Archive for August, 2014

The Expendables 3

Posted: August 31, 2014 in Film reviews
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Directed by Patrick Hughes. Starring Sylvester Stallone and…oh too many to list right here…

The film opens with the Expendables, a mercenary group led by Barney Ross (Stallone) and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), breaking a former expendable named Doc (Wesley Snipe) out of prison. Immediately Doc is recruited to join the Expendables on their latest mission, to stop an arms dealer from selling weapons to a Somali warlord. Unfortunately the mission goes sour when the arms dealer is revealed as a man named Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) a man who was once an Expendable, and a man that Barney thought he had killed.

The Expendables escape, though one of their number is badly wounded. Fearful that his team are getting too old for the life they lead, yet determined to gain revenge on Stonebanks, Barney fires his friends and utilises a former mercenary named Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to hire a new group of younger, one might even say more expendable, Expendables.

Once his new team is assembled, and acting on intelligence provided by CIA liaison Max Drummer (Harrison Ford replacing Bruce Willis who priced himself out of the film) Barney and the new Expendables head to Romania.

Stonebanks is a dangerous adversary though, and it may be that the grizzled old Expendables might still have a part to play in bringing him down.

It’s amazing to think that what started as a curiosity, and a fairly low key (all things considered) action film gathering together old 80s action stars should have led to not just one, but now two sequels, with each one upping the ante, not only in terms of the action quotient, but also in terms of the sheer scale of the cast. What’s even more surprising is that the laws of diminishing returns obviously doesn’t apply to grizzled pensioners with guns, because this might well be my favourite of the three Expendables movies. Whilst the first film was perhaps played too straight faced, and the second played too farcical, this third film is— almost as if Goldilocks was watching the films back to back—just right.

For starters the wealth of talent on display is staggering. Back in the day even the idea that you could line up Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Harrison Ford, Gibson, Snipes etc. etc. in the same film would have been ludicrous. Such a film would have cost the GDP of a large European country, and the egos on show would have likely seen it struggle to even finish shooting without someone, if not everyone, walking off set. Luckily the passage of time has not only seen most of these guys’ pay-packets shrink, but also their egos; or maybe it’s just that they’ve decided their egos aren’t as important as a cheque?

Whatever the reason, for those of us who lived through that particular bullet strewn era, such a line-up makes you excited before a shots fired. Not that this is a guarantee of success. You can stick the Die Hard label on it, and you can get Bruce Willis to play John McClane again, but when a film is as turgid as Die Hard 5 was even nostalgia can’t make it enjoyable.

By contrast The Expendables 3 is a joy to watch. Is it a thoughtful, beautifully acted and wonderfully directed masterpiece? No. Is it a fun action packed thrill right? Hell yeah!

The set pieces are well handled, and for a cast this big Hughes manages, for the most part, to ensure things don’t become too unwieldy. Yes some of the parts are little more than extended cameos; notably Arnie, Harrison Ford, the shoehorned in Jet Li and a blink and you’ll miss him Robert Davi, and yes some people, especially Snipes, are a trifle underused (aside from a very funny prison related joke) but no matter their screen time everyone gets a moment or two to shine, even the new recruits, or the Expendababies as they might be better called.

 Actually the new recruits are ok, which given they could have been bland and faceless next to the aged pros around them is quite an achievement. In particular Ronda Rousey as the only female Expendable more than holds her own (even if her “Men!” catchphrase is a bit cringe worthy.

Really we need to talk about Antonio Banderas though, because his turn as the overly talkative Spanish mercenary Galo is so hilarious he almost steals the whole damn film! Stallone and Statham continue to have great chemistry together, Lundrgren remains a wonderful straight man and, whilst he may be looking increasingly old, it’s still great to see Arnie wielding a gun and shouting for people to “Get to the CHOPPAH!”. Whilst he’s made mistakes one hope that Gibson can be redeemed, because here he reminds you just how good he can be, and as for Harrison Ford…I swear I saw a twinkle in his eye of the kind I haven’t seen in quite some time.

Roll on Expendables 4!

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It’s true what they say about footballers, sometimes you have to play yourself back into form, and as a writer sometimes you have to write yourself back into the game.

I’d been suffering a mini crisis of confidence last week. I’d had a rejection and was also feeling a bit under the weather, in addition I was lacking in a project to get my teeth into (novel aside) and these elements were combining to sneak up on me and whisper: “Are you sure you haven’t reached the end of the line? Run out of enthusiasm, run out of ideas?” I’m sure most writers have had those thoughts from time to time.

Since that time I’ve begun working on two projects, one I’ve actually started writing, the other exists only in my head for the moment.

The project I’ve started work on was an idea I had for a submission window that closes in a few days, and actually I’m not convinced I’ll get it done in time. The idea has some merit, but I had to push myself to actually start work on it. Once I did it started to flow but I’m still not convinced it’s going to end up one of my better stories and I still have to force myself to get enthusiastic about it.

By contrast the project that, at the moment, only exists in my head is one that already feels ‘right’. I’m enthusiastic about it, and once I had the basic idea my mind started firing off in different directions, creating/rejecting plot permutations and character ideas until, quite quickly, I ended up with a fully realised story with engaging protagonists, an interesting setting, a beginning a middle and an end. Ok the protagonists still need names, and the middle section needs fleshing out, and of course I still need to actually write the thing, but still, I’m excited and enthused about it in a way I haven’t been about a story for a little while.

I think, for me, stories end up in one of four categories (there may be sub categories and there may be categories I haven’t considered yet, but for now we’ll go with this.)

• The ones that seem like a good idea but aren’t. Now I might decide they’re a bad idea before I type a single word, or they might be the kind of stories I only realise are a dead end after I’ve started. Trust me; walking away from a novel when you’ve already written 25,000 words is frustrating as hell.

• The story idea that’s good but is waiting for the right time. This has happened a few times, in fact the novel I’m currently started working on features four characters and substantial plot elements from an idea I originally conceived in 2006. The original idea was a haunted house story, whilst my novel falls more into the post-apocalyptic genre, so you can see that sometimes it isn’t just a case of timing, sometimes its waiting for the inspiration that takes an idea in a different direction.

• The ok story ideas. These are the ones that I don’t have great enthusiasm for, but which are decent enough ideas, and which, with a push, I’ll finish/submit.

• The ideas that grip me. These are the stories that HAVE to be told. The stories that either arrive fully formed, or quickly evolve into fully formed stories in my head, the ones I can’t wait to start on.

Now of course it doesn’t follow that an idea I’m enthusiastic about turns out to be a great story, sometimes this can blind you to a narrative’s flaws, and similarly a story you have to chisel out of solid rock with a toothpick might turn out to be a real gem and worth all the hard work.

All I know is it’s glad to be back in the game!

As I contemplate another short story rejection (oh woe is me!) I was prompted to put pen to pap…er, fingers to keys, in order to jot down what I think are the qualities a writer needs. Straight away I’d say that I don’t believe a writer needs all of the below, in fact given some of the poor novels I’ve read over the years you might not need very many of them at all, but some mixture is essential.

In no particular order:

• Dedication.
Writing is like work, it requires effort and it requires time, and it requires consistency. Any writing handbook will tell you to write every day, and it isn’t easy, especially not if writing is just a hobby and you have a job/children to juggle, but if you want to be a writer then you have to make time to write, and ideally you need to do this regularly. I try and write every day, sometimes it isn’t possible but, on the whole, unless I’m on holiday, it’s rare for more than two days to pass without me writing.

This dedication doesn’t just extend to sitting down every day and writing a new chapter of your novel for six months either, it’s the dedication to go back over what you’ve written, again and again, proof reading, correcting errors, rewriting huge chunks (something I freely admit I’ve never been very good at.)

For a long time this was the quality I lacked, the sheer gumption to actually make myself sit down and write. I’m glad I have that dedication now; I just wish it’d shown up sooner!

• Stubbornness.
You might get lucky. You might be one of those people like James Herbert who’s first novel, The Rats, was picked up by a publisher at the first time of asking, but the chances are you’re going to get rejections, a LOT of rejections and you’re going to have to cowboy up and take those on the chin. More than that you’re going to have to take those blows to the chin, and then stick your chin out for another go, and you’re going to have to keep doing this like the very epitome of a cantankerous old mule.

This very much links in with dedication, because it isn’t just about rejections, it’s about the other roadblocks you’ll find in your way, things in your work or personal life that make writing a struggle.

• Self-belief.
It’s easier to be stubborn if you believe you have a right to be, and to some extent you’ve got to believe in your own ability, because if you don’t think you’re a good writer, why should anyone else?

Without belief in your own ability those rejections will eventually knock you down, whittle away at your confidence until, one day, you put down your pen and never pick it up again except when you’re signing a birthday card.

• Self-awareness.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive when I’ve just told you to believe in yourself, but you’ve also got to be self-aware enough to criticise yourself as well. A lot of rejection will be generic, but some will come with criticism, hopefully constructive criticism, but nonetheless it will be negative, or at least will appear to be so. What you have to do is take it on board.

That doesn’t mean you have to accept every critique you get, try to please everyone and you’ll end up pleasing no one after all, but at least consider what you’ve been told. If its comments about your grammar, or the number of typos in your work, then you need to consider that maybe, just maybe, you need to proofread your manuscript a few more times before you send it off. If it’s that your dialogue seems rusty or your descriptions are overly flowery then see if you can’t improve those areas.

Don’t believe everything people say about your work (experienced publishers turned down Stephen King, JK Rowling and a host of others after all) but don’t discount the feedback you get either.

• Talent
It would be easy to say you either have this or you don’t, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Work hard enough and practice enough and I firmly believe that most people could be at least workmanlike writers, and plenty of workmanlike writers sell stories.

Talent alone won’t get you published, but if your prose flows like a mountain stream and you can describe a filthy slum and still make it seem magical, then no doubt editors and agents are going to be predisposed to like you.

• Luck
This isn’t me being cynical, or blaming my lack of blockbuster success on nothing more than bad luck, but it has to be said that sometimes selling a story or getting published comes down to being in the right place at the right time…probably with the right idea.

The sad truth is, no matter how good a writer you are, chances are there are plenty of other people just as good or better, and sometimes the thing that makes one submission stand out amongst a slush pile full of them is probably something you couldn’t have envisaged in a million years.

How many conspiracy thrillers with religious overtones came out in the wake of The Da Vinci Code for instance? How many Dark Romance books in the wake of Twilight? I’ve seen plenty of books advertised as; ‘The next Hunger Games’, or ‘In the spirit of Harry Potter’, and I wonder just how many erotic books publishers had looked down their noses at suddenly became bankable once Fifty Shades of Grey took off?

Luck, don’t bank on it but don’t discount it. Sadly it isn’t something you can affect, well not unless you’re smart enough to realise that the next big thing is going to be books about talking cats from another planet two years in advance. I’ve copyrighted Moggies from Mars so don’t even think about it!

• Empathy
Can you imagine what it would be like to be a member of the opposite sex? To be someone of a different culture or ethnicity? To be a dog or a cat or, a cop, or a serial killer, or an alien warlord from the Gryxiantiply nebula?

Being able to write from the perspective of different people will help your writing stand out. Try and put yourself in their place. Sometimes this won’t be easy, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be a killer or a bigot, but if you can do it your characters will benefit and your story will benefit. Your heroes will be more than chisel jawed cardboard cut-outs and your villains will be more than Dick Dastardly clones. And the same is true whether you’re writing about a group of gay artists in Madrid or a group of mercenaries in the jungles of Burma.

• Imagination
Another quality that almost goes without saying, it’s hard to create a story without some degree of an active imagination, because you’ve got to imagine a scenario, create characters out of thin air, and then decide what will happen to them.

That said, imagination comes in varying forms. I’m what I once saw referred to as a space cadet, someone whose mind churns out ideas on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. Writer’s block is something I’ve rarely had to deal with for long. The downside of course is that many of those ideas are plain shite (be self-aware, see!), but luckily some are good (Believe in yourself too!).

Your mind doesn’t need to work like this for you to be a success, in fact for a lot of years one of the things that stymied me when it came to writing was that every time I started on a story I thought of another one and all my enthusiasm for the original tale melted like snow in spring. There are plenty of hugely successful writers out there who go months or years between ideas that they deem worthy of writing, and plenty of successful books have been written that were derivative. As the saying goes, there are only so many basic stories in the world (The romance, the quest etc.). Look at Star Wars, the only really original element is that it’s in space. Take the X-Wing’s away and what you’re left with is a farm boy, a good wizard, an evil warlock, a princess and a pirate, and that’s a very old story.

So don’t worry if you don’t wake up every morning thinking “Werewolves on the Moon, of course!” but by the same token if you never, ever come up with ideas you might want to reconsider a career/hobby change—although there’s plenty of stream of consciousness work out there, poetry, surrealist writing etc. Plus of course there’s non-fiction. Maybe you’re not meant to write romantic epics, maybe you’re meant to write car repair manuals. Writing is writing…

• To be a reader.
One final thing. I think in order to be a writer you probably have to be a voracious reader. The fictional horror writer Garth Marenghi might claim to have written more books than he’s read, but I think on the whole those who write, must first read, especially in your chosen genre(s) but try and stretch yourself from time to time. You never know you might find something new to enjoy.

***

I hope this post has been of some help. Now I’m going to stop writing about being a writer, and get back to my novel…you see I haven’t written any of that yet today!

 

Guardians of the Galaxy

Posted: August 5, 2014 in Film reviews
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Directed by James Gunn. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper

In 1988 a young boy named Peter Quill runs away from the hospital after witnessing his mother’s death. He doesn’t get far before a huge alien spacecraft descends out of the night sky and abducts him.

Flash forward 26 years and Peter Quill (Pratt), or Star-Lord as he likes to be known, is working as one of the Ravagers, a group of thieves and smugglers. After stealing a mysterious orb however, he decides to betray his fellow Ravagers and take the item for himself.

Unfortunately the orb contains an unimaginably powerful weapon, which is wanted by Ronan, an alien fanatic hell bent on destroying half the galaxy. Ronan sends his assassin Gamora (Saldana) to retrieve the orb. Meanwhile Yondu (Michael Rooker) the leader of the Ravagers and a twisted father figure to Peter, has put a bounty out on his head.

When Star-Lord reaches the planet Xandar he is ambushed by Gamora, but the pair of them are then ambushed by a pair of bounty hunters after the reward money. Rocket (Cooper) is a genetically engineered racoon, and his partner Groot (Vin Diesel) is a sentient tree creature who can only say three words; “I am Groot”.

After a mighty struggle Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket and Groot are arrested by the Nova Corps (an intergalactic police force) and sent to prison where they meet Drax (Bautista) a man who takes things far too literally, and a man who wants revenge on Ronan for the death of his family. Seeing Gamora Drax tries to take his revenge out on her, until she claims she hate Ronan as much as anyone, and after Star-Lord makes the point that with her on their side Drax stands a better chance of defeating Ronan.

And so the five disparate losers join forces to escape from prison, and then head for a lawless city in space in order to sell the orb and split the profits. Along the way however they might find they have more in common that they think, and that they’re all a lot nobler than they thought they were.

I think I can boil my review down to just three words. I am Groot!

Of course I am Groot means different things at different times during the film, but I think I can safely say that when I use the phrase what I actually mean is fantastic, awesome, enjoyment.

It sounds a cliché to say it, but I honestly cannot remember the last time I had this much fun at the cinema, that’s how enjoyable Guardians of the Galaxy is.

It really shouldn’t be, it features a bunch of lower echelon Marvel characters, one of whom is a talking rodent, another a walking/talking tree. It has a familiar central McGuffin; a powerful object of the kind we’ve seen referenced in several Marvel films so far (specifically Captain America, Thor and The Avengers), the bad guy is a trifle bland and the film ends up with yet another giant battle above a city that gradually gets more and more pummelled.

The thing is that none of the above matters one jot when a film is this exuberantly, joyously, bonkersly brilliant.

Yes I know bonkersly isn’t a word…

From the moment Star-Lord stands in a long buried ancient city, keys up his Walkman (complete with mix tape) strikes a pose and the main title fills the screen you know this is not going to be a film that takes itself too seriously. And thank goodness for that! I like dark and gritty as much as the next guy, but it seems just about every film these days wants to be moody and deep, even superhero films. By contrast Guardians of the Galaxy feels like a throwback to an era of filmmaking where the object was just to have fun.

I hesitate to mention it in the same breath as Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Indy and their ilk, because the proof of the pudding may well be in the re-watching, but it really does have that kind of exuberance, down in part to Gunn’s direction, a spot on pithy script, and a very well assembled/created bunch of Guardians!

Pratt is superb as Peter Quill, having the rare talent enjoyed by the likes of Harrison Ford and Nathan Fillon of being able to play a wise cracking hero who just manages to stay the right side of being a dick. Saldana perhaps phones it in a little, and is slightly outdone by the (underused) Karen Gillan as her homicidal sister. She makes for a strong female presence though, and it is hard to shine when you’re playing the straight man. Bautista is similarly playing the straight man to Quill Rocket and, to some extent, Groot, but he is very funny playing a man who just doesn’t get metaphors. As he says, “Nothing goes over my head, my reflexes are too quick.” Given he’s an ex wrestler he certainly looks the part, but his acting ain’t too bad either and he’s central to a rather funny scene at the start of the end credits…I shall say no more except to say that this scene is way funnier than the one right at the end of the credits.

A talking racoon with a big gun is a risky proposition, but between a wonderfully realised CGi creation, and Bradley Cooper’s wise ass voice acting, Rocket really comes alive and is definitely up there with the Gollums of this world. That he manages to not only be cool, snide and funny, but also display pathos and emotion is testament to a good job all round.

This just leaves Groot. Some might say Vin Diesel was on easy money with a character who can only say three words (actually four as it turns out) but it’s amazing just how many different ways he can say it, each time meaning something different. Vin’s inflections are aided by another well realised creation and it’s really hard not to love Groot.

Lee Pace is saddled with a fairly dull bad guy, even if he isn’t quite as drab as Ecclston was in Thor 2, but he’s more than made up for the by aforementioned Gillan and Rooker (who chews the scenery, spits it out, picks it up again and chews it some more, the guy really is a legend).

Great characters, great script, cool spaceships and an awesome 70s/80s soundtrack that makes perfect sense, this is a film full of humour, heart and fun.

Really there’s only one thing left to say… I am Groot!

Knots and Crosses

Posted: August 3, 2014 in Book reviews

By Ian Rankin.

The city of Edinburgh has been rocked by the murder of two young girls, both strangled. Local reporter Jim Stevenson, however, is more interested in the nefarious activities of Michael Rebus, a stage hypnotist, who he believes is involved in funnelling drugs into the city. Michael’s brother, John Rebus, is a Detective Sergeant assigned to work the strangler case.

John Rebus is a broken man, estranged from his wife and daughter he drinks too much and is still haunted by his past in the military. He’s also just begun to receive anonymous letters containing little figures made out of string. As the net tightens on the strangler, it becomes apparent that Rebus might be more involved than is first thought.

This is only the second Rebus novel I’ve ever read. It’s also the very first Rebus novel, thankfully his publisher has started putting numbers on the latest printings, which is always a help (I wish more publishers would do that—yes you can go by publishing dates inside but this is easier.)

There are a lot of flaws with this novel, but that is to be expected given it’s Rankin’s first book, and in fact in the edition I read he highlights many of them in his foreword. There’s indications of a writer who thinks he’s cleverer than he actually (at this point in his career) is, and as he himself states, he really overdoes the Jekyll and Hyde/Deacon Brodie references.

As characters go, Rebus isn’t the most original; a detective with a drink problem and a broken marriage, a man who was in the SAS, many of these things are clichéd in the world of crime fiction, although in fairness his father being a stage hypnotist is a bit of a twist.

The central mystery is not a great one, and the book will, I imagine, feel very different from the other Rebus books, given that here he’s only nominally the main character. Rankin clearly didn’t write the book expecting to create a recurring character, and in fact Rebus himself is a potential suspect in the murders. The central mystery hovers around in the background for much of the book, as Rebus himself hovers around the periphery of the case, just one of dozens of officers assigned to the investigation. As a result the middle section of the book does seem to meander a little, but once things kick into gear the story really takes off. Suddenly things become more personal for Rebus, and the clock is definitely ticking as he races to save the next potential victim.

As a fan of the likes of Lawrence Block (who I know Rankin is a fan of as well) I like a hardboiled detective story done well, and if Rebus’s background seems unoriginal, in Rankin’s words he becomes more than the sum of his parts, a real, flawed human being and an interesting character, and he’s aided by having Edinburgh as a backdrop, a beautiful city with a dark past and a murky underbelly, and I’m looking forward to finding book 2 and seeing Rebus more centrally the hero, and hopefully a better mystery.

An interesting rather than a great read, but one that shows clears signs of the potential to come and one that’s certainly got me wanting to read more about John Rebus.