Archive for August, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Posted: August 29, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Guy Richie. Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki

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Its 1963 and debonair thief turned CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) has infiltrated East Berlin in order to extract Gaby Teller (Vikander) the daughter of a Nazi nuclear scientist. They escape to the West but only just as they are relentlessly pursued all the way to the Berlin wall by imposing KGB agent Illya Kuryakin.

The next day Solo is taken by his CIA handler (Jared Harris doing a great American accent) to meet his new partner. Illya Kuryakin!

After a brief tussle the two men are informed by their respective bosses that they will need to work together in order to foil a plot by Nazi sympathisers to get hold of a nuclear bomb. The bomb is being built by Gaby’s father, and so she will journey with them to Italy where they will attempt to infiltrate the Vinciguerra shipping line, owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debicki), two of the Nazi sympathisers.

East and West must work together, but can Solo and Kuryakin overcome their differences to save the day, is everything quite what it seems to be, and just who is the mysterious Englishman stooging around?
I’ve always thought of myself as quite a Man from U.N.C.L.E fan, but it’s struck me recently that this love is based mainly on the U.N.C.L.E films shown on BBC 2 when I was a kid. These films (think How to Steal the World, The Helicopter Spies, The Spy in the Green Hat etc.) were usually cobbled together two parters from the show that were released cinematically in the 60s) and certainly I have no recollection of ever watching the early black and white episodes.

Still, Solo and Kuryakin, in the form of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, became iconic heroes in my mind, and so when I first heard tell that a Man from U.N.C.L.E film was on the cards I was both pleased, and a little scared. Various casting options seemed to come and go, some better than others—at one stage I think Tom Cruise was being lined up to play Solo; really, Tom? Do you have to take over every 1960s spy show?—until eventually Cavill and Hammer were cast and Richie was slated to direct. Suffice to say I was not exactly thrilled, and I promptly forgot all about it.

And then I caught the first trailer earlier in the year, and suddenly I got very interested again, because it looked good, moreover it looked cool, and funny, and sexy, and coming on the heels of Kingsman it looked like fun spy movies were back with a vengeance.

Then I saw the second trailer, which seemed to suggest that it was just a generic action film, albeit one with a period setting.

So when I sat down in the cinema a couple of days ago I wasn’t sure which film I was going to see. I hoped it was the first, but feared it would be the second.

Thankfully The Man from U.N.C.L.E is the fun, cool, stylish film I was first promised, and is very far from being just another action film. Sadly this seems to have affected its box-office, in the States at least, and as I write this it appears the film has yet to make its money back.

This is a shame, because much as I like the brooding, glossy modern Bond films, and much as I like stupid action films where Vin Diesel drives down the outside of a building or Tom Cruise hangs off a plane, I also (as Kingsman proves) really like light-hearted spy romps, and in an ideal world they’d all be successful enough for a sequel.

Guy Richie really seems to be growing as a director, and it’s hard to believe the man who made his name with cockerny gangster films and big budget Sherlock Holmes-as-an-action-hero blockbusters has turned out something so gosh darned stylish, and that’s the first thing to say about U.N.C.L.E , this is one gorgeous film. The cinematography, the use of the Italian locations and the outfits are just fantastic. Richie adds to this by paying homage to practically every sixties’ camera trick in the book, especially multiple split screens, and at times it felt like I almost was watching a film made in 1965. That’s a compliment by the way.

Despite any reservations I might have had I found myself warming to the cast. Cavill makes for a very effective Solo, quite obviously channelling his inner Robert Vaughn most of the time. Napoleon Solo is debonair, urbane, suave, and probably every other synonymous adjective into the bargain! It’s like someone put Vaughn and Roger Moore in a blender! At times he slips perilously close to parody, but thankfully stays the right side of the line and he’s, quite frankly, a hoot.

As Kuryakin Hammer is less obviously riffing on McCallum’s icy cool, his Kuryakin is more physical, perhaps less thoughtful, but though he’s initially presented as an almost Schwarzeneggerian beast, as the film progresses we see through the exterior to the real man beneath, and at times it’s possible to see the boyish charm that McCallum did so well shining through in his portrayal.

Both men are equally good, Cavill’s just broader and Hammer more nuanced. Whether either man needed the revised backstories they get is debatable, there is a lot of exposition, but in another way it’s refreshing, Solo and Kuryakin probably have more character development in one film than Ethan Hunt’s had in five… they also bounce well off each other, their banter part of the joy of the film.

It’s funny to imagine that a year ago I had no idea who Alicia Vikander was, yet now I’ve seen her give two great—and very different—performances in the space of nine months. Her Gaby is spiky, brave and thoughtful, and whilst it’s doubtful the film would pass the Bechdel test she has more agency than most female cinematic characters in these kinds of films, even if she does eventually end up on damsel duties. She’s also downright adorable!

Elizabeth Debicki makes for a great villain, with her Victoria Vinciguerra channelling Audrey Hepburn with just a hint of Paris Hilton, sadly the rest of the villains are a bland bunch aside from a Nazi torturer, the one point where the film goes into quite dark territory.

Hugh Grant rounds out the cast as Alexander Waverly, creating quite an impression despite limited screen time.

The plot is wafer thin, and the nuclear bomb threat quite old school (but then it is an homage to 1960s’ spy films) and at times I couldn’t shake the feeling that style was being given precedence over substance, but what style! The humour is well handled without this ever becoming an Austin Powers style parody, my favourite bit is the boat chase happening in the background whilst Solo enjoys a midnight snack, the main cast are great, the outfits fab, the soundtrack (aside from the glaring omission of the original theme—though I am advised it is in there) excellent, especially for an almost spaghetti western twang to it, the cinematography wonderful and the pacing spot on.

It might be a trifle too lightweight and frothy, it lacks huge action set pieces and repeat viewings might expose that it really is style over substance, but it still exudes cool and is a lot of fun. It might not have the visceral kick to the head quality of Kingsman, but it’s still a really enjoyable film and I’d like to see a sequel, so I encourage everyone to go see it!

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Writer Beware

Posted: August 21, 2015 in Regarding writing
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Kitty’s Proofing Service wasn’t all it appeared…

It’s been a while since I blogged about writing so I thought I’d correct that error with a little commentary on those who make money from writing.

No I don’t mean writers, silly. And no I don’t mean publishers or book shop owners or anyone like that.

No I mean those who make money on the back of selling the writing dream. The internet is awash with people who will teach you how to write that bestselling novel, or who promise to critique your work or edit and proofread it before you send it off to a publisher. Some will even publish you themselves.

None of these services come free of course.

Now I’m sure there are decent people out there who really can help you to become a better writer, I just suspect there are an awful lot of people who’ve just seen a niche in the market and are after a quick buck, and don’t even feel the need to provide a decent product in return.

Now me, well I’ve always been of the opinion that the best way to learn how to write a novel is by reading a lot of novels, dissecting them to see how the narrative structure works, how characters evolve and plot is developed. This process doesn’t even need to cost you a penny if you have a library card.

Now I’ve bought the odd book on writing it’s true, but a decent book on writing might cost you £10 (or it might even be free from the library) which is a lot different to paying £100 or more for an online course, and usually these books are written by people who are actually quite successful writers in their own right (or should that be write?). Two of my favourites are by Lawrence Block and Stephen King. This is a lot different than signing up for a course run by Betty Rubenstein whose main claim to fame is that she once had a poem published in the St Jude’s parish magazine…

Similarly there are those who’ll offer to critique your work, sometimes this is a standalone service but sometimes it’s linked to a submission call and I’ve seen examples of that. If it’s free to submit a story but you can request a critique for a nominal amount and you feel this would be useful, then by all means go for it, but realistically if you want your work critiqued you might be just as well joining a writers group, likeminded people who’ll happily take a look at your work and offer constructive criticism for the cost of you returning the favour.

This brings me on to those submission calls which charge a fee. I remember when I started out writing stories and, pitifully naïve as I was, I did pay a couple of £5 fees to submit stories to competitions, but with hindsight I think it’s a lousy thing to do. I appreciate that an indie publisher needs to afford to publish a book, but frankly in this age of print on demand firms and eBooks there can’t be nearly as many overheads as their once were. Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not (and never would) having a go at indie publishers who pay a token amount and/or a contributors copy, or even those in the ‘For the Love’ category, most of these provide a great outlet for writers, especially those just starting out, which doesn’t mean they take any old guff—far from it they still have standards—and there’s something to be said for holding a book you’ve contributed to in your hands, it’s a wonderful motivation, and as I’ve often said, it’s better for a story to be out there being read than languishing on my hard drive.

But paying for the privilege of just being considered? Nah, steer clear.

Next up are the companies (or I suspect more likely individuals) offering to edit/proof your work. Now I have friends who are professional editors, some of whom are employed by publishers some of whom work for themselves, and they do a great job, its hard work and such work does not come cheap, and usually they work for big clients (as in actual companies I’m not suggesting there are giants who pen novellas in between collecting golden eggs or anything). I’m not talking about the likes of these editors, but I’ve seen people advertise their services to proof or edit your fiction, to help you smooth the rough edges off a story and get it in a good position to send off to a publisher.

One of these individuals had a website advertising their wares many years ago, and I found several typos in it. If you’re going to offer that kind of a service failings like that speak volumes. Now my editing isn’t perfect, my grammar’s getting better (but she still isn’t out of the wood yet, boom boom…cough, sorry) and I proof things more times than I ever used to, but mistakes do get made (I once famously had a character throw his shirt on the floor, only I missed the ‘R’ out…) but that said I’m not setting myself up as someone who’ll edit your work for a price.

I think so long as you’ve shown due diligence, and you’ve gone through your work multiple times to iron out any errors, then publishers will be forgiving of the rare typo (especially when it’s the kind that won’t be picked up by Word). Invest in a book on grammar if you’re concerned, or take an evening class. Or if it’s more about polishing the work, well we’re back to a writing group again.

The final people to talk about are the ones who’ve been around for ages, and in many respects the most villainous of all: The Vanity Publisher!

Now once more, before you accuse me of hypocrisy, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with seizing the initiative and getting your own work out there, and obviously I’ve done that myself, but nowadays this can be done at no cost to yourself. Print on demand companies like Lulu, or the ability to self-publish electronically, think Amazon, mean there’s no place for the company who will print you off a few hundred books, for a price.

Over the years I suspect many an aspiring writer sent their manuscript off to what appeared to be a perfectly respectable publisher only to get a letter or an email back explaining that they loved the book, and they’d be honoured to publish it, of course they’d need some capital to authorise the print run, but that’s just a formality…

At best people possibly did get boxes of their books, and maybe over the years they managed to sell them off and break even, but I fear many people didn’t even get the books. At the end of the day there’s little difference between some vanity publishers and the friendly Nigerian who says he wants to offer you £6,000,000, only he needs a few hundred up front to prove you’re serious about the whole endeavour. Both are scams, just different kinds, one preys on people greed, the other preys on people’s ego and desire to see their work in print.

As the old adage goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. But don’t just take my word for it, check out the absolute write forums, they have a whole thread dedicated to the literary ne’er-do-wells.

Writers have to be self-aware enough to take on board criticism, to even seek it out and to learn from it in order to develop as an artist, and as I said I’m sure there are people out there who can help you become a better writer, you just need to be very careful about who you choose to help you, and what their motives are. I’m a capitalist at the end of the day, and there’s nothing wrong with people selling a service, but if you’re going to partake of that service just be damn sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

Me, I want to make money from writing, but I want to make money through selling my stories rather than from my fellow writers, which is why any writing advice in this blog—which is hopefully useful to some people—will always remain free.

Call it literary karma.

Ant-Man

Posted: August 14, 2015 in Film reviews

Directed by Peyton Reed. Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly.

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In 1989 Hank Pym (Douglas) quits S.H.I.E.L.D when they try to replicate his Ant-Man shrinking formula. Some years later he is forced out of his own company by his protégé Darren Cross (The Strain’s Corey Stoll) and his estranged daughter Hope (Lilly). Eventually Lilly comes to realise that Cross is dangerous, especially once he develops a shrinking suit/formula of his own called the Yellowjacket, and Hope resolves to help her father. He refuses to let her wear the Ant-Man suit however, and identifies another person as the one to take on the Ant-Man mantle.

That person is Scott Lang (Rudd) a brilliant engineer turned thief who’s just been released from prison after serving time for hacking into an unethical corporation’s computer systems. Lang desperately wants to go straight so that he can gain visitation rights to his daughter Cassie, which his ex-wife and her cop fiancé won’t agree to until he can start paying his overdue child support. Unfortunately Lang’s record means he can’t get a job. In desperation he agrees to help his old cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) burgle the home of a millionaire.

Of course the millionaire is Hank Pym, and though neither Lang nor Luis realise it, the burglary is actually an audition, one that will see Lang offered the chance to really earn his daughter’s love, if he survives…

And so Ant-Man arrives on the crest of a somewhat inauspicious wave. For starters this is a film that lost its director Edgar Wright over ‘creative differences’, and which saw its original script by Wright and (Adam and) Joe Cornish tinkered with by a new screenwriter and Paul Rudd. This is also a film that, pardon the pun, operates on a smaller scale than pretty much every other film in the Marvel canon. There are no jaw dropping epic battles here, in fact the finale plays out in a child’s bedroom. It could also be said that Ant-Man isn’t a hero to resonate with the public (comic books fans aside).

Refreshingly none of these things stop Ant-Man from being a thoroughly enjoyable film, in fact the (warning incoming pun again) smaller scale actually makes for a refreshing change of pace from most Marvel flicks, and the battle to keep a little girl safe probably resonates more than, say, the battle to stop a mad robot dropping a city from a great height, and the climactic battle allows for some wonderfully surreal moments (quite a few involving Thomas the Tank Engine) and the film even manages to venture briefly into existential 2001 territory at one point.

I’m not sure if we’ll ever know exactly why Wright departed, or what changes were made to the script. Perhaps Wright’s version would have been more anarchic and more original, or maybe the changes salvaged what could have been a commercial disaster for Marvel. All I can critique is the version that made it to the screen.

The biggest (sorry) weakness of the film is the plot, which is pretty by the numbers. Man wants second chance, man wants to make his daughter proud of him, man gets to do both. Nothing that happens is a particular surprise, in fact given how much foreshadowing certain plot points are given it would have been a shock if we hadn’t seen them eventually materialise and there are several very obvious Chekov’s guns here. Thankfully the thin plot is offset by a funny script, a nice cast and some neat miniaturisation effects.

Paul Rudd always makes for an engaging screen presence and he performs lead duties well as a man trying to do right but finding only bad choices, his experience in comedy helps with the lighter elements of the film, but he’s a good enough actor that he can input heft when needed. Douglas makes for an amiable mentor, and the scenes of him de-aged early on are spooky to say the least. He bounces well off both Rudd and Lilly who, one somewhat overly emotive scene apart, believably essays a woman who both hates and loves her father simultaneously. This is very much a film about fathers and daughters, and the little girl who plays Cassie is also very good.

As Cross Stoll is perhaps a little one note, Cross is so clearly insane that you’re surprised no one else seems to notice it, as one note performances go however Stoll puts his all into it and is both physically and emotionally imposing making him an effective bad guy.

Michael Peña almost steals the film out from under everyone however, with a wonderful comic turn as Luis and it’s nice to know he’s signed up for future films.

If the film has one glaring problem it is that clearly Hope should be Ant-Man (er, Ant-Woman?) given that—before an amusing training montage at least—she’s clearly a way better candidate for the job than Lang. The film gives Pym a reason for refusing her request but, given the dearth of good female onscreen superheroes, it still feels like a missed opportunity. No spoilers but a scene midway through the credits offers some hope in this regard (there’s also an end of credits scene if you want to wait that long!)

With a lighter tone and a less epic feel than most Marvel entries this might have fallen flat, but inventive set pieces and good casting save the day as surely as Ant-Man. It’s funny and exciting, and whilst it may be going a bit far to say I loved it, I certainly liked it a lot.

Don’t squash this bug of a movie!

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg.

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After intercepting a consignment of nerve gas before it can fall into the hands of terrorists, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is captured by a rogue intelligence agency named The Syndicate, an organisation Hunt has been trying to prove the existence of for some time. Before he can be tortured and killed he is aided by Ilsa Faust, an ex MI6 officer turned Syndicate agent who helps him escape.

Before Hunt can come in from the cold however, the IMF (Impossible Mission Force not the International Monetary Fund!) is closed down by a Senate oversight committee prompted by CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Suddenly Hunt is on the run from the CIA who don’t believe The Syndicate exists.

All too soon Hunt’s path crosses that of Ilsa Faust once more, and he draws ever closer to the nefarious head of the Syndicate, but he’ll need the help of some friends (and possibly some enemies) in order to bring it down.

It would be wrong to say I didn’t enjoy Rogue Nation, I enjoyed it quite a lot, and even though I’d probably say my enjoyment piqued long before the drawn out ending, I still liked the ending. But like a really good takeaway, though I’m full I can’t help feeling slightly hungry.

It’s hard to believe that the franchise began life almost 20 years ago now and that we’ve now had five Mission Impossible films. It’s also somewhat disappointing that in all that time we’ve only had two films that felt in any way like the original TV series (the first film and Ghost Protocol). At times the franchise has seemed more of a vanity project for Cruise to indulge his yearning to be Bond. This doesn’t mean the films haven’t been enjoyable overall (though the less said about Mission Impossible :II the better) but at times I have had to bite my tongue to keep from shouting “Stop getting Mission Impossible wrong!”

So one of the first little niggles with the film is the focus back on Hunt, admittedly this time he has Simon Pegg’s Benji by his side for much of the film which does shake thing up a little, but it’s a tiny bit disappointing after the more ensemble piece that was Ghost Protocol, and it completely wastes Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner who do very little at all.

The set pieces are well executed, though in places it isn’t just that they’re unbelievable, it’s that they’re not even logical. Take the point where Hunt has to hold his breath for three minutes to swap one computer program for another in an underwater computer designed for no other purpose, presumably, than being difficult (but not impossible) to break into. It reminded me of the bit in Galaxy Quest where Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver encounter the chompers.

The bit on the plane and the chase through Morocco are good (though sadly spoiled to death by trailers and ‘exclusives’) and the scene at the opera nice as well (despite feeling like it’s been lifted from Quantum of Solace) but the finale feels a trifle limp, although the ultimate dénouement is nicely handled.

In between all the action there are bluffs and double bluffs, not to mention betrayals upon betrayals. Some of them work better than others, and some are way more obvious than others (or else I’m just good at spotting them). At times it’s hard to fathom why curiously dry villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) doesn’t just kill Ilsa Faust and be done with it.

Lane and the Syndicate have a somewhat interesting backstory, but as an evil organisation they’re more than a little generic. Lane talks about not being a terrorist, and about bringing the system down with surgical precision, but we’re never given any indication of this. What’s the rationale for wanting to kill the president of Austria for example? What’s the bigger picture? There is none, or none that we’re allowed to see.

The plot may be wafer thin in places but the script is fun, with amusing dialogue aplenty (usually uttered by Cruise or Pegg though Renner and Rhames have one good interchange) and the tone of the film for the most part just the right side of silly, though when Tom Hollander turns up as the British Prime Minister it kind of goes over the line (as it felt like we’d drifted into a BBC sitcom for a moment, no offence to Hollander who’s a good actor).

Cruise is excellent, and you have to admire his dedication to the cause in allowing himself to be really strapped to that plane! Pegg is almost better though, and he and Cruise make for a really appealing double act. The standout however is Rebecca Ferguson who pretty much owns every scene she’s in. Giving her a name like Isla Faust might be a tad obvious, but she plays the role to perfection. She’s not really a household name—coming to prominence in BBC’s The White Queen—but on the basis of this performance Hollywood casting agents will be lining up to sign her, and I wonder if Eon aren’t kicking themselves for not spotting her, because Ilsa Faust is the best Bond girl I’ve seen in a long time. You’re never quite sure where her loyalties lie, but her role goes beyond mere Femme Fatale, at times she channels Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the fight scenes, whilst at others she has the brittle desperation of a spy out in the cold that wouldn’t be out of place in le Carré or Spooks.

It’s a tad too long, the plot doesn’t hold water, and really how many times can Ethan Hunt go on the run from his own side. It lacks the style of De Palma’s original, and the ensemble nature of Ghost Protocol, but I still really enjoyed it. It’s action packed, funny and sexy, and as pure entertainment it pretty much succeeds.

A film it’s impossible not to like, but maybe one it’s impossible to love.