Book Review: Kung Fu Trip by Benjamin Zephaniah

There are very few living poets I could name and even less I could recognise. In fact other than Zephaniah, I can’t think of any.

Having been impressed by an interview he did with Russell Howard I decided to check out some of his stuff and found this quick read. It follows him on a trip to China to train with Kung Fu masters.

Zephaniah writes with warmth and humour, a keen observer of the people he meets and captures the sense of place wonderfully. He writes with enthusiasm about his love of martial arts and what he gets from it.

The journey includes odd characters and bizarre events like the writer being mistaken for the long dead Bob Marley.

It’s a short book, but an entertaining one and a good one to read on the go. 

Verdict: Zephaniah is a charming, fun and likeable writer and this short trip is an interesting one to join him on. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Film Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was a gem of a movie which married the fun excess of old spy movies with OTT violence and foul language. Can they pull off the same trick twice?

Well, the answer is almost. 

This second adventure finds Eggsy AKA Galahad (Taron Egerton) still in action as an agent of Kingsman, a private spy agency. But when he’s attacked by a familiar face, it appears the agency is in the sights of a resourceful and ruthless foe. A foe who quickly takes out the agency, leaving Eggsy the only survivor other than tech expert Merlin (Mark Strong).

Following their “doomsday protocol” the two discover a bottle of bourbon branded Statesman and travel to Kentucky to investigate. There they find their American equivalent, posing as an alcoholic manufacturer. After a brief run in with Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum), they realise they are on the same side and unite. 

Their common enemy is Poppy (Julianne Moore), head of a global drug cartel and robotics genius. She has poisoned all of her drugs with a lethal disease, and promises the cure if all drugs are legalized, allowing her to enjoy her success and come out of hiding.

Unfortunately the US President (Bruce Greenwood) has no qualms about letting all the drug users die as it will mean he is remembered as the President who won the war on drugs and Poppy will be blamed.

Affected by the virus are Eggsy’s girlfriend Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), Tequila and the President’s chief of staff, who objects to his plan but is sent away.

Eggsy investigates with Statesman agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) and his mentor Harry (Colin Firth) who survived being shot in the first film but temporarily lost his memory and is not yet back to his best.

Can Eggsy stop Poppy’s scheme? How much can he trust Statesman or Harry? Will he find the antidote in time?

First things first, here’s what works- the action sequences retain the gloriously gory and overblown touches of the original, and while it lacks anything as madly brilliant as the original’s “Freebird” sequence there are some great scraps here. There’s also a nice little gag that plays on one of the first film’s major scenes.

The returning cast are all on form, with Egerton being allowed to let Eggsy’s chavvy enthusiasm to pop up at times. Firth is excellent again especially as he has to play both the badass Harry and the softer, damaged version who can’t remember who he is.

Mark Strong is good in everything he does and here he gets more to do as Merlin.

I also liked that they kept the Princess from the first movie as the love interest, and this relationship, while fleeting in terms of screen time  is handled well enough. Also good that they brought back Edward Holcroft’s obnoxious toff Charlie as Poppy’s cybernetically enhanced goon as it added to his vendetta against Eggsy. 

The newcomers are decent, although Tatum plays less of a role than trailers suggest. Pascal’s swaggering cowboy Whiskey is pretty badass and as their boss Champagne, Jeff Bridges is his usual charming self. The surprise was Halle Berry who is better here than I’ve seen her in a while. 

Whiskey in action

Julianne Moore is clearly enjoying her campy, flamboyant villain turn but it’s less fun for the audience and it can’t match Samuel L. Jackson in the first flick. She’s not bad, and quite fun, but her reasons are flimsy.

But Poppy’s plan is pretty smart and the twist of having a callous President was smart.

There are a few flaws, some characters from the first film are written out rather cheaply and there is a sense of it sticking to formula. But the formula does work and it delivers plenty of laughs and fun along the way. 

There’s also quite a nice extended cameo from Elton John playing himself, Poppy’s hostage and keying up “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” to soundtrack a shoot out.

Harry and Eggsy together again

In fact the music throughout is playful and clever.

I really enjoyed it but MWF and I both felt this is probably where we should leave Eggsy as a third outing might stretch it too far.

Verdict: It can’t match the first movie but this is still a fun, frantic romp. OTT in the best way and with its tongue firmly in cheek this kept me entertained throughout. 7.5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: I Can Make You Hate by Charlie Brooker

I’ve long been a fan of Charlie Brooker, who previously wrote a beautifully scathing television column for The Guardian. And have read a few of his collections before, and this captures the end of his Screen Burn column.

The pieces cover 2009-12 and so it’s a little out of date, although it is quite nice to look back at various controversies, news stories and events with hindsight. Brooker attacks a variety of topics with his usual jet black humour and surreal, grotesque hyperbole. It had me laughing out loud and smiling repeatedly, and I found that Brooker is on the money quite frequently. 

There are times when he goes for lazy gags, but it’s evident he knows this himself. And they are off set when he takes unique views on topics and shows real insight.

What is most interesting is Brooker’s frank assessment of his own role, his own writing style and his changing character. Brooker addresses the fact he is mellowing, that he can’t muster the same anger for trivial reality TV. There’s even a sense of guilt over previous punching down. Some might regard this as going soft or even some form of “selling out” but it makes sense. It shows a maturing writer, and his open acknowledgment of this makes sense. The shift isn’t glaring as Brooker can still fire himself up and throw barbs, but the targets have changed.

It’s a very entertaining read and one you can dip in and out of.

Verdict: Sarky, dark and biting, Brooker is an entertaining and fiery writer. But these are not just rants they are tempered with insight, awareness and humour. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Riff-Raff, Rebels and Rock Gods by Garry Bushell

I knew of Garry Bushell before as a slightly laddish TV critic, but with this book covering his time as a rock journalist during the late 70s and early 80s I decided to check it out as it featured some bands I like. I also like tales of old time rock and roll stars who weren’t as neutered and bland as the current crop.

After the punk boom died down the musical landscape seems to have been a varied place with punk continuing but morphing into subgenres like Oi! as well as a resurgence of ska indluenced bands with the 2 Tone acts. There was also the birth of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM, for acronym fans). 

As a journalist for Sounds magazine, Bushell would go out and join bands on the road and interview them. It seems to have been a time for debauchery, excess and, in many cases, violence. His introduction sees him call it the best years of his life and yet the first two pieces, which see him touring India with Hanoi Rocks and in Berlin with The Exploited, are filled with griping and complaining.

He’s far happier while joining ZZ Top in Vegas and there are some fun tales later on, but enjoyment of the book hinges on how much you warm to Bushell, who is a frustrating guide on these trips. While showing great enthusiasm and a knack for inventive similes, Bushell can be extremely blokey in places and the attitudes towards homosexuality will appear backwards to many modern readers.

The rock stars here are a mixed bunch appearing as a mix daft posers, barely more than thugs, drunk disasters and the occasional nice guy (hello, Ozzy Osbourne). The bands are a mix too with big, familiar names like Ozzy, ZZ Top, The Specials and Iron Maiden rubbing shoulders with bands who faded out (Hanoi Rocks, Angelic Upstarts and Judge Dread). It’s interesting to hear about acts you know, but there’s something more fascinating about the bands who didn’t make it. And one of the most entertaining sections sees Bushell joining the Angelic Upstarts for a gig in a prison. The anti-authority aggression they bring is well received by the cons although the chaplain, tricked by their name is shocked.
It’s an interesting read, but at times irritating. It does however capture a lost era, not only of music and music journalism, but of the political and social landscape.

Verdict: Entertaining enough but Bushell isn’t always a likeable writer. The stories are entertaining and there is a lot of humour on show, but much is rather juvenile. An interesting glance back at rock’s past in an unsettled era. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Princess and the Queen by George R. R. Martin

Currently loving the Game of Thrones TV show and still annoyed by the long, long wait for The Winds of Winter to be released and continue the series (it’s been almost 4 years since I finished last part) I needed my George R. R. Martin itch scratching so chose this short novel.

Set 200 years before The Song of Ice and Fire series this details the war between different factions of the Targaryen clan. When King Viserys dies the question of who is next causes a rift. Many feel Princess Rhaenyra, his oldest child should be next but Queen Alicent argues it should be his son Prince Aegon, as the oldest male heir.

The Princess and the Queen are old rivals, with the Queen fearing for the safety of her kids if the Princess takes the throne. What follows is a retelling of the war in the form of a history recorded by a fictional character.

While it lacks the great characterisation of Martin’s writing it still makes for a good read, a gripping tale of war, treachery and dragons. It keeps the writer’s knack for creating a complicated, textured world and not shying away from bloody, brutal violence.

Also on show here are some dragon on dragon fights and the whole thing is a cracking read. Quick, involving and entertaining it provides more background of the world of Westeros and the characters introduced are vivid and interesting.

Verdict: The history format means that the variety of perspectives found in the Ice and Fire books are lacking, but this short trip to the same world is an involving read nonetheless. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.


Film Review: Dunkirk

See this film now.

From the opening scene where a handful of British soldiers make their way through deserted streets as Nazi propaganda about their being surrounded flutters down until the end this is a thoroughly gripping movie. I wouldn’t necessarily say entertaining as it left my nerves in shreds.

Christopher Nolan in the directing chair films it magnificently, and there are some amazing shots, particularly our first sight of the vast beach where the British soldiers have lined up, looking pathetically vulnerable stood out in the open.

The movie shuffles the time sequence, but while the first threw me the shifts are handled well and it’s easy to keep track of where everyone is. The film follows several characters throughout the day.

Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead is one of the soldiers we see at the beginning. And we follow his attempts to get off the beach. Posing as a stretcher bearer, hiding on the pier and at one point soaking himself to appear as one of the men from a sunken vessel, Tommy is determined to get home and there is a desperation to his actions which feels all too understandable.

Tommy meets other soldiers along the way including Alex (Harry Styles) and we see their attempts to survive against the odds. 

At the end of the pier is navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy)  are the men trying to sort out the evacuation. The pier can only take one boat at a time and the beach is too shallow for larger boats. With 400,000 men on the beach and Winston Churchill aiming for 30,000 to be evacuated they face a tough choice.  Their only hope is the small boats requisitioned by the government to help the evacuation.

One of these is the small pleasure yacht owned by Mark Rylance’s Dawson, who along with his son Peter  (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their hand George (Barry Keoghan). They head for France but en route find a shell shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy, the sole survivor of a U Boat attack who is understandably shaken by the experience and urges them to turn around for home.

Above them they watch as a three man Spitfire squad attempt to defend the beach and retreating ships from the Luftwaffe. Farrier (Tom Hardy) does his best but with a damaged fuel gauge has no idea how long he can stay in the fight.

The action then cuts between the different characters as their paths cross, events seen from different perspectives. 

The whole movie is almost unbearably tense, from Farrier having to try and work out how much fuel he has left before he heads for home to the soldiers on the pier who can do little more than wait and hope the next German bomb doesn’t have their name on. The feeling of claustrophobia and being trapped, even on the vast, wind swept beach is palpable throughout. The isolation of the men, even with home seemingly so close, is frustrating for the men and the audience, and a reminder of how close to Britain the land war got.

Most terrifying is the fact that even off the beach safety isn’t guaranteed. Scenes of men trapped in small, confined spaces rapidly filling with water are genuinely terrifying.

Several points during the film I found myself gripping the arm rests of the Odeon seats, or MWF’s arm. And in violation of the Wittertainment Code of Conduct I caught myself muttering “No” at several moments.

When the small boats finally arrive, and the relief and joy of the soldiers explodes I found myself openly crying. It was a combination of the relief and reaction of the men, and the respect for this real, genuine act of heroism by ordinary people.

For a war film the refreshing thing here is the lack of big showy heroics. For many there is only a fight for survival and some questionable acts along the way. But there are heroes.

Tom Hardy, even with his face covered with a mask manages to convey Farrier’s inner conflict. He must decide whether to stay longer to help even if it means he might not be able to fly home.

Kenneth Branagh’s naval officer exudes a quiet decency and heroism, a dedication to his job and duty to get the men to safety. Even im the face of danger he manages to keep his cool and even jokes with his army colleague over the other’s lack of sea knowledge.

But possibly the greatest hero here is Dawson played by Mark Rylance with simple nobility. Not only does he set out to help others but there is compassion in the way he handles Murphy’s shattered survivor.

When George asks if the soldier is a coward due to his behaviour Dawson replies that he is “not himself” before adding “he may never be himself again”. It’s a small moment that acknowledges the mental effects of war and hints at Dawson’s own experiences prior to this. 

This is an exceedingly well crafted war film with a cast which does great across the board, from old hands like Rylance and Branagh to the newcomers Styles and Whitehead. The dialogue, while sparse for much of the film, provides brief insigjt into the characters and the tense, relentless pace means that you’re locked in from start to finish. 

It manages to capture the big and small moments, while shying away from being overly sentimental or gung ho. The tone is handled well throughout and I was genuinely moved by the film. 

Verdict: An instant classic, Nolan delivers a masterpiece of war cinema. The ensemble cast do their jobs brilliantly across the board and the action sequences are amazing. 10/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.


Book Review: Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson

Having enjoyed his short book about his adventures as a news reporter I decided to check this book out, a longer more detailed account of John Simpson’s life and career. 

While a lot of the same ground is covered, there are plenty of fresh tales to tell, and Simpson’s globetrotting to some of the world’s most dangerous places. There are near misses, tense moments and adventures spanning from the mid sixties to the late nineties. As well as this Simpson talks about his childhood and personal life, but the majority of the book is about his career as a BBC journalist. 

Simpson writes with candour and humour, discussing his odd drive to head into danger and to ignore the potential risks. This drive meant he was a skilled journalist and placed himself at the heart of global situations.

There are times when he seems a tad pompous, and politically I didn’t always agree with him, but Simpson is largely a clever, compassionate and, in places, humourous writer. He has a knack for capturing smaller stories among the chaos and a good sense of character, sketching in the figures and giving his honest opinion on those he meets.

It’s an interesting read which shows the horror of war and the changing world. Simpson has some interesting stories and gives insight into how the media works.

Verdict: A massively interesting and entertaining read which spans a massive section of modern history. Simpson is a talented writer and really pulls the reader into the story while avoiding sensationalism. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.


Book Review: The Empty Hours by Ed McBain

Next up from the out of order omnibus I bought is this book, actually a collection of three separate stories involving the men of the 87th Precinct. All are loaded with McBain’s usual hard boiled, fast flowing dialogue and knack for character.

While each story is shorter than the normal adventures, each is a well executed crime story, with an interesting, gripping case at the heart.

The book also works in that it gives McBain an opportunity to tell slightly different stories, and to bring other detectives forward. The lead of the series thus far has been Steve Carella, who is the lead detective in the majority of cases. The other detectives play their parts, but Carella is the major hero.

Here, Carella is the lead in the title story, where he uses a victim’s cheque book to piece together the woman’s life. There’s a neat twist in the story and as in many of their cases it hinges on a small detail dropped in early on.


In the second case, J, Carella is a supporting player. When a rabbi is killed during passover it leaves the squad’s joker Meyer reflecting on his own faith and place in his community. Meyer has before been on the sidelines offering quips and humour, but here the jokes are less frequent as he faces antisemitism and fanatacism. It works extremely well and there is some clever wrong footing on display. 

Carella is absent entirely in the third, Storm, where Cotton Hawes is embroiled in a murder investigation while on a ski trip. The story strips him of allies and forensic techniques, and relies on Hawes’ instincts and questioning.

It’s a thrilling read and the ending shows McBain’s writing at its best, bringing intelligence and something approaching poetry to a genre tale.

Verdict: Three great short stories which show McBain’s skill and each hooks the reader. Easy to plough through and entertaining on every page. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.


Book Review: Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson

Subtitled The Jon Ronson Mysteries this book is a collection of articles by the writer which sees him focus on a wide range of topics.

There are criminals, missing persons, mad scientists and superheroes. All are tackled with wit and insight, with Ronson showing a keen eye for detail and ear for the offhand remarks which reveal more than intended.

Due to the breadth of people and ideas, the tone shifts repeatedly. There are some which are just entertaining, such as when he spends times behind the scenes of Deal or No Deal which seems almost cult like. Or disconcerting conversations with robots which suggest that the rise of the machines is still some way off. There’s also a surreal entry about Ronson going to a UFO convention with the pop star Robbie Williams.

Others are more sinister, with Ronson investigating the seeming cover up of a missing person from a cruise ship, or the case of Jonathan King. King, a pop music producer and B-list celebrity convicted of child sex offences. This section makes for an interesting, if troubling read.

Ronson follows the case, interviewing King several times, and it throws up many different issues. Central to it all is King himself, who seems unrepentant, viewing the accusers as overplaying the lasting effects of his actions. He is loud, cracking gags and rather unpleasant, and yet Ronson states that he rather likes King, despite knowing he’s guilty. It’s a brave admission to make, an acceptance of the fact that people who do terrible things can have likeable qualities. It’s also an indicator of King’s humour and flamboyance, which were part of how he lured in his victims.

Conversely the trial of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire cheats is less grave, but does contain a smaller human tragedy, the vilification and mockery of Charles Ingram. Ronson shows the man’s frailty and given his fear of appearing stupid the whole scandal appears more damaging.

All the different pieces are worth reading and there are some nice ideas throughout, such as Ronson meeting different Americans on different rungs of the economic ladder. Starting with a dishwasher he goes up by talking to someone on 5 times as much, eventually interviewing a billionaire. It raises questions about tax and the attitudes towards it, and how much money you need to be happy.

I’ve loved Ronson’s writing for a while and here he is in sensational form, producing a series of pieces which are all fascinating reads which range from the bizarre to the creepy.

Verdict: Ronson shows his skill as a writer in tackling a range of subjects, all with insight, humour and intelligence. A cracking read filled with interesting stories and memorable people. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.


Book Review: Lady, Lady I Did It! By Ed McBain 

This book was a bit of a pain to track down, for some reason while most of McBain’s 87th Precinct books are easy to find on Amazon, this one wasn’t and I had to find a second hand omnibus with it in. Thankfully, it was worth the effort.

While it’s shorter than a lot of the other adventures in the series this actually works in the story’s favour. The central crime is rather simple, a man walks into a bookshop and opens fire, killing four people. One of the victims turns out to be closely connected to one of the 87th Precinct’s detectives.

It’s this that drives much of the book, with the personal aspect colouring the approach towards the case and impacting on the characters in different ways. All of this is done with McBain’s usual skill of charcterisation and dialogue.

As they dig into the life and death of one of their own’s loved ones they find skeletons in the closet. Most interesting is the fact it leads them to an area where morality and the law don’t match up. It’s the first time I can remember that the men of the 87th question the laws they have to enforce.

Some of the covers

The book rattles along at a decent pace and while the crime at the heart isn’t the most nuanced, McBain writes cleverly, dropping in the clues along the way. The reader, or this reader at least, finds themself in the same position as the detectives, so intently focused on the personal connection that it’s not until the end that the other little signs all make sense.

A gripping and engaging read with more emotional clout than some of the other novels in the series. 

Verdict: Another sensational book in the series, with McBain writing a story that unfolds quickly but intelligently. Hooked me in from start to finish. 8/10. 

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.