Archive for April, 2015

Incredible News!

Posted: April 25, 2015 in Regarding writing
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Two weeks ago I got some very good news on the writing front, and last week this news went public. I didn’t blog about it immediately because I think I wanted to get my head around it first because it is a pretty big deal…who am I kidding, in terms of my writing it’s a monumentally huge deal!

Abaddon Books is ten years old this year, and in celebration they held an open submission call, the deadline of which was February. I made a submission for a 30,000 word novella to be set in their Tomes of the Dead series. I had to supply a 150 word elevator pitch, a detailed chapter breakdown and 2000 words of sample prose. In the end I actually sent them a smidgen over 2000 words because I’d completed the first chapter.

So, two weeks ago I got an email and the subject header made it clear it was a response to my submission. Here we go, I thought, this’ll be the’ I regret to inform you’ email. Except when I opened it up the first words I read were “You’re in!”

I think I was so shocked it was actually a few seconds before I read the rest. My submission had been accepted. I think I spent the rest of the day in shock, which seems odd but you have to realise that, as much as I believe in my own ability as a writer, the truth is that I’ve had far more rejections than acceptances(which I think is a given for most writers) and with all due respect to the wonderful people who’ve printed my stories over the years, I’ve never been accepted by any publisher this big.

This might be the point where I wax lyrical about all my hard work and perseverance paying off, but really I think that would be churlish, because there’s more hard work to come. I have to write the novella by the agreed deadline, and I need to make sure it’s as good as it can be, polish it till I can see my ugly mug in it. The time to celebrate is when it’s published, right now there’s writing to be done!

You can read the official announcement here.

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John Wick

Posted: April 15, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Chad Stahelski. Starring Keanu Reeves.

John Wick (Reeves) is a man in mourning after the recent death of his wife, Helen after a long illness. In the aftermath of her funeral he receives a delivery that was arranged by Helen before her death, the delivery is of a puppy named Daisy because she wanted to give John someone else to love after she was gone. Wick is initially wary about the dog, but the two soon bond.

Whilst out for a drive Wick meets up with several Russian mobsters led by Iosef (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen) who is impressed by Wick’s 1969 Mustang and offers to buy it. Wick refuses, but that night Iosef and his men break into Wick’s home. They beat him, take his car keys and kill Daisy.

They don’t kill Wick though, which, as it turns out, is something of a colossal mistake. Back in New York Iosef’s father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) is horrified, because John Wick was a top drawer assassin who worked for Viggo for many years before retiring after he fell in love. Viggo tries to placate Wick, but John Wick doesn’t want apologies, he wants blood…

You’re never too old for a good revenge flick, and I’m pleased to report that John Wick is a good revenge flick. Whether it’s a true classic is harder to determine, but it’s certainly an enjoyable ride.

It’s fair to say it isn’t the most original of films. They’re definitely channeling Hong Kong action films of the 80s/90s here (think John Woo) with lots of sharp suits and a blend of martial arts and gunplay, but there’s also a more pulp take on the genre, harking back to classics like Point Blank, and it’s semi-remake Payback, with the idea of a lone man tearing through the underworld, seeking restitution for what is perceived, by the villains at least, as a minor sleight—in Point Black/Payback it’s a relatively small amount of cash, here it’s the death of a dog. There’s also more than a hint of the retired gunslinger/samurai called back to a life of violence.

Of course originality is no guarantee of success, and neither is familiarity a sign of failure, in the end it comes down to how well you put your vision on screen, and for the most part the people behind the camera put their vision across stylishly and frenetically.

Reeves perhaps isn’t the terrible actor he’s so often portrayed as, but as Wick he’s far more effective the less he’s saying, and he’s perfectly cast as the taciturn assassin, capable of injecting quiet menace into every scene, but not afraid to cut loose a vengeful rampage as the need arises.

He’s surrounded by a good cast, and it’s notable that even those in relatively minor roles bring a certain level of gravitas to their parts, be it Willem Defoe as a fellow assassin who Viggo hires to kill Wick, Ian McShane as the owner of the mysterious Hotel Continental, Lance Reddick as the enigmatic concierge of the hotel, or Adrianne Palicki as a rival assassin. It’s always a good sign when you can get actors of the caliber of John Leguizamo to show up for a two minute cameo.

Allen always plays sleazy villainy well, and Iosef is no exception. This is a guy you’ll have absolutely no sympathy for. As his father Nyqvist manages to inject a touch more honour, he’s still a bad man, but he has more of a code than his son, even if that code is twisted.

The fight scenes and gun battles are exceptionally well choreographed which you’d expect from directors who were stuntmen, although towards the end the gunplay does become a trifle repetitive, and the best actions scenes are probably in the middle of the film rather than the climax, if anything the film feels like it has one fight too many.

For a film that’s quite grim in places, it has a wonderful streak of dark humour and is laugh out loud funny at times. If it has a flaw (aside from being just a smidgen too long) it’s that it tries to balance being gritty with being quirky and doesn’t always manage it. There’s a slight disconnect between the bleak Russians and the somewhat surreal assassins’ hotel, where those in the business are forbidden from killing each other, and hired killers pay for things with large gold coins with no explanation given.

But, having said that, the quirky elements make the film more interesting so it’s probably an acceptable trade off.

Action packed and amusing, dark and violent I think the big test of this film will be how I feel when I watch it for a second time. Is it something that will only become more enjoyable with successive viewings (like Dredd), or something that will become easily forgettable (like…er, that film, you know)? The most positive thing I can say right now is that I’d quite happily look forward to John Wick 2, and especially more of the curious Continental Hotel.

Fast & Furious 7

Posted: April 13, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by James Wan. Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez and Jason Statham.

At the end of Fast & Furious 6 (I had to check online to figure out when they lost the ‘thes’ from the title!) the team had defeated the criminal Owen Shaw and had been given pardons by the US government. Now Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is trying to help Letty (Rodriguez) regain her memories, whilst former FBI agent Brian O’Conner is trying to adapt to suburban life as husband and father.

Unfortunately their lives are going to be shaken up because Owen Shaw had a brother, a man named Deckard (Statham). A former Special Forces assassin, he’s a highly dangerous individual and he has his sights set on wiping out the team in revenge for what happened to his brother, and anyone who saw to the end of FF6 will have already seen him take out Han in Tokyo.

After almost killing secret service agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) he blows up Dom’s old house. The blast almost kills Dom and Brian, not to mention Mia (Dom’s sister and Brian’s wife played by Jordana Brewster) and Jack (Mia and Brian’s son, do keep up!)

Making sure Mia and Jack are safe Dom and Brian, along with fellow team members Letty, Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris Bridges) are recruited by shadowy government spook played by the ever reliable Kurt Russell. He has a deal for the team, if they help him rescue a computer programmer who’s invented software that can hack into any camera in the world and locate anyone, he’ll let them have first dibs on using the software to find Deckard before he finds them.

The team have to travel from LA to the Caucasus Mountains, on to Abu Dhabi and then back to LA for a furious finale, crossing swords with a dangerous terrorist played by Djimon Hounsou and battling Deckard every step of the way, but will the team live to drive off into the sunset?

When I came out of the cinema my first comment went something along the lines of; “That’s the stupidest film of the decade.” Believe it or not this wasn’t meant as a criticism, but a few days have mellowed this statement to a more reasonable; “That’s the most ridiculous film of the decade!”

You might think this is hyperbole but I assure you it isn’t. This film is utterly ludicrous, with cars parachuting out of planes, cars jumping between skyscrapers, helicopter gunships attacking downtown LA and a man shrugging off his plaster casts to pick up a Gatling gun. Cars crash into each other at high speed and the drivers not only get out unhurt, but are then able to start fighting each other with no ill effects. I kid you not but if aliens had shown up near the end I wouldn’t have been that taken aback (maybe FF8…)

Of course the ridiculousness of the film means your opinion of it will probably be in direct correlation to how much you can suspend your disbelief. As stated, my comments about it being the most ridiculous film of the decade wasn’t really a criticism, I didn’t so much suspend my disbelief as throw it off a cliff.

It is interesting to think that a franchise that started with a small scale B-Movie that relied on the charisma of Diesel and Walker, and some flashy car stunts, has turned into a series that Michael Bay might suggest was a trifle over the top. It’s clear all concerned are well aware of the preposterousness of the film, and are probably just going out of their way to turn things up to 11…sorry I meant 111! In particular Dwayne Johnson seems to be having a blast as Hobbs, it’s just a shame he’s not in it more.

Vin Diesel isn’t the worst actor in the world, but he’s better when he’s flexing his muscles or behind the wheel of a car than when he’s trying to emote. He leads the line well though, not easy to do when you have the sheer charisma (not to mention muscle) of the actor formally known as The Rock on one side, and the laconic cool of Statham on the other. Statham makes for an engaging villain (certainly a better foe than FF6 had), and the gruff tough guy almost becomes likeable at times.

Of course the big news during the production of the film was the tragic death of Walker and how the film would cope with his loss. I believe various techniques were used, from CGI to lookalikes and even Walker’s brothers, and it seems clear that the end was rewritten. I wasn’t really looking for the joins, and so I didn’t pick up on parts where it wasn’t actually Walker. In hindsight perhaps a few moments seemed fake, and there were more than a few longshots of Brian, but on the whole it was a good job by all concerned.

Whilst there is a slight unease about a film the glorifies fast cars paying tribute to a man who died in a car crash, you can’t help but feel the genuine affection all concerned felt for the man, and the film, and in particular the final few minutes, will stand as a tribute to him as well as allowing the character of Brian to be retired from the franchise. It’s rare you get something that emotional in a film this testosterone fuelled.

As for the rest of the cast; Rodriguez is strong as Letty, even if I somehow doubt she could really go toe to toe with Ronda Rousey, and she and Diesel share genuine chemistry. Their parts may border on cliché at times, but Tej and Roman still remain probably my favourite characters and the banter between Bridges and Gibson is a joy to behold. Nathalie Emmanuel feels a little stilted as the computer hacker, and Hounsou does his best with a role that doesn’t give him nearly enough to get his teeth into. That just leaves Kurt Russell, and I’ve been a fan for a long time so I thought he was great.

The film’s set pieces are well handled, even if you can’t help feeling there might have been one too many of them. That said, for a film 2¼ long it does seem to fly by. Here’s a tip though, don’t stay through the credits, there isn’t a bit at the end this time around. Logic is jettisoned early on, and it’s never explained how Deckard keeps finding them, or why they need to God’s Eye software when all they have to do is wait for him to show up, but the film hurtles along at such speed that you don’t get to think too much about the plot holes until later.

It’s bloated, ridiculous, and at times just a tad too sexist than it needs to be (I admire the female form as much as the next guy but the number of gratuitous bikini butt shots verged on unsettling) but it’s a fun ride and any concerns about morality are balanced by a sense of family and doing the right thing, even if the right thing is hitting Jason Statham with a tyre iron…

Utterly ludicrous, utterly enjoyable!

Bonds Aren’t Forever

Posted: April 9, 2015 in James Bond
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As a big fan of James Bond I’ve meant to create a new category of Bond related content for a while, and with Spectre coming later this year I thought I’d write a few Bond related articles before (and likely after) I review the film come November.

I’d like to start with an intriguing question; once Daniel Craig hangs up his Walther PPK, will the 007 franchise continue down the gritty, more grounded path it’s trodden since 2006, or will it revert to a more fantastical, perhaps more light-hearted tone?

In essence will Bond #7 be of the Craig/Dalton variety, or more in keeping with Brosnan/Moore?

I suspect it will be the latter, and I believe there’s evidence to support that hypothesis.

Don’t get me wrong, after initially doubting Craig’s credentials he had me convinced from the pre-title sequence of Casino Royale and since then he’s only grown in my estimation to the point where he’s coming close to toppling Dalton as my favourite Bond.

That doesn’t mean I’ve always been overly happy with the Bourne’ness of Bond post Brosnan, and nor should it follow that I don’t have a lot of time for the camper side of 007. I’ve pretty much always said that I never met a Bond I didn’t like, which means I can enjoy a gritty thriller like Quantum of Solace one day, and Roger Moore in space with a “laser” the next.

But the truth is that for all that the franchise has lasted 50 years, and has seen off many pretenders to the throne in that time, the Bond films have rarely set trends since the 60s, and since Connery left (maybe even before then) the franchise has been more reactive than proactive, taking its lead from what’s successful at the time.

To begin with this wasn’t the case. When Bond burst onto the scene it was fresh and new and grabbed the cinema-going public by the scruff of the neck, and rather than Bond imitating others, there were instead a whole raft of secret agents born out of Fleming’s creation; quite literally in the case of Napoleon Solo from The Man from UNCLE, but there was also The Avengers, I Spy, Get Smart, Matt Helm, Derek Flint, Danger Man (yes McGoohan’s John Drake does technically predate Dr No, but interestingly the show was initially cancelled very early on to be reborn in a slightly different format once Bond mania was in full flow) and probably a whole heap of others.

Once Bond moved into the 70s however, things began to shift, and suddenly the films were imitating other movies around at the time, in some cases thematically, in others by borrowing recognisable tropes from particular kinds of films.

Take Roger Moore’s debut in 1973. Live and Let Die owes more than a passing debt to the Blaxploitation films of the early seventies, with its Harlem Pimp style villains. On a less obvious note it’s possible to see the influence of Clint Eastwood into the bargain, is it any coincidence that Bond’s trusty PPK is traded for a .44 Magnum when he gives his regards to Baron Samedi, given that Dirty Harry had come just two years earlier?

In 1974 came Moore’s second film, and again it’s difficult not to see parallels with another genre. Only this time rather than Blaxploitation it was the chopsocky genre Bond was pilfering from, or did you think it was coincidence, all those Kung-Fu moves just a year after Enter the Dragon?

And it goes on, The Spy Who Loved Me came along in 1977, two years after Spielberg scared us silly with a rubber shark, and suddenly not only does Bond have a new adversary called Jaws, but Jaws actually fights a shark at the end! How Meta is that? At the end of The Spy Who Loved Me we were advised that James Bond would return, in For Your Eyes Only, and yet FYO would be pushed back in favour of Moonraker and Bond having laser battles in space…it’s almost like some hugely successful space based film came out in 1977? It’ll come to me…

The desire to ape what’s popular hasn’t always succeeded. Flash forward to the late 80s and we get Licence to Kill, a harder edged, more violent thriller along the lines of popular American action films of the time like Lethal Weapon. LTK is good, but it didn’t do well at the box office and as such it was the last time we’d see Timothy Dalton in a dinner jacket, and it led to a long hiatus before Brosnan turned up and the films dialled back the grittiness a bit.

Of course the desire to ground Bond never went away, and despite the success of Die Another Day, the producers of the franchise decided it was time to retire Brosnan and also to retire the more outlandish elements of the franchise. It’s clear that, at least partially, this was due to the phenomenal success of Matt Damon’s Bourne films (amongst others but more on that later). Now frankly the only one I liked was the first one, and all that shaky camera work puts me right off, but they were successful, and given the producers has long wanted to do Bond’s origins they saw this as the ideal opportunity.

So Bond was back, only this time he didn’t have a laser in his watch, in fact this time he didn’t even have Q (initially). Once again Bond had taken the lead from other franchises, and this time it was a case of the right man at the right time (unlike Dalton who, people might say, was the right man at the wrong time, which isn’t necessarily an argument I wholeheartedly agree with, though it does have some merit.)
Of course with Skyfall the Craig/Bourne formula was softened slightly, we didn’t get hollowed out volcanos, but we did get Q and Moneypenny back, and the film was funnier whilst still retaining a down to earth grittiness, and for me Skyfall is the most enjoyable film Daniel Craig has done.

Hopefully Spectre will continue in a similar vein, but what about the next film (or the one after the next film if Craig does another) why am I so certain Bond #7 is more likely to be Brosnan rather than Dalton?

Well, simply put it comes down to the way the wind’s blowing in Hollywood right now. In the 2000s it was all about Bourne, and Christopher Nolan’s realistic reboot of Batman, which is another film franchise which seems to have had a big influence on Bond, whereas recently I’ve been sensing a shift away from down to earth and gritty, towards the fantastical and the camp.
For starters there are the Marvel films, snappy dialogue, high-tech gadgets and the fantastic are cool once more, but more specifically there are signs that the spy genre is reinventing itself, or more accurately cyclically returning to a previous format. A few months ago Kingsman: The Secret Service came out, and whilst it’s gentleman spy in the form of Harry Hart might owe more to John Steed than James Bond, it featured spies with machine gun umbrellas were fighting a villain who wanted to take over the world, and whilst the film’s laddish sensibilities and gore are a little at odds with Bond, Harry’s Hart’s comment that ‘spy films used to be a lot more fun’ was very telling.
In the summer we’ll be getting the long awaited Man from UNCLE film. So far all we have to go on is the trailer, but it suggests a light hearted period piece, very much in the vein of the original TV series, and in contrast to the current Bond tone.

Now these may be two exceptions, it may be that Kingsman and UNCLE are the only fun spy films we’re likely to see this side of 2020, but I feel people’s expectations are shifting, fun is in and grit is out.

Does that mean 007 will necessarily follow? Perhaps not, but given that the franchise’s longevity has been based, in part, on its willingness to adapt whilst retaining a winning formula, I wouldn’t bet against it. After all, each actor to play the part has done so differently to his immediate predecessor, so the notion that we’ll get someone who’s very similar to Daniel Craig playing Bond #7 seems a long shot.

What I do know for certain is that— whether the next Bond is Idris Elba playing a realistic spy, or some current unknown playing a suave secret agent with a nice line in double-entendres and exploding cufflinks—I’ll keep watching.

As I say, never met a Bond I’ve hated. Still though, much as I’m sure 007 #7 will be great, I’m kinda hoping Spectre won’t be Daniel Craig’s last hurrah.

Paul Starkey’s Bond articles will return…