The Thinking Man’s Bastille

By Paul Starkey

PrisonBreak_Featured1

Today he would escape from prison.

Jack had to, because incarceration was slowly killing him. Not in a physical sense, but it was slowly sapping his will to live. Already, just six months into his sentence, he saw signs of the ennui that would eventually claim his life if he didn’t break out. He slept more than ever before, yet was always tired, lethargy bordering on paralysis, and his appetite was fading like the libido of an old man. He didn’t wash very often, and sometimes went days without even brushing his teeth.

He spent most of his time on his bed reading books downloaded onto his wafer, or watching the wall mounted scroll, though he minimised the screen resolution; rather than it filling the entire wall it was shrunk to the size of a television set from the cathode-ray era. Sometimes it still seemed too big. When he did leave the bed to wander the confines of his prison, he did so with the shambling gait of a zombie.

“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

It was one of many homilies his father had regularly uttered. Like “Ten men play harder than eleven” or “Always back the outsider in a three horse race”. Archaic wisdom from another age—after all there were no horses anymore outside of a zoo—but sometimes there was a kernel of some greater truth ensconced within those words, but even if there hadn’t been he would still have missed them, still have missed his dad.

Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time might have been the wisest of them all though, and maybe the one Jack should have paid closest attention to whilst growing up, but children rarely pay enough attention to their parents, and boys especially to their fathers, and he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the consequences when opportunity arose.

They ended up being called simply the October Riots, the third instance of spontaneous civil disobedience that year. People became almost blasé about them.

The cause was never fully explained. Maybe it was down to the undertrained constable who hit some old biddy with a plastic bullet as he tried to disperse a group of stone throwers. Certainly the rioters claimed that was the spark, but everyone had an angle; the Tories blamed the increase in numbers claiming welfare, mainly Scottish migrants, whilst Democratic Labour blamed the Tories for cutting the value of the welfare stipend. Socialist Labour, meanwhile, blamed Democratic Labour because they always did, and as usual the whole thing descended into a DL/SL slanging match which allowed the Conservatives to push another welfare cap through parliament.

None of this mattered to Jack, he’d only ventured out because of curiosity. He wanted to see what was occurring, and he’d taken any excuse to venture outside back then, he hated feeling hemmed in, loved fresh air and wide open spaces, even rain rarely deterred him.

He wasn’t completely stupid however, like a sensible tourist at Pamplona he was content to watch the action from the side-lines; he had no intention of actually running with the bulls.

He hadn’t been alone in this, around the periphery of the violence a curious, carnival atmosphere sprang up. People brought their drinks out from the pubs, street vendors relocated from other areas and started doing a roaring trade. Even when a police sweeper exploded it didn’t dent the mood, instead people treated the flames cast into the air from the detonation like an impromptu firework display.

Gradually the lines between rioters and riot-watchers blurred and, like a sailor hearing a siren song, Jack found himself tantalised into drawing closer to the rocks. One minute he was downing a bottle of beer and dancing with a cute redhead, the next he was clambering in through a smashed storefront along with several others, passing more who were already clambering out the other way, clutching stolen booty tight to their chests.

The shop had been one of the few still operating on the high-street, and the irony was that if he’d been caught up with the crowds who broke into the empty shops either side his sentence would have been lighter, because he wouldn’t have actually stolen anything. As it was when the police nabbed him he had a rolled up scroll under each arm. Irony number two was the fact that they were last year’s model, barely worth anything second hand, inferior even to his cheap Brazilian import.

The stupidity of his crime didn’t serve as any kind of mitigation, and neither did his previously spotless record. Messages needed to be sent, examples made. All the fact of this being his first offence brought him was the option of something called “nuanced incarceration”. An option he jumped at because the idea of going to an actual prison scared the hell out of him.

Idiot.

It was odd to put shoes on; he mostly went around barefoot, and though they were old and well-worn they pinched tight as new shoes now. He’d taken a shower for the first time in days, already invigorated by the thought of freedom the hot water roused him further. He ate his heartiest breakfast in weeks.

As he walked towards the door his mind wandered. Where would he go, how long could he stay free, what would the authorities do when they caught him? He already knew they would, he had no money, no identification, and wasn’t remotely suited to the life of a fugitive. To stay free would entail either becoming an actual criminal, and taking what he needed from others through guile or force, or else dropping out of society altogether. Neither option appealed. He wasn’t tough enough for a life of crime, and he liked comfort too much for the life of a downout, and even if he could bear it, downouts were becoming scarcer all the time, so he’d stand out like a sore thumb unless he ventured south to the Cornish Wastes.

And why on earth would anyone choose to do that?

No, he would be caught quickly, but his hope was that by virtue of escaping his incarceration the authorities would send him to a real prison. Odd that suddenly a life of locks and lags didn’t seem so bad.

He’d turned these thoughts over and over a thousand times before, and nothing new came of today’s cogitations, but that hadn’t been the point, he’d just wanted to distract himself from the feelings of dread that crawled over him like ants as he neared the door.

It didn’t work. Each step was a struggle. The urge to turn back, to just curl into a ball on the floor, was strong. Palpitations started. His heart began to pound and his chest seemed to tighten around it. But he fought on until he reached the door to his prison.

Except it wasn’t really the door to his prison. It was the door to his flat. The door to his prison was buried deep inside his mind.

He got as far as putting his hand on the latch, but he couldn’t bring himself to disengage the bolt. Dark terrors were pulling hard against him now: the fear was rising as panic threatened to overwhelm him.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t even open the door, let alone step… outside. He knew it was irrational, but he was convinced that if he did all would be lost. The world would swallow him, he’d be engulfed within its vast emptiness like a single drop of rain within an ocean. He needed to stay safe, needed comforting walls around him.

He stepped back. The panic eased, and his heart began to calm. By the time he reached his bedroom he felt himself again, though this was no benefit. In the absence of fear there came only shame.

Nuanced Incarceration. In a time of austerity, of quadruple dip recessions, it was the latest thing. Cheaper than prison, more humane too, if you believed the hype. Jack didn’t, not anymore. What was the American term; cruel and unusual.

The particular punishment strand of Nuanced Incarceration Jack had volunteered for was called ICA; Induced Custodial Agoraphobia. Induced initially in Jack’s case by several hypnotic sessions and reinforced by regular, mandatory injections of a benzodiazepine derivative.

They said it was reversible, but somehow Jack suspected his three year tariff as a prisoner in his own home might turn out to be a life sentence.

He wanted desperately to cry, but sobbing required energy, and just getting to the front door had left him frail and weak, so he crawled under the duvet and let himself drift off to sleep, even though it wasn’t yet three in the afternoon.

In the instant before consciousness faded he took comfort in a tiny spark of defiance buried deep inside him that, despite lacking the oxygen of hope, somehow continued to burn.

Tomorrow he would escape from prison.

1435676716560

 

Logan

Posted: March 12, 2017 in Film reviews
Tags:

Directed by James Mangold. Starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart.

Logan.png

“For the last time I’m not Mel Gibson!”

The year is 2029 and James “Logan” Howlett (Jackman) is working as a chauffeur in Texas. It’s been fifteen years since any new mutants were born, and a year after a devastating event in Westchester saw many civilians and members of the X-Men killed. In constant pain, and with his healing powers failing him, Logan spends a lot of time drinking. He also buys black-market drugs from a hospital employee, but they aren’t for him. Instead they are for Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart) who Logan lives with at an abandoned smelting plant across the border in Mexico.

Xavier’s powerful mind has been brought low by a degenerative brain disorder, and at times he doesn’t know who Logan is, whilst occasionally he has seizures that can create psychic storms that are dangerous to those around him. Also living with Logan and Xavier is another mutant, the albino Caliban (yes that really is Stephen Merchant).

Logan’s only goal is to save enough money that he and Xavier can buy a boat, but one day he is approached by a woman and her daughter. The woman claims she’s being hunted by her ex-boyfriend, and asks The Wolverine for help. Logan initially refuses to help, until the woman offers him money. It soon becomes apparent however that the little girl Laura (Dafne Keen) is not the woman’s daughter, and is far more than a normal child. It also becomes clear that powerful forces are hunting for her, and Logan and Xavier are forced to go on the run with her, but however far they go can the Wolverine escape old age and a history of violence?

 

And so, after playing the character for seventeen years, Hugh Jackman dons the adamantium claws for the final time having declared that, after Logan, he won’t play the character of Wolverine again. This will be his ninth X-Men movie appearance as the character, although in some instances (X-Men First Class, X-Men Apocalypse) those appearances were effectively just cameos.

For his final turn Jackman pushed for a more adult, darker film, even by all accounts reducing his fee to ensure the film could be R rated, and the result is something unlike any other film in the X-Men series to date, which is both a good and a bad thing and, laying my cards on the table, I have to say that I came out of Logan feeling somewhat how I felt coming out of Rogue One (another film that could be considered a darker take on a particular franchise) in that whilst I really liked it, it’s very detachment from the tone of the rest of the franchise prevents me genuinely loving it.

Taken in isolation though Logan is a very well put together film, although much of what makes it good comes down to the central performances; primarily Jackman, but also Stewart, with both men putting their all into the roles. As Logan Jackman essays a man who’s been fighting his whole life but who has finally reached a point where his body is beginning to fail him, a man whose only remaining drive is to protect and care for his mentor.

As Xavier Stewart plays a man whose mental facilities were always his crowning glory, now reduced to man whose mind is now as crippled as his body. It’s a wonderful performance that, for personal reasons, resonated with me a lot. He never overplays it, but always sells it right. The little flashes of light when the real Charles comes back, the confusion when the fog descends. At another time, and in another frikken universe, it’s the kind of performance worthy of a best supporting actor nomination at the very least.

Together they make an amusingly melancholic double act, and for all its swearing and violence it is the quieter moments between these two men that are the best parts of the film, and for part of the film the double act becomes a triumvirate with the addition of young Laura. Dafne Keen gives a performance above her years, although I have to say I thought she was better when she was mute, seeming more alien. The strongest section of the film is probably the middle third down to these actors.

The R/15 rating ensures the film features the F-bomb a lot, and also features some quite gratuitous violence of the kind unseen in any other X-Men film. It’s always been a slight problem with filmic Wolverine to show the man in action, after all his primary fighting style does involve giant metal claws, and here for the first time we see him in all his gory glory, but that said there’s only so much you can do to vary ‘man stabs claws into other man’s head’ so without the quieter character moments this might have been an infinitely less interesting film.

41a6d3ec563f014eb3eec98ff2a8f206

Xaver “take the next left.” Logan “Bloody back seat mutants!”

Eschewing many of the superhero tropes, Logan is better described as a western, and shares a lot of DNA with something like Unforgiven, the man who’s led a life of violence finding some kind of redemption with one final battle. Mangold helped write the script, and it’s clear where his and Jackman’s inspirations came from. Again, in part this western setting is what sets Logan apart, but whilst original for a superhero film, Logan doesn’t deviate much from western tropes, and some of the film is painted in brush strokes that are a little too broad. Doing a homage to Shane is one thing, but Mangold overdoes it, and the grizzled gunslinger drawn back for one final battle is, has already been said, hardly original. As such large swathes of Logan are somewhat formulaic, and anyone who understands the concept of Chekov’s Gun (a gun shown in the first act will always be fired in the third) will quickly pick up on the presence of Chekov’s ‘you’ll know it when you see it.’

Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t surprise on occasion, I just wish it had deviated from the well-trodden path more often than it did. There are some genuine shocks, not least what happens to some innocent civilians, made worse by the fact that said events were completely avoidable.

Going back to Shane, of course what Shane had was a worthy adversary in Jack Palance’s sneering hired gun, and if there is a place where Logan falls down it’s in the adversaries. Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his Reavers are little more than a bland group of expendable mercenaries. The X24 mutant is more interesting, but given he doesn’t say a whole lot he’s more a force of nature than anything else, which leaves much to fall on Richard Ed Grant’s shoulders as the villainous scientist and Grant at least tries his best.

I guess the producers will say the villains aren’t that important, because the real enemy for both Logan and Xavier is time itself, and I can’t entirely argue with that.

As a film to bow out on Logan is a worthy end for the character, certainly Logan is ten times the film something like X-Men Origins: Wolverine was, and is a better film than quite a few entries in the X-Men canon. I can’t say it’s the best X-Men film, though I know many people will call it that. Dark, powerful, heartfelt, action packed and exceptionally well-acted it’s clearly the best Wolverine film and credit to Jackman for pushing for this kind of sign off.

But I can’t help wishing he’d relent and come back one more time for Deadpool 2…

logan-trailer-2-01

“Who are you looking at?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Wick: Chapter 2

Posted: March 4, 2017 in Film reviews
Tags:

Director: Chad Stahelski. Starring Keanu Reeves

800px-john_wick2_pistol

“Need more bullets!”

 

It’s shortly after the events of the first film, and after getting his revenge, John Wick (Reeves) has only one thing on his mind; retrieving the car that was stolen from him. After battling his way through a small army of goons working for the brother/uncle of the men he killed last time out, John gets his car back, at which point he returns home to his newfound canine companion, and back to retirement.

John’s retirement lasts approximately three minutes and twenty seconds before there’s a knock at his door. It’s Santino D’Antonio (a wonderfully smarmy turn from Riccardo Scamarcio) an Italian crime lord who once did a huge favour for John, and gained his marker in return. He now wants to redeem John’s debt. John refuses, saying he’s retired.  D’Antonio isn’t one to take no for an answer however. John visits Winston (the ever-reliable Ian McShane) manager of the Continental hotel in New York. Winston reminds John that the mysterious society that John was once a part of only has two rules; the first is that you can’t kill someone within the confines of a Continental hotel, the second is that a Marker must be honoured.

With no choice John agrees to perform a job for D’Antonio, though he is dismayed when he discovers the job is assassinating D’Antonio’s sister, Gianna.

John heads for Rome, starting a chain of events that will see a huge bounty slapped on his head, a bounty that every hired gun will be after, but John Wick isn’t known as the Boogeyman for nothing. One thing is certain, an awful lot of people are going to die!

 

When early word arrived of the first John Wick, people were underwhelmed. A fairly bland title for an action film starring Keanu Reeves as an assassin who goes on a revenge spree after his dog is killed. Initially people weren’t keen. Then word of mouth suggested it might be good, and it was; very good. John Wick was a slick, noir inflected action film that turned an innocuous name into a byword for devastation. Nimbly directed by Stahelski, and featuring a role Reeves seemed born to play, what further helped the film stand out was the mythos surrounding the society of assassins that John had been part of. With their odd use of archaic gold coins, and the wonderful notion of the Continental hotel (a rest stop for hit men that, like holy ground in the Highlander films, is a place where fighting is forbidden) this shadowy organisation gifted the film a slightly surreal originality that just heightened the enjoyment.

john-wick-2-image-gallery-3-7-225335

“I’d like to help, John, but I’m just a lovable antique dealer.”

After John Wick scored big at the box office it was clear there’d be a follow up. Obviously such a film would need to find a way to get John out of retirement once more, and it would surely have to expand the mythos surrounding the Continental and its backers.

I was really looking forward to this, but some of the initial reviews were a trifle sniffy, suggesting the film lacked the verve of the original and, worst still, was actually dull in places. I can see the critics’ point, in other hands this procession of gun battles, knife fights and Kung-Fu, might have been a trifle wearing.

Thankfully we weren’t in other hands, we’re in the hands of the team behind the original, and whilst Chapter 2 is something is a different beast, and certainly lacks the left field visceral enjoyment of the original, this is still a great film and one I liked, A LOT!

Yes getting John back out of retirement is somewhat contrived to say the least, but there is an explanation for why D’Antonio chooses now to approach John, and yes there is a lot of action here, and much as I enjoyed it the film could have easily been pared down a little—the opening fight scene is great but does go on a bit, and if nothing else the motorcycle chase right at the beginning could have been excised without affecting the film one jot. But compared to a lot of action sequels that either water down the violence and language (see the later Taken and Die Hard films) or just provide more of the same, Chapter 2 is a triumph because it expands the Wickian universe. We see another Continental Hotel in Rome (managed by the original Django himself Franco Nero), we hear about the High Table, the people in charge of the mysterious society, and we learn about the markers. There’s an argument for Chapter 2 giving us more of the same, only more so, and the number and scope of the fight scenes is increased exponentially—as is the number of deaths—but this is counterbalanced by widening the universe and by a succession of great supporting characters, which is where the first film scored highly as well.

john-wick-2-image-gallery-3-3-225339.jpg

The ultimate enemy, hipster gunmen led by 15 year old Leonardo DiCaprio

One of the joys of the first three Die Hard films (especially 1&3) is that it featured characters who were fleshed out enough that you could easily see them starring in their own film/TV series, and it’s the same with both John Wick films. Frankly if they made a Continental TV series starring McShane, Lance Reddick as the man on front desk and Peter Serafinowicz (who threatens to steal Chapter 2 as a Sommelier whose expertise extends far beyond wine) then I’d watch the hell out of it. John Leguizamo has barely had five minutes screen time across both films, yet his character still comes alive, and I liked Cassian (rapper Common) a fellow assassin with a somewhat justified grudge against John.

When the Matrix reunion hits and Laurence Fishburne turns up the expanded universe widens yet further, and his Bowery King sees the film veer almost towards Neil Gaiman/Neverwhere territory.

On the somewhat more villainous side Claudia Gerini does a good job with limited screen time, and as D’Antonio’s mute henchperson Ares model/actress Ruby Rose is surprisingly effective given her diminutive frame.

Stahelski’s direction is assured, both in the more frenetic fight scenes, and the quieter moments, and he makes good use of both Rome and New York locations. The cinematography is top notch and the one place this films exceeds the first is in its final showdown, echoing somewhat Bond vs Scaramanga in a mirrored maze, it’s actually better than the first films somewhat more pedestrian dockside fight. Frankly I think the Broccoli’s could do worse than let Stahelski loose on a Bond film.

At the heart of it all though is Reeves, whether you think criticism of his acting is fair or not he’s perfect as John Wick, providing John Wick with a weary. laid-back rage ideal for the role, and he convinces in the fight scenes better than I suspect many men in their fifties would.

So it’s a smidgen too long, sags a little in the final third before we get to the finale, and probably could do to lose a few (dozen) killings, and to make Wick a little less like an indestructible force of nature, but these are minor quibbles. Exciting, stylish, funny, and filled with interesting characters from top to bottom this is an object lesson in making an action sequel.

Lord knows where they go with Chapter 3 though!

keanu-reeves-and-lawrence-fishburne-in-john-wick-2-banner

“Have we met before?”

Proxima

Posted: February 24, 2017 in Book reviews, science fiction
Tags:

By Stephen Baxter

proxima

In the late 22nd Century mankind has begun to colonise the solar system, but also has its sights set on the nearby dwarf star of Proxima, or more specifically a planet orbiting the star, Prox-C. On Mercury two ships are launched, one is an artificially intelligent solar sail, bound for Prox-C, the other is a more prosaic craft, powered by ‘kernels’, mysterious sources of energy discovered beneath the surface of Mercury.

A few years later and Yuri Eden, a relic of the 21st Century’s ‘Heroic Generation’ defrosted on Mars where he’s treated as a criminal, is gathered up along with a number of other undesirables and placed in a kernel powered UN transport ship heading towards Proxima. Once there the passengers are shuttled down to the planet’s surface. Split into groups they’re advised that they are the colonists who will claim the planet before the Chinese can. Left to fend for themselves Yuri and his group face all manner of challenges, not least their own petty squabbles.

Meanwhile the solar system is divided by a new Cold War, between the Chinese and the UN. Each side is distrustful of the other, and the UN’s refusal to allow the Chinese access to kernel research is just another added point of contention.

When a mysterious artefact is discovered on Mercury alongside the kernels, there is the promise of a new form of travel that will make the UN’s hulk ships obsolete, but as tensions begin to increase can diplomacy prevent the Cold War between the Chinese and the UN from turning hot, and just how is Mercury connected with Prox-C?

 

Baxter is a science fiction writer of long standing, and sits more towards the hard end of the sci-fi spectrum, although he has a knack for explaining big concepts in an understandable way. Proxima is a curious book in many ways. There’s a neat idea at the heart of it, in fact there are probably three neat ideas at play here, the trouble is that whilst they all intersect at times, they still don’t seem that interconnected and all could do with fleshing out. Of course what I didn’t realise until after I finished the book was that this was the first in a series. This isn’t made clear in the blurb on the back of the book. I’m not saying it’d have put me off, but it might have made me more forgiving when my interest dipped.

Maybe.

Of the three elements, the bits dealing with Yuri and his fellow colonists is perhaps the most interesting. Baxter has clearly put a lot of effort into his world building, and Prox-C feels like a genuine place. The logic of dropping undesirables on the planet to fend for themselves obviously has some resonance with Earth history (think Australia) but also feels a little bit of a logical stretch.

Still, the battle to survive on a planet where the sun never sets is intriguing, especially once Yuri’s group encounter the native life forms, and other groups of colonists. The trouble is that even here Baxter’s focus seems to waver, and the pacing of the book is erratic to say the least. He’ll spend several chapters dealing with a single event, then skip over years and multiple milestones in the space of a paragraph. It’s a trifle jarring. It’s as if he couldn’t decide whether to write an intimate account of brave pioneers, or a sweeping epic spanning decades, so in the end decided to do both.

The other storylines are less engaging. The kernels are intriguing initially, as is the artefact on Mercury, but various threads of the story just don’t tie together, in fact in the latter stages of the book the narrative just seems to meander. Maybe Baxter was setting things up for the next book, but I couldn’t help feeling that he just wasn’t sure where to take his story.

It doesn’t help that many of the characters are a trifle bland (often a criticism of Baxter’s writing). Yuri has potential, and is probably the most interesting human character, but his backstory is too sketchy. The Heroic Generation is namechecked, and it’s implied they did terrible things, but we never get more than a brief idea of what these things were. We’re told early on that Yuri Eden isn’t his real name, but this plot point is left dangling for far too long (and when it is addressed it’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, and in fact I’ve read a few reviews where readers did just that.) There are several other elements of the story jettisoned early on which don’t reappear till near the end when you’ve almost forgotten about them.

Mardina Jones verges on three dimensions, but she sadly fades out of the story late on. Kernel expert Stephanie Kalinski is never quite feels real, and Australian businessman Michael King is only there to drive the plot on occasion, similarly the smug AI Earthshine.

It’s slightly worrying when the most interesting character in the book is ColU, a sentient robot dumped on Prox-C with Yuri, but it really is, and of all the characters it’s the one you’ll probably most warm too.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. Baxter is a talented writer, and I was rarely bored, just annoyed when the story meandered off on yet another tangent, and the ending provides a WTF moment you won’t see coming, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing; for some reason Baxter seems to be leading the book towards the territory of the Long Earth series he wrote with Terry Pratchett.

An interesting book rather than a great one, I’d say it’s worth a read, if only for the Prox-C segments, just don’t be surprised if you feel a slight lack of satisfaction at the end.

 

T2 Trainspotting

Posted: February 20, 2017 in Film reviews, Uncategorized
Tags:

Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle.

landscape-1483457548-begbie-renton-t2-trainspotting

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.

rsz_t2-jb-00850-628x460

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.

t2-trainspotting-2-mcgregor-miller-shorts

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.

t2-trainspotting-2017-003-spud-writing.jpg

“And then they lived happily ever after?”

The Seven Rs

Posted: February 18, 2017 in Regarding writing
Tags:

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!

mld106334_1110_catparty055_vert

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
Tags:

Directed by Chris McKay. Starring Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson and Ralph Fiennes.

party-in-the-batcave-meet-the-crazy-talented-voice-cast-of-the-lego-batman-movie

“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.

the-lego-batman-movie-joker

“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!

thelegobatmanmovie_clip_snakeclowns

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