Archive for January, 2014

(What’s Wrong with Modern Movies?) by Mark Kermode.

The second book by the UK’s most trusted film critic*, a man known for ranting about films, for bemoaning dumb Hollywood blockbusters, for hating 3D and basically being a curmudgeonly so and so. In this book he rants about films, bemoans dumb Hollywood blockbusters, goes into how much he hates 3D, and basically is a bit of a curmudgeon.

But would we want it any other way?

It is a little strange to be writing a book review about a book written by a man known for writing film reviews. Can you critique a critic? Well obviously of course you can, it just seems odd because he’s a far more experienced critic than I’m ever likely to be. He also has a much bigger quiff and looks a lot more like Richard Nixon than I do, but that’s by the by.

Effectively the book is a series of loosely connected missives each discussing a particular subject he feels strongly about; so there’s the discussion about the loss of projectionists, and the homogenisation of cinema via digitally controlled multiplexes. There’s a section detailing how difficult it is for a blockbuster movie with a huge budget and an A-list star to actually flop, which poses the question; if people will go see it anyway, why not at least try to make it intelligent?

There’s an interesting section where he turns his critical eye inward to examine what critics are for, and whether they actually affect whether a film’s successful or not, and he also offers forthright views on the state of the British film industry, Hollywood remaking foreign films, and of course how much he hates 3D…

If you’re a fan of Kermode via his weekly radio show/podcast with Simon Mayo, much of what’s on offer here is familiar, but on the page Kermode has room to expand upon his arguments, throwing a multitude of interesting film facts and autobiographical titbits into the mix, making it a good companion piece for the discerning podcast fan and an interesting read for anyone who love movies.

Kermode is erudite and his writing is punchy and engaging, meaning this was a book I found hard to put down, and even if you don’t agree with his views on Sex and the City 2, Pearl Harbour or the Pirates of the Caribbean films (and personally I think he’s overly harsh on Titanic) there’s usually something appealing about the way he makes his case that means you don’t mind.

* This is true, it’s in the book although Mark Kermode is self-deprecating enough to point out that only 3% of people interviewed trusted him, so it isn’t actually as impressive as it sounds!

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American Hustle

Posted: January 20, 2014 in Film reviews

Directed by David O. Russell. Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence.

And so the first film I see in 2014 is a period piece set in 1978. Go figure!

It’s New York, it’s the late 70s and Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) is a successful con man who becomes even more proficient after he partners up with Sydney Prosser (Adams). As well as a great working relationship, they also fall in love…which makes things a little tricky because Irving is married to Jennifer Lawrence’s Roslyn and is adoptive father to her son. Roslyn makes it clear she’s never going to divorce him and is, as Irving says, the Picasso of passive aggressive…

Just when things seem complicated enough, Irving and Sydney fall foul of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) who gives them a choice, do time or help him put four criminals behind bars. Irving and Sydney agree, but before long things spiral out of control, because Richie doesn’t just want to settle for common criminals, he has his eye set on corrupt politicians and even the Mafia. Can Irving and Sydney get out of this alive?

Ok, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. The hair. This is a film where the hairstyles are almost characters in themselves; from Christian Bale’s elaborate comb over to Bradley Cooper’s perm and Jeremy Renner’s huge quiff. I think it’s a bit unfair to focus on this however, the film’s set in the seventies after all, and the hairstyles are just one part of a very elaborate set design that captures the period well (albeit perhaps slightly hyper realised) and it’s disingenuous to the actors themselves because each one of their performances is infinitely more than their hair.

This is very much an actors’ film, and aside from the realisation of New York in 1978 it’s the performances that make this film. Bale is unrecognisable as Irving. The man who famously emaciated himself for The Machinist this time piles on the pounds to give Irving a bigger than average paunch, but it’s his acting that makes Irving a character we can root for, the way he haunches his shoulders, the increasing exasperation in his eyes as events spiral out of control, his unsaid shame at having to help convict Jeremy Renner’s likable politician. It’s a great performance, but it’s by no means the only one.

Amy Adams is a revelation; funny, sexy, sassy and conflicted, with a variable English accent (which makes sense) masking her own insecurities. And whether she’s romancing Irving or Richie, you’re never remotely sure where her loyalties lie.

Bradley Cooper once again proves he’s more than a pretty face, and isn’t afraid to take the mickey out of himself. Seeing him with curlers in, or dressing like John Travolta, is almost worth the price of admission alone, and his increasingly manic performance is fascinating in the same way a slow motion car crash is.

Jeremy Renner is another playing against type as a salt of the Earth local mayor, and it’s his character amongst all of them who you probably feel most sorry for. There’s also a cameo from…well let’s just say a cameo by a famous Italian American actor who manages to be utterly terrifying for the few minutes he’s on screen.

But the real standout for me, with limited screen time, is Jennifer Lawrence as Roslyn. As weird as it is seeing Batman as a bald fat guy, it’s an equally effective transformation for Lawrence, and you have to pinch yourself to remember that this trashy, mouthy New Yawk housewife is actually Katniss Everdeen! And yes, the Live and Let Die bit is a scream.

The film is too long, and it does take a while to acclimatise to the world we’re presented with (I realise those two statements are at odds, but it’s true). In terms of plot it’s fairly straightforward stuff, and even though I didn’t see the twist coming, in terms of movies about con artists this doesn’t even come close to challenging for The Sting’s crown, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be that kind of film. It’s a film about characters, and a film about deception, not just the deception of the con as much as the deceptions we all routinely hide behind, and my favourite bit has to be Amy Adams telling Richie that there’ll be no more lies…all the while never letting her fake English accent drop…

Some reviewers have said this film is style over substance, and whilst I can see where they’re coming from I think they’re wrong. What they mean is style over plot, but I think there’s a lot of substance here, it’s just in the performances, and it gives us a bunch of characters I was more than happy to spend time with.

Parasite

Posted: January 12, 2014 in Book reviews
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By Mira Grant.

It’s 2027, and humanity owes its continuing good health to a tapeworm developed by a company called SymboGen , an intestinal parasite that can sit inside a human body, repairing damage and even dispensing drugs. For Sally Mitchell the intestinal Bodyguard ™ has proven even more miraculous. Six years before she was involved in what should have been a fatal car crash, but despite major trauma, and a long coma, she recovered thanks to her trusty tapeworm.

Her recovery wasn’t without cost however, Sally lost her memory, and had to learn to speak and live again, becoming effectively a different person, even going so far as to rename herself Sal.

Sal is still under medical care courtesy of SymboGen, and still effectively the ward of her (Sally’s) parents, but she has a boyfriend called Nathan, and a job, and for the most part she enjoys her life, until a mysterious infection starts to turn healthy people into brain-dead, shambling hulks. Nicknamed sleepwalkers they start out harmless, but soon start to develop into something altogether more dangerous, and soon Sal and Nathan find themselves drawn into a conspiracy which has global consequences.

Ok, they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and this is somewhat correct. Parasite had a great cover, and it has an interesting premise. Of course if I’d realised quicker that it was the first part of a trilogy I mightn’t have bothered, because as it stands I’m not that eager to buy books 2 and 3 if they’re anything like this one.

As I say, the premise is interesting, and it isn’t like Mira Grant can’t write, she clearly can, but the execution of this novel is flawed on multiple levels, some of which are down to the author but quite frankly many of which are down to the publishers. For starters it’s a big book, clocking in at over 500 pages. Now this in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when dealing with a big conspiracy, because you can bounce back and forth between characters, see myriad events that impact upon the story…except that in Parasite you don’t. Pretty much the entire story is told first person from Sal’s perspective, and whilst at times she’s involved in pertinent events, at others she’s just living her life, which means a great deal of the book is pretty mundane. We get to see Sal buy plants, go to work at the animal shelter, go shopping, have rows with her family, and many other dull things. This makes the book a little bit of a chore to read at times.

There are some bits that aren’t from Sal’s perspective, but all these amount to are little articles and/or excerpts from biographies that sit between each chapter. Quite frankly they don’t add much to the story, all they do is bulk the book out, and to be honest the book’s plenty long enough without them.

There’s a couple of twists at the end, one of which I admit I didn’t see coming. The trouble is the other twist, the BIG twist, is the one that painfully obvious from the start of the book, and one you can’t believe the author imagines would be shocking when we finally get there.

There are some major plot contrivance, and characters doing stupid things/not telling people what’s going on for ridiculous reasons that might just about make sense in a sitcom, but not a major novel.

I wouldn’t recommend this book. It needed some heavy editing to cut it down to something more manageable, and if this had happened it might have made for more of a page turner, but as it is for me it was just an unenjoyably long slog.

A Man of Good Character

Posted: January 9, 2014 in Free fiction

The assassin waited.

The cheap hotel looked tired; its windows so old that even regularly cleaned they looked grey, its brickwork scarred and pitted like bad skin. Incongruously the front doors had been painted a bright, vibrant red, making the place look like a ravaged old tart who’d applied fresh lipstick.

The assassin’s Capri was grubby enough that he attracted little attention parked in this run-down part of town. The radio was turned down low, Northern Soul just audible, and the tail end of a rollup that had as much life left to it as a terminal cancer patient hung between wet lips.

His weapon was in his lap. He’d have time for one shot, maybe two if he was lucky, but you couldn’t count on luck in this game.

The doors opened and the target walked out, bold as brass. The dolly bird hanging off his arm was laughing at his jokes, earning every last quid of her fee.

He chose a different girl every week, used different hotels, but the town wasn’t that big. There were only so many whores, only so many hotels.

The target’s Daimler was already waiting, the chauffer holding the rear door open.

Now or never.

The assassin got two shots off before the chauffer spotted him, bundling the target into the back of the car before jumping in himself. The Daimler roared away leaving burnt rubber and a fallen hooker in its wake.

The girl hurled unintelligible insults after the car before staggering off. The assassin thought he’d caught the councillor with the whore on his arm, maybe even planting a kiss on her cheek. He wouldn’t know for sure until he developed the film, but he would feel no guilt if he’d succeeded. You couldn’t disgrace a man who’d already disgraced himself.

Well 2014 is barely a week old and already it’s been quite a busy period on the writing front. So far I’ve submitted two short stories to anthologies, submitted a comic strip to 2000AD, and sent the opening three chapters of novel #4 off to two agents. Added to this I’ve started writing novel #5, and in the last few days have received a galley proof to check for an anthology coming out soon, and got a rejection through from Analog magazine in the US, meaning I need to find another potential new home for that story!

I’ll be sending off the opening few chapters to a couple more agents soon. The etiquette in such matters is a little vague, many agents don’t like you going down the multiple submission route , although I’ve seen a few that say they understand why a writer would. The trouble is an agent can take anything up to three months to get back to you as to whether they want to see the full manuscript. Now bearing in mind I have a list of around 16 legit agents who take sci-fi/fantasy thrillers, and bearing in mind that it’s unlikely (unfortunately) that the first one I send it to will bite, and you can see how this can become a time consuming process, and also a dispiriting one, and it can be hard to motivate yourself to send you work off when you have to wait so long just to, probably, get bad news.

I can see it from the agents’ perspective, the last thing they want is for the next big thing to drop through their letter box only to discover 16 other agents have it as well and they’re either in a bidding war, or else someone else has already agreed to represent the author and they’ve wasted their time, but since, however confident I am about my talent as a writer, I can’t imagine 16 agents fighting over me any time soon, I’m going to maximise my chances and minimise my time by submitting to multiple agents.

However in an attempt not to completely take the piss, I’m limiting the number of active submissions at any one time to a maximum of four. When (if!!) I get a rejection I’ll fire off another one, but not before.

Things no one ever tells writers…there’s a bloody lot of admin!

Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage.

You know what it’s like, you’re at a party and you meet a girl (or a guy) and they’re great. They’re good looking and smart and witty and you get on like a house on fire. But then, just when you’ve begun to daydream about them being ‘the one’ they ruin everything. You’ve clicked, yet they’re still trying to sell themselves, and rather than letting you tell one of your stories, or sharing a quiet pause, or maybe even a kiss, they instead just keep talking. It’s as if they don’t expect to ever see you again so they’re going to make sure you know everything about them, even if it means they’re going to talk all night.

The Desolation of Smaug is a bit like that.

Be under no illusions, for a time I was sat there in the cinema thinking that this film was amazing, and might well be my film of 2013 (though this review is written in 2014 I saw the film on the 30th!) but then it just went on, and on, and on…

Jackson is a director with true flair, he has a cast, locations and (probably) a budget to die for, but the one thing he seems incapable of doing anymore is editing his work. Because he can put every last bit of The Hobbit on screen he’s going to damn well do so!

On the plus side, despite its length this is an improvement over An Unexpected Journey, its better paced and doesn’t make you wait an hour or so for something to happen. Instead we’re quickly into the action, and once it starts it’s a while before it slows down, and it doesn’t reduce speed for long. No one can accuse this film of being dull, even if it does get a little repetitive, in the way a succession of roller coasters would eventually become a little wearing.

Freeman seems more comfortable with his now more experienced Bilbo (maybe it’s the ring?) and McKellen could probably play Gandalf in his sleep. I’m not suggesting he is, just that he probably could, and he’d probably still be excellent. The real stand out for me is Armitage though, imbuing Thorin with nobility and bravery with a slight edge of selfish cowardice, which isn’t an easy balance.

The rest of the dwarves have finally started to come into their own, and whilst only a couple seemed to register as individuals in An Unexpected Journey, here most, if not all, get something to do besides run with the pack.

Though Legolas is in the Hobbit about as much as Galadriel is (i.e. he’s not) it’s nice of Jackson to remind us that once Orlando Bloom was the coolest badass on the planet, although now he has some competition from Evangeline Lilly as fellow elf Tauriel. Even though her character is original to the story she never feels like she’s been shoehorned in, and Lilly is an unexpected pleasure in the role (see what I did there?) more than holding her own in the fight scenes, and her little romance with Kili is actually rather sweet as well.

The film looks stunning for the most part, although at times the high frame rate still has a tendency to make bits still look like the making of documentary, and whilst for the most part the effects are magnificent, far too often they’re shoddier than you’d expect from a film this high profile—take the barrels/rapids sequence for example.

There are no such issues with the realisation of Smaug himself, now there is a dragon! It’s just a shame we have to wait so long for him to show up. He is a truly menacing creation, huge and destructive, yet with an almost catlike litheness to him.

The Desolation of Smaug is a good film, it’s just a shame that Jackson lacks the discipline to make it a great one. The argument has been rehashed again and again but it won’t go away because it’s so pervasive. Jackson make three epic films out of three epic books, but it doesn’t follow that he should make three epic films out of one slightly less epic book, and too often the story gets side-tracked. Losing much of the Gandalf plot wouldn’t actually harm the overall story too much (apart from explaining why the old Wizard keeps buggering off perhaps) and there are many other occasions where you feel judicious use of scissors might have improved matters.

Brilliant but bloated.