Archive for April, 2014

A look inside my head…

Posted: April 25, 2014 in Regarding writing

One of the questions writers are always asked* is “Where do you get your ideas from?”

Much as I’d like to say that I dig them up in my garden, or aliens beam them into my head while I’m asleep, or they’re the result of mind altering drugs (aspirin, just say NO!) the truth is that I get my ideas from, er, my imagination.

But, to give you a sneak peek inside my head I’m going to demonstrate my thought processes, and how my first instinct upon reading even the most mundane news story is to see the narrative potential.

The following link leads to an article in the Independent newspaper from a few weeks ago. It’s a fairly dry news story talking about how scientists have discovered that an addiction to gambling could be down to a form of brain damage.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-gamblers-fallacy-explained-misguided-belief-in-the-big-win-just-around-the-corner-could-be-down-to-brain-damage-9244642.html

I won’t go into detail here (read the article if you’re interested) but the upshot was that scientists believed they might be able to treat this neurological damage, that they might be able to cure someone of a gambling addiction.

Great news, yes? Want to know what my first thought was after reading the article? Of course you do…

“So, if they can take a gambler and cure them, does that mean they could take someone who wasn’t a gambler and turn them into one? Why would someone do this, what would the upshot be, is there a story in this?”

I’m Paul Starkey, and this has been a terrifying glimpse inside my brain. Don’t have nightmares, but if you do, tell me about them, I could probably turn them into the next Hunger Games…

*Of course this just might be something writers made up. We do that you know…

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Wool

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Book reviews

By Hugh Howey

In some indeterminate future time, the remnants of humanity reside in a huge underground silo. The society is regimented, with various sections that, although separate from one another, are integral to the silo’s survival. Mechanical keeps the lights on, the farms provide food, there are hospitals and even theatres, and a triumvirate rules; an elected mayor, a sheriff, and IT, the section responsible for keeping the computers running lines of communication open, and for ensuring the ‘Pact’, an ancient agreement, is adhered to. Life isn’t easy, but there’s food and work for all, and some comfort is taken by being able to view the outside via cameras that are affixed to the exterior of the Silo.

Not that there is much to see, a hostile wasteland and the tops of ruined buildings over the rise. Still people like the view, especially after there’s been a ‘Cleaning’ when the view is clearest.

A Cleaning involves either a criminal, or someone who’s just had enough, venturing outside in a suit. It’s a death sentence, and the land around the Silo is dotted with bodies. Suits don’t last long in the toxic air, yet no matter who they are, or how vehemently they say they aren’t going to do it, those chosen to clean do actually clean the cameras before succumbing to the hostile environment. It’s the woollen clothes used by those cleaning from which the book takes its name.

The Cleanings are an almost cathartic release for those within the Silo, although in the past there have been uprisings, which is why much of their history has been erased.

Though working as an engineer, when the current Sheriff volunteers for cleaning, Juliette is chosen as his replacement. She’s a little too good at the job however, and when she starts digging into the Silo’s history, and a series of deaths that may well be murders, she finds herself scheduled for the next Cleaning, but as a result she will find out what’s really over the rise, and discover the secret history of the Silo.

There were a couple of things that put me off about this book before I bought it, the first was the absurd “the new Hunger Games” sticker on the front, the second was the “best thing evah” buzz that seemed to be flying about regarding it, and finally there was the size of the book, it looked like it could be a slog to read.

Well I can safely say that it isn’t the new Hunger Games. There are some similarities, but this is an altogether different beast. It isn’t the best thing since sliced bread either, which doesn’t mean it isn’t good, and whilst it is a whopper of a book, it’s not actually a slog to read, because for all its faults (and it has many) it’s incredibly addictive.

The best thing about it is the overall story and the world building. Howey has done a great job of imagining a self-contained world, and the people within it, and whilst some of the tropes he uses are familiar, a lot are quite original. Where some writers may have opted for a religious order as the true defenders of the silo’s faith, Howey instead has an IT department, and whilst it would have been tempting to have the silo ruled by fascistic blackshirts, on the surface at least the Silo is a free and democratic world, even if the truth is rather different.

The world of the silo is intriguing, as is the central mystery about what happened to the world outside, and how the silo came to be. Be warned, not every mystery is resolved, because this is the first part of a trilogy, and some reveals don’t quite hang true (take the reason why everyone cleans for example) but by the end you’ll know a lot more about the history and purpose of the silo, and it’s this aspect of the novel which is the most enjoyable.

Character wise, Howey is a little hit and miss, and annoyingly several characters you meet early on are actually more interesting than those that the bulk of the novel focuses on. Juliette is a stock, strong female heroine, and whilst you will root for her, nothing really stands out about her other than she’s a mechanical genius and overcomes a series of obstacles put in her way, obstacles that become a little repetitive at times. She also has the obligatory romance, with a man she seems to fall in love with after a couple of very short encounters. There are various other characters that flit around the novel, some of whom are more integral to the plot than others, and most of them are similarly cookie cutter’ish, although I liked Walker, the old engineer who’s managed to become agoraphobic even inside an underground bunker, and Bernard, the head of IT is interesting in terms of his motivations.

After an intriguing and engaging beginning the novel does sag quite a bit in the middle, and whilst it did keep me engaged, I couldn’t help thinking that a good editor could have trimmed a lot of superfluous narrative and made for a tauter read. It perks up towards the end, but the finale seems a trifle rushed, which seems odd given the size of the book.

Despite some drab characters and an annoying predilection for never using one word when a paragraph will suffice, Howey has created a compelling universe that I couldn’t help being drawn into, and I’m looking forward to reading the next two books. Recommended, but be prepared to be annoyed and enticed in equal measure.

Directed by Marc Webb. Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan.

Since the events of The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker’s alter ego has become a familiar sight around New York City, although not everyone loves the web slinging vigilante. Peter (Garfield) is also struggling to balance his crime fighting with his romance with Gwen Stacy (Stone) and the film opens with Spider-Man battling a group of Russian mobsters led by a lunatic played by Paul Giamatti, and as a result of the battle he almost misses his own graduation, and does miss Gwen’s speech.

Peter is also increasingly bothered by visions of Gwen’s Father, Captain George Stacy, reminding him of his promise to stay away from Gwen. Concerned that his duel life as Spider-Man will put her in danger, Peter decides to end their relationship.

Meanwhile Max Dillon (Foxx), a timid electrical engineer working for Oscorp industries becomes obsessed with Spider-Man after he rescues Max. Meek and practically invisible to those around him Max’s life changes when an accident at work transforms him into an electricity wielding villain named Electro. After an early encounter, Max’s adoration for Spider-Man quickly becomes twisted into hatred.

As well as dealing with Electro, Peter also has to deal with his old friend Harry Osborn, who’s returned to helm the family business in the wake of his father’s death. Harry has inherited his father’s degenerative illness, and becomes obsessed with the notion that only Spider-Man’s blood can save him.

As Peter Parker’s double life becomes increasingly complicated, the disparate strands of its spider like web converge, leaving him to face his greatest challenge as Spider-Man.

I was a big fan of the amazing Spider-Man when it came out a few years ago. I understood the issues people had with it, another version of Spidey so soon after Spider-Man 3. A replay of the origin story and a weak final act featuring a limply realised Lizard. What I loved about it beyond all of this came down to the realisation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. As much as I enjoyed the Raimi films (particularly the second one) I never quite felt like Spider-Man was being done justice. Maguire never quite felt like a good fit as either Peter or Spider-Man, too often the fight scenes looked too much like computer game fights, and Spidey’s wisecracking humour seemed lacking. Suddenly Andrew Garfield took on the mantle and, to me at least, it felt like both Peter and Spidey were being done right. Sure you can make an argument that Garfield is a little too cool to be Peter, but even so it’s a geeky, akward kind of cool, which works just as well as making him a complete nerd. With Emma Stone playing a believable Gwen, and the casting of legends Martin Sheen and Sally Field to play Uncle Ben and Aunt May, however disappointing the film might have been in the final analysis, I felt it bode well for a sequel.

Well, lame title aside, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 retains the spot on characterisation, only this time the rest of the film lives up to the performances of Garfield et al.

It’s hard to imagine now that Garfield was one of multiple actors who auditioned for the role, because he seems so perfect it’s hard to imagine anyone else was ever in the running. His Peter Parker is both cocky and self-conscious at the same time, clumsy and dextrous, and even his wisecracking comes across as a nervous attempt to handle his own fears rather than the kind of cocky, for the hell of it quipping you’d get from a character like Bond. It really is an adroit teenage performance from an actor who’s well past his teenage years.

Stone is superb once more as Gwen. She may not have superpowers, but she’s no weak damsel in distress, she’s a woman who makes her own choices, and isn’t afraid to put herself in harm’s way. When Peter decides to end their relationship early on she takes ownership of the situation by finishing with him first. Garfield and Stone’s chemistry is so good it’s no surprise they’ve become a couple in real life.

Foxx is great as Electro, even if he doesn’t quite convince as the geeky Max Dillon, and his shift from adoring fan of Spidey to sworn enemy makes perfect sense. Yes he does start out looking a little like Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, before later morphing into something more like Dr Manhattan from Watchmen, but he is a powerful foe, infinitely more dangerous than The Lizard, and his high voltage battles with Spider-Man are great to see.

DeHaan is equally good as Harry Osborne, coming across like an extremely geeky Leonardo Dicaprio with a dash of Mark Hamill and a sprinkling of Evil Eddie from Fright Night, a sprinkling that becomes more evident as the film progresses and his character undergoes some radical changes.

Yes the film is too long, with far too many plot strands, and you do feel it could have benefited from losing at least ten minutes. Whilst relevant to the plot a lot of the Richard/Mary Parker stuff could have been achieved in less time. There’s an argument that there are too many villains, but this isn’t Spider-Man 3, Electro is the main threat, and the Green Goblin is really being set up for a future instalment. As for Rhino…yeah he’s a bit rubbish, but then even in the comics he always was, and he does serve an important plot function. You could argue that the notion that many of Spider-Man’s future foes will be born from Oscorp’s Special Projects division is a bit of a misstep, and the series really does need a J Jonah Jameson, although maybe they don’t think they can better JK Simmon’s spot on portrayal in the Raimi films? Maybe they should just hire him?

Much as I enjoy Marvel’s output, and liked last year’s rebooted Superman, and the Nolan/Bale reality grounded Batman series, there’s something refreshing about Spider-Man, a character for whom many of the battles he faces are quite mundane ones, a hero who doesn’t have the benefit of near invulnerability like Superman or Thor, who isn’t a billionaire like Batman or Iron Man, Peter Parker is just an everyday teenager trying to wrestle with everyday problems; money and romance, albeit a character who also has to face superpowered villains into the bargain.

This is definitely a big screen watch, and the long lingering shots as we follow Spidey, costume rippling in the wind, swinging through the streets are exhilarating, though we never lose sight that there is a real person behind the mask, with a real heart beating behind the Spider symbol on his chest.

Funny, exciting, and genuinely heart-breaking, the real truth is that this isn’t actually Amazing at all…it’s Spectacular!

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson and Robert Redford.

It’s several years since Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (aka Evans!), was woken from deep freeze to find himself in the modern world, and several years since the battle of New York (see Avengers Assemble) and since then the good Captain has continued to serve his country as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

He’s having doubts however, doubts fuelled during a mission to rescue hostages from aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D ship that’s been captured by pirates, when he discovers that the Natasha Romanoff , aka Black Widow (Johansson) has a different mission, one that potentially puts the hostages in jeopardy.

Back in the US Rogers confronts Nick Fury (Jackson) the head of S.H.I.E.L.D, demanding to know why he wasn’t aware of Black Widow’s mission, and the two men clash over how they see the world, with Rogers’ old fashioned, if naïve, nobility at odds with Fury’s world weary pragmatism. Rogers’ is even more worried when Fury shows him S.H.I.E.L.D’s three brand new helicarriers which form Project Insight. When launched they’ll have the potential to eliminate threats, before they happen.

Fury takes on board Rogers’ concerns, and asks Alexander Pierce (Redford) a senior S.H.I.E.L.D official to hold fire on the launch of Project Insight. Pierce agrees but soon after Fury is attacked by a group of armed assailants led by the mysterious Winter Soldier, a merciless assassin who seems to have been around since the 1950s. The next day Pierce demands to know what Fury told Rogers. Although Fury gave Rogers a flash drive full of information Cap refuses to divulge this to Pierce, who in return has Captain America declared a fugitive.

Suddenly on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D Captain America finds he has few allies left, aside from Romanoff and a veteran soldier he’s befriended named Sam Wilson. As the net tightens around them, Rogers and his allies realise that some old enemies of Captain America could be about to topple S.H.I.E.L.D from within, and that the Winter Solider might be a foe that Captain American can’t bring himself to defeat…

There aren’t many sequels that continue the story of an original film whilst still doing something completely different. Too many sequels are just more of the same, so you have to give Marvel kudos for going from a World War 2 period piece to a 1970’s style political thriller that’s bang up to date with its allusions to drone warfare. This isn’t a blockbuster that plays it safe, given than what happens during this 2 ¼ hours will radically alter the Marvel cinematic universe.

It continues to surprise me that I like Captain America as much as I do, because usually American patriotism and tub thumping are guaranteed to turn me off, yet for some reason Captain America is a hero I find myself rooting for. Maybe it’s Evans’ earnest yet vulnerable performance, maybe it’s the fact that his straight arrow, boy scout naiveté is kinda refreshing after so many heroes who are shaded grey in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, I like characters who have flaws, and Rogers’ definitely does, When he debates with Fury you can see both sides of the argument and it isn’t like Captain America is right and everyone else is wrong, but his man out of time/ World War 2 heritage allows him to play the noble hero in a way that perhaps a 21st Century character can no longer believably do.

Whatever the reason, you can keep Iron Man and Thor and the Hulk, Cap is probably my favourite Marvel cinematic hero, though I have to say Black Widow isn’t far behind, and it really is about time she got her own movie. It’s easy to focus on the cat suit, but Romanoff is more than just a sex symbol, down in no small part to Johansson’s performance. She makes her a believable character, both as a human being and as an insanely acrobatic killing machine (although it’d be nice if she had a hint of a Russian accent given her origins.)

Jackson really was inspired casting as Nick Fury, and though he is just channelling that Bad Mother F**ker shtick he can probably do in his sleep, here it’s perfect for the role, and when you see him sharing the screen with an icon like Redford you realise just how much screen presence he has, because he’s never overawed when he goes toe to toe with Redford’s quietly domineering Pierce.

Redford is wonderful casting, granting the film heft as well as harkening back to an era of political thrillers that, though they might have been lacking flying aircraft carriers and laser guns, still share some DNA with this modern day blockbuster.

Some will say it’s too long, but really compared to anything Peter Jackson makes these days it’s practically a short, and some will complain that there’s too much running jumping and explosions, but at the end of the day this is a superhero film, a big budget blockbuster. It wasn’t going to end with Captain America and the Winter Solider having an earnest debate in the rain. What makes this a great film is that it does balance the spectacular with the thoughtful, and whilst it might not be quite as clever as it thinks it is (you’re never really in any doubt who are the good guys and who the bad) it would have been so much easier to make this a by the numbers action flick, which it most assuredly is not.

Yes if you’ve not seen the other Marvel films (and maybe even if you have) you might be slightly confused at times, and the swell of new characters and plot points might be a touch overwhelming, though Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon is a nice addition to the Marvel family (and no offence to Jeremy Renner but he’s far cooler than Hawkeye), but these are really minor criticisms.

The only question for me is whether I prefer The Winter Solider to The First Avenger, and it’s a tough call, First Avenger was a great period piece and origin story, but the film did limp a little towards the end, whilst The Winter Solider is far better paced, but lacks the more original setting of the first film. I’ll probably go with the first film, but only just.

Great cast, great set pieces, thoughtful and funny, and downright melancholic in places, this might not be Avengers Assemble, but it’s pretty damn close.