Archive for May, 2014

The aforementioned anthology, featuring my story ‘The Silence of Hestia’ is now available to buy as an eBook. Love the title and really love the cover!

LINK

twoheads

WHAT HAS TWO HEADS, TEN EYES, AND TERRIFYING TABLE MANNERS? is an anthology featuring more than a dozen never-before-published short stories that combine Horror and Science Fiction elements. These original tales, written by some of the best new genre authors, range from the horrifying to the humorous, the thought-provoking to the surreal. All are devilishly entertaining.

Read about…
A microwave leading to another dimension!
An angry little girl harboring a hungry evil!
A spaceship with mythical beast stowaways!
A woman who gives up sleep, and her sanity!
An aging starlet who makes the ultimate flesh sacrifice!
And much more!

If you enjoy movies like ALIEN, THE THING, EVENT HORIZON, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and PHANTASM, you’ll love WHAT HAS TWO HEADS, TEN EYES, AND TERRIFYING TABLE MANNERS?!

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Godzilla

Posted: May 28, 2014 in Film reviews

Directed by Gareth Edwards. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe.

In 1999 a mining cave-in in the Philippines reveals a huge underground cavern, and the remains of a giant prehistoric creature, along with two eggs, one of which it appears something has hatched from. Simultaneously a nuclear reactor in Janjira, Japan experiences violent earth tremors. The supervisor Joe Brody (Cranston) sends his wife and a team to check on the reactor, but further tremors cause an explosion that threatens to send the reactor into meltdown, and Joe has to seal his wife the other others in to save the surrounding populace, including their young son, Ford. The area around Janjira is evacuated and becomes a quarantined zone.

Flash forward fifteen years and Ford (Taylor-Johnson) is now a bomb disposal expert working for the US Navy. He’s just returned from a tour of duty to spend time with his wife and young son when he gets a call from japan. His father has been arrested trying to break into the Janjira quarantine zone and Joe flies out to Japan to bail him out.

Joe has become obsessed by a conspiracy theory that the Janjira disaster wasn’t caused by earth tremors, and despite his misgivings Ford agrees to go into the quarantine zone with his father. They arrive just as further earth tremors occur, only they aren’t earth tremors, they’re the birth pains of a giant creature dubbed a Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). After causing havoc the Muto heads out to sea, and towards America’s west coast, but in pursuit are not only the American navy, but another prehistoric creature, an alpha predator the scientists have named Godzilla…

Do you own a cat? It’s ok if you don’t because my metaphor will still make sense. All you need to do is pop to your local supermarket and pick up a sachet of chicken flavoured cat food. You don’t have to buy it, just look at the list of ingredients where you’ll see something like the following.

Chicken- 4%

Godzilla is a bit like that. The sachet says Godzilla on the front but in actuality the big lizard’s not in the film very much.

Now this isn’t unusual when it comes to monster movies, very often the makers will want to conceal the creature for as long as possible, either to ramp up tension, or because their visual effect (or man in a suit) is a bit cheap. Unfortunately in Godzilla’s case his absence doesn’t so much ramp up tension as drain it all away. The fact that he looks fantastic just makes the whole thing even more frustrating.

It almost wouldn’t matter if we had something other than the Mutos and Godzilla to focus on, but the human characters in the film are so bland and uninteresting that it’s hard to care. Cranston might over emote a tad, but at least he emotes, which is more than most of the people here do, and you have to query any film that hires the likes of Cranston, Taylor-Johnson, Watanabe, Juliet Binoche and Sally Hawkins (plus Elizabeth Olsen who I’m reliably informed is a good young actress) but then either gives them scant screen time, wafer thin characterisation, or a combination of the two.

Cranston has the best role, one he can get his teeth into, but he also has less screen time than Godzilla. Watanabe has gravitas but he’s really only here so that the film has someone on Godzilla’s side. Binoche probably filmed her scenes in an afternoon and Hawkins is wasted and seems to only be there to hold Watanabe’s clipboard or something.

Olsen, as Ford’s wife, is effectively pointless apart from (along with their son) giving Ford something to get home to and providing some mild peril. Other than this she’s a doctor (or maybe a nurse it’s never made clear) but even this isn’t relevant to the plot in any way.

The biggest disappointment is Taylor-Johnson though, who probably has more screen time than anyone, yet still manages to feel superfluous at times. It doesn’t help that he’s playing a monosyllabic solider, or that for the most part he just bumbles along in the monsters’ wake with increasingly contrived engagement with the story. But compared to most everyone else he does at least have some personality, all we get otherwise is generic civilians, who mainly run and scream or generic soldiers who die horribly.

Actually that’s a lie. They don’t die horribly. In fact for the most part I’m pretty sure they don’t even die onscreen. Which is another problem; it’s a pretty bloodless film. I’m not asking to see piles of corpses everywhere, but given the amount of property damage Godzilla and the Mutos create, tens of thousands of people, at least, must have bought the farm, but you’d barely know it. In the hands of another director, a Whedon or a Cameron, or even Paul WS Anderson, this again wouldn’t matter so much, they’d keep the pace going, inject some humour, or at least some actual peril, sadly Edwards either can’t, or won’t do this. Some kids are in danger on a bridge, but only for a moment, a small child slides down a train on his way to his doom, no it’s ok…people clearly die, but no one ever seems to be in danger, it’s an odd dichotomy and it makes for a boring film.

I saw Gareth Edwards’ Monsters at the cinema a few years ago, and whilst I lauded its scale to budget ratio it was, frankly, dull as ditch water. Characters just wandered along, stuff happened, and the big monsters were just background wallpaper. What Godzilla proves is that, even with a budget, Edwards’ art-house sensibilities and static direction won’t change, and I fear for the Star Wars spin off he’s going to make. Yes some shots of Godzilla are amazing, but it takes more than a few moody, smoke tinged shots of giant lizard and a few snippets of monster fisticuffs to make for a great monster movie.

And this is even before we get to how ludicrous various elements are. Joe gets arrested in the quarantine zone, yet the very next day goes back again and, in fact, gets further inside than he ever has before. Atom bombs explode seemingly a few hundred yards out to sea without causing any kind of environmental damage. Ford is told all about Godzilla and the Mutos, then allowed to leave despite the fact that the military are still trying to keep the whole matter hushed up, never mind lauding Godzilla as a hero despite the fact he’s sunk multiple warships and destroyed half of downtown San Francisco. It’s akin to saying “Thank God that tsunami saved us from the forest fire.”

Not enough Godzilla, not enough excitement, not enough drama, not enough humanity. Too silly to be taken seriously, and too serious to be any fun at all.

Though it would be great to review every film and TV show I ever watch, the truth is I don’t have time for this, hence why I primarily stick to films I see at the cinema( and books). However I saw Now You See Me, last week, and it prompted me to want to write something about it, in particular with regard to its reveal at the end and the nature of cinematic, and more importantly written, mysteries, and so please take this as a combined film review/ writing article.

Now You See Me tells the story of four magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) who are brought together by a mysterious figure to form The Four Horseman, on the surface a big budget Vegas magic act, but in actuality a criminal gang who, in their first Vegas show, convince a man that he’s robbed a bank in Paris. The thing is the Parisian bank really has been robbed, and it soon becomes apparent that the Four Horsemen are effectively being used as Robin Hoods by their mysterious benefactor. They’re hunted by FBI agent Mark Ruffalo, mysterious Interpol agent Mélanie Laurent and magician turned debunker Morgan Freeman, and they cross paths with billionaire Michael Caine.

The film starts well, the leads are all engaging and, initially at least, the tricks make sense. As the film goes along however it becomes increasingly more convoluted, with an age old mystery running in the background that may hold the key to it all. Worse, the leads all become cyphers, but none of this is that annoying. What’s really, REALLY annoying about the film is that it’s final reveal is a complete and utter cheat that makes no sense in context of what you’ve just seen.

And I hate that.

It reminded me of a book of classic Locked Room mysteries I read a year or two back. Now I’d love to write one myself but I never really have— as far as I can recall! So many stories! — because I suspect there aren’t any solutions I could come up with that haven’t already been done to death.

What was interesting about this book were a small number of stories that were, frankly, shit. It seems that within the mystery genre, which I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in unlike many of my friends, there are unfortunate instances where an impossible mystery is set up, which the , usually very smug, detective resolves at the end through the use of information that the reader has not been made privy too.

As a writer and a reader/watcher, this is one of the worst things an author/director can do, a fundamental cheat of the contract between the creator and the consumer.

Now let’s go back to films about magicians featuring Michael Caine, only this time we’ll look at Christopher Nolan’s sublime The Prestige. This is a film full of magic and mystery but, importantly, a film where everything is explained at the end satisfactorily, and the explanations makes perfect sense with what we’ve seen throughout the film; whether it’s the resolution of the mystery surrounding Christian Bale’s character (which is stunningly simple) or the resolution of the mystery around Hugh Jackman’s character (which is pure science fiction) it hardly matters because both make sense within the context of the film, with clues being sewn into the essence of the film from the start. To the point where, in particular with the Bale storyline, you can’t believe you didn’t see it coming, because it’s so obvious.

And that is the essence of a great mystery, at the end of the story, when the effete foreign detective/middle class old lady/drunken gumshoe/curmudgeonly coroner (delete as appropriate) reveals who the murderer was, if they’ve done their job right your first reaction should be “Of course it was Lady Daphne/Reverend Smith/Louis the Sap/Toxik chemical Inc.” (delete as appropriate).

Your first reaction shouldn’t he, “huh?” Because if it is the creator has, in my opinion, failed.

You should be able to look back over the book/film and spot all the little clues that were littered there like breadcrumbs for you to find.

Now don’t get me wrong, this can be a tricky balancing act to undertake, because if you’re scattering clues throughout the story you do run the risk of making it too obvious, of your reader figuring out that it was the Butler what did it before they’ve finished reading chapter 2, but I think that’s a risk worth taking, and you can muddy the waters somewhat. Again part of the trick can be (not always) to have multiple suspects, because even if the reader knows it’s one of four men, he at least doesn’t know which one until the end. For an example of this take Series 6 of the new incarnation of Doctor Who, where the Doctor was ‘killed’ in the opening episode and then had to come up with a way around this. People complain about Steven Moffat’s storylines not making sense, but in this instance the resolution made perfect sense, and had been foreshadowed episodes earlier, the trick was that the series highlighted several possible ways for him to get out of it; the Tesselecta, the living flesh duplicates, the temporal anomaly that created a second Amy etc., the surprise of the resolution wasn’t so much in the nature of the resolution, as it was in which resolution would be used.

Of course a lot of Who fans still complained, but then they’d have complained if Moffat had pulled something out of thin air like that detective in the old story I read, or like the producers of Now You See Me did, which brings us nicely full circle to the end of this post…

Now you See Me is enjoyable, but if you really want to see a magical film you’d be better off watching The Prestige, because the best magic trick is the one you should have seen coming a mile away…

Pompeii

Posted: May 10, 2014 in Film reviews

Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.

In 62AD, in the north of Britannia, a tribe of Celts are wiped out by Roman legionaries led by Corvus (Sutherland). There is one survivor, a young boy named Milo. Despite escaping the slaughter he is soon captured and sold into slavery. Fast-forward to 79AD and Milo (Harington) is now a gladiator, going under the somewhat more macho name of ‘The Celt’. After impressing a visiting slave owner, Milo is sent to fight in the arena at Pompeii. En route he encounters Cassia (Browning) who he impresses with his way with horses.

Unfortunately for Milo, Cassia is the daughter of the ruler of Pompeii Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), so there’s clearly no prospect of romance, despite the fact that they’re clearly taken with one another.

Once in Pompeii Milo is slated to fight a veteran gladiator named Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) a champion who is only one victory away from earning his freedom. Everyone expects Milo to lose this fight, and his life.

As if things weren’t bad enough for Milo, Corvus has arrived in town, eager to wangle Cassia’s hand in marriage, whether she wants to give it or not, oh and the nearby volcano keeps making grumbling noises…but it’s probably nothing…

There’s a serious, heart-breaking film waiting to be made about the tragedy of Pompeii…I think the first thing that needs to be said is that Pompeii isn’t it. Some films are bad, some films are so bad they’re good, and some films flit between the two. Pompeii is one of them.

If you see Pompeii you might get the feeling that you’ve seen it before, or at least bits of it; Gladiator, Spartacus, Titanic and probably a whole host of other films. Original this is not. It’s also quite dull for the first third or so as Milo and Cassia make eyes at one another and everyone swans around in a togas trying to be as British…sorry as Roman as possible (with some notable exceptions.)

But then a funny thing happens, against your better judgement you find the film perking up a bit, there are some great action set pieces and some humour…and that’s before the volcano even erupts.

Oops spoilers!

Game of Throne’s Hartington probably didn’t have to put that much effort into preparing for this character (aside from, apparently, having to learn an entirely new sword fighting technique) as in many ways Milo is very much like Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, handsome, moody, monosyllabic, and pretty handy in a fight. He’s not exactly the greatest actor in the world, but he actually does all of the above quite well, and in particular once he and Atticus form a bond they make quite an enjoyable double act. Even though Akinnuoye-Agbaje is really just playing a variation on Milo he imbues the character with such a sense of honour and nobility that it’s hard not to root for him, especially against those nasty Romans (and of course the volcano, which might be nasty, we’re never formally introduced.) But we’ll come back to the Romans.

Browning does try to make Cassia more than a screaming heroine to be rescued, and at times succeeds, but she does come across a little limp and doe eyed a lot of the time and though they do have chemistry, the attraction between her and Milo does seem to come down to the fact that they’re both pretty, oh and he’s good with horses…

Which brings us to the villain of the piece (other than the bloody great volcano) Corvus. Sutherland looks like he probably had a ball playing this part, not only affecting a British accent but a camp, sneering British accent into the bargain. At least he tries to blend in though, which is more than can be said for Carrie Ann Moss. For while everyone else is doing their best Laurence Olivier impression, she’s just, well, American.

Harris is solid, and it is interesting during his scenes with Sutherland to imagine their respective dads facing off against one another in another time and another film.

Once the action moves to the arena we get some superbly executed fight scenes, and it’s very hard not to get excited as Milo and Atticus face off against a whole host of Roman soldiers. Before you can say “Are you sure the mountain should be doing that?” however, Vesuvius decides enough is enough, and all hell is quite literally let loose.

The destruction of Pompeii is pretty epic, although with flaming boulders streaking down from the sky a volcanic eruption doesn’t look too dissimilar from an orbital bombardment, so for all we know (care) there might actually be a Star Destroyer in orbit…

This is a film that does what it says on the tin, and little more. The heroes and the villains are easy to spot, swords are swung, pretty people kiss one another and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes as if they plan to be together forever (despite having known each other five minutes) the bad guys sneer and cheat, the good guys are noble and brave, and once the volcano erupts everyone is a potential victim.

Taken on its own terms Pompeii ends up being enjoyable, but only once you place your tongue firmly in your cheek given the fact that a lot of the dialogue is pretty risible. Visually Anderson is a good director (though he’s still to beat his debut, the wonderful Event Horizon), but this is a film that reminds you just why Titanic is so good; because despite its occasionally clunky dialogue, its broad brush strokes and star crossed lovers, Cameron made us care, not only about Jack and Rose, but about everyone else on board the ship, so when people started to die it affected us. Sadly many of the volcano related deaths in Pompeii are more funny than tragic, with too many people dying in ludicrous slow motion, or getting time to mutter farewell speeches before they bite the, er, lava.

If this film was fighting in the arena it wouldn’t quite deserve a thumbs up, but doesn’t quite deserve a thumbs down either, so I guess what I’m saying, in an incredibly convoluted manner, is that it’s a bit average. Plus points for the ending though.

Mockingjay

Posted: May 6, 2014 in Book reviews

By Suzanne Collins.

And so we come to the final part of the Hunger Games trilogy. Before I start, a little warning. Whilst I’m not planning to include any major spoilers for Mockingjay itself, by necessity I will mention events that happened in the previous two books.

Last warning…

Ok then!

Katniss Everdeen has survived the Quarter Quell, her second Hunger Games, and been rescued, along with others, by the rebels of District 13. Meanwhile her home, District 12 has been firebombed, almost totally destroyed, with most of its inhabitants killed. The survivors, including Katniss’ mother and sister, Prim, as well as Gale (the boy she might be in love with) are safe with her in District 13. However Peeta (the other boy she may be in love with—do keep up!) has been captured by the Capitol and is tortured into becoming a mouthpiece for the Capitol by President Snow.

President Coin of District 13 needs Katniss to be the ‘Mockingjay’ a symbol of the resistance. Reluctantly Katniss agrees, but only on the proviso that she gets to kill Snow after the war ends, and that Peeta and other former tributes held captive by the Capitol are pardoned.

Suddenly Katniss finds herself in familiar territory as she’s dressed, scripted and filmed, much as she was in the run up to the Hunger Games and the Quarter Quell. She’s also kept away from any combat, although she and Gale manage to get involved in the defence of District 8 despite this. As time passes, and the war progresses, she begins to wonder at the carnage on both sides, and the moral high ground held by the rebels seems increasingly fragile.

Will the rebels win and end the Capitol’s dominion over Panem? Will Katniss get to kill Snow? And will she finally have to choose between Peeta and Gale?

I’d heard mixed things about Mockingjay, with some suggesting it was the weakest book of the trilogy, but I have to say I didn’t find it particularly weaker than the first two parts. Yes it is very different—in some respects- because it doesn’t feature an actual Hunger Games, but the conflict plays out as the Hunger Games writ large, especially in the later street fighting within the Capitol.

The similarity between Katniss’ role within the resistance and her former role as a tribute is at times quite uncomfortable. She might be poster girl for the rebellion now rather than a symbol of the Capitol’s dominance, but again her image is tailored for her, again she finds herself a prisoner of circumstance, a pawn in a larger game, although again she finds a way to rebel, even within the rebellion, and again Collins adroitly presents a three dimensional heroine; brave, noble, stubborn. Not at all perfect, but wholly worthy of our empathy, respect and support.

The book is perhaps the most brutal of the three, and despite it being ‘teen’ fiction, Collins doesn’t pull any punches. Hospitals are bombed, people are burned alive, supporting characters are mercilessly dismembered, and in the end whether it’s in war or the Hunger Games, children are sacrificed for some ‘greater good’ and as such Collins’ trilogy can be seen as a parable for every conflict in human history.

The moral ambiguity of the rebels is also well handled, there are precious few white knights on display, and they’re fully prepared to adopt the tactics of the enemy, with Gale in particular coming up with some vicious tactics. Katniss is not immune from this either, she’s no longer a child, she’s now a soldier in a war bloodier than any Hunger Games.

The supporting characters get plenty to do, and finally Gale shows some personality. People may complain about the love triangle at the heart of the story, but it’s played realistically, and Katniss is never doe eyed about either boy (you could argue they’re both more likely to be doe eyed over her) and in the final analysis the love story is just one element of a winder story. That said, personally I’m glad things end up the way they do.

No book is perfect, and Mockingjay does sag a bit in the middle after a strong opening, before picking up towards the end. Collins obviously knew where she wanted to take the story; she perhaps just wasn’t quite sure how to get there. The book is a trifle repetitive as well, on three separate occasions Katniss has to recover from trauma/injury, and whilst because the story is told from her perspective this gives Collins chance to skip ahead to keep the story’s momentum going, you do feel a little short changed. Similarly as with the other books the first person narrative also means a lot of things happen “off camera” although actually I found this device worked better in the third instalment than it had in the first two books.

Minor quibbles though, again Collins grabs hold of you by the throat and refuses to let you go. There may be happy endings for some characters, but quite a few will fall along the way, and even the eventual victors (see what I did there?) have to pay a hefty price for their happy endings. One shock in particular is quite heartbreaking, and caught me so off guard that it actually took me a while to process what had actually happened.

I came to the Hunger Games trilogy slightly reluctantly based on my viewing of the first film, but I’m exceptionally glad to have read them and to have known Katniss Everdeen, and I heartily recommend the trilogy.

I’m off to read something else now, but until I return, may the odds ever be in your favour…