T2 Trainspotting

Posted: February 20, 2017 in Film reviews, Uncategorized
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Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle.

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The boys were dismayed to discover the next train back to Edinburgh was next Thursday

**Warning** whilst I won’t be spoiling any major revelations within T2, my review will reveal plot points specific to the original Trainspotting.

 

It’s been twenty years since Mark Renton (McGregor) betrayed his friends and made off with the ill-gotten gains from their drug deal, but now, after living in Amsterdam with his wife for two decades, he’s returned to Edinburgh where he reconnects with his friends, Spud Murphy (Bremner) and Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Lee Miller). Spud isn’t doing so good, he’s still addicted to heroin and is estranged from his former girlfriend Gail (Shirley Henderson) and his son Fergus. Sick Boy has moved on from heroin to cocaine. He runs a squalid pub he inherited from his aunty and is romantically involved with a Bulgarian prostitute named Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) and the two make money from a sordid blackmail scheme.

Mark wants to save Spud, and he wants to reconcile with Sick Boy. Sick Boy on the other hand is still smarting from the betrayal of twenty years ago and wants revenge. In this he is not alone because Francis Begbie (Carlyle) has also never forgiven Mark. He’s been in prison for the last twenty years but after being turned down for parole he escapes.

Slowly but surely the four former friends find their lives edging closer together once more, but with revenge and betrayal in the air, is tragedy the likely outcome?

 

There’s been talk of a Trainspotting sequel for many years, and Irvine Welsh even wrote a sequel “Porno” but it’s taken a long time and several abortive attempts to bring the characters of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie back to the screen, and in the end the film only borrows from Welsh, with a mostly original story from screenwriter John Hodge.

Trainspotting is an odd film for me. It’s not something I watched when it first came out, in fact it didn’t appeal in the slightest. Eventually I caught it on video and was surprised to find I enjoyed it. Still I never felt the urge to re-watch it. When T2 was announced I thought it might be a good idea to revisit the original before seeing the sequel, and for a variety of reasons I actually watched it twice in the last few weeks. These viewings have taught me that it is a very good film, and also provided a good basis to watch the sequel.

So the odd thing is, in the past few weeks I’ve gone from being someone who was quite ambivalent about Trainspotting, to someone who’s quite a fan, of both the original, and now the sequel. Because you see the sequel is very, very good.

I think the long lag between the films has only helped matters. This clearly isn’t a cash in of the kind we’ve seen a lot of lately (Zoolander 2 etc.). Rather than a sequel that tries to recreate the original, T2 is a very different beast, albeit one that utilises existing characters and harks back, not only to the original film, but even further, to the childhood of these characters.

The insurgent, in-your-face edginess of the original film has gone, to be replaced by an air of melancholic nostalgia and regret. These characters aren’t the nihilistic young men they once were, they’re middle aged and life hasn’t necessarily been good for any of them.

As the characters have changed so has Edinburgh, and the world. Gentrification and immigration factor into the story, and social media is obviously something that wasn’t around back in 1996. At the heart of what makes the film so successful is a good script, great direction and four very assured performances from actors who know their characters inside out and slip back into the roles as easily as if they were putting on an old coat.

Of the four characters Renton is perhaps the one who’s changed the most. He’s successful, on the surface at least, and has replaced his addiction for heroin with an addiction for keep fit. McGregor plays the part well, letting just enough of the cheeky old Renton slip out to ensure you know it’s the same person.

Of all the characters Sick Boy was always perhaps the most nihilistic, in part because of the death of his child. Jonny Lee Miller is an actor I’ve grown to appreciate more and more in recent years thanks to his work on Elementary, and in many respects he has the hardest role to play. Sick Boy isn’t as innately likeable as Renton or Spud, and he doesn’t have that ‘man you love to hate’ vibe that Begbie does, so its testament to Lee Miller’s acting that he makes a character it would be so easy to dislike, into one we can empathise with, and even root for. His love for the woman he’s inveigled into his blackmail schemes even manages to be quite sweet.

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The Begbie constipation cure continues to have a 100% success rate.

Begbie was pretty terrifying in Trainspotting, and time has not dented his threat level. Robert Carlyle was scary before, but if anything he’s even scarier now. Time has hardened Franco’s heart (but possibly softened other areas) but in his own way he’s regretful as the others. He just has a harder time showing it. None of which detracts from the fact that he remains a man you would never want to get on the wrong side of.

As Spud Bremner was probably the nicest guy in the original, and so he remains in the sequel. Never the sharpest tool in the box, it was notable that Spud was the one you felt sorriest for. Time hasn’t been kind to him but Spud continues to reflect this. Bremner does a good job of showing us how much Spud has grown, even though he hasn’t managed to escape his addiction. He’s still not the smartest man in the room, but he isn’t quite the loveable fool he was in Trainspotting, and whilst Renton suggests he finds a new addiction, and jokingly suggests boxing, Spud instead latches on to an unexpected talent, with nice allusions to Irvine Welsh himself.

Many other characters from the original are back as well, the aforementioned Shirley Henderson as Gail, the redoubtable James Cosmo as Renton’s dad, and even Kelly McDonald as Renton’s former under age lover Diane (although hers is the only reprise that seems ever so slightly forced). And Welsh returns as Mikey Forrester. As the only real new character of note, Nedyalkova as Veronika provides a vital outsider’s eye, able to view the ridiculousness of the men she’s involved with in a way no other character can—in particular her response to Renton and Sick Boy’s bromance is hilarious.

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They shoot, they score!

As I said, this film isn’t as abrasive as the original, and is perhaps a little more comfortable, a little more middle aged, which is surely the point. Boyle’s direction is assured, and in concert with Hodges script he’s created a film that manages to be laugh out loud funny one moment, scary the next, and heart reading soon after. Yes, there are some contrivances, and yes the scheme to publicly fund a brothel is a tiny bit farfetched, and the end does descend into standard thriller conventions (though thankfully it didn’t turn into the end of Blade Runner which I had feared—Boyle has form after all, Sunshine started out as a hard sci-fi film and turned into Event Horizon in the end!)

Maybe it helps that I’m roughly the same age as many of these characters, so even though my childhood was nothing like theirs I can still relate, and still find common ground with their nostalgia, their regret for the past and for roads not taken, and their grief for the people in their lives who are long gone, and for their own lost youth.

First there is an opportunity, then there is a betrayal, but in the final analysis what you’re left with is a very good follow up, to a very good original. Boyle has joked about making T3 in another 20 years, I for one will look forward to that.

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“And then they lived happily ever after?”

The Seven Rs

Posted: February 18, 2017 in Regarding writing
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4-computer-catAt one time in the UK education was boiled down to the pithy catchphrase of “The Three Rs” which were Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic. Now the first thing you’ll notice is that only one of those words actually starts with an R, but it does highlight the areas you’d want a child to do well in; Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Of course, “The R the W and the M” doesn’t sound anywhere near as catchy.

I haven’t done a blog post about writing in a while and thought I should correct that omission, and so I’d like to talk about the seven Rs. These are seven things all writers will need to do or get used to experiencing. Actually in fairness I’d better state off right off the bat that only six of these are certain, the seventh is something beyond your control I’m afraid. On the plus side you’ll be pleased to know that six of my seven Rs are actually words that begin with an R at least!

Anyway let’s begin.

1. Reading

animals___cats_cat_reading_a_book_088072_It goes without saying that it’s impossible to be a writer unless you are a reader. I’m sure there are some perfectly successful writers who aren’t voracious readers, but I imagine they must be in the minority. Reading helps expand your vocabulary, it helps you understand what works and more importantly what doesn’t; never underestimate the benefit of reading a badly written book.

Reading the kind of book you want to write will give you an appreciation of the genre, identifying what sells and what doesn’t, and also highlighting which tropes and clichés are overused (and sometimes which ones are de rigueur for the genre). Reading books outside of your comfort zone expands your worldview and can only improve your writing. Factual texts are useful for research and generating story ideas, the same with reading newspapers (how often have you read a book or watched a TV drama that was “ripped from the headlines.”?) Of course you should never let reading get in the way of the second R…

2. ‘Riting

It stands to reason that if you want to be a writer, then you have to write. Plenty of people watch a film and think they could do better, lots of people believe they have a novel in them, plenty of people have vivid imaginations and can come up with plots and characters. What separates these people from actual writers is that writers write. It really is that simple. If you’re a frustrated novelist then the only way to turn yourself into a writer is to write. You can fill notebooks full of ideas, you can read books on writing, take writing courses, but until you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, any potential you have is untapped.

Now once you start writing you’ll have need of the third R…

3. Routine.

Writing is like exercise, the more often you do it the easier it becomes and the better you become at it (usually). But like exercise writing is something you must make yourself undertake. A large proportion of writers can procrastinate to an Olympic standard, and in the modern world there are a whole heap of potential distractions; friends, family, chores, work, TV, Facebook, Twitter…the list goes on and on, and some people won’t write because they don’t have the time.

So, with that in mind having a routine, making time on a regular basis to write, is an essential. Some people will claim to write for several hours a day, some people aren’t happy unless they produce 1000+ words a day, but there is no right or wrong here. If all you can spare is 15 minutes a day, then that’s all you can spare. Just do it every day. Produce a few hundred words a day and within a year you should have produced over 70,000 words. That’s technically novel length. Of course, what you have to factor into your routine is not just writing, but also the fourth R…

4. Reviewing.

It may be that there are a select few writers who pour pure gold down on paper with their very first pen stroke, but somehow I doubt it. Writing is hard work, but harder still is reviewing and editing what you’ve written, polishing the lump of coal you’ve created until it’s a sparkling diamond, or at the very least a highly-polished lump of coal.
You’re not just correcting spelling mistakes and other typos (I once had a character take his shit off and throw in on the floor) you’re also rewriting, changing the emphasis and removing extraneous detail—and you’ll be amazed just how much you can excise from a story whilst not altering its structure one jot. I’ve trimmed down multiple stories to fit a word count; try doing flash fiction to really hone this skill.

The difficulty with reviewing is knowing when you’ve finished. Like a sculptor who keeps chipping away at a stature, or an artist who keeps adding a brushstroke to a portrait, your story might never feel finished. At the end of a day you’ll always find something to refine, even after your tenth draft, the trick is knowing when enough is enough. More than once I’ve realised that I ended up changing words back to what they’d been multiple drafts before!

Again there’s no right or wrong number of revisions here. There comes a point where you really don’t feel you can polish a story any more, but be warned; I know I’ve submitted stories before now that, in hindsight, maybe still needed another going over, but by the same token don’t do 25 drafts if all you’re doing is changing ‘It’s’ to ‘It is’ and back again.

Once your review is complete, or as complete as it can be, it’s time to send your story out into the big wide world, which leads us on to the fifth, and lousiest, R…

5. Rejection.

As with several of the preceding points, rejection is not an absolute given. Some writers get lucky (famously James Herbert had The Rats picked up by the first publisher he sent it to) however 99.99% of writers don’t. That’s as true for me as it is for Stephen King or JK Rowling, and it will probably be true for you as well.

Rejection comes with the territory. It’s the same for actors, singers; in fact anyone in any creative field (and in fact anyone who ever went for a job interview, see this blog post has real world applications.)

Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your writing is shit; it might be that a publisher needed 20 stories to fill an anthology and out of the 300 they were submitted there were 20 that were better than yours. It might be that your story was too similar to another, or not the kind of thing they were looking for. Or it could just be it was because it was shit. Sadly you rarely find out unless the publisher is kind enough to provide some feedback.
Rejection is horrible, it’s shitty and dispiriting and depressing, but it’s also par for the course I’m afraid. This is where the sixth R comes in…

6. Resilience.

I once equated writing with boxing, and I still think it’s a good analogy. Rejections are like punches and you have to learn to take them, or throw in the towel. Just as there are many talented people who never start writing, similarly there are many talented writers who give up. I won’t ever denigrate anyone who quits the fight. Until you’ve received rejection after rejection for stories you’ve poured hours of work into, put your blood sweat and tears into, you can’t understand how much of a punch to the gut a rejection is, and plenty of times—especially when I’ve had a little run of rejections—I’ve thought “Sod this for a game of soldiers” and seriously considered knocking the whole thing on the head. Of course for me such feelings thankfully don’t last, and usually within a few days I’ve either sent a story off to another market, or started writing something else (or sometimes both!)

closeyouareThis is where resilience comes in. It’s hard and its painful, but often what separates the published author from the talented amateur is that one keeps going where the other decides enough is enough, and the sad irony is that this means talent and hard work are not enough, and often the people who make it are simply the ones who can take one more punch, or maybe even a dozen more punches. Frankly the only thing that keeps me going sometimes is the fear of quitting just before I make it.

If you keep going this is where the seventh R might come into play…

7. Reward.

Or maybe it doesn’t, because this is the one you have the least control over. You can be talented, you can work hard, you can be resilient, but the sad truth is that this doesn’t mean you’ll be successful, and in fact most published authors earn very little.

But then it maybe depends on your definition of reward. Reward can mean money, it can mean a three-book deal with Headline or a million dollar Hollywood film adaptation, or it can mean something less tangible. Seeing your name in print can be rewarding, holding a book with your name on the cover can be rewarding, having a nice review, or the respect of your peers can be rewarding.

None of which means I’d turn down Hollywood if they wanted to option anything I’ve written of course!

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Party Time!

So there it is, the seven Rs. Or is it? When I told my girlfriend about this blog she suggested that after Reward there should come Rejoicing, and maybe she’s right, and, after giving it more thought, it strikes me that there’s yet another R after that, because even if you read, write, review, handle rejection and get your reward, then after you finished rejoicing you need to think about what you’re going to do next. Which is where one final R comes into play.

Repeat!

The Lego Batman Movie

Posted: February 14, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Chris McKay. Starring Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson and Ralph Fiennes.

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“Dunnu dunnu dunnud dunna…BATMAN!”

Gotham City is blighted by a multitude of masked villains, most notably the Joker, but thankfully they’re protected by winged vigilante Batman (Arnett). Hero though he is, Batman is also something or an arrogant narcissist who was so traumatised by the death of his parents that he fears getting close to people ever again. After hurting Joker’s feelings by claiming he doesn’t have an arch enemy, and that Joker is just another bad guy, the clown prince of crime begins enacting a cunning plan that will potentially see Batman finally fall.

When Jim Gordon retires, and is replaced as Commissioner by his daughter Barbara, Batman suddenly finds his brand of lone wolf vigilantism is no longer flavour of the month. Barbara believes in team work, which is an anathema to a man who thinks the world revolves around him.

When the Joker catches everyone off guard by surrendering, Batman decides there’s only one way to truly rid Gotham of the clown prince of crime, but he’s just playing into Joker’s hands, and soon Gotham is plagued by an army of villains far deadlier than the likes of Penguin, Bane or Catwoman.

Will Batman’s burgeoning feelings for his new young ward, Dick Grayson (Cera) Barbara and faithful butler Alfred (Fiennes) help him defeat Joker and his newfound villainous allies, or will fear of being hurt once more ensure Batman fails to save Gotham City from destruction.

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“Get ready to smile!”

For anyone who’s seen the Lego Movie, it comes as no surprise to say that an awful lot of love has gone into the Lego Batman Movie. The Lego Movie might have caught people a little flat footed, but I think most will be going in to see this Bat themed offering with much higher expectations. Thankfully the Lego Batman Movie doesn’t disappoint. There might be a commercial impetus behind the Lego films, but when it’s balanced with such a commitment to making entertainment, who cares?

Right from Batman’s gravelly toned introduction this film is a hoot. This is a film made by people who seem to know Batman inside out, and who aren’t afraid to be both affectionate but also irreverent towards the Caped Crusader, whether it’s taking the mickey (frequently) out of the 1960s Batman, or making fun of last year’s Dawn of Justice (and really someone needs to tie Zach Snyder to a chair and make him watch this film on a loop until he gets it) this is a film that earns its right to laugh at Batman by virtue of clearly loving Batman.

Arnett is great as Bats/Bruce Wayne, aping Christian Bales deep tones and making Batman seem like a narcissistic arse, whilst also making us empathise with him. His fear of getting close to people and his apparent shallowness make perfect sense given what happened to him as a child, and more than once the film tugs on our heartstrings in a way far few Batman films have, even if any emotional beat is usually followed by some slapstick comedy or joke (usually at Bat’s expense) to ensure we aren’t downbeat for long.

The visuals are stunning and the films rockets along at a clipped pace. Pretty much every scene is crammed full of content, and this is clearly a film that will only benefit from repeated viewings so you can spot every little in joke.

After the recent funereal efforts from DC it’s so refreshing to see a film about Bats and co let loose and be fun.

There are a few (very few) flaws. Cramming every Batman villain into the background means no one outside of Joker really gets to shine—although Bane’s Tom Hardy style delivery raises a few titters—and as such Penguin, Catwoman and co get lost in the crowd. And yes the film does get a little soppy towards the end, but in fairness the film earns the right to do this, and it’s nowhere near as mawkish as the Lego Movie was in its latter stages.

Casting wise Cera makes for an engaging Robin, over eager and desperate for affection, but brave and resourceful as well, and similarly Dawson puts a lot into Barbara, and the ever so slightly sexist overtones of her Bat alter ego are nicely defused. Fiennes is a good Alfred, although it is curious to see him not playing a certain other character in the film (you’ll know who). On the subject of casting, it’s exceptionally neat to see who’s playing Two-Face!  Galifianakis is ok as Joker, but he is slightly hamstrung, given the child friendly nature of the film his Joker can’t be anywhere near as homicidal as he should be (he’s still better than Leto though!)

It’s funny, exciting, ever so slightly moving and, most of all, a film that adores Batman, even when it’s making fun of him. In fact especially when its making fun of him. Time will tell, but this might well end up in many Bat fans top three bat films.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to reheat my lobster thermidor. Oh yeah, and Iron Man sucks!

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“It’s not what it looks like, Alfred!”

Split

Posted: February 2, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley.

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“I see dead people!”

Three teenaged girls are abducted by a man named Dennis (McAvoy) who locks them in a dingy underground room. At first the girls believe they are being held by several different people but it soon becomes apparent that Dennis is actually one personality co-exiting with 22 others within a single body. Soon they meet Patricia, and also Hedwig, a capricious 9 year old. Hedwig gleefully advises them that they have been taken to be sacrificed to a 24th personality, known only as The Beast.

Meanwhile Dr Karen Fletcher (Buckley) has regular meetings with one of her patients, Kevin (McAvoy) who she has been treating for dissociative identity disorder (DID). Dr Fletcher believes that if she can understand DID she can find a breakthrough to cure illness and disability. She advises her peers that people with DID have manifest physical changes depending on which personality is dominant, and cites the example of a patient whose blindness was cured.

Back in the cellar the girls attempt to escape with no success. One of them, Casey (Taylor-Joy) has experienced trauma before, and attempts to connect with Hedwig. Meanwhile Dr Fletcher comes to realise that the facet of Kevin she’s talking to may not be the individual she thinks he is.

All too soon Kevin’s 24th personality will manifest, and will anyone survive?

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“Even James laughed out loud at the final scene.”

I have a fractious relationship with Shyamalan. I enjoyed The Sixth Sense (though I thought the twist actually spoiled it somewhat) and I really liked Unbreakable (still his best film in my opinion) Signs was ok, redeemed somewhat by its ending, and though The Village was preposterous there was good stuff in there. Even when he’d gone off the deep end Shyamalan always seemed to have a good directorial eye. The scenes of a little boy menaced by ghosts, or a blind girl encountering a horrifying creature in the woods were great exercises in tension. Then the wheels came off. I haven’t seen Lady in the Water but I don’t know anyone who likes it. I have seen The Happening, which was god awful, its only redeeming feature (barely) being that it was unintentionally hilarious. Suddenly Shyamalan seemed to have lost even his directorial eye.

I haven’t seen one of his films since (unless the actually quite good Devil counts) so it was with trepidation that I approached Split. Whilst I wouldn’t quite go so far as to call it a return to form as some have, I nevertheless found it an enjoyable watch, and given the cinema was rammed and I was sat in the second row that’s quite an achievement.

The first thing to say is that Split isn’t the film you think it is. It’s never quite tense enough to be a thriller, never quite scary enough to be horror, and not funny enough to really qualify as a black comedy. This isn’t to say it doesn’t encompass each of those elements, and like Kevin’s personality they vie for attention. This is at once a strength and a weakness. The true nature of the film is only revealed at the end. I won’t say what happens, all I will say is that the very last scene made me laugh out loud at Shyamalan’s audacity. I wouldn’t call it a twist as such, more a revelation, but it promises an intriguing semi-sequel that I hope we get to see.

A film like this stands or falls on the central performance. If you’re reliant on a character with multiple personalities it helps if the person playing the role can act, and thankfully McAvoy can. It’s easy to imagine this having been utterly terrible if the wrong person(s) had been inhabiting Kevin’s skin. Apparently Joaquin Phoenix had been attached at one stage and I can’t imagine he’d have been half as good as McAvoy. Whether he’s playing the OCD Dennis, the mischievous Hedwig or the disconcerting Patricia he’s a mesmerising presence. We don’t see him take on 24 different personalities of course, it’s more like 8 or 9 and some are little more than cameos, but still each is distinct and seeing him flit from one to another in the same shot is eerie. At several points he’s actually acting one personality pretending to be another personality. I can see why he took the role, what actor wouldn’t like to stretch their acting muscles this way? And talking of muscles it’s worth noting that a bulked-up McAvoy is an intimidating sight.

As Casey Taylor-Joy channels many a final girl. She manages to make Casey vulnerable and strong at the same time. She’s an outsider and it soon becomes apparent why this is, but her personal trauma might be what keeps her alive. Taylor-Joy was an engaging presence in the Witch and she continues to impress here.

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“Run all you like, Anya, you will watch The Happening!”

As her fellow captives Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are less well served. Both give it their all but whilst they’re allowed some agency in trying to escape their characters are too thin, and sadly they end up feeling disposable. There’s also the issue of how the camera perceives them, lots of up skirt or down blouse shots and soon they end up having to take off several items of clothing. I can see why some people have taken issue with this, but—and I may be giving Shyamalan too much of the benefit of the doubt—I think this might be intentional, making us see the girls as Dennis/Patricia/Hedwig/The Beast do. It’s worth noting as well that clothing plays an important part late on as well, so the gradual disrobing of the girls is possibly another piece of the plot puzzle. Even if this is the case is the film still feels just a little too leery and voyeuristic at times.

It’s the plot and the acting that make the film. The direction is interesting in places, but too often feels either a little too pedestrian, or going too far the other way and trying to be too clever. I took a while to acclimatise to it as well, and I think it’s the sort of film you must roll with. I think if you do there’s a reward in the end.

It’s a little too long, and McAvoy’s performance probably deserves to be in a slightly better film. It never quite feels scary or tense enough, but there are interesting riffs on Psycho and Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a cleverer film than you think it is, just probably not as clever a film as it thinks it is.

But like I say, at the end when you realise what kind of film you’ve actually been watching you will have to reappraise it, and either find yourself grinning ear to ear, or else demanding your money back.

It was the former for me, and most of my other personalities enjoyed it too!

 

 

Assassin’s Creed

Posted: January 20, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Justin Kurzel. Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons.

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“And then baby bear asked ‘who’s been sleeping in my bed'”

During the Spanish Inquisition, a man named Nerha is accepted into the Assassins, a secret society charged with protecting something named the Apple of Eden, an artefact that is supposed to provide the genetic “antidote” to human free will. The apple is sought by the Templars, a rival group who want to eliminate strife by eliminating free will.

In 1986 a young Callum Lynch arrives home to discover his mother has been killed by his father, who it turns out is an assassin. As Templar forces arrive his father tells Callum to run.

Thirty years later the adult Callum (Fassbender) is on death row. He’s strapped down and receives a lethal injection…and then wakes up in a secret facility in Madrid where he meets Dr Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard). She introduces Callum to a complex device known as the Animus. Callum is the last ancestor of Nerha, and the Animus uses the genetic link between the two men to allow Callum to inhabit Nerha’s body. Sophie, and her father Alan (Irons), hope that Callum will lead them to the Apple. Nerha was the last man in history known to have possessed the Apple, and the Rikkins (being Templars) are eager to get hold of it.

As Callum experiences the past, and learns about his heritage as the descendant of an Assassin, will he chose to help Sophia and her father, or will he choose a different path?

 

“It was like a computer game” is a complaint often levelled at CGI heavy films, and whilst there is some truth in some CG looking like it came out of a game, on the whole it’s an unfair insult. It implies computer games are dumb, and many of them are not. What they are is a very different form of media than film, much as a book is. In a computer game the idea is that you are the hero, you decide what happens. This is part of the reason that computer games translate poorly to the medium of film, because you’re not playing the game anymore, you’re effectively watching someone else play the game.

Assassin’s Creed is worse than most. Here you’re not watching someone play the game, you’re watching Michael Fassbender as he watches someone play the game!

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Cotillard watches Fassbender watching someone else playing Assassin’s Creed

I’ve never played the game, but clearly it is very popular and people are drawn to both its parkour style acrobatics, and also its sense of history. On the surface you would imagine this would make for an engaging film, especially when you throw talented actors like Fassbender, Cotillard and Irons into the mix. If you imagined this you would be wrong.

Assassin’s Creed is poor, and worst of all it’s boring. It’s directed with a po-faced earnestness that does it no favours, it features hackneyed dialogue that even good actors (and beyond the lead three this film features the likes of Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling) can’t make work, and the plot is confused. Is modern day Callum being possessed by his ancestor, is he learning from his ancestor? Who knows! The notion of the Apple of Eden is preposterous, and the idea of removing free will just reminded me too much of the old Man from UNCLE film ‘How to Steal the World’ but whilst that had a sense of fun, and a clear notion of how ridiculous it was, Assassin’s Creed plays it utterly straight and therefore becomes wince inducingly bad.

Fassbender tries to imbue Callum with a personality, and at times you can almost see a glint of “what the hell have I got myself into?” in his eyes, but he isn’t aided by a script that gives Callum limited personality. He isn’t even allowed to be a truly bad man, when it’s mentioned he’s killed someone he answers simply “He was a pimp” well that’s all right then. Cotillard looks empathetic and conflicted but really seems to be phoning it in, but then again she isn’t given much to work with. Irons tries, and occasionally succeeds, in chewing the scenery and he gets pretty much the only laugh in a film almost entirely devoid of humour.

But surely the action sequences are worthwhile, you ask? Not so much. For starters too many of them are clearly CG, and even when they’re not it’s hard to make much out due to the frenetic camera work and the fact that much of the film seems very dark. At times it was hard to make much out, and we did wonder if we’d accidentally gone to see the 30% light loss 3D version!

I’ve heard several reviews that suggested the modern-day stuff was boring but at least the bits set in Andalucía in 1492 are exciting. I’d actually say the reverse. Both are dull but at least the characters in the present day have some personality. Nerha is a complete cipher and, for a man determined to safeguard free will, he ironically doesn’t seem to have much of his own!

There was potential for an Indiana Jones style action adventure film here, but instead all we get is a turgid mess that isn’t even interesting enough to be enjoyably terrible. Bland, boring and forgettable. Assassins’ Creed? Assassin’s Crud more like.

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The Inquisition’s ultimate torture. Heretics were chained up and forced to watch Assassin’s Creed on a loop.

 

Rogues

Posted: January 19, 2017 in Book reviews
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Edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

51u06-9fvdl-_sx331_bo1204203200_It’s been a while since my last book review, mainly because I’ve been ploughing my way through this monster! That makes it sound like a chore which it wasn’t—well maybe occasionally—in fact this was an enjoyable read, but then anthologies often are, if only because even if you get a dud story you know it’s not far to go until the next one.

And there are some duds in this collection, but they’re outweighed by the gems thankfully.

Although Martin’s name is prominent, and the fact that this includes a Game of Thrones story is also highlighted, this isn’t solely a book about fantasy rogues, there are stories set in the present day or the recent past, and a smidgen of sci-fi too.

There are 20+ stories here, and I don’t intend to go through them all, but I’ll try and give you a flavour, and highlight the best ones (and the worst).

The book opens with Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie, and this story probably has the highest number of rogues in a single story as it follows a mysterious package that passes from person to person in a fantasy city. It’s an interesting tale but the shifting perspectives do let it down slightly.

Next up is What Do You Do? By Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. Set in the present day this is an intriguing thriller and I liked it a lot, it’s only let down by one too many twists at the end.

Bent Twig by Joe R Lansdale is a pulp detective story and probably the first tale in the book I didn’t like, I didn’t warm to the characters and couldn’t engage with the prose.

Provenance by David W Ball is a tale of stolen artwork and Nazis. It’s not especially original or surprising, but it’s well written enough that you don’t really mind.

Roaring Twenties by Carrie Vaughn is a tale of magic and gangsters set in a speakeasy. It sounds like a great idea but I felt it never really went anywhere so it’s another one in the thumbs down column.

A Year and a Day in Old Theradane by Scott Lynch on the other hand is a wonderful tale about a bunch of predominantly female thieves co-opted by a powerful warlock to perform an impossible heist; to steal a street! It’s wonderfully quirky, funny engaging and just downright entertaining and is probably my favourite tale in the book.

Bad Brass by Bradley Denton is a tale of a less than honest high school teacher and some stolen musical instruments. It never quite turns into the story you expect it to, but it’s interesting and original all the same.

Paul Cornell’s A Better Way to Die is a story I feel I should have liked more than I did, and I think I was slightly hampered by an unfamiliarity with the universe it’s set in, one where 19th Century Britain has taken a very different turn. It’s an odd one as initially I didn’t think I’d liked it, but it’s stayed with me more than most.

A Cargo of Ivories by Garth Nix, featuring a knight and his companion, an enchanted puppet (I kid you not) was something of a trudge to get through, but luckily it’s immediately followed up by Diamonds from Tequilla by Walter Jon Williams, which features a very engaging lead, a Hollywood actor embroiled with murder and drug cartels south of the border.

The Caravan to Nowhere by Phyllis Eisenstein was an interesting read, detailing a troubadour with teleportation powers who joins a camel train crossing a wide desert where phantom cities are seen.

The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives by Lisa Tuttle wasn’t a particularly original Sherlock Holmes style tale, but was well written at least.

If unfamiliarity with some of the characters might have dented my enjoyment in some tales, familiarity with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere only served to enhance my enjoyment of How the Marquis got his Coat Back, a tale which follows the ludicrously cool Marquis de Carabas as he attempts to, er, retrieve his coat!

Now Showing by Connie Willis has a neat central premise but is too long and way too knowing. The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss is probably too long as well, but it’s a sparkling sort of fairy-tale about a young man who trades favours/secrets with children.

It’s shame to report that the story that rounds off the collection, a Game of Thrones tale from Martin himself, is one of the weakest in the book. It’s not that Westeros isn’t an incredibly interesting locale, nor that Martin is a poor writer, but this felt less like a story than a history lesson or a passage from a history book, so even when it was interesting it never really gripped me the same way a lot of the stories in this collection did and I can’t help feeling he’d just lifted a chapter from his world building bible and slapped it down at the end of the book.

It’s a shame but it in no way dented my overall enjoyment of a book that’s kept me out of Roguish mischief for quite a few weeks!

 

 

La La Land

Posted: January 16, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

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Anything you can do…

Aspiring actress Mia (Stone) and jazz pianist Seb (Gosling) initially meet on a crowded Los Angeles highway, flipping each other off after Mia doesn’t move off fast enough when the traffic starts moving again. Later that day Mia attends a soul destroying audition. Despite not being really interested she accepts the invitation of her housemates to go to a swanky Hollywood party. Later on, after finding her car has been towed away, she walks home alone. Passing a club she hears beautiful music and steps inside to catch the end of an improvised jazz solo by Seb. Unfortunately Seb is sacked at that moment by the club owner played by J.K. Simmons (who’d just wanted him to play Christmas tunes) Mia tries to compliment Seb but he ignores her and storms out.

Months later the two bump into each other again, which gives Mia the opportunity to get her own back by teasing him over the covers band he’s forced to play in. After Seb walks her back to her car, the two sing about how little chemistry they have, whilst the opposite is plainly true. Meeting up again the two soon become lovers, but as time passes how will their romance endure when compromise and success come calling?

 

There was a point, I’m not sure when, maybe a third of the way through La La Land, when I realised I was smiling. A moment later I realised I’d probably been smiling for some time, and I kept smiling pretty much right to the end, even if that smile became somewhat bittersweet at times. Sometimes everyone tells you a film is great and you can only be disappointed, but sometimes the hype isn’t hype, it’s the truth.

Believe the hype, because La La Land is wonderful. The first thing I said after it finished was “That’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time.”

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I think I probably had a similar expression on my face watching this film

The plot of the film is nothing particularly new, it’s an old story of people with dreams who fall in love and have to deal with what happens to that love when it looks like their dreams may come true, but what makes this film so special is the execution of that well-worn idea, much as a jazz musician can make something brand new out of the same set of notes.

From its cinemascope opening titles to its glorious The End this is a film that harks back to a golden era of film making. It’s a cinema literate film, but not in a snobbish way, not in that Tarantino ‘look how clever I am’ kind of way. La La Land doesn’t want to one up you, La La Land is a film that says “Do you like movies? I like movies too”. The LA locations speak to this love of film; Mia works in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, the two of them visit Griffith Observatory, scene of many films. The film has a bright colour palette of the kind you found in classic musicals of days of yore, and of course it’s a musical.

And yet. Much like the jazz band Seb ends up playing for that’s trying to do something new with jazz, there’s something very modern about this film.

Writer/director Chazelle is 31, and this is his third film, yet he directs it with such talent and aplomb that you might imagine it’s his twenty third. Every scene is imbued with so much that I suspect it’s a film that will just get better with successive viewings. I haven’t seen a film this well put together since The Artist. A few favourite moments include; the opening dance routine, Seb and Mia’s first song and dance routine, the shot of Mia backlit by movie titles,  Mia gradually pushed towards the back of an audience at one of Seb’s gigs, and of course the final beautiful bitter sweet number. This is a film where even when nothing is going on, something is going on.

I like musicals, but for me the best musicals are those where you forget you’re watching a musical, and La La Land makes you forget very quickly. You’re just watching a great film that happens to feature spontaneous song and dance numbers. Time will tell how catchy the tunes become, but City of Stars is lovely. And sure, Stone and Gosling aren’t the greatest singers/dancers in the world (but that’s kinda the point and their less than perfect performance just serves to reinforce the idea that they’re regular people).

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Two great actors, two great performances

However good Chazelle’s script and direction are, let’s not forget the two fantastic performances at the heart of the film. Emma Stone is simply wonderful here. Her girl next door, innocent charm serves her admirably, but should not in any way obscure what a truly great actress she genuinely is. Her auditions we see at the very start and end of the film, when she’s acting at acting, are fantastic, and you believe every word she says, every emotion she shows. Gosling is similarly an actor at the top of his game, imbuing Seb with genuine passion for jazz and genuine love for Mia. He has a natural laid back cool yet deftly shows us the comic timing he used to such good effect in The Nice Guys. And the chemistry between them feels utterly natural, and incredibly charming, right from the off.

The film works on so many levels it’s almost impossible to count. It’s a love letter to LA, a love letter to dreamers, a love letter to films (and especially musicals) and jazz and to roads not taken and, when it comes right down to it, a love letter to love, and yet it’s never mawkish, it treats love realistically in a way that reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (another gorgeous film featuring two wonderful central performances and another film that never tries to peddle the notion that true love necessarily lasts forever.)

It’s magical, joyful, uplifting, bittersweet, genuinely heart-breaking in places and whilst I think it’s too early to suggest it’s going to be my favourite film of 2017, I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t end up in my top five. I think it’s fair to say that I’m Ga Ga for La La (Land).