Archive for March, 2014

A Long Way Down

Posted: March 25, 2014 in Film reviews

Directed by Pascal Chaumeil. Starring Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots and Aaron Paul.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Martin Sharp (Brosnan) is on his way to the roof of Topper House. Having lost his wife and family, and his career as a breakfast TV presenter thanks to a dalliance with a 15 year old girl, he doesn’t think there’s much to live for so he’s going to commit suicide by jumping from the roof.

Whilst he’s summoning up the courage to jump, he’s joined by Maureen (Collette) who’s also looking to kill herself, but before either of them can act they find themselves having to stop manic depressive Jess (Poots) from hurling herself off the roof. They’re finally joined by failed musician come pizza delivery boy JJ (Paul) and, by the end of the evening they’ve agreed to a pact that none of them will kill themselves until Valentine’s Day (the next most popular day for suicides).

Despite wanting to keep the pact between the four of them, they find themselves becoming front page news thanks to Martin’s notoriety and because Jess’s father (an excellent, if underused Sam Neill) is shadow education minister—her family are also newsworthy because her older sister vanished two years before.

In an attempt to milk their newfound fame, the Topper House Four (as they’re now known) decide to embellish their story with lies about a white light that appeared to keep them safe, unfortunately Jess decides this isn’t nearly interesting enough, so soon a white light has become an angel. An angel who looks like Matt Damon. An angel who looks like a naked Matt Damon…

As infamy and their newfound relationships heap more pressures upon their original problems, and with Valentine’s Day approaching, will they find themselves back on the roof once more?

A Long Way Down is a curious beast. The cinematic equivalent of someone taking pieces from multiple jigsaw puzzles and jamming them together, but surprisingly still creating an almost coherent final image.

Suicide is a difficult subject to build a comedy around; especially when you’re trying to make a feel good film into the bargain, and I’m unsure how much of Nick Hornby’s original novel made it into the film. Whilst not gritty and realistic, the film is darker and spikier than you might have expected judging by the poster and the trailer. Not much darker it’s true, but there is a little more to this than meets the initial eye.

The premise is a bit of a tough sell, not so much the fact that the four meet on the roof given that Topper House is supposedly a notorious suicide spot and its New Year’s Eve, as the contrivance that sees them all sharing a car journey just minutes later. Once you can get past this, and once the pact has been drawn up and signed (and there’s an amusing punch line to this) the film settles down a little and starts to breathe.

Brosnan’s performance is a trifle uneven, or perhaps that’s just his accent which seems to vary throughout the film, when he’s good however he is good, notably in the quieter scenes, and when he’s bouncing off Poots or Neill. Collette is a great actress and if there’s a problem with her performance it’s down to the fact that she plays the dowdy, downtrodden mother character so well that we’ve seen her do it several times before. Not having watched Breaking Bad (yet) this is actually the first time I’ve seen Paul in anything, and he’s likeable enough, despite being lumbered with the weakest character of the four, certainly in terms of his motivations. This leaves Poots, an increasingly impressive actress who, for me, is the glue that holds the story together; feisty, funny and at times heart-breaking; her character is perhaps the one who goes through the greatest range of emotions within the film, from scaling manic highs to plumbing tearful lows.

Story wise most plot points are signposted early on, and the film rarely deviates from the path, but that’s fine, sometimes you don’t want twists and turns, sometimes you want a film that does exactly what it says on the tin, and A Long Way Down is pretty much that film. Some elements seem a little off, the random holiday to Tenerife for example, whilst a couple of, what seem to be, important plot points never come close to any resolution, namely Jess’ missing sister, and the mystery of who originally tipped the papers off to the Topper House Four.

It’s funny and it’s nice, and you find yourself liking the characters, even Brosnan’s, and if it’s all very cosy and predictable for the most part, there is the odd rusty nail or bit of broken glass hidden in the long grass to catch you unawares, such as a wonderfully venomous cameo by Rosamund Pike.

Not the kind of film that’s going to change your life, but not a film that’ll make you want to clamber to the roof of Topper House either.

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Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Thierry.

Qohen Leth is a highly intelligent computer programmer working for a large corporation in some indeterminate future. He’s not a happy man, he hates his job, hates noise and the hustle and bustle of future London, and he hates any kind of physical contact with people, he also constantly refers to himself as ‘we’. He desperately wants to work from home because he’s terrified that he’s going to miss an important phone call, a call he’s been waiting years for.

His wishes seem to be answered when the mysterious Management offer him a role working on a special project that will allow him to work from home. The project involves trying to solve the mysterious Zero Theorem, an incredibly complex mathematical equation that’s already burned out numerous other employees. Qohen readily agrees to take on the job, but despite thinking this will make his life simpler, and limit his contact with people, he finds his life becoming more complicated and against his better judgement he finds himself connecting with a young genius named Bob, and a prostitute named Bainsley, but can he solve the Zero Theorem, and does he even want to?

They say you should shoot for the moon because if you miss you’ll be amongst the stars. Unfortunately sometimes you miss and end up in a dull, laborious orbit around the moon instead. The Zero Theorem isn’t quite this bad, and even though it does settle into a monotonous orbit you can tell it’s constantly yearning to break free and head back towards those stars, and at times it almost makes it before being dragged back again.

And it’s a shame because there is an awful lot to like about this film. It’s visually stunning, which is even more impressive given the miniscule budget, and it’s filled with great performances, chief amongst them Christoph Waltz, who’s exceptional in every scene he’s in (and he’s pretty much in every scene in the film). It’s funny and touching and it has an awful lot to say; about how disconnected people can feel, even in a society where we are ever more connected.

The film is about faith as well, and the central conceit of the Zero Theorem is effectively an equation for proving that God doesn’t exit, that life is pointless. As Matt Damon’s Management says, if you’ve spent your whole life waiting to discern its meaning, does this mean you’ve spent a meaningless life?

The film touches on corporate hierarchies and the early scene where Qohen meets with a surreal panel of doctors to discuss being signed off work sick could be seen as being analogous with what various welfare claimants now have to go through. It’s also about internet pornography, and the fact that the only way Qohen feels comfortable having an intimate relationship with Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley is via virtual reality speaks volumes again about the disconnection between the real and digital worlds.

The film has been described by some as dystopian, but I prefer Gilliam’s own description of it as a utopian future. People might not be overly happy, but that could be argued of the present day, and aside from the regimented nature of the corporation Qohen works for there’s no evidence that this is some kind of jackbooted fascist state as in Brazil.

Mention has also been made about the role of women in the film. The only two female characters of note being Bainsley, the sex object (though Thierry’s nuanced performance means she’s far more three dimensional than some would have you believe) and Tilda Swinton (who’s clearly having a ball) as a virtual psychiatrist. Whilst I see the point people are making, it isn’t like the male characters come off any better. You could argue that Qohen and David Thewlis’ Joby are as much whores as Bainsley.

However visually stunning the film is though, however mesmerising Waltz’s central performance, and however intelligent the story is, there’s a limit to how interesting you can make watching a man sitting in a chair playing with what looks like an X-Box controller, and too often this is what we’re left with, which means after an interesting opening the film drags in the middle. Qohen’s home inside an old church looks fantastic, but quickly the setting becomes quite mundane. This is a film that could have done with more scenes outside (though I know budget would have been an issue, and I appreciate that setting so much of the story within Qohen’s home is an analogy for how he’s a prisoner of his own psychoses).

The film perks up towards the end, but sadly by the time it does you’ve already started checking your watch. It’s overlong, flawed, and the ending will make you go “Eh?” but on the flipside this is a film deeper and more intelligent than most you’ll see this year, and precious few blockbusters ever even reach for the moon, let alone the stars beyond, so the film needs to be lauded for trying, even if it doesn’t quite succeed.

Closer to a ten than a zero, but sadly not as close as it could have been.

The Silent Stars Go By

Posted: March 17, 2014 in Book reviews

A Doctor Who novel By Dan Abnett

The Doctor promises to take Amy and Rory home to Leadworth for Christmas, unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) he instead materialises the Tardis on a distant planet inhabited by the Morphans, descendants of the original human colonists whose entire reason for existence is to keep giant terraforming engines working whilst they slowly, over a period of generations, transform the planet into something more earth like.

The trouble is things are going wrong. For the last three years the planet’s been gripped by winter, and there are reports of strange creatures prowling the forest, creatures who are likely responsible for the death of livestock, and maybe even the disappearance of some of the Morphans.

When the three newcomers arrive the Morphan’s initial response is one of distrust, and suddenly Amy and the Doctor are imprisoned, whilst Rory finds himself pursued through the nearby woods by hulking creatures with sonic weapons…

It isn’t much of a plot spoiler to reveal that the novel features the return of the Ice Warriors given that Abnett gives it away in his introduction, and certain printings have Ice Warriors on the cover. Even without these hints it’s soon pretty obvious who’s behind the cold snap on the planet known as Hereafter.

Abnett is a well-known writer in science fiction circles, responsible for a highly successful series of books based on the Warhammer 40,000 game, as well a whole host of other work; 2000AD comic scripts, tie-in novels like this one, and his own original novels. He’s incredibly prolific, to the point where you might imagine he could churn a novel like this out in double quick time.

Which it kinda feels like he did.

Which isn’t to say that the book is without its charms. The characterisation of Matt Smith’s Doctor, as well as Amy and Rory, and the interactions between them are spot on; aside from one laboured running joke that just isn’t funny. Similarly the Ice Warriors, always more three dimensional foes than the Daleks or the Cybermen, are handled well, and there are a few twists and turns at the end in terms of what’s really going on.

Unfortunately too much of the novel is, at best, average. From the repetitiveness of various characters being chased by various lumbering Ice Warriors through various snowy landscapes/buried spaceships, to the Morphans and their quaint customs and language based on the corruption of once familiar terms. It’s such a well-worn science fiction trope that, if you’re going to do it, you should really do it better than Abnett does here.

It isn’t a terrible book, just more than a little workmanlike. Diverting enough, but not something that will linger long in the memory after you’ve finished it reading it.

Written and Directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori and an awful lot of other people!

In the early 1930s, in the fictional European Republic of Zubrowka, the Grand Budapest is a stunning mountaintop hotel that the rich and famous come from far and wide to stay at. Part of its success is down to its legendary concierge, M. Gustave H (Fiennes) a charming and urbane man who keeps the hotel running like clockwork, and a man who also enjoys romantic encounters with the older female patrons.

When one of his elderly lovers, Madame D (a heavily disguised Tilda Swinton) dies Gustave travels to her home to pay his respects, taking his young protégé the lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Revolori) with him. Once at the family home of the Desgoffe-und-Taxis he discovers that Madame D has bequeathed him the priceless painting ‘Boy with Apple’ much to the chagrin of her son, the devious Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Whilst the family squabble Gustave and Zero purloin the painting and hotfoot it back to the Grand Budapest. Unfortunately shortly afterwards Gustave is arrested for Madame D’s murder, and sent to prison.

Can Zero help his mentor escape from prison, and can the two men clear their names and return to their lives at the Grand Budapest?

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a giant, icing draped cake of a film, with layers of colourful fondant covering multiple layers of sponge, er I mean story, within. From the recurring motif of gorgeous cakes courtesy of the fictional baker Mendl, to the hotel itself, resplendent in pastel pinks looking like a giant confection, the cake analogies run throughout the film, even the snow looks like a dusting of icing.

To give you a flavour for the Matryoshka doll like nature of the film, consider the opening, where a young girl goes to visit the shrine of a respected author. We flashback to that author in his elder years, played by Tom Wilkinson, we then shift to Jude Law as the author in younger life, who meets F. Murray Abraham playing the older Zero, and only then does the story skip back to the 30s and start proper!

If I’ve made this sound like a confusing film I apologise, because in essence the story is startlingly simplistic. It’s obvious from the get go who are the heroes and who the villains, and there are no major plot twists. To labour the cake analogy (last time I promise) the layers of intricately piped icing and fondant conceal a simple jam sponge…but it’s a really nice jam sponge.

It does amaze me that Fiennes has never won an Oscar, because I’ve never seen him give less than a stellar performance, and in Gustave he once again comes up trumps. Effete, urbane, and ever so slightly camp, Gustave is part showman, part drill sergeant, the ringmaster of the Grand Budapest. Yet as strict as he is he’s also noble and kind. Unfailingly polite, even to hardened criminals or jackbooted fascists, he’s also prone to foulmouthed tirades, and Fiennes pulls the wonderful trick of making him appear shallow, whilst hinting at hidden depths within.

Newcomer Revolori has an unenviable task in forming the other half of the double act at the heart of the film, but he pulls it off splendidly, never seeming cowed by the experience of Fiennes. At times his acting is a little shaky, but even this works to his advantage given he’s playing a young and inexperienced character, and when called upon to step up he does so with aplomb.

The film is funny throughout, though the humour is often dark. Even when it’s at its blackest however, the film never fails to raise a chuckle, even if you’re wincing at the same time as laughing. There’s action and adventure and romance, and at times it almost feels like you’re watching the most surreal Bond movie ever; from an actual Bond villain in Mathieu Amalric, to Willem Defoe’s superbly hilarious/terrifying evil henchman, and a ski/toboggan chase that feels like it’s been lifted from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

If the film has a flaw it’s in its casting, which is an odd thing to say about a film full to the brim with wonderful performances, but the fact that there are so many cameos is a little distracting at times, because you’re constantly going “Ooh it’s him!” or wracking your brains to try and remember who she is, or what he was in. Special mentions to Saoirse Ronan as Zero’s love interest and an unrecognisable Jeff Goldblum, but really everyone in it is great, even if they’re only great (and in it) for 2 minutes.

The stylised, somewhat fake looking settings that makes it look like the story was filmed inside an overly elaborate cuckoo clock may not suit everyone’s tastes (though I loved them), the Nazi analogy is very obvious and sits somewhat uneasily with the rest of the film, and the ending is a little abrupt and melancholic, but on the whole (and apologies as I know I said I was done with the cake analogies) what’s most surprising about this film is how a confection this sumptuous isn’t remotely sickly, making it the worst kind of cake, the one you’d quite happily gorge yourself on for hours.

Take my advice; book yourself a room at the Grand Budapest as soon as you can.

100-1

Posted: March 6, 2014 in Free fiction, Regarding writing
Tags: ,

Hello and welcome to my hundredth blog post! When I started, about two years ago, I half suspected I’d give up on it at some point, yet here I am, still going.

In honour of the 100th post I’ve decided to focus on what’s called a Drabble. A Drabble is a very particular, very specific form of flash fiction. One where the idea is to write a story of exactly 100 words (it all makes sense now, right?)

The concept of the Drabble arose out of Science Fiction fandom in the 1980s, though there’s no reason you can’t write a drabble about anything so long as you stick to the one inviolable rule, it has to be 100 words. There is some slight debate about whether this includes the title, I’d say no.

As with all flash fiction the idea is brevity, and even if your long term goal is to write 1000 page epics there’s something to be said for honing the ability to tell a fully realised story in a limited number of words.

And here, by way of example, is my own Drabble in celebration of my hundredth post. It’s imaginatively titled “100 to 1” and I hope you enjoy it. See you soon for post 101…

* * *

The Tertiary Legion’s entry requirements are legendary. They drop a hundred candidates on a deserted planet. There’s one escape rocket. Task is to be the last standing and take it.

Long odds, but when you’re born into the lowest caste, when every day’s a struggle, you’ll take that bet.

I won, killed nine and took the rocket. Now I’m here with a bunch of other victors, all of us looking pretty pleased with ourselves.

Then the announcement: “Congratulations on passing stage one. Please prepare for round two.”

That’s when I realise; there are probably a hundred of us in here.

By Suzanne Collins.

I’d seen the film before I read The Hunger Games, so on the whole, a few plot points aside, I knew exactly what was going to happen. Despite this I enjoyed the book and was looking forward to the second instalment.
When it comes to Catching Fire, though there was the possibility of seeing the film first, this didn’t come to pass, so for the most part—aside from a general understanding of where the story would eventually go—I didn’t have a clue how the novel was going to pan out.

Maybe this was why I enjoyed it even more than the first book?

Beginning in the months after the 74th Hunger Games, when Katniss and Peeta defied the odds and both survived, we see them back in District 12, only now living in the Victor’s Village, the only other resident being Haymitch, their former mentor. In many ways Katniss’ life has changed dramatically, neither she nor her family struggle for money or food now, but in other ways she tries to reclaim her pre-Games life, once more sneaking through the barriers that encase her District to hunt, along with Gale, the boy she (probably) loves.

It soon becomes apparent however, that things can never go back to how they were. When President Snow visits unexpectedly, he makes it clear to Katniss that her acts of defiance in the Games have caused ripples of unrest within the Districts, and that if she doesn’t help to calm these ripples, then Katniss, Peeta and their families, will all suffer.

So Katniss and Peeta must once again put on the show of being star-crossed lovers (which is easier for Peeta since he clearly is in love with Katniss) even going so far as to announce their wedding, and Katniss is soon faced with the possibility that she will have to endure a loveless marriage, lest those she holds dear be killed.

Even as the wedding preparations begin, President Snow makes it clear that Katniss and Peeta haven’t done enough. Katniss fears what he’s going to do, but even she is unprepared for what happens, because the next Hunger Games is the 75th, and every 25 games there is a ‘Quarter Quell’ meaning the rules are twisted slightly to drive home the Capitol’s dominance. The last Quarter Quell saw twice the number of tributes reaped, and was the Games that Haymitch won, for the 75th Games all tributes will be reaped from the surviving victors of the last 74 games, and since one male and one female have to be reaped from each District, and since Katniss is the only ever female victor from District 12, she’s going back into the arena…

Like I said, I really enjoyed this book, although my praise does come with some qualifications, some relating to the start, others relating to the ending.

Initially I found it a little uninvolving. Seeing Katniss back home, back hunting, and back with Gale wasn’t exactly thrilling, and it was hard to really feel that sorry for Katniss. This is all necessary scene setting however, and once President Snow arrives the mood of the novel shifts. If it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Katniss in the opening chapters, it soon becomes hard to feel anything else for this young girl, forced to kill, forced to live a life she doesn’t want, and now forced to try and defuse a rebellion she hadn’t intended to start, and soon enough the brutality of the Capitol is made clear in a way that I think was lacking somewhat in the first book, and it will be interesting to see how far the second film goes in showing the violence meted out by the Peacekeepers, because at times it’s quite intense. Given that certain things like the Avoxs and the Muttation versions of the dead tributes were excised from the first film, I’m not hopeful.

This time around it’s possible to get more of a feel for the other tributes, and whilst it’s still hard to keep track, it’s much easier than it was in the first book. The characterisation is, on the whole, good, and Peeta and Haymitch really come alive, as do some of the other tributes. Other characters fare less well. President Snow is intimidating and ruthless, but has little character beyond that, though I guess from Katniss’ perspective him being monolithic and evil is all she can tell. The real failure though is Gale, who, two books in, still hasn’t made much of an impression on me, so I’m still left wondering exactly what Katniss sees in him. Maybe he’ll come good in book three?

Yet again one of the big positives is Collins’ pacey, stripped down prose, and once I got into it I really did find it hard to put this book down. As with the Hunger Games though, the first person perspective is both the novels greatest strength, and an occasional weakness, especially when it comes to the ending.

Because we see everything only from Katniss’ perspective, it’s easier to understand her hopelessness, fear and horror at what she witnesses. I’ll probably never truly know what it feels like to be a teenage girl living in a dystopian future, but this probably gets me as close as possible to it.

Because we only know what she knows and see what she sees however, this means that a lot of stuff increasingly happens ‘off camera’. At times this is a boon, meaning we are surprised at the same moment Katniss is, but at other moments, the end for example, it means we’re suddenly dumped with a whole heap of exposition about what’s really been going on, and whilst some of it makes sense, and frankly some of it I saw coming, other bits seem a trifle contrived.

This does worry me for the third book, assuming it follows the same format. Showing the world from the perspective of one girl works great, for the most part, in the first two books with a narrow focus on the games, and Katniss’ fight to survive, I’m just unsure how well it will work in trying to show a nationwide rebellion. Hopefully I’ll be wrong, but everything I’ve heard suggests the third book is most peoples’ least favourite.

We shall see, and soon, because I can’t want to read the next instalment of what has, so far, been a surprisingly enjoyable story!