanga. After an accident leaves a young boy dead, the local witch doctor makes a chilling pronouncement. Unless they leave now, ten white men or women will die.

Geordie dismisses the witch doctor’s prophecy; they’ve got a job to do. While they’re only supposed to be there as advisors, when the Alpha Commando unit are sent forward to capture a rebel controlled diamond mine, the SAS team are concerned they’re not ready and go along to keep an eye on things. There they find the rebel forces are bolstered by white mercenaries.

Not long after the government forces takes control at the mine, things take a turn for the crazy. Suddenly a target to the very men they were training, Geordie and his team make a run for it. While trying to stay alive and dodging the rebels, Geordie has to figure out what the hell is going on and why their allies suddenly turned against them.

***

This story is gritty and frightening throughout. The bloodlust fuelled actions of the Kamangan fighters and their supporters, on both sides, are truly savage. It’s hard to imagine people stooping to such deranged violence, but Ryan describes things in such a matter of fact way, you get the impression some of it is drawn from experience.

The suffering of Geordie’s friend Whinger after he’s badly burned in an explosion was particularly hard to read for someone who recently suffered a bad burn. I could truly imagine the agony and it made my stomach churn.

What this book is not is a clash between SAS soldiers and ex US Navy SEALs as the tagline and blurb promises. Indeed, the only character identified in the book as a former SEAL actually helps Geordie!

I found this irritating.

Let’s face it, I’d been promised SAS vs SEALs and the book never delivered, so I felt cheated. But there was more to it than that.

The expectation created by the blurb influenced the way I read the story. Because I’d been lead to believe that this SAS-SEAL clash was going to be a major part of the story, I was constantly waiting for it to happen. As I read the book I was trying to figure out when and how it would be revealed, and what the implications would be to the story when it did.

I felt like the tag line and blurb were calculated lies to trick readers into picking it up. While I understand the need for compelling blurb on a book, I don’t believe in false advertising like this. Not least because it disrespects the book’s actual content, which is well worthy of readers.

One part of the book I found puzzling was the bookend scenes which took place in the UK. The opening scene features Geordie on a picnic with his son, Tim, and supposedly gives context for Geordie telling the story, but there’s no way the story you then read is something even the most incompetent of parents would tell their kids. Indeed, at the end, Ryan even has Geordie reflect that he didn’t tell his son the specific details that were in the book. So why set it up as if that’s who he is addressing?

The opening scene does provide a view of Geordie that makes him seem human and normal and shows the backstory of his family life. And the closing scene allows Ryan to wrap up the open ends of the story as a series of questions which Tim asks about the story he heard. But I can’t help feel that the story would have started more powerfully around the campfire in Africa which starts chapter 2.

The plot of this book is… messy… in a good way. Not only are there stumbling blocks on the path of the pursuit of goals, like in any good story, but often the goals themselves shift unexpectedly. On occasions the characters achieve things which then turn out to be completely pointless or counterproductive, which is much more like real life. At the end of the book, Geordie’s son Tim asks if the mission was a failure and that’s exactly the question the reader is left thinking, partially because it’s hard to define what success would have looked like. This gave the book a strong sense of realism.

Tenth Man Down is a gritty, intense action-adventure that hints at the bloody truth of war and greed. This was the first Chris Ryan book I’ve read and on the basis of this I will be seeking out more.

The Glass Demon by Helen Grant

The Glass Demon - book coverLin Fox is dragged away from her life in England by her family. Her father is obsessed with finding the mysterious Allerheiligen Glass – medieval stained glass windows thought lost for centuries – and moves them to a remote part of Germany. His initial investigations are hampered by the inconvenient death of his contact and the locals are none too welcoming. It could be a coincidence, but maybe not. Maybe someone doesn’t want them to find the glass.

This book builds slowly, revealing the mystery in little chunks. There’s a web of complicated and none too rosy relationships between the characters of Lin’s family. It becomes something of a moral tale about the dangers of not listening to each other, of being so self-centred you’re not aware of the people around you. I spent the entire book trying to work out exactly what the relationship between Lin and Tuesday was, which was disorienting at first, but came clear in the end.

Lin’s infatuation with a good looking local priest who teaches at her school is so believably adolescent. Combined with her relationship with the boy next door, Michel, and her changing relationships with her family, you really get to watch her grow up from a series of reality checks.

The book is essentially a thriller, or mystery, but I for a long time I couldn’t tell whether it had a genuine supernatural element or not. The characters believe in the demon who haunts the glass and the evidence keeps you guessing. I loved that about the book.

The one thing that let it down for me was the occasional interjection from the narrator, Lin, to reassure me that something good was just around the corner. I’d be reading along, quite happily and reach the end of a chapter which concluded with something like “little did I know it would be the worst day of my life” or “at that time <blank> was still alive.” I didn’t need teasers like that to keep me reading. I already wanted to know what was going to happen.

It was quite clear from early on that one of the characters was going to die. It just remained to discover how and when. I felt let down when it finally did happen, because I though, how much more powerful would this have been if I hadn’t known it was coming?

It felt like I was reading a nervous author who wasn’t confident enough to trust the reader to find the story compelling.

The pace quickens as the story progresses. I was quite happy reading a chapter here or there for the first third, but then I was hooked and didn’t want to put it down. Over all a good read, with a compelling mystery that keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

Review: Infamous Reign by Steve McHugh

An adventure full of the stuff nightmares are made of.

Infamous Reign by Steve McHugh (book cover)Infamous Reign fills in another chapter from the past of Nathaniel Garrett, hero of McHugh’s Hellequin Chronicles which so far include novels Crimes against Magic and Born of Hatred. While the novels are principally set in the present day, the centuries old sorcerer’s past, and his involvement in historical events is an integral part of the world McHugh creates.

Set 70 years or so after events covered in Crimes Against Magic, Infamous Reign is McHugh’s fantasy spin on the legend of “the princes in the tower”, the young royal heirs historically rumoured to have been murdered by their uncle, Richard III. As a representative of Avalon, Nathaniel Garrett is sent to investigate the disappearance of the two princes. He quickly uncovers a plot to steal the princes away and use them to start a war, but as he delves deeper it seems an even more insidious motive is at work. Along the way a cast of nightmarish characters make things interesting; a changeling who sucks away people’s features leaving them smooth bags of flesh, psychopathic half-spider half-human monsters and giant creatures from the depths of the sea!

The novella feels faster paced and less detailed than McHugh’s longer work. Details are sketched rather than painted, except when it comes to the fantasy elements. This perhaps suggests the author is less confident with his historical setting than the elements from his own imagination. That said, better to leave out detail you’re uncertain about than present something historically incongruous. The result is not detrimental to the story which focuses on the action, and action is most definitely the author’s strong point.

McHugh’s other work, which fits chronologically both before and after the events of the novella does somewhat limit what he can do with the character. As such there’s no sense of a character journey for Nate Garrett in this instalment, but the shorter format is carried by a plot driven story alone quite successfully. Kudos to McHugh for using the novella format to flesh out his universe this way, rather than trying to eek out the plot into a full novel.

All in all, a fast paced, action driven read packed full of dark horror getting its arse kicked by dark heroes. Excellent.

Giant robots and gargantuan monsters haven’t exactly had a good run over the last couple of decades. Pacific Rim combines both; I didn’t have high hopes, but I was happy to be proven wrong.

After its third weekend in the cinemas the film has struggled to break even at the box office (ComicBook.com: As Pacific Rim Struggles…) which sadly goes to show that Hollywood safe route thinking has its basis in fact. So what if you haven’t heard of it before? So what if you don’t know who’s in it? Take a chance on this one because you’ll regret missing on the big screen.

Poster for Pacific Rim*Poster image from Moustache Magazine.

The Earth is under attack. Below the Pacific Ocean, a rift in space brings forth monstrous beasts known as kaiju. When conventional weapons prove ineffectual, mankind creates a new form of defence; massive robots called jaegers. Operated by a pair of pilots linked by a neural bridge, the jaegers hold the line of the pacific coast. For a time the jaegers keep the kaiju in check, but with each wave, the attacking kaiju grow in size and strength.

One by one the jaegers fall. Driven to the brink of defeat, with only four jaegers still operational, a reckless plan is concocted to make one do or die attack to seal the rift.

Retired pilot Raleigh Becket is called back to the helm of Gypsy Danger, the jaeger he once piloted with his brother. In the co-pilot seat; prodigal trainee Mako Mori. Between them they must take the restored and upgraded Gypsy Danger to the front lines, along with Striker Eureka, the fastest and most powerful jaeger ever built, Crimson Typhoon, a three armed jaeger piloted by triplets, and Cherno Alpha, a heavyweight veteran of the early days.

It is refreshing to see a big budget, effects driven film that isn’t a sequel, remake or adaptation of some existing franchise. I don’t blame Hollywood for wanting some assurances that they will have an audience when big sums of money are concerned, but always taking the safe route means viewers rarely get the chance to enter an epic world that’s entirely new. I think this is one of the reasons that James Cameron’s Avatar was so successful. Films should be taking us to new places as much books or comics, so good on director Del Toro and his team for taking the risk with Pacific Rim.

The film isn’t populated by big stars either, another risky strategy, but one that, in my opinion, pays off. By not trying to sell the film with a big star and thus feeling the need for them to be on screen all the time, the supporting characters get the screen time they need to play out the various sub plots. The core performances from Charlie Gunnan and  Rinko Kikuchi are strong enough to carry the film, but they form one part of a compelling whole. In classic disaster movie style, this isn’t a one man show, it’s a team effort and the supporting cast, including Idris Elba, Ron Perlman, Charlie Day and Max Martini make a great team.

All-powerful titans can be something of a stumbling block for film makers; how do you make a fight interesting when the opponents are indestructible? In recently released Man of Steel the answer seemed to be to have the characters repeatedly charge each other at high speed. Yawn. Pacific Rim doesn’t make that mistake. Buildings get levelled, but only as a bi-product of some spectacularly innovative and well-choreographed fights. The jaeger pilots dish out some kick ass moves, improvise with what’s at hand and deploy a whole range of geek-candy grade weapons.

Del Toro draws influences from the Japanese mecha and kaiju genres (Godzilla being perhaps the most famous of the latter) with a confessed desire to bring these genres to a new audience (LA Times Hero Complex:  Guillermo del Toro edges …). Some previous western adaptations and interpretations have somewhat missed the mark, but not so here. It maintains a somewhat fantasy feel alongside it’s more realistic visual style, and succeeds in drawing you into emotional investment in the machines.

It’s a real edge of your seat adrenalin rush ride. Don’t miss out.

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