Archive for November, 2013

Gravity

Posted: November 22, 2013 in Film reviews

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

When a Russian satellite explodes it unleashes a deadly cloud of debris that smashes into a space shuttle on a routine mission. The only survivors of the destruction are veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and, on her first mission, Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock). Adrift in the most inhospitable environment of all they must find a way to survive, and somehow make it back to Earth.

I’m going to swim against the tide here, because Gravity left me a little underwhelmed. I did wonder if perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood for it, but then I wasn’t in much of a mood for Ender’s Game a few weeks ago and ended up loving it. Maybe I just naturally react negatively to over hyped films? Well that’s possible, but I remember seeing The Artist after it’d got its Oscar when it probably couldn’t get more hyped, and still adoring it. So maybe, in breakup parlance, it isn’t me, maybe it’s just Gravity.

In space characterisation is apparently as sparse as oxygen, and we learn very little about our protagonists. Bullock’s character is mainly defined by her daughter, although we do learn she’s called Ryan because her parents wanted a boy (really getting under the skin of the character there). She is better served than Clooney however, whose veteran astronaut must, one imagines, have a big string attached somewhere that you pull to make him utter some stock phrases; “I have a bad feeling about this, Houston.” “This reminds me of that time I…”

Now it’s a 90 minute film, and I appreciate that characters are, by necessity, going to be thin, but the problem is, because you barely get to know Stone and Murdock, it’s hard to really care for them.

The film is visually stunning, and I’ll admit that a couple of times it had my toes curling, but there were long periods where I was frankly a little bored. The narrative is simplistic and linear in the extreme as characters go from crisis X to crisis Y to crisis Z.

I appreciate the idea is that of a pared down exploitation movie, but the whole point of exploitation cinema is that they took a single hook, for the most part, because it was all they had a budget for. Cuarón has apparently cited Duel as part of his inspiration for Gravity, which is fine, but Duel was a cheap TV movie at the end of the day. Making an exploitation film on a big budget seems a waste of effort, and while it would be churlish to say I didn’t like Gravity, because it does have its moments and vaguely realistic space films are far too thin on the ground, I couldn’t help but be left with the felling that, gorgeous as it is, what I’d actually seen should have been, in truncated form, the opening sequence of a much broader film, almost as if someone had taken the pre-title sequence from a Bond film and stretched it to 90 minutes.

Oddly I think it is a film that’s going to grow on me, and as counterintuitive as it may sound, I think it’s a film that will prove far more enjoyable on the small screen, because you’re less likely to be left thinking, ‘is that it’ at the end.

For me this is a decent enough film elevated to high orbit (see what I did there) because of revolutionary effects and a lot of hype, neither of which are really enough for it to escape Earth’s gravitational pull for me.

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Child 44

Posted: November 19, 2013 in Book reviews
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And now for something a little different…Book reviews! Partly because a lot of things I read prompt me to want to comment on their strengths and weaknesses, but also because I want to list what I read over the course of a year.

The inaugural review concerns Tim Rob Smith’s debut novel; Child 44. Effectively a police procedural set in Stalinist Russia this was a cracking read, once I got used to the author’s curious decision to dispense with speech marks. I’m really not sure why writers do this, as it’s never improved a piece of work I’ve ever read. One can only assume it’s a pretentious desire to be different (this might form the basis of a future “Things other writers do that annoy me” rant) although at least in this case Smith replaces them with hyphens and italics, so it’s easier to discern speech than in some other books I’ve read.

Set in 1953 the book follows Leo Demidov, an agent with the MGB (Ministry of State Security). Though Leo is ostensibly a decent man, his job with the MGB entails him tracking down traitors, which in the Soviet Union can mean anyone, even his own wife.

Smith does a good job of evoking the fear and paranoia of the time, a curious era where crime is perceived as a western weakness, and isn’t even acknowledged as existing within the USSR, so when a young boy is killed and his father cries murder, Leo is assigned to convince the family to stop clamouring for an investigation, because clearly it was just a terrible accident.

When Leo and his wife, Raisa, fall foul of the MGB and are exiled to a remote industrial town however, Leo uncovers another similar killing, which leads to him to the realisation that there have been a whole host of child murders across the Soviet Union, with the boy in Moscow the titular 44th victim. But how can Leo catch a killer the State refuses to believe even exists?

This is a novel that really gripped me from the get go. The decision to set it in Stalinist Russia is inspired, and Smith’s depiction of the era is almost more horrific than the murders themselves. This is a society living in fear, where crime is ignored and you can be arrested, tortured, exiled or executed just for saying hello to the wrong person. The notion of trying to solve a crime in such an environment is intriguing, although in part this is where the story falls down, because Leo’s investigation is fairly routine, and is far less interesting that his and Raisa’s interactions with Soviet society in general.

For the first three quarters this is a real page turner, but unfortunately Smith can’t keep up the pace. The revelation of the killer’s identity is incredibly contrived, and whilst Leo and Raisa escaping execution the first time they fall foul of the State makes some sense, subsequent escapes from death seem all too convenient. Throw in a limp finale and a happily ever after that jars with the tone of the majority of the book and you have a final quarter that disappoints.

I still highly recommend it, because for most of the story it’s a damn fine read, probably the best book I’ve read in quite some time, and I will be getting the follow up, but if you read it just be prepared to be slightly disappointed by the end.

I’ve been feeling a little down this week, and whilst I initially put it down to the cold dark nights drawing in I think there is another reason. You see I finished the first draft of novel #4 last Friday. I know, you’d think this would be a time for celebration, but oddly as I typed that last full stop horns didn’t blare, fireworks didn’t go off, and beautiful women in scanty costumes didn’t bring me a nice cold beer…

In fact I didn’t even have a beer in the fridge.

Finishing a book is a curious business. Whilst there is a case for using the example of a marathon as an allegory for writing a novel (both are a test of endurance, and for most people just finishing the darn thing is a huge achievement) there are differences.

There are no cheering crowds waiting for you when you cross the finishing line of a book, and no one rushes over to wrap a tinfoil blanket around your shoulders (although to be honest if they had that would have been quite scary.)

No, when you finish a book…well not much has actually changed, and yet everything has changed.

There’s the realisation that you’ve finished the story you’ve been working on for (insert number here) months, and you do wonder what they hell you’re going to do with your time now?

Of course what you’re going to do is go back and proofread/edit the whole darn thing, and try and get it in a fit state to start sending off to publishers and agents. And this raises another aspect. When you finish that first draft it becomes a lot more real. It’s no longer a bit of a fun you spend half an hour on a night, now it’s a complete entity, not quite the finished article of course, it needs polishing, it needs pruning, but you’re that much closer to the point of sending it off to people, and of having people (probably) reject it, unless you’re very, very lucky, very, very good, or both!

Having someone reject a short story you spent a few hours writing is one thing, having someone reject the novel you’ve spent over a year on is something else entirely. But you have to go through it, if only because you’ve poured all that time and effort in.

It’s a lonely life being a writer, and you can see why so many experience emotional problems, or have substance abuse issues, but perhaps the loneliest moment for a writer is that moment when the work is done, because there is that yawning gulf of “What now?”

Luckily it doesn’t last, and now I’m trying to juggle working on my second draft, with preparatory work for novel #5. And it’s nice to read through your story again, nice to go back and spend time with your characters when they were young and innocent, you know, before you put them through the wringer…

Hopefully Novel #4 will soon be in a fit state to start sending out, and then I can start the next marathon!

Ender’s Game

Posted: November 6, 2013 in Film reviews
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Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford.

Another day, another film adaptation of an un-filmable book…it’s been that kind of a year.

It is the future, many years after Earth survived an invasion by insectoid aliens known as Formics. Earth was almost wiped out, and the Formics were only defeated because of the tactics of a pilot named Mazer Rackham. Despite having seen off the Formics, humanity is terrified that they will return, and have instituted a programme to identify children who may have the skills necessary to defeat the Formics. Such children are sent to an orbital battle school where they are trained in combat and strategy.

Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Butterfield) is one such child, plucked from school by Colonel Graff (Ford) and sent off to battle school where he begins his training. Showing a lot of aptitude he’s promoted into the ‘army’ of a cadet named Bonzo, a young man who takes an instant dislike to Ender.

Ender must survive not only the bullying of his fellow cadets, but also the battle room, a zero gravity sphere where the cadet armies fight against one another. But does he have what it takes to command the Earth fleet in battle and defeat the Formics once and for all?

This wasn’t the film I was expecting. Although not necessarily a young adult novel, the fact that its protagonist and his fellows are teenagers suggested that Hollywood had their eyes set on another teen franchise ala Potter/Hunger Games/Twilight etc. and this is actually something a little different.

Even without reading the novel it’s clear that material has been excised from the story in order to fit it for the big screen, but though at times I suspected I’d missed out on weeks, months or even years of Ender’s story, for the most part this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the film. Even if you’re Peter Jackson, eventually you have to trim some of a story to fit it to a running time, and at a shade under two hours, Ender’s Game is long enough to tell its story, but not so long it outstays its welcome. That said I kind of wish it had been a few minutes longer. The ending is a little rushed.

Given its young cast and space war setting and this could have been a very simplistic affair, that it isn’t is testament to the production crew. Again, whilst you get the feeling a lot of the material of the book was taken out, this remains a thoughtful, intelligent film that takes an even-handed approach to the morality of training children to fight a war.

I admired the fact that it was quite brutal as well, certainly compared to the sanitised lameness of something like the Hunger Games, and whilst it could have been grittier, given its 12A rating and blockbuster status this is a surprisingly dark film, and that is to its credit.

Asa Butterfield is magnificent in the title role, and for the most part utterly convincing as the young general in training, and it takes a good actor to stand toe to toe with Harrison Ford as he does on numerous occasions. As for Mr Ford, he gives a great performance, probably the best I’ve seen from him for a while, which kinda gives me (a new) hope for Star Wars VII. I’d thought he might only be a peripheral character in the film, but actually he’s central to the story and gets a lot of screen time, and he and Butterfield are a big part of this being such an engaging film.

Ben Kingsley is the other big name on show, but though he doesn’t get as much screen time he is quite integral to the story. His accent is a little jarring at first however, and I’m not quite sure if he’s trying to be a Kiwi or a South African…The rest of the kids around Ender do a good job, including True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld as one of Ender’s allies, and Abigail Breslin as his sister (one can only assume she was cast with one eye on possible sequels as she is a little wasted here.)

The direction is solid, if a little uninspiring at times, and the effects very well done, although this isn’t necessarily a film about giant space battles. They’re there, they’re just not the main focus of the film, really the pivot around which the story revolves is Ender’s state of mind.

I don’t want to give too much away, but the ending sent chills down my spine. A thoughtful and engaging film. Sadly I fear some may be put off by the dark tone, and others by the focus on tactics, which means a sequel is unlikely. It’s a shame because this is one of the best films this year, although I am heartily glad they made one change from the book, because if they’d called the Formics “buggers” all through the film I don’t think I could have stopped myself from giggling…

A film that will definitely ender up in my top ten come the end of the year…

Escape Plan

Posted: November 3, 2013 in Film reviews
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Directed by Mikael Håfström. Starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Stallone is Ray Breslin, a man with a quite unique job, he’s a professional escape artist, employed to go into prisons as an inmate to determine how secure they are…by trying to escape (and usually succeeding).

After breaking out of a maximum security prison in the US, he’s hired by the CIA who want him to test the effectiveness of a new, ultra secure secret prison that has been set up to keep the most dangerous men on the planet locked up. Despite reservations about the morality of such a lockup, Breslin is tempted by the opportunity to test himself against a supposedly escape proof prison. As usual he’s given an evacuation code to identify himself as a plant, and he’s told the prison warden is in on the deception.

After being kidnapped in New Orleans Breslin wakes up in the super-prison to discover that the warden’s never heard of him, and that his evacuation code is useless. Because the prison is completely off the grid he knows his colleagues won’t be able to find him, so his only hope is to escape the escape proof prison…and in this he has help from a mysterious inmate named Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), but can the two men outwit the nefarious warden and his goonish henchmen, or has Breslin finally met his match?

If this film had come out in the 80s or 90s it might well have been the blockbuster of the year, nay decade, because the idea of two of the biggest movie stars on the planet teaming up would have been big news back in the day. That this film comes out without too much of a fanfare is, therefore, a bit of a shame, but though both men are still in the game; Stallone never left but his career has peaked and troughed, and Arnie is only just getting back into the saddle after the end of his political career, they aren’t quite the draw they once were.

Still the idea of the two men teaming up for the first time still generates a buzz, just so long as you ignore the first two Expendable films, although that is a trifle unfair, as here they do share billing for the first time rather than as part of an ensemble. Although Stallone is technically the lead in the film, with Arnie in a supporting role, to be honest that ranking doesn’t quite tell the whole story…but I’ll come onto that…

Escape Plan is one of those films that’s terrible. It’s also one of those films that’s brilliant, and at times it’s hard to determine which bits are which, because often the film is at its most enjoyable when it’s being terrible.

This is a film that needs to reinforce the fact that Stallone’s character likes solving puzzles by, er, leaving a huge array of puzzles on his desk, a film that doesn’t think it’s enough to have a character invoke the Hippocratic oath to try and gain help from a Doctor, oh no, this is a film that feels you need to see the Doctor then look up the Hippocratic oath so it can focus the camera on the words so you can actually read the Hippocratic oath yourself!

Subtle this film is not.

It’s also a film that is, up to a point, a little dull. The point when it stops being a little dull is when Arnie arrives, which thankfully isn’t too long a wait. This isn’t to suggest Stallone is a bad actor, or that he lacks presence, it’s just that Arnie has more charisma, and when he shows up the film noticeably lifts. One-liners become a bit funnier, ridiculous conceits become even more ridiculous (and thus more enjoyable). He will never go down in history as a great actor, but he will go down as a great film star, and watching this and The Last Stand in the past few days made me realise that I’ve missed the big old Austrian.

Luckily he’s back!

It’s a film with many problems of course, the direction and script are a little workmanlike in places and though Stallone always provides a solid action lead you never quite buy him as the former prosecutor turned escape artist, and you can’t help wonder if the role wasn’t meant for someone like Bruce Willis.

This is a film that will make you ask yourself a lot of questions…questions such as; Was that really 50 Cent? How does Vinnie Jones keep working when he’s the most atrocious actor on the planet, and has Sam Neill ever been as wasted in a film as he is here? But if it doesn’t make you also smile when Sly and Arnie go toe to toe or when Arnie wrests a machine gun from the side of a helicopter and his gaze narrows…well you were obviously never a fan of 80s’ action films…

Still (Vinnie Jones aside) the cast is good, with Jim Caviezel providing a worthy foe as the evil warden, and Faran Tahir gives a good account of himself as a, shock horror, heroic, noble Muslim, and whilst the film never really digs deeply enough into the morality of the prison, the very existence of the off the grid gaol, it’s multi-faith population and the use of torture by the US government means this is no Green Beret style flag waving exercise.

People might be disappointed that a film that trades on Stallone being clever enough to think himself of any prison ends up relying on a lot of explosions and gunfire, but this is a Sly/Arnie film, so it’s churlish to have expected anything else.

Probably not in many people’s top films of the year list, but hopefully not in too many worst of lists; it’s stupid fun, which is no bad thing, so whilst it probably doesn’t deserve a full pardon, hopefully people won’t lock it up and throw away the key!