Gone Girl Movie Review

I really liked this film. Gone Girl is a about a couple Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) who have been married for five years. Amy goes missing. We learn about the couple through a series of flashbacks – on the surface perfect (especially Amy) but it’s clear there are problems with the marriage.

I did find it took a while for the film to get going. I found the dialogue in the scene where Nick and Amy meet for the first time too pretentious.  I don’t know whether the Director wants us to like this couple – I certainly didn’t. Initially this is a missing person detective genre with the Nick at some point being the suspect for Amy’s abduction and/or murder. The movie then becomes more of a psychological thriller before morphing into more of a horror genre.

Simultaneously in the second half of the movie there are some delicious scenes of black comedy. Often mixing genres in this way isn’t successful, but in Gone Girl it worked for me. Manipulation is a theme of this movie; not only do Ben and Amy manipulate each other but the audience is manipulated too but in an enjoyable way. 4 stars.

Riot Club – Movie Review

The Riot Club is a thinly disguised version of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club. Membership is by invitation only and restricted to very wealthy, former public schoolboys. Membership of the Riot Club enhances one’s prospects of reaching the upper echelons of the Establishment. The first half of the film deals with the Club’s initiation tests and a romance between a new club member and a northern state-educated female.  There were some funny moments in this part of the film. One problem I had was that all the Club members were portrayed as stereotypical ex-public schoolboys so that they all looked and sounded the same to me and I had difficulty telling one character from another. Interestingly in the film itself one outsider remarks ‘They all look the same to me.’

The second half of the film covers the Club dinner; a white-tie affair in the Club’s own uniform held in a gastro pub outside town. But unlike the Bullingdon Club whose dinners merely involve smashing up restaurants and paying over the odds for the damage, the Riot Club night out gets very nasty and ends with serious violence.  The nastiness wasn’t just in the violence; the Riot Club members really loathed people who did not share their background.  I felt this was over the top; a less ham-fisted more satirical approach would have made a better film. 2 stars.

Before I go to Sleep – Movie Review

I have already read the book by SJ Watson, but despite this I still found the film quite good but not as good as the book.

Every time 40 year Christine (Nicole Kidman) goes to sleep she loses her entire memory. When she wakes up she asks the man lying next to her (Colin Firth) who he is. I’m Ben your husband, he replies. Each morning Dr Nash (Mark Strong) phones Christine and reminds her that she keeps a video diary recording what she has learned about herself each day. She finds inconsistencies between her diary entries and what Ben tells.

The book is more intense in that it is written from Christine’s point of view, which the film can only do in the video diary playback scenes. There was a lot of repetition in the book as Christine wakes up each morning and goes through the same routine. This was shortened in the film with just the phone call from Dr Nash to indicate a new day.

The tension does build up in the film but the second half of the book is really scary and the climax is covered better in the book. I’d give the film 3 stars.

Lustrum – Book Review

Lustrum is the second novel in Robert Harris’s trilogy about the life of Cicero in the last years of the Roman Republic. The first Imperium, which I’ve read, deals with Cicero’s career as a lawyer and politician up to the point of his election as consul. The third book in the trilogy is yet to be published. Lustrum starts with Cicero’s year as consul in year 63BC. Lustrum, as with Imperium, is written from the point of view of Tiro, Cicero’s slave and personal secretary.

Cicero is shown to be a man of integrity and a staunch defender of the Roman Republic. However he is pragmatic and prepared to make political deals that compromise his beliefs. The first half of Lustrum deals with Cicero’s defeat of the conspiracy led by Catalina to destroy the Republic. Harris’s description of these political intrigues makes for thrilling reading. Western politicians no longer murder their rivals but apart from that every stratagem in the modern politician’s repertoire was honed by the Romans. The first half ends with Cicero ordering the extra judicial execution of some of the conspirators.

Cicero now in a state of hubris indulges in some corrupt practices to acquire a luxurious new villa. (Harris dedicates this book to Peter – does he mean British politician Peter Mandelson?) He makes a number of mistakes in particular in allowing himself to be outmanoeuvred by an alliance of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. Caesar is very much the villain in this book. I felt the pace slowed in the second half of the book; there was less action and more of Cicero’s speeches. Although Lustrum is a good read, Imperium is better. 4 stars.

 

DarkMarket – Book Review

DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia by Misha Glenny.

Misha Glenny is an established investigative journalist who has worked in tv and radio as well as in print. I decided to read this book after a talk he gave at the Edinburgh Book festival a couple of years ago. The book describes the series of events leading to the taking down of the DarkMarket site where cyber criminals would buy and sell stolen credit card information. It’s a well written book based on interviews with police and convicted criminals. This does risk the police point of view being economical with the truth and the criminals either exaggerating their own importance or fibbing outright. Glenny does give a health warning regarding the truthfulness of one of his interviewees.

The background is truly worldwide covering the UK, Ukraine, US, Russia, Sri Lanka and Turkey. The hackers were all male, highly intelligent but with personality disorders and often more interested in showing off their technical skills than making money. They were mostly very young: one Ukrainian hacker, now a politician, had already established a precursor to the DarkMarket site before he was eighteen. Another experienced German cyber- criminal was still at school.

The book doesn’t go into too much technical detail, which I found a good thing. Although the book is non-fiction, it is written in thriller style with ‘cliff-hangers’ at the end of each chapter. However I did find some of the chapters disjointed and I found it difficult keeping track of all the characters who are referred to both by their real names and on-line aliases. Three and a half stars.

 

An Officer and a Spy – Book Review

Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors. His genres are thrillers and historical fiction and although the subject matter varies, his books are always consistently good. This is no exception. An Officer and a Spy is both a thriller and historical fiction dealing with the Dreyfus Affair. This is the real case of 1890s Jewish French army officer wrongly accused of spying and sentenced to life with solitary confinement on Devils Island. Although I knew how the story ends it was still gripping reading.

The tale is told from the point of view of Colonel Picquart who is involved in Dreyfus’ arrest then asked to head army intelligence. At first Picquart is convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt then gradually uncovers evidence pointing to his innocence. Picquart is blocked by the army top brass who don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake. Later it emerges that Dreyfus has been framed on orders from the very top. The book describes both army and Paris salon life in the 1890s. In due course Picquart is himself in some danger and has to make moral choices.

My only criticism is that the final part of the book is a series of courtroom dramas and could have been shortened by a hundred pages or so. Four and a half stars but if I have to choose between four and five, I’ll give it five.

 

Book Review: Vichy France by Robert Paxton

This seminal book first published in 1972 exploded the myth that Vichy was imposed by the Nazis in the face of massive French resistance. It also ignited public discussion of Vichy in France itself with Paxton being subsequently called as a witness in trials of former Vichy officials. Paxton describes how Vichy hoped to become an equal partner in the new Nazi German dominated Europe, while at the same time maintaining the fiction of neutrality. Vichy’s actions were in part motivated to save her fleet and her empire but when even these were lost at the end of 1942, Paxton shows how Vichy was motivated by fear of an allied invasion and a desire to become a broker in a future peace treaty.

Vichy was never a fully signed up Fascist regime but a proponent of a mix of socially conservative, Catholic, agrarian, anti-Communist, anti-Anglo-Saxon and anti-Semitic ideologies. Despite this Vichy was domestically a technocratic regime with the same civil servants running the Vichy war economy later in charge of post war economic planning as if nothing had happened.

Not a light read with plenty of detail and statistics but a serious historical classic.  5 stars.

Six Years by Harlan Coben

Like all of Coben’s books that I’ve read, this deals with middle class suburban people who are not what they seem and have a past which catches up with them.

I really liked the first half of the book; there was plenty of intrigue which kept me speculating what was going on and consequently I was quickly hooked. However I was increasingly disappointed in the second half of the book as answers to the mystery were provided; there was just something unsatisfactory about them. I did find the dialogue clichéd and Jake’s frequent proclamations of his love for Natalie rather cheesy. The characters didn’t seem very real to me, especially Jake who just didn’t feel like a college professor. 3 stars.

The Innocent – Book Review

I really liked this book: it’s all about plot that keeps you hooked with twist and turns and more unanswered questions being continuously raised. As with other Harlan Coben books I really like the theme of middle class suburban folk with a past that catches up with them. I found the book started a little slow as it took a while to get all the threads going. I did find there were too many characters that meant I had to go back every now and then to recall a character’s earlier appearance. I thought the dialogue and characters a bit clichéd.  While there were no contacts in the mafia a middle class housewife could call on, a device Coben has used in other books, there is a convenient walk on police contact whose hobby is creating a stripper database. I thought this a bit lazy of Coben and there really was no need for him to do this in order to keep the story moving. As usual with Coben there are plenty of twists and turns throughout the story but the final twists in the last two chapters were just a little too pat.  All these negative points may be the reason for some readers to give this book a low star rating, but for me they were more irritants that prevented me giving five stars. For me a thriller has to have a good plot and be a page turner and in this respect Coben delivers. 4 stars.

The Two Faces of January – Movie Review

The film is adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel and there similarities to The Talented Mr Ripley (TTMR).

The film starts in 1962 Athens when a wealthy middle-aged American Chester MacFarland (played by  Viggo Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) meet with Rydal (Oscar Isaac). Rydal is a young American drifter working as a tour guide exploiting his customers’ lack of the Greek language to short change them. In some ways Rydal resembles Tom Ripley although he is far less of a sociopath.

Chester turns out to be a fraudster escaping from investors he has swindled.  All three end up on the run and move to Crete. The plot is less complex than TTMR and the interest is mainly in the interactions between the characters, in particular the two men. In turns each tries to manipulate and get the better of the other. Added to this Rydal becomes infatuated with Colette. Overall one of the better films I have seen this year. 3 stars.

BTW This is the first time I’ve seen a British Board of Film Classification warning of “scenes of smoking”. And yes, there is a lot of smoking.