Archive for June, 2013

World War Z

Posted: June 26, 2013 in Film reviews
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Directed by Marc Forster. Starring Brad Pitt.

Often cited as un-filmable due to its structure, Max Brooks’ novel detailing the history of a zombie outbreak finally makes it to the big screen, and ends up being probably the biggest budget zombie film ever made.

Pitt is Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who left his job following a disagreement with his bosses. Now living in Philadelphia he and his family find themselves in the middle of a zombie outbreak within the city. After struggling to survive Gerry is contacted by his former boss who offers to rescue him and his family, and after holing up in an apartment building overnight they’re rescued from the clutches of a zombie horde by a helicopter that takes them out to a carrier out at sea, where Gerry is pressganged into helping lead a team to investigate the outbreak, to see if patient zero can be identified in hopes of finding a cure. Gerry doesn’t want to leave his family but is categorically told that if he doesn’t help, they’ll all be sent back to the mainland.

Initially the team fly into South Korea to visit the remains of a US military base, and whilst there are few clues there, an imprisoned CIA officer suggests Gerry might want to look into why Israel walled in their cities a week before the zombie outbreak…so Gerry, with what’s left of the team, heads for Israel. But can he find the source of the plague, can he help locate a cure, and will he ever get a haircut?

The first thing to say about World War Z is that it’s better than I was expecting it to be. I’ve read Brooks’ original book but I knew enough going in not to expect a literal page to screen version given that the book is an oral history of the Zombie war told through interviews with various characters across the globe(although apparently J. Michael Straczynski’s original screenplay was very faithful to the book). The film jettisons this interesting (but perhaps not multiplex friendly) structure for a more straightforward quest whereby Gerry has to go from point A to point B to point C, picking up clues and figuring out the solution along the way. I can see why the decision was made, and actually it works pretty well, but it would be nice to see someone do something along the lines of Brooks’ original concept someday. As with many book to film scenarios, you can’t help but think the main thing they wanted was the title.

The studio apparently made major changes to the film, involving extensive reshoots and this does affect the film’s structure. We start off with huge action scenes in Philadelphia, South Korea and Israel, but then the film shifts to… Cardiff! In tone the first two thirds of the film play like Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, but the final third actually feels closer to something like The Andromeda Strain, it’s a curious shift in tone, although having read something about the original ending I think that would have been a major tonal shift as well. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the finale in a Welsh lab is actually more tense/action packed than it sounds, but you can definitely see where the join is.

Zombie wise the film is a curious mix of old school shambling zombies (when they’re at rest) and modern fast running undead (when they’re roused), and though the former rely more on makeup and the latter on cgi oddly I thought the computer generated zombies were more effective. Seeing them swarm like ants, piling themselves up to scale a wall, is quite a sight, meanwhile lone zombies shuffling around at times look somewhat comical. But then this isn’t really a horror film, it’s closer to a sci-fi thriller, and even though it’s a 15 certificate it’s quite a sanitised affair, with much of the violence occurring off screen, which is fair enough given the studio obviously wanted to maximise their audience, but does make the final product somewhat tame, and frankly the TV version of The Walking Dead has somewhat spoilt us when it comes to zombie action. It is an odd state of affairs when I can watch Andrew Lincoln bash zombies’ heads in on TV, yet can’t see Brad Pitt do the same in the cinema watching a 15 certificate film!

Cast wise you can only really count Pitt. His character isn’t exactly multifaceted but he comes across more three dimensional than everyone else. Pitt is solid, and whilst some people have moaned that it’s hard to see what’s so special about his character I think he shows enough to demonstrate that he is very good at what he does. Right from the off he’s calculating how long it takes people to turn, and this attention to detail continues throughout. The film is populated by other characters, some who die quickly, some who stick around, but precious few make much of an impact, and that includes Gerry’s family who are just there to give him a reason to go on the mission, and a reason to come back from it, but who serve very little further purpose. You’ll recognise some of the people in the credits, but like I say most aren’t around for long.

Yet despite the poor characterisation, despite the sanitised nature of the zombies and the curiously low key ending, it’s actually quite an enjoyable film. It gallops along at a good pace and if nothing else is never boring, and even in the final third there’s still plenty going on. The friend I went with said afterwards that if it’d been a B movie it would have been very good, but for the budget it should have been better, and I think that’s a fair assessment. In all probability it might have been better as World War Z-lister than World War A-lister, but at the very least it’s no World War ZZZzzzz

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I get a lot of ideas for stories. Hundreds and hundreds over the years, and I own multiple notebooks just full of scribbled plots. Some are full formed ideas, most are half-baked notions, and I’ve been known to clamber out of bed searching for a scrap of paper and a pen because I’ve had an idea just before I drop off to sleep. I get ideas on the train, I get ideas in the bath, I even get ideas on the loo! I once conceived an entire novel (to date still unwritten) trying to sleep on a night time coach journey to Mt Sinai!

The immortal question every writer is asked at some point is; where do you get your ideas? Well, it’s hard to answer, I just do. In a way it’s simply the way my mind is wired. I see connections where others don’t. Most people see a news story and that’s that. Me, something just fires in my head. What if A happened instead of B? What would it be like to be X? What is Z was actually a vampire robot from the year 4000 instead of a postmistress…

Many years ago I heard about some builders who were killed during the construction of a nearby swimming pool because they got chemicals on themselves and dived into the pool to clean themselves off, not realising the chemicals would react badly with water…what most people would have seen as just a horrible tragedy formed the basis of my first published short story ‘On a Hundred Other Nights’ in Bridge House’s anthology Spooked.

The majority of ideas come to nothing of course. In the main this is simply because there isn’t enough time in the day to write everything, and even if I was able to give up work and earn a living from writing I suspect there still wouldn’t be enough time to breathe life into every idea.

Plus some ideas are, frankly, rubbish. I’ve lost count of how many notions I’ve come up with over the years that struck me as the greatest thing ever when I had them, yet crumbled like rotted timber once I gave them serious consideration. The trouble is, often you can’t tell which stories have legs and which don’t until you start writing. Last year I abandoned a novel despite struggling to almost 30,000 words. It was a horrible thing to give up on but it really just wasn’t right. Conversely a few weeks after I gave up on it I got another idea, and to date the new novel is up to 130,000 words (and rising!)

Of course sometimes an idea can sit in one of my notebooks (or even my head) for years before it actually ends up being written, and it might not end up in the format I originally intended either…

For example; I recently submitted a zombie story for an anthology but the idea itself was one I originally had for another anthology about 3 years ago, I just never got around to writing it then, but when this new anthology cropped up the idea seemed to fit it to a tee so I wrote it now.

Then there’s the book I have on Kindle. The Devils of Amber Street was originally conceived years ago, and it was supposed to be a novel, but though I started it I couldn’t get into it. About two years later I decided to try it as a short story, but during the course of writing it the short story morphed into a 20,000 word novella, which, as it turned out, was probably about the right size.

Ideas aren’t everything of course. You can have all the ideas in the world but if you lack the skill to string two sentences together, or the dedication to commit to writing, editing and proofing a complete story, novella or novel, then all you’ll end up with is lots and lots of notebooks and not much else.

That said, I’d hate it if one day my brain stopped generating story ideas, I can’t think of anything worse (well actually I can, because you see my imagination hasn’t stopped working! Aha!!) and I wonder which would be more soul destroying, to be a skilled writer with no ideas, or a person with dozens of ideas who lacks the skill to do anything with them?

You know, there could be a story in that…now where did I put my notebook?

Byzantium

Posted: June 5, 2013 in Film reviews
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Directed by Neil Jordan. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton.

Almost twenty years after he made Interview with a Vampire, Neil Jordan returns to the realm of bloodsuckers, albeit with a very different take on the children of the night…

Clara (Arterton) and Ella (Ronan) are mother and daughter, and are nothing alike. Clara is a ruthless woman more than happy to make money from her body as a lap dancer, or via prostitution. Early on one character refers to her as ‘base’ a description which haunts her throughout. Ella is quiet, melancholic and caring.

Clara and Ella are also vampires (or sucreants as they’re sometimes referred to in the film) and have been around for 200 years. They live a drab life—when we first meet them they have a poorly furnished flat in a drab high-rise—and are constantly moving. They’re also being pursued, by hunters who’ve been tracking them for a very long time.

When Clara kills one of the hunters she deems it time to move on, and after torching the flat she and Ella hitchhike to a desolate, unnamed seaside resort (though it was filmed in Hastings) where Clara soon beguiles her way into the life (and bed) of Noel, a lonely man grieving for his lost mother who just happens to own The Byzantium, a crumbling hotel. Clara quickly recruits several prostitutes and turns the place into a brothel, much to Ella’s despair. Meanwhile Ella begins a relationship with Frank, a young man with leukaemia to whom she finally feels she can unburden her story to. But her story might reach a wider audience than she planned, and more importantly the hunters are drawing ever closer…

Some films are harder than others to review, and Byzantium definitely falls into this category. There’s a lot to like within this tale, but it also comes with a lot of flaws. Of course you could argue that sometimes the prettiest things are the ones that are less than perfect, because true perfection can be bland.

You can’t accuse Byzantium of being bland. Slow burning perhaps, particularly in the opening half hour or so, and perhaps overly melancholy (you will lose count of how many times Saoirse Ronan stares meaningfully off into the distance) but it isn’t bland. It also isn’t afraid of its roots. Despite the use of the term sucreant, and the fact neither woman has fangs—instead they have an elongated thumbnail—this isn’t a film that shies away from more familiar notions of vampires. The V word is used at least as often as sucreant, and though these vampires can go out and about in sunlight, in other ways the rules they must follow are familiar; they still need to be invited inside, though this is handled subtlety. More brazen is the scene where Clara, Ella and Noel sit around watching an old Hammer vampire film, though even here the film has more to say than you might think given the scene in question features a bunch of men surrounding a girl vampire, lying her on a table then staking her.

And at its heart this is a film about the mistreatment of women throughout the ages and their lack of power; from Clara’s abasement at the hands of Johnny Lee Miller’s vile captain, to the punters and pimps mistreating Clara and the other prostitutes, to the hunters, who seem to belong to a boys only club.

Unfortunately this notion of women being mistreated is muddied somewhat. Clara suffers terribly yes, but when you come right down to it she does so because she chooses the wrong man, and much as it could be argued she provides a better working environment for the hookers she hires, in the role of Madame she is surely perpetuating the mistreatment of women herself.

At first glance Arterton and Ronan make for a curious mother/daughter, but the closeness of their ages (Arterton is only 8 years the elder) makes perfect sense within the context of the story, as does their very different natures, and it doesn’t seem at all jarring that Clara is all cheap and wanton whilst Ella is thoughtful and demure. Both actresses give it their all, and whilst Ronan is clearly the star of the show, Arterton more than holds her own and the two share some powerful scenes.

For a horror film it’s light on actual scares, although it is undeniably creepy in places, and it’s hard to know which of the two women is the more disturbing, the lustful Clara who’ll tear your throat out soon as look at you, or the quiet angel of death that is Ella, stalking the old and the terminally ill, never fooling herself that her ‘mercy’ makes her any less of a monster, and a scene where Ella lectures a schoolteacher on the nature of immortality is downright disquieting.

There’s a patchwork nature to the film which delights and infuriates in equal measure, and the various facets don’t always tie neatly together. It’s as if Jordan wants to have his cake and eat it, to make a grim, brooding tale of lost souls whilst also making a campier period tale more suited to Hammer. And the film shares a lot of DNA with more old school vampire films, from the aforementioned Hammer film playing on the TV, to the vivid red blood periodically shed, to Clara’s heaving bosom, though Arterton is more than a mere buxom serving wench to be saved/slaughtered depending on the plot. For all its old school feel this is still a modern film.

Even in its grimmer moments, the film is gorgeously shot, from a blood soaked tissue on the floor, to waterfalls that run red, to myriad close-ups of Ronan’s haunting gaze staring into eternity, and particularly in the flashback scenes the beautifully barren island where vampires are made. Unfortunately the Hastings’ locations do get a little repetitive, but it is supposed to be a small seaside town.

The cast is very good, thought far too many of them are underused. Daniel Mays gives Noel a seedy nobility, but he’s little more than plot contrivance. He is treated better than Tom Hollander though, who is on screen for ten minutes if that. Similarly Sam Riley is very good, but again you wish we’d seen more of him.
This leaves Johnny Lee Miller, who’s something of a weak link, with his performance steering close to over theatricality at times.

Really though it’s Arterton and Ronan’s film, they are the un-beating heart of this vampire tale, and if the film doesn’t quite work, it should be lauded for great performances, gorgeous visuals, and for at least treating the subject seriously, and trying to say something meaningful.
In the end though, whilst the stake is driven hard, it just misses the heart.