Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I can be ambivalent towards (about?) Quentin Tarantino especially after his last movie, but I won’t deny that I was desperate to see his take on late 60s Hollywood and all that entails, so unusually for me I insisted on going to see it on opening night. So glad I did.

A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles

I managed to avoid any spoilers about this film before going to see it and fully intend to make sure not to include any here. So although I knew it was mostly about the two male leads as embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio (Rick Dalton) and Brad Pitt (Cliff Booth), I assumed that the story of Sharon Tate and the awful Manson business would loom large. And it did, but not quite in the way that I expected, making it all the better. I say that as someone who has been deeply interested in the whole Manson thing for a very long time, and this film has got me ready to do a deep dive back into the story of that dreadful man and his followers.

But I digress.

There is something that happens earlyish in the movie which had me in my standard “but that never happened in real life” position which has spoiled movies for me before, but as the film went on I realised that the event was deliberately wrong and set the stage for what was going to happen later. I know that’s probably unnecessarily cryptic but see reference to spoilers above.

Some of the very best bits involve delving into the collected works of Leo’s character, including short clips from various films and TV series he’s worked on in the past and the amazing posters produced to support that conceit, any of which I’d be thrilled to have on my walls. Leo & Brad (for so I shall refer to them) make a really cool double act, complementing each other in their portrayals of the two friends. There are also some lovely scenes about spaghetti westerns which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Margot Robbie is wonderful as Sharon Tate, giving life to a person who sadly is almost always referred to as a victim of a horrible crime as if that summed up her whole life. Emile Hirsch also deserves a shout-out as Jay Sebring.

There are some amazing cameos from some big names, but my favourites were:

  • Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen – I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it
  • Luke Perry as an actor in a TV western – I think this may have been his last role before his untimely death
  • Julia Butters as a child actress in the same western – I think it’s still a cameo even if you’re not famous, but to be honest I don’t care as she is going to be famous soon enough.

Can you tell that I loved it? Recommended.

Dazzling details: directed by (of course) Tarantino, OUATIH is 2h 42m long and rated 18 for strong bloody violence.

Ralph Breaks the Internet – a mini review

Six years after the events of the first film, Ralph and Vanellope, now friends, discover a wi-fi router in their arcade leading them into a new adventure.

Sort of.

The console machine thingy on which Vanellope’s game is played has been damaged and they need to get a new one from eBay so they head off into the Interwebs to find it and adventures ensue.

The film is bright and shiny and you will spend loads of time looking at the background to see all of the riffs on famous corporate names. By far the best bit features all (more or less) of the Disney princesses together with some little digs at the Mouse House.

The story is of course about the nature of friendship and the fact you don’t need to be together all of the time to be close, and that people grow and move on at different speeds. All that jazz.

Being about 45 years older than the top end of the target audience I found it to be fun and surprisingly sweet. Think I preferred the first one though…..

Dazzling details: directed by Rich Moore & Phil Johnson, Ralph is 1h 52m long and rated PG for mild threat and rude humour.

Destroyer

A police detective reconnects with people from an undercover assignment in her distant past in order to make peace.

But making peace with what, or whom?

Actually, I suspect she is making peace with herself and the choices she has made because here we have lovely Nicole transformed into what Hollywood thinks an alcoholic female cop with serious issues looks like. They may not be wrong but it does take a bit of getting used to, though Nicole’s acting is superb and you do become involved in her story pretty quickly.

So, as IMDb has helpfully pointed it, there is reconnecting taking place in the sense that the bad guy (Toby Kebbell) from the undercover op which went horribly wrong for Nicole and her partner (played by Sebastian Stan) is back in town having previously escaped justice and she wants to bring him down. In order to find out where he might be, she goes off the grid and starts hunting down other former members of the gang of bank robbers as well as anyone else who might have a clue. Those anyone elses include Bradley Whitford in another one of those borderline sleazy cameos that he does so well.

I love Bradley Whitford wholeheartedly.

Anyway, the story bowls along with regular flashbacks to what happened undercover and we see why Nicole might feel she wants redemption. There is a side plot with her daughter which doesn’t add much, to be honest, and there are some excellent action scenes. A couple of other reviewers have noted the influence of Michael Mann’s Heat which I think is fair.

It’s a solid revenge story which has some neat structural tricks that I didn’t see coming, though I probably should have, but I’m not cross about that. It has made me want to see more of Kusama’s work and that’s no bad thing – I really should be actively seeking out more women directors.

Watch this for Nicole’s performance.

Dazzling Details: Destroyer is directed by Karen Kusama, is one minute over 2 hours long and rated 15 for very strong language, strong violence and sex. There is also some drug use.

Midsommar

A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled midsummer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.


But everyone’s so nice…..

So we have Dani, a young woman (played by the excellent Florence Pugh) whose wobbly relationship with her boyfriend Christian continues only because of an appalling tragedy which leaves her completely alone. She tags along on the trip Christian has planned with his mates to their friend Pelle’s home village in Sweden for the reasons mention in the blurb.

It’s beautiful and sunny and everyone in the village is welcoming. It’s clear that many of the returning younger folk have brought friends with them, and as time goes on we realise that this is no accident; these guests are here for A Purpose. The community is maintaining itself through the sacrifice of its older members and those outsiders brought along to take part in something that I think is supposed to have been vaguely explained to them but for which they are just not prepared.

I mean, who would be?

It’s not a frightening film, and anyone who has dabbled in this sort of story before will have no trouble in working out what the endgame is, though it’s how we get there that provides the interest. It’s very disturbing and I experienced a strong feeling of dread while watching it in the cinema – on my own as no-one wanted to come with me. I am very brave 😀

It has to be said that Florence Pugh is amazing. I really didn’t know her until I watched the BBC adaptation of John le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl where she played the lead, but I will be looking out for more of her work. I understand she is brilliant in Lady Macbeth which is now in my streaming queue.

I left the screening with lots of questions but they were of the “I want to know more” rather than the “WTF was that?” variety.

Such an unsettling film with obvious references The Wicker Man (an old favourite of mine; to be clear, the 1973 version not the Nicolas Cage monstrosity) but very much its own thing. I loved it. Well worth watching if you don’t mind the gore. And the creepiness of smiley folk with flower crowns.

Dazzling details: Midsommar is directed by Ari Aster (see my thoughts on Hereditary here), is 2h 27 long and rated (unsurprisingly) 18 for strong, gory images.

Sunday Salon | 25 August

Waving from warm and sunny London with a round-up of this past week.

First of all, the bookish stuff:

I actually finished some books this week! After my post last Sunday, I decided to go back into the books on my Kindle that I had set aside, picked two and managed to finish both of them, namely:

  • Slowly We Die by Emilie Schepp
  • The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason

Reviews of both will follow soon. Promise.

Of course I was still buying new books. Of course I was. Most were pre-orders but in reading some articles and blogs I was persuaded to make a couple of speculative purchases. Here’s the dazzling detail:

  • The Song of the Sycamore * Edward Cox – I’ve met Ed a couple of times and he is a lovely bloke who dispenses hugs as required and writes excellent books. This is his latest and I’m looking forward to reading it soon.
  • Our War * Craig DiLouie – “After his impeachment, the president of the United States refuses to leave office, and the country erupts into a fractured and violent war. Orphaned by the fighting and looking for a home, 10-year-old Hannah Miller joins a citizen militia in a besieged Indianapolis.
  • The Zeppelin Deception * Colleen Gleason – Stoker & Holmes Book 5, neatly arriving just after I finished Stoker & Holmes Book 1 as noted above.
  • Old Bones * Preston & Childs – These authors have been around forever as far as I can tell but are new to me, brought to my attention by the Book God. And rightly so because it’s a Donner Party archaelogical mystery which really speaks to my interests!
  • Ashes to Ashes * Tami Hoag – “A killer performs a bizarre ceremony in a wooded Minneapolis park, setting the bodies ablaze. He has already claimed three lives, and he won’t stop there. Only this time there is a witness. But she isn’t talking.” A recommendation from an article referenced in CrimeReads.
  • Alternate Side * Anna Quindlen – Ms Quindlen is on the (relatively short) list of authors who have made me cry in public, as evidenced in this review. This is her new one and I think it looks good

In other stuff, we had a really good day out on Tuesday, visiting the Olympic Park in east London. I didn’t attend of the Olympics back on 2012 but watched chunks of it on TV, so it was cool to visit the site and see how it’s now being used. The photo at the top of the post is just some of the planting in the park. It’s possible that we had excellent ice cream in the adjacent Westfield shopping centre, I can neither conform or deny.

I also had my annual eye test; I spend a lot of time having my head examined because I have stable diabetic maculopathy, but this was about ordinary eye testing so no stinging eye drops were required. I’ve ordered new computer glasses and am quite excited about that.

No real plans for the coming week so hoping to read a bit more. Hope you all have a great reading week! 😀

The Final Round-Up | Non-Fiction

Finally bringing the major catch-up to a close, here are the non-fiction reads which I have not reviewed so far on the blog. An interesting mix but with my usual slant towards true crime 🙂

Death in the Air * Kate Winkler Dawson
Subtitled: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City

The author takes the events of early December 1952 when a severe smog brought London to a halt and ties them in with the case of John Reginald Christie, serial killer and all-round nasty piece of work. I was very interested in getting my hand on this book for two reasons:

  • my husband was born in 1951 and he had heard many stories of what it was like to live in London at this time, with the smog seeping into homes through every crack and crevice, which he passed on to me; and
  • when I first started working in London I had a colleague who had worked with Christie in his short stint at National Savings.

I was disappointed in the book. At first, this had to do with the scene-setting, where I found myself asking about the accuracy of some of the descriptions – along the lines of “could you really see that from there?” – and the general infelicities of language when (apologies to my friends in the US) an American is writing about the UK. But mostly my problem was the link with Christie’s case, which seemed far too tenuous to be the basis of this sort of mixed subject book. And it’s a shame because the scandal of the government’s response to the smog and the moving stories of individual experience would have been enough to form a superb book on their own.

Bad Blood * John Carreyrou
Subtitled: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-Up

This book covers the “biggest corporate fraud since Enron”, as described by the investigative journalist who broke the original story. A company run by a charismatic and attractive young woman and backed by lots of significant business leaders looks to be one of the major success stories of recent years in Silicon Valley, except for the small matter that the medical technology it claimed to have developed simply didn’t work, and anyone raising concerns, whether inside or outside the company was harassed and threatened.

Elizabeth Holmes was/is an appalling person, enabled by those blinded by the possibility of making megabucks, and silencing critics by threatening their ability to work in the industry. You don’t have to know much about business to get a great deal out of this fascinating book. I knew very little about this until I heard Karen Kilgariff of My Favourite Murder fame mention on the podcast that she was reading this.

Since then there have been more books, a podcast and a documentary covering the story, but this is the original from the guy that was there.

Stalling for Time * Gary Noesner
Subtitled: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator

I picked this up when I found out it was one of the books on which the TV series Waco was based; we had just started watching the programme and I wanted to know a little bit more about the background. It covers a whole lot more than just Waco as the author uses the experience he gained over 30 years in the FBI to assess the development of the use of negotiation and the tensions between that approach and increasingly militarised law enforcement. A short but engrossing book.

I still haven’t been able to watch the last two episodes of the series because the whole thing was such a terrible disaster and seeing that played out will be difficult. The cast is really excellent though and I read the book in the voice of Michael Shannon who plays Noesner.

Ma’am Darling * Craig Brown
Subtitled: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

I don’t normally read royal biographies but this has won so many awards, and I find Brown such an interesting writer that I gave it a go, and I’m so glad that I did because it is wonderful. I laughed out loud but also found some of the stories sad and touching. The best way to describe it is to quote from the blurb:

Combining interviews, parodies, dreams, parallel lives, diaries, announcements, lists, catalogues and essays, Ma’am Darling is a kaleidoscopic experiment in biography, and a witty meditation on fame and art, snobbery and deference, bohemia and high society.

A clever book in the very best way.

Traces * Patricia Wiltshire
Subtitled: The Memoirs of a Forensic Scientist and Criminal Investigator
Patricia Wiltshire has had a long and distinguished career as an expert in forensic ecology, botany and palynology. She has been involved in a number of high-profile cases across the world and tells the story of her involvement in many of these alongside snippets of her personal life.

It’s a fascinating if slight book by a remarkable woman, but I did find myself occasionally and disrespectfully muttering “I collect spores, moulds and fungus” a la Egon Spengler.

A nice addition to my true crime library.

Fiction Reading Round-Up

Here we go with a review of novels that I read earlier in the year and didn’t get around to reviewing. Eight books that deserve recognition, even though not all hit the right spot for me.

The Behaviour of Moths * Poppy Adams

From her lookout in the crumbling mansion that was her childhood home, Ginny watches and waits for her younger sister to arrive. Vivien has not set foot in the house since she left nearly fifty years ago; the reclusive Ginny has rarely ventured out, retreating into the precise routines that define her days, carrying on her father’s solitary work studying moths.

Is it wrong for me to say that the bits of the book about moths are more interesting than the story of the two sisters? I normally like an unreliable narrator, here partnered with time shifts and carefully parcelled out revelations, but I was slightly frustrated that there was too much room for the reader to guess what was going on, particularly about Ginny. What, if anything, was actually “wrong” with her? Donated this one as soon as I had finished it.

The City of Mirrors * Justin Cronin

The world we knew is gone. What world will rise in its place? The Twelve have been destroyed and the terrifying hundred-year reign of darkness that descended upon the world has ended. The survivors are stepping outside their walls, determined to build society anew—and daring to dream of a hopeful future. 

Which doesn’t tell you that much, not surprising given that this is the long-awaited (by me) final volume in The Passage trilogy, bought because I enjoyed the first two and was very keen to see how it all ended.I’ve had it for a while and picked it up at this point because we had started watching the TV adaptation, which started promisingly but which I lost interest in after a few episodes.

I loved this book. The ending was very satisfying and I found the detour into the background of Zero (the Big Bad Guy) gripping, though I’m aware not everyone agrees. If you need a post-apocalyptic vampire thriller (and who doesn’t) then this series is for you.

Convent on Styx * Gladys Mitchell

The nuns of the Order of Companions of the Poor summon eminent psychiatrist and sleuth Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley to investigate a series of anonymous letters, but when she arrives the prime suspect has just been found drowned in the convent school pond with, appropriately enough, her own massive Family Bible.

A late Mrs Bradley mystery, published in 1975, this was a very enjoyable and easy (in the best sense) read. There is a convent, there are nuns (obvs), there is a school attached and so there are inquisitive schoolgirls, and there is more than one mysterious death to be solved. Mrs B doesn’t turn up until halfway through the novel but that gives the reader plenty of time to get to know all of the characters, which makes the story all the more enjoyable. I may have picked this edition up because I loved the cover.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things * Iain Reid

I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always. Jake once said, “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.” And here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t want to be here.

Apparently, when I read this back in January (I KNOW) my reaction as expressed on Goodreads was “Still thinking about this one. Enjoyed it enough to read to the end but also somewhat frustrated by the story.”

Basically, I found it totally bizarre and I’m not at all sure that I understood it. Perhaps I should read it again and see if it makes more sense a second time. Or I could just wait for the Netflix adaptation, though goodness only knows how they will film this one.

The Affinity Bridge * George Mann

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. […] But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where ghostly policemen haunt the fog-laden alleyways of Whitechapel, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where Sir Maurice Newbury, Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, works tirelessly to protect the Empire from her foes. 

Way back in the dawn of time, otherwise known as January 2014, I read The Executioner’s Heart, not realising that it was the latest in the Newbury & Hobbes series. I finally got around to reading this, the very first, thoroughly enjoyed it and will be reading them all.

Currently * Sarah Mensinga

Every year, Nerene’s village shelters in Varasay City while the surrounding lands flood. Yet Varasay only protects those who obey its laws, and after Nerene’s best friend starts a riot, he’s in danger of being cast out. Nerene manages to find Lord Osperacy, a travelling thief with enough power and money to save her friend, but he’ll only help her if she agrees to work for him. 

Sarah is a hugely talented artist and illustrator (I have her clever portrait of Anne Boleyn hanging beside my desk) and this is her first novel. I really enjoyed it. The world-building, which I understand is inspired by early 20th-century travel on ocean liners is really strong. Nerene is engaging and likeable and I was rooting for her all the way. An excellent fantasy, and Sarah also has a YouTube channel where she shares an illustrated audiobook version of the novel. Go look!

Black Helicopters * Caitlín R. Kiernan

Says Goodreads:

A dark jewel of a novella, this definitive edition of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Black Helicopters is the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original.

I appreciated the writing but I think I would have got more out of the novella and just generally understood it better if I had read Agents of Dreamland first. So I will do that and may then re-read this one to see if it works better that way. I can feel that it’s impressive but it didn’t speak to me in the way I thought it would.

Real Tigers * Mick Herron

London’s Slough House is where disgraced MI5 operatives are reassigned to spend the rest of their spy careers pushing paper. But when one of these “slow horses” is kidnapped by a former soldier bent on revenge, the agents must breach the defences of Regent’s Park to steal valuable intel in exchange for their comrade’s safety. 

Another excellent entry in the Slough House/Jackson Lamb series. So realistic that whenever I’m in the Barbican area I look for the office building (full disclosure – I haven’t found it yet). Strong plotting and characterisation as always, though I’m sure any resemblance to the current floppy-haired British PM is totally coincidental (though probably spot on!) I’ve already bought the next one.